The first thing to note in any study of the atonement in the early church is that there was no one monolithic view of the atonement. There are large themes that emerge, and some of these themes clearly dominant more than others and some even serve as controlling structures under and through which other aspects of the atonement are brought forward. The controlling element of some of the larger themes is important, because no aspect of the atonement can really be a stand-alone kind of thing, or played off of other themes – the controlling structures are what allow everything to come together in a coherent way. Briefly, then, some of the dominant notes of the atonement are:
Christus Victor - for my part, this is the most important element, for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the overall controlling structure and framework for the atonement as a whole. The victory of Christ over death and the powers in his death and resurrection is a very clearly found in both the Biblical and patristic witness – through his victory he sets free those who are held captive by death. Athanasius was the most important expounder of this view in the early church.
Healing - this theme highlights the ‘what happened to humanity’ part of the atonement. By Christ’s person, life, and work, the corruption and death in humanity is healed (this is tied closely to the hypostatic union, which I won’t go into here). There is a real, objective, ontological change wrought by God in the deepest part of humanity, where the sickness and corruption are healed by Christ’s overthrowing of death and corruption. Athanasius and Gregory Nazanien developed this theme greatly.
Recapitulation - developed in the early church primarily by Irenaeus, the motif of recapitulation has to do with the ‘re-creation’ of humanity, in which the history of humanity in Adam is ‘summed up’ and gone over again, succeeding where Adam failed (it may not be too far off the mark to think of Anselm as elaborating on this theme), and in virtue of that undoing the primal Fall. Irenaeus is most associated with this viewpoint.
Substitution – Christ died in our place being the key thing here. This is also seen in the early church very clearly very early on, though the theme was far from modern formulations of penal substitution. Christ died in our place, as a ransom and a sacrifice – this is a motif that is quite clear in the Biblical and patristic witness and may have the clearest Old Testament parallels – one can hardly open the Old Testament without finding stories of sacrifices.
The extent to which these themes are interwoven should be somewhat easy to see – Christ recapitulates Adam and humanity and succeeds where Adam had failed in his life, and by doing so effects a real healing of human nature. In his death and resurrection he defeats death, and having healed human nature of its sickness of death, opens salvation to all.
What I’m thinking of doing next is working a bit more on how these themes overlap and provide controlling structures for how we think of the atonement.