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