Chapter 10: Atonement in Eusebius of Caesarea -’The Demonstration of the Gospel’: ‘Heal My Soul’?

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‘Demonstration of the Gospel’: Psalm 41

Eusebius (c.260-339) was appointed bishop of Caesarea Maritima (c. 313 AD) - a busy Roman city and port, located on the seacoast, west of Jerusalem. He is most remembered for his invaluable ‘Ecclesiastical History’, completed and revised from 303-324. However, Eusebius was a prolific author and penned many other works, including commentaries, orations, apologies, dogmatic writings and eulogies in praise of the emperor, Constantine the Great. At Caesarea, he also enlarged an extensive library of Christian manuscripts, many of which were likely inherited from his predecessor in the bishopric, Pamphilius (c. 240-309), including the library of Origen (which that theologian bequeathed to the local Christian community) and many works of classical literature, history and philosophy. Indeed, like Origen, Eusebius possessed an immense storehouse of knowledge derived from the revered pagan writers of the classical world. This is important to remember, for although pagan religion was facing decline in the fourth century, with the advent of Christianity as the religion of the empire, classical philosophy and literature retained a powerful influence. It was imperative for the learned theologian of the fourth century, reaching out to the educated of society, to study such works in order to reason effectively in scholarly debate. Evidence of this is no more clear than in Eusebius’s own work (the precursor to ‘The Demonstration of the Gospel’): ‘The Preparation of the Gospel’. This book is so full of quotations from ancient classical writings, that it is even used today as a source book for the study of these ancient works, existing and no longer extant. From such a cultural background and education, therefore, Eusebius forged his understanding of ‘propitiation’, as practiced in the pagan world, and this no doubt influenced his own understanding of the sacrifice of Christ, as shall be discussed. Regarding theology, Eusebius is also known to have been sympathetic towards Arius – whose views many Church leaders deemed heretical  - and used Arianist expressions in his own writings, with reference to the nature of the Word, the Son of God. Arians held that Jesus was a created being, that He was not true God, and that there was a time when He did not exist. At the Council of Nicaea (325), Eusebius sought to clarify his position and gave his signature to the orthodox views of the Nicene Creed: that Jesus is indeed : ‘true God from true God …eternally begotten of the Father …begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.’ However, suspicions persisted about his true position – and not without good reason.

In The Demonstration (otherwise called: ‘The Proof of the Gospel’), Eusebius wrote of the Son, “the Second”:

“…the true and only God must be One, and alone owning the Name in full right. While the Second, while sharing in the being of the True God, is thought worthy to share His Name, not being God in Himself, nor existing apart from the Father Who gives Him divinity, not called God apart from the Father …holding His being as well as His Divinity not from Himself but from the Father.” (The Proof of the Gospel, Bk. V, Ch. 4; ed. and trans. by Ferrar, J.W; reprint: Baker, 1981)

Again, same chapter: “For the One gives, and the other receives; so that strictly the First is to be reckoned God, alone being God by nature, and not receiving (divinity) from another.” (ibid)

Consider also: “…the true and Only-begotten Son of the God of the Universe …honoured in this passage under the style and name of Wisdom …He goes on to say, ‘The Lord created me as the beginning of his ways for his works …’ By which He teaches both that He Himself is begotten, and not the same as the Unbegotten, one called into being before all ages, set forth as a kind of foundation for all begotten things.” (ibid, Book V, Ch.1).

So, in these passages, Eusebius maintained that the Son, “not being God in Himself”, receives His divinity from the Father, who is alone “God by nature”; and that the Son was Himself “called into being” by the Father.

The Letter of Arius to Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia” (c.319 A.D.), as recorded by Theoderet in his Ecclesiastical History (early 5th century), adds to our understanding of the bishop of Caesarea’s position:

“Eusebius, your brother bishop of Cæsarea, Theodotus, Paulinus, Athanasius [not the 'A. of Alexandria'], Gregorius, Aetius, and all the bishops of the East, have been condemned because they say that God had an existence prior to that of His Son … But we say and believe, and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that He does not derive His subsistence from any matter; but that by His own will and counsel He has subsisted before time, and before ages, as perfect God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before He was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, He was not. For He was not unbegotten. We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning.” (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, I, IV, trans. Rev. Blomfield Jackson, ed. P. Schaff, H. Wace, pub. T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1892)

 Therefore, it can be deduced from the above that Eusebius of Caesarea held the view that the Son of God was “called into being” by the Father and that before this, He “was not” – had no existence. By this view, the Son is made distinct from the Father, who is the only True God – the Second  ”not being God in Himself, nor existing apart from the Father Who gives Him divinity” (see above). With such a theology, as we shall see, Eusebius was able to perceive of the sacrifice of the Son as a necessary propitiation for sin on behalf of man to avert God’s wrath. By his reasoning, the sacrifice of Christ was thought to satisfy God’s demand for a penalty because of sin. The sacrifice of the first begotten Son, as the first called into being of all God’s creation, was believed sufficient to regain God’s favour as the penal price of atonement for the whole of mankind.

It was essentially a view of propitiation as was practiced in pagan religion. The only difference being one of degree – the penal sacrifice of the first begotten for the sake of all mankind as a means of propitiating the one true God. Here, the Father was thought to accept the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf as the payment of the penalty to satisfy His honour and to restore to us His favour. – But this is not the biblical perspective.

According to the Bible, the only way God can be propitiated is through the offering of the life of Christ – a life of faithful obedience. In turning to Him in repentance and faith, His offering is accepted for us, as we seek to emulate the One we follow. God desires that we repent of sin and turn to Him in faith and obedience, as disciples of His Son. This is what propitiates God. It is not about the need to punish. It is about the need to repent and obey. All who do are forgiven in Christ. The wrath of God was never poured out upon His Son in our place. His was the acceptable sacrifice. He gave Himself as the LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. The wrath of God is only poured out upon the incorrigibly wicked – upon all who refuse to repent. Jesus gave His life for the sake of those who do. All in Christ are covered by His righteousness, cleansed, forgiven and safe from God’s wrath.

 Only the first ten books of his apologetic work: ‘The Demonstration of the Gospel’ have come down to us; the final ten books are missing. Nevertheless, views he expressed in the books remaining are worthy of careful consideration, especially those that relate to his explanation of our Lord’s atonement. For drawing attention to this work, I am grateful to the authors of the book: ‘Pierced for our Transgressions‘. A passage from ‘The  Demonstration’ (otherwise known as ‘The Proof of the Gospel‘) is presented in their book to suggest historical evidence for the doctrine of penal substitution. For this reason also, it was quoted in the work: ‘The Doctrine of Justification by Faith’, by the British theologian of the 17th century, John Owen.

Here is the quotation:

‘And how can He make our sins His own, and be said to bear our iniquities, except by our being regarded as His body, according to the apostle, who  says: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members?” And by the rule that “if one member suffer all the members suffer with it,” so when the many members suffer and sin, He too by the laws of sympathy (since the Word of God was pleased to take the form of a slave and to be knit into the common tabernacle of us all) takes into Himself the labours of the suffering members, and makes our sicknesses His, and suffers all our woes and labours by the law of love. And the Lamb of God … was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us.’  (The Proof of the Gospel, Bk. 10, Ch. 1 (467); ed. and trans. by Ferrar, J.W; reprint: Baker, 1981)

Clear from the context is the idea that Jesus empathizes with the sufferings of the members of His body, the Church, caused by sin. Nevertheless Eusebius went further, quoting Psalm 41 to suggest that the Lord, by ‘uniting Himself to us‘, could say of Himself that He too had ‘sinned’, by reason of His association with the members of His body:

‘With regard first to the words which are apparently said in the person of our Saviour:Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee,” …And He speaks thus because He shares our sins.’ (466)

‘…uniting Himself to us and us to Himself, and appropriating our sufferings, He can say, “I said, Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee,”…’ (467/8)

(The Proof of the Gospel, Bk. 10, Ch. 1; ed. and trans. by Ferrar, J.W; reprint: Baker, 1981)

One wonders if Eusebius would have been so bold as to state that the Lord could justly claim to have sinned if he had believed Jesus to be equal with God the Father? Let us be clear, Eusebius held the belief that Jesus could say that He had sinned (though not personally), by reason of His union with the members of His body, the Church; and that, as such, He ‘suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins’. He received punishment and death that were owing to us (‘due to us’). This was his understanding. But, he added:

‘…the words, ‘I have sinned against thee,’ are not to be taken literally, …’ (ibid, 470)

These were ‘our sins’, Eusebius remarked. In Himself, Jesus was innocent and of ‘absolute integrity‘:

‘…the words, “Thou hast protected me for my innocence,” exhibit the absolute integrity of His nature …’ (ibid, 470, cf. Psalm 41)

In the theology of Eusebius, the reason for the atonement expressed above was but one of several, which he listed in Book 4:

‘…firstly, the Word teaches by His death that He is Lord both of the dead and of the living; secondly, that He will wash away our sins, being slain, and becoming a curse for us; thirdly that a victim of God and a great sacrifice for the whole world might be offered to Almighty God; fourthly, that thus He might work out the destruction of the evil powers of the demons by unspeakable words; and fifthly also, that shewing the hope of life with God after death to His friends and disciples not by words only but by deeds as well …He might make them of good courage and more eager to preach both to Greeks and Barbarians …’ (167)

(The Proof of the Gospel, Bk. 4, Ch. 12; ed. and trans. by Ferrar, J.W; reprint: Baker, 1981)

So, what are we to make of his view?

Ferrar accomplished his excellent work of translating based upon the Greek compilation of Gifford. In the above quotation, however, readers may wonder as to the exact meaning of the phrase ‘due to us’ – in that Jesus is said to have ‘transferred to Himself’ sufferings ‘due to us’? – Did Eusebius mean, ‘because of us’? In short, no. The expression derives its meaning from the Greek ‘opheilo’ and refers to a state of ‘owing’ – of being ‘in debt’.  Our sins have caused us to be in debt both to man and God, according to the moral and just Law of God. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, ‘And forgive us our debts, as also we forgive our debtors‘ (Mat.6v12, KJV), the same root is found in the text: for ‘debts’ is written ‘opheilema’ and for ‘debtors’, ‘opheiletes’. In the forms of ‘opheilo’ and ‘opheile’ the word also appears twice in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mat.18), translated ‘debt’. Sins, therefore, cause one to be in debt to both man and God. Where there is no pardon, there is no cancellation of the penalty, according to the Law.

In the Bible, true justice is explained according to the simple principle of equivalence: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth …’ (Lev.24:17-20). According to this rule of justice, as we do to others, so we are due to have done to us – to an equal degree. In the view of Eusebius, therefore, what Jesus endured was truly representative of sufferings caused and owing to be suffered in degree as a punishment by mankind, as a result of sin. By this reasoning, Jesus cancels the suffering that is our due because He paid the penalty when punished at the cross. Eusebius believed that Jesus was punished with a degree of punishment rightly due to mankind because of sin. But, was this view correct? – What is certain is that the punishment inflicted upon the Son was not the punishment of God.

If only for the fact that it is inconceivable that God should punish with a Roman scourging and with ‘insults’, it should be obvious that the Father did not punish His Son. The sufferings that Jesus underwent spoke of the sin of humanity for which cause He came and from the consequences of which He came to save. At the cross, Jesus bore down upon Himself not the divine justice, but ‘the sin of the world’ – in His human body and against His divine person. Those who killed Him, in the words of Stephen, were murderers (Acts 7: 52). He was taken unlawfully and punished without true justice, as the Bible declares (Acts 2:23; 8:33). Jesus suffered this for us – but why?

In what way, therefore, did Eusebius understand the penalty that Jesus suffered, but ’did not owe’ - at the hands of the Roman and Jewish authorities? We can infer from the context that this penalty was perceived by Eusebius as our debt, because of sin. From the principle of equivalence under the Law, a just penalty can be viewed as the retribution demanded by the Law to counterbalance an offence and so satisfy justice. By the Law, the suffering caused by our sins should equal, in degree, the suffering that we are owing to pay as a penal debt. Therefore, Eusebius might have reasoned that all the suffering that Jesus bore at the cross is representative of the degree of suffering that mankind is indebted to pay as a penalty. However, the crucifixion was an act of sin against God’s Son – and it is not according to God’s justice to pay for a penal debt with a penal crime.

One thing should be clear, the penal suffering of Christ was not of God. The punishment of Christ did not pay the debt for our sins – rather, this action compounded them. In all aspects, this was the opposite of divine justice.

Eusebius wrote: ‘… He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins,‘ (see Bk. X, Ch.1, see above) – and in this he was right, but not for the reasons he gave.

(See also: Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!)

‘…the words which are apparently said in the person of our Saviour: “Heal my soul, for I have sinned …”‘

(Eusebius: The Proof of the Gospel, Bk. 10, Ch. 1, (466); ed. and trans. by Ferrar, J.W; reprint: Baker, 1981)

We need to recognize that much of what Eusebius wrote was according to his own speculative theology and not according to Church tradition. In the above quotation, the words ‘apparently said‘ are indicative of the author’s own admission to a degree of uncertainty about the interpretation that he was placing upon the verse in question, from Psalm 41. This was his own view, not Church doctrine. Nevertheless, was Eusebius right to suggest that Jesus, as Head of His body – the Church, could say, as in the Psalm, ‘Heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee’ ?

There is an analogy expressed in the New Testament that uses the human body as an example to illustrate the relationship of Christians as Church members to Christ, as Head of the Church: ‘And He is the head of the body, the church …’ (Col.1:18, NKJ); ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually …’ (1 Cor.12:27, NKJ); ‘…there are many members, yet one body’ (1 Cor.12:20, NKJ); ‘…if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it’ (1 Cor.12:26, NKJ); ‘… no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body …’ (Eph.5:29-30, NKJ).

No analogy works in all respects. There are similarities, but also incongruities. We can sympathize with a brother or sister going through a trial, for example – as one member suffers, we can suffer also. However, we do not experience the full suffering of the other member. There is a degree to which we can empathize with all that others endure. Likewise, we can bear the burden of sin that other members are suffering, even as the apostle said we should do (‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,’ Gal.6:2, NKJ). But, when one member falls into sin, that does not mean that we do also. We are not made sinners by the sins of others, nor are we responsible (unless we have colluded in some way, of course). We are responsible for our own sins. We are not made guilty by association – simply because others with whom we are related choose to sin. So it is with Christ: ‘He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin‘ (John 3:5, NKJ).

As a person enters into a relationship with Jesus as personal Saviour and Lord, all sins are forgiven and the robe of Christ’s righteousness becomes one’s ‘garment of salvation’ (Isa.61:10). As Christians, we are covered by His life and imbued with the Holy Spirit, as children of God. Jesus does not ask the Father to forgive Him for our sins. As God Himself, how can He? As the One who takes away our sins, how can He? As THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS, how can He? The Father has nothing to forgive His Son. The Son is not implicated in any sin or wrongdoing. Always He does that which is pleasing to the Father – and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are One. In this matter, Eusebius overstretched the analogy and was wrong.

Jesus was indeed made a sin-offering, and was made to be sin in the judgment of those who crucified Him – but this was not the righteous judgment of God. The Lord’s sacrifice was accepted as a ‘sweetsmelling aroma‘ (Eph.5:2, NKJ), without corruption. He bore our sins as the One against whom all have sinned. He also bore our sins in His heart; but as Saviour, takes them away through the forgiveness He now offers to all who truly repent.

It is perhaps easy to see why Eusebius of Caesarea – expressing such views as Jesus could have regarded Himself as having sinned, as Head of the body -  was suspected by some of his contemporaries of holding to an Arianist opinion of Christ. At the Council of Antioch, held early in 325 AD  and presided over by Bishop Ossius, Eusebius was one of only three out of fifty-nine bishops who refused to sign the distinctly anti-Arian ‘Statement of Faith‘ (ref. ‘The search for the Christian doctrine of God: the Arian controversy 318-381, pp.146-151: Hanson, R.P.C; Baker Academic, 1988; T&T Clark, London & N.Y., 2005). The three bishops were given a suspended excommunication to allow them time to reconsider their positions. This explains perhaps why Eusebius was at pains to confirm his orthodoxy of belief at the general ecumenical council that convened at Nicaea later that year – and his efforts resulted in his condemnation being cancelled. Given time to reflect on his position, Eusebius could well have felt compelled to revise his views on the nature of Christ and the atonement as a result. After all, as observed above, it is certain that his expressed views of the atonement included his own mere speculations and were not presented to suggest widely held Christian beliefs, received by apostolic tradition.

Unfortunately, antiquity of belief in a doctrinal position is often considered reason of itself for acceptance – when really one should seek to discover if a teaching is in agreement with the Scriptures, and especially those of the New Testament. Nevertheless, although historicity is important, it is apparent that nothing like ‘penal substitution‘ is known to have been taught earlier than that supposed in Eusebius* – and this from a work written at a time when he was known to have supported the Arianist faction of the Church. (*See: Reflections from writings of early Church fathers – the views of Justin Martyr)

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