The ancient church did not debate ideas about “appeasing the wrath of God through Christ’s death.” The Christ they worshiped, as we’ve seen, was the victor over the powers. They expressed this in their worship. This can also be discovered in their hymns, in baptism, in their preaching, at the eucharist, and in the recorded prayers of the earliest Christians. It runs like a scarlet thread throughout. If this were understood at all I believe the present evangelical wars about the atonement would be stopped almost instantly.
Many examples of my point about the early church can be offered but one that has helped me is found in the oldest prayer of thanksgiving we have that was said over the bread and wine in the eucharist. It is the prayer preserved for us by Hippolytus in The Apostolic Tradition, a work written around A.D. 215. This particular prayer points to the theme of Christ’s victory. Here is an important sample of this ancient faith congregational prayer:
Fulfilling your will and gaining for you a holy people, he stretched out his hands when he should suffer, that he might release from suffering those who have believed in you. And when he was betrayed to voluntary suffering that he might destroy death and break the bonds of the devil, and tread down hell.
Every Lord’s Day these words were prayed. They formed the very center of the church’s expression of thanksgiving.
We have discover this same emphasis in one of the earliest sermons that we have from the early church. This sermon comes from Melito of Sardis (A.D. 195). Here are the concluding words to his Easter homily:
But he rose from the dead
and mounted up to the heights of heaven,
When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity,
and suffered for the sake of the sufferer,
and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned,
and had been judged for the sake of the condemned,
and buried for the sake of the one who was buried,
he rose from the dead,
and cried with a loud voice:
Who is he that contends with me?
Let him stand in opposition to me.
I set the condemned man free;
I gave the dead man life;
I raised up the one who had been entombed.
Who is my opponent?
I, he says, am the Christ.
I am the one who destroyed death,
and triumphed over the enemy,
and trampled Hades underfoot,
and bound the strong one,
and carried off man
to the heights of heaven,
I, he says, am the Christ.
I could repeat similar illustrations but these two will suffice to show that the early church saw the entire human race as subject to death. All were under the penalty of disobedience. But in the incarnation, death and resurrection of the crucified Christ death was trampled down, the gates of hell were opened, and the powers of evil were overcome. In Christ the nature of humanity has been renewed and the way into the kingdom has been opened to all. This is the glorious good news of the kingdom. Christ is Lord and Victor. The way to life now is to come to him and to enter his kingdom today so that you can begin to prepare oneself for the kingdom to come. This is what the church prays for when we say together, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven . . .”
The problem of much modern understanding of Christ’s death is that much of what we think about Jesus we inherited, unwittingly, from the Enlightenment. You might say, “John, how can you say that about good, solid, evangelical expressions of the faith?” My answer is that we have placed the emphasis of how we understand Jesus, and especially his death, on the foundational nature of Scripture. The foundation of our faith is in systems of thought we read into and out of Scripture.
Am I arguing against biblical exegesis and careful Bible reading? Not at all. But I am arguing that Jesus Christ is himself the foundation of living faith, not the interpretation of Scripture. “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). The foundation of our faith is not our “sound” doctrine but rather the incarnation of God into our humanity to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves., namely defeat the powers of evil and restore the creation in the new heavens and new earth.
It was during the Enlightenment that the foundation of the Christian faith shifted from the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ to the centrality of the Bible. Theology shifted from the God who acts to the God who spoke. In the worst scenario faith shifted from trust in Christ to trust in the Book. Therefore, the first question we must address as evangelicals in a postmodern world is this: Do you believe in a book or a person (Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, 45).
Tomorrow: The Danger of a Book-oriented Approach to the Faith