Tuesday 5 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.


Anonymous said...

After all your tweets on Origen I was really looking forward to another post by you about this prolific patristic :)

I also really like how you worded that last part, I wrote a similar statement in one of my posts (Christian Character Traits)

"That life can begin to be about healing and finding our proper place/meaning and that this is how God wants us to live. He wants us to prosper and be happy and be reconciled to each other and then to praise him not out of duty but out of sheer gratitude and happiness for the new lives we have.

This is what it means to die to the old self and be born again."


Hope all is well Ben and I hope we see more posts from you on here. As you know your my favorite theologian!

- The Smiling Pilgrim

P.s. Now I am gonna have to read that PDF on Atonement!

Jason Goroncy said...

It sounds like a wonderful paper, Ben. I was very sorry to have missed it – and you.

Unknown said...

Last paragraph -- so nicely Rowan Williamsish.

Bruce Hamill said...

D B Hart has some wonderful passages on sacrifice which see the cross as a kind of collision between two opposing orders of sacrifice... like the following. "This is why the cross of Christ should be seen not simply as a sacrifice, but as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice. It is pure crisis, a confrontation between worlds, the raising up of one out of the grip of the other.” TBOTI p. 353. This perhaps explains why the language of sacrifice is so close associated with atonement. But am I reading you right to think that when it comes to the question of how Jesus saves us from what we need to be saved from the language of sacrifice is not addressing this question directly and therefore should not be regarded as a metaphor of the atonement or at least not one that is helpful in producing a model.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Bruce, yeah that's the gist of what I'm saying. Or to put it a bit more precisely: I think the question of "what we need to be saved from" is anachronistic and isn't the right tool for approaching patristic texts. Once we stop asking that question, it becomes easier to understand the surprising range and complexity of sacrificial material in early Christian theology. It's doing something much more, much bigger, than providing a metaphor of the atonement. Hope that makes sense!

John McDowell said...

What sense does it make to continue speaking of 'models', especially of the fathers? Also, I wonder whether the primary patristic interest in sacrifice was actually theo-doxological instead.

Anonymous said...

Is the paper about Sacrifice and Atonement in Origen published yet?

Ben Myers said...

Not yet!

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