An alternative model of the Atonement?

Regular readers will have spotted that I’ve taken a little time recently to respond to Steve Chalke’s 95 talks and particularly his attacks on two things:

  1. The infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture -that the Bible is God’s Word and without error
  2. The doctrine of penal substitution – that Jesus won the victory by taking our place and bearing the penalty/curse for our sin.

The second point is a return to the theme that first made Steve Chalke controversial in his book, The Lost Message of Jesus.  As Chalke and others have sought to question this teaching, a number of rumours about the doctrine have circulated. One is that it is a new doctrine, that the idea was unknown to the early church and only started to emerge in the middle ages before being properly formulated by John Calvin.  In fact, some people have gone so far as to say that this is a Western Church aberration and considered heresy by the Eastern Orthodox.

I have not been able to substantiate the claim that the Eastern Orthodox churches (whether Greek, Russian or Egyptian Coptic) officially have pronounced Penal Substitution heresy. A search online tends to take me to articles written by Western (American) authors. I also notice that they seem to either be written by or responding to Americans who have rejected and left evangelicalism for various reasons. AS has often been the case, one is left wondering whether those rejecting Penal Substitution are rejecting it or a caricature of it. In any case, the response tends to argue that Orthodox Christians follow an alternative model of atonement with better historical credentials. This model is referred to as “Recapitulation” and comes from Irenaeus, a Greek Christian who died in 202 AD.

The word “Recapitulation” has its roots in Ephesians 1:10 which says

“And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.”

Where the NLT says “he will bring everything together under the authority..” the Greek word is anakephaliosis – to sum up or recapitulate.

Irenaeus argued that:

“He (Christ) has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam …the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man [born] of woman who conquered him. … And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.”[1]

The idea is that where the first man Adam was deceived, disobedient and defeated, Christ reversed this by his perfect obedience, withstanding temptation, he was victorious over Satan and sin. The result is that in Christ, we are reconciled to God.

Now, quite obviously this is not a description of Penal Substitution. However, it is also reasonable to ask whether or not we should be expecting that. Lawyers, archaeologists and historians have a little saying “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In other words, just because we haven’t got a writing where Irenaeus uses the exact penal substitution formulation used by Jim Packer, doesn’t mean that he didn’t believe that Jesus died to bear the penalty of sin and that God’s wrath was satisfied. What it simply means is that his focus was on other matters. Often doctrinal formulations are sharpened in response to controversy and attack. What were the particular controversies that the early church had to respond to? The answer is Gnosticism and Arianism. So unsurprisingly, we see that doctrinal formulations are designed to counter these two errors. Irenaeus was focused on dealing with Gnosticism, later people like Hilary of Poitiers and Athanasius would respond to Arianism. So, what does Irenaeus need to show? He needs to show that Jesus is both fully God and fully man and why this needed to be so. That’s what his argument helps to do, as incidentally Athanasius also does in On the Incarnation.

Secondly, it is also worth noting that his argument does parallel something that the reformers taught very closely and that is the other side of the divine exchange. The reformers argues that Jesus took the penalty for our sin and in exchange we received his imputed righteousness so that we are justified by faith alone.  Here, Irenaeus focuses on the obedient, righteous life lived on our behalf, Christ’s active obedience in his incarnation and earthly ministry as well as his passive obedience in willingly dying for us.

Thirdly, we are still left with the question “why was obedience to death necessary?”  Athanasius has helpfully answered that question.

He says:

“For it was absurd that, having spoken, God should lie, in that he had established a that men would die by death if he were to transgress the commandment, and man did not die after he had transgressed, but God’s word was made void.  For God would not have been truthful, if after he had said we would die, man had not died.  And furthermore, it would have been improper that what had once been created rational and had partaken of his Word, should perish and return again to non-existence through corruption.  For it would not have been worthy of the goodness of God that what had been brought into existence by him should be corrupted on account of the deceit which the devil had played on men.  And it would have been especially improper that the handiwork of God in mankind should come to nought, either through their neglect, or through the deceit of demons.” [2]

Athanasius makes it clear here that the issue is that a law has been broken.  Adam and Eve transgressed the commandment. What is more, a consequence was attached to breaking that command, death was the result of disobedience.  The issue for Athanaisus is that God must be true to his word. At the same time, it would be unjust that God’s truthfulness to his own word would lead to the loss of his creation. In other words, Satan cannot use God’s goodness against him to cause him loss.

So, for Athanasius, as with Irenaeus, this makes the incarnation necessary showing that Jesus is both God and man.

“For this reason the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God came to our realm; .. And lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father among men should be in vain, he took to himself a body, and that not foreign to our own.  For he did not wish simply to be in a body, nor did he wish merely to appear, for if he had wished only to appear he could have made his theophany through some other means.” [3]

For Athanasius, the incarnation is about Jesus taken on our corrupted human nature. He takes on our weakness. This closely resembles Irenaeus’ recapitulation narrative. However, it also points us even more directly to the sense that Jesus was taking upon himself our curse.

Whilst, this is not a fully fleshed out doctrine of Penal Substitution in the way that Calvin expressed it or contemporary writers such as John Stott, Leon Morris, Jim Packer and Mike Ovey have helpfully provided, it is clearly a description of Christ’s work that runs with the grain of penal substituition. And that is important. We are not witnessing the church fathers articulate something that goes against or condemns penal substitution but rather fits with and complements it. Rather than giving us an alternative model of atonement, they offer a different perspective and working on the same view of why Jesus died to take away our sin.

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.21.1

[2]  Athanasius, De Incarnatione, s6, 149.

[3]  Athanasius, De Incarnatione, s8, 152-153.