God So Loved the World

[Ancient Faith Radio; October 16, 2008]

Frederica: Well, here I am. Today I am in the back seat of a Camry (so it feels very familiar- my husband has a Camry, too). This one is a 2000 Camry, ours is a 2004, and the driver is Fr. Ted Stylianopoulos, and lovely Presvytera Faye is sitting in the front seat with him. We are leaving their cabin in the gorgeous town of Alstead, New Hampshire, where the leaves are turning, and it just looks like the glory of God ablaze in the woods here. It’s something else. So we went on a walk through their woods this morning, and feel very invigorated, yet still a little bit out of breath. I’m not in great shape here. I was saying to Fr. Ted that I’d love to interview him for the podcast, as he’s such an expert in so many things. Perhaps the Scriptures, or how the Scriptures are interpreted, Orthodox spirituality, the state of the Church- let me start, Fr. Ted, by asking, how long have you been a priest?

Fr. Ted Stylianopoulos: I was ordained a deacon on a Saturday and a priest on a Sunday back in 1965. So it’s been something like forty years plus.

Frederica: Yes, I’m like you, I have zero math ability. But I think that comes to 43 years. But we’re not gonna press that too hard. And you began as a young man, you grew up in Greece, and then you moved to the United States when you where thirteen, is that right?

Fr. Ted: That’s correct. My father became a priest when he was older, after the second world war, he was about 45, went to school, became a priest, and we immigrated to the United States in 1951. I was at age 13. Our whole family, we had relatives originally in San Francisco, and then my father was appointed to a parish in Seattle, WA, and that’s where I grew up. Until I came to seminary in 1956 back in Holy Cross, here in the Boston area.

FMG: And most of your career you’ve been here in the Boston area, you still teach at Holy Cross, and you pastor this little church in Keene, New Hampshire, St. George, where we were yesterday.

Fr. Ted: Yes indeed. I began to teach in 1967. So, forty years plus. My wife and I live in this area, we have four children, and I’ve been pastoring this little community in Keene, New Hampshire, since 1978. It’s been wonderful, because we are a loving family here and we very much are delighted with the people, our worship, and all the friends that we have here.

FMG: You arrived in the United States in 1951 as an Orthodox young man, who previously had only experienced Greece. And you’ve seen a lot of changes in America and in American Orthodoxy over these decades. Tell me what you think about what you’ve observed over these years.

Fr. Ted: Well I think it’s a challenge, because living in America we encounter so many other Christian faiths and religions, which then makes you think about, what does our own Church teach about God, the sacraments, salvation, and so on, so that- I’ve felt this challenge over the years, and that challenge was heightened by going to the seminary and preparing for the priesthood, and in my case of course I went to other graduate schools, in order to prepare to teach in my area, which is the New Testament. That holds true, the challenge, for lay people, too. And here we Orthodox need to be teaching firmly and clearly what we believe, the way of life in Christ that we know, the worship and the sacraments and spirituality, because our own children encounter friends of many faiths, and they can wind up saying, well, it doesn’t really matter whatever faith you have, as long as you have some sort of religion. It’s okay for you, it’s okay for me. So we need, as Orthodox families, to be quite clear about what we teach, and underscore our uniqueness and our differences, because truth very much counts.

FMG: What would you say, if you were trying to present to a typical American Protestant or Roman Catholic, what would be the truth that you would want to distinguish that Orthodoxy brings?

Fr. Ted: I think the most decisive one is our understanding of God. There’s something special about Orthodoxy looking at the mystery of God. As the scriptures say, God is Love. I recall at this moment St. Paul’s words in Romans, chapter five: “While we were yet sinners, God loved us, and sent His Son to shed His blood for our redemption.” I think many western Christians have a different view of God as someone who is rather angry at humanity, at sinners. I believe that Orthodoxy has a God that you can love because He is a loving God. And of course this is very much dramatically disclosed in the parable of the Prodigal Son. You don’t have there an angry God, but one who is always waiting, and when His son comes back, he throws a big party for him. So however far you go from Him, God still loves you. There’s nothing you can do that will make Him stop loving you, and therefore, stop acting up! Stop being angry at God! I think that the Prodigal Son turned, his mind changed, not because of the good things he had in his house, but because he remembered his Father’s love. I know for myself, if I were angry at my father, I would not return just to partake of his table. But the Love of God always pulls us. And I think that is a very key thing to teach our children, and those outside of the Church, to attract them to the life of our Orthodox Church.

FMG: I think you’re right, and I think that’s one of the distressing things that people run into in some forms of western Christianity. It’s the idea that St. Anselm had, that God cannot just forgive us, that God is not free to forgive us, that it would impugn his honor, and that it is vitally important-of course, looking at the feudal landscape of the time, and the lord of a manor could not merely forgive an insult. He always had to have a vengeance, because otherwise the whole community structure would totter. He kind of projected that onto God. I think he was probably a very prayerful and holy man, but he got this mixed up idea in his head that God is not free to forgive us.

Fr. Ted: People more intelligent than I that have studied western theology and history have pointed out that quite likely, Roman law, and this whole notion of justice- in the Roman Empire, justice was considered a goddess- so you can pick that up theologically and say that, in a sense, justice, as an abstract philosophical principle, is even higher than God. That God is accountable to the higher justice, and therefore, if you have done an unjust act toward Him, He will not forgive you unless he punishes you first. Then he’s satisfied justice. I think that’s the whole thing, there.

FMG: And the problem is that it is so unjust. If you were in a courtroom, and you had been charged with murder, and the judge says, this is a capital crime, you’re going to have to die for this sin, for this crime that you’ve committed. And then he says, you know what, you’re not even good enough to die. Even that wouldn’t be enough. And he says, who’s an innocent person? You! – he picks out somebody, a Sunday school teacher, sweet old lady- you’re the one we’re going to torture to death. Your death would be good enough. That would not be justice! So there’s a flaw at the very root of it.

Fr. Ted: I recall a passage from St. Isaac the Syrian, who bluntly says, God is not just. What kind of a justice is it for Him to send His Son as expiation for our sins?

FMG: Yes, thank God, literally, that it’s mercy.

Fr. Ted: Sure. This whole idea of substitutionary atonement, our whole tradition has huge problems with it. People forget that Christ died for us- He died as a gift. The Old Testament calls it a sin offering offered to God, and a sacrifice is a gift, it’s not a payment.

FMG: That’s right. I think that many Western Christians misunderstand Judaism, and think that the sin offering is meant to pay for the sin, but I always it’s more like an engagement ring. It’s a costly offering, and it’s a sincere offering, and it’s a pledge of our sincerity, giving back what we can. If it had to be a payment, then Mary and Joseph couldn’t have brought two doves instead of the sacrifice that wealthier people are supposed to use. But I say, a poor man gives an engagement ring to the woman that he loves. It’s not like if he could afford a bigger diamond, he could get a bigger woman. It’s not a payment, it’s a gift.

Fr. Ted: It took me many years to work through that in my theological studies. Because after all, scripture does speak of the wrath of God. In Romans 1, the gospel discloses the righteousness of God, and uses the salvation, the power of salvation for Jew and Gentile, but then two lines later says, the wrath of God is revealed. What do you do with things like that? But you notice, in Romans chapter 1, as God Holiness encounters the plight and sin of humanity, He doesn’t do something additional to punish them. The word there is, He gave them up, which the scripture says, as in the Prodigal Son, means, he let them be free. So that sin and evil become their own punishment. So the wrath of God is his holiness and uncompromising stand towards sinfulness. But it doesn’t mean that He doesn’t love the sinner, even in his sin. But here we must add, from St. Isaac and other saints who accentuate the love of God, that however much God loves the sinner, and He does love sinners- He does love the homosexual- His love is inoperative unless it is accepted. Some of these great saints obviously defined the very essence of hell as the lack of response or refusal of God’s redeeming love.

FMG: St. Isaac said something like, Those who are burned are burned by the love of God. And if you think about what light meant, it always meant fire. So you would have light and heat, fire and illumination come together. It’s illumination to those who love the Light, and it’s pain to those who hate the Light. As it says in John 1.

Fr. Ted: They call it the scourge of love. The scourge of love, that all humanity has the same destiny- they will come to the presence of God. And the presence of God is light, majesty, love- and those who have learned to accept and live by God’s love will be enhanced by the presence of God. But those who have not, and have refused it, the same light and love and fire will be what is experienced as hell. St. Isaac called it the great angst of the soul. Recognizing, now, the tribulation of the soul of having refused the love of God. There’s nothing more precious than the love of God, and now you’re compelled to recognize the beauty and the depth of that love, and you have refused it.

FMG: What I love about the Prodigal Son is that the Father saw him from a long distance. And I think that shows us God, our Father, making the plan before the foundation of the world. The father was able to see his prodigal son from far away because He was watching. He was always scanning the horizon, looking at the road the young man had gone down, hoping to see that tiny figure appearing at the edge of the horizon. So it’s very much a yearning and forgiving love. He doesn’t say, You know, I’d love to take you back into the family, but what about these debts? He forgives them, He forgives. He doesn’t get a third party to pay it.

Fr. Ted: It’s a wonderful summation in a nutshell of the Gospel. And also the event, at the time of the Crucifixion, with the robber who said, Remember me, Lord, in Your kingdom.

FMG: Yes, that robber is very comforting to me. I am particularly fond of the wise thief. Now sometimes when I’ve written about this, when I use that example of the Prodigal Son, I remember someone who was very in favor of the substitutionary atonement wrote me and said, “Well that’s the only example! You would pick the only example in Scripture where He forgives without payment.” I don’t think that that’s the case. But other people write to me and say, This thing about Jesus’ blood paying for sins- I grew up in Western Christianity, I’ve never believed that, I’ve never been taught it. And there’s this alternative, which I guess begins with Abelard, coming on the heels of St. Anselm, and being repulsed by Anselm’s schema, and saying, God is a God of love. And he has- it’s not quite what Orthodoxy says either, though. It’s that Jesus’ example of love softens the heart of the Father, softens our hearts, and we sort of draw together again. Have you encountered that much? I think we hear more often of the substitutionary atonement.

Fr. Ted: Sure. I think that in that case, then, the idea of love, and of course love is an idea, and when practiced, it does have its own power. So I think for Abelard it seems that love as an example would draw people to God in a more ethical sense. And we don’t need to refuse that.

FMG: It’s not untrue, but-

Fr. Ted: Yeah, it’s not enough, it’s not the full Gospel, because there is the question of conquering the power of death through the death and resurrection of Christ, and the healing and transformation of the inner being through God’s active presence. Through what we Orthodox call theosis. Which we find also in the Scriptures.

FMG: I think that’s another drawback to the western way of looking at it, is that there isn’t an idea of something dynamic going on inside of us, it’s external. Either it’s Jesus paying the Father, or it’s this sort of psychodrama going on, this play they’re enacting, this drama, so that we will learn something to imitate. But it isn’t interior. But you see how many times Jesus says to the Pharisees, You wash the outside of the cup, but inside you are full of corruption. You whitewash the tombs. He’s always talking about the interior person. It’s not just a matter of external justice.

Fr. Ted: Absolutely. And the whole issue of faith, that somehow the declaration of faith as consent of the will fixes everything, and you expect afterward that everything to be nice and rosy. A walk in the garden. But in fact, Christians struggle with sin and temptation even after that, so we have to see as we see in the scripture that salvation is a process. And it’s been noted again and again that you can find the verbs for salvation in the past, in the present, and in the future. I have been saved, I’m being saved, I will be saved. Even the verb justification. We will be justified at the end of time.

FMG: And I always think, it’s justified like a paragraph. We’ll be squared up, we’ll be brought into line with God. It isn’t so much a courtroom. I like to say: it’s not like a judge in a courtroom, it’s like a judge at a dog show, it’s like a judge at a livestock show. You’re a sheep, you’re a goat, you’re a sheep, you’re a goat, He recognizes what’s already there. It’s not like He brings some external punishment to bear.

Fr. Ted: We don’t need to deny the language of the court. Justification is that. And the Jewish tradition knew of courts. So the commitment of faith is a declaration that you are not guilty. That you are forgiven. But that means that you enter into a relationship with God. And that you bring God your sin and you are forgiven as a gift. But once you come into a relationship, into communion with God, then you have the responsibility of following the commandments and of growing in that life and faith and love. So there’s something heroic about the Christian struggle. That we recognize God’s gift, but at the same time, we have to give it our all. Just as God does His best for us, we have to do our best for Him.

FMG: Unfortunately, there’s also much confusion about that in the west, that you are trying to please God by your own actions. It’s just a shame that the concept of merit got mixed in it, and merit is not a word in the Bible.

Fr. Ted: That is true, though we should also say that the word reward is. Like in the Sermon on the Mount. We don’t have objections to God rewarding us. But that’s not our goal, to be rewarded.

FMG: Not paying for it, of course. We never merit it, it’s always a gift.

Fr. Ted: Yes. Let us live the plentitude of God’s love. I see now, Frederica, that we are reaching our destination in Keene, and I want to thank you so much for being with us this weekend.

FMG: Thank you very much, you were so gracious. Presvytera Faye, would you like to say anything? I know you’ve been so silent. I know you’ve been praying for us.

Presvytera Faye: Thank God for you work, and may He keep you strong to continue with the good things you’re doing.

FMG: Thank you so much for your hospitality. I’ve seen beautiful things this weekend.



Are you still there? I guess I want to apologize. As I was listening to this again, I thought, how obnoxious I sound! I guess what’s happening is that rethinking the whole idea of the atonement, or what salvation means, or what the Cross means, was so complicated, and is so complicated for converts coming into Orthodoxy, because we have a totally different grid in our mind. It’s not just that Protestant and Catholic are different, it’s that Protestant and Catholic represent one thing, there are things they agree on that don’t occur to Orthodox at all. And I think maybe that’s just based on something in language, just that a Bible that you’re reading in Latin leans a certain way and a Bible that you read in Greek leans the other way. It was so hard to get that figured out. So here I am, I had the opportunity to talk to Fr. Ted, and he actually grew up in Orthodoxy, then came to the west, kind of had the opposite experience than I had. So I was eager to double check-“you know I’ve noticed this, I’ve thought that…” And you’ll notice that he corrects me on judgment, because I had been saying it’s like judging a livestock show. And yes, but it’s also like a courtroom judgment. You can’t exclude that.

I was trying to check all these things I’ve been trying to think through, that I’ve boiled down to these little short phrases to summarize, like these little tent pegs I’ve been putting in the ground. And I realized that if you are a western Christian and you love the satisfaction theory of atonement, that it’s just going to sound so snide. There are conversations that you have in private, because you’re trying to check things out and clear your mind, that you wouldn’t say in front of someone else that you loved- a fellow brother or sister in Christ who disagrees on this one point. So I just felt kind of bad when I listened to this over again and I wanted to ask your indulgence. Thank you.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.