A recent comment posed a fundamental question with regard to the Christian faith: Why do we believe that Christ had to die? What is the purpose of His death on the cross?
Part of the information accompanying the question was the experience (of Mary K) with teaching on the atonement that centered largely on the wrath and anger of God. (I paraphrase and summarize) We sinned (both ourselves and Adam and Eve) – God punished us. God sent Christ whom He punished in our place. Now through faith in Christ we can escape the punishment we deserve. Along with this were a number of questions about the blood of Christ. How does it cleanse us from sin?
Of course such a question could be the occasion for a book. As is, it is the occasion for an answer of readable length (barely). Readers who feel that more should have been said about one thing or another are asked for patience. The heart of things, it seems to me, has to do with the primary images used to understand both what is wrong with humanity and creation (sin) and what it is about Christ that saves us and heals us (His death and resurrection). If there were only one way of speaking about this or thinking about this, then the question would not have been asked.
The truth is that Scripture, including within the work of a single writer, uses many images to describe the reality of what Christ has done. Some of those images are simply useful analogies or metaphors, others seem to have a more “literal” character about them – though nowhere do we find a definitive account that sets all others aside.
I want to also add a preliminary word (for our questioning reader) about the language of Scripture. Though many Christians would agree that the words of Scripture are “God-breathed” (inspired), this does not mean that every statement in Scripture is to be read literally. There are many things that are read figuratively, metaphorically, and otherwise. That is to say, the Scriptures cannot be read without help and a guide. This has always been true. For this reason the Scriptures, when read in a traditional Christian manner, must be read with Christians who themselves have been taught to read them in a traditional manner.
In this matter, you will find great diversity among Christians, for the interpretation of Scripture has been a major point of division between Christians for almost 500 years. Much of what was described in the background to the question that was posed are examples of modern, fundamentalist Christian interpretations (of which there are a variety). What I offer here is the general understanding of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
What is wrong with humanity, and creation, such that we are in need of anything from God? What is sin?
At its most fundamental level – sin is death. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The fact that we die is not a punishment sent to us from God but the result of our having broken fellowship (communion) with God. God is Life and the only source of life. Created things (humanity included) do not have life in themselves, it is not something we have as our possession and power. Rather, life is the gift of God. It is not just our life that is the gift of God – but our very existence and the existence of all that is. God is our Creator. The Scriptures say, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Genesis offers us the story of Adam and Eve in which we hear described their disobedience from God. He had warned them: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Many early commentators on Scripture were careful to note that God did not say, “In the day you eat of it I will kill you,” but “in the day you eat of it you shall die.” Rather we are told: “God did not create death, nor does he delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).
St. Athanasius explains that when humanity chose to break its relationship with God (through disobedience) we cut ourselves off from the source of life. However God did not take life from us (He does not take back the gifts He gives) but we removed ourselves from it. And so we die. We not only die physically, but we have a process of death at work in us. St. Paul speaks of this process as “corruption.” This movement away from and towards death and destruction reveals itself in the many broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs and alcohol. We are dominated by greed, envy, lust, anger, etc. We cannot help ourselves in this matter because we do not have life within ourselves. Only God can give us the true life that alone can make us well.
Above all else we should remember that “God is a good God and He loves mankind” (from the Orthodox dismissal). This we hear clearly in Scripture: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
We hear this echoed in the words of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
You [God] brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come.
This good God who loves mankind is not an angry God. He is not a vengeful God. He does not will us harm or punish us for our destruction. Though the Scriptures use these images, the Fathers of the Church have been consistent in understanding that this language is figurative and should not be understood literally. For instance, St. Anthony says:
God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.
There are many Christians who would handle Scriptures in a different manner – but I think they do not listen to the fathers of the Church and interpret Scripture according to their own opinions. In this, I think they are in error and should not be listened to.
This good God, the only Lord and giver of Life, had compassion on us when we fell away and became subject to death and corruption. In His compassion He sent His only Son who became one of us – taking our human nature upon Himself. Uniting us to Himself, He lived a life without sin (for He is Life), and taught us by word and deed the goodness and kindness of God and to become like God by loving even our enemies.
His love was so great, that He extended that love beyond the grave. He accepted death on the Cross, suffering the hatred and evil doings of those around Him.
And here, as we approach Christ’s death on the Cross, it is appropriate to ask, “Why death?”
There are many meditations on the death of Christ. Meditations that see Him as the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us, as the “Serpent lifted in the wilderness,” and others. Here, temptation sets in and Christians seek to explain Christ’s death by comparing it to their own faulty understandings of lesser things. For it is not the shadow of things to come (Old Testament) that interprets the things to come – but rather the reality (New Testament) that interprets the shadow. It is Christ’s death that gives meaning to every type and foreshadowing and image of that death to be found in the Old Testament.
Thus it is more accurate to say that the Paschal Lamb in the time of Moses is like Christ’s sacrifice, rather than to say His sacrifice is like that which came before. As Christ said of Moses and the Prophets, “These are they which testify of me” (John 5:30).
One of the most common and helpful images in Scripture and the fathers of the Church is the image of Christ’s union with humanity. Christ became incarnate, taking to Himself our human nature. He became what we were, yet without sin. This union should be understood in more than a metaphorical manner. For Christ literally and truly became man. His humanity was not a new creation, but he took flesh “of the Virgin Mary.” He became a partaker of our humanity.
In becoming a partaker of our humanity, Christ opened the way for us to become partakers in His divinity. “For as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). St. Paul uses this language as well in his explanation of Baptism:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be raised together in the likeness of His resurrection. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that we should no longer be the slaves of sin (Romans 6:3-6).
This imagery is common in St. Paul:
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
If you are risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).
These things only make sense because Christ has united Himself to us, and us to Him. We are united to His death and resurrection in our faith and in our Baptism. We become one flesh with Christ. We truly become a part of the Body of Christ.
And this goes to the heart of the answer to the question posed: why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead. We were trapped in the lifeless death of sin (which yields corruption and physical death as well). Christ is God who has come to rescue us from our prison of sin and death. He became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. We were created in the image and likeness of God – but our sin had marred us.
We did not inherit guilt and a legal penalty from Adam and Eve. We inherited a world dominated by death. In such a world we behaved as the slaves of sin and sought to live our lives apart from God Who alone is Life. God alone could rescue us from the place where we had confined ourselves. Christ enters death. Christ enters Hades and makes a way for us to follow Him into true life.
In our present life, this true life is made present within us in many ways. First, it is made present in our knowledge of God. “This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We know God and have a true relationship and communion with Him. We also have within us the power to overcome sin. This is sometimes manifest as obedience to Christ’s commandments, and, as God pleases, it is sometimes manifest as physical healing in our bodies (and miracles in creation – Romans 8:21).
If the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead dwell in you, He will make alive your mortal bodies (Romans 8:11).
The true life of humanity is a common life. It is common in the modern world to think of ourselves only in terms of discreet individuals. But the Scriptures and teaching of the Church bear witness to a common life in which we all partake. Thus, what happens to one of us effects all of us. This commonality is also an important part of our spiritual life and our salvation. The Church in particular is the place where Christians live their common life.
This common life is also the place where we come to understand the references to “Christ’s blood” (since this was part of the question posed). His blood carries a number of meanings. It is His death, His “life poured out for us.” It is also His life given to us in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. His blood cleanses us – just as Baptism cleanses us – for His death destroys death and makes the whole creation new. There are many links between the image of blood in the Old Testament and Christ’s blood in the New. However, it is easy to become overly detailed about his connection and miss the larger point of Christ’s death – by which He destroyed death and gave us eternal life.
There are many voices across the Christian world. Taken together – they are a madhouse of confusion. Confusion and contradiction is the only result of those who listen first to one teacher and then to another. No one will arrive at the truth by such a route.
Instead, I counsel anyone to take up the life of the Church. Be Baptized (or otherwise received into the Church) and stay put. Listen to a godly pastor who lives the Scriptures and respects the fathers of the Church. Those who have built private empires and practice ministries that are in submission to “no one except God” are frauds and live in delusion. They are scandals waiting to happen.
No Church, including the Orthodox Church, ever exists without scandal. But that scandal can be disciplined. True teaching can be found and life in union with the resurrected Lord can be lived.
A Short Word About Wrath and Anger
These are words, I believe, that are so charged and dangerous, that they must be used seldom and only with caution and careful nuance. Hate and anger and wrath are generally only experienced in a sinful manner by human beings and most people are deeply wounded already by such abuse. Those who preach such terms are often engaging in spiritual abuse and should stop. If someone who teaches or preaches the Christian gospel but cannot do so without reference to these words, then I think they need to stop and pray and see if there is not something fundamentally wrong with their understanding. I’m not trying to edit these things out of Scripture – simply to say that they are abused by most who read them. Imagine you are explaining the gospel to a 4 year old. Will the child misunderstand the concept of God’s wrath? I am rather sure of it. I have not found adults to be that much more emotionally mature. My challenge of these images (on the blog and in my writings) is, I hope, an occasion for other Christians, particularly Orthodox, to think carefully about these very powerful words. If we do that – then I’ll have done a little good.
[Of course, Scripture and the Fathers use the image of anger and wrath, generally with the understanding that such anger or wrath is an expression of an aspect of God’s love and not an effect created in God by our actions. A common example is the double aspect of fire – in which it is both heat and light, purification and illumination. Of course, the words “wrath” and “anger” are seldom used with such subtlety by many who preach or teach them and in so doing may be saying something that the Gospels do not teach.]
It is quite possible to give a very good account of the Christian gospel without the use of “wrath” and “anger.” St. John only uses the word wrath once in His entire Gospel. It is not an integral and necessary part of the theology of the Cross. To say that it is – is to make of an illustration and metaphor a matter of dogma. If you disagree, argue with St. John.
I pray that this answer is of help to the reader who posed the question. I also ask pardon of those readers who have been patient with me for the posting of this answer. It comes at the end of a busy week. May God give us all grace to hear the Holy Gospel.
Thank you very much for this.
Spiritual abuse, yes, that’s what it is!
It’s a good one, Father — thank you!
Two other points, both from several Orthodox priests: (a) Even if Adam and Eve had never sinned, the Second Person of the Trinity would still have taken on human form. (I was floored to hear this, many times, from many different sources.) He would have done this just for the sheer pleasure of experiencing His own creation. That He still chose to do this in order to rescue us from eternal separation from Him is only proof of the depth of His love for us. And (b) because death came by means of a tree, life could only be restored by a tree. There were only two options: death by hanging (suicide), and death through the Cross (murder). And even though His creation chose murder — He still loves us. What always floors me is that His Mother does, too. In fact — when I have trouble forgiving, it’s the Theotokos I turn to. If she could forgive those who killed her Son, I know she can help me forgive others for so, so much less.
“But since He did not wish to destroy us, the earthquake came in advance like a herald, forewarning everyone of the anger of God, in order that we might be improved by fear and prevent the actual retribution. … I say this, and I do not cease saying it, both to the poor and to the rich: consider how great God’s anger is, how easy and simple everything is to Him; and let us abstain from evil!
Let us consider if, on that terrible day, when instead of one moment of time there will be endless ages, rivers of fire, threatening anger, powers dragging us to judgement, a terrible judgement seat, an incorruptible cour, and the deeds of each one set before our eyes, no one to help, neither neighbour, nor counsel, nor relative … not anyone else! What do we do then? Tell me. I bring fear to you in order to prepare you for salvation.
So I was not afraid because of the earthquake, but because of the cause of the earthquake; for the cause of the earthquake was the anger of God, and the cause of His anger was our sins. Never fear punishment, but fear sin the mother of punishment. … In the case of diseases and injuries we do not grieve for those who are being cured, but for those who have incurable diseases. Sin is the same as disease or injury; retribution is the same as surgery or medice. … Why do we grieve for those who are being punished, but not for those who are sinning? Punishment is not as grievous as sin, for sin is the reason for the punishment.”
— St John Chrysostom — Sixth Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man
Or as a good friend of mine once said, “God is coming, and he’s pissed!” 🙂
The scriptures and the Fathers teach that God is pissed. He’s angry when we abuse children (“better a millstone…”), neglect the poor, abuse the travellers among us, etc. However, the great thing about God is that his wrath and his love are the same thing. His chastisement is given to us to deliver us from the root of our sickness: sin. The child abuser need only repent and the wall of enmity will be revealed instead as the depth of love God has for His creatures and even, for those who repent with their whole heart, the uncreated light. However, for those who refuse to repent, the uncreated light becomes an eternal fire and the eternal death we have sought by our hardened hearts will be granted to us.
It is spiritual abuse to dwell on the anger of God without teaching His infinite love and His desire for salvation through repentance. It is equally spiritual abuse to neglect the wrath of God and to live life without fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom (I’m not suggesting anyone here does this). The scriptures are clear, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” God is coming, and He’s pissed… But His anger is His love that we might repent.
Yes, the Fathers in general are clear that the Second Person of the Trinity would have become incarnate had we not sinned. Though the reason given is so that man might be united with God, and ultimately all creation united with Him. I do not recall seeing it stated as “for the sheer pleasure of experiencing His own creation.” There would be some theological problems with stating it that way. But that He might unite us to Himself – which was always His purpose in creation.
It is interesting, however, that it is clear that God always saw our disobedience. Thus we are told in Scripture that the Lamb was slain “from the foundation of the earth.” God saw what we would do and what it would require for us to still be united to Him and created us anyway. The Cross reveals God’s love.
I think you should use such language with greater care. The Fathers, like Scripture, should be used with care and not simply to make a point. The point in the article stands – we greatly misunderstand the “anger” and “wrath” of God (as you quickly note yourself that ‘His wrath and His love are the same thing’ – thus correctly nuancing the meaning of the word). However, given the misuse of the term – many readers and listeners do not hear the nuance and simply hear flat-footed preaching that ‘God is pissed’ (frankly an offensive phrase). Read both Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Isaac of Syria, then return cautiously to the topic of anger. St. John is a great Father of the Church, but no one ever accused him of being cautious or subtle.
If one read’s Kalomiros’ River of Fire (which is on my pages section) I think it’s easy to see where we might be wise to use references to God’s anger and wrath less often and with more care.
The fear of the Lord is clean, the Psalmist tells us. What you have described is not fear that is clean – but fear like the fear of a Moutain Lion in my living room. To teach that kind of fear is spiritual abuse.
Hear the parable of the cookie jar:
There was once two small boys who got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Their father yelled at them to stay out of the cookies. Now he did this out of love. Thier father knew that it is not good for them to spoil their dinner. But the boys were too young to understand. One boy thought that the father was mean and angry and began to hate his father from that day on. But the other boy just shruged it off. He knew that the father loved him and must have a good reason to yell at them.
How could these two boys experience the same one act of love so differntly?
I am the father of four. No two children are alike. But as a father, I also know that I cannot treat them alike and expect the same result. Surely God is creative enough to love us each as we need.
I get the point of the parable. I also know far too much about fathers who yell at their children. I have real doubts about “the other boy.” Sounds fine in a parable – just doesn’t square with my 30 years of listening to people’s stories as a confessor.
At this point I have to make a prediction. Based on everything I’ve ever written concerning the wrath of God, the majority of comments to this post will be to plead (in one form or another) for the importance of “wrath.” It is, hands down, the strongest disagreement (in numbers) that I ever receive.
It concerns me.
I strongly urge Orthodox readers to consider St. Isaac of Syria’s writings (Met. Hilarion Alfeyev has a nice volume), as well as those of St. Dionysius the Areopagite which teaches the fundamentals of Apophatic understanding, the general grounding of all Orthodox theology. These words of “wrath” and “fear” and “anger”, etc. have a proper meaning, theologically, which is rather far removed from their meaning popularly. Their popular use and misuse is so dominant in our modern culture that they have resulted largely in a caricature of God (watch any Monty Python movie). Do we want the Gospel to be that misunderstood? Do we wonder why many turn away from such a false God? We are tasked with preaching the gospel in this age and this time (not in the 4th century or any other time). Thus we have to think of the context in which we live and speak. I suggest that such a context requires a careful proclamation of the Gospel in which the love of Christ is proclaimed in a manner that is not easily misunderstood. Part of that preaching will need to directly confront the false impressions that misuse of such language has engendered.
It is one of the reasons that I make use of Kalomiros’ River of Fire, though some find him too unfair and critical of the West. Despite whatever weakness he may have in that area, he directly confronts the false imagery that is taught in many places and correctly presents the fundamental teaching of the Orthodox faith with regard to the love of God.
It is strange to me. I personally know adults who were never ever taught that God was angry or wrathful towards humanity – adults who have always professed the faith and are good and faithful Christians today – who, nevertheless, still have to fight inner battles with images of God’s anger. This stuff is so pervasive in our culture that you need never have heard it in Church to have internalized it. It is pernicioius.
I agree, such language should be handled cautiously. I’ve read Dionysius and St. Isaac and love them both greatly (and they are 100% right in what they teach). However, if we review the whole of scripture, the Fathers, the Liturgy, our hymns, icons, councils and major theological works (of which St. Isaac and Dionysius are but a small portion), we find that since God’s anger and love are in fact the same thing (as you admit), we cannot talk about one without the other (though of course with the greatest pastoral care!).
I think the quote from St. Chrysostom represents this quintessentially and I think it can be clearly demonstrated that Chrysostom represents the consensus patrum (I am not attempting to proof-text). To summarize him (this is not my own teaching):
1. There was an earthquake
2. This earthquake was punishment from God for spiritual laxity
3. The cause of the earthquake is God’s anger at our sin
4. The purpose of the earthquake is a warning of the great day of judgement to come
5. Thus, his anger is his love since he desires to see us healed from our disease which is sin (though the healing process may hurt!)
6. Therefore, let us repent of our sin (specifically, in this case, our attachment to the world)
It seems to me that it would be a sort of semi-“two story” universe in which we would know God’s love, but not his wrath or that we would not know His wrath until the judgement. Further, this is impossible because His love and wrath are the same thing.
I am very familiar with the spiritual abuse you are referring to, having grown up in a revivalist denomination. I’ve heard the scare tactics which ask “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” I’ve seen “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames” on more than one occasion (though, once was too many). Such a God is a capricious sadist and is entirely unrepresentative of the great Christian tradition, neglecting God’s infinite love. However, a quick survey of modern American Christianity, reveals that the great error of our contemporary age is to neglect God’s wrath in entirety. Need I mention Joel Osteen? The Episcopal Church? The recent declarations of the ELCA? God’s anger at our sin is entirely neglected.
You are right however, such is a difficult topic, and I will take your pastoral advice and not comment further on this topic. Thanks for a great explanation of our atonement! Asking your blessing…
Nathaniel, it looks to me very much like St. John Chrysostom in your quote above is using the term “punishment” in a very different sense than it is understood in many conservative Christian circles today (which are dominated by the “Penal Substitution” theory as THE central and dominant understanding of the meaning of why Jesus had to die for us). St. John is NOT, it seems to me, talking about this idea of retributive punishment–or punishment as an end in itself to reveal (make a point about) God’s “honor” or change something in *God’s* demeanor toward sinners. It seems to me He is talking about what Hebrews 12 describes as chastisement or discipline. This is a far different issue (and also consistent with St. Isaac the Syrian’s understanding).
May God bless – your points are quite accurate and I do agree. One of my struggles in presenting the faith (here and in the parish) is to find a way to speak of the “anger and wrath” of God in its proper patristic meaning, but to find language that does not carry the baggage of words that have been so misused.
My experience of ECUSA, by the way, is that there is plenty of wrath in their God, but his/her targets are very different. Make a liberal ECUSA priest angry and you’ll discover their God is as fundamentalist as anyone’s.
But please forgive me if I came down hard in my response. Its a point I wanted to make strong right out of the gates, if you will. Sorry that your comment had to be the one that I got out of the gates on.
Thanks for your kind response and soft words. I’ll try to follow your example (by your prayers).
I will pose the question for readers who may agree with what I have suggested with the need for other language to help teach what the fathers mean by a “wrath” or “anger”. “Chastisement” is suggested in Karen’s post. I would welcome thoughts. I’m interested not just in synonyms, but in images – even metaphors. Has anyone noted anything in any of the Fathers that does this?
An ECUSA (and CoE, I’ve met enough that fit in this category) priest may have a wrathful God, but it is not a God wrathful at sin. Their God is the God who is wrathful against those of a different political persuasion . My point was that they neglect God’s anger at sin. How could he not be angry at sin? We are using it to destroy ourselves… At that point, God’s wrath is also His pity…
Karen, certainly you are right. The heresy here is not their understanding of God’s wrath (which is merely the symptom of an inward spiritual sickness). Their heresy is a Trinitarian one which opposes the Father and the Son. All false belief and dogmatic abuse boils down to Trinitarian and/or Christological heresy.
Pity – another useful word. Thanks.
Though, again, when I think of the quote from St. Anthony (in the Philokalia) that I placed in the article – what does it mean to say God is angry at sin? What would St. Anthony say of it? Or how would he say it?
Also – ECUSA (at its worst) simply redefines sin and gives it a political meaning as you say. But as metaphors go – their angry God is just like the fundamentalist angry God.
Thank you, Father. I really appreciate this post. These days, people seem to find it difficult to talk about humanity’s relationship to God without falling into one of two modes. In the first mode, people speak about God as if God were a being rather like us, only invisible, and bigger — with emotions (“wrath”) and a psychology. (This God is actually more like Zeus or Odin.)
In the second mode, people speak about God as if God were a principle of mechanics or of physics, like the law of inertia, or of gravity.
I believe both modes are completely in error, but the challenge remains. We want to speak about God in a way that invites people to follow Christ, not out of fear or under threat, but because Christ’s path leads to loving-kindness and to peace. I think you do that.
I’m the father of six. I yelled at my kids sometimes. In a loving way, of course. Made lots of mistakes I’m sure. But the point is that whether I see God as wrathful or not has a lot to do with the condition of my own heart. And the maturity of my understanting . His mercy seems very severe sometimes.
But I have a very heard time knowing, in a deep down heart way, that God is good. Not so much because of what I have been tought as much as because of my experience. Why did my mother die and my father abandon me when I was young? Why have I lived through two painful Church splits? Why did circumstances ruin my career? Why does my son have cerebrial palsy? Dear Lord, he’s 21 and still in dipers! (let these examples be hypothetical and not taken as personal informatin)
These are the kind of things that you have to overcome in these posts. There is an expectation of God in our modern world that God does not live up to. We cope by inventing things about his wrath. And it’s opressive.
I have learned to see these things as one little boy who shrugs it off and says:” I know God is loving, so these things must be good for me.” I think it is good for me because it brings me into a closer communion with Him. But this is a great mystery.
It blows me away each time I pray,” O heavenly king, Comforter…” To think that the Heavenly King is also my comforter is too wonderful for words. But Oh! How long the wait seems before that comfort comes sometimes. This is the Christian walk. It’s the real nity grity of a real life. I hope that non of you escape it.
Dear Father, bless,
Thank you for your posts and podcasts. They have been more influential than you know in guiding me Eastward. I am not home yet.
As a physician, the “Christ as healer” metaphor resonates with my heart. I think the healing/prescription word-picture of atonement is one of the brightest lights in drawing me towards Orthodoxy. Having been raised in Anselm’s “Christ as sacrifice” juridical model (without even knowing it, really), the legal/penal metaphor just doesn’t seem to add up somehow, not that I can know enough about God and His character to know what the final sum should be (apophatic theology being another bright lamp post). There always does seem to be too many lawyers about… (insert favorite lawyer joke here). 🙂
Two other small thoughts that come to my feeble mind. One is a story or picture I once heard described by Peter Kreeft: that of a rock and roll fan alongside an opera fan at an opera concert. It was heaven (the love of God) for one, and hell (the wrath of God) for the other, but both were at the same concert. The second is a line from an old Protestant hymn and subsequent Rich Mullins song: “the wreckless, raging fury that they call the love of God…”
Asking for your prayers,
“There are many voices across the Christian world. Taken together – they are a madhouse of confusion.”
This saddens me greatly. It is to me the strongest argument against the Christian faith.
No matter our fancy doctrines, it appears we are left to our own devices. How is this madness ever going to be healed?
It only seems to be getting worse, not better.
Excellent comment. This gets me closer to the place where I live as well. Belief in the good God is difficult indeed. My father-in-law, an incredible Christian (may his memory be eternal), was one of the first men I ever knew who insisted on the goodness of God and his mercies beyond everything else. I would argue with him and try to convince him to take a more moderated position. He would listen patiently to me and remark, “Well…I don’t know about that…” Today I am staggered by his patience.
But I knew him for about 34 years or so, and never knew him to waver or complain. He is the single purest example of a Christian who gave God thanks for all things and in all things that I have ever met. His life was no different than mine or anyone else’s (or the example you give). I have seen such faith, and know that it is possible. So, like us all, I struggle each day to trust that my Father loves me – and to know that everything that happens to me and around me is still in the hands of a good God who only wills me good. Sometimes its better than others – easier than others. But, like yourself, I’ll take communion with Him under any circumstances.
May God bless you and your six kids!
Not exactly a tame lion is he?
Why is it so difficult to believe in a good God? I mean does He wish to reveal Himself to us or not?
I think it will not get better. The Scriptures and the weight of the Fathers do not paint a sanguine view of the future – quite the opposite. And yet as the darkness grows the Light appears brighter. It is to Christ that we have to look. The schisms of the past as well as the many since have created this madhouse of confusion. But the voice of Christ remains clear (I believe). It is such that, in my experience, when I read a 2nd century father such as Irenaeus (to use only one example), I am startled to see that we know the same Christ. Separated by so many centuries yet we share the same faith. I hear this same faith day in and day out in the prayers and liturgies of the Church. There I find the Light and unity of Spirit.
I can do nothing about the madhouse – but I can be faithful to the voice I have come to know. It is not our own devices (I think) when we come home to Christ’s Church.
The madness will be healed when Christ returns. In the meantime we work at staying sane (or becoming sane).
Yes, I agree He wants to reveal Himself to us. Why would He go to the trouble of descending into Hell if He did not want to make Himself known? But Christ says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Thus revealing Himself and healing us are both the same thing. Repentance (true change of heart and healing of heart) are inherently involved in grasping (and being grasped by) the revelation of God. Were my heart pure, I would know the love of God beyond doubt. But my heart is full of many things beside purity and these things darken my perception. If I am to believe in something in a manner that is more than mere mental assent, I will have to continue this road of constant repentance. It’s the Cross.
Yes Father you are right, and thank you for the response. The example you provide of St. Irenaeus speaks to me, as I know this from experience as well. It is indeed a miracle, as far as I can tell, truly the work of the Holy Spirit in us. However, it seems so weak, so feeble a witness. He has entrusted Himself in us, and we can barely eek out anything good. Just frustrated with my own life.
Yep, I’m still a man in need of a Savior…
Dave, since you brought up Anselm. Christ is a sacrifice. Such a teaching is all over the NT. What is meant by this can vary greatly (and the interpretations usually thrown about in lay Western Christendom are still generally beholden to late medieval categories). I wrote the following regarding a possible Orthodox reading of Anselm in another place:
To add a number 3 (to keep on the topic of sacrifice):
3. The sacrifice of Christ can be expressed in this: Christ became dishonor for us so that we, as ones believing in what the world calls folly and lowering ourselves to be with Christ (even being baptized into his death), may also be glorified with Him. It is we, as Acts describes, who have killed Christ, bringing dishonor and death upon Him who is Goodness and Life itself. But though Christ, by nature, was to be honored above all things, He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped and allowed himself (of His own choice!) to be dishonored unjustly even unto death. But God raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand and put all things under His feet and if we are baptized into a death with Him, we will be raised with Him. Christ has won honor in dishonor, life in death, and he bids us take up our cross and follow.
“God is an immutable will to all goodnes.” Jakob Boeheme If my memory serves me.
I wish, above all, to be truely greatful. Because I know that God is good. Brothers pray for me.
A man and wife have a daughter. As she grows he watches her every moment with the love of a father. She plays with dolls and has tea parties. She, imitating her mother, pretends herself to be a mother, treating her own “children” (dolls) with love and respect, always reminding them to bless the food before they drink their tea. They dream of her as a righteous mother someday. Married to a pious husband, she prays for her family and raises them to love God and the beauty of His house.
On her 17th birthday, the daughter gets in an argument with her family. They did not purchase her the new car she asked for (impetuously). She storms out of the house, drives to her boyfriends house. Out of rage she consummates an illegitimate marriage.
A few years later, the boyfriend is long gone. He didn’t even stay around to hear the results of the pregnancy test. An abortion “solved” that problem. Alcohol helped her through a dozen or so bad relationships. She really wanted that car though… Fortunately she found plenty of cash selling drugs; until she got hooked that is. Her supplier didn’t trust her to keep an honest inventory, so she turns to prostitution to feed her habit. More abortions follow. But don’t worry, she doesn’t have a problem. She can quit any time she wants. Her parents try to help her into rehab. They even tried an intervention, but who are they to judge her?
Does the father hate his daughter’s lust, avarice, selfishness, drunkenness and murder? Does the mother hate the lust of every client, gluttony of every addict, the greed of every pusher, the neglect of every father? If they did not, they would be demons since these sins are what stands in between each of them and their “life abundantly.” This hate is simultaneously love for their daughter, pity for her suffering, charity, grace and self-sacrifice every-time they help her out of a bad situation, shame as they see their beloved turning tricks on the street, sorrow as they pray through their tears for her redemption. All of this is love for the young girl they brought into the world as she slowly destroys her own life. They desire nothing but good for her (even though the intervention might be embarrassing and the detox painful).
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
Yes, of course. But, it seems to me, you are working the image backwards. I know all about hating sin and what it does to me and to those I love. But I do not presume to use the inner experience of my psyche as a roadmap to who God is. I do not love as God loves…why should I think that He hates like I hate?
I understand that He is utterly opposed to sin and stands for me against everything that would destroy me and everyone. But we cannot fathom what that means within God. He loves – and His love destroys sin.
Our inner life is a very mixed bag – deeply confused even at its best. Working the analogy from us towards God brings many difficulties and begs many questions.
God is not like me. I want to become like Him. He is the creator and I am a deeply distorted image. To know God, we look at Christ. And there is much that we do not understand even then. We know what we need to know and we will know more (even as we are known). But I think we start with Christ, not with deeply saddened and angered parents.
The Western mind can’t escape the courtroom! It is a fundamental cornerstone of Protestant theology. God is angry at sin & those who commit it and must have His honor avenged. He must have justice! He must vent wrath! (Luther struggled with this big angry God his whole life – only coming to peace in God pouring His wrath out on Christ on our behalf. It may have eased his Roman oppressed conscience, but perhaps he didn’t go as far as he needed to).
Your posts, as well as the River of Fire have opened my eyes to the Eastern light. Perhaps a useful metaphor would be that of “a stood up Prom date.” God is at the dance, but we have shunned His invitation. He loves us, but we scoff, looking for someone (a god) more to our liking. He still loves us. The music isn’t stopping, He still wants to dance – yet, we recoil. He is hurt by our refusal, but He won’t beat us. He will do whatever it takes to be with us (incarnation/cross/resurrection) yet He won’t force intimacy (rape).
Perhaps this kind of “relational hurt” is a better way of communicating our broken relationship with God – our sin & His reaction – than a courtroom/justice metaphor that paints God as a macho patron who must have His megalomaniac ego stroked.
Thank you for your post!
A stood up prom date? That’s imaginative. Definitely not Luther. 🙂
And yet this is precisely how Christ often teaches. 🙂
I realize the difficulties that Freud, Feuerbach and others bring to the table. I’m not suggesting such an anthropocentric hermeneutic as the starting place for theological reflection. I was merely attempting to provide an illustration in “images and metaphors” of how to relay this to someone unfamiliar with the concept of how anger can be love.
For the starting place of a proper theological reflection, I would start by looking at Holy Week (both liturgically and in the gospel). I would look at things like the juxtaposition of the Lazarus narrative (“Jesus Wept” in particular), the temple cleansing and the passion narrative itself. The typical view of these events asserts three different Jesuses (or at least three different modes). Yet the synoptics place them together.
Further, it seems to me that an authentic theology of anger/wrath/fear can be found in the liturgical cycle, beginning with Bridegroom Matins and finishing with Pascha itself.
Finally, I think some good material could be found while reflecting on the Pentecost kerygma, particularly: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” in which he proclaims the forgiveness of sins while warning of the perverse generation.
But silly me, I thought you were just looking for a parable. 🙂
Prom date? Isn’t that just Hosea? 😉
A Moment of Nostalgia
I remember a much younger father Stephen sitting on the floor in various living rooms or in a folding chair at a community center in Greenville, SC playing his 6 string and singing Galatians 2:20 and Colossians 3:14. That song was one of his favorites.
Parables yes, and thank you. But then I get to question them. 🙂
Though my question was not parables of how anger can be love – but of how the patristic understanding of Divine anger might be expressed in language other than anger. Perhaps there is no better language, despite is problems. Perhaps the question is flawed.
Also I think you’re right – Hosea.
It’s where I first learned those verses – and I still ponder them. The tune hasn’t left my head when I read them. Imagine, spending one’s youth memorizing Scripture. 🙂
The fathers use the image of fire, which can be both light and heat. Illumination and purification. It does have the advantage of not carrying lots of imported emotion. St. Augustine uses psychological images as well (for this is the character of your parable) but, I think, has most of his Trinitarian trouble precisely because of his psychological images. Indeed, he lets the image drive his theology too far.
Being raised in a roman-catholic environment I’ve, it seems, acquired a “legalistic” understanding of God, Grace, Mercy, Anger, Wrath, Sin etc. Despite the fact that I was never an active member of the Church (I was baptised and that’s as far as my participation went, excluding a presence at mass every now and then for Easter or weddings and funerals of my relatives).
It wasn’t until my college years that I started to ask questions of meaning of life, God’s existence, etc. Through an acquaintant and some other unexpected interventions I “discovered” orthodoxy. Now I’m trying to shake off my misconceptions and acquire an orthodox viewpoint.
I’d like to thank you not just for this post but for all of your posts which help me clear my head and heart of misinterpretations and understand better God as the Tradition and the Fathers teach.
I wish you health and strenght to continue in your efforts. There is at least one sheep that is exceedingly glad to read and contemplate upon your words.
I have inserted a small paragraph in the original article – hoping that some find it helpful and clarifying.
[Of course, Scripture and the Fathers use the image of anger and wrath, generally with the understanding that such anger or wrath is an expression of an aspect of God’s love and not an effect created in God by our actions. A common example is the double aspect of fire – in which it is both heat and light, purification and illumination. Of course, the words “wrath” and “anger” are seldom used with such subtlety by many who preach or teach them and in so doing may be saying something that the Gospels do not teach.]
No, he never promised to be a tame lion, but indeed he is good. (“Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that God is good.”)
Forgive me. Indeed, Christ is both/and, both Healer and Sacrifice. In my weakness and blindness, the image of compassionate surgeon, the Great Physician, resonates rather than the Great Prosecuting Attorney, or, perhaps more fairly, the merciful judge.
Asking for your prayers,
A Muslim co-worker could understand the why of why Christ died, he couldn’t understand why Christ had to die the way he did, tortured and executed as a young man – why not just die of old age, illness, simply giving up the ghost? It’s a question that has stuck with me over the years.
Christopher, St. Athanasius talks about why did Christ have to die on the cross in his On the Incarnation. He actually, IIRC, asks the same question: why couldn’t Christ have just died by himself, and then rose from the dead? What he says (by my recollection) is that 1) only by death on the cross does He die with his arms spread out, to call the Jews on one hand and the Gentiles on the other to Himself; 2) He was lifted up on the cross into the air to do battle with the demons there; 3) like a challenger who, to show his strength, allows the locals to pick their strongest man for him to fight, Christ gave himself up to the Jews and Romans to “do their worst”, to use a modern idiom, so as to show that He has truly conquered death; 4) it would be unfitting for Christ, who healed others, to die Himself of illness or old age; 5) if Christ’s death had been private (rather than public on the cross), then no one would have believed His Resurrection.
It would probably be better to actually read what St. Athanasius says himself; he puts it much better than I could, and goes into more detail.
I do find it interesting, however, that it seems that, so often, when someone today asks such a question about the Faith, that the question was considered centuries ago by the Fathers. 🙂 There is nothing new under the sun, I suppose.
Another important reason is what the manner of death was meant to signify. A death on the cross was the punishment for insurrection – for setting yourself up as a king to rival Caesar. On the one hand, Jesus was and is just such a king – and he used the very weapon of the tyrant as the throne of his kingdom. But on the other hand, Jesus stood very much against the expectations of the Jews who wanted armed rebellion against Caesar. As such, there’s an irony that he was quite literally, historically, dying the death proscribed by Rome for a rebellious people in their place. Thus the notion of “Jesus was punished instead of me”, though perhaps not really appropriate when applied to God, was very much true when applied to the actual historical situation.
To extend Irenaeus’ thought, our suffering too must be recapitulated otherwise it is not redeemed. Indeed, if Christ has not suffered (according to the creed), our own suffering would be cruel and meaningless. A God who does not redeem our suffering is indeed a sadist.
I think He dies as He does because it is what the darkness does to the Light (our adversary “was a murderer from the beginning”). It also makes it clear that “I lay down my life from my sheep, no one takes it from me”. At least his meekness and lack of self-defense would indicate that. I believe as well that this was always foreseen. He dies as He does, and all of the foreshadowing of the OT is as it is (even its sacrifices) because of how He would die, rather than the other way around. Christ comes first, even His sacrifice (“slain before the foundation of the earth”) and then creation and everything we know. I have some further thoughts…maybe later.
What is most interesting is that St. Athanasius looks for the answer to the question within Christ Himself, rather than in an imposed metaphysic or by putting the OT above the new and saying the “sacrifice required it.” Very good.
This too. He takes upon Himself our condition and bears it. Nor do I think we could have known His love except for such a death. It is certainly the case that the outer action reveals the inner intention – but the recapitulation – He takes our suffering upon Himself – indeed.
“For it is not the shadow of things to come (Old Testament) that interprets the things to come – but rather the reality (New Testament) that interprets the shadow.”
How important is that! Christ became the OT scapegoat, the sacrifice, the slain lamb who’s blood was spilt outside the temple. He became our sin – our death. Why? To unburden us of our own corruption and death so that we could continue the journey into the holy of holies to be with him there! St. John says in ch 14 of his gospel, “I go to prepare a place for you, again I am coming, and will receive you to Myself, that where I am ye may be also”
He is the bridegroom who wants his bride. He sees in her more than she sees and his love will stop at nothing to marry her even though she is plagued by filth and sin. In his grace, God wants to meet us at the mercy seat in the holy of holies to transform us there, as a people, into his bride and dwell with us forever. Are these the deeds of an angry god? No! OT teaching about sacrifices is not about punishment or wrath or appeasement, moral accounting or retribution. It is about Christ offering himself to us so we can divest ourselves of sin and death, laying those curses on Him, and vest ourselves in His glory to abide with Him in love forever.
“Christ died because we were dead.”
This is the most potent few words I have ever read on the subject. Thank you.
Father, can you provide the source of your quote from St. Anthony? I would be interested to read more. Thank you.
Nevermind, I read in the comments that it is from the Philokalia.
Correct me if I am wrong but was it not St. Gregory of Nazianzus who said
“That which is un-assumed is un-healed”
I would take this to mean that Christ had to be born and die in order to heal and restore all aspects of our lives even death.
Dear Father, bless! Just to underscore your point, I provide the link below [link removed, editor] to a post by a self-described Reformed Anglican, five-point Calvinist, “bi-vocational minister,” of such a distorted “gospel.” The quote below the link is an excerpt from this post (which is probably all anyone in their right mind–or with their mind properly in their heart–could stomach)! This is what we are up against. This guy is admittedly very extreme, but he follows very rigidly the logical conclusion of his rationalistic interpretive paradigm. This is what happens when your understanding of Ultimate Reality, (supposedly governing) God’s Being, is legal, deterministic, and forensic and not fully Personal, IMNSHO.
“The law of God is blind justice and has absolutely nothing to do with compassion. While it is true that God is a God of love (1 John 4:7-8), the flip side is that God is also a judge and a lawgiver. The law of God is meant to show us that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God. (See John 3:36, 1Thess1:10; 2:16; Romans 1:18; Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:17-18). God can justly send every single human being who has lived since Adam’s fall straight to hell. If you really were a Calvinist as you claim below, you would know that Jesus died only for those chosen from the mass of sinful humans to be saved (See John 10:15; John 10:25-29). The rest God passes over and leaves to their own wicked and depraved nature. God is just and holy in condemning those who deserve no mercy and not one of us deserves any mercy at all. Mercy is God’s choice but not His obligation.
“The minute you sell out the truth for the love of individual human beings you have committed the idolatry of loving the creature more than the Creator. The ten commandments summarize the command to love God first in the first four commandments and to love our neighbor in the next six commandments. (See Exodus 20:1-20). Perhaps if you understood the doctrine of God better you would know that it is love to tell someone the truth about their spiritual condition before an absolutely holy God rather than allowing them to continue in rebellion against God with no warning of the coming judgment.”
Lord, have mercy!
Indeed, St. Gregory says it. In its context it is in reference to the Appolinarian heresy, which posited the Logos in the role of a human soul. St. Gregory and others recognize that Christ must be fully human (including with a human soul). “That which is not assumed is not saved.”
Though you would not have to say that death is inherently “human”, etc.
But Christ’s assumption of the sin of our condition is certainly analogous to this. He took upon Himself the sins of all, the emptiness of our broken condition, even death, that He might destroy death and set the whole creation free.
I think it is volume 1 of the Philokalia, pg. 150.
A reader on my blog found the selection Coffeezombie referred to in St. Athanasius:
“I just read this bit of On the Incarnation last week for my grad theology class. In the SVS Press edition of the book (translated and edited by a Religious of C.S.M.V., with an introduction by C.S. Lewis [Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1998]), the section… is Chapter IV, “The Death of Christ,” pages 48-56.” (Donna in Scranton)
“why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead.”
You just answered a question I have been asking without reply for over a decade. For that, I thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
“why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead.”
I also like this. Simple and profound. It is amazing to think that Christ meets us where we are and if we are dead than that is where He is for us.
I have taken the liberty of removing the link. The quote is more than enough. Such “reason” is an easy substitute for love and forgiveness. Such easy Christianity is no Christianity at all. My heart breaks at such words. May God have mercy on us!
Just a few days before you wrote this post, Father, I came across a passage from Fr. Schmemann’s Of Water and the Spirit in which he discusses the meaning of Christ’s voluntary death. He writes,
“Man died because he desired life for himself and in himself, because, in other terms, he loved himself and his life more than God, because he preferred something else to God. His desire is the true content of his sin and therefore the real root of his spiritual death, it’s very “sting.” But Christ’s life is made up entirely, totally, exclusively of His desire to save man, to free him from that death into which man transformed his life, to restore him to that life which he lost in sin. His desire to save is the very movement, the very power of that perfect love for God and man, of that total obedience to God’s will, the rejection of which led man to sin and death. And thus His whole life is truly “deathless.” There is no death in it because there is no “desire” to have anything but God, because His whole life is in God, and in God’s love. And because His desire to die is but the ultimate expression and fulfillment of that love and obedience — because His death is nothing but love, nothing but the desire to destroy the solitude, the separation from life, the darkness and the despair of death, nothing but love for those who are dead — there is no “death” in His death. His death, being the ultimate manifestation of love as life and of life as love, removes from death its “sting” of sin and truly destroys death as the power of Satan and sin over this world.”
Christ does not, as Fr. Schmemann goes on to point out, destroy “physical death,” rather, He wonderfully transforms it:
“By removing the sting of sin and death, by abolishing death as a spiritual reality, by filling it with Himself, with His love and life, He makes death — which was the very reality of separation and corruption of life — into fuller life, fuller communion, fuller love.”
Gotta love Fr. Schmemann. May his memory be eternal.
Karen, what you quoted in your comment, sadly, is not extreme at all, at least, in my experience. Simply take a look at Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I was once, myself, a Calvinist, and it doesn’t even seem far removed from what I believed.
Perhaps this is why this is such a big issue for me about Orthodoxy, and why Kalomiros’ The River of Fire is so convincing to me.
There is something that N. T. Wright said at one point that perhaps bears repeating here. It is possible to “check all of the doctrinal boxes” of orthodoxy, while arranging them into a story alien to that which the scriptures come out of. It’s like doing a “connect the dots” drawing, but connecting them in the wrong order, such that you end up with an image of a horse rather than an element (or, in this case, perhaps an image of the devil rather than the face of Christ).
I think this bears out in the case of the person you quoted. Take the example of “election”. We can agree that there is indeed election in the Bible. And yet there is the question of the high-level picture. To what end does God elect a chosen man/community/people? The pastor above says “to be the little bit that is saved, when all else is condemned, like the ark and the flood”. But the greater witness of the scripture testifies “to be the means of the redemption of the whole world!” What is lacking is “for God so LOVED the world…”
Karen and coffeezombie,
I too was once a Calvinist because I longed for a coherent view of the world and the denatured Evangelicalism I was in made God a mere pious personal buddy. The Calvinists seemed to believe God was a sovereign law-ruler over the world who should be respected. That impulse has some good in it, but the direction is profoundly distorted and misses the mark! Without limiting God’s “sovereignty” to questions of how we are saved, the Dutch Calvinists crafted theories expressing how God remains attached to the whole cosmos by holding it up with the power of His law-word. I think some of their work in this area is commendable, but again, it starts with the wrong notion of God.
What a horrible thing to say that he damns some people merely because He can! That is simply not the God Who Christ the Son revealed. God revealed himself on the cross to the whole world as Love, coming through death and hell FOR US. It was not to appease Himself, pitting the Father against His own Son on the cross as the Calvinists would have us believe. God is not conflicted and He nowhere shows that He desires to demonstrate his power by punishing or destroying humans. Everything He has ever done is FOR US, motivated by pure divine love unmixed and undiminished.
Fr. Schmemann was more than a theologian. He was a poet. What is says is true and is said so wondrously well.
Why do we believe that Christ had to die?
This might be too simplistic, but it seems to me that the best teachers show us the Way by example.
So he had to do it by example because that was the ONLY Way.
….Way that has far more to do with simplicity, compassion, selflessness, service and love than with doctrine or the confession of specific articles of faith…..
So he couldn’t have just talked about it.
What is the purpose of His death on the cross?
Out of love he did this so we can share in His kingdom because to do it HIS way is the only way to be there with Him.
This I believe, I hope it’s canonical,
Wise move, Father, in deleting the link!
Coffeezombie and Wonders, this guy consigns NT Wright to hell for their theological views and believes John Piper in his response to NT Wright is too equivocal calling his own salvation into question! NT Wright was paraphrasing St. Irenaeus analogy vs. the Gnostic heresies, where St. Irenaeus said (I also paraphrase to give you the general idea) they reconstruct the pieces of a Scriptural mosaic (which properly arranged under the Apostolic Hypothesis reveal the face of God in Christ) into a dog or fox. Yes, I think your connection was apt, Wonders, but I also think some of this guy’s doctrinal boxes are not even orthodox.
Concerning “justice” and all that: Gregory of Nyssa deal with this question in scattered verses in his “Vita Moysis”.
For example he quite clearly in one verse (84) says that our [and I translate all from swedish] “deliverance from justice” is to be interpreted as “healing/medicine against pain/suffering”.
Two more passages from the same work:
(v. 86) “We may not […] say that God sends suffering over those who deserve it, but rather that each and every one is the cause of his own suffering […]”
(v. 87) “…even if someone says that God with hard/difficult sufferings punishes those who misuse their free will, the only correct/real opinion is, that those sufferings have their beginning and cause in our selves.”
Perhaps this does not deal directly with why Christ had to die…but just before the quote from verse 87, he compares the “punishment” with someone who gets sick by eating the wrong kind of food, and then gets healed by the doctor by eating a kind of medicine that makes you puke out the bad stuff, whatever it was. An unusual explanation! I like it.
This gives us an entirely new metaphor of the atonement: the puke theory. The fathers never cease to amaze and delight me. I also like the fact that we’re working in English and Swedish here. Truly an international project!
I’m sure he does, and I daresay you are probably right about the doctrinal bases. I would be interested (Father Stephen will, perhaps, forgive me for playing the part of the persistent widow here – Bible character though I am not) in hearing some rich Orthodox engagement with N. T. Wright’s scholarship. If any of you know of any, please let me know.
I suspect that are Orthodox who are reading NT Wright’s work – though I’m not certain at what level.
I have not run across it, but that doesn’t mean much. I’ll ask my clergy group friends (I’m part of an OCA clergy email group – quite helpful quite often). And, of course, the blog site has many, many readers – about 2500 per day. Anyone out there aware of Orthodox engagement with NT Wright’s stuff?
I first “received Christ” as a pre-schooler, ashamed at clobbering my brother for a toy I wanted, convinced that I’d disappointed Jesus, and assured that He would “come into my heart” if I asked him. That was very much an experience of a loving God, and I number my days as a Christian of some sort from that still-memorable moment.
Fast forward 25 years. I’ve got God all figured out as a convinced Calvinist. I refuse to use the Four Spiritual Laws in evangelism because, after all, I dare not tell some reprobate “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
Fast forward another 20 years to my Chrismation. I have found the loving God again, but I’ve still got a lot of baggage to unload. As I read on another blog today, in a totally different context, “We can never escape our history, but we might aspire to overcome it.”
Thank you for this post and for others too numerous to thank you for each. You continue to edify me with grace-filled, gentle wisdom.
NT Wright says, “Justification is not a subject in its own right in the Bible, but always one aspect of a larger subject, namely God’s
covenant purposes for his worldwide people.” (Excerpted from: The Great Acquittal: Justification by Faith and Current Christian Thought, Ed. Gavin Reid, London: Collins, 1980, p.13ff)
I’m not qualified to say much about Wright. I’ve read a good bit of his writing and I appreciate that he looks for the proper context for especially polemic language in the bible like that in Romans, Galatians, and 2 Corinthians. He doesn’t doesn’t settle for old protestant interpretations, he believes that polemic language always has a context which is essential for a proper understanding. His approach upsets liberals who say that Paul founded Christianity, because he puts the Christ’s fulfillment of Jewish OT covenant it in their face. He upsets Calvinists because the covenant framework for “justification” takes the term out of their glossary for salvation where their technical meaning of it is vital to defend their position in faith vs works polemics.
Trying to read the bible on its own terms earned him enemies in both the liberal and the Calvinist camps. The only thing he could do better, I believe, is read the scriptures liturgically with the church where there the difference between reading it and reading it right is nil. As a biblical theologian with a foot in both the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical traditions, Wright is a breath of fresh air.
Wonders, and Fr. Stephen,
I’ve been reading Wright since 2001 (starting with his work on Jesus and then later getting to Paul), and I’m a member of the Yahoo discussion list for his work, where we get the most current “news” about his schedule, projects, etc. I am not aware of anything in writing in terms of Orthodox engagement with his work. Such engagement would be very valuable.
You may have “heard” me say that Wright’s the human person most responsible for me becoming Orthodox. His writings opened scripture to me in such a way that I could finally believe that God is good; he gave me the interpretive keys that unlock the shackles of having to believe in an angry god. And he gave me a Jesus I could truly worship, ironically (to me) by bringing Jesus near in His humanity… For a while I thought I could continue as a sort of “Wrightian” Protestant, but as time went on and I encountered more and more Orthodox theology, I discovered a surprisingly large overlap between the two. That overlap was the fulcrum that moved me to consider what becoming Orthodox might mean for me. That was about four years ago; things moved slowly from that point at first and then sort of snowballed in the last year and a half. I was received into Orthodoxy in June.
I have a friend who has been Orthodox for 30 years, who about five years ago listened to one of Wright’s lecture series on CD with a group of his friends. As a result of listening to Wright and discussion with my friend, two of that group became Orthodox.
I have had the privilege of speaking with Wright in person as well, and he is very kind and pastoral. Through him God has led many people, including a lot of Christians, away from despair. I am so grateful for his life. He is often in my prayers.
He is also a visiting professor at the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton this semester, while he is on sabbatical to write the next book – on Paul, probably +500 pages – in the Christian Origins series. (imagine!) The academic environment energizes him…
I am a former Calvinist who studied under Bahnsen, Gentry, Rushdoony etc.
When I was an evangelical I became Reformed when I discovered Calvin.
I am Orthodox now because I discovered mercy.
There are still issues I struggle with regarding evil, suffering and God. When you have worked in Corrections and EMS you get your belly full.
I was in a debate with a reformed friend about prayers for the dead when my mother died. He gave the same “God is just, if your mother is in hell, then she is getting justice.” I asked him why he wouldn’t pray for God to have mercy on her? He went on about how it was appointed for man to live and then to judgement. I asked again why that prevented him from praying for her. He finally said that since I was a former Calvinist I already knew why he wouldn’t pray for her. I said to him that he was right, and that is exactly why I was no longer a Calvinist.
I told him that he wouldn’t pray for her because he really didn’t believe in mercy. If he did, there would have been nothing preventing him from asking God to have mercy on my mother. After all, if mercy is only for those who deserve it than it is no longer mercy.
“After all, if mercy is only for
those who deserve it than it
is no longer mercy.”
And if mercy has to be earned (either by us or by Jesus on our behalf) then it is also no longer mercy.
Or if Jesus took all the punishment we deserved, absorbing the Father’s wrath, then again, there is no mercy, only displaced punishment.
Truly, there is no place for mercy in the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement. Mercy is considered unjust. Mercy would mean God winks at wrongdoing, allows people to get away with it, and in doing so, becomes complicit in evil.
Adherents of this theory do not consider how God is actually combatting (that is to say, correcting) evil in every way, and how having mercy is a part of that.
It does seem pretty unchristian to give up on anyone on account of an impotent little old specter called “death”. I heard somewhere that God had the power to raise the dead…
Dana, et al.
My own encounter with Wright might be of some obscure interest. He spoke at a large conference (when I was an Anglican priest) which I had some hand in arranging. I was asked to edit a book for the Episcopal Book Club, that would present the major papers from the conference. Thus I had the pleasure of “editing” Dr. Wright. He was then a cathedral Dean in England and we had several pleasant phone conversations over details of his article. That was around 1994. He has done much work since then, and my life has a radically different chapter. But I knew from my association with him then that he was a scholar, a gentleman, and a believer.
There is good work (of which his is an example) being done in a number of fields, which, surprisingly are very “Orthodox friendly” if only because of their honesty and disassociation from the polemics that have beset the faith.
Geoffrey Wainwright at Duke, who was chairman of my work there, is another such outstanding scholar – his in the field of systematic theology and liturgical theology. He is held in very good regard by the Orthodox who know him.
There are others, of course, and their work is valuable. I’m not surprised by Dr. Wright’s work, only sad that I’ve not had the time to read much of him.
I hear you. Please pray for me as I try and unload that baggage too. I fear sometimes the damage is so pervasive I will never be able to truly grasp God’s love. Yet I have hope in His great mercy. You will be in my prayers as well.
Father Stephen, please keep writing these posts, it helps a little in trying to right my picture of God.
Cheryl, thank you. I have noticed in the course of years of ministry that this is as essential part of the gospel (particularly for our time) as I can think of. It became much easier to teach it when I became Orthodox, because it is supported by the faith of the Church (as an Episcopalian, the most I could ever do was offer it as an “opinion”).
I suspect that the heart of the difficulty in this is not rooted in immersion in false teaching, but something much deeper in the heart that makes the false teaching easy to be accepted – despite its destructiveness to the soul.
Strangely, I think it is rooted in the “disease of religion” as some Orthodox writers call it.
At some point I’ll do a post on the disease.
Re: NT Wright. I’ve read his more recent books, *Simply Christian* and *Surprised by Hope.* After each one, I sent him an email expressing my appreciation and, in the second, engaging him on some Orthodox issues regarding some of his opinions having to do with the cult of the Saints in the second book. I doubt that’s the sort of Orthodox engagement you were looking for though, Father. 🙂 I did get a short and very kind response to my first email to him, which I thought was pretty amazing.
Wonders, I liked your piece on Dante at your site. I wanted to say you are sliding dangerously close to Orthodoxy here in your opinions and affiinities, my friend. 🙂 Preach it, St. John Chrysostom! (Wonders quotes St. John’s Paschal homily in his post.)
Reader John, I can relate to your experience with Christ’s love as a child and then your engagement with theology as an adult, which led you to reject mercy for a time. My experience was quite similar. Though I was never a convinced Calvinist, Penal Substitution is still enough to alienate a person from a proper embrace and understanding of God’s mercy. And, yes, I still carry plenty of baggage, too.
Robert, thank God our heavenly Father IS merciful (Luke 6:35-37)! May the Lord have mercy on your mother indeed.
Notions of God that subject Him to His own Law as under a sort of necessity turns our normal understanding of the nature of forgiveness, unselfish love and mercy (and even of the nature of personhood) right on their head. Each time I encounter this sort of thinking about the meaning of biblical faith, I can’t help but think of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Love” (which was really the gov’t agency responsible for torturing dissidents) in his novel, 1984. “Love” for hard-line Calvinists and other Penal Substitution adherents has similarly lost its true meaning. David Bentley Hart is right when he suggests that to fail to properly discriminate between God’s will and God’s permission, as Calvinism does, essentially results in a sort of Monism, making “God” Author of both “good” and “evil,” and where the worship of “God” boils down to nothing more (and nothing less!) than the worship of raw Power. May God deliver us from such!
How does one overcome the religous concepts and thoughtforms one has been raised with and see and understand from a truly Orthodox perspective, ie is this a slow process or will my understanding always be coloured to varying extents by my past and therfore my understanding may not be Orthodox.
Like many above, the process of overcoming the “ideas” of protestantism has been very slow for me. However, my priest recently gave me some very life giving words after I told him that I had a hard time believing that God loved me. He said, “You don’t have to believe it, you just have to experience it.” Somehow those words set me free and helped me pay attention to the many ways God shows his love for me. I still struggle with the feeling that I must somehow deserve the love and the despair of knowing that I can never deserve it. I know I’ve come to the right place though and that God is healing me and revealing himself to me as I am ready to receive Him.
Evan, the lesson for me was that ideas and concepts will never give us life, even if we have them all right and lined up neatly in our minds. Orthodoxy is about relational life and worship, not belief. But somehow it is not empty of content and that is a mystery.
I have always had the following question. Since forgiveness is such a large part of God’s teaching, why did He not “forgive” Adam and Eve when they disobeyed him in paradise? This may be a very naive and simplistic question…
Also, I have experienced some relief by reading your comments on “wrath.” My mother was diagnosed with an incurable, yet not life-ending, disease when I was a teenager. Our Orthodox Priest informed my father that he must have done something to bring God’s “wrath” upon his wife. That disease was the logical result of unrepented sin. As an adult, I was diagnosed with this same disease 4 years ago. I would be so thankful to ANY priests, ministers, pasters who use this word more carefully. What is your opinion on sickness and disease in God’s eyes? If it is not God’s wrath, then why do so many priest’s teach us that it is?
Thank you for your valued opinion.
Cheryl, God did forgive Adam and Even in the story of the garden. He knows what they have done and comes calling for them. He tries to give them the opportunity to face what they have done and turn back to him, but they blame others and even God instead. Even then, he fashions clothes which they now need for them. And he restrains them from eating of the tree of life, so they will not experience unending corruption.
God’s forgiveness is immediate, so much so that it’s really only evident in the immediate and responsive love that permeates the story.
Questions like yours seem to me to be the natural result of teachings that attribute a problem, such as a problem with forgiveness, to God. God has no problem with forgiveness and love. If all we had ever needed was forgiveness, God overflows with mercy. Jonah understood that about God and it really made him angry.
No, our fundamental problem is not that we need forgiveness, but that we need life. And we have turned from and attempted to shut ourselves off from our only source of life. Freeing us from death and restoring us to life (without negating either our will or creation itself) was and is a much, much deeper and more complex matter. I don’t think I really understand it, but I do see perhaps a glimmer.
Cheryl, I’m so sorry to hear of your family’s experience within the Church. That had to have been very painful and confusing. In view of Christ’s teaching in John 9:1-3, it seems to me this priest’s accusation stemmed from ignorance of a truly Orthodox understanding of the teachings of the Church and of the Scriptures. I have read that there is true Orthodoxy, and then there is “folk-Orthodoxy” often found within the Church–this seems to have been an instance of the latter.
Sometimes there is a clear connection between certain sins and illness, such as cirrosis of the liver and drinking alcohol to excess, but most of the time it seems to me than unless one is a charismatic elder with that kind of purity of vision, the connection is quite mysterious (or even not directly existent at all as in the case of this man born blind in St. John’s Gospel)! I have read that there has been a dearth of good biblical teaching or a lack of setting the teachings of the Church squarely in light of the gospel in the training (or lack thereof) for many Priests of the Church, and your experience would seem to confirm that. I think of a recent article by Dr. Brad Nassiff on the true call and mission of the Bishops in the Church to clearly preach the gospel and teach it to their Priests and people. Dr. Nassiff’s testimony, as a “cradle” Orthodox raised in the Church, is that he didn’t begin to understand God’s offer of grace or the mercy of God in the gospel until he encountered the testimony of evangelical Christians in his college years. His impression from childhood up until that point was that Christianity was all about keeping the rules and if you didn’t, God would get mad and punish you–i.e., traditional religion. (To be fair, though, I know of plenty of Christians who grew up in various Protestant traditions and had pretty much the same wrong idea!) I think of the reaction also of Job’s comforters in the OT. They did the right thing at first being silent in the face of Job’s sufferings and illness, but then they made the mistake of opening their mouths, and the arguments that came out displeased the Lord greatly (somehow the Lord’s evident displeasure here is a source of great comfort to me!). Sadly, they reflected not faith in the merciful Lord Whom Christ fully reveals (the gospel), but that of what I would call traditional religion (in a monotheistic form). Such traditional religion is unable to comprehend the mystery of grace and so positive circumstances are inevitably construed as reward for righteousness and the reverse as punishment for sin! It seems to me this is the default position of our corrupted human heart, and it is easy to put a veneer of Orthodox or biblical language on what is essentially a pagan understanding of God and how He deals with human beings. Some have termed this “natural religion,” and I suspect it corresponds to what Fr. Stephen referred to in a comment above to the “disease of religion.” In any case, I hope this is helpful and perhaps will provide some fodder for Fr. Stephen’s promised upcoming post on the subject.
I think some priests are not well-trained in the fullness of the faith in some matters (I sure I have my lacks as well).
I think Adam and Eve were always forgiven – the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth. We have all lived and breathed by the very grace of God.
Yes they were always forgiven!
I find the parable of the Prodigal son to be very helpful here. We can see that the father was always ready to welcome back his lost son. But the father couldn’t do the repenting for his son. Repentance is our healing, our return to our Father.
I’ve questioned for years why –after they had sinned– God would multiply pain in childbirth, subordinate Eve to Adam, make Adam sweat to find food, and so on.
I believe every one of the things in Genesis 3 is a mercy needed or beneficial for salvation. He clothed them, for example, because they had lost their vestments of glory. Now nothing could so easily be taken for granted as they had forsaken his former gifts. The impossibly difficult situation should entice Adam and his children back into thankfulness for all they receive, or else to cursing and ruin. Though we can’t blame God for that.
In the world they broke God restored what’s essential, a free and loving exchange of gifts and sacrifices from pure hearts (as Abel and Cain illustrate). In Christ the fullness of giving and thanksgiving with God was restored. He became God’s gift, the very food once stolen.
God never stops sacrificing for us. He knows our frame and everything he does is a loving act to restore us. Darkened and deluded minds can’t easily perceive how God saves. If he could do it without pain, without ravaging injustice and nauseating confusion, I believe that he would.
Our job is to be faithful lovers to the end. Salvation is an endurance race; we must finish well by his power and grace, thankfully receiving all his gifts in Christ.
(P.S. Please forgive my preachy tone. It’s hard not to get carried away when I recall these things, and sharing them is joyful.)
I recall recently reading that the parable of the prodigal son might just as well be titled the “prodigal father.” The son misused his “prodigality.” And it was the father’s nature to spend lavishly, yet on his children. While the eldest son resented the way his father “spent,” the young son, like all sinners who’ve wasted their inheritance, never lacked any of his father’s treasures. What mercy and love!
That is an interesting take on that parable, although I am not sure if I fully understand or agree. Be it as it may, it remains a very powerful icon of God’s love and forgiveness to us prodigals.
Wow, I guess God needs to learn some communication skills. To think, after warning of His wrath and anger over and over and over again (literally hundreds of times throughout the Bible), it turns out He actually meant to say that He loved us and never gets angry at all!
I’m Orthodox, but surely we must take a more balanced approach to Scripture? If God says David was king over Israel, then David was king over Israel. No complicated interpretation necessary. If He says bestiality is wrong, then its wrong, right? And if He says not once, not twice, but several hundred times that He is angry and wrathful, then… well, you don’t need to be an ascetic or a Bible scholar to get the point, right?
Shawn, let me know when you pluck your eyes out and cut off your hands. (don’t do it, I did not mean that literally 😀 )
We are all “works in progress” in continuous need of healing, but we know we are in His good hands and we need not worry. If you are faithful with a little, He will entrust you with much.
Shawn, where does the Church ever speak of Scripture as a “communication” device? The Scriptures are what they are: prophetic writings, historical writings, gospels, letters, etc. There has never been a time that the Church has presented the Scriptures and not expected interpretation. To St. Philip’s question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replies, “How can I unless someone guides me?” St. Philip did not then go on to rebuke him as silly or foolish or to expound on how clearly God has communicated. How did the disciples not understand the resurrection when Christ was with them on the road to Emmaus and “beginning at Moses and the Prophets he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself?” They had been with him for three years and yet it did not seem clear?
Even a simple thing such as his three-day resurrection. Can you think of where in the OT this is prophesied? The only place that is not extremely obscure is the three days in the belly of the whale in the Prophet Jonah. How would anyone see such a thing without interpretation.
Christ taught the Church to read Scripture (as in Luke 24). It was not obvious nor easy – but a gift of the life of God. She continues this divinely-given task in her life today, especially in her liturgies, hymns, and the fathers, etc. But you speak of it as a light thing, an obvious thing. The Jews of Christ’s day read the Scriptures but there was a “veil” over them as St. Paul says. The Apostles warned the leaders of their day, “You have fulfilled them (the Scriptures) in killing Him (the Christ).
The plain meaning, the so-called common sense reading, as is often cited today as a history going back to the Scottish enlightenment. It is not particularly Orthodox.
There is a literal reading, typically found in St. John Chrysostom’s sermons, that is illustrative of the tradition in Antioch (his home), but it was not the only thing used by him, nor does he use it without ever correcting an apparent “literal” meaning.
It is the fathers who have taught us about the nature of God’s “wrath.” Christ is God’s wrath, if you will. He is the “Day” that was long prophesied. Many misunderstood Him and did not believe He could be the Messiah because they were looking for one who was more “literally” like their interpretations.
You do not need to be an ascetic or scholar to get the point – but you do need to read the writings in the stream of tradition – the life of the Church. The Scriptures cannot be rightly read “by themselves” simply as a book from God to man. That is not its character, as the examples I’ve just noted demonstrate.
Forgive me for my poor writing.
I’ve heard the same take on the parable, from Orthodox sources.
Of course I agree with you Father Stephen, but on prophesies of the resurrection, are you forgetting this passage from Hosea?
“After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
Dear Father, bless! I should clarify also in light of my above comments about some Priests lacking training in the fullness of the Tradition, that I can’t say this from my own experience. I have now heard at least a dozen or so Orthodox Priests or Bishops preaching (if you include podcasts I have listened to online) and all of them have been faithful expounders of the Tradition. (And certainly all of the them have been FAR more knowledgeable than I am!) In both parishes I have attended, we have been blessed with truly godly Bishops, for whom I am very grateful.
Just as there are many references in Holy scripture to God’s wrath, so also are there multitudinous references to His face, His eyes, His strong right arm, etc.
Yes. I did forget that one. Though, it, too, requires interpretation to see that it speaks of the resurrection of Christ. Thanks for that one!
Good point. Literalism has to yield to such things. We seem to understand that when we say “right arm” that we mean something greater. But weakness in teaching has made people read references to emotions as though they were literal – with much ill-effect.
By definition a word (written or spoken) is a method of communication. But words cannot communicate meaning without interpretation – without such they would not be words, but mere meaningless scribblings or unintelligable sounds. Language is an example of an interpretative context which provides meaning to words -hence communication occurs when a common language is used.
The supposed plain meaning (“perpescuity”) of Scripture is a modern invention to support the protestant concept of the invisible church (among other things). But this is false as no communication is plain, easy or clear without interpretation. Plain scripture ultimately leads to the loss of meaning and endless fragmentation.
Oooh shoot I failed to add the best part:
Which, or whose interpretation then shall we use?
haha, Sea you slay me…well, wait, no not literally
How does Holy Orthodox Tradition interpret/understand these verses in light of what has been discussed above?
“Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.” Deut. 32:35
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rom. 12:19
Speaking as not-Father Stephen…
The take home message for me in these two scriptures is simply that I am not to take vengeance, period. What God does is His to do and a mystery not grasped by my human understanding, hence it is not mine to do and would cause more harm than good, to me and to the one it is directed towards, if I tried.
This “plain meaning” does not require God to do anything “bad” (harmful). It is only my own fallen experience of vengeance that potentially makes it so and draws close to saying something blasphemous of God.
I think how God works these things is a mystery – but even his vengeance is for the salvation of all. Our hunger for a retributive justice is, I believe, ultimately a sickness. I say this as someone who has endured murders of family members. I do not want such a hunger in my heart.
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Christ pillaged Hades; He plundered the grave. He despoiled satan of his subjects and his chief weapon, death, by which he had kept us in slavery all our lives. “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:15) Here is Christ, not the victim of God’s Wrath, but the one pouring it out, with His blood, taking “vengeance” upon death, upon satan, upon evil.
“…the gate-keepers of Hades trembled at beholding Me clothed with a robe spattered with revenge; for I being God, have vanquished my enemies with the Cross, and I will rise again…”
Glory to God for all things.
This subject has been treated at great length by Fr. Stephen, and in the combox discussions as well. You may want to do a search on “anger”, “wrath” or “vengeance”. The River of Fire touches on this as well (link on homepage).
Thank you all for the replies. I have read & re-read Fr. Stephen’s posts on wrath and anger, as well as the River of Fire. I find these all to be very enlightening and intriguing, like nothing else I have ever experienced in my time as a Christian and a Theologian.
What I must point out though is that though we ought not to harbor such hungers as vengeance, hatred, violence, retribution & justice – of which I fully agree – it does not negate the fact that the Scriptures and some Church Fathers *do* speak of God in this way (as noted above).
Anastasia’s comment is truly wise and helpful. Thank you!
Oruaseht, we also know from Scripture that God has said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” We may not assume that the Holy One experiences, shares, or partakes of those human passions that we name “vengeance” or “wrath.” I agree fully with the poster who said that to suggest this is to say something blasphemous of God. May we be forgiven for this!
It is indeed intriguing to me how poignant the topic is (of anger and wrath). It invariably draws the most comments of anything I post. For a variety of reasons I think it is one of the most important things that I ever write about. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos believed that he had “a word for this age” (almost sounds charismatic or pentecostal, doesn’t it?). But I believe this to be true – that he was a saint given uniquely to the modern world. I have been greatly touched by his life and by that of his disciple, the Elder Sophrony and the community of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. St. Silouan had a grasp on the mercy of God and of a reality that transcends the language of wrath and anger. His life in Christ is not without suffering (at the very deepest level) nor was he unaware of torments. And yet his witness was of the love of God triumphant over all and beckoning us to union with Him and entering into the fellowship of His suffering. His life and writings are a well – when once having been well-drunk – seem to overcome concern for the literal treatment of anger and wrath. It is a passage into the truth of the faith.
This is not only true of St. Silouan – but, I think, particularly true of that strain within Orthodox Tradition that is particularly rooted in the ascetic struggle. It is strange that those who in this life were often the most harsh with themselves and their bodies were at the same time more compassionate and driven to prayer for the ungodly. St. Silouan does not pray for the souls in torment as if they are other than himself. This is true compassion. This is the love of God that “empties itself” – this is the gospel of the Cross.
And, it seems to me, this is the true gospel of the Cross, and not the sterile, legal formulas offered by some “theories” of the atonement. This is the Cross for which we must deny ourselves and which we must take up daily. Indeed, the other, legal Cross, makes no sense within the phrase “take up your cross…” In some places taking up your cross has come to mean no more than “put up with your daily hardships,” banal advice for those in cultures as wealthy and stricken with leisure as my own.
But God would bid us join Him in the very depths (to which His love took Him) and share in His prayer and sacrifice for all of creation. This is the “living sacrifice” to which we are called.
I only ever skim the surface in my writings. But I greatly recommend Father Sophrony’s works on St. Silouan and those works on his own life. There’s a good link to 8th Day Books on my sidebar – they stock all of his works. I would add to those the writings of St. Isaac of Syria (or Met. Hilarion Alfeyev’s book on him). The life of St. Seraphim of Sarov bears this same witness – as does the contemporary books on the character Fr. Arseny. I could add more to the list should you be interested. These sources offer a great wealth of which I only hint. It is, I believe, the true great treasure of the Orthodox faith (and thus of the Christian faith).
There are, of course, Scriptures and fathers who use words like anger and wrath without offering any qualification of the image. But it is Orthodox Tradition that such passages be read with the whole of the Tradition in mind – which would include these more exact treatments of those images.
I do not think, on the most fundamental level, that we need seek any further than the Person of Christ to understand the meaning of God’s wrath and anger. There is no destruction in Him, no hatred, even if there are parables of warning and words of “Woe.” As he tells his disciples who would call down fire, “You know not what Spirit you are of.” Christ Himself is the interpretation of Scripture, the “exegesis of the Father.” We cannot theologize about God apart from Christ or profess that we have any knowledge of God prior to Christ. He is the Logos of the Father.
Of course, when I write such things, I am sure to have those who will quickly cite Scriptures that (for them) represent contradictions to what I have said. May God have mercy on me for saying such things, but I think that greater knowledge of Christ is required. If we truly knew Him, we would have no doubt about the character of His “anger” or “wrath” nor any hesitancy about the quality of His mercy.
“Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone who loves knows God and loves God. He that loves not, knows not God, for God is love.”
But I repeat myself. Many blessings!
Dear Father, bless!
I would love to see a list of the works you recommend following the spirit of the teachings of St. Silouan. The striking connection between the deeply ascetic spirit and practice of these Saints and the renown of their humility and love as well as their depth of conviction and insight about the mercy of God has not been lost on me either (and it is a deeply sobering realization).
It occurred to me over the past day or so as I have thought about what I have read or imbibed culturally of a “traditional religious” reading of the Scriptures (e.g., Calvinism, etc.), that the Apostle John (and his brother), these “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) were pretty “Calvinist” in the Gospels (at least in the Luke 9:54-56 account) in their view of God and the nature of His reign, His justice and wrath! It’s easy to see how they might have gotten the nickname Jesus gave them. But they ultimately underwent quite a transformation so that much later in his life the Apostle John would pen his Gospel, the most theological of the Gospels, without using this wrathful terminology (as you pointed out). I believe it was you who pointed out also recently that this particular Gospel was written and arranged for catechising converts in the early Church–that was the first time I ever heard this, but it makes sense. (Is there any further commentary on that, which I could read? I’m sure it would be instructive to know more about it.)
The first epistle of St. John from which you drew the above verses, is among the texts of the NT that has always spoken most powerfully to me and to which I have been drawn over and over again during the course of my life. Isn’t there a story about the Apostle that toward the end of his life whenever he was asked to preach, all that he would do is repeat, “Beloved, love one another!”? It seems to me I heard something along this line years ago. . . . Thanks for being willing to repeat yourself so often! I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates it.
I have had a deep love for St. John’s writings for all of my adult life. He made me love Greek (the language). I was living in a Christian commune in the early ’70’s. My best friend was studying Greek in college (I was working in a factory). He told me that the gospel of John had a vocabulary of somewhere around 600 words (quite small), and noted how quickly one could learn to read it. I began studying Greek with his books. The next year when I finally started college, I began formal classes in classical Greek and had declared my major (classical languages) within months. I was reading St. John by the end of the first semester. The sheer beauty of his language continues to overwhelm me. I have since learned (as I’ve added other languages) that regardless of the language – the beauty of his gospel is never diminished. It is one of the finest pieces of literature in every language of the world (in which it is translated).
Your observation that this is one of the two “sons of thunder,” is very apt. It is a reminder that we read the gospels that are written by those who were themselves living after the gospel. They see themselves and give us the true account of their lives. St. Peter is accurately portrayed as one who denied Christ, etc. Indeed, the whole of Scripture never places heroes before us in a less than honest manner: David the adulterer; Paul breathing murders; Thomas breathing doubts, etc. And yet these are those whom God calls “friends.” There’s hope for us all.
St. John pray for us! Grant us grace to love the One who loved you, O “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
Dear Father, bless! Okay, now I am inspired to want to take advantage of my benefits as an alumna of my local Christian college and start auditing Greek classes just so I can have that experience, too! I am not surprised by what you write. . . . Amen to that prayer.
Father, this is precisely the view that leads to such widespread skepticism and Biblical illiteracy among us Orthodox.
It does no good to say we can’t trust ourselves to understand the plain meaning of Scripture by appealing to the plain meaning of the Fathers. If we can’t interpret the Bible correctly using common sense, then how can we be sure we’re properly interpreting the Fathers, also using common sense? If God didn’t literally mean He gets angry at sin (even though He’s so explicit about it), then what reason do we have to take St. Maximus or St. Isaac literally when they are so explicit about God’s love? They may not have meant that literally either, even if the plain meaning of their words would suggest it.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Dear Shawn, I’m succumbing to one of my tiny pet peeves and offering an ‘answer’ to a question you specifically ask Fr Stephen. 🙂
I expect he’ll add some depth and breadth.
For my part I recall this very objection you raise from an Evangelical-Orthodox ‘dialogue’ book, as I was trying to figure things out.
I think the heart of the answer is not very intellectually satisfying– of course we dont *know*.
True the logical problem is just a step removed. But the real problem I think isn’t actually this sort of ‘epistemic skepticism’ in the first place.
If you and I are just being quite straightforward, simple, and honest in our reading wouldn’t we consider it fair to say that the quote from St Antony in this post is meant as a clear commentary on just your question about the language of scripture?
God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone… may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as… turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry… He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same.
St Antony can offer such commentary because he is holy. He reads the same scriptures as us but knows God more closely and sees how we can be confused by this language of God’s anger, etc. He was a true theologian, experiencing God and knowing him directly through true repentance and communion of prayer.
We Orthodox listen to him because we believe this is how God is known, this is how the Apostolic Faith is passed down and along to us.
I think we may resist accepting his interpretation more because of complex inner workings in our hearts (unknown to ourselves) that incline us to hold onto a competing false understanding.
I dont think our Tradition teaches that the “plain meaning” of the scriptures can be understood by you and me so readily. We are absolutely admonished to *read* them, learn them, come closer to God through them, but even though they are as clear a communication from our Perfect God as can be offered, it is you and I who are “unclear” and muddled; I cannot receive the full and plain meaning of the Scriptures because my heart is impure. God cant speak more clearly, but I have a long way to go before I can understand Him clearly.
I can understand the frustration – though I think there are different causes to Biblical illiteracy, such as priests not emphasizing Biblical studies or teaching such classes. I teach and have plenty of interest and students. It doesn’t have to be either or. But the great teacher in these things is to listen long and frequently to the constant commentary of the liturgy and services, composed almost entirely of Scripture, and use them as a starting point for Biblical study. It’s possible to use the common sense approach, it’s just that you’ll frequently run into things that don’t mesh with other things, or with meanings that are treated quite differently.
I’ve seen plenty of evangelical churches where the “common sense” hermeneutic is used. Why are so many of them clamoring for Orthodoxy? There is no one single hermeneutic that we can extract or impose on the reading of Scripture. We have to be taught how to read, as we have been taught how to read. The act of reading and understanding the Scripture is no easier for us than it was for those first disciples of Scripture – whose common sense did not reveal Christ. Reading Scripture is a “tradition” that must be learned. The failure to teach that living tradition is indeed worth criticizing.
Basil and Shawn,
I would probably add that I’m not sure they are very clear. Christ explicitly said he taught in parables so that some might not understand. Many things in the OT are quite obscure. Poetry that is over 3000 years old is just not going to be easy to read at every turn. No one should expect it to be. Most priests no longer read the original languages – if they don’t and the people don’t – then neither of them can arrive at the “common” sense of things. Bible study is not simple, nor are Orthodox Christians to think of themselves as a “Bible Church.” We read Scripture, we pray Scripture, we sing Scripture and in the life of the Church we come to understand it (especially if it is well taught).
I might add that “Biblical literacy” is rare, extremely rare, particularly among those Churches who stress “Biblical literacy.” I was raised in it. “literacy” cannot mean the simple ability to cite where a story occurs, etc. It means true understanding. This is exceedingly rare in our culture (rare anywhere). But the idea that the faith will be advanced if only there were more “Biblical literacy” has been tried and it did not work (not if the literacy is of the sort the Reformation sought to teach). We have to do the hard work of “making disciples.” This is slow and will keep a priest and others (catechists, etc.) as busy as they could ever imagine. It should be done, but is a slow work.
Pray tell what common sense is there in Christian doctrine? What plain understanding is there in our faith? In the Trinity? The hypostatic union? The Virgin birth perhaps?
It is a mistake to think we can apply “common sense” to something so uncommon as God’s revelation: there is nothing common about the Scriptures, Tradition or the Fathers. I cannot recall the Fathers ever appealing to common sense in the defense of the faith against heresies.
The proliferation of thousands of bible commentaries since the 16th century is evidence there is no such thing as a plain reading of Scripture.
Thank you for taking the time to write this. I appreciate your insight.
“Victory came cruciform!”
No doubt volumes of posts could be written on this subject to as to fill the blogoshpere, and still not be able to explain away the un-explainable. I fear that in some people’s attempts to understand subjects of theology, they vainly expect to do away with the ‘mystery’ of it..