Note on the Atonement in the ante-Nicene Fathers

The consensus of the ante-Nicene fathers on the nature of the atonement is firmly Christus Victor – actually, I’m hardly able to find any kind of dissenting viewpoint at all. Virtually every father saw the atonement as the triumph of Christ over the powers – while it’s not as developed as it would come to be, I think it’s safe to say that the early church’s view of the atonement was Christus Victor, and almost nothing else.

8 thoughts on “Note on the Atonement in the ante-Nicene Fathers

  1. Kevin Davis May 10, 2014 / 3:10 pm

    Is this from your own readings of the primary texts or a survey/guidebook? Just curious. In my studies on the early fathers’ view of baptism, reconciliation as the victory of Christ over evil is assumed throughout and communicated efficaciously by the sacrament. So, that would agree with your assessment.


      • Kevin Davis May 10, 2014 / 7:23 pm

        Ah, yes, I’ve used that book before in a library and found it very helpful.


        • whitefrozen May 10, 2014 / 8:45 pm

          It’s a really handy resource. The only thing I don’t like is that the references for each quote are from the giant ‘Ante-Nicene Fathers’ work (by Schaff, I think) – it basically assumes that you have that work on your shelf, so it makes it a bit harder to reference the quotes in the primary texts themselves.


  2. Cal May 14, 2014 / 10:12 am

    That’s not entirely accurate. Christus Victor is usually paired up as an alternative to Substitutionary Atonement, where the blood of Jesus to wash away sins is neglected to His ability to kill Death with His death. Yet someone like Melito of Sardis, in his Peri Pascha, kept all together. An excerpt:

    “Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ.

    Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand.”

    Or even the Epistle to Diognetus that will speak thusly:

    “By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!”

    My beef with many corners of Evangelicalism is that they narrow the focus to Penal Substitution, while being biblical, is not the only lens and not the totality.

    The difference between a good and bad understanding of Atonement is whether Substitution is proclaimed. This could be in the blood making pure and guiltless, or in Christ’s standing in to destroy Death and the Devil. Any atonement that throws the weight of the cosmos back upon our shoulders, via a Pelagius or Abelard/Erasmus, is what fails to understand the testimony of the Apostles.

    The patristics many times understood the precious, and multi-faceted, nature of such great a jewel. It makes for better reading and more gasping in awe. Even in clunky English, they can set your head and heart spinning!



    • whitefrozen May 14, 2014 / 11:30 am

      A couple of quick comments:

      Substitionary atonement is not the same as penal substitution – no one disputes that Christ died in our place as a ransom, sacrifice and substitute. Penal substitution is a different animal entirely. So in that sense, CV and SA are not exlcusive – but there is an order, an inner logic, by which CV remains the dominant overarching theme under and through which the other themes are viewed.


      • Cal May 16, 2014 / 10:42 am

        My point was exactly that: SA and CV are not mutually exclusive, but that both CV and PSA find themselves beneath SA, which is what unites the Patristics. Whether its ransoming people from the power of the devil, curing them with immortality from the sickness of death, or the Blood of the Lamb washing men clean and protecting them from the angel of death. It’s all substitution.

        Again, there is more of a diversity than the label of CV will allow, with the greater unity being found in Substitution.


        • whitefrozen May 18, 2014 / 8:07 am

          I’m not so sure. I don’t think CV finds itself beneath SA – CV can be conceived without having a substitutionary element to it.


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