Thursday, December 3, 2009

Patristic Soteriology: Mathetes

The other apostolic father, probably much later than the others, who is perhaps even more clear then Clement is the author of The Epistle to Diognetus. Sadly, the author of this epistle is unknown. He simply refers to himself as “Mathetes” meaning “a disciple.” The author was said to have known the apostle Paul. Like the other writings of the apostolic fathers, Mathetes does not write this letter as a doctrinal treatise. It is rather, an apologetic tract defending Christianity against it’s pagan attackers. When answering the question of why Jesus came so late in history, Mathetes gives the following answer:
"This was not that he at all delighted in our sins, but that he simply endured them; nor that he approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that he sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able. But when our wickedness had reached it’s height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting his own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great longsuffering and bore with us, he himself took on him the burden of our iniquities, he gave his son as a ransom for us, the righteous one for the unrighteous, the incorruptible one for the corruptible, the immortal one for the mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than his righteousness? By what other thing was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hidden in a single righteous One, that the righteousness of one should justify the many transgressors."

When one first reads this, he may think it came directly from the pen of Martin Luther or John Calvin. The imputational language in this epistle is obvious. Let us examine the flow of the author’s thought. First of all he makes it clear that all mankind was unable by their own works to be justified. By his wickedness, mankind has merited punishment and death. What makes us able to now enter the kingdom of God is His kindness and power. This kindness and power was revealed at one specific point in history. This point in history was when the Son of God “took upon Himself the burden of our iniquities.” Taking upon the burden of our iniquities refers to the non imputation of sin. This is why earlier in the paragraph he refers to God’s not “remember[ing] our iniquities against us.” Not remembering is clearly not transformational. The author is not here saying that through the death of the Son of God we now are no longer transgressors in an actualized sense. It is not that we no longer sin. Rather, he must be referring to a judicial act of pardon. In the author’s mind, what is the ground of our being pardoned? The answer is clear, “His righteousness.” His righteousness covers our sins. This language refers to imputation, not infusion. He then uses justification as a synonymous term for His righteousness covering our sins. Let us observe the parallel.
Problem Solution
Our sins Covered by His righteousness
Wicked and ungodly Justified by the only Son of God
Being justified is being covered by righteousness, not having righteousness infused. The line “Oh sweet exchange!” implies that the covering of righteousness includes not only the forgiving of sin but also the giving of righteousness. When something is exchanged, something is received on both sides. He shows this by two following statements. “the wickedness of many should be hidden in a single righteous One, that the righteousness of one should justify the many transgressors.” Wickedness is forgiven by it’s being “hidden in the righteous one.” However, for the author that is not the complete solution. Justification is linked with “the righteousness of one.” One may object that his righteousness justifies us in a transformative rather than forensic sense. This however, breaks down the parallel. If one were to admit that his righteousness given to us actually makes us righteous rather than declaring us righteous, in the same way our wickedness, if the author’s analogy is consistent, must also make Christ a sinner . This would put one in a theological mess. The obvious parallel in this text is as follows:
Christ Us
Righteousness of one Justify the many transgressors
Hidden in the righteous One The wickedness of many

Whoever this man known as “Mathetes” is, his description of Christ’s redemption would have been enough to make the Lutheran fathers proud.

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