I am publishing this post a day early for the sake of the conversation generated by my recent atonement posts. I hope the conversation goes forward well. My recent post on “Are You Saved?” generated perhaps our longest list of comments, thus far, and, by far, the most erudite and serious. The subject of the atonement, and the picture of God presented by the doctrine have been a touchy subject between some in the Eastern Orthodox Church and others in various Western confessions over the past number of years.
Orthodox writers, following the lead of John Romanides and others, have seen the West as an easy target and have rather simplistically accused them of changing the doctrine of the atonement and, as a result, altering the image of God and the heart of the gospel all at the same time.
This has brought a flurry of responses from various sources. Some have found quotes from within the Orthodox corpus of writings to support doctrines similar to those attacked in Western writers. Others have cited sources to show that the doctrine ascribed to Western writers has been oversimplified and caricatured.
Doubtless all of these things are true. Those writing in the name of Eastern Orthodoxy have taken unfair shots and those defending the West have both sought to raise an indefensible dogma to a defensible level as well as to drag the East into the same culpability with regard to its teaching.
All that being the case I will state this much: images of the atonement which portray the problem with human sin as an affront to the dignity, honor, justice, etc. of Almighty God and in need of payment, have a problem. The problem is that it makes the issue of sin a problem centered primarily within God.
Rather, by far the Patristic synthesis, is to see the problem with humanity. God is a good God who loves mankind. We are the ones who have cut ourselves off from Him, despite the fact that He loves us. God is the God who so loves us that He gave His only begotten Son for us. Not as a payment to assuage His own offended justice, but as one who emptied Himself and became even as we are (to the extent of entering death and hell) in order to retreive us and restore us to fellowship with the Father.
No council (of the Seven Great Ecumenical) has ever declared authoritatively on atonement imagery. Thus, in Orthodox understanding, there is no definitive atonement imagery. Christ reconciles us to the Father and that is that.
But it is essential for all, East and West, to learn to speak of our reconciliation to the Father in terms that do justice to a God who so loves mankind that He would empty Himself and pour Himself out for us. Imagery of offended justice, and ancient debts, really (lacking conciliar authority) fail in proclaiming the gospel in this modern culture. It is useless to run to an appeal and say, “Yes, but this is really what happened!” For that is to make of imagery a dogma, that even the Fathers refused to do.
It is better to proclaim the gospel as it stands: Christ died for the ungodly. While we were yet sinners Chris died for us. He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. And the verses could be multiplied.
Whatever “wrath” we have avoided in coming to God in Christ, is not a wrath of anger (God is not angry as man is angry), but rather describes a state of being in which we dwell when we set ourselves in opposition to God.
We must learn the discipline of discerning the difference between literal and metaphorical language, and learn when metaphors are helpful and when they are of no use.
We dwell in a culture that from various sources has heard but a caricature of the gospel – and the caricature has left many with a childish view of Christian preaching. It is little wonder that they reject such a God. The Church must be careful to proclaim a God who is worthy of worship, who can challenge the culture at its most existential level.
The best of Patristic material and the best of the Tradition is capable of all these things. I don’t really care whose fault it is that the gospel became caricature in our culture. But as a minister of the gospel, one to whom the mysteries of the ages has been entrusted, I do well to struggle to present those mysteries in a way that is both understandable and truly a challenge to these evil times to repent and believe the gospel – not a poorly truncated late medieval version – but a timeless presentation of the Truth of God in Christ Jesus. Having done that, none of us will have to apologize.