St Athanasius: Substitutionary Atonement and the Dilemma of Death

“For Athanasius,” writes Khaled Anatolios, “the history of humanity since the fall of Adam is the story of an accumulating momentum of decline which was bound to lead to humanity’s utter destruction. Because sin inverts the divinely ordained anthropological dialectic whereby humanity is created from nothing (physis) and constituted by participation in divine power (charis), and replaces it with the opposing momentum of humanity’s decline from divine participation into the corruption of nothingness, it would not be an exaggeration to say that, within the Athanasian framework, sin is quite literally a process of ‘de-creation'” (Athanasius, p. 48). Humanity’s de-creation, manifested so clearly in our terrible spiraling descent into violence, murder, exploitation, oppression, depravity, and idolatry, poses a dilemma for the Almighty Creator: what to do with these bearers of the imago dei who are hell-bent on their destruction and the destruction of the world. Athanasius examines this dilemma under two inter-related aspects—death and ignorance of God. In this article we will focus on the dilemma of death and corruption, and then turn to the loss of the deifying knowledge of God in a subsequent article.

As we saw in our discussion of the absurdity of sin, St Athanasius adduces the Lord’s command to Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on penalty of death. He interprets the penalty as not merely the event of dying but as an abiding “in the corruption of death.” Expelled from paradise, humanity now lives under the doom of mortality. Nor can God simply lift this doom by fiat, suggests Athanasius. For him to do so would prove God to be a liar. “For God would not be true,” states Athanasius, “if, after saying that we would die, the human being did not die” (Inc. 6).

Athanasius’s argument here may seem legalistic, but he is working within the biblical narrative, and within that narrative the Creator cannot simply unsay what he has declared. God is after all the One who creates by speaking his Word, and he is faithful to his Word and to the covenantal history of his Word with the people of Israel. The veracity and fidelity of God is at stake. Nor should we think of the law of death as somehow external to the postlapsarian human condition, as something imposed from the outside. The law of death expresses what in fact is the case, namely, the plunge into nothingness that man has chosen. Having severed the life-renewing union with God, there can be only death.

Yet it would also be improper, declares Athanasius, for God to abandon humanity to its doom:

On the other hand, it was improper that what had once been made rational and partakers of his Word should perish, and once again return to non-being through corruption. It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings. And it was supremely improper that the workmanship of God in human beings should disappear either through their own negligence or through the deceit of the demons. Therefore, since the rational creatures were being corrupted and such works were perishing, what should God, being good, do? Permit the corruption prevailing against them and death to seize them? What need was there for their coming into being at the beginning? It was proper not to have come into being rather than to have come into being to be neglected and destroyed. The weakness, rather than the goodness, of God is made known by neglect, if, after creating, he abandoned his own work to be corrupted, rather than if he had not created the human being in the beginning. For not making him, there would have been no one considering the weakness, but once he made him and created him out of nothing, it was most absurd that his works should be destroyed, and especially before the sight of the maker. It was therefore right not to permit human beings to be carried away by corruption, because this would be improper to and unworthy of the goodness of God. (Inc. 6)

This is a powerful argument. The Alexandrian saint does not hesitate to say that the goodness of God virtually demands that God should and must act to save humanity. Once having created humanity by grace, God is now committed. Not to intervene to save man would be equivalent to God denying who he is. How can Athanasius speak so boldly? Because he is interpreting the history of salvation from the cross of Calvary. In the incarnate Christ the character of the Creator has been perfectly disclosed; the infinite love and mercy of the Holy Trinity has been made known. Athanasius is thus speaking from the depths of his paschal faith. And so he brazenly announces that abandonment of humanity by God would have been unworthy of God. Would St Augustine ever had said such a thing? What about Luther or Calvin?

Athanasius’s argument then leads him to ask the question, Would repentance have been sufficient for the reconciliation of God and man? If Adam or his children had turned back to God in contrition and faith, could not have God simply forgiven them and restored them to paradise? Athanasius apparently thinks that this might at one time have been a theoretical possibility (see Contra Gentiles 30-34). Despite the fall humanity still bears the image of the Word and thus still retains free will. Yet in reality repentance by itself could not have saved mankind:

What then had to happen in this case or what should God do? Demand repentance from human beings for their transgressions? One might say that this is worthy of God, claiming that just as they were set towards corruption by the transgression, so by repentance they might again be set towards incorruptibility. But repentance would neither have preserved the consistency of God, for he again would not have remained true if human beings were not held fast by death, nor does repentance recall human beings from what is natural, but merely halts sins. If then there were only offence and not the consequence of corruption, repentance would have been fine. But if, once the transgression had taken off, human beings were now held fast in natural corruption and were deprived of the grace of being in the image, what else needed to happen? (Inc. 7)

Repentance alone might have stopped sins—after all, we have examples of holy men and women in the history of Old Testament Israel—but it could not have rectified man’s fundamental problem, the death that clings to our very being. As my good friend Fr Stephen Freeman likes to say, “The problem of sin is not a legal issue, but an ontological issue (a matter of being and true existence).” A more radical solution is demanded. Having lost the gift of immortality and communion with God, humanity cannot, by any effort or act, deliver itself from the bondage to nothingness nor heal the deep wounds of the soul. Only the divine Word himself can restore the grace of eternal life:

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he has filled all things in every place. But now he comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation. For seeing the rational race perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption, and seeing also the threat of the transgression giving firm hold to the corruption which was upon us, and that it was absurd for the law to be dissolved before being fulfilled, and seeing the impropriety in what had happened, that the very things of which he himself was the Creator were disappearing, and seeing the excessive wickedness of human beings, that they gradually increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves, and seeing the liability of all human beings to death—having mercy upon our race, and having pity upon our weakness, and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death, lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father himself for human beings should be in vain, he takes for himself a body and that not foreign to our own. For he did not wish simply to be in a body, nor did he wish merely to appear, for if he had wished only to appear he could have made his divine manifestation through some other better means. But he takes that which is ours, and that not simply, but from a spotless and stainless virgin, ignorant of man, pure and unmixed from intercourse with men. Although being himself powerful and the creator of the universe, he prepared for himself in the Virgin the body as a temple, and made it his own, as an instrument, making himself known and dwelling in it. And thus, taking from ours that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings, so that, on the one hand, with all dying in him the law concerning corruption in human beings might be undone (its power being fully expended in the lordly body and no longer having any ground against similar human beings), and, on the other hand, that as human beings had turned towards corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from the fire.

For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death, in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection. Whence, by offering to death the body he had taken to himself, as an offering holy and free of all spot, he immediately abolished death from all like him, by the offering of a like. For being above all, the Word of God consequently, by offering his own temple and his bodily instrument as a substitute for all, fulfilled in death that which was required; and, being with all through the like [body], the incorruptible Son of God consequently clothed all with incorruptibility in the promise concerning the resurrection. And now the very corruption of death no longer holds ground against human beings because of the indwelling Word, in them through the one body. (Inc. 8-9)

This is a very rich and complex passage, which deserves many re-readings and to which we will no doubt be returning. By his crucifixion Christ fulfills the law of death on our behalf; but more importantly, by incarnation, death, and resurrection he also heals our human nature of its natural corruption and establishes it on a new foundation within the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. In the words of Thomas F. Torrance:

By taking our frail, contingent nature upon himself who is the one source and origin of all creaturely being, he transferred our origin into himself, in order to secure our being from final dissolution into nothingness, but at the same time he took upon himself our alienated and corrupt nature, including the curse of sin, in order to redeem us and renew our being in himself. That is to say, Christian theology recognised that the contingence of creation was corrupted by an inherent being-destroying (meonic) tendency that had to be overcome if the creation were to be saved and directed toward the end for which it had been designed by its Creator. However, by transferring our contingent existence into himself, in whom … divine and human, uncreated and created, realities and natures are indissolubly united, Jesus Christ has secured its origin and end in his own eternal being. (Trinitarian Faith, p. 102)

God’s solution to the plight of death is nothing less than the re-creation of humanity within the divine Word. In Christ paradise has been restored. The way to the tree of life is no longer barred by a flaming sword. The sword has become the cross. This is the theology of substitutionary atonement advanced by St Athanasius the Apostolic. Utterly absent is any notion of propitiating a wrathful deity or of satisfying the demands of justice. There is only the loving Father who unites himself to humanity through his Son and thereby accomplishes the salvation of the world.

(Go to “The Death of Death”)

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12 Responses to St Athanasius: Substitutionary Atonement and the Dilemma of Death

  1. Fr. Aidan,
    Love the article as usual. 🙂

    Because sin inverts the divinely ordained anthropological dialectic whereby humanity is created from nothing (physis) and constituted by participation in divine power (charis), and replaces it with the opposing momentum of humanity’s decline from divine participation into the corruption of nothingness, it would not be an exaggeration to say that, within the Athanasian framework, sin is quite literally a process of ‘de-creation’” (Athanasius, p. 48).

    Did Khaled Anatolios actually use “physis” in his text? I thought “physis” meant nature? If he did use this word in relation to nothingness can you explain this sentence & paragraph further as I have missed something? Since I’m asking questions…what is the difference between “physis” & “ousia”? I know that “ousia” is used in reference to God’s essence or nature.

    Thanks, Rhonda

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Rhonda, I agree that Anatolios’s placement of physis immediately after “nothing” is a bit confusing. I think the point he is making is that man, by nature, is mortal and thus tends toward nothingness. Check out the other Anatolios citations in the previous articles clarification, and let me know what you think.

      Consider this sentence by Athanasius: “For the human being is by nature mortal, having come into being from nothing” (Inc. 4).

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  2. Thanks Al for this post, and putting some perspective on Athanasius’ theology. I wonder if in your second post, you can talk about what it means to believe in substitutionary atonement, from Athanasius’ point of view, and the current definition today.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for the suggestion. I will be discussing Athanasius’s understanding of incarnation and atonement in future postings. I probably, however, will not attempt to address contemporary evangelical construals of penal substitution. While there was a time many years ago when I had some acquaintance with evangelical literature (think J. I. Packer and John Stott), I’m just too far away from it now to offer anything insightful. Fr Stephen Freeman is much better on this issue of forensic atonement than I ever could be. During my active ministry I did on occasion preach the cross along Barthian lines, but that is different than what one encounters in the typical evangelical church. And it’s been years now since I read any Barth. St Isaac the Syrian speaks more powerfully to my heart nowadays than Barth. Fortunately, I’ve been able to hold onto Torrance, precisely because he was so deeply informed by St Athanasius and the Eastern tradition. The Reformed tradition, though, has become alien to my spiritual experience and my reading of the Scriptures.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Rod, I’ve been mulling over your suggestion. I don’t know if this is what you had in mind, but I have decided to take a short break from my Athanasius series and to read an essay by John Zizioulas, “‘Created’ and ‘Uncreated’: The Existential Significance of Chalcedonian Christology.” I’ll post a blog-piece on this essay later on in the week. Do let me know what you think of it.

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      • FYI to all: This essay can be found as Chapter 7 in Met. Zizioulas book Communion & Otherness pp 250-269. Warning: Ziz is not your average light & easy read (I own 5 of his works). Be prepared to think…to think deeply…& to think intensely!

        A side question for Fr. Aiden: Have you read anything by Fr. Nikolaos Loudovikos who was student of Zizioulas? I own but have not yet read his work A Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus the Confessor’s Eschatological Ontology of Being as Dialogical Reciprocity. An excerpt from the back cover states:

        …he endeavours most of all to give greater consistency to the idea of the person, which is seriously impaired, in his view, in the “communional” personalism & ecclessiology of Yannaras & Zizioulas by the ontology of community.

        I love Yannaris & Zizioulas so any book that includes a critique of their works draws out my checkbook faster than a wild west gunslinger 😉

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        All great theologians–and I consider Zizioulas to be a great theologian–generate critique. I have read Loudovikos’s essay “Person Instead of Grace and Dictated Otherness.” Much of Zizioulas’s philosophy of personhood is way over my head, which means that it’s difficult for me to assess Loudovikos’s critique; but I keep truckin’ along. I spent the afternoon reading Z’s essay on uncreated and created–interesting stuff!

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      • Excellent, I look forward to your response.

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  3. ephremb says:

    I enjoyed the presentation, and largely agree with your thrust, but I’m not sure that “Utterly absent is any notion of…satisfying the demands of justice,” can be maintained in the face of the entire Athanasian corpus. For example: “But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer 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. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.” (St. Athanasios the Great, De Incarnatione, 20)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy, Ephrem, and thank you for your comment. With your permission, I will attempt to address your concern in my next blog article.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ephrem, I just posted a follow-up article, “The Death of Death in the Death of God,” expanding upon my interpretation of Athanasius’s soteriology as it pertains to the atoning death of Christ. Let me know what you think.

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