Over the past couple years I've been reading a fair dose of the early church fathers' writings, as well as a few secondary sources on their theology. Specifically, my reading has included Athanasius, Augustine, John Cassian, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory the Great, Ephrem the Syrian, Maximus the Confessor, Irenaeus of Lyons, Basil of Caesarea, Origen, Pseudo-Macarius, Aphrahat the Persian, and Eusebius of Caesarea. I take the time to list them merely to point out that most of my readings have focused on the eastern end of the early Christian world. (Only two of my sources--Augustine and Gregory the Great--fall securely in the western tradition. Two others fall somewhere in the middle: John Cassian lived and worked in the West, but his thought was derived almost entirely from the eastern desert fathers, and Irenaeus of Lyons, though also in the West, grew up in the East and developed a theology that was carried on largely by the eastern tradition).
In the midst of this reading, what I discovered from the East was a theological milieu that developed and flourished with some very different points of emphasis than the western-Christian theology that I was familiar with. And those differences struck down to the very root of the Gospel. I grew up with the normal evangelical-Protestant understanding of salvation: humans are sinful, including me, and my sins have separated me from the all-holy God; those sins need to be paid for somehow, or else I'll be damned to spend eternity in hell; and so, because of his love for me, and to save me from hell, Jesus paid the price for my sins; now that my sins are atoned for, I can be accepted by God and spend eternity in heaven. That's overly simplistic, of course, but that's the gist of it.
But the Eastern Fathers had quite a different way of looking at salvation. They didn't seem to talk about sin as much as good evangelicals do. In fact, although they acknowledged sin as a problem, they didn't seem to talk about it as the root problem. And they had a different sense of the goal of salvation--although they would acknowledge the fact that whether an individual spends eternity in heaven or hell was part of the answer, their solution was more all-encompassing. And while they focused on the cross of Christ, they also made a much bigger deal over other aspects of Christ's life--the fact of the Incarnation itself, the Resurrection, and the Ascension--each one integral in their theology of salvation.
I'll try to trace out the basics of the Eastern Fathers' view of salvation, now largely carried on by the theology of the Eastern Orthodox churches. First of all, the problem of humanity is sin, death, and Satan. Sin, in the fathers' view, is both a description of the human condition and of an individual's actions. Urged on by Satan, sin is what causes spiritual death; and now that spiritual death is in force over humanity, sin is as much a symptom as a cause of our separation from God. While we evangelicals speak of the problem of sin largely in legal, penal terms--sin as a crime against God, a crime that must be punished or atoned for--the fathers prefer to speak of it in relational terms--sin as separation. So now, enslaved by sin and Satan, we are separated from God and subject to death, both spiritual and physical. In the fathers' view, this element--death--is much more the problem of humanity than is humanity's ledger of sinful crimes against God's authority. But, on the whole, it's just a different point of emphasis than the evangelical view.
But here's where the fathers' theology adds a few elements that might be a bit less familiar to us. Since separation from God--which is the very meaning of death--is the problem, the solution as revealed in Jesus Christ is a solution defined by the overcoming of that separation. Thus, the very fact of the Incarnation is foundationally more essential than even the events that arise from it--the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. And to understand how the Incarnation accomplishes the annulment of our separation from God, we must step outside of our western individualism for a moment. The fathers conceived of human nature in a mystical sense, as something that all humans everywhere share--it is the stuff of our being, that which defines us as human beings, and it means that we are all connected to one another in a very real and essential way.
In the words of Gregory of Nyssa (Catechetical Orations): "It is the same for humanity as a whole, which forms, so to speak, a single living being: the resurrection of one member extends to all, and that of a part to the whole, by virtue of the unity and cohesion of human nature."
Because all humans share collectively in "human nature," the fact of the Incarnation means that humanity itself has been united with the Divine life. Human nature--the very human nature that is essentially connected to you and me--was taken into the life and being of the Godhood in the person of Jesus Christ. As God and Man, he shares in our humanity. And we, by extension, may share in his divinity.
Gregory of Nyssa (Against Apollinarius): "The Word, in taking flesh, was mingled with humanity, and took our nature within himself, so that the human should be deified by mingling with God: the stuff of our nature was entirely sanctified by Christ." And listen to how Irenaeus describes the purpose of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection, in terms of union and "absorption" rather than in terms of sin and atonement: "This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption become Sons of God...How could we have united ourselves with immortality if immortality had not become what we are, in such a way that we should be absorbed by it?"
It is at this point that we evangelicals run up against a doctrine that's awfully hard for us to swallow: deification. Instead of pointing to the goal of salvation as individual redemption from the punishment of sin, the fathers, almost unanimously, point to something more breathtaking and all-encompassing--the envelopment of human beings into the life of the Godhood itself. While we would not lose our individual essence and nature, we are granted to share in the deepest energies of the life of God himself. The fathers, from Irenaeus to Athanasius to the Cappadocian Fathers, emphasize this to the point where they regularly speak of Christians "becoming God"--that is, sharing in his very life. In the words of an anonymous Easter Homily inspired by Hippolytus' Treatise on Easter: "God has shown himself as man and humanity has ascended and become God!" While it takes some careful, thoughtful reading to get to the heart of what the fathers are really saying when they spout what sound like blasphemies to us, this doctrine has grown more and more appealing to me: How great is the love of God, that he would not only forgive us, but gather us in to share in the depths of who he is in a union so intimate and rich as to defy description!
And all of this, though also supported by a few references from the NT epistles, comes mainly from the idea of the Incarnation itself--the union of humanity and divinity in Christ as the firstfruits and sign of the union that we may someday enjoy with God. By Christ's intimate union with us, he has bridged the separation between man and God. The Crucifixion, then, is largely his act of union with us--embracing all the murder, depravity, and violence that lies at the heart of fallen human nature. It is his act of undergoing death--taking head-on the deepest curse of our separation from God--and defeating it, thus opening the way for all humanity to share in the Resurrection, both spiritual and (eventually) physical. (By contast, with merely a penal substitution model of the atonement, we're forced to reduce the meaning of Resurrection to a "sign" of Christ's victory, since the main work of gaining forgiveness for sins had already been accomplished on the Cross.) As Cyril of Alexandria says, "He put on our flesh to set it free from death." And in the words of Gregory of Nyssa: "He mingled himself with our being to deify it by contact with him, after he had snatched it from death...For his resurrection becomes for mortals the promise of their return to immortal life." And this is all echoed by Gregory of Nazianzus, "Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice [of Christ on the cross], not because he demands it or feels some need for it, but in order to carry out his plan? Humanity had to be brought back to life by the humanity of God...It was necessary that God should take flesh and die so that we might have new life...Nothing can equal the miracle of my salvation; a few drops of blood redeem the whole universe!"
The Ascension is the final act of this wonderful drama--it is the ultimate symbol of what Christ has done for humanity, bringing it into the presence of God in heaven. As Christ the God-Man shares in the divine communion of the Trinity, so do we also share that communion, because we share in Christ's human nature. Maximus the Confessor writes: "Christ, having completed for us his saving work and ascended to heaven with the body which he had taken to himself, accomplishes in his own self the union of heaven and earth."
So that's the picture that the fathers paint for us--a picture of salvation that is much more than merely the forgiveness of sins, but rather of the dynamic union of humanity and divinity, an act of love that welcomes us to share in the life and nature of God himself. I present these thoughts not as a challenge to the evangelical gospel and the penal substitution model of the atonement--I don't think they're mutually contradictory. But I do think we may have settled for one rather small piece of a much grander picture. It's worth considering. It's worth reading the Fathers to explore for yourselves.