Athanasius (3): Incarnation and Atonement

I’ve been writing an article this spring and summer in which I question John Stott’s emphasis on the cross over the resurrection on pp. 232-234 of The Cross of Christ (IVP, 2006).  While reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word I was reminded of how similar questions arise with the incarnation: how does it fit in with Jesus’s saving activity, particularly his saving activity on the cross?  Stott says that “the resurrection was essential to confirm the efficacy of his death as his incarnation had been to prepare for its possibility” (233, italics mine).  I appreciate Stott’s emphasis on the cross as the height and zenith of Jesus’ saving work for us.  Even in evangelical circles today terms like sin, atonement, justification, propitiation, expiation, etc. are often downplayed and/or misunderstood.  We need to be constantly called back to the cross, for only at the cross is atonement for sin; only in light of the cross can we be reconciled to God; only because of the cross do we have hope to stand before a Holy God on judgment day.

Nevertheless, in emphasizing Jesus’ crucifixion I think we evangelicals have at times neglected other aspects of Jesus’ saving work, both those pertaining to his risen and exalted life after the cross, and those pertaining to his incarnate and earthly life before the cross.  From reading Stott and some other evangelicals (though earlier Protestants like Calvin avoided this), you sometimes get the impression that the exclusive purpose of the incarnation was atonement.  While I think atonement is the main thing (Mark 10:45, John 12:27, I Corinthians 15:3ff.), I believe there are other saving purposes to the incarnation, and as I’ve been reading Athanasius I’ve been listing them as he provoked various thoughts.  So far I’ve got 5 (I’m sure there are more):

1) God the Son became a man so that He would personally experience the weakness and temptation common to humanity, in order to represent, intercede for, and help believers in their weakness and temptation as their High Priest (Hebrews 2:17-18, 5:1-10).  Incarnation –> Intercession.

2) God the Son became a man in order to teach about God and reveal God’s will and ways more fully and more adequately.  He was the greatest Prophet the world has ever known (Deuteronomy 18:14-22, Acts 3:22-23).  If the incarnation was exclusively for atonement, one might expect Him to go straight to the cross.  Instead Jesus spends several years in public ministry, teaching the crowds, disputing the Pharisees, proclaiming the kingdom.  John 18:37: “I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  Incarnation –> Revelation.

3) God the Son became a man in order to live a sinless life which is imputed to believers through the doctrine of justification.  The Westminster Confession of Faith states that God justifies by believers “by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of of Christ unto them” (IX.1, italics mine).  (I know that not everyone believes in imputation, but Stott does!)  Without an incarnation, there would be no sinless life to be imputed.  Incarnation –> Justification.

4) God the Son became a man in order to inaugurate God’s kingdom and undermine Satan’s dominion of the world.  His miracles, healings, and exorcisms are signs of the beginning of the great reversal, the reclaiming of God’s creation.  Hence Jesus proclaims at the beginning of his ministry, “the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Incarnation –> Redemption.

5) God the Son became a man in order to raise up disciples and found the church.  Think of the vast amounts of time spent instructing his disciples (e.g., John 13-17).  And it is his resurrection and exaltation which enable the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (John 16:7, Acts 2:33) which launches the church movement.  Incarnation –> Church.

My concluding thought: the whole saving work of Jesus is one big package and we cannot pick it apart without falling into error.

22 Comments

  1. Peter Green

    Great post, Gavin. On the Incarnation is a great read. I really appreciate Athanasius’ life and theology.

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  2. Gav,

    It is a bit strange to me that in a post on Athanasius and the reasons for the incarnation of the Word you would not include his dictum ‘God became man so that man might become God’. This is the overarching reason, in which all other reasons are subsets, for the incarnation according to the consensus patrum — both East and West.

    You’ve only listed five here, and you’ve stated that you think there are more. Was theosis one of those reasons, and you simply didn’t mention it? Or do you reject theosis as a reason for the incarnation?

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  3. Great posting lately, Gav!

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  4. Drew, my good brother,

    I’d imagine we’d have differences on what exactly theosis means, and how important it is relative to other aspects of our salvation, but I’d certainly agree that part of Christian salvation is to become like God (II Peter 1:4, Romans 8:29, Hebrews 2:11), and that therefore part of the purpose of the incarnation is to establish more intimate communion between God and humanity through our union with Christ, the God-man. In terms of the nuances and specifics of what this entails, I’m not sure I’ve hammered it out in my brain enough to know exactly where I stand (and I know there are lots of differences among the Fathers themselves on this question).

    I’m sure you’ve thought about these issues more than I have, so I appreciate you challenging me to think more about this, which I will continue to do.

    GRO

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  5. Gav,

    In thinking about the reasons for the incarnation in light of the Fathers, it is important to grasp their understanding of sin and salvation. Since — at the moment — you’re reading Athanasius, I’ll deal only with Athanasius, although his understanding of sin and salvation is common to the other Fathers as well — the reason for this being the patristic notion of being faithful to the tradition, the aversion to doctrinal innovation.

    One key issue is what Athanasius means by the ‘law of death’ that held men captive and that Christ came to free them from. It is not a ‘penalty for sin’, understood as divine retributive punishment, as the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions think it is. For Athanasius, the ‘law of death’ is the natural consequence for turning away from God Who is Life itself, the rupture of communion with God Who is the Giver of Life. By turning away from God, from Life, men die. This is not an externally inflicted punishment for sin, but the natural consequence for sin. Sin is not primarily a problem of legal infraction, but of inherent corruption, an inherent sickness of the soul. This is why Athanasius says that repentance was not enough for man’s salvation; men were dying, on their way to non-existence in fact — what they needed was the healing of their corrupted nature, and the overthrowing of him — that is, the devil — who had the power of death.

    ‘Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all . . . He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held us in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.’

    This too, I would argue, is a very Pauline (and by extension, universally apostolic) understanding of sin and salvation; Athanasius is not innovating here. I’ve got a Facebook note on Paul’s understanding of justification in light of this if you’re interested.

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  6. I know there are lots of differences among the Fathers themselves on [theosis]’

    Could you flesh this out a little? The reason I ask is because I’m not so sure that’s true.

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  7. Gavin,

    It seems what you are trying to explain is other reasons than the cross for why God became incarnate. Personally, I find this fascinating, and I think its very commendable. It is so obvious in Scripture that there is more to Jesus’ life than the need for him to die, and I think you’re 100% right that this is something Christians should grasp.

    But there’s a general point that I think can be brought up about all of the examples you give of ways in which Christ accomplishes a holistic salvation. Each of the things you list seems like it could be accomplished apart from an incarnation (except for the imputation). Couldn’t Christ intercede for us and help us in our temptation, without becoming incarnate? Though Christ does teach much, again, doesn’t this seem like the kind of thing He could do by sending a prophet or angel—or even just by directly revealing himself? The same can be said about the inauguration of the kingdom of God and commissioning the Church. It seems like this is something that a divinely-empowered human could do. None of this requires God incarnate. And bringing up imputation is another way of linking Christ’s incarnation to the cross—its just a spelling-out of the preconditions for the cross to work.

    (I should also add that on Athanasius’ own understanding of the incarnation, imputation would be impossible because he thinks that Christ is an exclusively divine person, not a divine-human person like Nestorius and the Reformed taught [see Richard Muhler’s “Christ and the Decree”]. I’m not sure you were saying this; but I think its important to clarify the extent to which your account of salvation is Athanasian.)

    So saying that intercession, teaching, making the church, and fighting the devil are purposes for which Christ became incarnate does not seem true. These still seem to be more accidental, “tacked-on” so to speak, to the real reason Christ comes which is to die. That isn’t to say they aren’t helpful or good things that Christ did; its just to say they aren’t reasons for the incarnation. Unless we can find something about the way in which Christ does these four things that is impossible apart from the Incarnation. So I wonder: is there something about *the way in which Christ does these things* that is impossible apart from the incarnation?

    I think that Athanasius himself has the answer to this question. His doctrine of recapitulation (which he shares in common with St. Irenaeus and the majority of the other Fathers) shows why the incarnation was necessary. I can offer you a sketch of their account, if you would like.

    –MG

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  8. MG,

    very interesting comments (on the extra-Calvinisticum post too). In addition to imputation, I would see Christ’s intercession and help during temptation/weakness as requiring incarnation, because the kind of help Christ provides is established by his own incarnate experience (Heb. 2:17-18, 4:14-5:10). You make a good point that many of the things Jesus did as incarnate (teaching, founding the church, launching the kingdom) did not necessarily require the incarnation.

    I picked up on the recapitulation theme on On the Incarnation. I would not disagree with the recapitulation theme entirely, but I do see the atonement as the dominant purpose of the incarnation, because of how the cross is presented both in the gospels and in the apostles’ preaching and writing.

    Blessings to you,

    gavin

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  9. Gavin,

    Why does Christ’s intercession and help require incarnation?

    How do you understand Paul’s statement that Christ recapitulates all things in heaven and on earth? (Eph 1:10-11)

    And when you say you do not disagree entirely with the recapitulation theme, would you say that it was necessary that Christ recapitulate the various stages of human life in order to make human nature immortal? Or was Christ living a complete human life just another “tacked-on” thing–nice, but not necessary to accomplish his work?

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  10. MG,

    on your first question, Hebrews 2:17-18: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” The word “because” in v. 18 indicates a logical connection between Jesus’ incarnate experience and his helping work now as priest.

    On Eph. 1:10, I’m not convinced “recapitulate” is the best translation for ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι. I understand Paul’s assertion here to indicate the preeminence of Christ in redemption, similar to Colossians 1:18-20. I do see Christ’s incarnate life and glorification on Easter as essential to establishing a new humanity: he is the federal head of a new order of humanity, to which believers are united by faith. We’d probably differ on how we teased this out, but we both see Christ’s incarnate life as essential, not a mere “tack on.”

    I find it significant that both Ephesians 1 (7) and Colossians 1 (20) highlight the importance of Christ’s shed blood on the cross for our forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God. In fact, in Colossians 1:20, it is Christ’s blood on the cross which reconciles things in earth and heaven to himself.

    Thanks for your interest,
    Gavin

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  11. Good thoughts Gav. I find this helpful. Evidently these 5 things you list sound strange to Orthodox ears, but for Western evangelicalism, which does at times fall into the overemphases and underemphases you highlight, what you say is doubtless a word in season.

    And you’re right about Eph 1:10: the main point of anakephailow is not about attaining immortality or theosis or existential but biblical theological or salvation historical or redemptive historical or eschatological (I use the terms here largely interchangeably).

    Thanks for the illuminating stuff.

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  12. Gavin,

    You wrote:

    “on your first question, Hebrews 2:17-18: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” The word “because” in v. 18 indicates a logical connection between Jesus’ incarnate experience and his helping work now as priest.”

    Sure, I agree it is not possible for Christ to help in this way without an incarnation. But on your view, why is it not possible for Christ to help without an incarnation? Granting that it is necessary, why is the incarnation necessary?

    You wrote:

    “On Eph. 1:10, I’m not convinced “recapitulate” is the best translation for ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι. I understand Paul’s assertion here to indicate the preeminence of Christ in redemption, similar to Colossians 1:18-20. I do see Christ’s incarnate life and glorification on Easter as essential to establishing a new humanity: he is the federal head of a new order of humanity, to which believers are united by faith. We’d probably differ on how we teased this out, but we both see Christ’s incarnate life as essential, not a mere “tack on.””

    Would you say that Paul thinks the word anakephalaioō means recapitulate or “sum up” in Romans 13:9?

    Why must Christ live and be resurrected on your view? Why can’t he raise glorified humans by a mere act of divine will, apart from incarnation?

    Regardless of how we translate anakephalaioō, would you agree that all things in heaven and on earth are in Christ?

    I too think it is significant that Christ’s shed blood on the cross is linked to reconciliation. But in what sense does Christ reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to himself, on your view?

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  13. Dane,

    You wrote

    “Good thoughts Gav. I find this helpful. Evidently these 5 things you list sound strange to Orthodox ears, but for Western evangelicalism, which does at times fall into the overemphases and underemphases you highlight, what you say is doubtless a word in season.”

    I don’t find Christ’s help in intercession, teaching, fighting the devil, or founding the Church to be strange. In fact, I think that the way He did these things required an Incarnation. I just don’t think that an explanation has been offered by Western Christians for why these are reasons for Christ to become incarnate. For instance, in saying Christ became incarnate to conquer the devil, I see two strategies among Protestants. The first is to say that the Incarnation didn’t do anything that God couldn’t have done apart from taking on human nature. Or alternately, folks like Henri Blocher or Hans Boersma will say that Christ had to be incarnate and die in order to conquer the devil. But then when they explain what it means to conquer the devil, its just another way of talking about penal substitution. Christ dies to take away our guilt so the devil cannot accuse us; therefore He conquers the devil. Gavin wants to argue that Christ didn’t just become incarnate to die. The Fathers have an answer for why this is so; but I’m curious if someone who has a penal model of atonement and a Protestant understanding of Christ and salvation can explain why Christ had to be incarnate other than to pay our debt.

    You wrote:

    “And you’re right about Eph 1:10: the main point of anakephailow is not about attaining immortality or theosis or existential but biblical theological or salvation historical or redemptive historical or eschatological (I use the terms here largely interchangeably).”

    Do you think that part of our salvation is being made immortal?

    And do you think that all things in heaven and on earth are in Christ?

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  14. MG,

    Your many questions seem to be driving at the point that Christ had to become incarnate for reasons other than his atoning death. You also wrote, “I’m curious if someone who has a penal model of atonement and a Protestant understanding of Christ and salvation can explain why Christ had to be incarnate other than to pay our debt.”

    Well, brother, that’s been the whole point of my post. And I think imputation and help during temptation stand as examples. I’d also include, as I mentioned above to Drew and to you, Christ’s human life and resurrection which establish a new humanity as the second Adam.

    But ironically, I find your insight that some of the purposes of the incarnation didn’t actually REQUIRE the incarnation to be true of this last point. What you are trying to make central, Christ’s making humanity immortal, falls into the category of things God could have done without the incarnation, not the category of things that required the incarnation. He who spoke the universe into being from nothing could certainly have perfected his image-bearers by the exercise of his omnipotent power, which is free from all external limits. In my opinion, what stands out everywhere in the New Testament as the central (but not exclusive) reason for the incarnation is Christ’s dying and rising for the forgiveness of our sins, which required the incarnation to satiate divine justice (Romans 3:25-26).

    Its not shocking that we differ on these matters, since I’m Protestant and you are Orthodox, so lets feel free to respectfully disagree! I do appreciate your interest in my blog.

    Gavin

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  15. Gavin–

    I hope you don’t mind that I abbreviate your replies in quotations… I figure my comments are already long enough.

    You wrote:

    “Your many questions…
    …as the second Adam.”

    But again, imputation is just another way of pointing to the cross and saying it is necessary. And what changes once Christ becomes incarnate that makes him able to help us resist temptation? It seems like God was powerful and wise enough to help us prior to the Incarnation.

    If you think that Christ’s human life and resurrection to establish a new humanity are reasons for becoming incarnate, then you must think that He accomplished something by living and rising that He could not have otherwise. So would you agree that Christ could not have established a new humanity without becoming incarnate and living and rising?

    You wrote:

    “But ironically, I find your insight that … external limits.”

    Well as Athansius and others understand it, the problem isn’t that God isn’t powerful enough to impart his immortality. God has given us the power to be immortal, surely (as a matter of fact, this is an aspect of the image of God in “On the Incarnation”). The problem is that when God imparts the power of immortality to human nature, it doesn’t reverse the fact that human beings have misused their power to accept or reject God’s immortality. That’s why Athanasius says that God is powerful enough to destroy death, but can’t reverse intrinsic corruption without taking on human nature (On the Incarnation 44). The need to reverse the misuse of human free choice in Adam (putting on corruption) by the proper use in Christ (putting on life) is something that could not be accomplished apart from an incorruptible person freely and permanently choosing from within human nature to put on life (see “Against the Arians” 1.51). Hence Athanasius’ statement “Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man (“Against the Arians” 1.48).” It isn’t an exercise of omnipotence, then, but God the Word himself using the human power of free choice, that is needed to actualize what God effectually imparts potentially to human nature.

    You wrote:

    “In my opinion, what stands out everywhere in the New Testament as the central (but not exclusive) reason for the incarnation is Christ’s dying and rising for the forgiveness of our sins, which required the incarnation to satiate divine justice (Romans 3:25-26).”

    I don’t understand how, on the penal understanding of atonement, Christ’s resurrection helps impart forgiveness.

    I don’t see anything (at least nothing explicit) in Romans 3:25-26 about the satisfaction of divine justice by means of retributive punishment. Perhaps there is an argument to be made here for your view, and I’m just ignorant of it. But Paul does seem to say that God’s mercy/patience is the way in which He shows forth his righteousness/covenant-faithfulness despite our past sins. On your understanding of penal substitution, how does God’s patience show his righteousness?

    And doesn’t St. John tell us that “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil”? Even if Paul is providing a reason for Christ to be incarnate, it seems stronger and more explicit in 1 John. How do you understand, then, Christ’s destruction of the works of the devil?

    You wrote:

    “Its not shocking that we differ on these matters, since I’m Protestant and you are Orthodox, so lets feel free to respectfully disagree! I do appreciate your interest in my blog.”

    I’m all in favor of respectful disagreement. Please don’t misunderstand my inquisitiveness; if we can’t persuade each other after much conversation, then so be it. At the same time, I think that we should follow the arguments wherever they lead, and I am interested to see where my questions about Protestantism and penal atonement lead. If your view is right, I want to be convinced. As someone who shares my interests, and wants to know the truth at least as much as I do, I hope that you can help me think through these issues.

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  16. MG,

    I appreciate your indicating your desire to pursue the truth, and I’ll give a response to your comments. In my view, its not the doctrine of atonement that leads somewhere, but Scripture that leads us to the doctrine of atonement. While I hope you are persuaded by this, I appreciate your willingness to respectfully disagree, which is where I think we will likely end up.

    My first thought is that I frequently find it difficult to follow the reasoning you employ. For example, you say that imputation is just another way of pointing to the cross, but you don’t say why you think imputation is simply another way of pointing to the cross (which I dispute), or why it would be a problem even if it were (which I also dispute), or why in the first place you don’t want there to be other purposes to the incarnation other than the recapitulation theme (which is still unclear to me, see below). You also ask why God couldn’t help us in temptation before the incarnation. But you don’t interact with the text I’ve quoted multiple times (Hebrews 2:18) which makes the very point that Christ is able to help because of his experience being tempted. You also write, “If you think that Christ’s human life and resurrection to establish a new humanity are reasons for becoming incarnate, then you must think that He accomplished something by living and rising that He could not have otherwise.” Your reasoning here seems to amount to, “if you think that Christ did something, then you must think that He could have done it no other way.” But I’ve already explained that I don’t believe it would have been impossible for God to perfect humanity apart from the incarnation, though of course we differ on that (and you provide a helpful discussion of Athanasius’ views on the subject).

    You asked about the connection between Christ’s resurrection and forgiveness – it is the doctrine of union with Christ. We are only vindicated (justified) because Christ was vindicated (raised) – see Romans 4:15, I Corinthians 15:17. For more on this, see my comment in this post summarizing Richard Gaffin: https://gavinortlund.wordpress.com/2010/01/02/christs-resurrection/

    On the cross and the destruction of the devil, Christ’s defeat of Satan and his armies is connected with substitutionary atonement in Col. 2:13-15, though I would not restrict it to this.

    On Romans 3:25-26, if you don’t see the satiation of divine justice through Christ’s death as ἱλαστήριον, then I am not sure how to keep up the conversation, because to me it could not be more clearly stated. The big picture here, in my opinion, is that Christ’s substitutionary atoning death, which you seem to want to downplay, is clearly and consistently affirmed in the Bible. If you want to follow the arguments wherever they lead, then I wonder if you’d allow the NT witness to lead you to the doctrine of atonement as a purpose of the incarnation? Just to take two examples from Peter’s first epistle:

    I Peter 2:24
    He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

    I Peter 3:18
    Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.

    I don’t disagree that Christ also came to do other things as well, and I don’t deny that he came to recreate humanity through his life and resurrection. But you seem uncomfortable with all purposes other than recapitulation (imputation, help during temptation, etc.). I therefore feel that it is not me who is restricting to purposes of the incarnation, as commonly said of evangelical Protestants, but you.

    Feel free to respond, but if we are not making forward progress, this may be my last comment on this post.

    Bless you,

    Gavin

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  17. Gavin,

    You wrote:

    “My first thought is that … (which is still unclear to me, see below).”

    I have to apologize, because I’ve tried at some points to shorthand what I’m saying, given that I write so much anyway. I’ll try to be clearer, but it will unfortunately require a longer response. Hopefully you don’t mind…

    The reasoning is that the cross accomplishes precisely the imputation of our sin to Christ, and enables the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. The imputation is just the application of redemption accomplished on the cross, so I don’t see this as giving a whole lot more content to the purpose of Christ’s life than just to say that He has to die and then his death gets applied to us.

    You wrote:

    “You also ask why … is able to help because of his experience being tempted.”

    I interacted with the text briefly here:

    “Sure, I agree it is not possible for Christ to help in this way without an incarnation. But on your view, why is it not possible for Christ to help without an incarnation? Granting that it is necessary, why is the incarnation necessary?”

    I recognize its truth; Christ could not help us in the way he does without being incarnate and tempted. So we agree it is true. The question is which one of our viewpoints can *account for why Christ had to be incarnate and tempted in order to help*. I’m not talking about giving Scriptural arguments for the conclusion that Christ couldn’t help without incarnate temptation; clearly a Scriptural justification can be made regardless of whether you hold to my account or your account of theology. What I’m wondering is how you would explain this necessity of Christ’s incarnate temptation for our help. Is it necessary that Christ be tempted because Christ needs to set an example for how we can resist temptation? Is it because He needs to obey a command to resist temptation so we can receive imputed righteousness?

    There is an Orthodox and patristic explanation for *why* Christ couldn’t help (in the specific way he does) without being incarnate and tempted. I didn’t list it before for brevity’s sake, but here goes. By resisting temptation, Christ helps us because He permanently actualizes the human power to receive God’s incorruptibility. Whereas a human person would not be powerful enough to resist temptation permanently in all things, and therefore wouldn’t be powerful enough to fix his or her will in God’s incorruption, Christ can accomplish this for us. This also specifically makes his prayers efficacious for our resistance of temptation, insofar as His permanent intercession infuses the human capacity to pray with God’s glory and love and incorruption. In endlessly activating the power to pray and asking that we receive the strength to resist temptation, He makes anyone who prays draw close to God whose power is now infused in the human action of prayer. So this is part of the larger scheme of Christ’s recapitulation, and thus it is necessary that Christ be incarnate for this to happen for the same reasons I listed when I explained why Christ had to be incarnate to accomplish the reception of divine power into human nature.

    You wrote:

    “You also write, “If you think that Christ’s human life and resurrection … though of course we differ on that (and you provide a helpful discussion of Athanasius’ views on the subject).”

    Sorry, I didn’t pick up that you thought Christ could establish a new humanity without the incarnation (looking back I realize I should have put 2 and 2 together when you said He didn’t have to be incarnate to found the church, and that the church is the new humanity).

    My reasoning is not that if Christ did something there is no other way He could do it. My reasoning is that *if something was a reason for Christ to be incarnate*, then it means it accomplished something that needed an incarnation. For instance, if the death of Christ was a reason for Him to be incarnate, then it accomplished something (freedom from sin and death) that needed an incarnation. There are lots of things Christ does that could be done some other way. But there are some things Christ does that He couldn’t have done if He weren’t incarnate.

    It seems like the only thing you think is impossible apart from the incarnation is God paying the penalty for our sins and imputing righteousness to us. Now, every Evangelical affirms that Jesus founded a church and fought the forces of evil and rose from the dead. But you seem to think that something is missing from people who just acknowledge that these things happened when you write as follows:

    “you sometimes get the impression that the exclusive purpose of the incarnation was atonement. While I think atonement is the main thing (Mark 10:45, John 12:27, I Corinthians 15:3ff.), I believe there are other saving purposes to the incarnation”

    You seem to want to say that there are other purposes/reasons for Christ to be incarnate. Saying Christ accomplished other things along the way doesn’t seem to add reasons for him to be incarnate, again keeping in mind that everyone affirms Christ accomplished these other things during his time on earth.

    To give a concrete example of this kind of reasoning, consider a person who is deciding whether or not to drive to the grocery store a mile away. This person could get everything (carrots, apples, ice cream) she needs from the liquor store a block away. So if you were trying to convince her to go to the grocery store and said “you could get carrots, apples, and ice cream from the grocery store so you should go there instead of the liquor store”, then this is not a reason for choosing to go the grocery store instead of the liquor store. The same thing could be said for teaching, fighting the devil, and restoring humanity on your view. There’s no reason to become incarnate instead of not become incarnate.

    You could say, “well getting carrots, apples, and ice cream are reasons to go to the grocery store—they just aren’t reasons to go to the grocery store instead of the liquor store”. But I’d point out that every Evangelical would agree that because these are good things and Christ could do them if He were incarnate, they would be “reasons for incarnation” in that sense. So how is what you are saying (Christ only became incarnate to die, impute righteousness, and help in our temptation) different from Evangelicals who see Christ’s life and resurrection as not accomplishing something necessary to our salvation, but just being additional things that happened alongside his saving death (but didn’t require an incarnation)?

    You wrote:

    “You asked about the connection … 2010/01/02/christs-resurrection/”

    Granting that it is Scriptural, why on your view could we not be vindicated without Christ rising? Didn’t Christ get vindicated in a different way (physical resurrection) from how we are vindicated on your view (transfer of moral credit)? How do you connect the two?

    You wrote:

    “On the cross and the destruction of the devil, Christ’s defeat of Satan and his armies is connected with substitutionary atonement in Col. 2:13-15, though I would not restrict it to this.”

    Sure it is connected with substitution, although Colossians says nothing about how Christ’s death overturns the handwriting that was against us. Why think it is penal substitution in view?

    You wrote:

    “On Romans 3:25-26, if you don’t see the satiation of divine justice through Christ’s death as ἱλαστήριον, then I am not sure how to keep up the conversation, because to me it could not be more clearly stated.”

    Literally ἱλαστήριον, means “mercy seat” and refers to the lid of the ark. The question is what it means to say Christ is the mercy seat. Given the literal meaning, why think this a way of saying that Christ is a sacrifice that satisfies God’s retributive justice via punishment? Is there any reason to think this is not just a way of saying Christ is the place where we approach God as He manifests himself in his uncreated glory?

    You wrote:

    “The big picture here…

    might bring us to God.”

    I agree that Christ died a substitutionary death and that it was of the utmost importance; I just to don’t think it was penal substitution. Instead it would be an “ontological” substitution. Christ dies instead of us in order to effect an ontological change that saves humanity from the dominion of sin and death. To say Christ bore our sins in his body could mean several different things. One possible meaning is that Christ is being retributively punished for our sins—He is bearing the punishment in his body. But what Peter literally says is that He bore our sins, not the punishment for them. On an Orthodox view, this means that Christ took on our corrupt passions (sins) in his humanity (body and soul) and his death consummated the struggle to fight the influence of the passions and empower his human nature with incorruptibility and immortal life. This interpretation fits quite naturally with the fact that Christ’s death is here connected to dying to sin and living to righteousness, and the description of his wounds as healing us. How would a penal model deal with these features of the text?

    Saying Christ suffered once for sins to bring us to God also does not state why Christ was killed. It does not specify the fact that Christ had to satisfy God’s retributive justice. Furthermore, the language of “bring us to God” sounds more closely connected to union with God, not the need to satisfy God’s retributive justice. The fact that Christ is said to be the righteous dying for the unrighteous also does not prove that Peter is teaching that Christ earns human merit through obedience and then imputes it to us. For to say that Christ is righteous could also mean that He is righteous not because of a creaturely legal status, but because of the uncreated divine righteousness He has eternally as God (without earning it).

    You wrote:

    “I don’t disagree that … evangelical Protestants, but you.”

    Earlier in my comment on June 30 I wrote:

    “Unless we can find something about the way in which Christ does these four things that is impossible apart from the Incarnation. So I wonder: is there something about *the way in which Christ does these things* that is impossible apart from the incarnation?

    I think that Athanasius himself has the answer to this question. His doctrine of recapitulation (which he shares in common with St. Irenaeus and the majority of the other Fathers) shows why the incarnation was necessary.”

    So I think that Christ had to be incarnate to help us in temptation, to found the Church, and to defeat the devil as well as many other things. Recapitulation is a way of explaining why Christ could only do these things if He was God incarnate. Each of these things required that Christ incorruptibly act as man to securely actualize God’s grace and heal human nature from within. Christ couldn’t found a Church unless He could constitute humanity immortal and capable of assembling as an indestructible physical body against which the gates of death could not prevail (Matt 16:18). And He couldn’t defeat the devil unless He made humanity secure against the devil’s will to annihilate.

    I don’t think that the doctrine of imputation as the Reformers taught it is Scriptural or patristic, nor do I think it is compatible with the Incarnation. So though I think Christ had many reasons to become incarnate, imputation was not one of them.

    You wrote:

    “Feel free to respond, but if we are not making forward progress, this may be my last comment on this post.”

    You’ve brought up some new points about the Scriptural arguments for penal substitution, so I’m interested in reading your responses.

    Like

  18. MG,

    I’m honored that you would put so much thought into your response, but given the length I don’t have time to respond right now. I’ll try to give it a line-by-line read in the next couple of days, and perhaps I can respond down the road sometime. Blessings to you,

    Gavin

    Like

  19. Gavin,

    No worries. Take your time.

    Like

  20. Hi Michael,

    A line-by-line response would get out of hand, so I’m going to try to hit the major things:

    On imputation, I dispute that just because imputation requires the cross that therefore it is not an additional reason for the incarnation. Imputation depends not just on the cross but on Jesus’ life of righteousness, and therefore could not be accomplished apart from the incarnation, and if the exclusive purpose of the incarnation were Christ’s death and resurrection, there is no reason why he had to live for 30 years before dying.

    On Christ’s help, it requires the incarnation because the help spoken of by the author to the Hebrews is the help based upon a sympathetic *experience* of the same difficulties and weakness. On a human can experience human struggle and human weakness, and thereby acquire that experiential sympathy. In my opinion, my analysis here follows the text of Scripture much more closely than yours – there is nothing of “actualizing the human power to receive God’s incorruptibility” in the New Testament.

    So: I think these stand as two things that could not be accomplished without the incarnation. In addition to this, I think it’s a bit slippery to insist that the other things Christ did while incarnate did not require the incarnation. While we can perhaps imagine them happening in another way, its inherently uncertain whether the *way* they came about would have been the same in a different set of circumstances. Better – in my opinion – to simply acknowledge that the incarnation is the way God chose to do it, and leave it at that.

    On Christ’s vindication and ours, it’s a huge topic – I just say, read Richard Gaffin significant book on it, Resurrection and Redemption.

    On Col. 2 and Romans 3 and atonement theory, brother, that’s just too big a topic to venture into when we already have a lot on the table. I’ll just say that I think your suggestion that ἱλαστήριον in Romans 3:25-6 is “just a way of saying Christ is the place where we approach God as He manifests himself in his uncreated glory” is totally alien to Paul’s context, which concern God’s righteous character in forgiving sins. That is why he goes on to say that “this was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

    On recapitulation, what Scriptural proof do you see for the recapitulation theme? You don’t have to provide extensive arguments, I am just curious where you see this in Scripture.

    Gavin

    Like

  21. Gavin,

    You wrote:

    “On imputation, I dispute that just because imputation requires the cross that therefore it is not an additional reason for the incarnation. Imputation depends not just on the cross but on Jesus’ life of righteousness, and therefore could not be accomplished apart from the incarnation, and if the exclusive purpose of the incarnation were Christ’s death and resurrection, there is no reason why he had to live for 30 years before dying.”

    I see what you’re saying about Christ earning righteousness. On the Reformed view, He does need to have the positive legal status to switch with the negative legal status that He gets punished for. Good point, you’re right on this issue.

    You wrote:

    “On Christ’s help, it requires the incarnation because the help spoken of by the author to the Hebrews is the help based upon a sympathetic *experience* of the same difficulties and weakness. On a human can experience human struggle and human weakness, and thereby acquire that experiential sympathy. In my opinion, my analysis here follows the text of Scripture much more closely than yours – there is nothing of “actualizing the human power to receive God’s incorruptibility” in the New Testament.”

    How does Christ’s ability to have sympathy and identify with our weaknesses help save us, though? I would say that it helps save us because Christ deifies those experiences (actualizes God’s incorruption within them) but I don’t see how Christ’s sympathy *does anything* on your view. My stuff about God actualizing incorruptibility is another way of saying “securely heals from within” or “deifies” or “fills with the grace and uncreated life of the Holy Spirit”. The reason I use “actualizes incorruption” and other such language is that it reveals more clearly what I take to be the mechanism by which this must happen.

    You wrote:

    “So: I think these stand as two things that could not be accomplished without the incarnation. In addition to this, I think it’s a bit slippery to insist that the other things Christ did while incarnate did not require the incarnation. While we can perhaps imagine them happening in another way, its inherently uncertain whether the *way* they came about would have been the same in a different set of circumstances. Better – in my opinion – to simply acknowledge that the incarnation is the way God chose to do it, and leave it at that.”

    But if we just acknowledge that this is how God did it, then we have unanswered the question of whether or not things like the resurrection were reasons for Christ to become incarnate. You seem to be insisting precisely that many things Christ did don’t require an incarnation.

    When I was saying that the *way* in which Christ does these things requires an incarnation, I was referring specifically to the fact that His doing them while incarnate permanently incorporated them into God’s incorruptibility.

    You wrote:

    “On Christ’s vindication and ours, it’s a huge topic – I just say, read Richard Gaffin significant book on it, Resurrection and Redemption.”

    Do you think Gaffin answers my question?

    You wrote:

    “On Col. 2 and Romans 3 and atonement theory, brother, that’s just too big a topic to venture into when we already have a lot on the table. I’ll just say that I think your suggestion that ἱλαστήριον in Romans 3:25-6 is “just a way of saying Christ is the place where we approach God as He manifests himself in his uncreated glory” is totally alien to Paul’s context, which concern God’s righteous character in forgiving sins. That is why he goes on to say that ‘this was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.’”

    Well in a context where Paul is concerned about the failure of Jews and Gentiles to attain the eternal glory and righteousness of God, it makes sense for Christ to be the one in whom God’s glory and righteousness (faithfulness) draw near and become accessible.

    Concerning God’s righteous character in forgiving sins, Romans 3:3-4 connects God’s faithfulness to his covenant to His justifying power. Despite human unfaithfulness, God still remains true. He is justified (vindicated v4). The contrast is between human unbelief and unfaithfulness, and divine faithfulness/righteousness. The fact that sinners’ unfaithfulness shows God’s faithfulness does not mean that sinners’ experience of God’s wrath implies God is unfaithful to his covenant (which might be called into question if God needs sinners to break the covenant in order to show his faithfulness). Otherwise it would make no sense that part of God’s faithfulness to his covenant consists in his discriminating about the character of all men (5-8). The unrighteousness of sinners (9-10) consists in their unfaithfulness to God’s law (11-20), a law which cannot (by itself) produce faithfulness because it is weak and instead functions to reveal unfaithfulness. God’s righteousness apart from the law is revealed insofar as He maintains his faithfulness to his covenants by sending Christ (21-22) who imparts the righteousness of God to believers (not a created, human, merited righteousness). Whereas before, we fall short of the glory of God even in trying to do good (23) because we lack God’s eternal righteousness, we now can attain to it in Christ in whom we find God’s glory drawn near (as he is the mercy seat) and made available through his covenant faithfulness.

    Now lets assume that paresis means forgiveness/remission. This has no solid linguistic justification that I know of, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible for this word to mean that. If so, then it is easy to see Paul saying that by sending Christ, God is enacting forgiveness that He had promised beforehand. And because He is righteous (faithful) to his covenant, He could not fail to offer this forgiveness and reconciliation to personal union with God in Christ. This would also be consistent with saying that hilasterion means expiation (cleansing, wiping away) instead of propitiation (appeasing, satisfying).

    On the other hand, if paresis means overlooking as some have suggested, then this is consistent with my read too. God is declaring his faithfulness with respect to past sins, saying “even in light of Israel’s past sins that I have not put to rights, I cannot be stopped from bringing about the justification of sinners so that they can attain to the glory of God, thereby showing my faithfulness to my covenants.” And this is also consistent with seeing hilasterion as expiation instead of propitiation.

    I see little reason in this context to think that the righteousness of God that Paul speaks of is connected to retributive justice. The closest that one could come, I think, is 3:5-7. But the wrath spoken of in 3:5 is a concept continuous with the wrath spoken of in Romans 1 and 2, which Paul understands as the natural consequences of sin, not extrinsically-inflicted retribution. Furthermore, the word “krino” or “judge” means “reckon, consider, scrutinize” in the context, and is talking about the appraisal of character, not the infliction of retribution. Also, the issue of God’s wrath and the judgment of character arises in the context of God’s faithfulness to his covenant; so the righteousness that Paul is concerned about God preserving is his faithfulness.

    You wrote:

    “On recapitulation, what Scriptural proof do you see for the recapitulation theme? You don’t have to provide extensive arguments, I am just curious where you see this in Scripture.”

    Well, I see it everywhere. I won’t provide you any formal arguments, just a few implicit ones in a sketch of what I mean, and how I would read various biblical texts. The Gospel of Matthew starts off with Jesus recapitulating the various stages of Israel’s history. For instance, the sojourn in Egypt, the exodus from Egypt, the wandering and temptation in the wilderness, the prophet going up the mountain to hear the Word of God give the law and then speak it to the people of Israel, etc. are all recapitulated by Christ in the first few chapters. John’s Gospel shows Jesus as the last Adam who lives a perfect human life, doing the will of the Father perfectly; hence Pilate proclaims, “behold, the man” while Jesus is being scrutinized. Christ also sums up the whole created order in himself, which is why he says from the cross “it is finished”, signaling the completion of the creation week—God rests in the tomb. John then makes a point of the resurrection happening “on the first day of the week”, thus inaugurating the new creation through the Messiah’s summing up and transforming the old. The angels on the tomb signify that it is the Messiah’s tomb/death that is the new Ark, out of which comes God’s glory and life and resurrection, restoring paradise in a new garden, tended by the True Gardener, God Himself. Christ comes and breathes the Life of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles, constituting the heads of the new humanity that shows forth the Likeness of God.

    In Paul we see Christ as the preeminent one (Col 1:15-20), first in all things. He is the new Adam (Rom 5) whose obedience reverses Adam’s disobedience. He reverses death with life, unrighteous character with the impartation of righteousness, and condemnation to a sinful state with being vindicated/justified/freed from that state. Even granting (for the sake of argument) that the justification he gives is an extrinsic legal status, his obedience also brings life to all men (5:17, 18, 21), for as in Adam all are dying, so in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor 15:22). All of these things are consequences of his righteousness (5:18) which secures his perfect obedience (5:19), or proper use of free choice. Though the law was weak in the flesh’s inability to obey, Christ who is uncreated and divine and not weak with respect to proper use of free choice, took on sinful/corrupt flesh and condemned/destroyed the sin/corruption of the flesh through his proper use of free choice (8:3). Through dying and rising from the dead, Christ predestines the cosmos to die and resurrect along with him, to free it into the glory and liberty of the eternal Son and his sons by grace (8:21). This is because in Christ’s humanity, all things in heaven and on earth are united (Eph 1:10) and so He makes peace for all things on the cross (Col. 1:20)—not just between sinners and God, but between all of creation and God. He does this by securing the incorruptibility of creation. It isn’t that God wants to retributively punish the non-human creation, but that it lacks the incorruptibility and therefore the stable peace of God. Though He dies—and all die with Him (2 Cor 5:14-15)—their eternal life in resurrection is secured. In Christ all the fullness of deity dwells (Col 1:19, 2:9), and so when all things are united in Him who dies, the fullness of deity is imparted to all things, so that God might be all in all when the cosmos is restored (1 Cor 15:28).

    Does that help? Again, I could give a more formal biblical argument; but this seems sufficient to show that some idea of recapitulation (whether I’m correct in understanding how it works or not is another question).

    Like

  22. Michael,

    thanks for you fleshing out the recapitulation theme more. We differ on Romans 3, but that’s for another post – I am planning on reading _Pierced for our Transgressions_ sometime in the future, so perhaps atonement theory will resurface on this blog at that point. I appreciate your consideration on imputation and Christ’s help – it sounds like our different leanings on the latter get back to the recapitulation issue. Yes, I think Richard Gaffin’s _Resurrection and Redemption_ would be a fantastic resource for digging into a Protestant, and in particular a reformed, view of Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ. Its a great book, and I bet you’d find it interesting, given your thoughtfulness on related issues.

    Blessings to you,

    Gavin

    Like

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