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Unformed and Inadequate

John MacArthur on the vagueries of early church atonement theory:


Few would argue that the church fathers had a well-formed understanding of the atonement as a penal substitution, but Augustus Hodge pointed out that the idea of vicarious atonement was more or less implicit in their understanding, even if it was “often left to a remarkable degree in the background, and mixed up confusedly with other elements of truth or superstition.” Specifically, some of the fathers seemed confused about the nature of the ransom Christ paid—especially on the question of to whom the ransom was due. Some of them seemed to think of it as a ransom paid to Satan, as if Christ paid a fee to the Devil to purchase release for sinners. That is the ransom theory of the atonement.

Nonetheless, according to Hodge, “With few exceptions, the whole church from the beginning has held the doctrine of Redemption in the sense of a literal propitiation of God by means of the expiation of sin.” Selected church fathers’ comments about the ransom of Christ should not be taken as studied, conscientious doctrinal statements but rather as childlike expressions of an unformed and inadequate doctrine of the atonement. Philip Schaff, commenting on the lack of clarity about the atonement in early church writings, said, “The primitive church teachers lived more in the thankful enjoyment of redemption than in logical reflection upon it. We perceive in their exhibitions of this blessed mystery the language rather of enthusiastic feeling than of careful definition and acute analysis.” “Nevertheless,” Schaff added, “all the essential elements of the later church doctrine of redemption may be found, either expressed or implied, before the close of the second century.

—John MacArthur, The Gospel according to Paul (Thomas Nelson, 2017), 147.

Posted 2018·07·25 by David Kjos
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Posted in: A A Hodge · Atonement · Church History · History of the Christian Church · John MacArthur · Philip Schaff · The Atonement (Hodge) · The Gospel according to Paul

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