The Athanasian theory of atonement

1.) Man is the image of God

2.) Somehow, this image was defaced/injured/deformed. Call this “the fall” or “original sin” (neither of which are Athanasian words).

3.) The consequence of the fall is death. Athanasius sees this as both a natural consequence and the result of God’s promise that death of the human race will arise from some sin of the human race.

4.) In the face of the fall, God could either fix man or let him die. This produces a seemingly intractable dilemma since for God to simply fix man requires that he renege on his promise (#3) but God would be dishonored by a defaced image of himself. The story of creation is also apparently a human story, and so to end the story in failure is to say that the story of creation itself is a failure. The problem seems even more intractable since the just response to a defaced image is to fix the image and destroy the defacer, but the fall consists in the image defacing itself.

5.) God becomes incarnate and dies. This keeps God’s promise that all humans must die, but now death becomes a way in which humans become an image of God.

On this account, it is precisely the death of Christ that saves from “original sin” since it is only after the death of God that those who die can be in the image of God.

And how does this jibe with The Son of man came…to give his life as a ransom for many (Mt. 20 Mk. 10)? The act is certainly a “ransom” in the sense that he who did not need to suffer a natural consequence chose to suffer it so that another might be freed from bondage, but not because any payment was handed over to death or Satan (whatever that would mean). Again, the act in some sense “satisfies the justice of the Father” since it is in accord with the decree that all men must die (#3), but not because the Father needed a scapegoat for his bloodthirst.

6.) On this account, the paradigmatic act of the Christian is the martyr offering his death in conformity with Christ, though most of Christian life consists in offering lesser evils in such conformity e.g. to offer ones pains, privations, sorrows, sins, etc. On the christian account, this sort of offering is the fundamental humanizing act or act of human flourishing, at least until they pay the natural consequence for sin in their own death.

7.) It’s just in this last sense that A’s account of atonement is preferable to “substitution” or “penal atonement” theories. Substitution was often understood in a way that we had no idea how to apply it to our life whereas A’s atoning theory demands being lived. Christ “substitutes” or “takes our place” or “pays the price” only in the sense mentioned in #5.

8.) Obviously, man is not restored to being the image of God in the way he was when first created, and neither does our status as an “image” consist in reason or will or personhood. “Being an image of God” consists in the conscious conformity of one’s life to the divine life. “The fall” or “original sin” were just the fact that we have no reliable way of doing this apart from Christ, and the point of the Incarnation – of Christianity –  was to make this sort of conscious conformity possible again.

On this account, the fundamental human mystery is just what Genesis says it is. We are called to conform our lives to God, i.e. we are “his image”. That we have very little idea of how to do this by our natural resources is the first fact of “the fall” or “original sin”. That Christ makes this possible again, especially in his death but by extension to every evil, is “atonement”.


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