Ben Myers: On The Atonement

Dr. Benjamin Myers is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at United Theological College (Australia). His teaching and research focus on systematic theology, but he also has wide interests in literature, political thought, and contemporary culture.

October 2015
Alvin Rapien
Ben Myers
Who are your greatest influences?

My mother and father.

What books are you reading right now, and why?

Well I read a lot of fiction and right now I’m reading a lot of Dostoevsky as well as the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. She’s not for the faint-hearted! In theology I’ve been reading some of the volumes of Erasmus’ collected works. He’s a wonderfully spirited and eclectic author, one of those writers whose personality shines through on every page. I’ve also been reading Troeltsch’s Social Teaching of the Christian Churches for the first time. It’s one of those books that I’ve always meant to read and I finally got around to it. A major book, still bristling with provocative ideas a century after it was written. And I’m always reading patristics stuff. I’ve just started Peter Marten’s new book on Origen and scripture, and Peter Brown’s latest book on afterlife and wealth in early Christianity. It’s such a treat when Peter Brown releases a book!

You recently gave a lecture discussing “A Patristic Model of Atonement”. What are some key texts that represent this model?

In my undergraduate christology class I get my students to read the third volume of Against Heresies by Irenaeus, followed by On the Incarnation by Athanasius. Those two texts have been very important for me, and they both had a lot to do with the understanding of atonement sketched out in the lecture. In both cases there’s a strong link between incarnation and atonement. In both cases there’s a strong underlying commitment to the two natures of Christ. And in both cases the emphasis is on Christ’s defeat of death, not on sacrifice or appeasing divine wrath or anything like that.

What influenced you to write and lecture on this particular topic?

Well the atonement was the theme of the conference. I wanted to use the language of “atonement” – an obvious anachronism – to try to show the logic of patristic theology. One of my arguments in the lecture is that patristic soteriology was a lot more coherent than some scholars have claimed. For example Gustaf Aulen said that patristic soteriology was basically impressionistic and metaphorical rather than systematic. The conference was organised by a good friend of mine, Oliver Crisp. He does a lot of work in analytic theology, so, as a kind of tribute to him, I also tried to use some analytical thinking in the lecture to set out the patristic view with that kind of precision and clarity. I think it’s important for Christians to be as clear as possible about explaining how Jesus saves. This isn’t always necessary in preaching but it’s extremely important in apologetics and conversations of that kind.

This model of atonement not only discusses the category of “atonement”, but also presupposes (or affects) certain assumptions of another category, namely anthropology. What other categories might be affected by this “Patristic Model”?

Well the patristic view makes no sense at all unless you believe that Jesus Christ is truly human and truly divine in one person. So there’s a very strong link to christology. It also entails a deep commitment to the goodness of the world as God’s creation, and specifically the goodness of the body and of human nature as God’s image. Also, in this view evil has to be seen as a privation of goodness but never a positive quality in its own right. God triumphs over evil in the way that light “triumphs” over darkness when you turn on the lamp. I also think this view implies the universal reach of the atonement. If the whole of human nature is affected by what happens in Christ, then every human life is somehow related to Christ. That’s why some of the early Christians understood hell not as a separate venue for sinners, but as one possible way of experiencing God’s love. If you harden your heart to love, then when someone lovingly reaches out to you it can feel like torment, like fire. So instead of thinking of heaven and hell as two different places, they might be two different ways of responding to an infinite love. So there are some eschatological implications too.

You critiqued Gustaf Aulén’s work, Christus Victor, by asserting that he (mis)read the Church Fathers in the light of an alien metaphysic. However, you also praised his work for some of its positive aspects, namely an ecumenical approach. What did you mean by this?

Aulen’s book was written in the context of the ecumenical movement, and it was clearly meant to be a contribution to ecumenical theology from a Lutheran perspective. It was translated into English by a leading Anglican ecumenical scholar. The book depicts both Roman Catholic and Protestant views of the atonement as too narrow and one-sided. There’s no point trying to reconcile those positions. Instead Aulen points to a deeper, richer patristic tradition as a common source from which all the churches can draw, i.e. Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. I think that’s a very noble aim. And I agree wholeheartedly with the general idea, that the divided churches shouldn’t just sit around fine-tuning their differences but should reach back to earlier, deeper traditions. That’s one reason why the current interest in early Christian theology is so exciting. I hope it won’t just prompt Protestants to convert to other churches, but will also revitalise the witness and worship of Protestant churches from within. Anyway, although I disagree with Aulen’s understanding of patristic theology, I agree with what his book was trying to achieve. ‍

Near the end of your lecture, you mentioned theosis, which is often associated with Eastern Orthodox theology. Do you agree with Michael Gorman that theosis is at the center of Saint Paul’s theology? Why or why not?

If by theosis we mean participation, then yes, absolutely. That phrase “in Christ” just keeps tolling like a bell through all the Pauline letters. It’s not that Christ was an instrument that God used to fix things up. Rather, for St Paul, Christ is himself our salvation. Christ is humanity made new, he is the place where human nature now resides, he is the new Adam who includes all human beings within himself, he is the oldest brother of many adopted siblings, all of whom now share in his status. Christ is God’s child by nature, and we are God’s children by grace. We get to share by grace everything that belongs to Christ by nature. We are adopted, but God treats us with all the privileges of natural sons and daughters. We eat at the same table with Christ. We exercise the same freedoms that we see in Christ. We address God with the same words, “Abba, Father.” We know God as Christ knows God – from the inside. “Theosis” or “deification” is just a convenient shorthand to describe all that. Personally I think the word “participation” is better, since it doesn’t just describe what’s happening to me, but it describes the way I’m drawn into something beyond myself – into Christ’s relationship to his Father through the Holy Spirit.

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