Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories

Article excerpt

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In this article I will attempt to outline what I think is a needed corrective to a common and influential way of discussing patristic soteriology. It is typical among some scholars to speak of two basic patterns in the patristic period for understanding salvation: a juridical or legal pattern (strongly represented in the Western Church) that focused on forgiveness of sins, and a more Eastern pattern that saw salvation as participation in God or deification. I believe that speaking of a single Eastern pattern, and therefore speaking of two major patterns overall, is misleading and dangerous, for reasons that I will explain. I think it is important to recognize that in the patristic period, there were at least two very distinct ways of understanding deification or participation in God, and therefore one should speak not of two overall patterns, but of at least three patterns. Furthermore, as I discuss these patterns, I will use the word "trajectories" to describe them. The reason for this is that in my opinion, as each of these patterns emerged, it plotted a course, a trajectory, that part of the Christian Church would follow subsequently. Later Eastern and Western soteriological developments can be seen as following one or another of the trajectories plotted during the patristic period.1

I will argue my case in several steps. First I will give an overview of the "two-trajectory" approach to patristic soteriology and will explain some of the ways this approach has influenced our contemporary understanding of salvation. Then I will briefly examine some key soteriological passages from the writings of four important Eastern theologians, all of whom are said to follow a "participatory" pattern for describing salvation. Through this examination, I will attempt to show that there were two quite different patterns or trajectories represented among these writers, with one pattern showing up clearly in Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254) and Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330-ca. 395), and the other appearing in Irenaeus (ca. 130-ca. 200) and Cyril of Alexandria (c;a. 375-444).2 Next I will briefly address the fates of these different patterns in the later history of Christian theology, and at that point I will attempt to justify my use of the word "trajectories" to describe the patterns. Finally, I will offer some lessons I believe contemporary evangelical theologians can learn from these trajectories.


In modern study of historical theology, several varied factors have coalesced to give rise to what I am calling a two-trajectory approach to patristic soteriology. One obvious factor is that dividing early Christianity into East and West, Greek and Latin, is a convenient and familiar way to conduct historical study. Another factor is that modern study of historical theology often focuses heavily on terminology, and so scholars tend to assume that Church fathers who used the phrase "participation in God" basically fell into the same camp, in opposition to Fathers who spoke of salvation with juridical terms. Perhaps another factor is that scholars have tended to gravitate toward the familiar: Westerners can readily understand juridical concepts of salvation, but the whole notion of participation in God is a bit foreign. So modern Western scholars tend to lump all participatory concepts of salvation together.

However much these and other general factors may have contributed, perhaps the most significant factor in the rise of this two-trajectory approach is the work of Adolf von Harnack, whose monumental History of Dogma (first published in German from 1885-89) has had a phenomenal influence on 20th-century interpretation of patristic theology.3 Harnack approaches his subject with a passionate and barely-controlled hatred for the Eastern Church, coupled with an almost reverential attachment to two Western Fathers, Tertullian and Augustine. …

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