Connecting Incarnation and Atonement


Icon of the incarnation

Andrew Purves, in his work, Exploring Christology and Atonement, says something very enlightening about the work of Christ: “Atonement is not so much a work of Christ apart from who he is, but rather Christ himself as work” (p 35).

What does this statement mean? He means to say that much of the western construals of the saving work of Christ are abstracted from who he is as incarnate God. Or to put another way, too many atonement theories disconnect Christ’s work from his identity. John McLoed Campbell says about the atonement: “The faith of the atonement presupposes the faith of the incarnation” (p 35). In other words, the theology of God’s incarnation cannot be detached from God’s work for us in his death and resurrection. The incarnation must inform what we believe about the work of the cross.

However, this is often not the case. Many theories of the atonement could and in fact do do away with the incarnation and still remain intact. The incarnation is an add on, an accidental necessity, not inherently necessary. Purves notes that many understand the atoning work of Christ as something “external to his person” (p 37). He quotes TF Torrance who calls this an “instrumental” view of the work of Christ. Christ took on human flesh, not because it was absolutely necessary, but to use as an instrument. He took our flesh in order to make payment, or to satisfy justice. However, he could have atoned in some other way.

Purves continues:

Such a view [of the atonement] need not but will likely tend toward a perspective on the atonement in which God needs to be propitiated in order to be gracious toward us. In such a view the love and forgiveness of God may be seen as the effects of the atonement. Further, an instrumental perspective on the atonement as an external work of Christ, as something that he does rather than having its ground in who he is, implies a corresponding view of our relation to Christ that is developed in terms of an external arrangement. In the scholastic Protestant tradition this is conventionally developed in terms of an imputed righteousness, in which, while we are and remain sinner, God, for Christ’s sake, regards otherwise… (p 37)

Put another way, Christ became man to give something externalized to God: Christ becomes man and gives God an externalized obedience, and God receives that on behalf of the sinner who, despite God’s forgiveness, remains a sinner. This type of atonement theory does not really need the incarnation. Christ became man so that as a man he could offer a receipt of obedience and payment; but he could have made atonement as the divine Son without his humanity.

Purves is right in noting that this view becomes very common in the scholastic Protestant tradition. For instance, in the Heidelberg catechism, it is asked, why did God become man? The answer:

He must be a true man
because the justice of God requires
that the same human nature which has sinned
should pay for sin.
He must be a righteous man
because one who himself is a sinner
cannot pay for others (Q 16)
Notice, why did God become man? There is nothing necessary in this incarnation except that as man Christ can now pay a price for sin. This is a legal reality located outside of the inner logic of the incarnation. It presumes that perhaps Christ could have paid for sin without becoming fully man.


But now, if we are to connect the incarnation to the atonement, as Purves says, what new theological situation do we find ourselves in?

On the other hand, it is precisely the union of the incarnation and the atonement that excludes the view of the atonement is reducible to a forensic transaction as fulfilling of a legal contract, or to Christ propitiatingly bearing the cost construed as divinely meted punishment… [Rather], an ontological rather than an instrumental connection must be made between the Christ who makes atonement and the atonement that he makes. Or, in a different set of images, we look for an organic and personal rather than a mechanical and legal connection between Christ and his atonement and ourselves (p 37-38)

If the incarnation is an ontological, metaphysical reality, then the atonement itself must be posited from within the humanity of Christ, rather than legally outside of Christ. It must be seen organically, rather than extrinsically.

Purves explains the atonement in terms of a “magnificent exchange”. This is a term that began with the early fathers, but was also received and used both by Calvin and Luther. The magnificent exchange grounds the atonement in God’s work of the incarnation. A key text used by all the fathers was 2 Corinthians 6:9:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Purves explains how the fathers and early reformers understood this verse:

Christ exchanged his place with our place in an atoning reversal of our status, making an atoning exchange. Christ puts himself in our place so that in him we might be put in his place. This is the meaning of reconciliation, which is an act effected on the basis of exchange (p 104)

In other words, the incarnation relates to atonement by way of an exchange of places. This isn’t a legal exchange: it’s an actual exchange. Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is. Purves continues:

The magnificent exchange must be set in the context of the whole movement of Christ in his descent and ascent… From this we see that the magnificent exchange is not at its core something that Christ does; rather, it is the working out of who he is in his history in our flesh. Christ is the magnificent exchange as God’s gracious saving movement toward us. In himself Christ is the word/act of God to us, and he is the responding and acceptable filial human movement toward God (106)

This is a great passage. Purves rightly says that in himself Christ is God condescended to us in our fallenness and sin, and in our humanity Christ is the perfect filial response of man to God. Thus there is atonement in his own person. God and man are united in this one divine Person.

Thus we can see: the incarnation is itself atonement. God the Son unites himself to us, and in a downward/upward movement makes God and man at one. As Purves says: Christ does who he is!




What is the meaning of the atonement? A proposal


Harrowing of Hell by Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1255 – 1319 (source)

At basic, the atonement is the doctrine of what God did to unite man with himself. Assumed in this doctrine is of course a foundational doctrine of original sin: mankind is not one with God, and thus needs to be made one.

Among the differing opinions of just what God has done to reconcile with mankind are two options.

One option is what we might call the legal doctrine of atonement. This legal atonement is posited in one of two ways: the Anselmian type and the penal substitution type. Both of these versions posit that the principal thing that separates man from God is the legal offense of sin. And thus, the thing to be removed is this offense.

Anselm posited an atonement theory which essentially proposed that God is offended by our sin, and Christ offers himself up to the Father as a satisfaction for sin. It is his self-gift which “covers our offense” and thus God forgives us. A more modern theory is commonly called penal substitution: in order for God to unite with man, he in fact must punish sin. Christ is punished by the Father in our place, and thus our sins are removed.

Without wholesale rejecting truths in these construals, I have issues. The struggle I have with these theories is that the problem the atonement means to solve is found in God: God is offended, and that is the thing that keeps us from reconciliation. Of course, our sin is offensive. But I wonder: why would that offense demand the death of the Son? Why couldn’t something else be done to rid the offense of sin? Is God unable to forgive without some sort of satisfaction? To be sure, it is said in scripture that Christ is a sacrifice for sin. Like the sacrifices of the Old Testament, Christ becomes a holy offering, a gift given over to the Father. And yet, I have yet to find it stated as such that without it God could not forgive us. To be sure, as well, we are said to be received into fellowship “for the sake of Christ”, something that the Reformation rightly recognized: we are not the cause of our salvation. Christ himself is the cause. He is our advocate before the Father. But again, this does not follow that Christ had to bear God’s wrath for our forgiveness. God receives us rather for the sake of who Christ himself is: he is the righteous servant, the obedient Son.

Patrick Henry Reardon rightly mentions that in Jesus’ parables, there is an assumption that forgiveness is something that, if it is to be forgiveness (!!), must be given freely without payment. Reardon says this:

The image of man’s “debt” owed to God is, of course, perfectly biblical. Jesus spoke of God as “a certain creditor who had two debtors” (Luke 7: 41). He also described the judgment of God as the summoning of the master’s debtors (16: 1– 12). But with regard to this debitum of the Lord’s parables, we encounter an immense irony: It is the whole point in these parables that the debt is not paid; it is simply forgiven. As the Church Fathers understood these parables, they refer not specifically to the work of Christ, but to the mercy of God and to man’s obligation to imitate that mercy.  (Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 816-821)

By God’s mercy he releases us of our debt. Our justification is through Christ, “for the sake of Christ” yes, but that is not the same as saying that God forgives us because he punished Christ.

With all that said, I do accept some legal aspects of the cross. However I do not think that the primary purpose of the cross was to remove a legal barrier of God’s offense to our sin. He does hate our sin, to be sure. But in my estimation we must locate the reason for the cross elsewhere. The atonement makes us at one with God for yet another reason.

I would like to propose a second type of atonement which I would like to call participatory atonement:

Gerhard Forde once wrote that God is only “satisfied” when he recreates sinners who are no longer under wrath. “Christ’s work, therefore, ‘satisfies’ the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer ‘under’ wrath” (A More Radical Gospel, 97). In this sense God is doesn’t need payment so much as he desires to remove the barrier of sin from his people.

Of course, this still doesn’t help us understand the atonement, but it does help us to understand the real barrier: the problem isn’t God but rather us. We are the sinners who have been so corrupted and lost, that it will not suffice for God to simply forgive us. We must be radically recreated. But how does this recreation happen, and even more, how does this relate to the atonement? What I want to propose is that the atonement is nothing less than God’s radical solidarity with us in our sin, a traveling down into the depths of our fallenness in order to recreate us and raise us up.

Robert Jenson, in his Systematic Theology volume 2, says that the atonement is what it costs God to remain our loving Father; or, to remain in union with his people, to be in fellowship with humanity. What did it cost? How could he remain our Father even in the midst of our sin? Very simply, it cost him death. In order for him to remain what he wanted to be for us, he had to die.

But why death? Why the gruesome reality of the crucifixion?

Well, because that was our reality. We were in sin and death and corruption and fallenness. We were a broken mess. God could have in his sovereign legal power simply acquitted us of our wrongs, but that would not have been enough. It would not have changed our fundamentally fallen situation. And so, he had to do something about it. And what he did, was he stepped into our fallen situation. This is the fundamental point of the incarnation: God steps into our situation to redeem it.

Reardon explains it this way:

[T]he Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” (Reclaiming the Atonement, kin loc, 93-94)…

[I]f the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it. (231-33)

Reardon goes on to say that Christology is soteriology. God became man. God took on the fullness of our experience; and why did he do that? To redeem it; to transform it; to renew it; to glorify it. The early fathers of the church were fond of reversing their Christology in order to explain salvation: God became man; why? So that man might become God. By that they meant that God came down to raise us up. Christology is soteriology.

David Fagerberg explains it this way: “Our deification (sanctification) is twinned to Christ’s Incarnation. Mankind enters into the life of God because of his hypostatic union” (Consecrating the World, p 60). Fagerberg quotes John Chrysostom who says this about the incarnation and resurrection: “Two things He has done, the greatest things. He has both Himself descended to the lowest depth of humiliation, and has raised up man to the height of exaltation.” (ibid, 61)

Thus God condescended into our midst, into the brokenness of our situation, to redeem and raise us up. We may call this a model of participation or solidarity. God becomes what we are — sinful, broken, fallen — in order to make us what he is.

Thus the incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, must be seen as a whole. The cross is very simply the deepest depth of our fallen condition. Christ travels into the realm of death and defeats that reality, what the Eastern fathers called the harrowing of hell (icon above). God the Father vindicates (justifies) Christ from the dead, and enthrones our human nature at his right hand.

Mark A. McIntosh says this of the cross:

What we see happening in Christ on the cross is the stretching out of God to us in our affliction and separation from hope. There, in Jesus’ cry of dereliction, we see the Word of God finding us, sharing our plight, crying out to the Father. Our lostness and distance from each other and from God has been embraced within the “distance” of God’s eternal life of love, embraced within the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father, that one love — the bond of supreme union… — whom we know as God the Holy Spirit… Our suffering is forever embraced and suffered within this eternal loving which is God’s life. (Mysteries of Faith, 38-39)

In love, in forgiveness, God comes into our death, enters into our darkness, and embraces us so as to transform us. Salvation then is the reception of this embrace. We are acquitted of our wrongs “for the sake of Christ” and raised up and seated with Christ on high, removed from our fallen situation.

Athanasius, Atonement and the Image of God


At the beginning of his supreme work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that mankind was made according to the image of God. This theme of image, for Athanasius, is the starting and ending point for a proper theology of the incarnation and atonement. The inner logic of the incarnation and the death of Christ is, for Athanasius, connected to God’s creation of man in his own image. I want to survey Athanasius’ logic in this article.

First, Athanasius explains what is means to be made in God’s image: for Athanasius, to be created in God’s image means simply to share in God’s own life which allows man to become “like God”. Athanasius explains:

Upon them, …upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, [God] bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked — namely the impress of His own image (p 3)

Athanasius calls the image of God “a grace” or gift above natural creaturely life, for mankind is “essentially impermanent”. Athanasius, along with all the early Fathers, understood that because mankind was created out of nothing (ex nihilo), they did not in and of themselves contain eternal life. Thus, God breathed into mankind a share in his own life, giving them a supernatural grace to share in his own eternal life and to be conformed to His image.

Athanasius continues by explaining just what sharing in God’s image entails, namely,

a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise (p 3)

This is an incredible insight: Athanasius explains that because the Son is the express image of God — the very Word and revelation of the Father — the supernatural grace given to man upon creation was union and a share in the life of God the Son. This share int he Son allows man to have the mind of God (1 Cor 2, Phil 2), and to “continue forever” in God’s life. Put another way, Athanasius understands the supernatural gift of “the image” to be union with the Image of God, thus being formed into His image. The end goal of mankind then was to be conformed into Christlikeness!

But man sinned, and fell. And what were the effects of that fall? Athanasius understands sin not simply as a breaking of God’s law, but as a falling away or separation from union with the Son into corruption and “non-being”. Athanasius explains:

The transgression of the [first] commandment made them turn back again according to their own nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence. the presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good… (p 4)

This then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had graciously bestowed on them his own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption and death (p 5)

Sin for Athanasius is turning toward one’s own nature into corruption and eventually non-existence. Thus, man is born dying and decaying, and eventually “disappearing, and the work of God [is]… undone” (p 6).

But, as Athanasius explains, God did not want his work to simply “disappear”. What could He do? Athanasius concedes that God could simply offer repentance, but this would not be enough. And why? Because simple sorrow does not

recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough (p 8).

In other words, if the problem were just about an outward transgression, repentance and sorrow for sin would have been enough. But the transgression preceded a separation of man from participation in the Son, and thus toward corruption and decay. Put more simply, the problem wasn’t merely external, but internal. Something became fundamentally wrong with man’s own nature after Adam had sinned. God therefore had to renew mankind from the inside out, and conform him once again to His own Image. 

But how would God do that? How would he renew man to the image of the Son? Here we come to Athanasius’ supreme insight concerning the incarnation:

What else could [God] possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know him? And how could this be done save by the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of the God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image. (p 15)

Athanasius says that it is only the One true Image of God that could renew mankind after His own likeness. This is the impetus in Athanasius’ mind for incarnation: the Son comes into the broken down and corrupted image of man to renew it after his own likeness and sanctify it so that mankind can participate in God once again. 

Athanasius continues his line of logic:

In order to effect this re-creation, however, [Christ] had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need (p 16)

In order for death itself to be undone, the Image assumed a human body (nature) and took into himself death and disease and defeated it from the inside out. Christ took the broken image and recrafted it according to Himself. Here we come to the genius of Athanasius’ atonement theology: The Image took our broken image and re-imaged it according to His own Image! The cross was principally an assumption of the deepest brokenness of mankind. The resurrection then is a defeat of death and a re-creation of mankind. What joy!

God’s Wrath as Loving Consent


This post is part of a series of articles in which I “show my cards” on my theological positions. In this post I want to consider the biblical concept of wrath; what wrath means, how it can be said that God is a God of wrath, and the implications therein.

What I want to argue here is that when the Bible uses the term wrath, it uses it as an anthropomorphism to describe the divine consent to man’s determination to continue in his own sin. Put more simply, wrath is not a passion of God, (like a man who bursts into fits of anger) but is rather God’s sorrowful “yes” to man’s final “no” to him. It is a subset of love, because love allows man to say “yes” or “no” to the divine love. Should man set his face toward sin, even upon the greatest of persuasion by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God will release him and allow sin to destroy him. He does this in great sorrow, because God loves all mankind and desires that they be saved. But he refuses to force or coerce love, for the very nature of love is to allow freedom of choice.

I want to argue this in three steps: First, I want to establish a biblical definition of wrath from foundational theological principles and from Romans 1. Second, I’ll provide examples of wrath from famous biblical stories that support my view of wrath. Lastly, I want to consider the cross in connection to this definition of wrath.

First, defining wrath. As I said above, I take wrath to mean God’s consent to sin and self-destruction. God is decisive but passive and passionless in this process. The reason for this is because, theologically speaking, God is impassible, unchangeable, simple. Put another way, God does not experience change. He does not get impassioned. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus God cannot become angry in the human sense. Wrath must thus an anthropomorphism, something we attribute to God to understand him from our human experience.

Another important theological principle to consider is the fact that God is love, as 1 John 4:8 tells us. He is not wrath. He is not anger. He isn’t even mercy. God is love. Augustine tells us rightly that the Trinity informs our view of God as love. God is a community of Lover, Beloved, and Love. Within God there is a life of perfect love and self-sacrifice. God the Father begets the Son, and the Son responds with eucharistia to God the Father, and the Spirit binds the two together. God’s essence is thus love. Thus, when we talk about wrath, it must be placed within the context of Trinitarian love; any action he takes on behalf of the world must be subsumed under that love.

OK, now to Romans 1, a key text on wrath. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Ungodly men know that God exists, Paul tells us, and yet they replace him by worshipping created things rather than Creator (v. 23). For this reason, God reveals his wrath to them. But, the question is: what does his wrath look like? We are told by Paul that God’s wrath looks like a divine-giving-up. Paul tells us three times that “God gave them up” (v. 24, 26, 28) to their passions and sins. And this giving up is the “due penalty for their error” (v. 27).

Thus for Paul, wrath is not passionate, angry venting. It is not violent. It is rather a divine-giving-up. Or, put another way, it is a divine consent to sin. Brad Jersak explains:

[I]n the Bible, where we see or hear of God’s wrath, we are usually, actually seeing God’s nonviolent consent to the natural and supernatural forces of the world and of human freedom. God’s wrath is consent to allowing, and not sparing, the powerful consequences of these forces to take their course

[I]n Romans 1 (picking up from Isa. 64:5–7), Paul clarifies: what had been described in the narrative metaphorically as a seemingly active wrath is in fact the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of rebellious people to their own self-destructive trajectories—even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on innocents! When in Romans 5 we read that God in Christ was saving us from ‘the wrath,’ we are not to believe that Jesus is saving us from God, but from the consequences of sin (death, according to Rom. 6:23) imbedded in the very order of the universe. (source)

Wrath is thus “God’s nonviolent consent” to man’s willful sinful choices. In consenting to man’s sin, he is also permitting the consequences of sin to destroy us. Wrath is not the “retribution of a willful God, but [is rather] a metaphor for the consequences of God’s consent to our self-will and non-consent” to him (ibid, above). Thus all the consequences of sin in the Bible are not coerced by God. Rather, they are consented to.

But why does he do this? Because God is love. Love, if it is to be love, must be freely given and freely received. God recklessly creates man free so that man may freely return love to him. Hans Urs von Balthasar calls this gift of freedom a kenosis (self-denial) of the Godhead; a giving up of his own autonomous freedom to dependent beings so that they may respond in free love to Him:

It is possible to call this creation, together with the covenant associated with it—in Noah, and more patently in Abraham and Moses—a new “kenosis” on God’s part, since he is thereby restricted, implicitly by creaturely freedom and explicitly by the covenant with its stated terms. …[H]uman freedom [thus] participates in the divine autonomy, both when it says Yes and when it says No. (von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action. Kindle Locations 4925-4930)

Balthasar concludes, “man’s refusal is possible because of the trinitarian ‘recklessness’ of divine love, which, in its self-giving, observed no limits and had no regard for itself” (ibid, kindle 4941-4942).

Moving on to my second point, I want to consider a few OT stories. Because at this point we must still ask: what about the places in the Bible where it seems like God “pours out” his wrath? What about the stories where God seems very angry?

Brad Jersak again explains:

What of God’s active wrath? Did God not slaughter Egypt’s firstborn (Exod. 12)? Did God not massacre the Jewish grumblers in the wilderness (Num. 26)? Did God not incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) or repeatedly reduce Jerusalem to smoking rubble (Jer. 52)? Did God not strike down Ananias and Sapphira at Peter’s feet (Acts 5) or eat Herod alive with worms (Acts 12:23)?

No. And Yes.

First, no. Were these acts of violent intervention by an angry and punitive God who was reacting to sin? No. The causes of death are ascribed to ‘the Destroyer,’ to angelic or human agents of violence, or to Satan (Exod. 12:23; Gen. 19:13; Jer. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:9–10; Acts 5:3). God protects or ceases to harbour potential victims, depending on someone’s consent (or not) through repentance, surrender, or intercession (cf. Abraham in Gen. 18, or Moses in Exod. 33).

Second, yes. These were acts of God’s wrath in that God consented to allow natural and supernatural destruction to take its course through events set in motion by human decisions. In that sense, we read that God is seen to have ‘sent’ the destroyer and ‘sent’ the destruction—God is perceived as commissioning the destruction or even as the destroyer (Exod. 12:29; Gen. 19:14; Num. 21:6). (ibid, source above)

A first picturesque example of Jersak’s definition of wrath and divine consent is the story of Israel’s exile. Ezekiel connects the exile with the glory of the Lord leaving the temple (Ezekiel 10-11). The Shekinah cloud which had guided Israel out of bondage to Egypt, which had brought them to the Promised Land, which had overshadowed the mercy seat, which had been Israel’s crowning glory, had departed. And why did God’s glory leave the temple? It is because Israel had committed gross idolatry and mingled with the nations such that God could no longer dwell there. They had made themselves unclean. Thus, the covering left; and it was this divine-leaving that signaled Israel’s militaristic defeat and dispersion into the nations. God, in other words, was Israel’s protector. His presence and glory kept them in tact. But now that the glory had left, Israel’s protection was gone, and she was subsequently defeated and captured.

A second example is the story of the fall. The early church fathers understood Israel’s exile to be a micro-story of the entire cosmos. The earth was created to be filled with the glory of God as the temple was filled by the cloud. When God created Adam and Eve, he breathed his Spirit into them, and filled them with the divine-life; or put another way, he filled them with the Shekinah cloud and sustained them by his power. Adam was tasked as priest and king with spreading the glory of God over the world, offering to God the entire creation in eucharistia. Thus all of creation was created to participate in the Trinitarian life, created to be YHWH’s earth-temple. When Adam sinned, God’s glory left his earth-temple, and the entire world was left desolate and corrupt, left to die and descend into nothingness apart from the energizing glory of God. Mankind, even the entire cosmos, “fell” from the divine life and was left alone in its finitude.

One last example is the flood. The flood was obviously a judgment of God. God saw that the world was unclean with sin, and could not bare it any longer. However, the normal way people envision the flood story is that God forced the clouds to rain for days upon end. It is my contention that the flood story is better understood as God’s removal of his divine hand of protection from the world, and allowing the world to collapse into itself. Often overlooked, Genesis 7:11 tells us, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Genesis 8:2 says that in order to stop the flood, he “closed” the gates of the deep and the windows of the heaven. What does this mean?

We can understand by looking at the creation narrative in Genesis 1:6ff. Within the biblical account of creation, it is said on day two that God separated the waters from the sky and the earth, and placed a “firmament” between the two. Ancient near Eastern peoples understood there to be a solid dome-like structure holding the waters in heaven from destroying the earth, and the solid ground to be holding the waters from gushing upwards (source); and the flood was understood to be a removal of those guards, allowing the earth to collapse in on itself. The point here is not to critique Ancient near Eastern world views, and even more importantly, to fit our modern view of science into this story. The point rather is to say that the flood story is about God removing his hand of protection from the earth, allowing his creation to become formless and void again, allowing it to become what it was before he shaped and ordered the universe. The cosmos, without God’s help, will collapse into nothingness. And had not God preserved Noah and his family, there would be nothing left!

So then, these stories demonstrate wrath as divine consent; as God removing his hand and allowing sin to do what sin does: corrupt, destroy, kill, envelop in on itself. He does this reluctantly and with sorrow, but it must be done. He allows the “no” of man’s sin to have its effect. Hell then must be understood as the final “no” to God. It is life without God. It is the eternal sorrow of having at last outrun God. It is living autonomously, without the divine life and love, collapsing in on the self forever and ever.

Now, as we end, on to the atonement. To continue from my last post, given this biblical definition of wrath, we may say in a qualified sense that Jesus experienced wrath. Christ lovingly, voluntarily, entered into our fallen state and into the effects of death by the incarnation, and was consequently cut off from life at the cross. The Father is said to have given up “his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to the powers of this age; and he did not intervene to save him (as he did when Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son). He removed his hand of protection and allowed his Son to be enveloped by the deluge of sin and evil; he allowed his Son to experience Israel’s exile; he allowed his Son experience the full corruption and death of the adamic state of affairs. He became a curse for us and with us; he completely united himself to our sufferings. And, if you wish to call that penal substitution, well, then OK.

But — and this must be emphasized — even though we may say that Jesus experienced wrath, we may not say that the Father was ever against the Son, or that the Father vented his anger on the Son. In fact, even while the Son experienced this divine-giving-up by the Father, the Father was with him by the Holy Spirit; and pleased with him, rejoicing in the cross-event. And why? Because in the cross, Christ gave himself in an act of selfless love; of love for man and for God, and in so doing, fulfilled the whole of the law. This made the Father exceedingly glad because in giving himself in love, Christ was embodying, fulfilling, completing the Torah. His self-sacrifice of love was what the Torah demanded, and subsequently what merited our salvation! It was the obedience and love that the Father always wanted!

In fact — and this is important — while the world was against Christ, murdering him, hating him, finding him guilty, the Father saw in him justice and goodness and perfect agape love because of his solidarity with our death. And because of that very justice and righteousness and innocence, the Father is said to have pronounced him innocent and just, and thus vindicated and raised him up in glory. The resurrection means principally that the Father pronounced a verdict of innocent, and in pronouncing this innocence, the Father delivered him from death. Taken a level deeper, by our union with Christ, we are said to participate in Christ’s vindication and resurrection. This is how Christ is said to have merited our salvation.

In this paradoxical way, the cross is both a place of divine-giving-up and a divine-filling-up. In the cross Christ at once united himself with our death and filled our death with his love. In my next post I will consider the doctrine of theosis from the fathers.


Christ the New Adam


One of the earliest models of atonement was Irenaeus’ recapitulation model. In this model, Christ replaces Adam as the head of the human race by obeying and overcoming where Adam sinned and was thus overcome. Irenaeus famously gets his “recapitulation” idea from Ephesians 1:10, which says that God planned to, as the ESV says, “unite all things in [Christ]”. The Greek word for unite, anakephalaiosasthai, is better translated as “sum up”, or “to bring things together”. Paul uses the root cepha in this word, which is “head”. Irenaeus thus translated it as “re-heading all things in Christ”. The idea here is that Christ is the new “head of all things”. Through his life and death, Christ “re-starts” that which was lost in Adam. Christ is the beginning of a new humanity.

Irenaeus got this theme primarily from Paul, who in several letters drew a strong parallel between Christ and Adam. In Romans 5, Paul tells us that death was transmitted to all mankind through Adam, even to those who were not guilty of Adam’s primordial sin; but through Christ’s “one act of righteousness”, death has been defeated and righteousness is thus returned to the human race in him. Paul brings the same parallel to bear in 1 Corinthians 15, saying that Christ is the last adam, the last man who replaces Adam. The point here is that Christ came to undo or overcome or reverse the effects of Adam’s sin. As Irenaeus says, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true”. (Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 2209-2210)

The Christ/Adam theme is not unique to Paul, though. Patrick Henry Reardon, in his book Reclaiming the Atonement, argues that Paul’s Christ/Adam theology was actually drawing from a much older tradition evident in other NT writings. 

As proof for this, Reardon turns to the gospel narratives. In each of the gospels, the authors are careful (almost unnoticeably) to connect certain narratives with the Genesis creation accounts. For instance, after Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and subsequent victory over Satan, Mark tells us that Christ was with the “wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (1:13). Reardon comments on this verse:

[A]n early story transmitted in Mark, precisely in the context of Jesus’ temptations, preserved the tradition of our Lord’s companionship with the animals (1: 13). This story, of course, puts the reader in mind of Adam in the midst of the animals in Genesis. Jesus’ victory over His temptations by Satan thus inaugurates a new state of Paradise, as it were, in which the friendly relations of men and beasts, disrupted since the Fall, are restored. (Kindle Locations 2155-2158)

The verse is so small one could easily miss the significance: Christ was tempted by the “snake”, and yet has overcome! Thus he began to restore the paradise which Adam lost through his sin. The wild animals are no longer “beasts”, but are becoming tamed and under his headship as Lord.

Reardon also brings in Luke’s gospel:

In Luke the Adam/ Christ analogy is subtler, and we discern it in the way the Lord’s genealogy is arranged. To detect this, we may observe two differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.

First, unlike Matthew, Luke traces the Lord’s lineage all the way back to Adam, not just to Abraham. This format emphasizes Jesus’ relationship to the whole human race and not just the Jews. For this reason, in citing the famous Isaian text that begins the ministry of John the Baptist in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 3: 3; Mark 1: 2– 3; Luke 3: 4– 6), Luke alone quotes the words, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Second, whereas Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus comes at the beginning of his Gospel, Luke places it after the Lord’s Baptism and right before the account of His temptation. This arrangement prompts the reader to make the comparison that Luke has in mind to imply, the temptations of Jesus and the temptation of Adam. (Kindle Locations 2158-2165)

So, Luke carefully situates Christ’s baptism before his temptation, thus alerting us that he is facing the same temptation as Adam. Thus the temptation narratives become a way of retelling the creation story, but under the headship of Christ. Christ is called to reenact, as it were, the temptation of Adam in the garden and to overcome the effects of sin.

From this Reardon argues that Irenaeus’ doctrine is very ancient, and very biblically rooted: Christ has come to reverse the effects of death, to renew the human race in himself as its new head:

He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us with salvation in a succinct, inclusive manner, so that what we had lost in Adam— namely, to exist according to the image and likeness of God— that we might recover in Christ Jesus. (Kindle Locations 2199-2201)



On the Doctrine of Original Sin: Why we fell with Adam

Adam original sin

One of the more novel notions of Christian doctrine — at least from the world’s perspective — is this notion of original sin. Namely, that human beings are born apart from God. And, that they are born apart from God on the basis of an earlier act in which we weren’t present. 

Christian doctrine supposes that Adam, the first man, was brought into a covenant with God at the point of his creation; and that by coming into covenant with the triune God, Adam was given a share of divine life, becoming a son of God. Author Scott Hahn says that on the seventh day of creation, God made a “covenant with mankind. [And in doing so,] God took Adam and Eve into his own family. God made them his children” (Love Comes First, 55). And so God created mankind, but he did not simply create humanity: God transcended the Creator/creature relationship, and condescended into a Father/son relationship. And so Adam was elevated into God’s family by virtue of this covenant.

However, as is explicit in the Genesis text, Adam’s sonship was conditioned upon confirmed obedience to God. And as long as Adam was obedient, Hahn says, “the Father would raise up His son, Adam, to be a father himself, a father who would in turn raise up many children of God” (ibid, 56). In other words, as Adam confirmed himself in sonship, he would in turn generate progeny who, by virtue of Adam’s own sonship, would be divine sons. And thus, all of mankind would share in divine life as God’s family in Adam (cf. Rom 5:12-21).

However, we find that Adam did not continue and confirm himself in obedience, but instead “violated the covenant… [And] in breaking the covenant, he separated himself and all his offspring from God’s family… Adam chose instead to live outside the family as a slave” (ibid, 57).

As a result of sin, Adam broke this covenant with God, and tore himself from the divine sonship which he had. Thus, this participation that Adam had in God’s life was stolen from him — or better put, he ripped himself from that life, and from God’s family. And not just himself, but his entire progeny. Because of Adam, all of humanity — all of Adam’s descendants —  would be born apart from God’s life; would be born under covenant curses; would be born in brokenness and sinfulness.

This is why we may say that every person is born in original sin: in as much as we originate from Adam, we are left devoid of divine life and righteousness. We are a broken and marred species, for we are born apart from our divine destiny; apart from God himself. In other words, we have fallen from grace. And we are left lifeless and sinful, in the greater context of a broken covenant.

Karl Adams says this of mankind wholeness in original sin:

Adam, the first man, called to share by grace in the divine life, represented in God’s eyes the whole of mankind. Adam’s fall was the fall of mankind. Detached from its original supernatural goal, mankind then, like some planet detached from its sun, revolved only in crazy gyration round itself…

[M]ankind must not be regarded as a mass of homogeneous beings successively emerging and passing away, nor merely as a sum of men bound together by unity of generation, as being descendants of one original parent, but as one single man. So closely are men assimilated to one another in their natural being, in body and in mind, so profoundly are they interlocked in thinking, willing, feeling, and acting, so solitary is their life, their virtue and their sin, that they are considered in the divine plan of redemption only as a whole, only as a unity, only as one man. This one man is not the individual man, but the whole man, the totality of the innumerable expressions of that humanity which is reproduced in countless individuals.

In other words, mankind as one unit was torn — or rather tore himself — away from this divine elevation granted by God. And as a result, each individual as a part of the whole, is said to be born in sin, apart from God’s covenant friendship, and in need of salvation and restoration.

While this might seem unfair, what we must affirm is that mankind is one. We are a kind, a species, a creation, born together through progeny. And as the one goes, so goes the whole. This is the meaning behind original sin. We inherit our parents’ state — and thus we are in solidarity with them.

And consequently, this is the purpose behind the incarnation: In the incarnation, Christ was not simply visiting mankind. Rather, Christ was uniting fallen humanity and God back together again. This is the deepest meaning of Christ as the God-man. In himself, as the God-man, Jesus was becoming a new humanity; a new Adam in whom God and mankind were once again at-one (hence, the meaning of atonement: “at-one-ment”).

And so, in the incarnation, Jesus united this broken humanity to back God. Karl Adams explains,

The whole man came once more into being, permanently united with God, and so effectively united that for mankind as a whole the grace of redemption can no more be lost, although the individual man can withdraw himself from this whole. Therefore Christ, as the God-man, is the new humanity, the new beginning, the whole man in the full meaning of the phrase.

Whence it follows clearly that the Church was already, in the mystery of the Incarnation, established as an organic community. The “many,” the sum total of all who are redeemed in Christ, are in their inner relationship to one another, in their interrelation and correlation, in their organic communion, objectively and finally the Body of Christ, for this Body is redeemed humanity, the “reconciled world”.

In other words, the church is a new mankind in Christ. Why? Because Christ took upon himself this fallen humanity, died in its place — thus taking the covenant curses — and raised it back to glory (view this post for more info on atonement/resurrection). And so, in Christ, we are dead to sin, and raised to a new state of being — back to divine sonship.