Resurgence of the Patristic Teaching on Salvation: a Historical Survey

By Dr. Rodolph Yanney, M.D.

Christians throughout the centuries have confessed the Lord Jesus as Saviour, but what does this really mean? In both the Old and New Testaments, God is the Saviour; salvation is a result of his saving act (Ex. 3:8, 5:23; & 12:27; Ps. 44:3,4; Is 43:11, 60:16, 61:10; Hab. 3:13 & 18; Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:47, 68 & 2:11; Heb. 3:16, 18; 2 Pet 1:1). This has been an essential teaching of Christianity since the very beginning. Christians quoted the biblical verses and data without raising the theological question of how does God save us.

Salvation Teaching in the West through the Centuries.

Till the middle of the twentieth century the teaching on salvation in all churches, East and West, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, was dominated by the Western thinking which looked at salvation from its legal or judicial aspect. Although this view appeared as early as Tertullian in the third century, it only became an elaborate system in the 12th century.


In his treatise, ‘Why did God become man, St. Anselm of Canterbury, the first scholastic theologian, established the doctrine of satisfaction, the recompense that Christ paid to God because his honor had been violated.1 This theory was the climax in the western thinking which was mainly preoccupied with the problem of sinful humanity.2 Christ was seen as a substitute for humanity; his death on the Cross was the basis if not the sole act of salvation. As an atoning sacrifice, the death of Christ was a vicarious satisfaction to the Father for the sins of all humanity.

He has paid to the Father the ransom for mankind (cf. Matt. 20:28, Mark 10:45; 1 Tim 2:6), and our sins were forgiven (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19). When Christ cried on the Cross, ‘It is finished,’ it meant (according to this theory) that the debt has been paid and salvation had been won and accomplished once and for all (cf. Heb. 9:12 & 10:14).

The idea of satisfaction locked all subsequent generations of theologians around the Crucifixion, ignoring other aspects of the incarnation and ignoring any role for the Holy Spirit. Once salvation was finished on the Cross, any teaching about the Church Sacraments, the eucharistic Sacrifice or the role of the individual to accomplish his salvation (Phil. 2:12) has become meaningless.

Council of Trent

In trying to find a role for the Sacraments and for good works, the 16th century Council of Trent said that ‘Justification is not a bare remission of sins, but also sanctification and renewal of the inner man through the voluntary reception of grace and of gifts.’ Here we have the role of the Sacraments and of the works.

Sanctification is preserved by obeying the commandments and by good works which also increase it. In case sanctification is lost, and it can be lost by mortal sin, it can be regained by the Sacrament of Penance.3 In this Council, the Roman Catholic Church officially accepted the doctrine of ‘merit for good works.’

The Protestant Reaction

The Protestants reacted by introducing the idea of salvation by faith alone, faith without work and without the need for the Church Sacraments. In their teaching about salvation, they made a distinction between two biblical terms, justification and sanctification. For them, justification, which is a forensic act, is the work of Grace alone. Its means or condition is faith (cf. John 3:14 -16; Rom. 3:22-28; Gal. 3:11; 1 Pet. 1:9) which also rests upon the pure Grace of God and is therefore his gift (Eph. 2:8). The object of this faith is Jesus. (Rom. 5:17, 1 Pet. 2:4). Neither baptism nor good works have any role in Justification.3 Good works are the fruit and sign of salvation. On the other hand, sanctification (leading a holy life) is also the work of Grace alone. Sanctification is a result of salvation.4 In the Protestant teaching while justification occurs in one moment, sanctification is a prolonged process that continues till the time of death. This teaching can be illustrated by a few quotes from the popular 19th century Commentary on Exodus by Charles Mackintosh (1820-1896):

The Lord Jesus Christ having shed His precious blood, as a perfect atonement for sin, has taken it into the presence of God, and sprinkled it there and God’s testimony assures the believing sinner that everything is settled on his behalf…There must either be a sufficient ground for peace in the blood alone, or we can never have peace. To mix up our estimate with it, is to upset the entire fabric of Christianity, just as effectually as if we were to conduct the sinner to the foot of Mount Sinai, and put him under a covenant of works. Either Christ’s atoning sacrifice is sufficient or it is not. If it is sufficient, why those doubts and fears?…Every one who doubts his full and everlasting forgiveness, denies, so far as he is concerned, the completeness of the sacrifice of Christ…

 It is the blood of Christ who gives peace, imparts perfect justification divine righteousness, purges the conscience, brings us into the holiest of all…and constitutes our title to all the joys, the dignities, and the glories of heaven. (See Rom. 3:24-26; 5:9; Eph. 2:13-18; Col. 1:20-22; Heb. 9:11; 10:19; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:24; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 7:14-17)…

The work of the Spirit is not the ground of peace; for, if it were, we could not have settled peace until Christ’s coming, inasmuch as the work of the Spirit, in the Church, will not, properly speaking, be complete till then. He still carries on His work in the believer. “He maketh intercession with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8). He labors to bring us up to the predestinated standard, namely, perfect conformity, in all things, to the image of “the Son.” He is the sole Author of every right desire, every holy aspiration, every pure affection, every divine experience, every sound conviction; but, clearly,

 His work in us will not be complete until we have left this present scene and taken our place with Christ in the glory. Just as, in the case of Abraham’s servant, his work was not complete, in the matter of Rebecca, until he had presented her to Issac. Not so the work of Christ for us. That is absolutely and eternally complete. He could say, “I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do” (John 17:4). And, again, “It is finished” (John 19:30)…(Chapter 12).

 God is alone in redemption, and as for us, we have but to stand still, and see the salvation of God. The very fact of its being God’s salvation proves that man has naught to do in it…Salvation is a thing wrought out and revealed by God, to be seen and enjoyed by us. It is not a thing made up partly of God’s doing and partly of man’s. Were it so, it could not be called God’s salvation. (Chapter 14).5

Critique and Development of Medieval Theologies

In the Middle Ages, both Protestants and Catholics were arguing from a legal standpoint which they shared in common. But both were wrong since the idea of works or of merit is just as erroneous as the other extreme, according to which man has no part in the realization of his salvation, under the pretext that the latter is already accomplished for us by God and it is sufficient to learn this by an act of faith.6 The Protestants’ teaching on salvation is limited to what God has done for us, rather than what He does in us.The Reformers’ doctrine of salvation by faith alone was not their invention.

They followed in it the teaching of Western Church Fathers since Augustine. In his conflict with Pelagius, the Roman monk who taught that the freedom of the human will to do the good works was necessary for salvation, Augustine went to the extreme of denying any role for the human will, which, according to him, has been completely corrupted by sin.

St. Augustine (5th century), followed by St. Bernard (12th century) taught that salvation is the work of God alone. With the advent of scholasticism, Peter Lombard (died 1160) defined sanctifying grace as the indwelling of the Spirit in the souls of the righteous. Sanctifying grace is the entirely supernatural ground for justification.7 It should be observed that those western Fathers did not share the Protestants’ separation of justification (forgiveness of sins) from sanctification (infusion of grace).

Where is the Orthodox Teaching?

The Orthodox Churches were not a part of these arguments between Protestants and Roman Catholics. However, the teaching of the scholastic theologians and some of the decisions of the Council of Trent have infiltrated into all Orthodox Churches through Catholic missionaries. It is also true that they were also affected by Protestant missions. But these teachings were always alien to the Orthodox Tradition they inherited from the Fathers. Theologians in most Orthodox Churches during the 20th century have called for freeing Orthodox Theology from ‘the Western Captivity’ by returning to the Fathers, a call which has been also shared by many Catholic Theologians later in the century. The Catholic Church in Vatican II (1962-1965) has gone a further step by giving an official status to this return, and has since then implemented many practices from the early Church into her liturgy.

Outline of the Patristic Teaching on Salvation:

The early Church Fathers looked at salvation from different aspects since it is a divine action which no human theory or human word can define or limit. From the biblical data they saw Christ as the New Adam, the Teacher, the Victor and the Victim.8 Whatever picture they used, they were careful to avoid philosophical routes and theories that have no biblical theological basis. Looking retrospectively, with the mistakes to which scholasticism has led the Christian world during the last millennium in mind, we can now stress the main points in the soteriology of the Fathers.

1. The Fathers do not limit salvation to the Crucifixion. It is the work of Christ before and after the Cross. In St. Athanasius’ works we find that the life of Christ as a whole brings salvation, from his place in the bosom of the father, to his birth, baptism, Crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and second coming.9

2. The Fathers do not limit salvation to the work of Christ, it is also the work of the Father and of the Holy Spirit. Our salvation is the will of the heavenly Father which Christ came to fulfil (John 4:34, 5:30 & 6:38; Heb. 1:1, 3:1-6, 5:4, 8:2 & 10:5-7). The Father also has an active role in its fulfilment (Luke 23:46; Acts 3:26; Heb. 13:20). The work of the Son is to come down from heaven in order to return united with humanity, a role that is finished only when God becomes ‘everything to every one’ (1 Cor. 15:28). The Holy Spirit stays with the believer to sanctify him and help him grow in his relation to God till he is united with him.

Sanctification is inseparable from salvation which can only be attained through the redemptive work of the Son. The Holy Spirit ‘rested’ on humanity only after the Ascension of Christ – ‘for if I do not go away, the Counsellor will not come to you’ (John 16:7). St. Athanasius, in his Discourse Against the Arians elaborates on this interaction between the roles of the Son and the Spirit saying, “The Logos took flesh so that we may receive the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who completes the redemptive work of Christ, and makes communion with the Divinity available to everyone.”

3. The Fathers saw in salvation more than its forensic aspect, the ‘forgiveness of sins.’ It is also a new creation, which they gave the term theosis (deification) that reaches the original goal of creation. Rather than focus on human guilt, they look forward to human potential, ‘We are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be.’ (1 John 3:3).10 St. Athanasius repeats in his writings that sin resulted in two major consequences: the change of human nature and the fall of man into the grasp of death. Salvation has to take care of both problems; mere repentance will not solve either. God has to share our humanity in order to change its nature, to recreate it, and to make it incorruptible. From another aspect, the Fathers addressed the question of the actual appropriation of salvation to the individual. How can every human person appropriate in his life the general salvation available to all through the action of God in the Incarnation? While St. Augustine, followed by the Reformers, insisted on salvation by Grace alone through faith, the Roman Catholics added the teaching about the Sacraments as means of Grace and the doctrine of merit for good works to the justification which is a gift of God (Rom. 3:24). Insisting upon the free gift of Grace and the free will of man who is an image of God, Fathers of the Orthodox East since the second century have spoken about synergy11 (co-operation) between both.

St. Gregory the theologian says that if the incarnate Son of God is the agent of redemption of mankind in general, the Spirit is the agent of providing for us, individually, the means whereby we can appropriate that redemption. What Christ has accomplished universally, the Holy Spirit perfects particularly.12 The work of the Spirit in the individual can be studied under two broad subjects. The Holy Spirit works first through the Sacraments, mainly Baptism (which includes Myron in the Patristic literature) and Eucharist. In Baptism we are recreated, and incorporated into the Body of Christ, the New Adam (1 Cor. 12:12, Ephes 4:3-5, Gal. 3:27, Rom. 6:3). In the Eucharist the believer participates in the salvation wrought by Christ through his incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming (1 Cor. 11:26). It is ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’ in which the Church, including each of her members, unites with her heavenly Bridegroom. The second way in which the Holy Spirit works in the individual soul is by synegry, to guide her through her life in Christ. However, synergy does not mean that man becomes his own co-redeemer and co-saviour with Christ. His activity in the appropriation of his salvation is limited to offering his will, opening the door (Rev. 3:20), raising the stone. “The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of Grace that might seem to infringe upon man’s freedom.”13 Man as well as God contribute to the same work, although what God does is of immeasurably greater proportion. “The incorporation of man into Christ requires the co-operation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine Grace and human will.14 Both are essential for the acetic life, the mystic life of contemplation and the life of service.

The final aim of salvation is not to have man return to the state of Adam in paradise. Through the incarnation of Christ our new head is no more the first Adam but the Second (1 Cor. 15:22 & 45-50). Salvation of men is, then, the deification of human nature (theosis). This is a biblical concept (2 Peter 1:4) which was used frequently by the early Church Fathers. St. Athanasius says concerning Christ, “For He was made man that we might be made God.”15 He defines theosis as the state of receiving the Father and becoming immortal as God. St. Gregory the Theologian describes it as a work of Grace in man that starts at baptism and consists in the gradual growth in his relation to God, coming closer to him, knowing him better, and getting progressively united to him.16

We can thus see salvation as a golden string that runs through the whole Scripture and unites it to the liturgical life of the Church and to our life in the world. Salvation became a reality in the Incarnation of our Lord. Its seed is implanted in each individual with Baptism where he receives the Gift of the Holy Spirit ‘who helps us in our weakness (Rom. 8:26). Our flesh receives the power of incorruption when it is nourished by the Lord’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist,17 awaiting for the day when He “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28) This salvation and this Second Coming we already experience in the Holy Eucharist when we, the Church, together with the Spirit address the Son and the whole world, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’ And let him who hears says, ‘Come.’ And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price…..Amen, Maranatha (Come, Lord) Jesus! (Rev. 22:17,20).”


  1. John Wesley later changed the same theory by saying that Christ died to satisfy God’s wrath. (cf. Rom. 5:9)
  2. Bebawi GH: St. Athanasius the Apostolic in Confrontation with Unorthodox Tradition (in Arabic), Cairo: 1985: 21, 38-42.
  3. Faulkner JA, Murray J & Bromiley GW: Justification. In: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), Vol. 2; 1982: 1168-74.
  4. Later, John Wesley taught that while justification is the work of Christ, sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit.
  5. Notes on the Book of Exodus, first published in 1881. Chapters 12 & 14.
  6. Sergius Bulgakov: The Orthodox Church, New York; 1935: 127.
  7. Muller RA: Sanctification. In ISBE, Vol. 4; 1988:326.
  8. Yanney R: Salvation in St. Athansius’ Incarnation of the Word, CCR, 1990; 11:2:44-54.
  9. Bebawi GH: St. Athanasios: the Dynamics of Salvation. Sobornost, 1986; 8:2:29.
  10. Volz CA: Faith and Practice in the Early Church. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg; 1983:78.
  11. In St. Paul’s words, ‘We are God’s fellow workers (Greek Synergoy)’ (1 Cor. 3:9).
  12. This is a conclusion from his teaching which appears in detail in a study of his works. The Dynamics of Salvation: A Study in Gregory of Nazianzus, by D. F. Winslow (Cambridge, MA: The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1979. P. 129) This valuable study is still available at Mercer’s University Press at a very modest price.
  13. Ware T: The Orthodox Church. Pinguin Books; 1963: 226.
  14. Lev Gillet: Orthodox Spirituality. London: S.P.C.K.; 1968:23.
  15. Athanasius: Incarnation of the Word, 54:3.
  16. Winslow: Gregory of Nazianzus, op. cit., See also Ware: The Orthodox Church, op. cit., p. 236-242; and Sergius Bulgakov, op. cit., p. 126, 127.
  17. Irenaeus: Against Heresies, 4:18.



Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: