Natural Consequences (5): Athanasius on the Law of Death

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This post is an argument that Athanasius’ understanding of “the law of death” in his On the Incarnation is not that of God retributively punishing sinners for Adam’s transgression, and that Athanasius’ statements about how God could not “go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die” do not imply that God promised to impose capital punishment on humans.  I will also attempt to answer the question “who does Athansius think Christ pays the debt to on the cross?”

The main passages in dispute are these:

It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die ; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. (Section 6, p32 SVS Press edition; all subsequent quotations are from this edition)

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter.  As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon his word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence.  He could not falsify Himself; what then, was God to do? (Section 7, p32)

But repentance would not guard the divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. (Section 7, p33)

Initially these seem to be implying a kind of penal view of human death.  God has promised to punish us with death.  But let us reflect on these passages in context.

When Athanasius says “His word” he is clearly referring to “in the day that you shall eat of the tree you shall die” (Genesis 2:17). This does not seem to be a decree of divine retributive punishment, at least in Athanasius’ theology. For if it were, then Athanasius’ answer to the question “He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression?” would be, “yes, and that repentance would remove the law of death” or “no, he would punish Christ to satisfy the demands of God in the law of death.”   For on a retributive understanding, the fulfillment of contract, or removing the punishment of violating a contract, would be sufficient for removing the law of death. Instead, Athanasius says these two things:

“The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape.” (Section 6, p32)

“Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does it make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God.” (Section 7, p33)

So fulfillment of a contract or removal of the punishment that follows for violating a contract (by repentance) is not sufficient to remove the law of death. There’s some other kind of necessity that seems like it exists in this “law of death”. The first quote explicitly says the problem with humanity is “the law of death” and that it is an inescapable necessity that comes “from the Transgression”.  The second quote says the problem is that “a power of corruption proper to [human] nature”.  This is clearly referring to the law of death, because it speaks of the inescapability and necessity of the problem with humanity.  But notice what the second quote implies. The law of death is a law like a “law of nature” not a “law of government”, and as both quotes imply, it comes from the misdirection of human nature via sin, not a divine decree (at least this isn’t explicit; and its absence surely has some kind of significance). So it doesn’t seem to be divinely-imposed retribution. And this is confirmed further still in that Athanasius explicitly calls it the “natural law of death” (section 3, page 29). And further quotes could be added to this.

But what does Athanasius mean by “It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die”? Given the interpretative framework suggested above, the best way to take this phrase (and it is a very natural way) is to say that if God had caused something to happen contrary to his predictive statement “in the day that you shall eat of the tree you shall die” then he would have lied. For God’s prediction would have been falsified. This isn’t to say, though, that God would be going back on his word in the sense of “retracting a decree about the punishment he would retributively inflict on human beings”. It is a promise, but its a promise more of the sort “I promise you that if you waste your money in Vegas, you will be unhappy” than “I promise you that if you waste your money in Vegas, I will punish you.”

Can this interpretation explain the “debt language” too? Lets see. So far, the idea seems to be that the law of death is not a legal obligation imposed by God. So if a debt is going to be paid, the actual person Christ paid the debt to cannot be God. And Athanasius agrees. In fact, it isn’t a person that Christ pays a debt to at all. It is a law. But it isn’t a retributive-type moral law, it is a “natural” law (in some sense). It is the law of death:

But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved the power of His Godhead by His [energies/activities], He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also he showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection. (Section 20, p49 in the SVS press version)

The advantage of this interpretation is that it fits with what Athanasius says about the law of death, and about God going back on his word; the retributive interpretation seems to only fit with the stuff about God going back on his word.  It also correctly predicts that the answer to the question “who does Christ be the debt to?” will be not “the Father” but “the law of death”.  The notable absence of any statements by Athanasius about God punishing retributively is also significant; we would expect him to make frequent mention of this if this were part of his interpretive framework.  Thus it seems this interpretation coheres better with Athansius’ work as a whole.

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20 Responses to “Natural Consequences (5): Athanasius on the Law of Death”

  1. Justin Richter Says:

    In regards to Athanasius, I think you are making a false dichotomy between a “governmental law” and “natural law.” On one hand, I do not think it is retributive in the sense of, “if you make fun of my Mom, then I will punch you in the face.” On the other hand, I don’t think it is a law of natural consequence like, “if you jump off a cliff, you will die.” This is a different situation because it is God who said, “If you eat of the tree, you will surely die.” I think Athanasius would agree that there is not natural consequence with God, because all of existence is dependent on Him. The reason why Adam/humanity suffered corruption when the fruit was eaten, was because God SAID that would be the case; It was a speech-act.

    I think you are right that we don’t owe God. It was helpful that you point that out. But we do have a contractual obligations with Him because we have sinned against Him. As Athanasius put it, we are indebted to the Law of Death. But, it is clear that God is the author of that Law. If God is faithful to His word, then there is no escaping that law which He instituted. In some sense it is both governmental and natural because it is a Divine institution.

  2. MG Says:

    Justin–

    Thank you for taking the time to come on over and interact on my blog; I hope it wasn’t inconvenient that I responded in the form of a post (I wanted others to be able to read, because this kind of stuff has come up often lately with various folks).

    You wrote:

    “The reason why Adam/humanity suffered corruption when the fruit was eaten, was because God SAID that would be the case; It was a speech-act.”

    I disagree. I think that the reason Adam/humanity suffer corruption according to Athanasius is because of a disordering of the natural functions of things. God didn’t say it to be the case in a way that super-added death onto nature by divine decree. We should really say not “man suffered because God said it” but rather “God said it because He foreknew that man would suffer”. The logical order is “nature->descriptive prediction”, not “prescriptive decree->nature”. This seems to be the conclusion of my exegetical arguments in this post.

    What makes you think that God is the author of the law of death? And if he is the author, in what sense is he author? It seems like “the law of death” is different from “His word regarding death” given the exegetical arguments above. God’s faithfulness to his word is different from the inescapability of the law of death. Would you agree or not?

    You say that you agree with me that we don’t owe God. But you also seem to say we have contractual obligations to him, and that we are indebted to him (indirectly, through the law of death). Isn’t this the same as saying we owe God something? (I can see how it *might* not be the same, but I’m interested in how you would explain it) If the contractual obligation of God is (or results in the imposition of) the law of death, isn’t this another way of saying that because we haven’t fulfilled our side of the contract, God will retributively punish us with death?

    To say something is a natural consequence is not to say God is uninvolved or that nature functions by itself. In Orthodox theology, there is no such thing as “pure nature apart from God”, either in reality or conceptually; so I’m not saying nature functions apart from God. But the question is what kind of involvement God has in the running of the world. Athanasius seems to think there is such a thing as a “natural law of death” (section 3, page 29). Surely this can’t be referring to direct divine involvement, without any kind of secondary causes? It seems like it is talking about the God-empowered regular movements of nature–even if the nature that God is empowering is corrupt.

    When I said “governmental law” I probably should have clarified: I meant “prescriptive law”. Specifically I meant a prescription of punishment. I didn’t mean a divine decision about how to constitute the universe and infuse principles of regularity into it (something I would include as “natural law”, even though it could come under the name “governmental law”). You seem to deny that the retributive law is what is going on. So would you agree with me then that it is *just natural* in the sense I have articulated thus far? (or governmental, if by that we mean “divine decision about the principles of regularity in the universe)

  3. David Says:

    Mike,

    Aren’t we still running into the same problem of merely assuming that because something is a “natural consequence” that there is NO retributive intent whatsoever? I mean, it would be one thing if Penal models denied that any punishment was “natural” and that God always comes down and personally causes some kind of suffering by fiat, but as far as I know they don’t do that. It seems to me that you can’t simply show that “God designed the universe in such a way that if you do x then y will happen.” You need to demonstrate that there is no retributive intent whatsoever in the occurrence of y.

  4. MG Says:

    David–

    Considering that we’re dealing with Athanasius here, and not Scripture, it should be an open question for the Reformed interpreter whether or not he thinks that there is such thing as divine retribution for sin. I think the burden of proof is on the person who would argue the positive claim “Athanasius believes in divine retribution for sin in the form of death” given that as of yet, I haven’t seen any solid evidence presented for this claim that stands up to scrutiny. Maybe in Scripture it is taught that there is actually built into nature a divine retribution for sin, but why think *St. Athanasius himself* believed that?

    It seems like in order to say that the law of death is retributive, it would have to be something superadded to nature by God with the intent of punishing man. This simply is not in Athanasius from what I can tell. And the same arguments above about the insufficiency of repentance/penal substitution would apply.

    Also, consider the following quotes:

    “Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.” Section 5

    “By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.” Section 4

    It really sounds like Athanasius is just saying there is a possibility of death present in creation because humanity was created out of nothing. Surely God’s decision to create out of nothing was not an act of retribution? It also seems like he’s saying and implying nothing more than that human beings caused their own death.

    Furthermore, consider how Athanasius refers to the fault we would attribute to God if he had let men die:

    “As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be *neglected* and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but *limitation*, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be *carried off by corruption*, because *it would be unfitting and unworthy* of himself.” Section 6

    So God’s failure would be called *neglect* and would imply *limitation* or *indifference*. Notice that Athanasius doesn’t say that God’s failure would be thought of in terms of him being a brute, or too harsh in his punishment. Why doesn’t Athansius bother with that accusation? It seems like it would be the more appropriate concern if your understanding of natural law is correct.

  5. Justin Richter Says:

    No I wouldn’t agree with you because of passages like this in 2.9,

    “For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. ”

    The idea of requirement and substitution entails a covenantal/contractual agreement. What requirement did Jesus fulfill? The requirement of death that God promised would happen if the fruit was eaten. Jesus’ death certainly didn’t fulfill a consequence.

    I want reiterate that I do not think Athanasius believes that death is a natural consequence in the way you intend it. Even though God didn’t directly punish the sin, doesn’t mean there is not retribution involved. If I make a law that requires the death penalty for murder, it doesn’t mean that I have to be the executioner. The punishment of sin is corruption, which is the logical retribution for turning away from God. It makes sense. God isn’t directly punishing them, but their is punishment none the less.

  6. Justin Richter Says:

    On further thought, I do concede that Athanasius focuses on salvation from death and corruption, and not from a ‘just wrath.’ It is quite different then your typical protestant Gospel. Yet, this doesn’t negate the idea that corruption itself is Divine retribution in some sense.

  7. MG Says:

    Justin–

    you wrote:

    “The idea of requirement and substitution entails a covenantal/contractual agreement. What requirement did Jesus fulfill? The requirement of death that God promised would happen if the fruit was eaten. Jesus’ death certainly didn’t fulfill a consequence.”

    I would argue that the same language of sacrifice and debt is used elsewhere in Athanasius to mean things that are not *legal* as we would normally understand them. Take, for example

    “…the Word assumed a human body expressly in order that He might offer it in sacrifice for other like bodies: ‘Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, He also Himself assumed the same, in order that through death He might bring to nought Him that hath the power of death, that is to say, the Devil, and might rescue those who all their lives were enslaved by the fear of death.'” section 10

    Here, sacrifice has a purificatory effect and is connected to ontological liberation from the coercive and murdering power of the devil. Yes, this is substitionary atonement. But the fact that it is substitutionary doesn’t mean it is penal. Why infer penal from substitutionary? Why not think it is *ontological* substitution?

    Then there is the important passage about the debt owed to death, where the following language is used: “settle man’s account with death”. This shows that by the debt/account/substitute/fulfill language, he can mean something different than “payment to God to compensate for harms done”. It doesn’t have to be payment to a person. And, taking into account my argument in the post about why the law of death isn’t a prescriptive penal law (because it wouldn’t be anulled by the kind of response that a prescriptive law would be anulled by) this makes it even more difficult to infer what you are saying from St. Athanasius. So my argument in the post and in the comments above has been that in talking about the debt paid to the natural law of death, Athanasius says precisely what we would expect if he thought that death was a natural consequence of sin; and he omits precisely what we would expect if he does not think that God retributively inflicts death upon us.

    Also, notice that in his stories he doesn’t talk about the satisfaction of a divine law. Death is referred to as an enemy. It is something hostile–an invader, not a servant of the King, or a law of the King.

    you wrote:

    “I want reiterate that I do not think Athanasius believes that death is a natural consequence in the way you intend it. Even though God didn’t directly punish the sin, doesn’t mean there is not retribution involved. If I make a law that requires the death penalty for murder, it doesn’t mean that I have to be the executioner. The punishment of sin is corruption, which is the logical retribution for turning away from God. It makes sense. God isn’t directly punishing them, but their is punishment none the less.”

    I’m interested in seeing where in Athanasius you see the idea of retribution. Do you mean by retribution something like “inflicting harm in response and proportionate to the guilt of an offending party”? (I take this to be the common definition of retribution) If so, I still haven’t seen any good arguments that Athanasius believed this was happening. All the appeals to legal language can be explained by pointing to the party that gets paid–death–and to the kind of law that is being paid–a natural law. If this data isn’t sufficient to show that Athanasius believes in the divine retributive punishment of death, then what argument will you appeal to?

    At this point, I’m not going beyond the text. I’m assuming that Athanasius doesn’t mean anything other than what he says, and what we can argue that he means by implication. For instance, I’ve attempted to argue that Athanasius explains to us why man has the potential to become corrupted and have the law of death dwell in him. The explanation is not that God was setting up for a punishment, but that it was logically necessitated by the fact that man was created out of nothing:

    “By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.” Section 4

    You and David are arguing that the purpose of the natural law of death is retributive; but this isn’t the reason Athanasius gives in the quote above. It seems best to have a textual argument for this idea somewhere; otherwise it does not seem that this move beyond the text is justified.

    If you mean something different by retribution, then we might be in agreement; but I’ll wait for you to explain your position, if you would be so generous as to do so. And thanks again Justin (or shall I call you Mr. Richter?).

  8. MG Says:

    Another question for David–

    If natural laws can be retributive, what do we do with the book of Job?

  9. Lucian Says:

    First of all, I think it is important to observe in Athanasius the complete lack of any sort of antropomorphic ideas or attributes regarding God. (such as wrath, anger, rage, or any other aberations, which are the norm in the Wild, Wild West).

    Secondly, to answer Justin Richter’s innitial question, Athanasius says that man was created from Nothingness and as a direct result or implication of turning himself away from God, Who is the only source of any kind of life or existence, and Who by the power of His Word brought everything from non-being into being, he falls from God’s life-giving Grace back into the nothingness from which he came in the first place.

  10. David Says:

    MG,

    I see what your specific purpose in this post was now. And of course I agree, Athanasius could be arguing for something other than penal substitution and he could simply be wrong. I’d like to make 2 further points.

    1. It seems to me that while a full-fledged penal substitution theory is not articulated in Athanasius, he never explicitly denies such a model NOR does he say anything that seems (to me) to be contradictory to it. What he does do is draw together different Biblical themes, including curses and paying debts, in order to explain the Atonement in slightly more systematized way than you will find in any particular passage of Scripture that deals with the Atonement. So my question is, are you arguing that Athanasius is explicitly denying penal substitution? Are you arguing that his thought is somehow incompatible with penal substitution?

    2. We’ve talked about this briefly before, and I’m still curious to know what you personally make of this talk of “paying a debt to death.” What does that even mean? What exactly IS death? How does one pay a debt to it? It seems to me that to interpret this kind of language to the total exclusion of a penal/covenantal model is to ignore the plain implication of the metaphor itself. The “purifying sacrifice” metaphor is quite adequate to carry the meaning of “ontological substitution.” But curses are, especially in the OT, placed upon a people as punishment for breaking the terms of a covenant, and debts are owed in a legal sense. These are simply the common understandings of such terms. Neither of these metaphors really squares well the purely ontological view, and it seems to me that Athanasius at least is getting close to a proper articulation of the atonement as found throughout Scripture, even if you’re right that he never gets there fully.

    “If natural laws can be retributive, what do we do with the book of Job?”

    What specifically in Job are you referring to?

  11. MG Says:

    David—

    you wrote:

    “I see what your specific purpose in this post was now. And of course I agree, Athanasius could be arguing for something other than penal substitution and he could simply be wrong.”

    Right, but I’m going further than that. I am claiming not only what you’re willing to concede—that Athanasius *can* be read as teaching something that is not penal substitution (and is in fact contrary to it)—but that he also *should* be read this way.

    You wrote:

    “1. It seems to me that while a full-fledged penal substitution theory is not articulated in Athanasius, he never explicitly denies such a model NOR does he say anything that seems (to me) to be contradictory to it. What he does do is draw together different Biblical themes, including curses and paying debts, in order to explain the Atonement in slightly more systematized way than you will find in any particular passage of Scripture that deals with the Atonement. So my question is, are you arguing that Athanasius is explicitly denying penal substitution? Are you arguing that his thought is somehow incompatible with penal substitution?”

    I wouldn’t say he explicitly denies it, but I would say that he implicitly denies it—that his thought is incompatible with it. Here are some reasons why (though there may be more that I have forgotten that are in the post and comments above):

    1. The “neglect/indifference/limitation” motif that I brought up seems like an implicit denial that human beings die because of divine punishment. These phrases imply that God would be too “hands off” if He let men die. If Athanasius believed in penal substition, he would be more worried about God being too “hands on”.

    2. There is also the conspicuous absence of retributive wrath as a divine disposition anywhere in the treatise. If he believed in penal substitution, we would expect at least one statement about this. This is no mere argument from silence, because the specific intent of the treatise is to explain how the atonement works and why the Son of God had to become man. If Athanasius thought He had to become man for us to be “forgiven” our extrinsic legal relationship to God, then surely Athanasius would have said this.

    3. The law of death is a natural law, not a prescriptive penal law from God. Therefore it can’t be seen as a divinely-enforced decree to kill anyone who is guilty for x. If you reply “why not think it is both natural and prescriptive?” I reply: because God didn’t create man out of nothing in order to punish him. And that’s the only explanation Athanasius gives for where the natural law of death comes from: its a necessary consequence of our being created out of nothing that it be possible for us to die if we forsake God. Its existence is not explained by divine decree to retributively punish.

    4. My view correctly predicts that if there is anyone or anything that needs a debt paid to, it will be death, and that God will not be mentioned as being “paid off” or “propitiated”. This is what Athanasius explicitly states. If we have reason to think that by “paying a debt to death” he means “paying a debt to God the Father to deal with divine retribution in death” then this might undercut my argument. Absent such reasons, this constitutes evidence against the penal interpretation.

    5. In his narrative, Athanasius never talks about the solution of the human condition in terms of contract-fulfillment. His story clearly explains the solution to the problem in terms of a King’s incorruptible influence, not a King retracting a law or having it satisfied because of payment.

    6. Death and the devil are always thought of as opponents of God, and don’t seem to be tools for accomplishing God’s purposes.

    7. There are conspicuous number of times where Athanasius says that corruption is connected to man and his sin, and is self-caused. The examples include:

    “The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape.”

    “Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does it make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God.”

    “Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.”

    In addition to the features of these texts I may have already brought up, there is something else I want to point out. They all say that creatures cause their own corruption. This is precisely what we would expect if the nc view of Athanasius were true; and it is precisely what we would see clear counterexamples to if the penal substitution view of Athanasius were true.

    Finally, if your view of what Athanasius says is correct, he isn’t actually offering an explanation for how the atonement works. He isn’t giving a “theory” (with its own unique content). Rather, he is consolidating themes and motifs. But isn’t this precisely what Athanasius is going *beyond*? Isn’t it obvious that he thinks he is offering an account of how atonement works? Even if he hasn’t filled in all the metaphysical details (argued for his view of laws of nature, his view of death, etc.) surely he’s not just saying “here’s two or three metaphors that Scripture uses for atonement, and here’s how they relate”.

    Athansius seems to think that Christus Victor and healing “motifs” of the atonement in Scripture are somehow an explanation *in their own right* for how atonement works. Henri Blocher’s (“Agnus Victor” in What Does it Mean to Be Saved?) and Hans Boersma’s (Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross) view that Christus Victor is just a way of talking about penal substitution seems to be deficient to capture what Athanasius means when he talks about appropriating immortality and escaping corruption, and divine victory over death and the devil.

    You wrote:

    “2. We’ve talked about this briefly before, and I’m still curious to know what you personally make of this talk of “paying a debt to death.” What does that even mean? What exactly IS death? How does one pay a debt to it? It seems to me that to interpret this kind of language to the total exclusion of a penal/covenantal model is to ignore the plain implication of the metaphor itself. The “purifying sacrifice” metaphor is quite adequate to carry the meaning of “ontological substitution.” But curses are, especially in the OT, placed upon a people as punishment for breaking the terms of a covenant, and debts are owed in a legal sense. These are simply the common understandings of such terms. Neither of these metaphors really squares well the purely ontological view, and it seems to me that Athanasius at least is getting close to a proper articulation of the atonement as found throughout Scripture, even if you’re right that he never gets there fully.”

    Again, I refer you to Perry’s post on the subject: http://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2006/12/10/the-cross-is-the-incarnation/

    If you’ve already read it (in which case, sorry for posting it again and assuming that you hadn’t read it) and are still asking questions, or this leaves anything still really unclear, then please bring it up here and I will do my best to clear it up.

    I would simply deny that it is totally clear, as you see it, that in the OT curses are placed on people merely (or perhaps at all) as retributive punishment. We can get into the arguments for this if you would like, of course.

    You wrote:

    “What specifically in Job are you referring to?”

    I’m thinking of the fact that the Book of Job denies that all of Job’s suffering is due to divine retribution. If natural laws can be retributive, then how do you explain the fact that his suffering does not seem to be a result of retribution?

  12. A. C. Gleason Says:

    “I’m thinking of the fact that the Book of Job denies that all of Job’s suffering is due to divine retribution. If natural laws can be retributive, then how do you explain the fact that his suffering does not seem to be a result of retribution?”

    I’m extremely confused about this point. Because the suffering Job experiences is neither related to divine retribution or natural law. It is in fact evil caused by the devil and allowed by God.

    But in any case I’m quite confident that it doesn’t have any effect on David’s comment concerning natural laws being retributive just because Job may teach that a natural law leads to Job’s suffering and also happens to be non retributive. That doesn’t mean divine retribution could not be an outcome or purpose of natural laws. Just maybe not the one which applies to Job.

  13. David Says:

    MG,

    “I am claiming not only what you’re willing to concede—that Athanasius *can* be read as teaching something that is not penal substitution (and is in fact contrary to it)—but that he also *should* be read this way.”

    Sorry, I should have been clearer, I understood that this was your argument. My only point was that what you’re saying is certainly possible, in which case I would simply say that Athanasius is wrong.

    The problem is that I still find plenty in Athanasius that I would agree with. So I would simply say that he failed to get the whole picture, and I would still maintain that seeds of penal substitution can be found. I haven’t anywhere attempted to argue that Athanasius was consciously arguing for a fully developed penal substitution theory.

    “These phrases imply that God would be too “hands off” if He let men die. If Athanasius believed in penal substition, he would be more worried about God being too “hands on”. ”

    Well, being too “hands-off” by letting men die would seem to refer to salvation (which is, after all, the topic at hand). God is merciful, so He can’t neglect to save some from damnation. Saving is an action. So I doubt that even someone who ascribed to retributive punishment would ever speak of salvation in terms of God being *less* hands on.

    “There is also the conspicuous absence of retributive wrath as a divine disposition anywhere in the treatise.”

    Sure, but that would fit with what I’ve said about Athanasius emphasizing the one aspect of the atonement (ontological, Christus Victor, etc.) and having an underdeveloped view of the curse and debt motifs.

    “its a necessary consequence of our being created out of nothing that it be possible for us to die if we forsake God. Its existence is not explained by divine decree to retributively punish.”

    Well, Athanasius may not explicitly say “and it is also a divine decree”, because, as I said, that doesn’t seem to be the theme he’s developing. But as far as I can tell, if God says, “I have created you from nothing, you are not eternal, so do what I have commanded you to do or you will surely die”, sure that may be a natural consequence, but that merely seems to be stating the obvious (you’re not eternal, so you can die!). But that hardly precludes retributive judgment being involved (after all, God could have designed things so that disobedience didn’t result in biological decay).

    “My view correctly predicts that if there is anyone or anything that needs a debt paid to, it will be death, and that God will not be mentioned as being “paid off” or “propitiated”. ”

    Well I still don’t know what it means for “death” to be “paid off.” And since I believe the Bible *does* teach that God’s wrath is propitiated, this might simply be an instance where I think Athanasius is incorrect.

    “In his narrative, Athanasius never talks about the solution of the human condition in terms of contract-fulfillment.”

    Again, this doesn’t really seem to be a reason to think that his thought is wholly incompatible with penal substitution. He’s merely stressing one aspect and excluding another.

    “Death and the devil are always thought of as opponents of God, and don’t seem to be tools for accomplishing God’s purposes.”

    I don’t know if you’re setting the two against each other, but if you are, I would say it’s a false dichotomy. Even if you don’t accept the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9, at least you agree that it teaches that God can use His enemies as tools.

    “There are conspicuous number of times where Athanasius says that corruption is connected to man and his sin, and is self-caused.”

    Of course. If I pass a law saying “don’t do x” and you choose to do x, the punishment is in one sense self-inflicted. You could have not done x, so in one sense it’s up to you whether or not you get punished.

    “They all say that creatures cause their own corruption. This is precisely what we would expect if the nc view of Athanasius were true”

    I don’t mean to keep repeating myself, but I think it’s important that you see what I’m saying so that we can keep future arguments/objections relevant. Having an argument for “x being a NC of y” is not sufficient to disprove retributive theories. You went on to say:

    “and it is precisely what we would see clear counterexamples to if the penal substitution view of Athanasius were true.”

    Why? So far I have agreed with most of the argument that you have outlined that Athanasius is making, the only exception being the “paying a debt to death” stuff. I see no incompatibility between Christus Victor or NC theory and Penal substitution.

    “Finally, if your view of what Athanasius says is correct, he isn’t actually offering an explanation for how the atonement works.”

    Yeah, it did sound like that. If that’s what I said, then I would modify my statement slightly. I DO think that he is explaining things, particularly by stressing the Christus Victor motif. I simply think that certain aspects of his thought are either underdeveloped, unexplored, or taken in a wrong direction.

    I haven’t read Perry’s article, but I’ll try to take a look at it soon.

    As for Job, I think Aaron’s right. One example, which is hardly a normative case, of a NC not being a punishment hardly proves anything.

    Moreover, how would you consider Job’s suffering to be a natural consequence anyway? A natural consequence of what? Job’s suffering would seem to be one of the ultimate examples of supernatural intervention.

  14. Primitive Christianity Says:

    Hello, everyone:
    I have enjoyed the differing views presented, as I am working my way through some of these themes. If the discussion continues, I may join in.
    Mike

  15. MG Says:

    A. C. Gleason–

    “I’m extremely confused about this point. Because the suffering Job experiences is neither related to divine retribution or natural law. It is in fact evil caused by the devil and allowed by God.

    “But in any case I’m quite confident that it doesn’t have any effect on David’s comment concerning natural laws being retributive just because Job may teach that a natural law leads to Job’s suffering and also happens to be non retributive. That doesn’t mean divine retribution could not be an outcome or purpose of natural laws. Just maybe not the one which applies to Job.”

    Good point. You’re right.

  16. MG Says:

    David—

    You wrote:

    “Sorry, I should have been clearer, I understood that this was your argument. My only point was that what you’re saying is certainly possible, in which case I would simply say that Athanasius is wrong.
    The problem is that I still find plenty in Athanasius that I would agree with. So I would simply say that he failed to get the whole picture, and I would still maintain that seeds of penal substitution can be found. I haven’t anywhere attempted to argue that Athanasius was consciously arguing for a fully developed penal substitution theory.”

    When you say “the seeds of penal substitution can be found” do you mean that Athanasius has some ideas that entail penal substitution (or at least very naturally lead to it)? It seems to me that his ideas are not naturally related to penal substitution at all. In fact, his ideas naturally lead toward a Maximian or Cappadocian conception of atonement, and away from penal substitituion.

    If all you’re claiming is that “some of Athanasius’ ideas have a loose relationship of resemblance to penal atonement” then surely this is true. But the same is true of moral influence theories of the atonement. And I don’t think you would want to say “the seeds of penal substitution can be found in moral influence theories of atonement”.

    If you think Athanasius is just arranging biblical motifs and not offering a theory of the atonement, then we can discuss that issue below (see my last few points).

    Is there anything (or better yet, several things) in Athanasius that you think naturally lead toward penal substitution if carried to its logical conclusions?

    You wrote:

    “Well, being too “hands-off” by letting men die would seem to refer to salvation (which is, after all, the topic at hand). God is merciful, so He can’t neglect to save some from damnation. Saving is an action. So I doubt that even someone who ascribed to retributive punishment would ever speak of salvation in terms of God being *less* hands on.”

    Granted. But we would expect, probably, mention of God’s involvement in bringing about the problem that will lead to man’s death, if he is indeed responsible for it (ie. If he inflicts it as retributive punishemnt, whether by building it into the system or actively-inflicting it). Precisely where we would expect mention of God’s wrath afflicting sinners, or of God’s retribution manifested as built into natural laws, we see nothing of the sort. There is no obvious intentional imposition of harm, much less harm motivated by the inherent goodness of inflicting harm on those that have done wrong.

    The positive data is this. There are three terms: creation-neglect-perish. Corruption is spoken of as perhaps “carrying off” man, and “having its way” with humanity. And if this were to happen, God would be “leaving man”. We would expect an accusation of “harshness”, in addition to (or better yet, in place of) “neglect”.

    How would a penal substitution interpretation explain the positive statements and what Athanasius leaves out?

    You wrote:

    “Sure, but that would fit with what I’ve said about Athanasius emphasizing the one aspect of the atonement (ontological, Christus Victor, etc.) and having an underdeveloped view of the curse and debt motifs.”

    It seems that Athanasius has developed curse and debt ideas (not just motifs—his view has real conceptual content), but has different ideas of curse and debt than penal substitution would say. This entails Athanasius missed a big part of the main problem with humankind, then—namely God’s retributive disposition towards humanity (which explains where death comes from and how Christ’s death gets rid of it).

    You wrote:

    “Well, Athanasius may not explicitly say “and it is also a divine decree”, because, as I said, that doesn’t seem to be the theme he’s developing. But as far as I can tell, if God says, “I have created you from nothing, you are not eternal, so do what I have commanded you to do or you will surely die”, sure that may be a natural consequence, but that merely seems to be stating the obvious (you’re not eternal, so you can die!). But that hardly precludes retributive judgment being involved (after all, God could have designed things so that disobedience didn’t result in biological decay).”

    Could God have designed things so that disobedience didn’t result in decay? Sure seems like Athanasius doesn’t think so (and I’d agree). He says its *grounded* in creation ex nihilo—a necessary consequence. Unless God can create in some way other than ex nihilo, then it seems Athanasius wouldn’t say that God could have made creatures otherwise.

    You wrote:

    “Well I still don’t know what it means for “death” to be “paid off.” And since I believe the Bible *does* teach that God’s wrath is propitiated, this might simply be an instance where I think Athanasius is incorrect.”

    Paying off death doesn’t amount to propitiating God’s wrath. Sounds like the most consistent conclusion, given your assumptions.

    You wrote:

    “Again, this doesn’t really seem to be a reason to think that his thought is wholly incompatible with penal substitution. He’s merely stressing one aspect and excluding another.”

    If contract-fulfillment is a necessary aspect of PS, and Athanasius has a developed theology of the atonement, and he doesn’t include contract-fulfillment as part of it, then it seems unlikely he believed it was happening.

    I’m still curious about your thoughts on this: His story clearly explains the solution to the problem in terms of a King’s incorruptible influence, not a King retracting a law or having it satisfied because of payment.

    You wrote:

    “I don’t know if you’re setting the two against each other, but if you are, I would say it’s a false dichotomy. Even if you don’t accept the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9, at least you agree that it teaches that God can use His enemies as tools.”

    But surely there is at least some implication in the fact that he always speaks of death as contrary to God’s purposes that he thinks that it wasn’t *made* by God to be his tool? Surely Athanasius wouldn’t say that God made something to destroy what He made and frustrate his purposes.

    You wrote:

    “Of course. If I pass a law saying “don’t do x” and you choose to do x, the punishment is in one sense self-inflicted. You could have not done x, so in one sense it’s up to you whether or not you get punished. I don’t mean to keep repeating myself, but I think it’s important that you see what I’m saying so that we can keep future arguments/objections relevant. Having an argument for “x being a NC of y” is not sufficient to disprove retributive theories.

    So far I have agreed with most of the argument that you have outlined that Athanasius is making, the only exception being the “paying a debt to death” stuff. I see no incompatibility between Christus Victor or NC theory and Penal substitution.”

    I understand what you’re saying. I suppose my point, then, reduces to argument 2 about the lack of discussion of retribution and wrath.

    You wrote:

    Yeah, it did sound like that. If that’s what I said, then I would modify my statement slightly. I DO think that he is explaining things, particularly by stressing the Christus Victor motif. I simply think that certain aspects of his thought are either underdeveloped, unexplored, or taken in a wrong direction.

    Well, how is “stressing the Christus Victor motif” an explanation of anything? All you seem to be saying is that he uses biblical language without giving it much distinct conceptual content beyond what is explicitly stated. Stressing a motif is not the same as interpreting the motif. Does he interpret it? If so, how so?

    What are the unexplored aspects of his thought? (presumably they would lead in the direction of PS in order for your point above to be significant)

    You wrote:

    “I haven’t read Perry’s article, but I’ll try to take a look at it soon.”

    I’ll also be posting on this subject soon. Specifically, I am planning to offer an account of annihilation and how the Incarnation saves us from it. But in the mean time, Perry’s post would provide some good background.

    As for Aaron’s stuff, see my concession above; you’re right, it wasn’t a very good point.

  17. 桃人 (momojin) Says:

    I know I’m resurrecting an old thread, but this statement, “God could have designed things so that disobedience didn’t result in biological decay” I find to be rather disturbing. It’s rather like saying that God could have designed things so that murder isn’t intrinsically evil, or even an intrinsic good. It (like much of Reformation theology) depends heavily on nominalist/voluntarist philosophy, and I can’t imagine any of the Fathers agreeing with it.

  18. MG Says:

    Momojin–

    That was extremely well-put. Not only is this counter-intuitive, it implies a commitment to nominalism (at least with respect to the relationship between choices and character formation). It seems there is an intrinsic, necessary connection between sin (personal action seperating oneself from God’s goodness) and corruption (a disoriented state of psychological or physical being). This follows from the fact that choices are intrinsically and necessarily related to character.

    If this is so, it is much easier to read Paul as commenting on this in Romans 1 when he mentions that the fact that sin leads to corruption *is* the wrath of God. Given that Paul should have already accepted that sin intrinsically and necessarily leads to death, if he believed God also retributively punishes sin by making human beings more wicked (whether through natural laws/secondary causation or immediately and directly), it would have been preferable for him to state as much, and clarify how what he is saying is different from the obvious fact that sin leads to death by nomological necessity. And the same goes for Romans 6:23 where he says that sin (the power or tyrant–not God responding to our guilt) pays us the “wage” of death. This seems to be highlighting a necessary and intrinsic connection–not something that is imposed arbitrarily by divine fiat. The alternative–God could make a world where sin leads to life–seems quite unacceptable. How could personal action of seperating oneself from life lead to a greater degree of participation in life?

    And yeah, given that the Fathers weren’t nominalists and that Athanasius always speaks of death in terms of a natural law, it makes more sense to think that he is viewing things in terms of natural consequences.

    I suppose one could hold that murder is necessarily intrinsically evil and still say that God can decree that it can lead to life. But that isn’t a much better picture; it seems to show divine disregard for intrinsic worth. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Reformed person was okay with that, though.

  19. MG Says:

    Here are some additional notes:

    Athanasius says “The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape.” (Section 6, p32)

    If the law of death is a divine decree or is identical to the “word of God” that God can’t go back on, then it doesn’t seem like it would “follow from the transgression”.

    Athanasius also writes “Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does it make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God.” (Section 7, p33)

    By making corruption something proper to human nature once it leaves the grace of God, and contrasting it with something that can be removed by repentance, it seems like Athanasius is, again, implying that corruption is a necessary consequence of sin. Because the person sins (departs from goodness, grace, life, light), the person’s nature departs from God along with the person; so leaving grace, the human body and soul enter a state where they are deprived of these things. Because the person is created from nothing, departure from God is necessarily motion in the direction of nothingness:

    “Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.” Section 5

    “By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.” Section 4

    This fits with what St. John of Damascus says:

    “For wickedness is nothing else than the withdrawal of goodness, just as darkness is nothing else than the withdrawal of light. While then we abide in the natural state we abide in virtue, but when we deviate from the natural state, that is from virtue, we come into an unnatural state and dwell in wickedness.”

  20. Yoshua Scribes Says:

    Hey Man, I love your Blog! So much to learn from it. Maybe we both know Perry on FB? I don’t know if I’ve interacted with you or not. Anyways, I’ve posted something similar on my own blog, though I take slightly different view on punishment. Though I’m in agreement with you, in regards to the emphasis being on natural consequence. But here is a snippet from my post on Original Sin. Maybe you can correct/comment about it? See if it’s the same etc

    “Adam’s state of death was a consequence of his sin. Because it seperated him from the grace needed to keep him in that probationary state of immortality. From the moment he sinned, he began to die as an ontological consequence (“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” Genesis 3:7). God, upon finding Adam in this state (“Who told you that you were naked?” Genesis 3:11) essentially says, “I warned you, and now this is what you get.” It’s a natural consequence, but God’s response to it, turns it into a punishment. If indeed he began to die immediately, before God even shows up to sentence him, then it is indeed a natural consequence (unless one wants to say that he had this grace even when he sinned). Point being that just because it is natural, does not mean it is not also a punishment. Since God actively works to let it play out (Genesis 3:22). So for Adam it’s not either/or it’s both/and. The order however is, natural consequence –> punishment. Kind of like if I waste all my money and I’m left in a dire state. Then my dad says “See I warned you this would happen, but I’m not bailing you out this time. You’re going to learn your lesson.”

    We then inherit this fallen state and corruption. But are not being punished for what Adam did per se. If by punishment we are implying personal culpability. That is both denied by Ezekiel 18:20 and is metaphysically unfounded. However, when we sin, we do merit the consequences. And are deserving of them. That is why scripture says “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).” Wages are merited. And we are merited only what we do. So unless one wants to advocate that we are merited the foreign guilt of Adam, it then it could be argued we are merited the foreign righteousness of Christ. And Luther was right.”

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