The Church Fathers on Incarnational Atonement

In this post, I want to provide some support for what I have been writing in my series on Reforming Calvinism, specifically related to the atonement, with reference to how J.N.D. Kelly summarizes some key points of patristic thinking on this crucial point of the gospel:

[Athanasius’] underlying thought is that the curse of sin, i.e. death, lay heavy on all mankind; it was a debt which had to be paid before restoration could begin. On the cross Christ, the representative man, accepted the penalty in His own body, and died. Thus He released us from the curse, procured salvation, and became our Lord Otsyand king. To describe this the traditional language came readily to Athanasius’s pen. Christ’s death, he wrote, was a sacrifice which He offered to the Father on our behalf. It was ‘the ransom (λύτρον) for men’s sins’; and Christ not only heals us, but bears the heavy burden of our weaknesses and sins. On the surface the doctrine is one of substitution, but what Athanasius was seeking to bring out was not so much that one victim was substituted for another, as that ‘the death of all was accomplished in the Lord’s body’. In other words, because of the union between His flesh and ours, His death and victory were in effect ours. Just as through our kinship with the first Adam we inherit death, so by our kinship with ‘the man from heaven’ we conquer death and inherit life.

Next to Athanasius the chief exponent of [this] theory in the fourth century was Gregory of Nyssa. Here and there, admittedly, hints of it appear in other writers. Basil, for example, emphasizes that if the Lord had possessed a nature different from ours, ‘we who were dead in Adam should never have been restored in Christ … that which was broken would never have been mended, that which was estranged from God by the serpent’s wiles would never have been brought back to Him’. Through becoming incarnate, writes Gregory Nazianzen, ‘He takes me wholly, with all my infirmities, to Himself, so that as man He may destroy what is evil, as fire destroys wax or the sun’s rays the vapours of the earth, and so that as a result of this conjunction I may participate in His blessings’. John Chrysostom explains that it is precisely because the Word has become flesh and the Master has assumed the form of a servant that men have been made sons of God. But their most characteristic ideas move, as we shall see, in a different orbit.

For Gregory of Nyssa, however, the incarnation, culminating in the resurrection, is the sovereign means for restoring man to his primitive state. His theory is that the effect of the Fall has been the fragmentation of human nature, body and soul being separated by death. By becoming man, and by dying and rising again in the human nature which He assumed, Christ has for ever reunited the separated fragments. Thus, just as death entered the world by one man, so by one man’s resurrection the principle of life has been given back to us. His argument, we observe, depends on the classic antithesis between the first and second Adams… The whole of human nature, he claims, constitutes as it were a single living being (καθάπερ τινὸς ὄντος ζῴου πάσης τῆς φύσεως), so that the experience of a part becomes the experience of the whole. In this way all mankind is seen to share in what Christ achieves by His resurrection.

Thus the Lord ‘conjoined Himself with our nature in order that by its conjunction with the Godhead it might become divine, being exempted from death and rescued from the adverse tyranny. For His triumphal return from death inaugurated the triumphal return of the human race to life immortal.’ Christ’s death, we notice, was integral to the scheme, and so Gregory had no difficulty in applying the Biblical language of sacrifice to it. Christ is the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, at once priest and victim. He is the paschal lamb Who offered Himself on our behalf, the great high-priest Who sacrificed His own body for the world’s sin. If the underlying idea in this is expiation, Is. 53:4 suggested that of substitution, and Gregory was able to speak of Christ making our sufferings His own and submitting to the stripes due to us.[1]

In reference to these church fathers, Kelly helpfully weaves together some significant threads about how they understood the saving power of Christ’s atonement as inextricably linked with his assumption of the human nature common to all people. What is striking about how these ancient theologians conceived the atonement is the realism of their view. Christ did not merely suffer the legal consequences of human sin, for he also exhausted the power of sin and death and restored humanity as the image of God in himself. Because incarnation and atonement are indissolubly bound up together, these patristic writers understood Christ’s atoning work as having taken place not only legally but also ontologically within his incarnate person for all people. Christ did not merely make redemption possible for all, but he actually accomplished it to the uttermost in himself. The way in which we benefit from this work is, as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen state, through ‘kinship’ with Christ that recapitulates and overcomes our kinship with Adam, a personal union with Christ by the Spirit by which we ‘participate in his blessings’.

These strands of patristic theology give firm orthodox footing to Evangelical Calvinism’s emphasis on the ‘incarnational’ and ‘ontological’ aspects of the atonement. Although some may object to this view as downplaying the necessity of the cross, such concern is misplaced, not only because it fails to fully account for the integrative theo-logic with which the fathers worked, but also because it flattens out the depth and richness of the biblical testimony to Christ’s person and work. As John Piper helpfully acknowledges in relation to Athanasius:

We may admit that Athanasius did not see the fullness of what Christ achieved on the cross in terms of law and guilt and justification. But what he saw we may be blind to. The implications of the incarnation are vast, and one reads Athanasius with the sense that we are paupers in our perception of what he saw.[2]

Indeed. While we in the Reformed tradition may read patristic theologians and think, like Piper, that they did not emphasize the salvific necessity of the cross enough, I would suggest that this may perhaps be due in part to the fact that we do not emphasize the salvific necessity of the incarnation enough. Maybe it is because we really do not understand the salvific necessity of the incarnation much at all! Or maybe it stems from our tendency to divide Christ’s work from his person and thus conceive the atonement in purely in terms of a payment that Christ offered external to his person. Whatever may be the reasons, we should follow Piper’s advice and not reject the patristic doctrine of ‘incarnational atonement’ merely because it sounds strange or unfamiliar. May we admit, like Piper, that we are truly paupers in our perception of the implications of the incarnation, and let us seek, together with the communion of the saints including Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and John Chrysostom, to grow into greater maturity and fullness in our knowledge of Christ. The church fathers may have had their blind spots, but we do as well, and we would be wise to listen to their testimony.


[1] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.380-382.

[2] Piper, J., 2006. Contending for our All: Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ in the Lives of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen. Wheaton: Crossway, p.61.