The fathers of the early church fought very hard to preserve orthodox teaching regarding the person of Christ. There were numerous assaults on his divinity and nature, and the Council of Chalcedon seemed to put the issue to rest for good. The teaching that Jesus Christ, was eternal, always existed, is fully divine, and fully human was now put to rest. Though this was crucial part in the Christological story, it was not complete. The Church fathers wrestled with various theories regarding Christ. These theories did not deal with who Jesus was, but dealt with what he did to redeem us. In this paper, three patristic will be discussed along with what is common among them.
One of the redemptive theories discussed in the Patristic period was the Pedagogical or Christ-the-teacher theory of salvation. This theory teaches that Christ with a new knowledge, or law and demonstrated this with the example of his life. The idea that Christ is our example is a theme throughout much of the New Testament. There are many passages, but 1 Peter 2:21 specifically mentions that Christ is an example for us to follow. That passage of scripture states, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (NRSV). The concept of a new knowledge from God is also present outside of scripture in some of the earliest Christian writings. Regarding this Joseph Mitros writes, Such expressions such as ‘Immortal knowledge’ ‘new knowledge’…recur quite often in the Didache, the First of Clement and the Shepherd of hermas” (Mitros 418).
Another theory set forth in the patristic era was known as the recapitulation theory. This theory was made popular by St. Irenaeus, and taught that Christ rescued humanity by “recapitulating in himself the whole human race” (Mitros 416). St Irenaeus found support for this theory in the writings of St. Paul. One such passage from Paul is Romans 5:18-19 which states, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (NRSV). Since Adam was the cause of the fall, Christ came to live the life that Adam should have. As a result, we are now redeemed and restored to the life we once had prior to Adam (Mitros 427).
A third theory that arose in the Patristic age is the transactional theory. It is known better as the Christus Victor theory. This theory claims that a ransom had be paid to Satan for the redemption of humanity. The ransom was supposed to be part of a kind of contractual obligation between God and Satan. There are no passages in scripture that speak of such a contract, but there was an understanding in the early church about the term slavery. Humanity were slaves to Satan, and Christ died to redeem them. In this regard Joseph Mitros states, “Now, the term of redemption, understood within the context of slavery, meant a liberation of a slave upon the payment of a ransom to the owner” (Mitros 422). Gregory of Nyssa elaborated this view by introducing the concept of a fishing hook. Just as in fishing, Satan clamped down on this hook (i.e. Christ), and found a surprise. This surprise was the claims of all the souls taken from the devil.
There are many other theories that were developed and discussed during the Patristic era. As has been seen, there is quite a range in belief and teaching. However, there is one constant that stands out among them. The redemption that is found in Christ and seeks to transform individual persons (Lecture Notes). That is what the fathers sought to do in these various theories.
Mitros, Joseph. “Patristic Views of Christ’s Salvific Work,” Thought 42 (1967), 415-447.