My mistake in studying second century atonement doctrine
When I first became seriously interested in studying atonement doctrine, one of the places to which I directed study was the theology of the early post-biblical Church. I read through the surviving orthodox second century writings in an attempt to identify their view of atonement. Since people argue so much about how best to interpret the New Testament authors themselves, I felt that the second century writings could provide another vector of attack in determining what the first Christians believed.
So I read through the Christian literature of the second century, taking careful note of references to the Work of Christ, what Christ achieved, and any implications of how his death worked. I tried to be as open-minded as possible, trying to determine whether and to what extent they held Penal Substitution, Ransom, Christus Victor, or Recapitulation. From their words I attempted to try to understand what their logic of salvation was, what they saw Christ as having achieved and done. Thus I attempted to reconstruct clearly their system of atonement in a model that had clear logical steps.
This task largely failed.
About all I managed to gather from that exercise was that Irenaeus seemed to teach Recapitulation (along with much else that was incomprehensible) and that the rest of the writers defied models and reconstructions. Looking back on it, I see that this was one time in which evangelical views I had heard had biased me without my really realizing it. I had been asking the wrong questions, seeking an answer to the question of how Christ's death had worked. There were two problems there that caused this first effort to fail. My focus had been largely on the death of Christ, a focus not really shared by the second century Christians.
More importantly, my focus had been on how Christ's atonement had worked. I had been carefully looking for what are known as "objective" theories of atonement. (An objective theory is one that envisages a supernatural event of atonement happening at Christ's end, eg taking the sins of the world on himself, defeating the devil etc). In doing so I had read straight past all the "subjective" theories of the atonement without seeing them in the text (A subjective theory is where the thing of importance is Christ's influence on us: eg us being inspired to love God when we see Christ's love for us). An Objective theory atonement is something Christ "achieves" or "secures" or "works" or "finishes" instead of us. Our response then consists largely of trusting in his work. Whereas in Subjective theories Christ "inspires" or "influences" or "empowers" for the sake of us whose lives are changed as a result of hearing the message of Christ and acting on it. Thus to generalize, Objective models are completed cosmic transactions of atonement which can be laid out in as logical progressions as a series of true propositions about what happened, whereas Subjective models tend to be more subtle and "relational" - depending on human psychology and specific historical circumstances.
Of the major atonement models generally talked about today there is only really one subjective one - "Moral Exemplar" (Christus Victor can also be interpreted subjectively though). At the time I first looked at the writings of the second century I did not really seriously regard it as a model of atonement, since (1) the presentations I had heard of it sounded very stupid and definitely unbiblical (ie they boiled down to "Christ committed suicide to show his love for us, this inspires people to love him back"), and (2) it is not an objective model of atonement.
So my attempts to find an objective model of the atonement, especially one pertaining to Jesus' death, in the Christian writings of the second century ended in failure. There wasn't one. At the time, of course, I was rather confused because of this. Where was their doctrine of the atonement hiding? It took me more than a year to realize my mistake. Later, when I went looking for a subjective model of atonement, I found answers...