Recent conversations on the blog have bounced around the imagery of debt in the Scriptures. Contemporary Protestant thought often likes to express the notion of a “sin debt.” The idea runs that God’s righteousness and justice have proper demands. When we fail to keep the commandments, we create a debt for which God’s justice demands payment. Christ’s innocent self-offering on the Cross is seen as the payment for that debt. This imagery is absent from Orthodox thought. Indeed, I believe it is absent from the New Testament itself. It is, instead, an image that was created apart from the Scriptures themselves (originating as an atonement theory), and has been read back into the Scriptures, repeatedly misconstruing the actual meaning of the text. This reading has been a dominant part of modern Evangelical thought, and has been mined and minted so thoroughly, that many within the Evangelical mainstream treat it as a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. It is not only not Orthodox, it is not orthodox. It is a false teaching.
First, a few thoughts about atonement theory.
The atonement treats the question of how it is that Christ’s death and resurrection are “for us.” What is it about them that frees us from sin and reconciles us? The word “atonement,” is uniquely English. It is a hybrid word, consisting of three words: “at-one-ment.” It is that understanding of what it is that makes us one with God. But, as a hybrid English word, it is not found in the Scriptures. The closest thing in the Scriptures might be the word “reconciliation” (καταλλαγή). One of my favorite renderings of “atonement” is the German “wiedergutmachung,” literally, “making good again.”
Atonement theory refers to the story and explanation of how it is we are reconciled. It necessarily includes a theory of the nature of sin and human responsibility. It also includes a theory of why God would want to reconcile us in the first place. In short, atonement theory is the story of what is wrong with us and how God fixes it. For a newcomer to this conversation, it might seem surprising that the answer to such a basic thing isn’t obvious or clearly covered somewhere in the Scriptures. The truth is that the entire New Testament could be seen as an extended presentation of atonement theory. However, a short, neat description is simply nowhere to be found. Instead, there are multiple references, describing or inferring a “back-story,” that more-or-less form a theory of the atonement.
The Eastern Church, which means the Church whose history was rooted in the early Roman and later Byzantine Empire, is often described as having never developed an atonement theory. Of course, the notion that the Church of the first thousand years of Christian history had no explanation how what was wrong with human beings and how God fixes it, is patently absurd. There were a number of images used in the writings of the fathers and the liturgical prayers of the Church. But no one of them came to utterly dominate. What was not present, however, was the notion that sin creates a debt with God or His justice that must be paid.
The word “debt” and its cognates (“debtor,” “owe,” etc.) is actually quite rare in the New Testament. It occurs in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts”). It occurs in the parables where a servant’s debt is forgiven by his master. It also occurs (depending on the translation you use) in Galatians 5:3 (“For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” King James Version). However that verse is far more accurately and euphoniously translated: “For I testify again that every man who is circumcised is bound to do the whole law.” The concept of debt in that context would be extremely abstruse.
What is clear is that this almost no mention at all. The parable regarding debt is a classic use of the rabbinical kal vachomer (וחומר קל) argument, which is called the “light to heavy.” Its logic is simple: If this is the case, then how much more should this be the case. In the parables, a man is released from a massive debt, but refuses to let a tiny debt to someone else go. When his master, who had released him from the massive debt heard this, he was angry and had him thrown into prison. It is a straightforward teaching. If someone does you an enormous kindness, you should certainly not refuse to extend small kindnesses to others. The parable in no way establishes some primary story for interpreting the whole of the gospel message. To claim that it does is absurd, and an abuse of the parable.
If you were looking for images that shape a mature, overarching account of how God reconciles us to Himself, you would certainly look for something that has a presence beyond an unrelated parable and a badly translated verse. The historical fact is that the God-as-Creditor (penal substitution) theory of the atonement is not Scriptural. It was a theory put forward first (more or less) by Anselm around the year 1000. His version used Medieval feudalism as its basis (without any pretense of being a Scriptural model). Anselm said that God’s honor had been offended and had to be compensated. In the feudal world of Europe where honor was the basis of government and war, it was, perhaps, an unsurprising fiction. Anselm’s fiction, however, was gradually changed into the penal/substitution model of the Reformation, in which mankind’s sin creates an infinite debt to the righteous judgment of God, deserving of wrath. Christ bears the wrath of the Father as payment of the debt we owe. However, this is a development of Anselm’s theory, not a reading of Scripture. Worth noting that at the same time holding debt was being elevated by Protestant teaching to a Divine attribute, Protestant teachers and rulers were abolishing the condemnation on usury that had been in place since the earliest Christian tradition. Debt is Divine and good business!
There are a couple of concepts involving debt-like matters that are worth examining. In one, Christ says “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (Joh 8:34). This concept or image is not isolated. We are not made debtors to God, but we are enslaved by Sin. It is common in the New Testament to see Sin treated as though it were a person. Sometimes it almost seems to be synonymous with the devil himself, though we should not draw that conclusion. But it is seen as an adversary, one who enslaves us. Many people, influenced by the moralistic teachings of contemporary Christianity, are puzzled by this description of sin. For them, sin is simply something we have done wrong. They do not see it as somehow separate from themselves. But it is (cf. “You Are Not Your Sin”). St. Paul distinguishes between himself and “sin that dwells in me” (Ro. 7).
This bondage or slavery to sin is also similar to language applied to the devil:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (Heb 2:14-15 RSV)
St. Paul elsewhere says that the “wages of sin is death.” St. Paul places sin, death, the devil, all in this category of that which holds us in bondage.
This collection, sin, death, the devil, is not the imagery of debt, per se. Rather, it is the category to which debt itself belongs. Debt is something that binds us. Debt is an evil thing that God sets clear boundaries around lest it destroy His people. And, as we shall see, it is something He abolishes (He doesn’t pay it. He abolishes it!).
There are other passages that use this imagery of bondage:
While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive (Rom 7:5-6).
The law is something from which we are discharged. And we accomplish this by dying. We die with Christ. St. Paul says, “He who has died is free from sin” (Ro. 6:7). St. Paul describes Christ as leading “captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8). That which held us prisoner is itself led as a prisoner. Sin, death and the devil and debt are trampled down by the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ does not set us free by paying our debt. He sets us free by dying and trampling down death. And this becomes effective in our lives because we, too, die, being “buried with Him in Baptism” (Romans 6:3). To bring the notion of a debt payment into the conversation of being Baptized into Christ’s death is just weird. It doesn’t fit or make sense in any manner.
Some might struggle with the personification of sin, of our being held in bondage by it and sin being destroyed, etc. But that is the consistent imagery of Scripture. Debt can be placed into that category and treated in that manner. But there is simply no Biblical imagery of God paying our debts.
In the Old Testament, the system of the Sabbath (Sabbath Day, Sabbath Year, Jubilee Year) was a system of abolishing debt. You could hold a slave for only seven years, then he had to be set free. No one paid for them. Land could be bought from someone, but all land and debts had to be cancelled in the 50th (Jubilee) year, at the end of seven cycles of Sabbath years.
On the Sabbath day in Nazareth, Christ takes up the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and reads this:
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” (Luke 4:18-19)
The “acceptable year of the Lord,” is a reference to the Jubilee year, which Isaiah raises to a cosmic level. There will come the “Day of the Lord,” and all debts will be cancelled. The captives will be set free. This is the heart (in its full cosmic sense) of what Christ means when he preaches, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The coming of the Kingdom is nothing less than the Day of the Lord. Interestingly, the Jubilee year begins with the sound of a trumpet. It is that very thing that signals Christ’s triumphant return, “Then the trump will sound…”
But nowhere in this rich Biblical imagery, is there a notion of anything being paid. Christ doesn’t pay our debt, He destroys it! This is deeply important. The penal substitution theory runs the risk of treating the holding of debt to be a good thing, reducing debtors to the cast of evil doers. This is utterly contrary to Scripture where the opposite is true.
Look at this one last example of the destruction of a “debt.” Interestingly, it is a passage frequently abused in the penal substitution theory:
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:13-15)
I have heard this passage interpreted as Christ writing “Paid!” on our bill of debt and nailing it to the Cross. But, again, this is simply an abuse. The “handwriting” is the requirements of the Law, which have begun to work death in us because of Sin. Here, Christ nails them to the Cross. The handwriting isn’t a debt being paid. It is a bondage being “disarmed” like the principalities and powers over which He triumphed. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the penal substitutionary theory is its habit of misusing one thing and ignoring another. This passage in Colossians is clearly about one thing, the destruction of what holds us in bondage.
Debt belongs to the realm of death, sin, slavery and bondage. Christ has come to destroy all of these things and lead us into His kingdom. You are free.