Are there two unreconciled theories of the atonement in Athanasius?
Do the writings of Athanasius contain two theories of the atonement - a ‘physical’ theory which teaches that, through Christ’s assumption of humanity, mankind is clothed in the incorruption and indestructibility that is inherent in Christ the Word and a ‘legal’ theory which maintains that the heart of the Gospel lies in Christ’s payment of the debt owed to God by humanity?
Seen in isolation from each other, as distinct theories, the terms, ‘physical’ and ‘legal’ can be very misleading.
In its modern sense, ‘physical’ is regarded as the direct opposite of ’spiritual’. With reference to the atonement, ‘physical’ suggests an automatic or mechanical understanding of the communication of the benefits of Christ’s atonement to humanity. The question must be raised whether the ‘physical’ theory is capable of giving adequate expression to the moral character of human beings.
The ‘legal’ approach suggests the idea of a legal framework, existing outside of God, to which God is obliged to conform. As well as posing a threat to the freedom of God, this legal approach tends to draw attention away from the divine love. We see this in connection with both the divine character and the divine purpose. There is the suggestion of a loving Son wringing forgiveness from a stern and unloving Father. There is the tendency to focus on acquittal, the re-establishment of the formal status - not guilty - rather than reconciliation, the restoration of fellowship with God.
Is it fair to use the terms ‘physical’ and ‘legal’ in describing Athanasius’ view of the atonement? It has been suggested that Athanasius sometimes gives the impression that ‘by the mere bringing into physical contact in Christ of the divine and the human our salvation was effected’ (Riviere, The Doctrine of the Atonement: A Historical Study, p.174).
This impression is based on such statements as these. ‘he (the Word) has … taken up his abode in one body … henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked’ (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, Section 9).‘Human nature and the divine are linked together in Christ, and thereby our salvation is established’ (Against the Arians, 2, 70. ‘Because the Word of God, the eternal Son of the Father, clothed with flesh and became man, we are delivered’ (Against the Arians, 2, 60).
Can the argument that Athanasius holds to a ‘physical’ theory of the atonement be sustained? A closer examination of Athanasius’ writings indicates that we would be misrepresenting him if we were to describe him as an advocate of a ‘physical’ theory of atonement. Athanasius’ understanding of ‘physical’, is quite different from the modern idea. He does not contrast the ‘physical’ and the ’spiritual’. He uses the Greek word, ‘physis’, from which ‘physical’ is derived, to mean ‘belonging to man’s nature’. He sees the atonement as related not to an element in human nature - the physical - but to the entirety of our humanity.
While it may be argued that Athanasius might have been expected to have said more about the personal appropriation of the salvation provided for humanity through Christ’s atonement, it should be observed that he speaks of the atonement in connection with those “who believe in Christ” (De Incarnatione, Section 21). He stresses the “need of a good life and a pure soul”, emphasizing that the heavenly reward is laid up “for the saints” (De Incarnatione, Conclusion).
The suggestion that Athanasius offers us a ‘legal’ theory of the atonement also needs to be treated with great caution. He does use ‘legal’ language. He speaks of our “debt” - “all men were due to die”. He speaks of the death of Christ as the offering of “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” (De Incarnatione, Section 20). By using this kind of language, he does not intend to detach the atonement from its source in the love of God: “He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men” (De Incarnatione, Section 1).
In his treatment of the necessity of the atonement, Athanasius thinks in terms of a “divine dilemma”.
“It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back on His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back into non-existence through corruption” (De Incarnatione, Section 6).
In both sides of this “divine dilemma”, the emphasis is on God’s faithfulness. God will not go back on his holy Word concerning the consequences of sin. He will not allow His purpose of love to be thwarted. Emphasizing both the priority of God’s love and the seriousness of our sin, Athanasius suggests a helpful way of thinking about the love and justice of God. By connecting both to God’s faithfulness, he raises our thoughts above the idea that the love and wrath of God should be seen as conflicting characteristics which battle against each other, with love winning the day.
It would be unfair to charge Athanasius with failing to reconcile two theories of the atonement. He did not set out to build a theory of the atonement, relating everything to one central theme. He did not describe two different theories of the atonement with a view to assessing their relative merits.
His purpose was to offer “a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of the Godhead to us” (De Incarnatione, Section 56).
He seeks to do this by viewing the atonement from different angles:
“You must not be surprised if we repeat ourselves in dealing with this subject. We are speaking of the good pleasure of God and of the things which He in His loving wisdom thought fit to do, and it is better to put the same thing in several ways than to run the risk of leaving something out” (De Incarnatione, Section 20).
There are different strands to Athanasius’ exposition of the atonement. We should be grateful to him for the variety of light he brings to our understanding of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.