In the former contributions I considered the doctrine of the atonement in the Scriptures. In this article and in some further articles, I look at the doctrine of atonement as developed in church history. Church history is not our final guide, but we are not the first one who read and study the Scriptures and we can learn from the wisdom and insight former generations
What is the essential meaning of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ? What does it really mean for enemies to be reconciled with God through Christ’s blood? What exactly necessitates atoning? To answer these questions, we will first of all consider how Christ’s death on the cross has been analyzed during the course of church history. This does not mean that insights gleaned from church history ought to be viewed as normative; such insights need to be evaluated in light of Scripture. This is precisely what is meant by the Reformation principle, Sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture alone. We need to recognize, however, that we are not the first individuals to read and study the Scriptures. We may benefit from the insights regarding Scripture that have been formulated during the course of church history.
The Christian authors who date from the period immediately following the decease of the apostles are known as the apostolic fathers. Clement of Rome was one of them, and around 96 A.D. he wrote his first letter to the congregation of Corinth. Here we read, “Moved by His love toward us, Jesus Christ shed His blood for us according to the will of God, giving His flesh for our flesh and His life for our life.” One generation later, the church father Irenaeus placed Adam and Christ in opposition to each other. His thinking regarding this is known as “recapitulation.” As the Head of the new humanity, Christ gathers together all things unto Himself. Irenaeus posited that Christ, as the Son of God, has become man in order to comprehend the development of man within Himself and thereby provide salvation for us, “so that what we have lost in Adam, namely the image and likeness of God, may be received again in Christ Jesus.”It is the testimony of Irenaeus that “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has reconciled us to God by His death.”
In the Nicene Creed, we read, “Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven...and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried.” At the third ecumenical council, held in 431 A.D. in Ephesus, Christ was referred to as “the High Priest and Apostle of our profession” (Heb. 3:1) who has given Himself for us as an offering and a sacrifice to God and the Father for a sweet-smelling savor (Eph. 5:2). For Augustine, Christ is simultaneously Mediator, Propitiator, Savior, Healer, Shepherd, Sacrifice, and Priest. Christ took upon Himself our guilt and thereby finished the transgression (Dan. 9:24).
The early church unmistakably made the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death her point of departure. When considering the meaning of the atonement, man was viewed as a captive of the devil and death who was set free and delivered. The emphasis was upon redemption from the consequences of sin; the meaning of Christ’s death in relation to God’s justice and to sin itself was not well thought out. We may assume that, in the early church, the experience of the atonement was much richer than the formulations whereby this experience was described. Be that as it may, the central meaning of the atonement was repeatedly set before the church by way of the weekly celebration of the Eucharist.
For Anselm, the atonement does not bring about a change in man; rather, God, who initially was wrathful toward man, looks down in favor upon him by virtue of the sacrifice of Christ. Anselm highlighted that God is not only the subject of the atonement, but also its object. The atonement not only proceeds from God, but it also focuses upon Him. The doctrine of the atonement as articulated by Anselm reveals a much deeper insight into the meaning of the crucifixion and blood of Christ. Anselm not only confessed that Christ suffered vicariously, but he also connects the sacrifice of Christ not only with the consequences of sin, but also with sin itself, as well as with the honor of God as it has been impugned by sin.
Peter Abaelard (1079–1142), a younger contemporary of Anselm, handled the doctrine of the atonement in an entirely different fashion. Abaelard was far less impressed by the gravity of sin than Anselm; he defined sin as only evil committed voluntarily by man. The concept of hereditary sin was not entirely denied, but it was seriously weakened. Abaelard also spoke of the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin, but without any attempt to understand its meaning. The subjective meaning of the atonement was of central importance for him. He considered the essential meaning of the sacrifice of Christ not to be the satisfaction of God’s impugned justice, but rather the moral renewal of the sinner. The purpose of Christ’s sacrifice was to incite love for God in man. Contrary to Anselm, Abaelard viewed man rather than God as the object of the atonement. He viewed the atonement as bringing about a change in man’s disposition and not as having any connection to a change of God’s disposition toward man. Thus, whereas Anselm’s teaching regarding the atonement is objective, Abaelard’s teaching is subjective.