As it relates to atonement theology, Athanasius is good for North American Evangelicals for at least two reasons (both of which are emphasized by Schmiechen). First, Athanasius moves our focus away from personal forgiveness and freedom from sin. Certainly these are powerful marks of the new life in Christ, but the presence of God in Christ is “not simply the means for accomplishing liberation and forgiveness.”
Athanasius’ theology of the atonement proclaims the incarnate Word who “redeems the world and gathers all things together into a new spiritual reality to the eternal plan of God.” He conceives salvation in broad, comprehensive terms; God is present in Jesus Christ and he is present to redeem the world, to renew all of creation and restore life in the face of death! You find this message pervasively throughout the NT (e.g. Col 1:16; Phil 2:6-11; Eph 1:10; Rom 8:9-37; John 1:1-18 ) and it inspires a view of the atonement based firmly on the key image of the Word made flesh – the incarnation. “Since the Word enters the whole creation and all of humankind, therefore, all things are filled with the knowledge of God.”
Atonement and God’s Agency
Secondly, we need Athanasius because of his emphasis on God’s initiative, or agency. There is a trend as of late to articulate the atonement in ways that God’s involvement in the atonement does not implicate him in violence (see Cross Examinations (2006); Stricken by God? (2007)). All too often, however, by attempting to preserve pre-existing assumptions about God and violence these accounts risk depleting God’s agency altogether. On the other hand, Athanasius puts God’s agency front and center: “In this theory there really is only one actor, namely, God. It is God who creates the world, who cannot allow creation to be lost to sin and death, who sends the Son into the world so that the creation will be restored to life.”
Christian proclamation, then, tells the story of creation, fall, and redemption in which Adam and his descendants, sin, and death are all present but the drama of redemption is “really all about God” – he is the main actor and we should not feel we have to defend God from the means he chooses. Hear Athanasius on this point:
For if [God] had not made them, none could impute weakness; but once he had made them, and created them out of nothing, it were most monstrous for the work to be ruined, and that before the eyes of the maker. It was, then, out of the question to leave men to current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God’s goodness” (On the Incarnation of the Word)
(1) By the Word, all things are created, including humankind in the divine image
(2) In the fall, the glory of creation has been lost marking humankind with sin and death and corrupting the knowledge of God.
(3) Given the love of God and the divine purpose in creation (his agency) God cannot leave the world in this state and he is, in fact, the only one that can redeem it. Thus, God the Father sends his Son, as the incarnate Word, to renew all of creation: to restore life in the face of death, to forgive sins by Jesus’ death on the cross, and to restore the true knowledge of God.
(1) What might be gained if our proclamation of God’s saving power made more of Athanasius’ emphasis on God’s renewal of all creation?
(2) Schmiechen notes that American Protestants and Catholics may find it difficult to “imagine an interpretation of Jesus Christ that does not focus primarily upon his death for us” but trades instead on “the abundant life revealed in incarnation and fulfilled in resurrection from death.” Can we proclaim God’s saving power adequately with more emphasis on incarnation than atonement, as Athanasius does? What might be the benefits pastorally?