Atonement in “On the Incarnation of the Word”

Some argue that St. Athanasius never explained redemption in terms of satisfaction of a “debt”, but only of God’s healing and renewal. Nothing could be further from the truth. St. Athanasius’s spoke clearly of both dimensions. His book “On the Incarnation of the Word” is filled with references to death as a debt owed,  as well as a “penalty” and “sentence” which Christ endured “in the stead” and as a “substitute” for humanity.

The reason for a prevalent incorrect understanding of atonement is partly because some wish to use “On the Incarnation of the Word” as the only reference for understanding the atonement, ignoring St. Athanasius’s other works, works by all other fathers, often also ignoring scripture itself. Needless to say, there are many problems with this approach:

1. Those who utilize this approach unintentionally overlook (or in some cases dishonestly misrepresent) the very concepts they so adamantly deny—namely that: Death was a debt and penalty for transgression which Christ paid/satisfied, “in our stead” and as our “substitute”. It is impossible for anyone who carefully and honestly reads On the Incarnation to miss these concepts.

2. Those who utilize this narrow approach create a false dilemma that exists only in their minds. They refuse to acknowledge that payment of a “debt” doesn’t exclude a dimension of restoration and healing. Although St. Athanasius emphasizes healing and restoration, he also speaks CLEARLY of a “penalty” for transgression as debt “owed” by humanity and paid by Christ. We will discuss this in more detail.

3. Although it touches on all aspects of the atonement, On the Incarnation was not intended to be an in depth Gospel commentary. For example, the Book doesn’t discuss how the Sacrifice of Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament Sacrifices with Christ as both Sacrifice and High Priest. Do we reject this scriptural truth/dimension? Thus, it is unreasonable to treat On the Incarnation as if it were a verse by verse Gospel commentary, rejecting anything that was not explicitly mentioned (or not mentioned in detail) in the Book.

4. St. Athanasius’s other works, as well as works by other church fathers, make even more clear the dimensions missed by those who take the narrow and imbalanced approach of relying on one work. For example in his other works, St. Athanasius explains that in dying Christ bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression” – Letter to Marcellinus

St. Cyril of Alexandria explained we were condemned by God’s sentence but Christ “paid the penalty of our sins”:

“We were, then, accursed and condemned, by the sentence of God, through Adam’s transgression…For we are justified, now that Christ has paid the penalty for us; for by His stripes we are healed, according to the Scripture” – Commentary on the Gospel of St. John

St. John Chrysostom explained that:

“He Himself, through suffering punishment, did away with both the sin and the punishment, and He was punished on the Cross.” — Homilies on Colossians

The intro of the the Post Nicene Fathers Volume also reinforces this very idea of a debt satisfied:

Athanasius does not leave out of sight the idea of satisfaction for a debt. To him also the Cross was the central purpose of His Coming. But the idea of Restoration is most prominent in his determination of the necessity of the Incarnation. – Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Volume 4 (Introduction to on the Incarnation of the Word)

Let’s take a look at what St. Athanasius himself explained in On the Incarnation, and is often overlooked. Although in Chapter 1, St. Athanasius speaks of the “natural law” of death, he also explains that death “was the penalty which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment”:

“When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment.” (On the Incarnation, Chapter 1: 5)

In Chapter 2, St. Athanasius repeats again that death“was the penalty for the Transgression”. He explains more clearly that corruption of death was a “law” that was unthinkable to be “repealed before it was fulfilled”. Hence the Saint makes clear that death was a necessity, not merely a consequence, so that the truth of God’s “penalty” and “sentence” on account of transgression, is preserved. He explains that death was a necessary debt incurred by mankind that needed to be fulfilled to preserve the “divine consistency”, so that God is not found to be liar, if man didn’t die. Here we have the clear words: 1. “penalty”, 2. “law”, 3. “repealed”, 4. “fulfilled”. Only someone who carelessly (or in some cases dishonestly) reads On the Incarnation, would dare to argue St. Athanasius was speaking of merely a natural consequence and not also a “penalty” and “debt”:

“He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled.” (On the Incarnation,, Chapter 2:8)

St. Athanasius goes on to repeat that death was a PENALTY and explains that there were TWO reasons for Christ’s death:

1. Undo the “law” by fulfilling it in himself (“spent in the Lord’s body”)
2. Turn humanity toward incorruption.

He also makes clear that Christ did this “in the stead of all”:

“And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption “ (On the Incarnation, Chapter 2, 8:4)

In Chapter 2, the concept of substitution again is repeated clearly. St. Athanasius explains that Christ took a body capable of death in order to “die in the stead of all” and to put away death. How? By “offering an equivalent”. He then explains that in doing so, Christ “satisfied the debt by His death”. If death was merely a natural consequence that Christ merely conquered or “nullified” and not paid, what does SATISFIED THE DEBT IN THE STEAD OF ALL mean?

“He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all…He put away death from all His peers by the offering of an equivalent. For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death. (Chapter 2, 9:1-3)

But if the above wasn’t clear enough, St. Athanasius goes on to remove all doubt in the same Chapter. He makes clear that that death was not merely a consequence, but also a punishment/condemnation when he explains that because of Christ’s death, we no longer die as “subject to condemnation”:

“For by the sacrifice of His own body, He both put an end to the law which was against usFor no longer now do we die as subject to condemnation; but as men who rise from the dead we await the general resurrection of all… ” (On the Incarnation, Chapter 2, 10:14-15)

In Chapter 4, St. Athanasius repeats himself, again leaving zero room for misinterpretation, explaining that Christ’s sacrifice freed men from their “old trespass” making clear that there was more to Christ’s sacrifice than the mere conquering of death. Again he repeats: a debt owed HAD to be paid. When it was paid, via Christ’s death “in the stead of all”, men were freed from the condemnation for their trespasses—that is granted remission of their sins. Finally, St. Athanasius explains that Christ also died “to show Himself more powerful than death” (victory). St Athanasius again repeats that:

1. There was a “debt owing that should be paid”
2. Christ died “in the stead of all

“But since it was necessary also that the debt owing from all should be paid again: for, as I have already said, it was owing that all should die, for which special cause, indeed, He came among us: to this intent, after the proofs of His Godhead from His works, He next offered up His sacrifice also on behalf of all, yielding His Temple to death in the stead of all, in order firstly to make men quit and free of their old trespass, and further to show Himself more powerful even than death, displaying His own body incorruptible, as first-fruits of the resurrection of all.” (On the Incarnation, Chapter 4: #20, 2)

In case it wasn’t clear enough, St. Athanasius goes on to reiterate in Chapter 4 again and again, that “two marvels came to pass” and explains that:

1.  There was “need of death” (sot that God’s word is not broken). Christ suffered on behalf of all so that the debt owing might be paid, “in the stead of all”.
2. Corruption was done away with (healing and victory)

“And so it was that two marvels came to pass at once, that the death of all was accomplished in the Lord’s body, and that death and corruption were wholly done away by reason of the Word that was united with it. For there was need of death, and death must needs be suffered on behalf of all, that the debt owing from all might be paid. Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for Him to die, as He was immortal, took to Himself a body such as could die, that He might offer it as His own in the stead of all, and as suffering, through His union with it, on behalf of all…” (On the Incarnation, Chapter 4: #20:5-6)

As if all of this wasn’t enough to convince us that death was a “debt”, “penalty”, and “condemnation” on account of transgression, St. Athanasius goes on to explain in Chapter 4 that Christ bore the “curse [of the Law] that lay on us” to ransom us from it:

He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He “become a curse” otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written “Cursed is every one that hangeth on tree.” Again, the death of the Lord is the ransom of all” (On the Incarnation, Chapter 4:25)

A careful and honest reading of On the Incarnation can lead to nothing other than the points St. Athanasius himself repeats over and over and over which are not mutually exclusive:

1. Death was God’s law and penalty for transgression. It was debt owed which Christ paid by his death in the stead of all, in order to to free “ransom” humanity from it, and also preserve the “divine consistency”
2. Christ recreated and restored our fallen nature by his incarnation, and victoriously conquered the corruption of death for all, by His death and resurrection.

2 thoughts on “Atonement in “On the Incarnation of the Word””

  1. Wonderful! My question would be this: “who, in the Orthodox World” (churches), does not believe this and why?

  2. Unfortunately, some in the Eastern Orthodox world have come to reject these truths. Within the last one hundred years there has been a movement to “purge” Orthodoxy of what some allege is Protestant/Western influence. This movement was headed by Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev. Also, in 1931 Gustaf Aulén published a book named “Christus Victor” in which he misrepresented that the early Church did not believe such truths, also associating them with Western theology. The fact is the consensus of the early fathers is balanced. Neither did the early Church speak of exclusive atonement “models” or theories. People should be on their guard for false atonement doctrine which misrepresents the truth of scripture and patristic consensus.

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