Fr. Aidan Kimel (who theo-blog veterans may remember as Al Kimel, an Epsicopal priest who used to run the blog Pontifications before converting to Catholicism–and now apparently to Eastern Orthodoxy) has been doing a series on St. Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation.” The latest installment looks at Athanasius’s understanding of the Atonement as the healing of human nature and the defeat of death:
Athanasius’s soteriological reflections are not motivated by a concern for the satisfaction of justice. The penalty prescribed by God in the garden is not assigned for the purpose of retributive punishment. It symbolizes, rather, the natural consequence of human disobedience: to break fellowship with God, and to thus separate oneself from the only source of life, is to fall into natural mortality. Eternal life is not something that we possess naturally; it is something that we can only enjoy by grace in communion with our Creator.
The plight of man is ontological and thus only an ontological solution will suffice. Athanasius, following Scripture, employs commercial, juridical, and sacrificial language by which to speak of the saving work of Christ; but the significance of this language, I suggest, is determined by the ontology of death and resurrection. What is needed for salvation is not the legal rescindment of the law of death, much less the propitiation of divine wrath (as suggested in some Protestant versions of the atonement). What is needed is the re-creation of human nature, and this re-creation can only occur if the Word dies in the flesh.
I came to a similar conclusion when I blogged some thoughts on Athanasius several years back: The Incarnation effects an “ontological change in human nature,” and by “becoming united to our human nature, the Word of God heals the corruption and proneness-to-death that followed as a result of sin.”
I’d also add that, despite his reputation as the progenitor of the Western, “juridical” theory of the Atonement, St. Anselm can be read in a very similar way. For Anselm, the damage that sin causes to God’s “honor” does not consist in any damage to God in Godself. This is because God is immutable and impassible, so nothing creatures can do can harm God (at least according to the Anselmian tradition). Rather, the “dishonor” consists in the damage it causes to God’s creatures and their ability to properly honor God–damage that threatens to frustrate God’s purposes for creation.
The role of the God-man, then, is to restore human nature, making it once again capable of honoring God properly. As has been pointed out a number of times, for Anselm, this restoration–and not some kind of vicarious punishment–is what constitutes “satisfaction.”
It’s true that for Anselm (and arguably for Athanasius too), the death of Christ still constitutes a kind of “payment,” but it’s one that is necessary for the restoration of human nature, not to assuage the divine anger.