I just began reading Christus Victor last night. In it, author Gustaf Aulén writes, “There are not different theories of the atonement in the Fathers, but only varient expressions of one and the same idea.”
I want to argue that whether he is correct or not, as long as the quote is applied to all the major doctrines of the fathers, is the most important question a Christian can answer other than “Is Jesus Lord?”
Irenaeus, around AD 185, makes this bold claim about Christians:
The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith … the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. (Against Heresies I:X:1-2)
Irenaeus had reason to know. As a youth, he sat under the teaching of Polycarp, in Smyrna in Asia Minor. Polycarp had been appointed, it is said, by apostles. Irenaeus left Asia Minor as an adult for Gaul, to evangelize the barbarians, which he did successfully, living among them for the rest of his life. He kept close contact with both Rome (to whom Against Heresies was addressed), the closest apostolic church, and Asia, where his home lay.
If anyone had the ability to know the universality and content of the teaching of the late second century churches, it was Irenaeus.
He was not the only one to say such things. Just a few years later, Tertullian—of Carthage in North Africa—would base his entire argument against gnostic heretics on the unity of the apostolically founded churches in his legal brief, The Demurrer Against Heretics:
Is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? No casualty distributed among many men issues in one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various issues. When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition. Can anyone, then, be reckless enough to say that they were in error who handed on the tradition? (ch. 28)
Yes, Tertullian. Not just anyone can be that reckless, but in our day, everyone can.
Eighteen centuries later, churches that have been dividing and divided for centuries, whose worldliness—nay, whose defense of worldliness—would have astounded you and aroused the ire of your pen at least as much as the gnostic heretics you combatted, would freely and recklessly charge your churches, united and known everywhere for love, with error in handing on the tradition.
One Faith or Many?
Does it matter whether Irenaeus or Tertullian were right or wrong?
If the churches were not united, if there were different theories of the atonement—of salvation, of faith, of works, of the Trinity—then there is room for the development of doctrine. If one church of Irenaeus’ time believed one thing and was right, and another believed another thing and was wrong, then there is room for a church from the fourth century to believe one thing and be right, while a church from the second century believed another and was wrong.
If, then, it is possible for a church of the fourth century to hold a true doctrine, while a second century church held a false one, then it is possible for a church of the twenty-first century church to hold truth in contradiction to churches of the second.
But if Irenaeus and Tertullian are correct, and all the churches of the second century believed one thing on all these doctrines, and if the only reason that these churches believed one thing was because all their doctrines descended from one common source, then there is no room for a twenty-first century church to believe one thing and be right, while a second century church believed another and was wrong because all second century churches believed the same thing.
Development of Doctrine
We love the development of doctrine in church history.
We must. If there is no development of doctrine, but only corruption of doctrine, as Irenaeus and Tertullian argue, then the rug has been pulled out from under many, or even most, of the traditions of modern Christianity, no matter which branch we care to defend, because most of our traditions have no foundation in the united churches of the second century. This would mean that they have no foundation in the apostles, who passed on the fullness of the faith to those second century churches.
That is, if Irenaeus and Tertullian are right.
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” as some [gnostics] do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. (Against Heresies III:I:1)
What is development of doctrine, if it be claimed that doctrine has developed to more accuracy, more fullness, or a better explanation, than improving upon the apostles, the very thing Irenaeus found “unlawful to assert”?
I wrote an entire book, Decoding Nicea, arguing that the doctrine of the Trinity did not develop, but was one united message from the time of the apostles until fourth century battles over the Trinity after the Council of Nicea (where the bishops confirmed and codified what all the fathers had said before them). By producing a deluge of quotes, so copius and so widespread among pre-Nicene authors as to confirm themselves as universal, I showed that there was not diverse, nor even advancing, opinions among the fathers, but harmony, many voices singing one song.
Now I have found Christus Victor, which argues that the multiple voices found among early fathers concerning the atonement are another myth, vapor vanishing in the gust of a closer look.
Perhaps it is time to consider that Professer Aulén is correct or, even more importantly, that Irenaeus and Tertullian were correct.
In fact, perhaps the greatest concern of all is that Jesus was talking about us when he said, “They worship me to no purpose, teaching teachings that are the sayings of men” (Mark 7:7).
It is said that I sometimes kick the foundation out from under my readers or hearers, leaving nowhere for them to stand. I’m sure that is true, as I expect those who find that their foundation is crumbling under them to look, or at least ask, for a firmer place to stand.
My expectations, however, need not be met, only our Lord’s. So let me direct you to safer ground.
The foundation of God stands sure, having this insignia: “The Lord knows those who are his” and “Let those who name the name of the King depart from inquity.” (2 Tim. 2:19)
We have time to sort out these things, my friends, as long as we who call upon the name of Jesus will obey him.
Oh, that’s right. Many of you have no good idea of what it means to obey him, and you fear you will not obey him enough. Stick around. There is nothing we talk about more around here.
Oh, and happy New Year!