Mysteries of the Kingdom

            in awe of scripture, viewing it through the lens of the kingship of Jesus

Augustine on Atonement

    We Protestants embrace Sola Scriptura so strongly as to neglect (and in some cases despise) the great wealth of scriptural interpretation handed down to us by early Christian theologians. One outcome of such neglect is our tragic ignorance of the Christus Victor theology through which the first thousand years of Christians viewed the work of the cross and the doctrine of atonement. Our Protestant understanding does not conflict with Christus Victor, but it does differ with Christus Victor. That is to say the Protestant/Roman view of atonement can complement the early Christian view of atonement.

    Atonement is at-one-ment; it is the bringing together of two separate things so that they are at-one or united. Sin separates humans from God. Atonement reunites humans with God. While all Christians believe Jesus reunites humans to God through His sacrificial death, there are at least two ways of understanding how His sacrifice reunites or atones. Full comprehension of Christus Victor would probably require reading Gustaf Aulen, but here I present one angle of CV from the pen of the great Augustine of Hippo in chapter seven of His fourth book of "On the Trinity." Augustine does not say Jesus justified us by being punished by God, but rather by making us "one." I present Augustine's thoughts, not for the purpose of convincing any reader to change his or her understanding of atonement, but for the purpose of familiarizing the reader with some of the wealth of ancient Christianity. I previously posted Mar Narsai's exceptional homily on baptism, and I will post several more writings by various early Christian theologians from diverse corners of the early faith.

"On the Trinity" Book 4, Chapter 7:

     This mystery, this sacrifice, this priest, this God, before He was sent and came, being made of a woman—of Him, all those things which appeared to our fathers in a sacred and mystical way by angelical miracles, or which were done by the fathers themselves, were similitudes; in order that every creature by its acts might speak in some way of that One who was to be, in whom there was to be salvation in the recovery of all from death.

     For because by the wickedness of ungodliness we had recoiled and fallen away in discord from the one true and supreme God, and had in many things become vain, being distracted through many things and cleaving fast to many things; it was needful, by the decree and command of God in His mercy, that those same many things should join in proclaiming the One that should come, and that One should come so proclaimed by these many things, and that these many things should join in witnessing that this One had come; and that so, freed from the burden of these many things, we should come to that One, and dead as we were in our souls by many sins, and destined to die in the flesh on account of sin, that we should love that One who, without sin, died in the flesh for us; and by believing in Him now raised again, and by rising again with Him in the spirit through faith, that we should be justified by being made one in the one righteous One; and that we should not despair of our own resurrection in the flesh itself, when we consider that the one Head had gone before us the many members; in whom, being now cleansed through faith, and then renewed by sight, and through Him as mediator reconciled to God, we are to cleave to the One, to feast upon the One, to continue one.

    For those of us accustomed to the Protestant and Roman Catholic view of atonement, it sounds quite alien to hear of atonement as making-us-one. The Christus Victor view of atonement does not lend itself to easy summaries, but I will try to explain the emphasis on "making" in CV. Most theologians before Anselm saw the cross not as a place of God's wrath, but as the place of God's victory. At Calvary, they would say Jesus conquered Satan, conquered human sin, and entered death which He would then conquer by resurrection. Christus Victor also sees humanity needing transformation from it's Adamic state to a higher state.

    When Augustine said, "we should be justified by being made one in the one righteous One," he saw believers as being transformed from creatures of division into creatures of unity and from creatures of violence into creatures of love. For Augustine and all other early Christians, the cross was not about satisfying God's anger, but about making it possible for Christians to be remade from wrath-bound creatures into new creations. Whereas the primary attribute of God in Anselm's theology was the attribute of justice, His primary attribute in CV is that of Creator.

    In the beginning God created Adam and Eve in His image. His creation changed dramatically through sin, so God desired to redeem His creation. What Satan twisted, God desired to transform. We were all in Adam. Now God invites us to be in Christ. The image-bearers became Adamic. Now Adamic creatures may be born-again, not as Adamic, but as Christian. Just as "Christ" means "anointed" and as He was anointed with the Spirit of God, so we may become anointed-ians, born of the Spirit of God. It's a very foreign way of looking at the atonement, but also the consistent way Christians viewed atonement for the thousand years which preceded Anselm. It is still the way Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyriac Christians have continued to look at atonement to this day.
Their view of the cross does not contradict the Roman / Protestant view of the cross. Rather, our view complements the ancient, Eastern view.
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"Augustine on Atonement" by Matthew Bryan was first published at on October 1st, 2014. All rights are reserved.