Atonement Through History – A Brief Survey – Part One: Muscipula Diaboli, Crux Domini; Esca Qua Caperetur, Mors Domini

One of my final projects for the past Spring semester was a 20 page paper on how various theologians throughout church history have viewed Christ’s atonement. I’d like to share sections from it as a series to introduce to you – the dear reader – that the penal substitution theory of atonement isn’t the only view in existence, and that, Christ’s death, and resurrection, is quite a bit more deep than simply paying for our sins.

Let us start with some of the earliest church fathers.

“Irenaeus of Lyons, who lived approximately from 130-200 AD, is most famous for his work, Adversus Haereses, or, Against Heresies. This work was written in the second half of the second century (Early Christian Writings), and in it, Irenaeus proposes that the death of Christ is to be understood as a ransom to Satan, who held humanity in captivity since the Fall. This is seen most emphatically when he says, “Thus the powerful [Christ] and true human being, ransoming us by his own blood in a rational manner, gave himself as a ransom for those who have been led into captivity.” (Irenaeus V.i.1) He goes on to say, “Rather, it was appropriate that God should obtain what he wished through persuasion, not by the use of force, so that the principles of justice might not be infringed, and, at the same time, that God’s original creation might not perish.” (Irenaeus V.i.1) It’s rather self-explanatory: Iranaeus denies the idea that God used any sort of violence or force to save humanity from the bondage of Satan, but instead used a form of lovely persuasion. Irenaeus seems to view justice as inseparable from mercy; the two go hand in hand. The emphasis for him is not on God’s wrath, but on being prisoners of war to Satan.

Moving forward to the fourth century, one finds a famous anonymous work that cannot be dated with any specificity, minus being dated sometime in the fourth century (McGrath 291). McGrath calls it “An anonymous paschal homily inspired by the Treatise on the Passion of Hippolytus.” It views the cross, and therefore Christ’s death and resurrection, or the atonement, as set against a cosmic backdrop, suggesting that what Christ accomplished on the cross doesn’t just affect humanity, but the whole universe. Anonymous writes, “It is fixed, as an eternal growth, at the midpoint of heaven and earth. It sustains all things as the support of the universe, the base of the whole inhabited world, and the axis of the earth.” (McGrath 291) To this author, the cross is the glue that holds the universe together. Without the crucifixion happening at some point in history, followed by the resurrection, the universe would most likely collapse in ruin. The Writer continues, “By its peak which touches the height of the heavens, by its base which supports the earth, and by its immense arms subduing the many spirits of the air on every side, it exists in its totality in everything and in every place.” (McGrath 291) In essence, the atonement is the end all be all of Christian theology. It is the center piece of all the Scriptures. The important point in all of this is that the cross’s effects are not limited to humanity, but affect all of creation.

Also in the fourth century was Rufinus of Aquieia (345-410 AD), another huge influence on atonement theology, who wrote, Exposito Symboli 14. Rufinus viewed the atonement in a similar fashion to Iranaeus. He wrote,

[The purpose of the incarnation] was that the divine virtue of the Son of God might be like a kind of hook hidden beneath the form of human flesh…to lure on the prince of this world to a contest; that the Son might offer him his human flesh as a bait and that the divinity which lay underneath might catch him and hold him fast with its hook. (Rufinus of Aquileia 151)

Basically, Rufinus was a proponent of what has come to be known as the “fish-hook,” or “mousetrap,” view of atonement. Christ’s death and resurrection was a trap set for Satan, because Satan had humanity so far in bondage that God could not redeem them any other way than by tricking the ultimate trickster. Rufinus continues, “The gates of hell were broken, and he was, as it were, drawn up from the pit, to become food for others.” (Rufinus of Aquileia 152) Satan was tricked into thinking Jesus was merely a human, and was therefore trapped by his divinity. It should be noted that this view came under a lot of criticism due to the questionable moral portrayal of God implied by it. The idea that God would deceive, or lie, even to Satan, was too scandalous and seemingly hypocritical to be widely accepted.

The final patristic era church father that will be mentioned is the famous Augustine of Hippo. Augustine rarely addresses the topic of atonement in his writings, but touched on it frequently in his sermons (McGrath 294). He generally supported the “fish-hook” view that Rufinus purported in his writings. This is seen in one of his oft-quoted sermons, where he said,

The devil was conquered by his own trophy of victory. The devil jumped for joy, when he seduced the first man, and cast him down to death. By seducing the first man, he killed him; by killing the last man, he lost the first from his snare…The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap…The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord. (McGrath 295)

For Augustine, the seduction of the first man was the Fall of humanity, and the death of the last man was the crucifixion of Christ. The devil thought he won, but in reality, was tricked by God, and lost everything. It is interesting that Augustine, who is considered by many theologians to be one of the solid foundations for modern theology, held such a criticized view of the atonement. The final line of the previous quote is famous in its original Latin form: “Muscipula diabolic, crux Domini; esca qua caperetur, mors Domini.” The Latin word “muscipula” literally means a “fly-trap,” which is where a lot of the “fish-hook” and “mousetrap” analogies come from for this view of the atonement (McGrath 295).”

There you have it – an extremely brief simplification of atonement theology in the first few centuries of the church. Things get more complex and drawn out as time moves along. The early church fathers didn’t focus immensely on Christ’s death and resurrection, as they were focused on other important theological matters at the time.

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Also, just so I have all my sources up beforehand, here are my citations:

Bibliography

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