Friday, November 24, 2006

The "Ransom Theory" of Atonement in the Fathers: Development in the Doctrine of the Work of Christ

This matter seems to come up a lot in Protestant (especially anti-Catholic) polemics (from people who are a bit more "historically sophisticated"). I was asked a question on a Protestant list, and did some research which yielded fascinating results.

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ON THE "RANSOM VIEW" -- The Fathers were "virtually unanimous" on this point as well. Your "reversal vs. development" idea is nothing more than loaded terminology, not near as obvious as your insistence suggests. I would say that moving from "ransom to Satan" to "ransom to God" is just as earth-shaking a change in theology as moving from "ever-virgin" to "had more kids."

You are right. I spoke wrongly on this, and in retrospect, I think I was confusing justification and grace issues with redemption and atonement matters, which is more properly the category of this "ransom" business (i.e., the work of Christ and exactly how it was achieved). So let me give it another attempt. I have done some research today which I believe resolves any difficulties you may claim this causes for the Catholic Church. And I'm very satisfied (no pun intended) about the results because this is a theme which is mentioned a lot, as if it is a knockout punch against the Catholic Church.

I will cite a Catholic theologian, followed by three reputable Protestant scholars (historians) who specialize in the development of doctrine and history of Christian doctrine.

I. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1977 (orig. 1952 in German), pp. 186-187:

    Inadequate Patristic Theories of the Redemption

    . . . Origen (+ 254) changed the Pauline teaching of man's ransom from the dominion of the devil to an unbiblical ransom-theory. He held that the devil by Adam's sin, had acquired a formal dominion over mankind. In order to liberate mankind from this tyranny Christ gave his life to the devil as ransom price. But the devil was deceived, as he was not able to maintain for long his dominion of death over Christ. Others explained that the devil lost his dominion over mankind by unjustly trying to extend this right to Christ also. Despite the fact that this error was widespread, Patristic teaching held firmly to the biblical teaching of man's reconciliation with God through Christ's death on the Cross. The notion of a dominion of the devil over fallen mankind was energetically refuted by St. Anselm of Canterbury . . .

    Reality of Christ's Vicarious Atonement

    Holy Writ contains the teaching of the vicarious atonement, not indeed explicitly but by implication [cites Is 53:4 ff., Mt 20:28, Jn 10:15, 2 Cor 5:21, Gal 3:13, Rom 3:25 ff., 1 Pet 2:24, 3:18] . . .

    From the very beginning the Fathers were familiar with the idea of Christ's vicarious atonement. The Apostles' disciple, St. Clement of Rome, comments: 'For the sake of the love which He had for us Our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the will of the Father has given His blood for us, His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls' (Cor 49:6). Cf. Letter to Diognetus, 9:2.

    While the Fathers, in the explanation of Christ's work of sanctification, proceed more from the contemplation of the consequences of the Redemption, and therefore stress the negative side of the Redemption, namely, the ransoming from the slavery of sin and of the devil, St. Anselm proceeds from the contemplation of the guilt of sin. This, as an insult offered to God, is infinite, and therefore demands an infinite expiation. Such expiation, however, can be achieved by a Divine Person only. To be capable of thus representing mankind, this person must be, at the same time, man and God.

II. Philip Schaff (no friend at all of Catholic theology), History of the Christian Church, vol. II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (100-325), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rep. 1970, orig. 1910, ch. 12, §153, "Redemption," pp. 584-588:
    The apostolic scripture, in the fulness of their inspiration, everywhere bear witness of this salvation wrought through Christ, as a living fact of experience. But it required time for the profound ideas of a Paul and a John to come up clearly to the view of the church; indeed, to this day they remain unfathomed. Here again experience anticipated theology. The church lived from the first on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. the cross ruled all Christian thought and conduct, and fed the spirit of martyrdom. But the primitive church teachers lived more in the thankful enjoyment of redemption than in logical reflection upon it. We perceive in their exhibitions of this blessed mystery the language rather of enthusiastic feeling than of careful definition and acute analysis.

    Moreover, this doctrine was never, like Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity, a subject of special controversy within the ancient church. The ecumenical symbols touch it only in general terms. The Apostles' Creed presents it in the article on the forgiveness of sins on the ground of the divine-human life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Nicene Creed says, a little more definitely, that Christ became man for our salvation, and died for us, and rose again.

    Nevertheless, all the essential elements of the later church doctrine of redemption may be found, either expressed or implied, before the close of the second century. The negative part of the doctrine, the subjection of the devil, the prince of the kingdom of sin and death, was naturally most dwelt on in the patristic period, on account of the existing conflict of Christanity with heathenism, which was regarded as wholly ruled by Satan and demons. Even in the New Testament, particularly in Col 2:15, Heb 2:14, and 1 John 3:8, the victory over the devil is made an integral part of the work of Christ. But this view was carried out in the early church in a very peculiar and, to some extent, mythical way; and in this form continued current, until the satisfaction theory of Anselm gave a new turn to the development of the dogma . . .

    In Justin Martyr appear traces of the doctrine of satisfaction, though in very indefinite terms . . . "Irenæus [d. 202] is the first of all church teachers to give a careful analysis of the work of redemption, and his view is by far the deepest and soundest we find in the first three centuries . . .

    Origen differs from Irenæus in considering man, in consequence of sin, the lawful property of Satan, and in representing the victory over Satan as an outwitting of the enemy, who had no claim to the sinless soul of Jesus, and therefore could not keep it in death. The ransom was paid, not to God, but to Satan, who thereby lost his right to man. Here Origen touches on mythical Gnosticism . . .

    Athanasius, in his early youth, at the beginning of the next period, wrote the first systematic treatise on redemption and answer to the question 'Cur Deus homo?' ['why did God become man?'] But it was left for the Latin church, after the epoch-making treatise of Anselm, to develop this important doctrine in its various aspects.

III. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 141-142,148:
    The gospel was a message of salvation; on this all Christian teachers agreed. But they did not agree about the meaning of the salvation proclaimed by this message.

    Nor did that meaning become, in the strict sense, a dogma of the church . . . neither [the Nicene Creed] nor later dogmas specified in any detail just how the salvation which was the purpose of Christ's coming was related to these events in his earthly and heavenly states. While the relation of Jesus Christ to God and the relation of the human and the divine within his person became the subject for doctrinal controversy and dogmatic definition, the saving work of Christ remained undefined. Yet it was certainly a major constituent of Christian doctrine - if by doctrine we mean that the church believes, teaches, and confesses, not only in its polemics and creeds, but also in its liturgy and exegesis.

    The very absence of explicit dogmatic and extensive polemical treatment of the meaning of salvation makes it necessary as well as hazardous to find some other scheme for organizing the doctrinal material on this subject . . .

    . . . the organization of the material around the three themes of the life and teachings, the sufferings and death, and the resurrection and exaltation of Christ would appear to be legitimate. Such a schema for doctrines of salvation in the second, third, and fourth centuries must not be taken to imply that either the life or the death or the resurrection of Christ was ever seen as the one saving event in utter isolation from the whole of the biblical picture . . .

    Because of the prominence of demonology in Christian piety and theology, the Christian thinkers who dealt with the idea of ransom usually took it to be a ransom paid to the devil to set man free. Irenæus does not seem to have had this conception in mind in his exposition of the idea of the ransom, but Origen clearly did . . . Only in the fourth century, in the thought of such men as Gregory Nazianzus, did this notion of a ransom paid to the devil yield to futher theological reflection.

IV. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper Collins, rev. ed., 1978, chapter XIV: "Christ's Saving Work," pp. 375-377,388,391-392:
    [With regard to] the contemporary theology of the Trinity and the Incarnation . . . controversy forced fairly exact definition on the Church, whereas the redemption did not become a battle-ground for rival schools until the twelfth century, when Anselm's Cur deus homo (c.1097) focussed attention on it . . .

    First, there was the so-called 'physical' or 'mystical' theory (we have already come across it in Irenæus) which linked the redemption with the incarnation. According to this, human nature was sanctified, transformed and elevated by the very act of Christ's becoming man . . .

    Secondly, there was the explanation of the redemption in terms of a ransom offered to, or a forfeit imposed on, the Devil . . . Thirdly, there was the theory, often designated 'realist', which directed attention to the Saviour's sufferings . . .

    Faced with this diversity, scholars have often despaired of discovering any single unifying thought in the patristic teaching about the redemption. These various theories, however, despite appearances, should not be regarded as in fact mutually incompatible. They were all of them attempts to elucidate the same great truth from different angles; their superficial divergences are often due to the different Biblical images from which they started, and there is no logical reason why, carefully stated, they should not be regarded as complementary . . .

    The essential truth concealed behind the popular, often crudely expressed imagery of a deal with Satan was a wholly Scriptural one (cf. Acts 26:18) that fallen man lies in the Devil's power and salvation necessarily includes rescue from it.

    There is a further point, however, which is not always accorded the attention it deserves. Running through almost all the patristic attempts to explain the redemption there is one grand theme which, we suggest, provides the clue to the fathers' understanding of the work of Christ. This is none other than the ancient idea of recapitualtion which Irenæus derived from St. Paul, and which envisages Christ as the representative of the entire race. Just as all men were somehow present in Adam, so they are, or can be, present in the second Adam, the man from heaven. Just as they were involved in the former's sin, with all its apalling consequences, so they can participate in the latter's death and ultimate triumph over sin, the forces of evil and death itself. Because, very God as He is, He has identified Himself with the human race, Christ has been able to act on its behalf and in its stead; and the victory He has obtained is the victory of all who belong to Him.

    All the fathers, of whatever school, reproduce this motif. The physical theory, it is clear, is an elaboration of it . . . The various forms of the sacrificial theory frankly presuppose it, using it to explain how Christ can act for us in the ways of substitution and reconciliation. The theory of the Devil's rights might seem to move on a rather different plane, but it too assumes that, as the representative man, Christ is a fitting exchange for mankind held in the Devil's grasp . . .

    Hilary [of Poitiers; + 367] must be regarded as one of the pioneers of the theology of satisfaction . . . "[Augustine's] teaching was more in line with that of Chysostom, Hilary and Ambrosiaster, and may be summarized as follows (cf. de trin. 13,16-19): (a) The Devil owned no rights, in the strict sense, over mankind; what happened was that, when men sinned, they passed inevitably into his power, and God permitted rather than enjoined this. (b) No ransom as such was therefore due to Satan, but on the contrary, when the remission of sins was procured by Christ's sacrifice, God's favour was restored and the human race might well have been freed. (c) God preferred, however, as a course more consonant with His justice, that the Devil should not be deprived of his dominion by force, but as the penalty for abusing his position. (d) Hence Christ's passion, the primary object of which was of course quite different, placed the Son of God in Satan's hands, and when the latter overreached himself by seizing the divine prey, with the arrogance and greed which were characteristic of him, he was justly constrained, as a penalty, to deliver up mankind.

    There have been scholars who have fastened upon man's release in this way from the Devil as the pivot of Augustine's soteriology. But such a thesis cannot be sustained. Augustine clearly represents our release as consequent upon and as presupposing our reconciliation; the Devil is conquered precisely because God has received satisfaction and has bestowed pardon (cf. de civ. dei 10,22; de trin. 4,17). This brings us to what is in fact his central thought, viz. that the essence of the redemption lies in the expiatory sacrifice offered for us by Christ in His passion.


1) Various Fathers (such as Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Ambrose) were wrong in their explication of the "ransom to the devil" theory (the Catholic Church does not assert that individual Fathers are infallible). However, this state of affairs was not as unanimous as some Protestant polemicists would have us believe. As clearly stated by the non-Catholic historians above, many Fathers either rejected the "ransom theory" or held implicit or explicit elements of the later more fully-developed "satisfaction" theology of St. Anselm (e.g., St. Clement, St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenæus, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. John Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, and St. Augustine).

2) This matter of theology was not defined dogmatically by the Catholic Church until the Middle Ages, so this cannot be a matter of official Church teaching changing, or a disproof of conciliar or papal infallibility. The early Church was much more concerned with trinitarian and incarnational Christology, because that is where the attacks of the heretics were concentrated.

3) One might also take the position (following the thought of J.N.D. Kelly above, which is implied also by Schaff and Pelikan) that the essential kernel of the later developed theory of Atonement - as classically formulated by St. Anselm - was present in the Fathers to a sufficient degree, and also that the three main patristic theories of the Atonement were not so much contradictory as they were complementary.

4) Whichever of these views of the history of the doctrine of the Redemption, Atonement, or Christ's work one adopts, it is clear that the patristic evidence (though scanty in some respects) is much more abundant than that for later utter innovations and historical novelties of Protestantism such as (particularly, but only two of many) sola Scriptura and sola fide. If the Catholic notion of apostolic succession and a continuous Tradition is thought to be suspect as a result of this sort of historical analysis, then certainly Protestantism would crumble as well, since the evidence for sola fide (one of its pillars) is non-existent between the Apostle Paul and Luther, even according to reputable Protestant scholars such as Norman Geisler and Alister McGrath. The same could be said of many other Protestant distinctives, which can't be found even in the very early Church, let alone the far more developed medieval Church.

5) With regard to the specific analogy made above between this issue and that of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this fails for the following reasons:

a) Mary as "ever-virgin" was defined fairly early by the Church, and was, therefore, a settled issue. To deny it was clearly heretical, and was regarded as such even by the Protestant Founders. This was also an historical question which was not that difficult to verify by means of eyewitnesses, and passed-down testimony. The inner working of the Atonement, on the other hand, was not defined in the patristic period, and is a predominantly philosophical rather than historical question. Therefore, speculation was permissible (and to be expected, I would think).

b) The ransom theory of the Atonement, to the contrary, was merely one inadequate way of philosophically explaining the fairly abstract notion of Redemption, whose main and fundamentally important ideas and concept were held in common by all. Therefore, a shift in this understanding in no way compares to a flat-out denial of a defined Church doctrine. Jaroslav Pelikan, e.g., stated that even the biblical passages on which this speculation was based (such as Isaiah 53:5-6) didn't specify "to whom the ransom had been paid" (ibid., p. 149; emphasis added).

Compiled by Dave Armstrong: December 1998.

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