I am grateful for the responses yesterday that were posted on my article Once and For All, and particularly Ephrem’s passages from the Fathers on justice. I have certainly been among the Orthodox writers, speakers, etc., in America who have given short shrift to forensic (legal) imagery when thinking about God and how we understand Christ’s death on our behalf. I want to offer a short defense (for I think I have reason behind my approach to the faith in this regard) but I also want to look briefly at some of the passages from the Fathers that were quoted regarding the justice of God – for I think they are good and utterly worth attention (as if I should judge the Fathers).
First, the defense. I gave a talk a couple of years ago entitled, “Evangelism in the Burnt Over District.” It was a talk given at the annual Pastoral Conference of the OCA to an audience of priests. I did not speak about the Fathers, but about our American context in which we proclaim the Orthodox faith. The point I made there, and reiterate here, can be found in the image of the “Burnt Over District.”
Upstate New York, in and around the 1840’s had earned the nickname, “The Burnt Over District,” precisely because the number of “revivals” that had swept the area had left it “burnt over.” Today we would probably say, “burnt out.” Both the Great Awakenings, but particularly the Second, had their place in this area. By the time of the 1840’s the area was awash with religion, and interestingly became the hotbed of American religious cults (it was the home of Mormonism, the Millerites, etc.). What is there about the gospel that you can hear one too many times?
My contention was (and is) that the popular preaching of American Protestantism, had winnowed the gospel down to a few graphic images, easily preached and repeated. Those images were a caricature of the substitutionary atonement and a simplified version of Christian initiation (“accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior”) that came to be the stock of popular American evangelical preaching. Just think, American campuses were inundated with the “four” spiritual laws. Imagine trying to convey the Orthodox faith in four anything.
My further contention has been that what was once true of Upstate New York is now descriptive of an entire culture. America is the Burnt Over District. Most Americans, if they have heard a version of the gospel, have heard a very truncated, often caricatured version.
Problematic has been the dominance of an atonement metaphor (which is dogma for some) that portrays God as wrathful, vengeful and in need of appeasement. Often, at the heart of this image is an argument that God is “bound” by His justice and that His justice must be satisfied.
In 26 years of ordained ministry I have encountered more than my share of atheists. In the vast majority of cases the atheists, when questioned, have specifically rejected the problematic portrayal of God in popular preaching. It is correct and permissable, and well within the Tradition to speak of God’s justice, even of His wrath, but we have to be careful to whom we use such imagery and be aware of the baggage if often carries with it.
There are reasons the Church does not trumpet (and never has) its most cherished doctrines of the Theotokos. It is dogma, but not necessarily kerygma, to use the technical terms. It is the settled teaching of the faith (dogma), but not the most public preaching of the faith (kerygma). This is a distinction that is historically of importance in the Orthodox faith, and certainly rooted within the Fathers.
Professor Serge Verhovskoy, of blessed memory, is frequently cited as having given this definition of Orthodoxy: Orthodoxy is the absence of one-sidedness.
The Burnt-Over District is a prime example of “one-sidedness” and the bizarre effects it has on religious belief and practice. Thus, although Orthodoxy does use and has examples of forensic imagery, it is by no means dominant (as in having the prime position in the Divine Liturgy). It is not heresy (as is sometimes asserted in extreme reaction to its abuse). But it has been in long need of balance in the preaching of Christ in our culture. If Orthodox preaching today tends to emphasize images other than the substitionary atonement it may simply be a reasonable effort to contextualize the gospel in a culture that desperately needs to hear the good news.
Now for the Fathers.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem on God’s justice:
For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto
Interestingly, St. Cyril does not portray a God who is bound by any abstract concept of justice. He has transposed the imagery of Adam’s death into a “sentence of death,” although St. Athanasius was careful to point out that God did not say that “in the day you eat of the fruit I will kill you,” but that death would be it’s result: not a sentence, but a falling back into non-being (this is in his arguments in On the Incarnation of God). St. Cyril has here used legal imagery, but carefully made God’s mercy triumphant. God found the way out for us by killing death. But this is far from the image of punishing his Son in order to pay a need for justice (as the caricature sometimes has it).
And St. Gregory Palamas:
The pre-eternal, uncircumscribed and almighty Word and omnipotent Son of God could clearly have saved man from mortality and servitude to the devil without Himself becoming man. He upholds all things by the word of His power and everything is subject to His divine authority. According to Job, He can do everything and nothing is impossible for Him. The strength of a created being cannot withstand the power of the Creator, and nothing is more powerful than the Almighty. But the incarnation of the Word of God was the method of deliverance most in keeping with our nature and weakness, and most appropriate for Him Who carried it out, for this method had justice on its side, and God does not act without justice. As the Psalmist and Prophet says, ‘God is righteous and loveth righteousness’, ‘and there is no unrighteousness in Him’. Man was justly abandoned by God in the beginning as he had first abandoned God. He had voluntarily approached the originator of evil, obeyed him when he treacherously advised the opposite of what God had commanded, and was justly given over to him. In this way, through the evil one’s envy and the good Lord’s just consent, death came into the world. Because of the devil’s overwhelming evil, death became twofold, for he brought about not just physical but also eternal death.
As we had been justly handed over to the devil’s service and subjection to death, it was clearly necessary that the human race’s return to freedom and life should be accomplished by God in a just way. Not only had man been surrendered to the envious devil by divine righteousness, but the devil had rejected righteousness and become wrongly enamoured of authority, arbitrary power and, above all, tyranny. He took up arms against justice and used his might against mankind. It pleased God that the devil be overcome first by the justice against which he continuously fought, then afterwards by power, through the Resurrection and the future Judgement. Justice before power is the best order of events, and that force should come after justice is the work of a truly divine and good Lord, not of a tyrant.
This very rich passage – though using the language of justice – is actually an example of the so-called Christus Victor model in which God triumphs over the devil and sets us free. Not every use of justice is a purely forensic metaphor.
Or St. John Chrysostom:
‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us’. In reality, the people were subject to another curse, which says, ‘Cursed is every man who continueth not in all the words of the law to do them’. To this curse, I say, people were subject, for none had continued in, or was a keeper of, the whole law; but Christ exchanged this curse for the other, ‘Cursed by God is everyone who is hanged on a tree’. And then both he who hanged on a tree, and he who transgresses the law, is cursed, and as it was necessary for him who is about to relieve from a curse himself to be loosed from it, but to receive another instead of it, therefore Christ took upon Him such another, and thereby loosed us from the curse. It was like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another condemned to death, and so rescuing him from punishment. For Christ took upon Him not the curse of transgression, but the other curse, in order to remove that of others. For, ‘He practiced no iniquity, nor was craft in His mouth’. And as by dying He rescued from death those who were dying, so by taking upon Himself the curse, He delivered them from it.
This, indeed, is a good example of substitution being used in Orthodox teaching. But it differs in some ways from more popular usages of substitution in American preaching. Christ is taking a curse upon himself, putting Himself in our place, in order to free us from the curse. But this is a world away from taking a place required by the justice of a wrathful, vengeful God.
As I think we agreed yesterday, there is a very rich inheritance of images used in both Scripture and the Fathers – which is only natural since what is being described is more than any one image can begin to capture. Christ is the “fullness of the Godhead bodily,” and as the fullness, no few words or images could do more than offer an emptiness. He is the “recapitulation” of the entirety of God’s dispensation for us – or as the Scriptures say, “He fulfilled the Scriptures.”
I will endeavor myself to avoid “one-sidedness” and be careful in my speech. But I will also ask of my Orthodox readers to think carefully on the context in which we live and preach the gospel.
My (probably a cliche by now) stock question to most atheists is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that one either.” It is an effort to disarm people who are often very angry about the God they don’t believe in, and an offer of hope that there is a God worthy of worship. We have to preach the truth in its fullness, but we also have to see some things “unpreached” if I may coin a word.
The hopefulness, the humanity, the utter generosity taught in the Fathers – particularly the Greek Fathers that are such a foundation of our Orthodox faith – is an almost unheard of word in our American religious life. That “He is a good God, and He loves mankind,” which concludes almost every service of the Church, is news to our religious nation. Many people believe this to be true, but do not know that it is in fact the teaching of the Orthodox faith.
When I first read Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church (when I was in college), I wept. I do not recommend it to others as the book to start with in exploring Orthodoxy. But I wept because it was the first time I had ever heard the good news that actually sounded like good news. I wept because I was discovering that everything I had always hoped was true was not only true but was actually the Orthodox faith. What I heard in Lossky was my first account of union with God as taught in the Fathers. It wasn’t the mystery of it, but the simple goodness of the teaching that God became what we are that we might become what He is. The imagery of union with Christ was largely new to me (having been raised in Southern one-sidedness).
What a joy it is to actually discuss the Fathers together in this format. May God enrich us all!