The Divine Solution: Athanasius and Calvin on the Atonement
by John Drury
The Christian confesses Jesus Christ as God’s solution to world’s problems. Theologians who construct a theory of the atonement identify what this problem is and how this solution came about. Athanasius (4th Cen.) and Calvin (16th Cen.) are two such theologians. In the following essay I will summarize their theories, point out similarities and differences between them, and uncover strengths and weaknesses in each theory.
I. Two Atonement Theories: Their Basic Shape
In his Incarnation of the Word of God, Athanasius lays out the classical argument for an ontological theory of atonement. In the opening pages, Athanasius identifies the problem. Since God created the world out of nothing, humans are susceptible to corruption (57). Thankfully, God “made them after his own image, giving them a portion even of the power of his own Word; so that ... they might be able to abide ever in blessedness” (58). Therefore, God intended us humans to have incorruptible life, conditioned on our obedience to his law. We were tragically disobedient and so this original blessedness was lost. We rejected knowledge of God and focused on sensible idols (65). The problem facing God was how he was to “bring the corruptible to incorruption, and maintain intact the just claim of the Father upon all” (62). In other words, how can God restore us to our original blessedness without violating his own law?
The divine solution was for God’s Word, who is divine and therefore incorruptible, to take on a corruptible body. The corruptible body died on the cross, yet by the power of the incorruptible Word was resurrected. The cross maintains God’s justice, for it pays “the debt owing from all” and is a death “in the stead of all” (74). Having maintained God’s law, the incarnated Word destroyed death and restored incorruptible life to humanity (65). As the agent of creation, the Word of God is the only possible agent of this re-creation project (64). We can once again know God because the Word of God “takes to himself a body, and as a man walks among men and meets the senses of all men halfway” (69). We can be like God in immortality as we were first created to be (107).
Twelve centuries later, John Calvin developed his atonement theory within the judicial theory tradition. Calvin casts this tradition, which stems from Thomas’ modifications of Anselm, in the light of the Protestant Reformation. The problem Calvin identifies is that our sin and guilt is under the curse and wrath of God. “For God, who is the highest righteousness, cannot love the unrighteousness that he sees in us all” (505). We are “accursed and condemned before him” (506). Death is the just punishment for our sin, and God in his justice will carry it out (504). Yet God loves sinners, “even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness” (507). So the problem facing God is how he can lovingly forgive us yet at the same time justly punish sin.
The divine solution was that God’s Son on the Cross “took our place to pay the price for our redemption” (511). He underwent “the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment” (515). Since Jesus Christ was perfectly obedient, he could be a sacrifice for others (507). His wrath now appeased, God is free to love us. Christ chooses to share the merits of his holiness with all who are in him (534). So the just God loves those who are unrighteous yet in Christ.
II. Similarities and Differences
What are the similarities between the atonement theories of Athanasius and Calvin? First of all, they have very similar methodological approaches. They both stress the objective side of the atonement. They both regard the atonement as an indispensable, unique act of God. They both lay heavy stress on biblical citations to make their case. They both seek to grasp the coherency of the atonement, evidenced by their talk of what is “fitting” (Calvin 504) and “suited” (Athanasius 64) for God to do.
Athanasius and Calvin also share much in content. They both affirm the two natures of Jesus Christ. They both frame the problem as the relationship between God’s just execution of law and God’s intent to show favor on humanity who violated this law. They both center the solution on the Cross of Christ, although his life and his resurrection are significant. They both seem to de-emphasize the eschatological future of Jesus Christ, though neither ignore it entirely (Athanasius 109; Calvin 525).
Despite these noteworthy similarities, Athanasius and Calvin differ greatly in their understandings of the atonement. There are many differences I could point out, but I will focus on where they differ from one another in their respective problem-solution structures. With respect to the problem, Athanasius identifies it as death--the unintended corruptibility of human beings. God in his goodness is inclined to do something about this, but is bound to his law. Calvin, on the other hand, identifies the problem as the curse--the wrath of God directed at unrighteous humanity. God punishes unrighteousness by death. For Athanasius, the judicial curse functions as the obstacle to fixing the core problem: dying humanity. For Calvin, the ontological threat of death is a symptom of the core problem: accursed humanity.
With respect to the solution, Athanasius points to the victory of the Word over death. The law that demands death is spent on his body, so that incorruptible life can be restored to humanity. Humans can know God again because the image of God is restored. Calvin, on the other hand, points to the appeasement of God’s wrath by the Son’s death. God loved humanity and so sent his Son to die in our place. The judge is now the redeemer. That is the good news. Eternal life is a secondary result of this forgiving act.
What are the strengths of Athanasius’ theory? What I find most attractive in Athanasius is that he identifies death as the problem. This would have certainly connected with his 4th century Hellenistic audience, and it may potentially connect with a 21st audience. I say so because death is the perennial problem that all human beings face. We are unable to find any good in it no matter how hard we try. Athanasius confesses that death is not our intended end and that by Christ it is not. This restoration model is universal in scope and so ties together the whole interaction of God with humanity.
What are Athanasius’ weaknesses? He is caught in the snare of Hellenistic intellectualism and dualism. He centralizes the concern of human ignorance and defines the image of God almost exclusively in terms of the intellect (65). The Word is also defined intellectually, for Athanasius speaks of him “wielding” his body (71). Death is therefore only properly an experience of the body of Christ (99). In a sense, the Word “survives” death. God condescends, but God does not suffer.
What are the strengths of Calvin’s theory? There are two themes in Calvin that prove very helpful when trying to understand the atonement. The first is the prevenience of God’s grace: “by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ” (506). Calvin says, “God solely of his own good please appointed him Mediator to obtain salvation for us” (529). Calvin tries hard to make clear that it is God’s intention to love us and he does not change his mind halfway through the story.
The second theme is our participation in Christ. Participation language helps make sense of how the atonement makes a difference in my life. Our participation in Christ’s death liberates us from death and mortifies our flesh (512). We are raised with him and so made righteous (521). Our flesh has even ascended to heaven with him (524).
What are Calvin’s weaknesses? Oddly enough, the two themes I find most helpful correspond to two contradictory themes I regard as highly problematic. First of all, despite his affirmation of the prevenience of God’s loving plan, Calvin nevertheless speaks of a wrathful God apart from Christ. For the purpose of increasing our thankfulness, he claims “we are taught by Scripture to perceive that apart from Christ, God is, so to speak, hostile to us, and his hand is armed for our destruction” (505). Is this the hostile God the same God who appointed the Mediator? Is it the same God who became a man for our sakes? This abstraction “apart from Christ” does not seem helpful at all, but rather contradictory to Calvin’s insistence that the atonement is based on God’s love and not the other way around.
Secondly, Calvin follows the judicial tradition by speaking of Christ earning merit that is transferred to our account. He deserves a reward from God. Yet since he is himself divine, he needs no such reward and so gives it to other humans. This makes sense, yet seems unnecessary and even contradictory in light the theme of participation. If we participate in Christ, and thereby receive his benefits, why must Calvin argue that “he who gave away the fruit of holiness to others testifies that he acquired nothing for himself” (534)? Would it not be better to say Christ acquired righteousness for himself and that we benefit from this righteousness by participation in him? There is no need to empty Christ of his merit in order to give it to us if we really participate in Christ.
It is important to note that these two problems could be repaired within Calvin’s system. Abstractions about a God “apart from Christ” could be removed and his atonement theory would not crumble. The same goes for the transfer of merit from Christ to us. Yet even if these matters of inconsistency were sorted out, Calvin’s judicial theory may not withstand the challenge of the ontological theory. For Calvin, death is still a symptom of curse, and life is still a secondary result of forgiveness. It seems that for Calvin immortality is assumed, and the only question left is where each soul will spend it. Does this do justice to the biblical treatment of death as the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15)? Is Christ primarily our righteousness, and then only secondary our life? Or is he, as Luther so often quoted, our righteousness and our life?
It is Calvin’s subordination of the problem of death to the problem of the curse that inclines me to favor Athanasius’ account of the atonement. He foregrounds death as the problem and life as the solution, and places the curse and forgiveness as a necessary but subordinate plot twist in the larger story. In order to make such a choice, I am forced to wrestle with his problematic intellectualism and dualism. I would regard these problems as equivalent to the aforementioned inconsistencies in Calvin, for they could be removed without the whole structure falling apart. These Greek ontological ideas could be replaced with a Trinitarian and biblical account of ontology. Despite these significant changes, the core problem-solution structure would remain the same: we lost our God-intended life yet God in Christ restored it. Praise be to Christ who is our righteousness ... and our life!
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Vol. 1. The Library of Christian Classics Vol. 20. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.
Athanasius. On the Incarnation of the Word. E. R. Hardy, ed. Christology of the Later Fathers. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954. 55-110.