The development of the Church's ideas regarding the saving effects of the incarnation was a slow and drawn-out process. The motive force of the Christian faith had been that redemption was secured in Christ. However, no final and universally accepted understanding of how Christ actually saves men has been formulated to this day. It is true that the early fathers make numerous references to Christ's work. But they are mostly rehearsing what they themselves learned in catechism, and so are affirming more than explaining. They accept that men are sinful, ignorant, and in need of true life (and light), but they don't explain why that is the case. Barnabas makes a passing reference to the "transgression wrought in Eve through the serpent," but then he also suggests that the souls of children are entirely sinless. The other fathers talk about all sorts of benefits bestowed by Christ but don't fit all of this into an overarching rationale of salvation. Ignatius believed that the essence of salvation is union with Christ and by Christ we receive life and immortality - Christ dwells in us and we become His temple. By His death we trample down death, as we sing at Eastertide. However some of the other fathers thought along different lines. They talk about the Lord's passion, death, and resurrection. Clement held that Christ's blood was "given on behalf of us," and because of His love He gave His blood for us. Polycarp says that "He endured all His sufferings on account of us, that we might live in Him." It is interesting to note that unlike the New Testament (and many of today's non-Orthodox churches) the apostolic fathers are not so much concerned with sin; this weakens the idea of Christ's death as an atoning sacrifice. What is more important is the place of Christ as the lawgiver, the bestower of immortality and union (fellowship) with God. Ignatius did teach that the Cross of Christ, "the unique physician," bestows life and salvation but again the focus is not on a juridical atonement but rather that He abolished sin and death.
Beginning in the second century, the apologists changed the landscape by outlining a definite doctrine of man. They believed human nature to be composed of body and soul. They argued that man enjoys free will (in other words, moral free agency). Justin contends that while we have no choice in being born, we have a choice, whether to live in a fashion acceptable to God or not. In marked contrast to the Stoic's resignation to fate, Justin develops the idea that men are responsible for their actions. Prophecy does not contradict free will but rather prophecy is a manifestation of God's divine foreknowledge of how men will act, and this He announces through His prophets. In Justin's view sin is the erroneous belief and ignorance of what is good. The result of sin is rebellion against God and His commandments. Justin affirms that by transgressing God's laws the whole human race has been placed under a curse. He spoke of the race of men, products of the union of fallen angels with the daughters of men, are to blame for this. He develops the theory that as Christ was made man of the Blessed Virgin in order to abolish abolish disobedience (sin). That is, God became man for our sake so that by participating in our miseries He might heal them. Tatian and Theophilus treat this subject more precisely. They began with the premise that man was not necessarily created good but rather with a capacity for goodness. Tatian states that he fell into sin by venerating Satan as God. However, while Christ's offer is of salvation to all and Christ originates a new humanity by water, faith, and the Cross, a man's destiny ultimately depends on how he exercises his free will.
The Apostle Paul conceived the inauguration of a new, restored humanity in Christ and seems to have reached Justin Martyr from the theological traditions of Asia Minor. Irenaeus extended this, and he was also the first to work out comprehensive theories of original sin and redemption. He teaches that man was created in the image and likeness of God. By "image" he means that Adam had reason and a free will. By likeness Irenaeus means that Adam enjoyed a "supernatural endowment through the action of the Spirit." However, Adam was, spiritually and intellectually, a child. Adam was intended to advance through a lengthy process of response to grace and submission to God's will, but he stumbled and fell prey to Satan's deception, and disobeyed God. Thus he lost the image and the likeness (though strictly speaking he could only lose the likeness, for he was created in the image of God and that cannot be taken away). What Adam lost, all lost in him. Irenaeus presupposes a mystical connection or identity between Adam and the rest of the human race. According to Irenaeus, the work of Christ is this: that He became what we are so that we might become (by grace) what He is. Irenaeus uses the phrase "recapitulation" to explain this. Basically it means that if through the first the first man we fell, we can be restored through our solidarity in Christ. Christ is the "second Adam." As Luke's genealogy shows Christ "recapitulates" all of the people back to Adam. Just as Adam was the progenitor of a race doomed to death, so Christ can be regarded as "inaugurating a new, redeemed humanity" and by His obedience gives life and immortality. Because He is a real man born of a real woman, He vanquishes the Devil, thus freeing humanity. This was known as the "physical" theory of atonement. But this is only half of the story. The Incarnation is at most a presupposition of redemption. Irenaeus insists that Christ redeemed us with His blood and in the context of our enslavement to the Devil speaks of Christ's blood as our "ransom." Since Adam's sin was disobedience, Irenaeus also insists that that the obedience of Christ was absolutely necessary, for God requires obedience. From this point of view His passion and crucifixion make sense: He was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He healed our disobedience on the tree with His obedience on the tree.
Beginning in the third century, Eastern and Western theologians began to diverge with respect to the subject of man and his redemption. Though the Alexandrian theologians believed that man's plight was not good, the doctrine of original sin which emerged in the West ("physical atonement") was mostly absent from their thinking. Clement indicated that Adam was child-like and innocent. Clement believed that God wanted us to be saved by our own effort. For Clement, the problem was that Adam and Eve indulged in the pleasures of sex before being allowed by God to do so. Not that sex was wrong, but that the violation of God's ordinance was. So they lost the immortal life and became subject to the [sinful] passions. Clement also taught that all have free will and a "divine spark," and are therefore at liberty to obey or disobey God's laws. But he does not indicate they are involved in Adam's guilt. He explains that Job 1:21 means that a child enters the world exempt from sin. His teachings also indicate that we inherit from Adam and Eve a "disordered sensuality" which leads to the dominance of the irrational element in our nature.
Origen (185-254 AD) was a horse of a different color. He takes Genesis, which Irenaeus, Tertullian, et. al. had regarded as historical fact into a myth of cosmic proportions. Where Tertullian believed that souls are generated along with their bodies and are not pre-existent, Origen expounds the theory of the pre-existence of all souls. He believes that God made a fixed number of rational essences or souls, all of them alike and equal, and endowed with free will. These souls could advance by imitating God or fall away by neglecting God. All of these rational beings (except Christ's pre-existent soul), chose to neglect God, and therefore this gave rise to their fall. Those that fell away with the Devil became demons; those that did not became angels. Some souls became neither demons nor angels. These God punished by binding to bodies in this world. This is Origen's theory of the pre-cosmic fall. If humans are sinful at birth it is because of their choices in the transcendental world. This has nothing to do with the disobedience of Adam. This teaching is a little wild; we know that in his translations Rufinus was known to have "adjusted" Origen's teachings in the interests of Orthodoxy.
So for Origen men are pure intelligences who fell from splendor and are now united with bodies. Origen sees this mirrored in the "coats of skins" God made to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve after their transgression. Given all of this, Origen never ceases from asserting that men retain their free will. The idea of free will is the key to Origen's entire formulation.
Needless to say Origen's "bold" and original speculations drew critical reaction. Methodius of Olympus repudiates the multiplicity of pre-cosmic falls and states that the Genesis narrative should be taken literally. This was the normal opinion in the latter years of the third century. He also asserts that death was the punishment for Adam's disobedience, as well as God's remedy for sin. By destroying the body the possibility of incorruption is now opened. His teaching reverts to the historical teaching prior to Origen, characteristic of Greek thought on the subject.
Clement carries on the tradition of the Apologists though he does blend it with his own mysticism. He shifts the emphasis somewhat. He speaks of Christ's laying down His life as a ransom for us, and redeeming us by His blood. Furthermore, He offered Himself as a sacrifice, vanquished the Devil, and interceding for us with the Father. But these are conventional, widely accepted ideas. What appealed most to Clement was Christ's office as Teacher. Christ gives men true knowledge and by this knowledge, immortality. It is as a teacher that He is the "Great Physician." He believes that God's will for mankind is that man should know God. The Word became man, so that man might become "God." (It should be noted that we can never become God in His essence!) As God Christ forgives us; as Man Christ shows us how to live and avoid sinning. Although "Christ the Great Teacher" is an admirable idea, Clement's soteriology reflects a view in which the Lord's passion and death have little redemptive value or power; this could be considered a weakness, for as we have already seen, the passion and death of Christ are of supreme importance.
According to Origen, Christ's work doesn't end with illumination and exaltation. There is another very important aspect to Christ's work, and that is that He has overthrown the power of the Devil, the "prince of this world." The Lord's death and resurrection signify His victory - we may say seal His victory - over the Devil. Origen's idea is that the Devil thought he had victory over Christ, but his "victory" was turned to defeat when Christ arose from the grave. At other times and similar to Irenaeus, Origen speaks of Christ delivering up His life not to God, but to the Devil(!) in exchange for the souls of men whom the Devil had claimed as his due because of they were sinful. The Devil accepted the deal, but he could not hold Christ the Author of Life, and thus was denied his victim. It should be noted that Origen emphasized much more Christ's victory over the Devil than any transaction with him.
Origen was the first of the fathers to regard Christ's death as a "propitiatory" sacrifice (or, vicarious substitution) and treat this aspect of His work in detail. Origen says that Jesus' death was not simply His obedient surrender to God's will, but also an offering which positively persuades the Father. Christ has taken our sins upon Himself and suffered for us. He has offered the Father a true sacrifice, with Himself as the sacrificial victim. In the language of Isaiah, He has "borne our griefs and carried our sorrows...wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities." Origen sees final salvation as the restoring of all spirits, angels, demons, and men to their pristine state prior to the pre-cosmic Fall. The role of the Logos as illuminating, purifying, and deifying is primary. His sacrificial views, if taken literally, are not in agreement with the rest of his system, and according to Kelly, Origen's thoughts on redemption are "complex to the point of being mutually irreconcilable."
Methodius, who as we have seen was a severe critic of Origen, holds Irenaeus' doctrine of "recapitulation" in a weakened form. That is to say, Christ is the new Adam because He took on human nature (John 1:14). Just as all died in the first Adam, so are we all made alive in the second Adam. It was right that the Devil was defeated and the judgment of death which he had brought upon us was annulled by the very man he had originally deceived. We observe that in this account Christ is virtually identified with Adam. Irenaeus saw Christ's death as a supreme example of obedience, but Methodius more or less overlooks this point. Instead, he views the Lord's humanity as the means by which He enabled the resurrection of the flesh. What was important to Methodius was that the Lord took on a suffering body so that what was once mortal might be made immortal. Methodius maintained Irenaeus' physical theory of redemption, but de-emphasized His atoning death, and filled redemption with mysticism.
The view of the early fathers regarding salvation in the early centuries was not as clear-cut as say, their view of the theology of the Trinity or of the Incarnation. The fathers were still working these things out, and it was not until the 12th century that redemption came into the foreground as a point of discussion between rival schools. We have discussed the physical theory of redemption which ties redemption to the incarnation. According to this theory human nature was sanctified (deified) by Christ's becoming man. His incarnation allows us to partake of the Divine Nature. The second theory was redemption in terms of a ransom due to or a forfeit imposed on the Devil. The former was Origen's theory and linked to Irenaeus. The latter came later because men realized that Christ's resurrection meant the Devil had no say in the matter. Third, there is the realist theory which directed attention to the Saviour's suffering, placing the cross in the foreground and pictured Christ substituting Himself for sinful men and reconciling them to God.
There is no clear-cut answer as to how Christ actually saves man; that is, how salvation is actually secured in Christ. The Orthodox formulation is that we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Perhaps it is not too far off the mark to say that the answer to the question of how Christ actually saves man lies in an amalgam of the theories of salvation we have discussed here. That is to say, there is something we can take away from each of these theories to better understand Christ's salvific work. After all, for each of these theories, we can find support in the Gospels and in Paul's epistles. Salvation is a deep mystery which although we experience, we do not understand in this present world. Perhaps this mystery will be revealed in the Kingdom which is to come.
Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines, HarperCollins Publishers, 1978.