The Thursday night plenary address at the 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference was given by Ben Myers, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Charles Sturt University and blogger and tweeter extraordinaire. Myers spoke on “Atonement and the Image of God,” and in his paper he focused on the Patristic model of the atonement. Myers argued that, for the Fathers (and Mothers via Macrina), Christ’s experience of death is the mechanism of the atonement, and its primary accomplishment is the restoration of the image of God in human beings, which was lost in their collective fall into sin. This experience of death is not an action on Christ’s part but a passive experience of, as Myers referred to it, the point at which humanity is sliding into non-being (i.e. death). Because, via the hypostatic union, God the Son “touches” death by being united to the humanity of Jesus, the privation that is death is swallowed up in the essence of being that is God. Further, because God does via the hypostatic union, the second Adam, Jesus, represents all humanity in this act and therefore heals all of God’s image bearers.
This very brief summary does not do justice to the intricacies of Myers’ argument, nor do I wish to argue his main point. I think that he is correct in his portrayal of the Patristic model of the atonement, in the sense that the main point for the early church is Christ’s role as the last Adam and therefore his ability, through his vicarious death, to take on the consequence of sin, death, and render it null and void. He thus heals humanity through his death for all human beings.*
The one point of Myers’ argument that continues to nag at me is his contention that, because the Fathers’ metaphysical belief about sin and death is that it is privation (not an ontological something, but simply the absence of good), they cannot be taken as giving a model of the atonement when they speak of Christ’s death as “victory.” They were careful to avoid Gnostic dualism, and so language about Jesus wrangling with sin and death as if they were endowed with being would be contrary to this anti-Gnostic understanding of Christ’s work. Victory language cannot be anything but metaphorical for the Fathers. Gustav Aulen, among others, is therefore incorrect to assume that the Fathers taught a “victory” model of the atonement since this would require a dualistic concept of good and evil, with God in Christ wrestling with evil in the Passion.
Myers’ point is well taken that the early church theologians were careful to avoid Gnostic conceptions of cosmology and metaphysics and that their metaphysical understanding of sin and death is that they are privation of the good and of life. I still am not convinced, though, that this restricts us, or the Fathers, or the New Testament, from speaking of Christ’s death as victorious over death and sin. Below I will simply list some texts, both from the NT and from the early church, that seem to emphasize Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. I cannot see at this point how dismissing the word “victory” from our models of the atonement given these texts is plausible, even if I agree with Myers about the metaphysics of the early church (and Scripture) with respect to sin.
New Testament Texts
1 John 3:8 – “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
John 12:31 – “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”
Colossians 2:15 – “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
Hebrews 2:14 – “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”
Acts 2:24 – “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it”
Romans 6:9 – “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”
1 Corinthians 15:54-55 – “‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'”
2 Timothy 1:10 – “and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”
(Note also Revelation 19 and 20, where the Unholy Trinity, the Harlot, Death, and Hades are thrown into the Lake of Fire.)
Early Church Theologians
Cyril of Alexandria
Comm. Lk. 9:18-22 (Serm. 49) – “For that he utterly abolished death, and effaced destruction, and despoiled Hades, and overthrew the tyranny of the enemy, and took away the sin of the world, and opened the gates above to the dwellers upon earth, and united earth to heaven: these things proved him to be, as I said, in truth God.”
Odes of Solomon
Ode 42 – “Sheol saw me and was shattered / and Death ejected me and many with me.”
Melito of Sardis
On Pascha 102-3 – “I am the one,” says the Christ, “I am the one that destroyed death / and triumphed over the enemy / and trod down Hades / and bound the strong one / and carried off man to the heights of heaven; I am the one,” says the Christ.”
New Fragment III, 5 – “By the cross death is destroyed, and by the cross salvation shines; by the cross the gates of hell are burst, and by the cross the gates of paradise are opened”
Hippolytus of Rome
The Apostolic Tradition, 4, 4-13 – “Who fulfilling your will and gaining for you a holy people stretched out his hands when he was suffering, that he might release from suffering those who believed in you; who when he was being handed over to voluntary suffering, that he might destroy death and break the bonds of the devil, and tread down hell and illuminate the righteous, and fix a limit and manifest the resurrection, taking bread and giving thanks to you, he said/ “Take, eat, this is my body that will be broken for you.” Likewise also the cup, saying, “This is my blood that is shed for you””
Commentary on Romans, V, 1, 36 – “Thus by his own resurrection he has already destroyed the dominions of death”
Commentary on Romans, V, 10, 11-12 – “Then at the opportune time he binds the strong man (Mt 12:29) and despoils his powers and principalities (Col 2:15) and leads away the captives (Eph 4:8; Ps 68:18) which had been seized and were being held by the tyrant.
It was certainly in this way, then, that Christ also emptied himself voluntarily and took the form of a slave and entered the dominion of the tyrant, having become obedient unto death. Through that death he destroyed him who was holding the power of death, i.e., the devil (Heb 2:14r-15), so that he could liberate those who were being held fast by death. For when Christ had bound the strong man (Mt 12:29) and triumphed over him by means of his cross (Col 2:15), he even advanced into his house, the house of death in the underworld, and from there he plundered his possessions, that is, he led away the souls which the devil was keeping.”
I’ll stop here, but we could go on into the fourth century and beyond and continue to find such texts.
*I’m not saying I agree with this model, but am only describing Ben’s description of it.