Theodoret of Cyrrhus on the Atonement

For each day of Lent this past year, I supplied various quotations from the church fathers on the atonement, many of them being fairly significant indicators of their belief in an atonement that was both penal and substitutionary.  For this post, I give you a few selected quotations from Theodoret (approx. AD 386-460), theologian and bishop of Cyrrhus, on the atonement.  The quotations are taken from his work on Divine Providence; the translation is that of Thomas Halton in the volume, Theodoret of Cyrus on Divine Providence, in the Ancient Christian Writers series, pages 140-47.

For He [God] did not wish to liberate us merely in virtue of His omnipotence, nor did He want mercy to be His sole weapon against the enemy who had enslaved our nature—the enemy might misrepresent such mercy as unjust—but instead He contrived a way that was full of kindness and adorned with justice.

He was nailed to the cross, paying the penalty not for personal sins (for He did not sin, neither was guilt found in His mouth), but paying the debt of our nature. For our nature was in debt after transgressing the laws of its Maker.  And since it was in debt and unable to pay, the Creator Himself in His wisdom devised a way of paying the debt; taking human limbs as capital He invested it wisely and justly in paying the debt and freeing human nature.

Those who saw Him nailed to the cross presumed that He was being punished for countless misdeeds and was paying the penalty for personal faults. . . .   But the Holy Spirit teaches through the prophet that He was wounded for our iniquities and weakened for our sins. . . .   We were enemies of God, in that we had offended Him, so chastisement and retribution were due from us.

We did not, however, settle the debt. Our Savior settled it Himself.

As a sheep then, He became a victim and was offered a sacrifice on behalf of the entire race.

[Paul] showed that though He [Christ] was Himself innocent and free of all blame He paid our debt and deemed us worthy of freedom, although we lay under countless penalties and were compelled to live in slavery as a result. He redeemed us at the price of His own blood.

He undertook death on a cross since this kind of death in the eyes of the law was cursed. . . . And so He takes on Himself the common curse and resolves it by being unjustly put to death.  For although He lay outside the curse (for He did no sin, neither was guilt found in His mouth), He endured the death of sinners . . .

[Christ, speaking to Satan]: I have the paid the debt of human nature. Though not liable to death, I have endured it; though not subject to it, I underwent it; though not required to render an account, I was enlisted with those so required; though free of debt, I was ranked with the debtors.  I have then paid nature’s debt, and in enduring an unjust death I have freed those for whom death is deserved.  By being unjustly detained, I release from prison those who are justly kept there.  Oh! harsh avenger of sin, look at the bill of nature effaced, look at it nailed to the cross and the decree of sin abolished.  See how no trace of sin is entered.

The eyes of this body have paid for eyes that looked on evil things; those ears have paid for ears that were exposed to filth; this tongue for tongues that moved in transgression of the law; those hands for hands that performed wicked deeds; those other limbs for limbs which perpetrated evil of whatever kind. Now that the debt is paid, it is fitting that those who were detained in prison on its account should be released, and should recover their former freedom . . .

For we have heard the words of the Lord Himself: “The prince of this world comes and in Me he does not find anything.” I have not, He means, any marks of sin; I have a body free of all transgression.  Yet, although he finds nothing in Me, he will deliver Me up to death as if I were liable to countless penalties.

We learn from this that He has paid the debt for us, blotted out the handwriting against us, nailed it to the cross, and exposed the principalities and powers, that is the opposing forces, triumphing over them in Himself.

How interesting it is that the fifth-century Theodoret of Cyrrhus can talk about Christ’s paying our debt, some seven hundred years before Anselm did; and can talk about penal substitutionary atonement, approximately eleven hundred years before Luther and Calvin invented the doctrine! And notice how Theodoret combines the notions of penal substitution and Christus Victor, long before anyone ever referred to the facets of Christ’s atonement as being “kaleidoscopic.”

Jerry Shepherd
November 10, 2015