Atoning Alms

Atoning Alms April 25, 2016

Early on in David Downs’s study of Alms and atonement in early Christianity, he offers this striking quotation from Basil. He urges his hearers to keep the commandment to feed the hungry “as you would take hold of a fugitive, securing it from all sides with grasping hands and encircling arms. Give a little and gain much: destroy the original sin by freely distributing food. For as sin came through Adam’s evil act of eating, so we ourselves blot out his treacherous consumption if we remedy the need and hunger of a brother” (quoted, 3). Downs admits that this is “highly original,” especially in the connection of charity with the overturning of Adam’s sin. Still, “in his advocacy of the atoning potential of caring for the poor, Basil is by no means alone. The underlying logic of Basil’s contention – that is, the idea that caring for the needy can erase or in some way reckon with human sin – is widely attested in the literature of early Christianity” (4).

Downs traces this notion from biblical sources (especially the LXX) through the Apocrypha and into the early church. He demonstrates a consistent theme of “interested” charity – acts of mercy done for the sake of some reward – and also points to biblical passages that teach that acts of mercy are a “means of canceling, cleansing, covering, extinguishing lightening, or in some way atoning for human sin and/or its consequences” (7). He distinguishes between “meritorious almsgiving,” alms given with hope of reward, and the specific idea of “atoning almsgiving,” in which the reward is envisioned as the forgiveness of sins. In the New Testament, he points to Luke 11:37-41, where Jesus says to give alms so that “everything is clean to you,” and 1 Peter 4:8 (“love covers a multitude of sins”) as especially important texts for the development of this theme in early Christianity.

Downs diverges from other scholars who have examined this theme (Roman Garrison in particular) at a crucial point. While other scholars have suggested that the development of redemptive almsgiving undermines or is in tension with faith in the atoning death of Jesus, Downs argues that for early Christian writers the two emphases are perfectly compatible. After surveying the reception history of 1 Peter 4:8, he says “the author of 2 Clement and Clement of Alexandra appear to hold together (1) the declaration that salvation and atonement for sin come through the suffering and death of Jesus and (2) the affirmation that the practice of mercifully caring for the needy covers a multitude of sins for donors” (201). Works of mercy become a sign of the repentance that leads to life, not a separate meritorious path of works righteousness.

Cyrian harmonizes these themes with a two-stage understanding of salvation: It is his “conviction that God’s work for human salvation is an ongoing act, for the mercy of God and of Christ is ‘forever engaged for our salvation.’ Thus, while Cyprian will go on in the opening section [of his treatise on alms] to emphasize the soteriological benefits of Christ’s atoning death . . . Cyprian also notes that God preserves the one who has been redeemed. . . . Cyprian’s two-stage chronology of atonement does not, therefore, portray the forgiveness of sins before baptism as a divine endeavor and the cleansing of sins after baptism through merciful deeds as a human one disconnected from God’s power and mercy. Instead, Cyprian frames the washing away of human sin b eleemosyna as a divine mercy” (269). In Cyprian’s own words, God’s love comes “to our aid a second time, by showing us works of justice and mercy.” This opens “a way of preserving our salvation, so that whatever uncleanness we afterwords . . . contract we may wash away with corporate works of mercy” (quoted 269). The possibility of removing sin by acts of mercy is thus “a salutary gift of God’s kindness and mercy” (Downs, 269).

Downs’s study is largely an exegesis of the biblical and patristic texts, but he offers theological reflections along the way and in a concluding chapter. He suggests that “atoning almsgiving reflects an understanding of sin and its solution that is socially and ecclesiologically embodied, a vision that frequently contrasts with disregard for the social body, and the bodies of the poor, in Docetic and gnostic Christianity” (284). Along with Cyprian’s treatment of the temporal stages of forgiveness, Downs’s emphasis on the corporate dimension of sin and forgiveness is a critical point. Guilt and forgiveness are embedded in the corporate life of real communities in real time. Given that premise, almsgiving that restores the giver to God makes theological sense, not as competition with the cross but as an outworking of Jesus’ own self-gift to the poor.

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