Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Sacrifice and atonement in Origen

Yesterday at the ANZATS conference in Melbourne I gave a paper on sacrifice and atonement in Origen (focusing on Origen's Homilies on Leviticus). This was an attempt to develop some of the ideas sketched out in my earlier paper on the patristic atonement model. It was a special pleasure to have O̶r̶i̶g̶e̶n̶ ̶h̶i̶m̶s̶e̶l̶f̶ John Behr in the audience. At the same conference Behr gave an amazing paper discussing his new critical edition and translation of Origen's First Principles (forthcoming from OUP – it includes a 40,000 word introduction!). Anyway here's an excerpt from the end of my paper on sacrifice:

So to return to Gustaf Aulén’s alternatives: was Christ’s sacrifice the propitiation of an angry God, or was it a ransom offered to the devil? Is Origen’s model proto-Anselmian, or is it proto-Lutheran (i.e. christus victor)? Generations of theologians have addressed patristic authors with this kind of anachronistic and untheological question. Once the question is posed in those terms any answer will be false and uninteresting, because the alternatives are both wrong. Both options assume that sacrifice has a predominantly negative function: it averts the wrath, or satisfies the demands, of higher powers. It is an unfortunate solution to an otherwise insoluble cosmic dilemma. But for Origen sacrifice is a matter of joy. It is done for the sake of God’s delight. It is a festive offering in which the whole of humanity acts with one heart and one mind through the agency of one high priest, Jesus Christ. The logic of sacrifice is not fear but love.

I admit that this does not look very much like a theory of salvation. But that is my point. Sacrificial language in early Christian theology tends to serve other purposes. It is not primarily soteriological. It is used not so much to answer the question, “How does Jesus save?”, but a different question: “What does the proper response to God look like?” Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus give an answer: the response to God looks like joy, like a holiday, like the transformation of all things into one enormous festival offered up for the delight of God.


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