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Joseph Wolpert: Classical Christianity and Unity

The Atonement

Again, early on, Jesus was viewed as a saviour or redeemer. This topic can be discussed under the headings of salvation, redemption, or the atonement. It is under this third heading that we will examine the issue.

Basically, there are three different views regarding the Atonement. As Gustav Aulen states in his classic treatment on the subject - Christus Victor, "Every interpretation of the Atonement goes back to the New Testament texts, and seeks to base itself upon them; it is difficult therefore, to read those texts without associating them with some pre-conceived theory." (Aulen, p 16)

The first one, often identified with Irenaeus can be called either the "physical" or "mystical" theory. According to this view, the very act of Christ becoming man uplifted humanity and, in fact, changed what it meant to be human.

Secondly, there is the "ransom" theory. According to this approach, Jesus' death on the Cross was the payment of a ransom to the Devil in exchange for the Devil's freeing of humanity.

The third theory, sometime's referred to as the "substitution" theory. This theory focused on the saviour's sufferings as a "substitute" payment to God for the sins of humanity.

Regarding theory number one, Irenaeus picked up on an idea found in the Pauline correspondence in the New Testament where Christ is described as the "second Adam". Paul says, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (I Cor. 15:22). The analogy here is that since sin came into the world by one person (Adam), salvation comes through one man (Christ). This theory as described by Irenaeus is referred to as "re-capitulation" which means a "new head". Christ becomes the "new head" or leader of a new race of people.

The "ransom" theory finds support scripturally in Mark 10:45 (also Matt. 20:28) - "For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." The "ransom" theory was explained in a variety of ways.

Adam had disobeyed God and therefore rightfully came under the jurisdiction of Satan. God being Just, He had to respect the rights of Satan and his jurisdiction of Adam's descendants.

But Satan had no rights over God. So when he tampered with Christ, Satan overstepped his bounds and God therefore emancipated humanity from his power through Jesus Christ. (Placher, p 70)

The "substitution" theory is based upon the notion that a debt was owed to God because of the sins of humanity. It must be paid. Jesus paid it for all of humanity.

Irenaeus' view is somewhat "mystical". The others have a more judicial view.