Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lack of books on the atonement views of the second-third century church

One of my main areas of interest is the doctrines of atonement and salvation in the early post-biblical church. For this reason I have a tendency to add to my Amazon wish list any book I come across that is about the theology of the early church.

Today I was reading through my wishlist, trying to work out what to buy and what not to buy. There were over a dozen of these books about the early church in my list, and with the help of Amazon's "search inside" feature and reader reviews I was able to get a pretty good idea of the contents of the vast majority of them. What I consistently found is this:

They talked about the writers of the period. They talked about these writer's doctrines of God, their doctines of scripture vs tradition, their doctrines of the sacraments... these books contained virtually nothing on the subjects of Salvation, Atonement, the Work of Christ, Final Judgment etc.

ARRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!! Why? Why? Why?

I would have thought that the basic idea of how a person is saved, and gains a positive final judgment is the one thing worth talking about. It's surely the one thing that matters above all else. Surely if you're going to outline someone's theology the first thing you'd explain is their conception of salvation, what it is, and how it's achieved... not their beliefs about tradition or their thoughts about the deity of Christ. Yet all these works seem to have taken the view that such things simply don't matter and omitted them entirely.

Am I the only one that thinks the atonement and eternal salvation are important? Of all the people who study the early Church writers am I the only one that cares what they thought about how humans can get to heaven and what Jesus achieved?

11 Comments:

Blogger Bryan L said...

I thought the early debates about the deity of Christ were deeply connected with salvation. After all, since the commonly held view was theosis, Jesus had to be divine for theosis to work. at least that's the view I get from reading Roger Olson's "The Story of Christian Theology". Have you heard anything else.

Blessings,
Bryan L

26/9/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

That's true for the fourth-seventh centuries. But prior to that, not really. I've got a couple of posts on the subject planned, so I'll save further explanation until then.

26/9/07  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Could the problem be that these second and third century writers didn't actually write much about the atonement, at least that has survived? It is hard for modern writers to write about their theology in this area if there is almost no material to go on.

26/9/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

Are you saying theosis as the view of salvation (or something similar) wasn't held as a common belief before the 4th century?

Blessings,
Bryan L

27/9/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Peter,
Yes I think that's partially true and part of the answer. I think this situation is worsened by modern western Christians not knowing what to look for - I will explain this in a post shortly. It is further worsened by the vast differences between the theology of these early writings compared to the modern church's.

Bryan,
Yes, theosis did not gain widespread acceptance until the fourth century when it was popularised by Athanasius and the Cappadocians, who were also particularly influencial in the first Christological councils. It is only present in about one fifth of Christian writers prior to the fourth century.

27/9/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Bryan,
I've just run across a comment on this subject in what I was reading today.

Harnack, History of Dogma, Vol 2, ch 1:
"But in yet another respect Irenaeus and Hippolytus denote an immense advance beyond the Apologists, which, paradoxically enough, results both from the progress of Christian Hellenism and from a deeper study of the Pauline theology, that is, emanates from the controversy with Gnosticism. In them a religious and realistic idea takes the place of the moralism of the Apologists, namely, the deifying of the human race through the incarnation of the Son of God. The apotheosis of mortal man through his acquisition of immortality (divine life) is the idea of salvation which was taught in the ancient mysteries. It is here adopted as a Christian one, supported by the Pauline theology (especially as contained in the Epistle to the Ephesians), and brought into the closest connection with the historical Christ, the Son of God and Son of man (filius dei et filius hominis). What the heathen faintly hoped for as a possibility was here announced as certain, and indeed as having already taken place. What a message! This conception was to become the central Christian idea of the future. A long time, however, elapsed before it made its way into the dogmatic system of the Church."

28/9/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

Thanks for the quote. That's a pretty old book. Do you have the complete set and if so do you just read through them?

You mention that it is only found in about 20% of the Christian writers. What then are the alternatives in that time for salvation and what percentages did they occupy? Only being in 20% of the writers isn't bad if the other 80 percent didn't write about their soteriology. So maybe you could help me see what the other Christian writers of that period believed about salvation.

Thanks,
Bryan L

28/9/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, Harnack's work is old, though I find that most modern patristics authors reference him approvingly. Harnack's works are online at CCEL, which is where I was reading this. http://www.ccel.org/h/harnack/?show=worksBy

I don't own any of Harnack's works myself, though I'd love sometime to get a the set of History of Dogma. I was judiciously skim-reading with assistance from the table of contents rather than reading it right through.

I'll post some posts on the early fathers' view of atonement doctrine shortly. Harnack alludes above to the "moralism" of the Apologists, which is basically your answer.

28/9/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Here's a comment by Harnack, defining what he means by "moralism":
1.3.3.2 "The moralistic view, in which eternal life is the wages and reward of a perfect moral life wrought out essentially by one’s own power, took the place of first importance at a very early period."

1/10/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

That's interesting but it still makes me wonder. If in the early church the defining view of salvation was some sort of moralism then what was the use of conversion? Could someone learn from Jesus and even follow his teaching but not become a Christian and remain a Jew or Pagan and still be "saved"? Did early Christians believe that those outside the church who lead very noble, moral lives were "saved"? It seems the likely answer would be no. They would see some sort importance in conversion to Christianity that would be necessary for salvation. They would see something happening to the person in conversion that was necessary for Salvation. So what was that important thing in conversion that was necessary for salvation? What was it about becoming a Christian that in combination with moralism lead to salvation? I think that is the missing part to what the early view of salvation was. I believe that moralism played a part but I can't see it playing the whole part. It seems that it would need some sort of foundation or jumping off point for it to affect salvation.

What do you think? Did they all just believe living a moral life was all that a person needed for salvation? I could see that the dominant view across all lines was moralism but I imagine that was always in combination with some other soteriological system like theosis or whatever. So maybe you can help me out with that or let me know if I'm just plain wrong on that. Thanks.

Blessings,
Bryan L

2/10/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Did early Christians believe that those outside the church who lead very noble, moral lives were "saved"?
The majority view appears to have been "yes" to this question, and the minority view "no". For example, Justin Martyr makes quite clear that he thinks that those outside the church can be saved. He even makes a point of redefining the word "Christian" to mean "good person" in his explanation of how the ancient Greek moral philosophers were "Christians" before Christ. Irenaeus probably holds the most restrictive view about the scope of salvation, and he's not very clear on that, with a few passages which imply less of a hope for non-Christians.

They would see something happening to the person in conversion that was necessary for Salvation.
Christian conversion during this period was accompanied by a long (a year plus) period of teaching of moral precepts with careful attention paid to the person's life. Only once this process was completed was the person accepted into the church. I think it is Tertullian who comments dryly that though people talk about how in baptism a person dies to their old life and adopts a new one that in reality it is the years of moral teaching that accompanies the baptism that really accomplishes this.

Could someone learn from Jesus and even follow his teaching but not become a Christian
I am not sure I understand this distinction. If a person follows Jesus' teachings aren't they by-definition a Christian?


Did they all just believe living a moral life was all that a person needed for salvation?
Yes. Their systematic atonement theology was pretty simple: A final judgment according to works, Christ as a teacher of righteousness, and free will. Christianity was about sanctification through which a positive final judgment could be achieved.
Harnack gets this spot-on so I'll quote him again:
2.4.3 "The essential content of revealed philosophy is viewed by the Apologists... as comprised in three doctrines. First, there is one spiritual and inexpressibly exalted God, who is Lord and Father of the world. Secondly, he requires a holy life. Thirdly, he will at last sit in judgment, and will reward the good with immortality and punish the wicked with death. The teaching concerning God, virtue, and eternal reward is traced to the prophets and Christ; but the bringing about of a virtuous life (of righteousness) has been necessarily left by God to men themselves; for God has created man free, and virtue can only be acquired by man’s own efforts. The prophets and Christ are therefore a source of righteousness in so far as they are teachers. But as God, that is, the divine Word (which we need not here discuss) has spoken in them, Christianity is to be defined as the Knowledge of God, mediated by the Deity himself, and as a virtuous walk in the longing after eternal and perfect life with God, as well as in the sure hope of this imperishable reward. By knowing what is true and doing what is good man becomes righteous and a partaker of the highest bliss."

I could see that the dominant view across all lines was moralism but I imagine that was always in combination with some other soteriological system like theosis or whatever.
No. There are some traces of theosis in some writers of this early period. And there are the some traces of Ransom-from-Satan in some writers too. Both those two theories are perfectly compatible with moralism since both are simply additional things that Christ achieved, and of the three only moralism is about passing the final judgment. Hence in the forth century and beyond most writers held moralism and one or both of those theories. But in most of the writings of the second and third century, "moralism" is the only system.

2/10/07  

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