The Concept of Redemption in the Patristic Tradition

Updated: May 30, 2020

1. Introduction

A systematic study of Redemption begins with Anselm of Canterbury in his famous treatise, Cur Deus homo. Nevertheless, the theologians of the ancient Church already furnish a great abundance of affirmations about the saving work of Christ which develop the treasure of the Holy Scripture. The Swiss Benedictine, Basil Studer, author of the best, recent monograph about Redemption in the Patristic Tradition, holds that the theology of the Fathers, “is fundamentally nothing other than soteriology: a doctrine about the salvation by God in Jesus Christ.”{footnote}B. Studer, Soteriologie. In der Schrift und Patristik (Handbuch der Dogmengeschichte III/2a), Freiburg i. Br. 1978, 224.{/footnote}

In the era of the Fathers, we find a great progress in the systematic formulation of Christology and of Trinitarian doctrine. In the doctrinal battles of the ancient Church, the salvation motive is well present: the importance of Jesus Christ, truly man and truly God, is essential for our salvation; Jesus Christ, in his human nature, has a real body and a rational soul in order to redeem our whole human being; if the Holy Spirit is not a divine Person, we would not have any real communion with God. In the Creed of Nicaea, we confess that Christ was made flesh “for the sake of us men and for the purpose of our salvation.” Soteriology is quasi omnipresent, but its systematic expression normally remains implicit only.{footnote}Cf. A. Grillm eier, Die Wirkung des Heilshandelns Gottes in Christus, in Mysterium salutis III/2, Einsiedeln etc. 1969, 327-392 (374f).{/footnote} With the exception of a few theologians who are a bit more explicit (such as Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine), the Fathers do not define what they intend by “Redemption.”{footnote}Cf. Studer (note 1) 57.{/footnote}

In presenting a global overview, our point of departure might be a systematic description of Redemption. Such a panoramic view would employ the main systematic concepts (such as mediation, ransom, sacrifice, satisfaction, merit) and study their presence in the ancient Church. Another approach to the Patristic doctrine of Redemption as a whole, would be a narrative approach structured about the focal events of the life of Christ (such as the Incarnation, the death on the Cross, the descent into hell, and the Resurrection). A third systematic method to attain an overall impression would be a study of the three ministries of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King (in fact, the formulation of this trilogy begins in the time of the Fathers). A fourth method could be the study of the work of Christ as the New Adam, contrasted with the primordial sin of our forefather.{footnote}Cf. M. Hauke, Mary, “Helpmate of the Redeemer.” Mary’s Cooperation in Salvation as a Research Theme, in AA. VV., Mary at the Foot of the Cross III, New Bedford, MA 2003, 25-53 (47-53).{/footnote}

Besides these systematic approaches, we could follow one of those whose direct point of departure is not a concept, but the sources themselves, and try to summarize in a very general way the content of the Patristic tradition concerning our topic. The best known recent example is that of the English Anglican theologian, H.E.W. Turner, in his 1952 monograph about the “The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption.” Turner tries to present the doctrine of Redemption under four headings: Christ as illuminator, Victor, Donator of deification, and Priest who offers Himself as Sacrifice of expiation.{footnote}H.E.W. Turner, The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption, London 1952 (here used in its French translation: Jésus le Sauveur. Essai sur la doctrine patristique de la Rédemption, Paris 1965). The Turner’s outline is accepted for instance by Grillm eier (note 2) 373-383; Studer (note 1) 58.{/footnote}

This conference proposes a combination of the various methods in order to individuate the central topics. Evidently, we cannot pretend anything approximating an exhaustive treatment. We shall begin with two comprehensive terms from the centre of Patristic doctrine: recapitulation and mediation. After examining these two comprehensive terms, we shall turn our attention to the redemptive events of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection. Then, we will consider some special aspects of Redemption, such as ransom, liberation (from sin, death, and devil), satisfaction, merit, saving example, and deification. For every topic, we shall also contemplate, at least very briefly, the relation of the saving work of Christ with the Mother of God.

2. Comprehensive Terms

2. 1 The Concept of Recapitulation

A very important soteriological concept comprehending the whole work of salvation: “recapitulation,” was developed by St. Irenaeus. The Greek term anakephalaíosis is used in rhetoric to indicate the summary of a speech. The prefix ana can mean a repetition (“once more”), but also an event coming from above which achieves a perfection. “Recapitulation,” therefore, signifies the renewal of an origin and a completion, a conducting toward the goal. The word also contains the basic meaning of “head” (kefale).{footnote}A precise philological analysis of the term can be found in E. Scharl , Recapitulatio mundi. Der Rekapitulationsbegriff des hl. Irenäus und seine Anwendung auf die Körperwelt (Freiburger Theologische Studien 60), Freiburg i. Br. 1941, 6-7. See also A. Walker, The Recapitulation Theme in St. Irenaeus, in Diakonia (Bronx, NY) 12 (1977) 244-256; J. McHugh, A Reconsideration of Ephesians 1.10b in the Light of Irenaeus, in M.D. Hooker-S.G. Wilson (eds.), Paul and Paulinism, London 1982, 302-309; M. Hauke, Heilsverlust in Adam. Stationen griechischer Erbsündenlehre: Irenäus-Origenes-Kappadozier, Paderborn 1993, 261-267 (with additional specialized bibliography). For the theological use of anakephalaíosis in the whole Greek Patristic period see the illustrated references in G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexikon, Oxford 111987, 106.{/footnote} The theological use of anakephalaíosis by Irenaeus was prepared in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. There, the Apostle observes that all the things have been “recapitulated” or “gathered together” by Jesus Christ.{footnote}Ephesians 1:10.{/footnote} They are brought together because they have received Christ as their “head.”{footnote}Cf. Ephesians 1:22.{/footnote}

In Irenaeus, we find all the meanings of the Greek term. The Bishop of Lyons uses the concept of recapitulation against Gnosticism which regarded creation as the fruit of a primordial catastrophe or even opposed (as did Marcion) God the Creator to God the Redeemer, and the Old Testament to the New Covenant. In Irenaeus, anakephalaíosis means, first of all, the restoration, the renewing of the first friendship of man with God in Paradise. The holy origin, spoiled by the sin of the first Adam, is renewed in Jesus Christ, the New Adam. For this reason, Irenaeus speaks of the “recapitulation of Adam.”{footnote}Irenaeus, Adversus haereses III,21,10 (SC 211, 428).{/footnote} The Redeemer links the end of human history with its beginning{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. IV,34,4; III,22,3 (SC 100, 858; 211, 438) etc.{/footnote} and gathers together the whole of mankind in Himself.{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. III,18,1; 21,9 (SC 211, 342; 426) etc.{/footnote} In this way, the Savior becomes the Head of all things.{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. V,20,2; III,19,3 (SC 153, 260; 211, 380) etc.{/footnote}

The restoration and gathering together under a head, is also a completion which conducts the whole of creation to its incorruptible end.{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. IV,38,1 (SC 100, 946-948) etc.{/footnote} Jesus Christ strengthens man’s likeness with God which, in the original state of Paradise, was still fragile.{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. V,16,2 (SC 153, 216).{/footnote} Thus, the Son of God renews the first beginning of salvation history but, at the same time, he guides it towards a higher level than before. The restoration of Paradise and its perfection are united in the same concept of recapitulation. The “recapitulation of Adam” begins with the origin of Christ from the Virgin Mary, just as the origin of the first Adam from virginal soil.{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. III,18,7; 21,10 (SC 211, 368; 428).{/footnote} In the centre of the soteriology of Irenaeus we find Incarnation, whereas the parallelism with Adam is also developed in the comments on the temptation of Christ and on His obedience on the Cross, which heals the disobedience of the first Adam.{footnote}Cf. Hauke, Heilsverlust (note 6), 263-264.{/footnote} The comparison between Adam and Christ is completed by the parallel between Eve and Mary. To establish the link between the first and the Second Eve, Irenaeus does not use the term anakephalaíosis, reserved for the renewal of Paradise by Jesus Christ, but a similar expression: “recirculation” which in Greek must have been anakúklesis. In the recirculation of Eve in Mary, “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience; for what Eve bound by her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith.”{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. III,22,4 (SC 211,440). For more references, see Hauke, Heilsverlust (note 6), 265-267; M. O’Carr oll , Theotokos. A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Eugene, OR 2000, 189-191.{/footnote} The obedience of Christ on the Cross was prepared by the faithful fiat of the Holy Virgin. The recapitulation of Adam in Christ occurs together with the recirculation of Eve in Mary.

Irenaeus has given a precise sense to the term “recapitulation”; but in this way, he only focalizes a doctrine already present before him and hinted at in the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians.{footnote}See also J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition. A History of the Development of Doctrine I. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Chicago- London 1971, 144: “Liturgical sources and the writings of other church fathers suggest that in this doctrine of recapitulation, as in his teaching generally, Irenaeus was reflecting the mind of the Christian community, even though his own mind may have elaborated and embellished the seminal ideas present in the belief, teaching, and confession of the church.”{/footnote} The comparison between Eve and Mary is prepared by the work of St. Justin who hints at the importance of the Annunciation: “in the same way as the disobedience caused by the serpent was initiated, so it was fitting that its destruction should also follow the same course.”{footnote}Justin, Dialogus cum Tryphone 100,4-6 (ed. Goodspeed 215). Cf. Hauke, Heilsverlust (note 6), 117; O’Carr oll (note 17) 211.{/footnote} In this way, Mary is strictly linked to the central event that is the Incarnation: the salvation of mankind already begins, when the Divine Word becomes flesh.{footnote}Cf. Hauke, Heilsverlust (note 6), 263.{/footnote} Irenaeus stresses the relation of the Holy Virgin with the saving activity of Christ when he states that Mary, by her obedience, became “cause of salvation … to the whole human race.”{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. III,22,4 (SC 211, 440). For the systematic and historical context of this affirmation, see also (with more bibliography) M. Hauke, La cooperazione attiva di Maria alla Redenzione. Prospettiva storica (patristica, medievale, moderna, contemporanea), in Immaculata Mediatrix 6 (2006) 157-189 (165) (German version: Die aktive Mitwirkung Mariens an der Erlösung. Ein geschichtlicher Durchblick, in A. von Brandenstein- Zeppelin-A. von Stockhausen-J.H. Benirschke [eds.], Die göttliche Vernunft und die inkarnierte Liebe. Festschrift zum 80. Geburtstag Seiner Heiligkeit Papst Benedikts XVI., Weilheim-Bierbronnen 2007, 13-48 [22]).{/footnote} In this affirmation we find a culminating point of the ancient doctrine about Mary as New Eve, an important, recurring theme of Patristic theology.{footnote}Cf. L. Cignell i, Maria Nuova Eva nella Patristica greca (sec. II-V), Assisi 1966; L. Gamb ero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, San Francisco 1999, passim (Italian original Maria nel pensiero dei padri della Chiesa, Cinisello Balsamo 1991); O’Carr oll (note 17), 140-141.{/footnote}

2. 2 The Mediation of Christ

Whereas the concept of “recapitulation” is only hinted at in the New Testament, the “mediation” of Christ is described with greater precision in the biblical texts.

According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is the mediator of the new alliance (Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). He is the High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek, an expression which embraces the humanity and the divinity of the eternal Son of God. The First Epistle to Timothy describes the “man Christ Jesus” as the “unique mediator between God and mankind” who has given Himself as a ransom (1 Tim 2:5-6).{footnote}For the biblical doctrine of mediation, see for example the synthesis in B. Sesboüé, Gesù Cristo l’unico mediatore I, Cinisello Balsamo 1991, 98-102 (French original Jésus-Christ l’unique médiateur I, Paris 1988{/footnote}

Irenaeus, the first Church Father to reflect at length on the mediation of Christ, points to the unity of the human nature and the divinity in the same subject, the incarnate Son of God: “He … united man to God. If man had not defeated his enemy, the enemy would not have been defeated in a just way. On the other hand, if salvation had not come from God, we could not have enjoyed it in a stable manner … It was necessary … that the ‘mediator between God and mankind’-because of his kinship with both the parties-restored the friendship and concord, so that God assumed man and man gave himself to God.”{footnote}Irenaeus, Adversus haereses III,18,7 (SC 211, 364-366). Cf. Sesboüé (note 23) 103-105.{/footnote}

Thus, mediation comports a descending and an ascending aspect (God saves man and man gives himself to God): the Lord made “God descend to man by the Spirit and … man ascend to God by the Incarnation.”{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. V,1,1 (SC 193, 20).{/footnote} In this way there comes about a holy change: “This is, in fact, the reason why the Word become flesh and the Son of God Son of man: that he who unites himself to the Word of God and accepts adoption becomes a son of God.”{footnote}Irenaeus, Adv. haer. III,19,1 (SC 211, 374).{/footnote}

The mediation of Christ, based on the two natures, is also stressed by Tertullian and Origen.{footnote}Cf. Origen, De principiis II,6,1 (SC 252, 308-311).{/footnote} Tertullian coined the important adage: “the flesh is the hinge of salvation” (caro salutis est cardo),{footnote}Tertullian, De resurrectione carnis 8,2 (CChr.SL 1,2, 931).{/footnote} or in other words: the humanity of Christ is the centre for the communication of God’s gifts to mankind.