Athanasian Atonement = Recapitulation (Irenaeus) + Satisfaction (Anselm)

AthanasiusI gave Athanasius’ De Incarnatione (hereafter DI, all quotations from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1997 version) a careful re-read on a flight the other day, in order to compare his treatment of atonement with those of Anselm and Irenaeus, which I outlined in my last two posts. In DI, the themes of satisfaction and recapitulation merge together. The treatment is somewhat like a blending together of the main emphases of Irenaeus and Anselm. With Irenaeus, Athanasius affirms that the incarnation accomplished the restoration of human nature from corruption to incorruptibility. Yet he does not follow Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation exactly: he does not teach that Christ’s reconstituted various stages of human life (infancy, childhoold, etc.), and his emphasis is on Christ’s resurrection, not his birth per se, as the mechanism for the transformation of human nature. For this reason, the word recapitulation may not be the best suited for what Athanasius thinks happens when Christ is born. Nevertheless, he does make striking claims about Christ’s birth as restoring human nature to incorruptibility and immortality, and so recapitulation in a more general sense, not referring to Irenaeus’s doctrine in all its particularities, but to its basic contours that are shared with Anselm, does constitute a part of Athanasius’ doctrine of atonement. With Anselm, Athanasius affirms that Christ’s death constituted a paying of the debt which all mankind owed because of its fall into sin and death. This theme, along with recapitulation, is worked out in chapter 2, and then in chapter 3 Athanasius argues that the incarnation was also necessary in order to teach men to know God. Thus we may summarize Athanasius’ doctrine of atonement as recapitulation + satisfaction (with an additional, corollary emphasis on revelation).

Recapitulation works in Athanasius in connection to his doctrine of Christ’s resurrection, and in connection to his understanding of the corporate solidarity of all humanity. Though most frequently he claims that it is Christ’s resurrection which effects the restoration of human nature, he can also speak of Christ’s birth in this way. So he claims, for example, “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.” He continues with this analogy:

“You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so it is with the King of 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 them in its power, has simply ceased to be” (35).

Thus, for Athanasius, the mere presence of God in a human body affects the entire human race. It is like an antidote which spreads throughout the system and reverses the corruption and sickness of death. Because God has been a human, humanity itself is honored and protected. By becoming one of us, God changes us. This is recapitulation.

Athanasius says much about recapitulation in chapters 2-3 of DI. But what is interesting is how frequently in these chapters – even before his treatment of Christ’s death in chapter 4 – he pauses to clarify that Christ’s incarnation also served the purpose of satisfaction. So, for example, he argues that mere repentance by human beings would not restore human nature, because it would make God’s threat of death upon disobedience untrue (33). He then writes, in a swift juxtaposition of restoration and satisfaction themes, “His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character before all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father” (33). Note the double emphasis: “bring again the corruptible to incorruption” + “maintain for the Father His consistency of character;” and then, “able to recreate all” + “worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father” (a reference to Christ’s intercession). For Athanasius, Christ’s atonement both recreates humanity and maintains divine honor. It deals with both our fallen nature and our guilt before God.

When Athanasius gets into chapter 4, on the death of Christ, the focus on satisfaction becomes even more clear. At the beginning of the chapter, he summarizes his argument in the previous two chapters that at the incarnation Christ restores human nature from corruption, and recreates the Imago Dei in it. He then expands on the purpose of the incarnation in this way:

“But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering his own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression” (49).

Thus Athanasius seems to perceive the incarnation as having two distinct purposes. In the first place, it was necessary to restore human nature. In the second place, it was necessary to pay for the debt humanity owed to God because of sin, namely, death. The first of these was accomplished generally by Christ’s birth, through the union of divine and human natures in one person, but more specifically was triggered at Christ’s resurrection. The second of these was accomplished by Christ’s death, when he died as a substitute for humanity. This sounds like Anselm (satisfaction) + Irenaeus (recapitulation).

Moreover, as with Anselm, the motif of substitution as a sort of glue which binds these two concepts together is integral to Athanasius’ treatment. He refers to Christ’s death as an “offering” and “sacrifice” to the Father, claiming that its purpose is that “in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men” (34). He calls Christ’s death a “substitute” as well as an “exchange” and an “equivalent” (i.e., of the death of his “brethren”). So important was Christ’s death for Athanasius that he even claims that it was the end of his incarnation:

“The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as He could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through his indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for others as well, by the grace of the resurrection” (35).

It is evident that Athanasisus has a more robust theology of Christ’s death than Irenaeus. He calls it “the very centre of our faith” (48). Yet in the focus on Christ’s death, the problem of corruption and death is never far from view; in fact, the recurrent focus in DI is on death and corruption as the problems for which the incarnation is the solution (e.g., 29ff.). For Athanasius, death is significant because it is the penalty for sin and transgression. He quotes Genesis 2:16 to establish its penal character (31). Thus, while Athanasius’ doctrine of atonement is broad and multifaceted, it certainly includes the concept of penal substitution. How could it not, when the centerpiece of atonement is substitutionary death, and death itself is a penal reality? Athanasius’ atonement is certainly more than penal substitution, but it is not less.

Athanasius also has a more robust theology of Chris’s resurrection than Irenaeus (or at least more developed). For Athanasius, Christ’s death cannot be separated from his resurrection. He can even claim (contra Stott) that “the supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body” (52). And Athanasius can often put such stress on Christ’s resurrection that it seems as though his death was necessary simply as a prelude to it – as though his death were necessary so that he could bring about resurrection (though he is always quick to clarify that Christ’s death did serve the additional goal of satisfaction). He also speaks much of the “grace of the resurrection” (35), and claims repeatedly that it is at Christ’s resurrection (not his birth per se) that the restoration of human nature actually comes about.

For Athanasius, the incarnation also serves to teach humanity how to know God, and it is in connection with this point that Athanasius’ understanding of the Imago Dei is most clearly seen. After lamenting human ignorance of God because of idolatry, he writes:

“What else could (God) possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our savior Jesus Christ? … The Word of God came in His own person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, who could recreate man after the image” (41).

As with Irenaeus, the Imago Dei comprises an important part of recapitulation. It is not merely that Christ is the image of God, after which humanity is fashioned; it is that Christ’s incarnation represents the renewal of that image in all men. In another striking metaphor, Athanasius compares Christ’s recapitulation of human nature to a worn out portrait being re-painted:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself” (41-42).

The final words, “made after Himself,” signal a theme which was thoroughly drawn out in chapter 1 of DI, namely, that Athanasius’ doctrine of atonement is rooted in his doctrine of creation, and especially the Imago Dei. He claims that before the fall, human nature was subject to corruption, but provided it retained innocence, human beings would be preserved from the natural law because of “the grace of their union with the Word” (30). Thus for Athanasius humanity is united to Christ in some sense already before the incarnation, because they are made in His image. What is distorted universally among human beings at the fall is restored at the incarnation.

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  1. […] looks at Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation and at Athanasius’ as […]

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