The Scope of Passover and Penal Substitution Theory

trinity-cruifixionOne of the terms used in the early fathers when interpreting the Scriptures was the “scope” of Scripture. By this they meant backing away from the detail of the text to see the larger picture, the “scope” of a broad reading. This technique was particularly valued in the so-called Antiochene School of interpretation, which is usually associated with a more historical/literal reading of Scripture. The failure to see the “scope” of the text all too easily exalts stray details to an unwarranted position. You cannot understand a tree until you see its place in the forest. This understanding of the “scope” of Scripture is particularly devastating to the penal-substitionary atonement theory.

Penal substitionary atonement argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive their sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.

I have written previously about the lack of Scriptural warrant for this teaching, as well as its creation of a false image of a wrathful God who must be satisfied in order to be reconciled to man. I will point out here that this theory falls outside the scope of the New Testament, particularly the gospels where a definitive scope can be discerned: that of Christ as our Passover.

As noted in my previous article, a central theme of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection is found associated with the feast of Passover. At Passover, the Jews celebrate and remember their deliverance from Egypt by the miraculous intervention of God.

“So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting ordinance. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread.”

Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever.” (Exo 12:17-24)

It was during this festival in Jerusalem that Christ was crucified. For the Primitive Christian community, it was clear that Christ is Himself now our Passover. He is the Passover Lamb. His blood saves us from death and hell (the destroyer). And like the earlier Passover, this miraculous intervention of God is remembered with a meal. The Eucharist is the New Passover, the New Covenant. It is not kept annually, but weekly (if not more often). And it is kept weekly on Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection.

This change in worship is a radical departure from the mainstream life of 1st century Judaism. There is mention in the book of Acts that the early community continued to go to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. But it also says:

 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and communion, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)

The gospels reflect an understanding of Christ as the New Passover that supersedes the Old. This is so dominant that it results in a changed pattern of worship – the primacy of Sunday (now called “the Lord’s Day”) as well as the eating of a new, weekly Passover meal (the Eucharist) as the center of worship.

The Penal Substitionary model of the atonement simply has no place within this scope. The blood of the lamb applied to the doorposts of Israel is not an atoning blood. It is not an offering or sacrifice of substitution. It belongs uniquely to Israel as the people of God. Only the children of Israel may eat of the meal (the lamb) – it is a meal of belonging and communion – in which no forensic or legal imagery plays a part. Strangers in the land, in years to come, are allowed to eat of the meal, only if they submit to the law of circumcision (and thus “become” part of Israel).

The essential imagery of the Passover is of an oppressed people. Their deliverance does not hinge on how they found themselves to be in bondage. “Let my people go,” is God’s word to Egypt. In essence: “They don’t belong to you – they belong to Me.”

This same imagery is at work in the New Passover. The people of God are in bondage (to sin and death). Christ constantly intervenes in their lives, healing them, setting them free and forgiving their sins.

Matthew (9:2ff) describes Christ’s healing of a paralytic. In that action He begins by forgiving the man’s sins. When those standing around question His authority to forgive, He says to the man, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.” And He explains that He has done this in order to show that the “Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.”

In the Penal model of the atonement, we would have to ask how Christ could forgive this man since no justice has been satisfied. Is the man healed as a loan from a payment that will be made at a later point?

In the Scriptures, we do not have a legal problem. Sin is not a legal debt or an infraction demanding the satisfaction of justice. Sin is death (Romans 6:21-23). Sin is a life lived out of communion with God, the Lord and giver of life. As such, it is a spiritual entropy, a life that is collapsing. It is slavery and bondage to a growing process of nothingness.

For the gospel writers and the early Church, nothing describes this slavery better than the imagery of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. Their deliverance does not flow from a balance of accounts nor the satisfaction of divine justice. It is the love of God for His people. This imagery continues throughout the early Church, preserved especially in the Christian East. St. Basil’s Eucharistic prayer offers this summary:

Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He obtained us for Himself, to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending through the Cross into Hades that He might fill all things with Himself, He destroyed the torments of death. And rising on the third day, He made a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be overcome by corruption.

This is the story of the New Exodus. Baptism is the new Red Sea. In it are destroyed all of the enemies of God’s people.

St. Basil uses the language that is often described as belonging to a “ransom theory” of the atonement. I think this overplays but a single part of the “scope” of his imagery. The “ransom” is simply a ransom “to death.” It is a counterpart to the imagery of our being “sold under sin.” The scope of St. Basil’s account is that we were held captive and God sent His only Son to come and get us. And since we were held captive by death, He entered death itself to get us out. Christ’s resurrection is indeed the New Exodus, making a “path for all flesh from the dead.” Death is the ultimate Egypt, the last bondage.

St. Basil additionally makes this statement:

He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being conformed to the body of our lowliness, that He might conform us to the image of His glory.

It is a use of Philippians 2 which Basil extends into the language of Divine solidarity. God has become what we are, that we might become what He is. In this New Passover, God Himself becomes the Lamb. God Himself enters into our bondage and death. God Himself leads us triumphantly back from the dead (through the Red Sea, etc.).

And now the meal, the feast of the Passover, is God Himself: “This is my body…this is my blood.” The first Passover was but a shadow of the second (and last). In in this account of Christ’s work, there is simply no imagery of a legal payment, a propitiation of the wrath of God. God is not the enemy of man.

A weakness of penal substitutionary theory is its inherently pagan character. The God who must be satisfied (whether we chalk this up to His justice or not) is a diminished God, rather than the Ground of All Being revealed in Christ.

All atonement theory makes use of imagery, and imagery always falls somehow short of reality. But imagery that actually distorts reality is another question. The Passover imagery of our deliverance was a long-standing theme of Jewish thought. It was and is central to Jewish identity. However, the justice-hungry God of propitiatory sacrifice actually has no history whatsoever in Jewish thought (including the OT temple sacrifices). If anything, there is material in the Old Testament in which God “despises” Israel’s sacrifices.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? (Psa 50:12-13)

Another prominent set of images within the Old Testament are deeply reflected within the New Testament treatment of Christ’s suffering and death: those of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Its words are deeply familiar:

Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:4-5)

This passage (and its accompanying verses) have played a prominent part in theories of Penal Substitution. But that reading, assuming the passage into a sacrificial scheme is nowhere required or indicated by the passage itself. Instead, within the New Testament context, particularly that of the gospels, it should be conflated and read together with the Passover imagery. It is, above all, part of the “ironic” character of the Passover victory of God.

That Divine Irony is especially seen in Christ’s repeated identification of His coming crucifixion with His glorification.

But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (Joh 12:23-25)

And at the very moment of His betrayal:

Having received the piece of bread, he [Judas] then went out immediately. And it was night. So, when he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him.” (Joh 13:30-31)

This Divine Irony is present in the Old Testament Passover story as well and there, too, it is described as “glorification.” The perceived weakness and helplessness of God (and His people) become the very means by which God draws His enemies into their defeat. In the Exodus account, God clearly directs Israel into an impossible position in order for the wonder (glory) of His victory over Pharoah to be seen yet more clearly. It is glorious precisely because it is revealed at the moment of most complete weakness.

The same is true in Christ’s glorification (crucifixion). He is silent before Pilate and Herod, making no defense for Himself. His quiet submission to the insults and charges leveled against Him are also tokens of His voluntary suffering.

As a sheep led to the slaughter, or a blameless lamb before His shearers is mute, so He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7).

That “we esteemed Him stricken and smitten by God” (Is. 53:4) is not a description of the Father pouring His wrath upon Him, but a reflection of the confusion voiced by the bystanders of Christ’s suffering:

He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him. (Matt. 27:43).

The envy and ignorance of those witnessing Christ’s humiliation is utterly ironic – for what Christ does – He does for them!

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; (Isa 53:5)

The language of Isaiah meshes seamlessly with that of the Passover, adding depth and insight into the saving work of God. It is not a framework for penal imagery.

Penal imagery represents one of the most serious deformations of Christian thought, a sad detour for theology. That it has now passed into fixed dogma within some circles should be of great concern to all Christians. Those who hold to this dogma would do well to return to the fathers and consider the scope of Scripture. The labyrinth of proof-texts that are often assembled to argue for the penal model are but isolates. They belong in no over-arching theme of Scripture or central story of the faith. They are foreign to the sacramental life of the Church as it lives its life in union with Christ.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.


  1. For some reason I am reminded of the story in the book Everyday Saints about the monastery in Russia which was not well ordered and pretty debauched. When the Soviets came and forced the monks out of the monastery and gave them the opportunity to save their lives by denying Christ, the abbot looked at his brothers and said: “Brothers, we have not lived like Christians, let us at least die like Christians.”

    Sometimes it seems that death in the body is easier than living in the midst of the world, yet more difficult for those left behind. But maybe that is why it takes a ‘death to the world’ to live like a Christian?

  2. Fr. Stephen,

    Surely, the scope of Scripture is never contrary to the details within Scripture, right? What sense do you make of the many passages in the Old and New Testaments that do indeed speak of a “wrathful God”? Or St. Paul’s words in Romans 5:10 that seem to indicate we were indeed enemies of God, reconciled through the death of Christ? You may have addressed these texts elsewhere, so please forgive me if I have yet to see them.


  3. Adriel,
    Following the holy fathers, I treat that language as metaphorical, as a figure of speech, but not actually descriptive of God. It can describe a certain characteristic of our relationship, but there are overriding understandings of God that insist that we not attribute such things to Him in a literal fashion. An example in St. Isaac:

    That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. –

  4. Ariel, it is also one thing for the Scripture to say in our sinful state we were enemies of God (quite true), and it is completely another for it to say God is our enemy because we are sinners (save for Christ’s taking our punishment)! Rather, the Scriptures teach “God so loved the world that He gave. . . ” (John 3:16-17) and “God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).

  5. Adriel,
    Actually the scope of Scripture might very well contradict certain details, and provide the proper framework for understanding those details – particularly when the details contradict the scope. The fathers in Antioch were adamant that the “scope” – which is the broad import trumps the details.

    For us, then, what is the “scope” of the story of the gospels? Are any of the 4 gospels built on a narrative that includes the wrath of God as a theme? Even the individual cases of the landlord who will kill those men (who didn’t give him his rent) does not at all rise to the level of a narrative theme. It is even contradicted by other details (such as Christ’s rebuke of the disciples who wanted to call down fire on those who wouldn’t receive Him).

    What happens with these isolated verses is that interpreters invent a rival narrative. Many people only know a rival version of the Christian gospel. This is the perversion of the penal substitutionary view. It invents “another gospel.”

  6. Thank you for this excellent discussion! We rejoice that our salvation is dependent upon the love of God; rather than the avoidance of his anger. “For his loving kindness endures forever.”

    It may be worth adding that when the New Testament uses “atonement” language in reference to Christ (in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 2:17), it appears to be in the context of the Old Testament Day of Atonement. The context of these passages is far removed from a penal-substitutionary view. These passages emphasize that Christ came and died because of God’s love and righteousness.

  7. Ralph, indeed.

    Very telling for me, is this classic Antiochene approach using the “scope” of Scripture. There simply is no narrative in Scripture that serves as a background for Penal Substitution. The entire framework for the doctrine is a concatenation of isolated verses strung together and hung on the scaffolding of an extra-Biblical narrative – a “theory.” The Reform people should explain how it is they champion a non-Biblical account of the atonement – or meekly admit that this is a late invention – wrongly championed by Christian thinkers that has distorted the faith.

    I think it has a strong following today among people who have an inner disposition that “likes” the wrathful account. It describes how they themselves often feel about the world and its various sinful slackers (and probably about themselves as well). My various challenges to the PSA has always garnered a response that is almost as political as it is theological.

    There seems to be a genuine belief out there that unless we preach the wrath of God, no one will ever behave themselves or accept their sinfulness.

    I work each week as a volunteer among people who are battling addictions. Many of them here in the South are deeply afraid of God and wary of all organized Christianity on account of various PSA behaviors. They have no lack of personal shame and self-loathing. What they need is truth – not Calvinism. PSA teaching can be toxic.

  8. And now I am remembering from my Episcopal days,

    Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!
    Therefore let us keep the feast!

  9. Christ is risen! What is the citation for the first extended quote? Are you referencing an earlier article of your own or quoting someone else?

  10. An insightful post that reminds me I need to revisit scripture. I have always come away from the OT and NT with a penal view. I will have to go through it with a more critical eye.

    I will say though, that the Passover account still seems like propitiation rather than expiation. The blood on the lentil could be interpreted like Luther’s “clean snow over a dung heap” perspective. The sacrifical offering doesn’t change us, but rather God’s view of us.

  11. “PSA teaching can be toxic.”

    Indeed. I just finished reading the harrowing account of a woman raised in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church who endured the most horrific abuse (of all kinds) from earliest childhood (along with her siblings) at the hands of her demented father and others in a patriarchal cult setting. There is a large local IFB megachurch near my neck of the woods to which a series of sex offenders and pedophiles have been connected over the years–the last being the most recent pastor (son-in-law of its founding pastor). It’s absolutely sickening what this pagan PSA narrative and the intimately connected unbalanced account of the threat of “hell” can do to the human mind and soul. The infamous Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church belongs to this same group of loosely networked churches, and the one thing they all have in common is pastors trained at and many graduates from Bob Jones University.

  12. The people who believe in penal substitution are scandalized when Paul says in Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking[a] in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church because how could there be something lacking in Christ’s penal substitution

  13. Adriel: the scope determines the interpretation and meaning of the various details. Context is everything. Change the context and the meaning changes. That is one of ways by which heresy poisons the truth.

    Once the scope is changed suceefully, everything else follows. Seems to me that is the problem Seraphim is having.

    When I was new to the Church and teachable it was amazing how quickly and easily long held views of Scripture changed when put into the scope of Holy Tradition.

    Continuing in the sacramental life of the Church as part of a loving community reinforces the true nature of salvation.

    Facts never speak for themselves.

  14. Seraphim: I’m not sure I agree that “The sacrifical offering doesn’t change us, but rather God’s view of us.”

    Jesus explains God’s view quite succinctly: “God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten son,that whoever believes on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
    Throughout scriptures, God expressed a desire to redeem the world, and the prophets look forward to Christ, the redeemer.

  15. This is excellent, Fr. Stephen. Very well explained.

    One very good (and easily overlooked) point you made is that Jesus was actively telling people that their sins were forgiven before He died and rose. That simply wouldn’t work in a penal substitution world – how could they be forgiven if the debt had not yet been paid?

    You also alluded to another perhaps minor but interesting bit of information I discovered yesterday while reviewing the original Passover story and flight of the Children of Israel. And that is that when Pharaoh released the people, God did not send them by the closest path but routed them toward the Red Sea “by way of the wilderness road”. (Hence the need for the column of cloud by day and the column of fire by night to give them direction.)

    I guess I never really paid attention to this detail before but it is very meaningful in the scope of the Scriptural account (as you expressed it so well):

    how God clearly directs Israel into an impossible position in order for the wonder (glory) of His victory over Pharaoh to be seen yet more clearly. It is glorious precisely because it is revealed at the moment of most complete weakness.

    Thank you for pushing me to consider all of this more deeply. Because I have often not understood the OT accounts that made God seem so wrathful, I have sometimes brushed them aside. While my focus on the NT has not hurt anything in itself, I have missed out on a fuller understanding of the God’s loving plan.

  16. Great post. Have a question regarding the necessity of blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Heb 9:22 says without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Every Sunday when I receive the Eucharist I hear the words, “Christopher the servant of God, receives the all holy & pure body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins & life everlasting”

    My question is why is blood necessary? In what way is it necessary? Why can’t God forgive without blood? Why did the Hebrews need blood to purify? Why did Christ purify our sins with blood?

    An interesting study might be how the ancient rabbi’s viewed the Jewish sacrifices going back to the Talmud and Mishnah. I’m sure one has probably been done. I’d like to know about it.

  17. The content of this article is excellent except for the accompanying icon: although it has become fashionable for some, particularly in the Russian Church, to depict the Person of God the Father as an old man, no allowance was made for this in the decree of the 7th Ecumenical Council. Furthermore, the visage of the one depicted in this icon is one of anger, not sorrow, which is at odds with the tone of the article. I simply cannot fathom why some feel this need to depict God the Father in a physical manner. God the Father has never appeared in a physical body.

  18. Chris
    An interesting verse on sin offerings in the OT is Lev.5:11. The context is guilt offerings for sin committed. God actually varies the sacrifice required for the offering according to a man’s ability. He starts with a lamb or goat. But if these cannot be afforded two turtledoves will do. However, if these are too expensive then the person can bring a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering… No blood required for making atonement and offering forgiveness! (vs.13) God’s mercy toward us is amazing even early on. On a little different note, I don’t remember Chris if this is in the Bible or if I read it elsewhere. But it says that the word “life” could often be used in place of “blood” because life is in the blood. Seraphim, the dung-heap being covered by snow as offered by Luther has always bothered me. It only offers a covering for sin but it offers no radical change within us. But true forgiveness of sin brings an ontological change and because we are changed within we can thus be truly united to Christ (John 17).

  19. Zossima Daughterty,

    Not for me to speak for Fr. Stephen – but the image presented is not an icon. It is a painting from Renaissance times. I suspect it was chosen to depict the penal substitution notion – the opposite of what Fr. Stephen himself is teaching.

  20. Zossima, maybe the picture, is used to highlight the absurdity of the PSA position. It’s definitely not an icon however.

  21. Zossima,
    It is as others have suggested, a painting that illustrates the Penal Substitution theory, and thus the opposite of the article’s point.

  22. Chris,
    Very good question and something to think about carefully. Verses such as the one in Hebrews have been linchpins in the PSA argumentation and have deeply colored the consciousness of Christians (PSA has been a culturally dominant metaphor for several centuries, at least).

    First, and deeply important, there are numerous examples of forgiveness without the shedding of blood in both Old and New Testament. God forgives David without shedding of blood. Hezechiah is another example. Indeed all of the great “personal” examples of forgiveness follow on repentance and not sacrifice. And the Psalms and Prophetic tradition echo this rather clearly.

    Having noted this – the Hebrews verse is misused when it is taken from its own context and place within the Hebrews argument and pressed into service as an isolated generalization. This is precisely what I meant by the PSA’s misuse of Scripture outside the Scope of narrative.

    Within temple ritual, the shedding of blood is required for cleansing and the remission of sins. That is its place within the thought of the cultic life of the Temple and the Law. I highly recommend the book, Problems with Atonement, by Stephen Finlan. It has a good scholarly discussion on the nature of the atonement and problems associated with it. It’s not ORthodox, but it is good scholarly treatment.

    There are several variations of thought within the OT about “how” sacrifice works, and, typically, they get mishmashed together. It is key for Christians in reading the OT to remember that it is but a “shadow” of the truth, and not definitive in any way apart from Christ. Thus, all of the blood and sacrifice imagery should be “re-read” through Christ. They are shadowy echoes.

    An example is the sense of a sacrifice being a “pleasing aroma” to God. On one level, this is pure pagan anthropomorphism. God has no “pleasure” in smelling roasting bulls. This imagery seems to be overridden by other competing notions, such as what Finlan calls “spiritual technology” – the use of blood for cleansing. The “pleasing aroma” imagery gets reintroduced in later OT writings in a more acceptable, spiritualized sense (and is an image frequently invoked in Orthodox prayers).

    But the notion of cleansing – the “life is in the blood.” Thus, to use Finlan’s imagery, the “life force” in the blood, is used to cleanse the “death force” of sin and ritual impurity. This is a notion that is very foreign to modern sensibilities, though it remains in effect in the NT and canonical prohibitions against the eating of blood. (Caveat: the red juices of a rare steak are not blood).

    Essential for us as Christians is to understand that God in no way demands a blood payment in order to be satisfied. This is quite clear in the fathers. St. Gregory says the idea is abominable.

  23. I like that image: The life is in the blood, therefore it cleanses us from the death force of sin and impurity.

  24. There is lots of ritualistic sin offering lingo in the New Testament , even tho I concur that the label PST ( penal sub theory), is wrong on many levels…, it would be a disservice to reinvent and limit the concepts that are there , in favor of the new analysis , …., a wide view is most honest

  25. Maybe we could say the death of Christ was necessary not because God needed it but man needed it. We needed the end result of Christ’s death- the Eucharist as the impartation of Christ’s life and grace. This Eucharistic meal being prefigured in the OT where the priest and offerer ate the sacrifice restoring fellowship with God. Thoughts?

  26. OUTSTANDING article, Fr. Stephen – thank you for sharing it!

    Our problem has never been God – He LOVES us. Our problem has been our falling into death (corruption) through sin…it is from this pit of death that Christ rescued us by destroying death because He is life itself.

    I would also highly recommend, for those interested in this topic, reading, “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius and “The Great Catechism” by Gregory of Nyssa.

    Thank you, again, for writing this article and sharing this beautiful news of God’s great and rescuing love for us!

  27. Father Stephen,

    What a powerful image – as ugly as the theology behind it.

    I suppose I might quibble a bit in that there is no need to wholly reject “penal substitution” in that there are both penal and substitutionary elements to the atonement, but that it needs to be rejected as a controlling framework and replaced with the, well, Biblical one. When Christ’s infinite love and conquest of death is the controlling story, it need not be abhorrent and ugly that Jesus says to God, as Israel’s king, “the actions of my people are mine, and mine alone. I take full responsibility for them, and submit myself on their behalf to the judgments they have pulled down upon themselves – now look on my sacrifice as a pleasing offering and forgive their sins”. This is basically the theme of the song of Azariah, right? My point is that, in the cross, there is no element of the scriptural story unfulfilled – including the penal and substitutionary ones. But these are minor themes – mere technicalities and odds and ends that Christ ties up, as his union with us brings us the salvation of God.

  28. Chris,
    The question is “necessity.” Christ trampled down death by death. The fathers tend to use language of “it was fitting.” This is much more accurate. To say “it was necessary” subjects God to a necessity (which cannot be) or begins to create and invent metaphysical rules about how things “must” work. Nothing is necessary to God. It was fitting that Christ died.

  29. Jeff,
    As I noted in my response to Chris, there are fundamental theological errors when we begin to use the language of necessity. There are certainly very many images in the NT, including ritualistic offerings (in Hebrews), but we must not leap from there to theories of necessity (a hallmark of the PSA model).

  30. There is a suggestion of penal substitution in the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. He doesn’t use those terms, but the language is suggestive. I don’t know what to make of this.

    Lecture XIII (33). These things the Saviour endured, and made peace through the Blood of His Cross, for things in heaven, and things in earth. For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness. Of no small account was He who died for us; He was not a literal sheep; He was not a mere man; He was more than an Angel; He was God made man. The transgression of sinners was not so great as the righteousness of Him who died for them ; the sin which we committed was not so great as the righteousness which He wrought who laid down His life for us,— who laid it down when He pleased, and took it again when He pleased.

    Cyril of Jerusalem (2013-03-08). The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Kindle Locations 3925-3933). . Kindle Edition.

  31. @ Chris, Re: Blood
    In the Old Testament, there were three components of the twice-daily burnt offering.
    1) The blood rite, involving the slaughter of the lamb, the draining of its blood, and the splashing of the blood upon and around the altar.
    2) The sacrifice itself, which was when the pieces of the lamb were laid upon the altar, combined with a cereal offering placed atop the lamb.
    3) The eating of the remainder of the cereal offering by the priests.

    Now the slaughter of the animal, the draining of the blood, and the separating of the lamb into parts, all occurred before the liturgy began. In other words, the death of the animal was necessary so that the elements used in the liturgy were present, but the death was an incidental precursor.

    For the sin offering of the congregation, some of the blood of the animal was taken into the temple and sprinkled before the veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies. Some of the blood would be smeared on the four horns of the altar. The rest would be poured out at the base of the altar, similar to the blood rite of the daily service.

    What is important about this are the other liturgical uses of blood, which are the sprinkling of blood on the people at Sinai, and the mixture of blood and oil that was used to consecrate priests. As John Kleinig puts it, “Blood from the altar doesn’t just cleanse and purity, but it also sanctifies; it makes holy. Its connection with the anointing oil makes that clear.”

  32. Kristofer,
    This is a good question viz. St. Cyril (the post is generating excellent thoughts from people). And it allows me to point out (carefully) the real issues at hand. In the “penal” model, there is the requirement of punishment, an inherent necessity. St. Athanasius, similar to St. Cyril, sees God as being as good as His word, and thus “death” follows the breaking of the commandment (in the Garden). But in His mercy He nullifies the commandment by entering death Himself and getting us out. This is pretty much exactly what we see in Cyril.

    It is not even the sense of “substitution” that is problematic. It is the “necessity” that “demands” punishment that creates the error within the PSA teaching.

    I can see that for some the notion of a “required” element in their teaching is somehow desirable. Thus God “had” to become man. God “had” to die. God “had” to rise from the dead. It’s as tidy as arithmetic – 2 and 2 have to be 4. For Protestants who always suffer from a crisis of authority (having neither the Church nor Tradition) prefer some sort of necessity even in their Biblical interpretation. For if they cannot demonstrate such a necessity they feel insecure and unsure of their doctrine. They should feel that way – but because they are building their house upon the sand instead of the rock. Sola Scriptura doesn’t work without some sort of authoritative interpretation. And “necessity” is the only authority within a rational system. If it’s true, then it must necessarily be true, else it’s just accidentally so and thus not reliable.

    In Orthodoxy, truth’s only necessity is Christ Himself who is the Truth. We know that we know Christ and that He knows us. Thus we feel safe to ponder the Holy Mysteries sometimes in silence and almost always in an apophatic manner, because our assurance is not in our rationality, but in Christ Who makes Himself known. And we know that we know Christ because we see and know and say the same things that have been seen, known and said throughout the Church.

  33. The point about cleansing is true, especially considering the Day of Atonement. There seems to be a minor debate going on biblical studies between those followers of Milgrom who believe that all sacrifices – not just on Yom Kippur – “cleanse” the Temple of impurities – and, through it, the whole creation, especially the Land and those who believe other sacrifices served as a transfer mechanism of impurities which are then put to death in the sacrifice in the place of the offerer’s life (the wages of sin is death). In the latter case, the sacrifices fulfill conditions of Covenant violations.

    Regardless, the sacrifices all involve a real change in the worshipper in the destruction of his sins and realignment with the covenantal community of the new Israel rather than merely a change in God’s attitude towards him.

  34. A good book, (9.95) download, is called

    “Sin , Redemption and Sacrifice. A Biblical and Patristic Study”,

    very detailed , and incorporates jewish thought (Old Test) and many nuances that can’t dismiss these concepts,

  35. It is essential to recognize that ancient peoples — not unreasonably — identified blood and life. To give one’s blood was to give one’s life. Even today, we speak of soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice “giving their blood” for our country.

    When the apostles speak of Christ’s blood, they are referring to his gift of self, which is the only gift worthy of God. Christ’s blood — his gift of self — is a “pleasing aroma” to the Father precisely because it is an oblation of charity. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16). “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

    St. Thomas writes in his commentary on Ephesians:

    “Christ’s death can be considered in three ways.

    First, precisely as a death; and so it is stated in Wisdom (1:13): “God did not make death” in human nature, but it was brought on by sin. Accordingly, Christ’s death, precisely as death, was not so acceptable to God as to be reconciled through it, because “God does not delight in the death of the living” (Wis 1:13).

    In another way Christ’s death can be considered with emphasis on the action of the killers, which greatly displeased God. Hence St. Peter says against them: “You denied the Holy and Righteous One…and killed the Author of life” (Ac 3:14). From this aspect Christ’s death could not be the cause of reconciliation but rather of indignation.

    It can be considered in a third way as depending on Christ’s will, which chose to endure death in obedience to the Father: “He became obedient” to the Father “even unto death” (Phil 2:8) and out of love for men: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:2). From this aspect Christ’s death was meritorious and satisfied for our sins; it was accepted by God as sufficient for reconciling all men, even those who killed Christ, some of whom were saved at his prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).”

    Christ’s death is “meritorious” and “satisfying” precisely because it springs from charity, which covers many sins.

  36. PJ,
    Don’t get me going on “meritorious,” a concept that entered into the West (unknown in the East) and became a lynchpin for a lot of problematic thought. Frankly, I think the same thing about the “satisfying” character St. Thomas describes.

    It is the difficulty created in these efforts to create metaphysical necessities – to create rationally necessary things as a means of explaining. The Father could accept anything He jolly well pleased.

    Interestingly, St. Paul does not have Christ as “obedient” to the Father and thus dying, but “obedient” to death. The whole idea of describing Christ’s death as meritorious and satisfying is disturbing to me.

    The Father does not require anything to love us or forgive us, to be satisfied, etc. We require. We have necessity. God does not.

  37. Yuck, two words I hate ‘ meritorious ‘ and satisfied…,, but don’t hate Aquinas Father, he’s not not the boogeyman the East has created of him ( See ‘Orthodox readings if Aquinas’ by Marcus Plested ,

  38. I’ve always interpreted Philippians 2:8 as obedient to the point of dying and not just dying, dying on a cross!

  39. Good discussion. A couple of questions.

    First one regards a passage from St. Anastasius of Antioch, used in the Roman Office of Readings, that says, “It was necessary for Christ to suffer: his passion was absolutely unavoidable.”

    I realize that I am taking this line out of context but I found myself uncomfortable with the language of necessity when I read it on Tuesday. Was Christ’s passion “unavoidable”? It would seem to me that God could have forgiven us in any way that He chose, though I am certainly not disputing the perfection of His merciful plan as is.

    My second question/comment is with regard to the notion of Jesus being “obedient” to the Father. (The words “meritorious and satisfying” make me cringe, so I am not arguing in favor of them.)

    Fr. Stephen, were you suggesting that Jesus was not acting in obedience to the Father by accepting death, i.e. doing the Father’s will? Or just that St. Paul was not emphasizing this?

    I am not trying to open up a schism-like discussion on the relations of the Persons of the Trinity, as such discussion would be way over my head. I am content to believe that Father, Son and Spirit are One in Love. I’m just seeking clarification because your comment to PJ was puzzling to me.

  40. Mary,
    There is only one Divine will. We must not press the imagery of the Son’s relation to the Father in a manner that supposes any tension. The “not my will, but thine” of the Garden is the “will” of His human nature expressing that which is perfectly natural to all human beings, the will not to suffer or die. It is an expression of Christ’s perfect humanity. But it is not an expression of tension between the Divine Persons.

    St. Paul does not assert that the Son is obedient to the Father in going to the Cross, but says He was obedient “unto death.” It is self-sacrificing love, even “heroic” love (“a man gives his life for his friends”) in which He is willing to go into death in order to get us out of death. It is, if you will, an action in which Christ changed death itself. Now “it has no sting.”

    Now, at the point of death, in union with Christ, we, too, can be “obedient” and embrace without fear the fullness of our own finitude, trusting in the fullness of His Divinity and our union with Him.

    St. Paul simply does not mention the Father in that context.

    It’s quite interesting how the Fathers are generally loathe to insert language of the inner counsel of the Divine Persons. Such language is highly “mythological” saying what we could not possibly know (or perhaps ever know). There are plenty of examples in the liturgical poetry of the Church, but we must be hesitant to take that into a land of doctrine.

    There is every good and important reason not to use the language of necessity in these matters. It should, at most, be said obliquely. Christ “voluntarily” enters death (“no one takes my life from me”). This is utterly essential in the primitive gospel of the Church. God forbid that we should image God saying, “I would have liked to have done this some other way, but there was no other way.”

    If anything, I think we may be bold and say that the crucifixion, resurrection was part of the eternal counsel of God – the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth. God had always known that for the project of humanity created in His image included His own incarnation, death and resurrection. It’s very much pre-figured in the Genesis account of creation itself.

    The “glory which I had with You before the world was” is mentioned by Christ, and must be identified with the glory of the Cross (given where the statement occurs).

    I rather hold that the Cross is not a detour, not a second-best plan of God, but a true revelation of the fullness of God. Only in the utter self-emptying (even unto death) on the Cross, for our salvation, could we know the fullness of God in His love for us. This does not say that His death was necessary, only that it revealed His fullness in a way nothing else could (that we know).

    And so it is that St. Paul cries out in perhaps the deepest, most mystical statement in all his writings:”that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead!(Phi 3:10-11)

  41. There is a place of love and mercy where all human language starts to become incohetent in the face of the divine mystery. Poetry can build the bridge a little farther out into the cloud but only a little way.

    At some point either we follow the recoil of our rational mind or open our hearts and partake: of God, the saints and each other.

    Let us not forget to exclaim:

    God is with us!

    Christ is Risen!

    Rejoice o ye people!

    Death has been despoiled!

    Shine O New Jerusalem!

  42. Thank you, Fr. Stephen! Your response is so profound and well-explained that it could be an article in and of itself.

    And you ended it with one of my favorite passages of Scripture. 🙂

    Thanks be to God for giving you the gift to teach us so well…

  43. Re: Acquinas
    I am fascinated by the seeming repudiation of his own work following a mystical experience during the mass.

    “On 6 December, 1273, he laid aside his pen and would write no more. That day he experienced an unusually long ecstasy during Mass; what was revealed to him we can only surmise from his reply to Father Reginald, who urged him to continue his writings: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value” (Catholic Encyclopedia,

  44. It seems to me that the Church ought to be able to speak with one voice on the meaning of the atonement. If we can’t tell people why Christ died what can we tell them? It’s not like its a side issue.

    Also I don’t think we can define ourselves by what were against. We’re against PSA but what are we for? We don’t believe all these Scriptures that speak of blood refer to necessity but what do they mean? At some point we have to face the Scriptures head on and exegete their meaning with clarity.

    I know some things lie in the realm of mystery. There are things beyond the human mind. I don’t think we can “punt” to mystery on an event that is so prevalent in the Scriptures and the life if the Church.

    Please forgive me if I’m wrong.

  45. To understand the sub theory, and the popular acronym, One has to define ‘ sin’…, from Genesis 3 onwards, and one can’t poo poo it away as just mortality , it has an irritating effect on God, but tho it can’t hurt Him, he gets hurt The word studies are endless , but defining , and worth a trek

  46. Chris –

    Are you saying that you are feeling unsure of why Christ died and how we are saved by it? (I’m not criticizing if you are saying this, as our minds can easily find this hard to comprehend.)

    Or are you saying that Christians need to have “one voice” in this matter, lest we cannot even agree on the most central tenet of our faith – and therefore look rather absurd to those who examine our beliefs?

  47. Chris,
    I think the Church speaks with one voice on the atonement. To hear it most clearly, from an Orthodox point of view, then reading the Eucharistic prayers of St. John Chrysostom and of St. Basil the Great, you will find a clear presentation of why Christ died, why we needed Him, and the consequences of His work.

    In a sense, the atonement is simply the Good News, the Gospel. From the beginning the Church has proclaimed the death and resurrection of Christ as saving. What is problematic is the later development of extra-biblical theories that depart from the narrative structure of the Gospels. These approaches introduced a rationalism into the gospel that does not belong. It (especially in the PSA) introduced a distortion into the gospel itself.

    Typically, things like “blood” are “multivalent.” They have a variety of meanings. This is certainly true within the OT – there is not one single theory of sacrifice. There’s both a variety, an evolution of thought, and even contradictions within the OT on the topic.

    Thus, how things like “blood” get taken up and used in the NT, as well as in developed thought within the Fathers also shows some variety. “Single” theory is, frankly, rarely true about anything.

    None of this is hiding behind mystery. I have indeed written myself in a very clear fashion about what we believe viz. the gospel. Just not in this particular article. I’ve only written 1600 articles or so.

  48. Fr. Stephen,

    I was reflecting more on your statement (in comment), “the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth.”

    This makes complete sense. Terms like “before” and “at the end of time” are relevant only to us humans who are bound by a sense of time. God has no such limits.

    If the self-emptying of God in Jesus were merely a historical human event (we humans killed a man named Jesus), it would make no sense to say that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth.

    However, if the self-emptying in love is eternal, essential to the Being of God, the Lamb was indeed slain “before” our historical event – part of the eternal reality of God’s giving of Himself.

    (Please correct me if I am wrong.)

  49. Jeff,
    “Poo poo as just mortality,” is a tragic lack of understanding. Sin is indeed death. The ontological consequences of that statement could not be more profound. How death manifests itself – as “stain” as “uncleanness,” as “defilement” as “abomination” etc. is indeed a development – but the foundation is death. This is clearly grounded in the most fundamental work of the fathers. It is the least “mythologized” account of sin.

    I’m well aware of the articles and word studies. Much of the Western Protestant work on word studies is not very germane because they lack a proper grounding theologically. I noted the work by Stephen Finlan on atonement – it’s a careful work of Biblical scholarship.

    But it is absolutely the case the how we understand the nature of sin will drive how we understand the nature of the atonement. And it is why I am insistent on the Patristic (and Biblical) grounding of sin as death. This alone roots our understanding in an ontological view. The Penal theory moves things into a forensic view which is deeply flawed theologically, forcing us to say things about God that are simply not true.

    I am not a Protestant. The Scriptures are read according to the Tradition and not in a merely historical manner. That a priestly writer in Leviticus has a view of sin as stain, for example, is interesting, but not necessarily for the development of atonement doctrine. “Stain” for example, has pretty much no place in the Gospel narratives of the New Testament. It was not an important or central concept for the Church. It is not irrelevant, but is simply not the place or central image for grounding something as central as the atonement.

    However, strangely, since the Resurrection was being raised from the dead, and Christ trampled down death by death, and Death is the Last enemy, and all who are Baptized into Christ are Baptized into His death, and as many of you as eat his flesh and drink his blood show forth His death til He come, etc. apparently death is a central (the central) place for grounding the understanding – the gospel revelation – of the nature of sin.

    To “poo poo mortality” is to “poo poo” the death and resurrection of Christ. To turn that event into a cleansing event, or a forensic event is to lose the actual grounding in the event itself. To make His death and resurrection “accidental” or “co-incidental” to some other deeper, overarching metaphor.

    God gets “hurt” only in the sense that Christ humanity suffers and that in the perichoresis of the Trinity we may say that God suffers. But this is a profoundly contradicting mystery. Sin does not and cannot “of itself” effect God. That God is irritated is nonsense. That exalts figurative language into a place where it cannot and must not go. It is precisely that kind of theological misunderstanding that reduces God to the level of a pagan deity, a mere “being” and not the Ground of All Being – Hyperousia in the words of the fathers.

    Sin is real. Seen it. Stood by the death beds of many hundreds of people. Have seen every imaginable violation of human existence as a confessor.

    Christ alone is defining.

    The Penal Substition theory has wrong understandings of the nature of sin – especially from a Christian and gospel perspective. I have no doubt that various writers ground it in “word studies” especially from the Old Testament. But its methods are flawed as are its results. It drives the gospel by its word studies – doing precisely what I have accused it of – ignoring the Scope of Scripture. That seems to be a point that you are ignoring or not understanding.

  50. Mary,
    Your statement takes us deeper into Trinitarian understanding. We would not say that the “self-emptying” belongs to God’s essence, or it would not be free. That’s a very technical distinction. It belongs to the Persons and is a free act towards one another as well as towards us. We’re going into territory here that is probably further than we want to go.

  51. Father,

    Allow me to explain what I mean by Christ’s obedience to the Father, for this is truly nothing but the w

    Christ is the new Adam, the head and model of redeemed humanity, who recreated mankind through his life, death, and resurrection. One aspect of this recreation was the straightening and strengthening of the human will, which had been bent and weakened through sin. As the mind is meant to know God, so the will is meant to love God. Yet it had been grievously deformed by sin, so that it could not achieve its end, which is charity towards man and God. Through his life of self-emptying, self-giving love, Christ took the crooked material of the human will and hammered it back into shape. The cross represents the revelation not only of God’s love for man, but also man’s love for God, for upon it Jesus showed that we are meant to give ourselves totally to God — even to the point of death. To speak of Christ’s obedience is simply to speak of his awesome charity and piety: his eager submission to the Father through the movement of the Spirit. Whereas the old Adam loved himself at the expense of God, the new Adam loved God at the expense of himself. In Jesus Christ, the human will is brought into perfect harmony with the divine will. Christ is the exemplar and cause of wisdom and charity — the knowledge and love of God. He not only displays these virtues, he also generates them in our hearts, by sending forth the Holy Spirit. Through fellowship with the Incarnate Word, we too conform our wills to the divine will, and so we grow in union with God through supernatural charity, which is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

  52. As for merit, let me explain how we Catholics understand this often abused and misused term. Merit is simply the divinely-ordained outworking of wisdom and charity. The proper end of man is to participate in God’s very love and wisdom, and so to be transformed into his likeness. An act is meritorious insofar as it advances man toward this goal — that is, insofar as it stimulates an increase of charity and wisdom. Accordingly, the cross is seen as the ultimate act of merit, for it is the ultimate icon of divine wisdom and charity. Insofar as a man dies with Christ — that is, insofar as he gives himself over to God without reservation or hesitation — he experiences a deepening of his charity and wisdom, and thus progresses toward the ultimate end: fellowship with the triune God of love and light. Basically, merit refers to the drawing of men toward God, by God, through the divine gift of grace, and the supernatural endowments of wisdom and charity, which enable us to cooperate with our own salvation. But it always comes back to charity. “Merit is chiefly attributed to charity” (St. Thomas).

    I realize that this vision is still deeply “Latin,” with some influence from the east by way of John Damascene and Dionysius the Areopagite, but I want to avoid easy caricatures, so that we can advance in understanding of each other.

  53. I suspect that if I asked people in my parish, “why did Jesus die on the cross?”, I would get a lot of different answers some of which may be heretical. I also look at the vast difference in opinion on this blog by people of the same faith. My point is that maybe we could do a better job of “unpacking”, “explaining” and “clarifying” the theological statements the Church does have on the atonement and putting them in terms that the average layman can understand. A good teacher, Christ being the ultimate, always puts things in the context of the learner. Or as one of my former professors said, “Bake the best cookie you can, but put it on the lowest shelf”.

    I am a former evangelical pastor with a masters degree in theology. If I find all this somewhat foggy, what about someone who doesn’t have any theological training? I’ve only been Orthodox for 2 years so that may contribute to my confusion.

  54. I meant mortality doesn’t go far enough , I’m all about obedience to the Liturgy, …, ( that’s a beauty in itself), but it’s not ‘ Protestant ‘ to follow the development thru history of the notion of sin , ( Ot, Qumran scrolls, Jewish Apoc literature ), how the notion of sin is dealt with , “what it is “, ..,( yes, confessionally we have the ‘ answer ‘), But in dissing modern theological concepts , and creating buzz’z, seems alarmist , tho it encourages me to study deeper

  55. PJ,
    The view is also a very late re-definition of merit, designed to make it more palatable theologically. It’s early. I recall seeing it in Caesarius of Arles. He was a rather ham-handed interpreter of St. Augustine (a popularizer) who very likely is the one most responsible for helping Augustine become a troublesome figure. But the merit stuff has a bad history and carries inherent problems. Whenever a term has to be more or less re-defined in order to make it useful, perhaps the term – foreign to Scripture and to the language of the entire collection of Eastern fathers, is simply with merit. 🙂

    Am I correct in thinking that present day Roman thought tends to shy away from it?

    I have no doubt that merit could be re-defined in a way that blended well with the East. But, frankly, it has such a tainted history that I would be loathe to see its acceptance – it comes with a lot of stinky baggage.

    St. Thomas is dealing with what was for him, already accepted language and is trying his best to make it useful. It’s what Aristotle called “saving the appearances.” It also could be called an effort to make a silk purse.

  56. Chris,
    I’m not sure what passes for teaching or catechesis in your parish, if the answers were to be that varied or heretical. It’s a tragic comment, if true. May God give your priest grace.

    As one who teaches and writes like a madman, all I can say is that teaching and writing as clearly as possible is all I know to do. If you’ve been a regular reader of the blog this topic should not seem at all foggy. If you’re new, then I would suggest looking at the topic in earlier postings.

    Simple books, such as Kallistos Ware’s “How Are We Saved?” should begin to clarify.

    For that matter, my own book, Everywhere Present, has some readable, clear presentations on the topic and I would recommend it. I know the author personally.

    A key issue in fully understanding an Orthodox approach to salvation and atonement (especially if you move at all beneath the surface) starts with understanding the nature of an “ontological” approach. St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation is a foundational work on the topic and the approach. It is he who very clearly grounds the nature of sin as being about death and the threat of non-being. Also along with that is the central place held by union with God – that death is the outworking of breaking communion with God (on the fundamental level of our existence), while salvation is the outworking of the restoration of communion with God (on the most fundamental level of our existence). Thus we have St. Irenaeus: “God became man so that man could become God.” Or as I stated in my book: “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good; He died in order to make dead men live.”

    I recently stated elsewhere that given the present state of Christian ignorance, Orthodoxy must teach, teach, teach.

    An article on the ontological approach: Salvation, Ontology, Existential and Other Large Words.

  57. Chris,
    Here is another marvelously simple presentation on Why Jesus died on the cross. Perhaps someone could host an evening in your parish so everyone could watch this video. It’s about as clear as can be.

    The Gospel in Chairs

  58. Yes, I’ve seen that. Great presentation. Please don’t take my comments as being demeaning to my priest or parish. I love my church and my priest is a good teacher. I guess coming from a different paradigm where I had an answer for everything to something diametrically opposite can be confusing . Forgive me.

  59. Jeff,
    You are reducing “death” to “mortality.” It’s a far larger word. St. Athanasius grounds it ontologically – as in – existence itself. Sin is a “movement towards non-existence.” The “entropy” of that movement is manifest in many ways. But it’s hard to think of anything more foundational, nor more rooted in the NT, than his imagery. And I’m in no opposition to good scholarship. But theology as certain grounding points. Sin, however understood, should be rooted primarily in an ontological/existential manner. This has been a consistent teaching of Orthodox theology.

  60. Father,

    I honestly don’t know if my understanding of merit is a late re-definition, as you put it. I’m not exceptionally well read on this topic. What I know I’ve gleaned mainly from what’s called the Thomistic ressourcement, which is a movement to read the Angelic Doctor in light of his patristic and Scriptural sources, rather than his later (mainly post-Reformational) commentators.

    Leaning heavily upon Romans 8, St. Thomas understands merit within a “sapiental context.” From this perspective, man is fundamentally a viator (wayfarer) on the journey to beatitude. The journey is advanced by the providential dispensation of grace, which allows man to share in the divine life. This sharing heals and elevates man’s nature, so that he is able to cooperate in his own salvation, acting as a co-worker with God through the Spirit. The merits of man are ultimately the gifts of the God, by which the viator exercises faith, hope, and charity, and so grows in knowledge and love of the Lord.

    This picture emerges with the likes of Tertullian and Cyprian. It is given definition and vigor by Augustine, Prosper, and Fulgentius. It is polished and tweaked by Gregory, Leo, and Isidore. It is perfected by Thomas. A degree of distortion enters in reaction to Protestant monergism; further distortion may be attributed to post-Reformational legalism and forensicism. This distortion, however, seems to have been halted and reversed in the modern era, when a concern for the fathers and the Scriptures prompted new ways, as well as a return to older ways, of discussing merit.

    I maintain that, despite the difficulties it has presented over the ages, “merit” remains a useful and valid theological datum in explaining graced human action, and the relationship between the freedom of man and the sovereignty of God. One Thomistic scholar has written compellingly, “In Thomas‘ consideration … [the] gifts of grace and glory are bestowed on the predestined to bring them, through their own graced activity, on the journey to beatitude, from the state of sin to the end of eternal salvation. The gift of grace transforms these creatures, so as to move them along the path to glory, bringing them to the end of beatitude through the meritorious activity of their own graced free will.”

    Merit is not so much about accruing points with God, but about possessing the divine life necessary to exercise a saving love and knowledge of God. As I said, this vision may not be popular in the east, but I maintain that it is not without its redeeming qualities, and that it is indeed a legitimate fruit of the Latin theological tradition.

  61. I began this series with the post on the Passover imagery and have used the Penal Substitution imagery as an example of the failure to consider the “scope” of Scripture and its dominant narratives. I hope to do another couple of related articles as the week goes on. But this series is an effort to look at reading the Scriptures rightly and using that as a means of theological reflection.

  62. Jeff,

    Here are just my thoughts on this below. I highly recommend you reading Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” which explains this much better than I ever could.

    DEATH is our problem.

    When God warned our first parents not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, what did God say would happen to them? God said they would surely die – so death (separation from God who is the source of Life) is our problem. Paul said the same thing; he wrote, “the wages of sin is DEATH but the gift of God is eternal LIFE…” Romans 6:23. Death has always been our problem because the devil used sin to take us captive by death and Jesus came, the Apostle John says, to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b)

    Now, as far as modern atonement theories go:

    The West has taken a scholastic view of things and the scholastic view, which follows Aristotelianism, loves to group, categorize, separate and individually label everything.  Thus, western theologians will start speaking in terms of the atonement in unrelated and separate categories such as: The Four Views of Atonement: 1.) Penal, 2.) Substitutionary, 3.) Christus Victor (or The Classical View), 4.) Moral Theory, etc, etc, etc…

    The early Christians and Church Fathers (up through John of Damascus), however, do not do this categorizing and segregating of the atonement as we do today. This scholastic/Western categorizing sets up a false dichotomy of a person believing they have to choose, “either/or” (pick either #1,2,3 or 4 above) – but the view of the Fathers encapsulated them all (or portions of them to varying degrees) and this encapsulation was couched in the mega-theme of Christ’s victory (Christus Victor) over humanities enemies (sin, death and the devil) through His incarnation, death, resurrection and enthronement.

    Now, to see the “big picture” view, let me digress to the beginning:

    When Adam and Eve fell, what was the very FIRST promise God gave to them? It was in Genesis 3:15. What did God promise? This: “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel”.

    This is a promise of a redeemer and the whole promise is one of clash, conflict and victory between the serpent and the seed of the women. All of this is warrior imagery and this was the very first promise God gave to start Salvation History for us – God’s promise to rescue us and undo what the devil, through his deceit, had caused to be done.

    During the Exodus, as Fr. Stephen rightly points out, how did God free His people? Through acts of power displayed against Pharaoh and his armies.  Now what does Pharaoh and Egypt symbolize? Doesn’t it symbolize the oppressive powers that have enslaved and entrapped God’s People? Isn’t it with a strong and mighty hand that God, Himself and by Himself, frees the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt? All of this was a type or symbol of the reality to come: Christ would free us from the Devil (Pharaoh) and the World/Death (Egypt) through His mighty act of power (death, resurrection and ascension – which is the enthronement of the Great and Conquering King).  This is also warfare imagery against the enemies of God’s people.  What did the Israelites sing after their deliverance? this: 

    “I will sing unto the Lord
    for he is highly exalted
    Both horse and driver
    he has hurled into the sea.
    …The Lord is a warrior, 
    the Lord is His name…”

    The whole victory song (please read the whole song in Exodus 15) is total and complete battle imagery – the great Warrior King (YHWH) fights on behalf of His people and conquers; Pharaoh and his army are drowned in the sea; He consumed them like stubble; YHWH stretched out His arm and the earth swallowed His enemies, etc….All of this concerns God battling the enemies and oppressors of Israel and, of course, Paul teaches us that all of this is symbolic of what Christ did for us on the cross and resurrection and that the waters the Israelites passed through were a type of the baptismal waters we pass through and, once we pass through the baptismal waters, the victory song of Exodus 15 becomes ours too.

    Onto Joshua: Who leads the chidden of Israel into the promise land – Moses or Joshua? Joshua of course. Why? Because Joshua is the exact Hebrew name of Jesus (in the LXX this is easily seen where the Greek name of Joshua is JESUS). So, what are we to learn form this? many things but, for this discussion, Joshua is a type or prototype of Jesus and what does Joshua do? He leads the children of Israel into the promised land through conquering the enemies in the Land.  What are we, today, supposed to learn from this? Does the historical fact that Joshua lead the children of Israel to decimate Ai really mean anything for me today? Of course it does because all off this was written down for our sake, as Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 10:11).  Time, however does not allow me to extrapolate the typology here but, suffice it to say, the whole book of Joshua is concerned with warfare and conquest – all types for us to learn from in our Christian journey to overcome the passions and obtain the virtues.

    King David was a warrior King and, under his reign, the empire expanded to it’s furthest limits through military conquest. Again, why do we care about this? Because David is a type or symbol of Christ who would conquer and, through spiritual conquest, expand the Kingdom of Heaven throughout the earth (read Psalm 2 to see the resurrection, ascension and coronation of the Great King and the Father giving Him all the nations of the earth because of His victory).

    For brevities sake, let me skip through the rest of the OT and come to the new:

    What did Jesus say? Let’s look:

    “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out” John 12:31

    “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” Mark 3:27

    “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.” Revelation 3:21


    “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Col. 2:15


    “The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” 1 John 3:8

    I could quote more and tons of the Fathers but I will stop here and let these examples suffice.

    So, the overarching soteriological motif of the bible is God battling our enemies and winning the victory for us; God is for us, not against us. God is not our problem – sin, death and the devil are our problems.

    OK, so what about the images of sacrifice, expiation, propitiation, wrath bearing, “on our behalf”, etc, etc….how does this fit in with the meta-theme of “Christus Victor”?

    Here is how:

    It is all a part of the organic whole – it is all part of the larger story and not compartmentalized and dissected into pieces as scholasticism does.

    Did Christ bear the wrath of God? Yes. How? By taking death for us (which, according to Athanasius, death is the “wrath” of God). Like Fr. Stephen pointed out, however, we should not view the “wrath” of God as human wrath. Just like the Bible describes God with pinions (feathers, wings) and we understand that God does not really have wings, so we must understand that “wrath” is a human term being ascribed to God but it is not to be understood in the human sense of it.

    Did Christ do this in our stead or on our behalf? Yes. The greek word is “huper” and it means, “in the stead of” or “on the behalf of”.  Christ took death for us – in our place, on our behalf.  It was because of Him doing this that He destroyed death.  Gregory of Nyssa says He (God) tricked the devil and exchanged Himself for us but death could not hold life and that is how Jesus destroyed death.  

    Did Christ suffer the penalty of our sin? Yes. Death was the penalty of sin (Romans 6:23) and Christ bore that for us (so here is the “penal” part).

    All of these things, and more, are subsumed under the kaleidoscope of “Christus Victor”.

    The Fathers, and the scripture, do not compartmentalize as we do in the west and see the atoning work of Christ as one organic whole – He (Christ) overcame the world, defeated sin, the devil and death by his vicarious and sacrificial death on the cross and His glorious resurrection from the dead and then He ascended to the Father where He received all authority in heaven and in earth and He received the name that is above all names. Why? Because He conquered:

    ““Do not weep!” The elder tells John, “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed (conquered, overcame, won the battle, “nika”). He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Revelation 5:5  

    For me, “Christus Victor” is the gem on which the many facets of sacrifice, expiation, ransom, wrath bearing, etc… all rest on. PSA is a large distortion of an actually very beautiful thing God did FOR US and on our behalf. God is not, nor ever has been, our problem – death is our problem.

    I hope I explained this well and this makes some sense. As Fr. Stephen said, we must see the whole scope of redemptive history from beginning to the end. In the beginning, we sinned and fell into death which became our prison. Christ came and conquered death for us and freed us from it’s shackles. God was never mad at us – God has always deeply loved us and has gone “above and beyond” to rescue us and unite us back to Him.

  63. Thnx, I like eastern theology , Zizioulas being a favorite , I get creation ex nihilo, but the continuing disclosure of God throughout his covenants are revealing , ‘ Jealousy’, of his people , his setting of Idolatry as adultery , a lovers mess, …, his ‘ taking on us’, his whole Kenosis , ….., always proving his love , and yes , sometimes , defining his discipline in ‘ terms of moral rebuke’, … We can’t ‘ hurt’ God , but can hurt ourselves, ( or sin hurting ourselves and others) , which he cares enough about to become ‘ me’……, not sure if that qualifies as hurting God .,,,,in an ontological/ existential category….., but it seems more specific in the Bible….,

  64. PJ,
    I suppose that a fair amount of my objection to the grammar of merit, is its complete absence within the Biblical narrative. Like the PSA, it also has no particular relationship with the scope of the narrative. It’s like studying the Scriptures after reading something that’s been translated four different times and then brought back. The grammar of merit has a history in the West – but it seems to me (and always has) – to have been off the map.

    On the matter of our nature and activity viz. grace – the Eastern fathers clearly appropriated the language of neo-Platonism, and reworked the understanding of the passions, vices, etc. St. Maximus and others continued to ground all of that back into the language of Trinitarian/Christological thought which has kept Orthodox work in all of this working in a grammar similar to the Scriptures and consonant with the early Councils.

    If the grammar of merit had not become the major grammar of Rome at a certain point, it would deserve no more than a footnote in Christian history. I still think it to be beside the point and that Rome is increasingly coming around to the Eastern form of theological grammar. I think merit will eventually achieve its footnote status. But I was wrong a couple of times last year – so I could be wrong again. 🙂

  65. Thnx Patrick, it’s not ‘ death ‘ that’s the prob , it’s the whatever behind it, sin that induces the terminology of substitution …., that’s what I mean by going beyond mortality , I’m not hung up on psa, , even before, as a non traditional Christian , everyone knows Jesus is simple and is love , .,,,usually the wrath need was to cleanse the conscience , so forensically , it felt fine ( blame Someone else)…,, because we had no sacraments

  66. Jeff,
    It is here that the fathers press the imagery and understanding of death much further than mere bodily mortality. Philautia “love of self” is often described as the root of sin – but the nature of this is a turning away from the proper direction of our nature – away from God who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life. Thus the turn to the self is itself “death” a turning away from Life. Additionally, the Fathers see us moving constantly between poles of “pain” and “pleasure.” Our desires became disordered, and instead of being pointed at God, they are directed towards lesser things. But since they were created for God – our desires have an infinite capacity and can never be satisfied with something finite. So we pursue finite pleasures and are not satisfied so we have pain. And we flee our pain and rush again towards some finite pleasure. This cycle is what the fathers call the “passions.” We are enslaved to them.

    Sin/death is this fundamental brokenness within us, such that we no longer act in accord with our nature, but pursue other things for which we weren’t created.

    This whole process is “death at work in us” to use St. Paul’s language.

    Christ enters fully into our existence, embracing even death (yet without sin – meaning that He never succumbs to the brokenness that marks our existence). And He is victorious over death. The resurrection is on the one hand a victory over mere physical death, but it is not a return to a merely earthly existence. It is also a true victory, a fulfillment of human nature, in which he completes that for which we were created – utterly uniting our humanity to His divinity. Thus earth is united to heaven. All of the “oppositions” that St Maximus categorizes are overcome. We begin the same journey now through His grace given particularly at first in Baptism and continued in the fullness of our life of faith.

  67. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for correcting my misuse of the term “essential” with regard to God’s self-emptying. When it comes to theology, I am a simple-minded. I only meant that love is “basic” to God as we understand Him (Father-Son-Spirit always in self-emptying love – of course freely so – how could God be anything other than free?). I know next to nothing of terms like “essence” and “energies”, poor RC that I am. I am simply full of joy that God invites me into His love.

    I have some empathy for what Chris wrote, if I understand it correctly. I’m not sure how many in my Catholic parish could readily give a good answer to how Christ’s death brings us to salvation. (I think I can now that I watched “The Gospel in Chairs”. :-))

    Although there may be some who truly do not know, there are many of us who may simply become tongue-tied if someone asked us – because we aren’t usually called upon to explain such things in a few sentences. And yet I think it is important that we are able to do so.

    Today I was having spiritual discussion with several friends of different spiritual backgrounds and my Jewish friend raised the question of whether God is good – and if so, why He does not stop evil. It was a great grace to be able to offer a clear response of a few sentences that she could relate to.

    Our faith becomes a light to the world when we can do this. Extensive theological discussion is of interest only to a few. So I thank you for the clear, condensed versions you offer as well as the deeper expositions.

  68. Mary,
    Not everyone is a theologian, much less a preacher. I doubt my parents could have or would have said more than that “He died for me.” The Creed hardly says more, nor should we demand more of everyone.

    But there are many who can and should be able to say more – or, at least, if they are going to say more – to say it more or less correctly (not precisely, but correctly).

    I felt really “picky” to correct the language on essence. And in conversation I probably wouldn’t. But I’m always aware that we have a larger reading audience and I try to keep us “correct.” We’re doubtless less than precise.

    The God is good question, I think, is perhaps the most important pastoral question (or theological question with the most direct pastoral application). I think it took me a good while in my life to be convinced of it. That God was God I would admit, but I really wasn’t sure about good. Some very simple people of deep faith taught me that lesson. One of them, my father-in-law, tolerated my arguing with him about it for years. I’m so glad I learned it in his lifetime. Those last number of years we enjoyed argument free conversations in which we simply shared how good God is and were always blessed. Another was a cousin of mine how was crippled by a terrible childhood onset rheumatoid arthritis, but lived to be 45. She knew pain and crippling for all those years. But we became close in her last years. She once said that she would awake in the mornings and “curse God for creating me…” and then she added…”but that was before I knew He was good.” And she shared more of her internal story and coming to believe that He is good. I would be ashamed to think of her looking at me today were I to ever say God was other than good.

    What a joy for you to witness to that. May God strengthen all of us in such sweet knowledge!

  69. Thnx Father Stephen, you spend a lot of time hashing these things out, glad you like this stuff …, I understand it’s the Self ( ontological ), one that opposes the Other, and yes , it’s the whole Adamic redemption in Christ that keeps it simple , ……..some attribute the Fall as just mortality without all the drama and weight that Paul puts on ‘ the wage paid by sin is death’, , ‘Death in fact is not only a punishment of sin, but it’s telos , it’s end and consummation ‘….., death reveals what sin is …., that’s what I was getting at what’s ‘behind ‘ …, ‘ mortality ( fall),

  70. Jeff,
    The movement from a forensic understanding to an ontological understanding probably saved me as a Christian. It occurred when I was in seminary, back in the late 70’s. It led inexorably to Orthodoxy, by a very long circuitous route – a route that is basically my life story – all that I value and hold to be true. So, hashing these things out has been a life work, a “working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.” Making sense of it and sharing it with others is how I pay it forward. Others made very brave and lonely decisions that made a path to Orthodoxy possible for people like me. I owe them my life and my faith.

    That’s sort of a way of saying that this is more than theology for me. Or that theology is truly life-giving. And that conquers death! Glory to God!

  71. I’ve never once doubted that God is good. I’m just a little less sure about myself 😛

  72. Father, bless! One little correction needed in your excellent post: In a couple of places you inadvertently wrote “Dead Sea” where you obviously meant the “Red Sea.”

    Christ is risen!

  73. Karen,
    Thanks! It’s probably a Freudian slip. I’ve been very sick the past few days…

  74. Seems when one goes deep enough, there are allusions in allegory for Origen ( commentary on Romans ) , Athanasius and Cyril for debt, sacrifice and victim, ( sphagion) , even speaks ( Origen ), that God was bound by his decree of death to all men ( satisfied the debt to Death), …,, just goes to show that the concept of penal sub has roots , …, but this is harmless if understood in allegorical context , ….,

  75. There is one aspect that I don’t see explained in the narrative of the destruction of sin and death. That is the forgiveness of sins. Yes, I agree that God can forgive anyone’s sins who is repentant. As other commentators pointed out, Christ forgave people’s sins without any sacrifice.

    However…in the liturgy we have:
    Take, eat, this is my Body which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins and Drink of it all of you; this is my Blood of the new Covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

    So, the cross IS linked to forgiveness of sins in some way. If it is not through PSA, then how do we understand this?

  76. John A: I may be speaking out of turn, but I suspect Isaiah 53 answers some of your question (our questions) about how the cross is linked to forgiveness. Consider some of the words:

    “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
    yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
    But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
    We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
    and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

    This famous “suffering servant” prophecy includes language of the sin offerings of the Old Testament as well as the scapegoat, on whose head the sins of the nation were confessed (i.e., their sins were laid on him).

    I notice that it says, “we consider him punished by God,stricken by him, and afflicted, but…”

    Even the prophet seems tempted by the notion of punishment, but indicates that there is something else going on. That something else has to do with healing us and carrying away our iniquity.

  77. John A (and Ralph),
    I understand the question. It is, forgive me, because the connection between death and sin is not clearly understood. Christ, for example, said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” And it caused a stir. And then he changed it to “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And offered the observation, “Which is easier to say?”

    But it has to be seen that both are in fact saying the same thing. “Your sins,” is frankly the whole of our human condition. We have become very accustomed to hearing in the word “sin” only a moral content. I generally see no moral content in it at all. I consider “moral” to be a non-category for the Christian faith. Morality is for atheists and secularists. You don’t need a God to believe in morality. There is nothing at all inherent Christian about morality.

    We think the consequences and nature of sin are much more serious than the infractions of rules. Sin is death. Our problem is that we don’t believe this. We think our “moral failings” are merely infractions of the rules, legalities. Their not. They are actions that unite us with death. Sin is killing us. All of it. Sin is idolatry and deadly.

    In the Orthodox Pascha service we sing, “Let us call brothers even those that hate us! and forgive all by the resurrection!” That last statement makes no sense other than in a model where sin and death are the same thing.

    Christ not only “forgives” our sins on the Cross – He kills them! He takes them into Himself and carries them into the grave. It’s all there in Romans, but we’ve been so blinded by the legacy of bad theology that we don’t see it:

    knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. (Rom 6:6-7 NKJ)

    There in Romans 6, no less! The account I’ve been giving viz sin and death are thoroughly Biblical. But people need to hold it in mind as they reread a lot of stuff. It’s there in plain sight!

    I am forgiven because I am united to Christ (in His death through Baptism). Thus, I died. And I am forgiven because, united to Christ (in His resurrection through Baptism), I now live! But the life that I now live is not I, but Christ in me!

    And that’s Galatians reasoning. It’s there repeatedly.

  78. Do take care of yourself, Father! I would hate to think that responding to my silly questions has kept you from getting much needed rest. I will pray for your recovery.

    One of the many important things I have learned here has been to move away from the more forensic understanding of sin. Someone recently suggested that you might write about confession and I think that could be helpful (even though I’m RC).

    As long as I look at sin as mere breaking of rules, I can easily slide into complacency once I have learned how to follow the rules – or just confess when I break them. However, if I begin looking at sin as anything that separates me from God, I find that there is much deeper work to be done.

    Of course Christ has already accomplished all of my salvation – but I need to completely open myself to Him. I cannot be content with salvation as a few hours out of my week. Every moment that I am not actively living in unity with Christ is a moment in which I am potentially slipping toward death.

    I do not say this with fear for we have been given the Holy Spirit that we might “pray without ceasing”. I do not mean, of course, constant repetition of words, but our hearts ever united with Christ – in whatever manner our state in life allows.

  79. Chris,
    Though I am wired in a non-chart-like manner, I appreciate your work and thinking this through. I would add something along the lines of “extrinsic” salvation in the PSA and “intrinsic” in Orthodoxy.

    Of course, many Protestant models add “sanctification” as a sort of intrinsic after thought (because there’s so much Scripture about internal change). But this is made somehow ad extra – not an inherent part of our salvation. It’s convenient for their thought system, but in no way warranted by Scripture or Tradition.

    Justification/Sanctification/Salvation/illumination, etc. in Orthodoxy is all one thing. In fact, all these words, and more, are invoked in the service of Holy Baptism.

  80. Chris, the only issue is that these terms, expiation, debt, price, sacrifice, eg, greek Lutron means in Origen when he writes on Eph. 1;7, ….will redeem as giving as price (lutron),

    lutrotes in scripture means “buying of captive”, buying by giving money, lutron is applied to a sacrifice which serves as a ransom

    tho interesting , it excludes every connotation of a price paid to someone

    ” the Son of Man will give his life as a ransom for many ( Lutron)

    Substitution has to be understood as solidarity “acting in his favor”,

    So, the lingo is there, its all how one uses it, Reformers never pulled it out of a hat

  81. Interestingly enough, all these concepts and terms we’ve been throwing around – ransom, debt, rescue, payment, renewal are all terms found in On The Incarnation. However, no one image dominates the other. There is a refreshing balance and integration of the images. No image is made to dominate at the expense of the others. That’s what they are just images for what Christ has done. One thing St Athanasius makes very clear – the debt was paid to the ontological reality of death and not the Father. No divine punishment was involved and the sacrifice was a voluntary offering of life to the Father.

  82. The ontological reality of death ( sin is the sting, all grown up becomes Death , telos = seperation , Death /Christ incorporates even absolute seperation from from God ), that’s a good way to see it , maybe that’s what Father Stephen meant by it too, …, I can see why Universalism is an expression of many orthodox thinkers ( not everyone, like Maximus) tangent …but , …., thnx Chris

  83. Jeff,
    Yes. And the Universalism thing is indeed a common sentiment in the East (though not a doctrine that is taught), because there is much in the Eastern understanding of these things (particularly in an ontological approach) that drives in that direction. It has the correct position, I think, of saying that the non-salvation of anyone clearly runs contrary to the revealed will of God and His purpose. It doesn’t say that it isn’t true, but puts the onus of the matter on us to explain how everyone is not saved. And that, I think, is the correct approach.

  84. Father,

    I’m only familiar with the Catholic tradition of moral theology, but it is definitely and thoroughly “ontological.” Man is made for union with God, in whom is found the fullness of life. That which frustrates this end necessarily entails privation of being.

    Indeed, I would argue not that morality is not Christian, but rather that all (authentic) morality is Christian, or at least proto-Christian. That is, “natural morality” is a kind of seedbed for the Word, a platform upon which the edifice of divine revelation is constructed. There seems to be a widespread intuition that humans are meant for happiness, and that this happiness is not located in particular goods, but in the universal good — that is, Goodness itself. It is further recognized that Goodness, Truth, and Being are all ultimately “convertible,” and that they are identical with “God.” It follows that that which is evil — that which frustrates man’s attainment of his final end — is not simply a legal infraction, but an existential deprivation resultant from lack of communion with the Fountain of Reality. It also follows that man is ultimately incapable of grasping this Good on his own — of achieving fellowship with the One Who Is — and that he is furthermore a prisoner to entropic forces, both physical and “moral.” The virtuous pagan can arrive at all of these conclusions through the exercise of reason, albeit usually with an unfortunate admixture of error. Thus “natural morality” (if you will) acts in harmony with divine revelation.

    All of the virtues which man can cultivate — fortitude, temperance, prudence, justice — are supernaturalized through grace, insofar as they are directed not toward natural ends, but toward union with God. This is what we Latins mean when we speak of “grace perfecting nature.” There is not a division between that which is “natural” and that which is “supernatural.” Rather, the grace of God pervades all things, elevating them and directing them toward himself. Thus a simple act of virtue — say, the exercise of fortitude involved in running three miles every morning — becomes in a sense “divinized,” for one is not only seeking bodily health, but one is honoring the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and a gift from the Creator.

    Moral theologians in the Catholic Church since Vatican II have worked hard to return to a Scriptural and patristic understanding of morality, and especially the cardinal and theological virtues. They are especially interested in the trinitarian and christological dimensions of morality. I think that you would actually be quite amenable to many of their ideas.

    I hope you are feeling better!

  85. It’s hard for me, like some to absolutely run with universalism , ( maybe because certain differences among the Fathers on it, and like Zizioulas says, it ‘ necessarizes’ God..that comes close to romanticizing Platonism ., but the gospel in chairs shows almost irresistible grace in the pursuance of man ( and Brian Daley on the ” hope of the early church), along with Ware calls it a hope…..,

  86. Jeff,
    Met. Kallistos is always extremely “circumspect” in his pronouncements. But I agree with him – all we can do is “hope.” More than that has not been given to us. But that hope is not ill-founded, nor does it run contrary to the Divine Revelation. I am troubled more by those who run so quickly to the “necessity” of eternal damnation.

    Such a thing either reveals a very intellectually driven theology (with possibly wrong intellectual assumptions), or a heart that is in need of healing. And for most of us, it is the heart.

  87. PJ,
    Obviously I don’t oppose “morality.” But I’ve generally reserved the word to refer to the sense of “correct behavior in accordance with some accepted set of rules.” When such actions are “merely moral” and not truly grounded in our being, they are a formula for how to become a “white-washed sepulchre.” But I know we agree about this.

  88. I guess keeping it an open question wouldn’t be too presumptious , …, there’s just no authority that can claim how things are going to be , otherwise it sounds cultish , like I follow this man or that man in his declarations.

  89. Father,

    True, true. If you ever have a spare moment, you might read Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), St. John Paul II’s encyclical on moral theology. You wouldn’t agree with everything, but I believe you’d enjoy large portions of it.

  90. I’m wondering if the parable of the 11th hour workers that figures so prominently in the Paschal Homily of our Father among the saints, John Chrysostom is applicable here?

  91. Michael, I think it’s clear ( for me, thnx to Chris and Father Stephen), that Jesus saves period , and even can post mortem…( Zizioulas holds freedom to be constituent of our imageness , not extra , that’s why no one can say for sure what’s going to happen , but The Will is there

  92. The reason I brought up the 11th hour workers is because I don’t know which scandalizes some Protestants more: the idea that one could loose one’s salvation by turning away or the idea that God loves Mr. X enough to save him when “everybody knows” what a terrible sinner he is?

    I don’t know all the theology and in this case I don’t really care to. What I do know is the Jesus is relentless in His love and it would take a will of unimaginable hardness to resist forever–if that is what we are given.

    I can’t really accept full blown universalism though. My parish priest a sober and learned man with many years experience recently preacher on the Judgement. He basically said: there is a judgement and some won’t make it.

  93. Michael, my parish priest didn’t even do the memorial of St Catherine of Sienna this morning. I prefer to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling

  94. I believe that all are saved. But as to whether all accept salvation, that is another question…

    There is no one that God does not love enough to welcome into His presence, into His joy.

    But love cannot compel and still be love. If God forced us to love Him (or each other), would we still call it “love”? I don’t think so.

    Christ has already accomplished our salvation and our sins cannot undo that. However, our sinfulness can blind us to this reality so that we experience darkness while living in the Light.

  95. Well said Mary.
    Michael, I recall the very explanation of how the Ego can strive as an eternal match for even God and His love by elder Aimilianos.

  96. Dino,
    Yes to Elder Aimilianos. The whole “mystery” of the ultimate turn of salvation is not a mystery of “how things will be.” It is a mystery regarding the human person. That mystery is the question of how we come to be what we are, how we change, etc. That our personhood has an “ultimacy” about it is preserved in the unspoken, unanswered ultimate state of things. We cannot say how things will be because we cannot fathom the ultimacy of the human person. God has made known His will: “that all may be saved.” But any proclamation that this “wins” does not give the room and respect to the human person which God Himself apparently does. It’s troubling –

  97. Another thought occurred to me…

    It seems that the penal substitution model supposes that Christ’s death and Resurrection somehow needed to take place for God’s sake, i.e. to appease His wrath, etc. This we do not believe.

    Could it be said that God’s forgiveness of us (and the destruction of our death) was already complete before the historical coming of Christ but that WE needed to witness His love, death and Resurrection to know and believe in the truth already held in store for us?

    I realize that perhaps I am treading where I should not go by conjecturing about God’s reality outside of what is revealed at the human level. Forgive me, if that is what I am doing.

    My reason for raising this question is that is seems that nonbelievers will sometimes look upon our belief in Pascha and say, “What has really changed here? How have sin and death been defeated?” From all outward appearances, sin still rules our world and people die just as much as they did before.

    I am not suggesting that Pascha was simply a “reminder” and nothing more. Rather its emergence into our history reflected a reality that already WAS in God’s eternal Being – but its occurrence in time ruptured a barrier that our sin had created between the reality of God and the experience of man.

    When our vision is still clouded by sin (temporarily or in rejection of Christ), the experience of man says the barrier still holds. It seems that nothing has happened and death still reigns.

    In faith, with our eyes open to Pascha, we see that nothing could be further from the truth. We know the greater Truth and proclaim it, longing for all to open their eyes and see.

    Forgive my foolish ramblings. Please correct my errors.

  98. Dear Fr Stephen:

    Christ is Risen!

    Nicely written. I always enjoy your articles. I just wanted to comment on a few things. My specialization is patristic exegesis, and my dissertation is on sacrificial motifs in the Greek Fathers.

    First, just wanted to mention that the use of the term “skopos” in biblical exegesis was really developed by Origen, and then chapioned by St Athanasius against the Arians. So it is more an Alexandrian approach. St Cyril of Alexandria used it thoroughly in his debates with the Antiochenes Nestorius and the Three Chapters. Not to say the term wasn’t also used by Antiochene exegetes, but simply that Alexandrians really defined it as such. Of course, the concept itself is found even earlier, for example in St Irenaeus, who uses the term “hypothesis” with the same general intent.

    I also wanted to add that, in several of the Fathers who exegete the Old Testament, all of the sacrifices of the Tabernacle/Temple are fulfilled in Christ. Origen is perhaps the first to state this, but it is repeated by others, including St Cyril of Alexandria. Thus, all the sin-sacrifices point to an aspect of the work of Christ. And you are certainly correct that nowhere does the OT connect these sacrifices with the wrath of God, or with the pagan concept of assuaging His wrath. Rather, sin-sacrifices have as their purpose reconciliation or restoration of communion with God, whom man has turned from (not the other way around). What is perceived as God’s wrath, according to the Macarian homilies, is the perception of our estrangement from Him due to our sins. God’s holiness means sin cannot stand in His presence. When we sin, the perception of His holiness results in a feeling of being repelled from Him; but in fact, He does not push us away, but desires that we “turn from [our sinful] ways and live.” (Ez 18:23)

    As there are numerous soteriological images in the Bible, each points to a different yet overlapping aspect of what the God-Man Jesus Christ has accomplished for us. One of these images is “mercy-seat.” Christ is not only “our Pascha,” but is also our “hilasterion,”(Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2, 4:10) (sometimes translated “propitiation” or “atonement,” but in fact it is the Septuagint term for the mercy-seat on the Ark of the Covenant on which the sacrificed blood was sprinkled on Yom Kippur). In a general sense, “hilasterion” can simply mean “sacrifice.” If we take this word in its technical sense, it means that Christ’s sacrifice effects communion with God, since the mercy-seat is where the glory of God appeared and spoke to Moses and Aaron. In addition, the verb form (“hilaskomai”) in the LXX almost always has humans as the object (middle voice), and refers to our “expiation” or cleansing from sin.

    The Epistle to the Hebrews most closely connects the work of Christ to Yom Kippur, comparing what Christ has done to the cultic act of the High-priest on that annual solemn feast. But in Hebrews, Christ is depicted not simply as the offering, but as the offerer–the High-Priest–who represents or collectively embodies the People of God as they offer worship to Him. Thus the NT depicts Christ’s offering as a mediation between God and Man, a mediation which occurs by the very fact of the Incarnation (Heb 2:10-18). This is another aspect missing from many atonement theories.

  99. mary benton, let us not forget the Incarnation part of the mystery. He took on our flesh and our nature and still has it. The “and still has it” part is easy to forget it seems to me.

    Plus, Jesus did not proclaim, “It is finished” until he died. He completed the human part of the mystery, in a sense. It is that, as St. Athanasius points out that kept us from sliding into further toward non-existence.

    His Resurrection and Ascension opened the gates of Paradise or re-opened them to us.

  100. Michael,

    Good point.

    Perhaps my point (if it needs to be made at all) would be that God did not need to be changed. The psalmist wrote (#136) “His mercy endures forever” before the coming of Christ – and of course, it did and it does.

    God is not subject to human history BUT – as you pointed out – He subjected Himself to it in the Incarnation. He gave Himself over to bear the limitations of our human historical experience – not because God would be incomplete (or His wrath unavenged) without doing so but because we would. And He love us enough to do that for us.

  101. Boyd,
    Good questions. I’m working on an article right now on Confession and forgiveness. It should be helpful.

  102. Hi fatherstephen and all,

    I really enjoyed this article and the notion of the “scope” of Scripture but as a Protestant for whom the notion of penal substitutionary atonement has been uncomfortable for some time I was interested to read the comment “I have written previously about the lack of Scriptural warrant for this teaching” I’ve scanned the comments above and did a quick search of this blog but could not find the particular article or entry. Could you post a link to it?

  103. Father Stephen,

    I am a father to two young (early elementary school age) children. As an “evangelical” seeking to integrate the mind of Orthodoxy into the working out of my salvation, I have found your posts and book very helpful in leading me there.

    My question now is how to bring this truth down to the level of my children. We live in a society (schools, government, etc.) whose institutions are ordered around “morality” and rule-keeping (or breaking) and its subsequent penalties. “You do the crime, you do the time.” How can I instead explain the notion of sin as disintegration and “moving toward non-existence” to children whose minds are yet mostly capable only of concrete thought? I found myself discomfited recently reading to my children a book (several decades old) explaining the Christian faith when it declared that “God must punish our sin.” Hmm, really? As parents we try to explain and live out (hopefully! Christ have mercy!) the understanding that discipline is meant to correct and to teach our children. It is not to punish them. But I wonder sometimes how much sense this makes to a six-year old brain. When one child offends the other and I send him to timeout (or whatever other consequence seems most appropriate for the circumstance), how can I effectively lead him to see it not as a penalty (which I think is the default comprehension) but as ultimately intending his salvation? I fear that “Son, I’m hoping to guide you away from non-existence” will not resonate very well at this age. 🙂

  104. TimofheNorth
    Alaska? I spent time there many moons ago. I’m a grandfather now but raising two girls I recall some similar struggles. You’re right ,they are too young for abstract thought. But if you discipline them you can always go up to them after the timeout, etc., and hug and kiss them reaffirming your love for them and giving a reason for their timeout. Seeing their earthly father respond in this way will aid them in concrete ways they can understand… to see how their heavenly Father deals with us. Fortunately, also there are many more Orthodox books now written for children available for parents, such as Conciliar press, I believe now Ancient Faith Press. Check out other Orthodox book sites too.

  105. Alas when I read comments of learned and faithful men such as Fr. Joseph I often wonder if there can ever be an adequate expression of the Orthodox faith in English.

    English is a beautiful and expressive language when used rightly and certainly capable of being expressive of the faith, but what we speak and use today is so debased and getting worse and their remains so much that is not even in English yet. And our religious vocabulary is so un-Orthodox.

    Lord, please send the workers to your field here and have mercy on us.

  106. Fr. Joseph,
    Thank you for your careful comment. On the skopos of Scripture and the “Antiochene School,” I was following Eugen Pentiuc’s analysis (The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, p. 173).

    While Origen certainly speaks of the skopos, he tends to mean more the Divine “intent” rather than a broad narrative context. St. Athanasius (Alexandria) uses it in this latter sense in refuting Arius. The whole Antiochene/Alexandria thing is overdone, no doubt. But for many of the Alexandrians, the focus was on words rather than narrative. While the Antiochene exegetes were more strongly associated with this latter approach. And it’s certainly true that the same is called the Apostolic Hypothesis in Irenaeus. I think its also something of the same idea behind St. Paul’s admonition to Timothy regarding the “hypotyposis” of sound words. It is, in fact, the Tradition.

  107. Regarding Isaiah 53, St. Matthew observes in Matt. 8:17, upon the healing of St. Peter’s mother in law of a fever and Christ’s healing of demon-possessed, and illnesses “with a word” was, “in order that what was spoken of through the Prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled, ‘He Himself took our infirmities and removed our diseases’.” There was no substitutionary paradigm, it was out of the love of Christ and His healing was in the same manner as His forgiveness: with a word.

  108. Steve,
    It’s one more nail in the coffin! The Penal substitionary model is simply not scriptural – even contrary to Scripture. It misreads what is there, and ignores other things, importing a foreign scheme into Scripture. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.

  109. I don’t know how many times I read that passage over 30 years and didn’t see that. Orthodoxy: all the scriptures you didn’t underline…. 🙂

  110. Wow! Matt 8:17 is an epiphany for me as well. Great insight! Based on this logic, could we not say that when Jesus forgave the sins of the adulterous woman & paralytic that Isaiah 53:5 was fulfilled as well?

    Could the Isaiah passage have a “fulfillment” every time Holy Unction and Confession are administered? We participate in its fulfillment sacramentally.

  111. This was a real gem for me:

    “Additionally, the Fathers see us moving constantly between poles of “pain” and “pleasure.” Our desires became disordered, and instead of being pointed at God, they are directed towards lesser things. But since they were created for God – our desires have an infinite capacity and can never be satisfied with something finite. So we pursue finite pleasures and are not satisfied so we have pain. And we flee our pain and rush again towards some finite pleasure. This cycle is what the fathers call the “passions.” We are enslaved to them.”

    thanks Fr. Stephen

  112. TimOfTheNorth,

    My advice for you is simple…and hard at the same time. One of the very best things we can do as parents is be a good example. Specifically relating to your question of how to transmit to them this idea of sin-as-death rather than sin-as-morality, I will say this:

    I am the father of 3 young children (8,10,14) and also living in the North of North America. There came a point a few years ago when something triggered a change in me. I began to understand that raising them was MUCH less about a power struggle and much more about loving them.

    For example, if they get up before the designated wake-up time, my former stance was that they are robbing me of my quiet time – and they’re breaking the rules! I’m so angry! If you get up early, you’ll find an angry father! Bad child! Getting up early HURTS children!

    If on the other hand I take the proper view that being their father means laying my life down for my children, then my lack of prep time is not a good reason for enforcing this rule. OK, then what is? Why not let them get up with the sun? (Those who live in the North know that this is in no way feasible in the summertime at 3am.)

    The issue then becomes about them: their need for sleep, and even the stability of a regular waking time. The focus changes to them and what they need. Their “sin” hurts them, and it is then no longer about breaking a rule and disrespecting their father, but about sinning against their mind and body which needs more rest than they are allowing.

    This change in perspective also changes me – from a vengeful, angry God to a loving father who is looking out for their best interest. With this change in attitude, I’m much more likely to gently remind them to go back to bed rather than to come after them like a prison guard.

    And in this way I am teaching them by example about sin being something that hurts them, that kills them – some sins do so in bigger and faster ways than others, but it’s all sin leading to death, and not a breaking of the rules.

    Hope this helps.

  113. Thanks, Dean and Drewster2000, for your reminders of the priority of love in parenting. I certainly have had many opportunities to re-learn this lesson.

    (For the record, “OfTheNorth” refers to MN–“The star of the North”–and not to AK. I apologize for the confusion!)

  114. I have the same problem concerning the raising of children, particularly as my wife is a Western Christian, very moralistic, and blame/guilt orientated.

    What I have ended up telling my oldest son (who is 7) I shall share, though I am unsure whether it has any merit.

    My son is currently learning to improve his writing. He has fresh in his mind the idea of practice, and how it makes you better at things, and makes those things easier. I told him, therefore, that every time he does something naughty, he is practicing being naughty; he is getting better at it, and it will be easier for him in the future. I told him that the thing to do is to practice being good, and to avoid being naughty even when that is easier. I also told him that when I tell him off or punish him, it is not because I like doing so, but so that being naughty would be more scary, costly, less easy, etc. for him, and so I am helping him practice more the good than the bad behaviour.

  115. Yannis, thanks for sharing. I think there is wisdom in how you handle this.

    As perhaps it should, this existential struggle of parenting well has provided me with much food for theological thought. This past Sunday morning I again heard the idea of “appeasing God’s wrath” expressed a couple of times. What came to my mind was that if I am to be becoming more holy–more like the Father–this means that I, too, must become more wrathful as I mature in my faith. For the wrath of God against sinners is an expression of His holiness. Even allowing for the qualifications that many in my circles would raise differentiating God’s wrath from purely human wrath, this seems to be a very upside-down picture of the Christian life. When my children sin, ought I also to need my wrath to be appeased before I forgive? This seems preposterous! I think of those men and women in our community we respect for their holiness and faith. They are not wrathful but rather merciful and gentle. In them we see Christ and thus we see the Father. Certainly they may be quite severe toward those habits of sin that they see destroying those whom they love, but towards the sinner they are patient and kind. These are whom I wish to imitate. May God forgive me for needing to be appeased–and for imagining that He needed to be appeased!

  116. Love this post Father. Thank you. I do have a question that closely pertains to this. I consider myself an ex-Evangelical and I’m an inquirer of The Church. In my Evangelical upbringing, I was of course taught PSA. So when I sinned, say I lied or actively engaged lustful thoughts, some time later, I would pray and in my prayers my chief concern was to be DECLARED innocent of those specific sins. Thus my prayers amounted to an urgent appeal for God to forgive me of those specific sins. I know you’ve written extensively about sin being not just specific things we do, but rather, more akin to a disease that infects us. In light of that, along with rejecting PSA (which I firmly agree with you in doing so), I’m wondering how that would change the prayers of someone like me who’s used to praying for the forgiveness of specific sins? In other words, for an Orthodox Christian who rejects PSA and understands that sin is a disease, what do that person’s prayers look like, especially in the context of the times (quite often I’m guessing) when they know they’ve sinned?

  117. Daniel,
    I think the hardest part of this is coming to believe and trust that God actually loves us and that forgiveness is given to us. When in such circumstances I certainly pray and deal with specifics – but in my prayer and thoughts I’m honest and recognize that its a symptom – so I go deeper than the circumstance and ask for healing and transformation of my true self in Christ.

  118. Thank you Fr. I so appreciate your thoughts and advice! They are always most helpful and encouraging!

  119. Tim,
    I actually reverted to Orthodoxy (having been Evangelical for most of my adult life) when I became a father, and it was no coincidence!

  120. Daniel,
    The prayers are indeed different. I remember an occasion a few years ago, when attending my wife’s Evangelical church that one of the pastors, an ex-missionary to Russia, expressed his distress and sadness for the Russians who “just keep praying ‘Lord have mercy'” – to him it didn’t make sense.

  121. Father says:

    I think the hardest part of this is coming to believe and trust that God actually loves us and that forgiveness is given to us. When in such circumstances I certainly pray and deal with specifics – but in my prayer and thoughts I’m honest and recognize that its a symptom – so I go deeper than the circumstance and ask for healing and transformation of my true self in Christ.

    I just celebrated the 27th anniversary of being received into the Church on the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing women.

    I’m just beginning to get and inkling of the love of Christ for me despite my sin, in the midst of my sin. As Father said in another thread a few weeks ago: He is always there in the depths of our brokenness waiting for us.

    The life of repentance to which the Church calls us some times seems like hacking through a dense forest to get to the lost city.

  122. Michael,

    I was recently explaining to someone the unconditional love of God and they said, “It can’t be that easy!” and I responded, “Actually, it can.”

    But I know just what you mean. What we are offered is so very simple. Yet we make it so very difficult.

    I just read Elder Porphyrios’ words, “Look on all things as opportunities to be sanctified.” (Wounded by Love).

    Such a profound truth. God can use even my weakness and sin to make me holy. All praise to Him.

  123. Yannis, I’d love to hear your “revert” story. You should consider writing up your spiritual journey for Fr. John Peck’s “Journey to Orthodoxy” site.

  124. Karen, thanks. I doubt my story is important enough to post on a website – do they even take stories from randoms?

  125. Personally, I never get tired of hearing how God has worked in someone’s life to bring them to faith. I don’t think you have to be anybody special to get your story there. Fr. John has, I believe, just picked up stories sometimes from people’s own blogs (otherwise ordinary people, who just happened to have shared their story on the web). Just a thought . . .

  126. Maged,
    This article is an example of the kind of research that gives faulty results. It looks for penal “terms” (punishment and such), and suggests that such words are evidence of a theory that is not present. No one denies that such language is present in the early Eastern Fathers. What is absent is the theory. What is also absent is a proper understanding of the questions on the part of the author.

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