The Seat of Mercy and the End of the Legal View


Among the more problematic words in the New Testament is the Greek hilasterion. It is translated as “propitiation” in some of the older English Bibles, and “expiation,” in newer ones. It’s actual meaning is neither. The word literally means “the place of mercy,” and is the Greek word used in the Old Testament (LXX) to describe the “Mercy Seat” on the Ark of the Covenant.

In Leviticus, the ritual for atonement is described, as an anointing of the mercy seat with the blood of a bull. The details are not terribly important for this article. But the question to consider is simply, what is going on in such an act of atonement? Many contemporary Christians have a long habit of describing such primitive actions with abstract concepts of symbolism. “This represents that…” is the typical run of things. Or, everything that happens is seen as taking place in the mind of God such that “and God considered this suitable for the forgiveness of their sins…” Despite all of the claims of “literalism,” very few ever seem to take texts at their face value, particularly if it forces them to abandon their own worldview.

The best way to understand such things as the Mercy Seat and the rituals of the atonement that surround it, is to see it for what it actually is. The sins of the people are placed there on the Mercy Seat and the priest destroys their sin by anointing the Seat with blood. Think of this passage in Leviticus:

And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel. And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Lev 16:18-22)

The passage describes a very concrete, almost magical, scenario. The “uncleanness” of the people is cleansed through the sprinkling of blood, and then their sins are spoken over a goat thus “putting them on the head of the goat,” and the goat is sent away – taking their sins with him.

First, I suggest that readers note that there is not a hint of contractual/legal imagery here at all. Sins are not abstract infractions of the law in the modern legal sense but are quite concrete. They cause people to be unclean; they can be cleansed by blood; they are put on the head of a goat and sent away.

Such imagery, particularly if treated in a literal manner, simply baffles the modern mind. As I have noted repeatedly, the modern mind has somehow made abstractions its reality, while treating its true concrete existence as a metaphor, something that, at best, only gives rise to abstraction.

Hebrew is a decidedly concrete language – abstractions are fairly rare. This is difficult for modern readers to grasp, since we frequently take very concrete words and assume their meaning to be an abstraction. Among the greatest injustices done to Hebrew thought has been the modern Christian idealization of its concrete realities. The modern world prefers abstractions, whether psychological, legal, contractual or the like. Reading those concepts into the words of the Old Testament, however, is simply anachronistic.

The Law is itself a primary example. Here is a primary question: Is a law true because there is something inherent within it, or is it simply a law because someone says it is? The modern world has come down firmly on the side of voluntarism – a law simply expresses a will. As such, a law is nothing more than the guarantee of force and violence. It is a statement of the principles by which and on account of which force and violence will be exercised against someone.

In the Old Testament, however, the Law of God seems to have something quite substantive about it within itself:

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover by them Your servant is warned, And in keeping them there is great reward. (Psa 19:7-11 NKJ)

In the modern mind, such a passage only means that God did a good job in willing His law, and those laws reflect the goodness of His will. But the laws remain abstractions, simply the expression of His will. And, true to voluntarism, they only gain their power through the force and violence with which God backs them up.

“…by them is Your servant warned…and there is great reward.”

Up until the Middle Ages, the notion of law, whether Hebrew, Greek, etc., was generally grounded in a notion of realism, that is, the truth of a law was inherent in how things are and how they are made. The law can be discerned because it is not simply the product of a will. God’s will is expressed in how He created the world, but not by arbitrary rules enforced through sheer acts of force or violence.1

However, in the Middle Ages, in the rise of nominalism (cf. William of Ockham), a new theory of law came into the discussion, one in which law is simply the arbitrary act of a will. Modernity has seen the steady erosion of realism (as well as the notion of natural law) and its replacement with a radical nominalism. The most extreme statement of this latter view can be seen in Anthony Kennedy’s famous dictum in a Supreme Court decision regarding abortion:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

This extreme expression of voluntarism reveals the element of absurdity in pure voluntarism. Some might argue that the flaw in Kennedy’s statement lies in his attribution of this possibility to human beings, when it belongs to God alone. But it is the nominalists of modernity, including the Christian nominalists, who taught modernity how to reason in such a manner.

The Old Testament speaks of the Law in very substantive terms, much the same way that later Old Testament writings speak of Wisdom. The Law is far more than a commandment. The commandment describes something very concrete, something that reveals how the world actually is as well as how human beings and all creation works. It is no more arbitrary than DNA is arbitrary. It is, if you will, the DNA of the universe.

Sin is thus not primarily a willful breaking of Another’s will. It is not a transgression of something external to us, enforced only through the threat of violence or force. It is a violation of the very constitution of our being and of the world around us. In the language of Pavel Florensky, it is “disintegration.” St. Athanasius and a number of other fathers described it as a movement towards non-being. Sin is substantial. It can be healed and washed, excised and destroyed.

Sin is not a “legal” construct in the modern sense of legal nominalism.

And this brings us back to the Mercy Seat. Christ is indeed the “Mercy Seat” for our sins. It is incorrectly translated as propitiation or as expiation. Both terms tend to abstract what is actually taking place as if the Cross changes something somewhere else, something external. Our sins are literally placed on Christ. And as our Mercy Seat, He destroys them, cleanses them, remits them, carries them away, etc. It would be a frightful death were it meant to accomplish something in the abstract. But sin is not an abstraction. Christ’s bearing of our sin is the bearing of our disintegration, our drive towards non-being. It is the recreation of His creation.

Those who grasp at words that have root “legal” meaning, must be careful to consider their full meaning. Forensic applications, such as the modern Penal Substsitution theory of the atonement ignore the nature of law within the Biblical time period. The realist/organic nature of the law should probably not be described as having a “legal” meaning in order to distinguish it from the modern nominalist concept. My own writing has been directed by an effort to make this distinction. The Divine Solidarity, described so eloquently by St. Athanasius and many of the fathers requires remembering that nominalism has no place in their worldview. For my money, it has no place in ours either.


Footnotes for this article

  1. The older view, which is more especially that of the Realists, explained the Lex Naturalis as an intellectual act independent of will-as a mere lex indicativa, in which God was not lawgiver but a teacher working by means of Reason -in short, as the dictate of Reason as to what is right, grounded in the Being of God but unalterable even by Him…. The opposite proposition, proceeding from pure Nominalism, saw in the Law of Nature a mere divine command, which was right and binding merely because God was the lawgiver. From Medieval Theories of Natural Law: William of Ockham and the Significance of the Voluntarist TraditionFrancis Oakley (Notre Dame Law School NDLScholarship, 1961)


  1. Father Bless,
    This is a great exposition of the difference between modernity and the thinking of Nominalism and the way that the Hebrews and Early Christians understood their world and what they meant when they wrote. However, I think something happened to the end of your piece. It seems that some paragraphs went missing.

  2. Great piece.

    I perused all the translations of Romans 3:25. Most of the well known translations use “propitiation.” Looks like Tyndale and the Common English translation and a couple obscure ones stick with “Seat of Mercy.”

    NIV and New Revised Standard use “sacrifice of atonement.” Can’t decide if that is literal or an abstraction. What do you think?

  3. I used to be Lutheran, which has a Sacramental Tradition that grants somewhat of an ontological view of the atonement. If I were still a Lutheran this is how I would have responded to this particular blog post:

    I accept your assertion of the ontological nature of sin. We can almost imagine sin as a thing, like a little animal that bites and thrashes -an ugly little beast.

    God’s ontological Presence is perceived by created beings as being beautiful; a beauty which effects our created senses, causing adoration, joy, praise, and thanksgiving. It sparks ecstasy within us, and this ecstasy inflames our will to act with praises and thanksgiving.

    This thing, this little beast that bears the name, Sin, is devoid of God’s Presence, and, thus, devoid of beauty. This little beast IS ugliness itself. And just as God’s beauty produced a natural state of ecstasy within us, this ugliness also naturally effects a state of disgust within us. And just as this ecstasy naturally inflamed our will, so does this disgust naturally inflame our will to scorn the ugly little beast, treating it with contempt, and expelling it away from us with kicks and blows.

    Now, this little beast is not a created being. It is okay to scorn and disdain it, even serve it painful blows, because it is not a thing created by God. God’s Image, in which we glory, is not present in the little thing. In fact, paradoxically this little “thing” is nothingness itself! And there is no shame in spitting and beating your fist upon nothingness! God has no part in this little beast of empty darkness, so there is no shame in treating it harshly. It is natural to do so, just as it is natural for the body to expel harmful waste. So, as long as this ugly beast, Sin, persists, so, too, will its expulsion. And should it persist by another name, Eternal Hell, then so, too, will it’s eternal expulsion. Can the Orthodox really disagree?!

    But, as a Lutheran, I also would have entertained the notion of absolute depravity. This means that when the little beast, Sin, lunged upon Adam and sunk his teeth in him, much like a vampire, Adam likewise turned into this same empty darkness. Now, Adam’s very nature is that of an ugly beast, of which elicits a natural, blameless disdain, and contemptuous blows from others. But, of course, all others have likewise become ugly beasts themselves, through Adam’s fatherhood to all of humanity, so there is no one left to express this natural disgust, and the blows that follow -that is, no one except God Himself! And this is where Christ comes in as an exchange; as pure gift, He trades places with Adam and all humanity, taking our ontological ugliness for Himself, and handing over to us His ontological beauty. This is the penal substitution expressed in ontological terms.

  4. When I see all of the comments on the inadequacy of English translations I am confused. If the English translations are so bad, how can we learn the true faith.

    I don’t speak or read any other language but English and I never will. My brain is too inflexible at this point.

    Even simply reading the Scriptures seems fraught with booby traps.

    If the translations are so bad, someone needs to do a better one. I know of a lawyer in Chicago who works on one in his spare time but wow. Seems as if it ought to get higher priority. Unless it really doesn’t matter that much.

  5. Fr. Stephen,
    What do we do with passages such as Hebrews 10:1-4 in lieu of what you wrote here? I’ll only quote vs.4 but the entire passage seems relevant. “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.” Please offer a clarifying comment.

  6. Michael
    Even though I learned Biblical Greek in Seminary and can translate, it is slow and laborious for me. One of the aids I use in reading Scripture is called the Ancient Christian Commentary Series. It is published in hard copy and will set you back well over $3000 if you get the whole set. They do have it on CD and you can obtain the whole set for under $300. What the editors have done is extract all commentary material from the Fathers that apply to each verse and list them underneath the verse in question. Not every verse was commented on but many were and it is a handy guide to reading Scripture through the eyes of the Fathers.
    It saves plowing through the volumes to find a homily, commentary or other source for the guidance of the Fathers. I also have the translation, as wooden as it is from the Holy Apostles Convent as well as The Eastern-Greek Orthodox New Testament based on the Patriarchal Text, translated by a teem of Greek and English speaking scholars who are Orthodox and published by Lulu. You can look it up on and get it in soft copy as well.
    If you are adventurous and lie a challenge, you can go to and peruse the Greek text. Clicking on a world opens a box that parses or declines the word and opens the lexicon to define the word in English for you. Once you learn how to operate the system, you will see how different some of the English translations really are. Consider Matthew 28:19 that is always translated as: “Go, therefore, and make disciples……” You will discover that “go” is not a verb and is certainly not an Imperative Mood (commanding) verb. It is an Aorist Passive Participle Nominative Masculine Plural. As a participle, it should be translated as Going not as a command. The command verb is the verb to make disciples which is an Aorist Active Imperative 2nd Person Plural verb. The force of that verse in translation is not on us going but on making disciples. The going is assumed in that we move about in our lives and come in contact with others. Our Protestant brethren translate this verse with the force on Go to back up their idea of mission. Mission work is not bad, but the Lord told us to make disciples. A disciple is not just a believer but someone who seeks to emulate their Master who is Christ.

  7. Thanks for the Article,
    I imagine that one reason it is difficult to have a more realist/intrinsic/organic view of the law has to do with the fact that people would say many parts of mosaic law don’t apply today (I.e. kosher eating mixed fibers, circumcision etc.)
    The logic would go; “if these used to apply and now they don’t how could these laws correspond integrally to our nature as humans?”
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this Fr. Stephen.

  8. Michael, such are the problems that arise when we attempt to base our ideas of truth, and even our very faith, on a book.

    Jesus did not promise us a book, but His Spirit to “lead us into all truth”. When we substitute ANYTHING for the Spirit, we will run into trouble.

    The Bible is “useful” for many things, but it was never meant to be our authority, or the foundation of our faith. It simply is not up to that task, especially as we have it today in English, and to try and make it so, is, at best, rather foolish, and at worst, idolatrous.

  9. Father,
    disregard what I said about the end of this article. Apparent, my brain went missing. I just realized that it was a footnote at the bottom. Great posting though. I love to share these with my Protestant friends.

  10. Father,

    A most informative article.

    I like the way you used different areas of study.


  11. Michael Bauman, I think all translations are limited by the reader’s understanding of what the terms mean. One might read “mercy seat” as a quaint Hebrew expression, or one might read “propitiation” and know what it is actually referring to in this text. So the key might be education about the text.

  12. Meg,

    Thanks for the post. I could ask lots of questions, but let me settle for a request.

    Please explain ‘education about the text’


  13. Terry,
    Meg can speak for herself regarding the Bible. I am an infant in the faith.

    I’m also a former professor in chemistry. If a first year student opens a chemistry text they might get certain concepts superficially or worse. ‘Worse’ means that they put into the text an understanding that isn’t there but that without hearing other voices than their own while reading, have made sense of what they read without appropriate guidance. It was my general practice as their instructor to make sure they understood that simply reading their textbook will not help them pass the test. My tests required that they understood and practiced Chemistry as it is understood and practiced within the discipline of Chemistry. That is how I understood Meg’s words, “education about the text”.

    While I use my experience to understand the words printed in this blog, I will not assume that my PhD in Chemistry is sufficient for understanding what my soul needs to understand. Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  14. Michael;
    I know three monks tucked away from the world who are translating the scriptures into English, from a deep Orthodox mind.
    Pray for the monks (who wish to remain anonymous)! If God deems fitting we may receive this gift informed not just through study but deep prayer and communion with the Spirit of Truth, away from the vanity of the contemporary world.


  15. Father, perhaps soon you will tell me to stop the frequent requests for explanations.

    The difference between my questions and my request for explanations is that the requests apply directly to the article or posts in that thread.

    Again, they are sincere, and the article and the posts are appreciated.


  16. If the English translations are so bad, how can we learn the true faith.

    The guidance of Tradition and our Spiritual Father?

    Sadly, I found this Orthodox translation online and it uses “atoning sacrifice” and then lists “propitiation” as an option in the footnotes. I think I actually have this in book form at home.

    I think this is it:

  17. Many thanks, Father.
    I realized long ago that I was mistaken in seeing the Laws of God as merely compelling laws; they are in fact descriptive laws; they describe real dangers. I concluded that the Ten Commandments might rightly be understood as the ten warnings–warning us not to go down this path or that path as to do so would be a missing-of-the-mark (sin) which would lead to failure, and worse, death. What parent who loved his children would not warn them accordingly?

  18. Michelle,

    While I wasn’t Lutheran, I think I understand and agree that ‘it is penal substitution expressed in ontological terms”.

    However, would you explain that further.

    Please and thanks.

  19. Erik,
    The answer is somewhat straightforward. Those laws do not apply because they were not a complete and proper description of the underlying reality. They were “shadows” of that reality (to use the phrase of the fathers). In Christ the Law is fulfilled and now we can perceive their meaning. Christ does not abolish the Law but fulfills it.

    And example: The Law of the Sabbath. The hidden meaning of the Sabbath was not revealed until Christ “rested” in the sleep of death in the Tomb. The centuries of Sabbath-keeping through not working was looking towards that true and final completion of Christ’ work in the tomb. Christ seems to go out of His way to heal people on the Sabbath, ultimately to reveal its true meaning which was about to dawn on the world.

    This is true of all the Law. But it also tells us that the mystery in Christ is woven into the very fabric of creation.

  20. Pardon me – Dean’s is there, at 10:02am.

    Father Stephen, any thoughts on sin (“transgression of the law” – St John) being both forensic as well as ontological?

  21. The wages of sin is death (eternal torment, according to our Lord, Mt 25:41, 46) how is this not a legal dilemma?

  22. Hugh,
    Forgive me, but did you read the article on the Mercy Seat? If by “forensic” you mean a nominalist legal view, then no it is not forensic. If legal is understood in its proper, NT manner, then sin is certainly the transgression of the law. But you seem unable or unwilling to grasp that this means something different than “if you do that I’m going to roast you in hell for punishment.” Frankly, you keep trying to find a way that the camel’s nose of that false narrative can get into the tent. And once the nose is in, then you’ll run all the way with the PSA and the whole Reform load of nonsense.

  23. The “wages” of sin – the “outcome” of sin. You are assuming that wages means the “pay off” and the it is God who does the paying. That’s your legal nonsense. It says nothing of the sort. It is the warning that broken communion with God is a severed communion with the Lord and Giver of Life and its outcome is death. This is true not because God kills us, but because we have cut ourselves off from Life.

  24. This helps me understand what I am praying when I ask the Theotokos to “propitiate on my behalf him who was born of you…” Am I asking her to lay my sins on Him as my Mercy Seat?

  25. I, too, studied Koine Greek and I tried early on to translate the NT. It became too arduous and time communing.

    I speak Spanish and tried translating the Greek into Spanish. That did not last too long.

    My experience with translating and studying translation showed me how difficult it is to translate without showing one’s ‘prejudices and theological baggage’.

    I don’t think an Orthodox priest or monk with a ‘deep Orthodox mind’ could translate without his prejudices and theological baggage showing. That is simply my opinion, with is worth little.

    A Church of Christ scholar translated the Greek NT into English, but as I read carefully selected passages he revealed his baggage or simply that he didn’t translate properly, according to many other ‘Greek scholars’.

    However, I think the Bible can be translated properly or it is of little use to us. By properly I mean faithfully and true to the original.

    C S Lewis was mentioned on this blog as being true and accurate in some areas dealing with Orthodoxy.

    That means it is possible.

  26. All,
    Translation will always fall short. Just knowing the language is not really adequate. An example is this article itself. Most modern translators, unless they’ve really bothered to study a point, might see many words, attribute them to a worldview that is inappropriate and come up with a misleading translation.

    It says that the Scriptures need to be studied! It is a constant learning process. We use everything at hand.

    Truth is, even those whose language is Greek could read the NT and infer meanings that are incorrect. It is work. It is a work of the heart as much as anything. We should read Scripture daily and meditate on it day and night. But it’s good to chew on small bits at a time. I should add that though I majored in Greek in college, I’m still studying it. 🙂

  27. Thank you, Father, for your post. (For all your posts, really; I find them very helpful and well written. I’ve been reading them for years and these last few on atonement and justification I find particularly engaging, as you might guess.)

    I am a Lutheran and (like Michelle above who gives a great description of sin), can completely agree with your description of the Mercy Seat and sin. Sin is not simply a legal situation -as none but a few rather shallow Lutherans would argue – but a corruption and (as you point out with the Fathers) a movement toward non-being.

    However, there is St. Paul in Colossians 2:13ff who says, “you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

    It seems to me that there is a legal dimension to it. Adam trangressed the law that was (concretely, not abstractly) given. That is a legal thing. It is not an arbitrary thing or a thing that is not germane to the essence of God and creation (in other words, not just an expression of a will but an ontological extension of a Being). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t legal, that is, of the Law.

    The holy authors use legal terms extensively to speak of sin and absolution, though certainly not exclusively. And I would agree with you (I think I’m assuming right about your position) that the legal language is subject to a greater reality of being corrupt. The legal language is not short hand, per se, but neither is it complete by itself.

    We are born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and so we are born corrupt, without true knowledge or fear of God; not abstractly but actually. True fear and love of God must come by the Holy Spirit who lights upon us and enters us through the Word (which is to say all the sacraments of Christ). That’s not to say we are guilty of Adam’s sin, we aren’t, as St. Paul says in Romans 5:12ff, but he also says in the same passage that it’s not just death that came but condemnation. We don’t need only to be saved from death but from being condemned. Why? Because we are sinful and unclean.

    Hence the Mercy Seat that makes us clean and cleanses us from our unrighteousness.

    I would really like your take on this as I am loving your continued conversation on this topic.

  28. Fr. Stephen, I would also agree with your emphasis of “wages” as being the natural or expected or necessary result of something. I think the genius of your presentation is showing that the law is not an arbitrary, external thing to God who just decided to do it this way and make these laws, but is ontological to Him.

    The problem with taking “wages” as a modern understanding of earned wages is that the employer could simply decide not to pay. But sin can’t decide not to end in death, which is why the necessity of the Cross. Sin must bring death because sin is that which is without God, without life.

  29. Something just occurred to me in regard to the law. My father was a pioneer in that his family homesteaded in New Mexico in 1906 and lived in a sod dwelling when they first arrived on their 160 acre parcel of land when he was 5.

    He learned first hand the nature of the law and it’s intrinsic reality imbuing all of creation. Survival dictated it.

    He taught of the particular nature and inter-relationship of all things given life by the adivine presence in all things (panentheistic). I heard about it everyday of my childhood. It was the foundation of his work in community health–trying to bring wholeness and good order to the people of our community. Few understood what he was doing.

    Despite my frustration with the translation problem, I am readily familiar with the fact that the truth of the Bible is in all that we do as Orthodox because Jesus is in all of us and is the Tradition. His Incarnation changed everything making everything more real.

    Many times over the years I have either read or heard a reading often in the context of a divine service and the truth, not before considered by me or only partially is revealed and I say, ahhhh. That is what it means. Indeed one of my first experiences as a catechumen was that for the first time Scripture made sense. I no longer had to come up with my own ideas. Just listen. That is largely what I have done.

    I intuitively understand and instantly accept Father’s description and explanation of the Mercy Seat because of the way my father shaped my understanding and having lived 30 years in the Church. Sometimes attentively. It is a bit like the jade story I posted awhile back.

    Those whose mind and heart have been shaped differently have a different struggle, but the essence is the same I think: “Let your mind (nous) be transformed by the hearing of the word”.

    It has always been instructive to me that hearing has a root connection to obeying. They interact and compliment each other on many levels that appear to me to be supra-rational.

    I deeply appreciate all of the wonderful responses to my dilemma. All of them are helpful. Each of them will help me take the next step into the Bible..

  30. “Sprinkle it on the east side of the mercy seat seven times” Lev 16:15 . Though not perfect the Orthodox Study Bible seems to get it right often.
    Thank you Father for another wonderful post.

  31. Fr Stephen,

    How are “wages” of sin essentially different from the “outcome” of sin?

    How about the result, the inevitable consequences, or repercussions?

    Is not God in charge of the outcome?

    I entirely agree that It is the warning that broken communion with God is a severed communion with the Lord and Giver of Life and its outcome is death.

    Yet the second death is indeed “because God ‘kills’ us.” He kills and he makes alive.

    Jesus said that all judgment was given him from the Father, which judgment he highlights in Matthew 25.

    Indeed, have cut ourselves off from Life. True, we are responsible!

    Yet too, He Who is life will one day disown those who do not love & follow him in sincerity (Matthew 7, for instance). The inevitable result will be their judgment/ condemnation/ damnation at His hand.

  32. <i.I don’t think an Orthodox priest or monk with a ‘deep Orthodox mind’ could translate without his prejudices and theological baggage showing. That is simply my opinion, with is worth little.

    Your are correct, Terry. But expecting perfection out of imperfect beings is a dangerous thing (although I know you did not say that directly, so please understand I don’t mean to overstate your point; forgive me if you think I do). I think we do better to simply seek wisdom, which can come from the efforts of Saints and Monks (among others), and trust God to make something good out of our seeking. Just my thoughts. God bless!

  33. Hugh,
    You see, you don’t believe the Scriptures. You think St Paul said, “The wages of sin is eternal punishment in hell.” That’s all you really think it means. And you’re bound and determined to read it that way. If that’s what he meant, then why didn’t he say that. Why all the other language? “Damnation at His hand.” That’s what you actually believe. You allow no other possible meaning to that. God’s love ultimately is revealed in torturing people. No. That’s not the true God. That’s the God of the imagination. Sorry. No sale.

    Calvinism starts with the assumption that God is going to torture some people in hell – forever. Then it spends all of its time trying to explain why this is a good thing and that we should glorify Him because He’s doing this good thing. The only anchor Reform knows is eternal punishment in hell. Everything else can only be understood in light of it. It is the single non-changing thing. Love must conform to hell. Salvation must conform to hell. Sanctification must conform to hell. Healing must conform to hell. Hell is its God.

  34. It strikes me that a key difference in a worldview of “realism” from that of nominalism is experience. The experience of faith/God affects more of who we are than the intellect and intellectual assent.

    I actually think that what you describe here as “abstraction” is a problematic worldview that we see all around us, in which tone has become more important than substance. I would use the term “political correctness” but that itself has become political. We can have horror all around us and terrible violence, but so long as it is couched in the right terms it is somehow acceptable or to be ignored in favor of the abstraction.

  35. Now you’ll just being mean again. 🙁 Of course I believe the Bible.

    No, it’s God’s justice and holiness (no less real than his love – nor trumped by it) that are served in his executing justice against the rebellious ones.

    God’s just & holy wrath is ultimately is revealed in “torturing people,” as you caricature it. Eternal conscious torment is God’s fitting punishment for mankind’s sin.

    Is not the lake of fire real and eternal torment for unrepentant sinners?!

  36. I have to ask a question. Forgive me.

    “You don’t believe the Scriptures”.

    Isn’t that a little strong, padre.

  37. Terry, I will try,

    The phrase “penal substitution” traditionally refers to the forensic understanding that Fr Stephen’s refers to in the article, which, in my opinion, he rightly rejects. The forensic notion is explained as completely external to our being (and God’s being), and, thus, completely arbitrary. But I can speculatively evaluate both ours, and God’s ontological being in a more traditionally Orthodox way, and still end up with a theory of substitution that is consonant to our ontological reality, and could, in a sense, be referred to as a “penal.” And I believe that many Protestants with more Sacramental traditions intuitively relate penal theory to our ontological reality. However, these Protestants still end up with false conclusions due to their dogma of total depravity.

    Like Fr. Stephen says, when you view sin more as a thing that needs to be washed off, then maybe sin is the sort of thing that elicits a natural reaction of the will from us. I think of people as Christ shaped vessels, and when the Holy Spirit is poured into our vessel, like water into a cup, then our Christ-like vessel is at its most natural state. And this natural state emits natural reactions of the will; we emit joy, praise, and thanksgiving, much like a bottle of perfume emits wafts of flowering scent. Likewise, it may be that even if the vessel is not filled with the Spirit, per se, it may still exhibit natural reactions to the Presence of its Creator; reactions of the will such as awe, and wonder at His beauty. So, what I am suggesting is that maybe we also exhibit an ontologically natural reaction when in contact with the “thing” that needs washing off, i.e. sin. Maybe we naturally, as Christ shaped vessels, emit wafts of disgust and vehement contempt towards this “thing” called sin. Maybe the natural reaction of the will is to reject this “thing” with violent acts of expulsion, like a stomach that violently expels norovirus (the common stomach flu). It is this violent expulsion that I am suggesting is the “penalty due” to sin.

    But notice that in this explanation the penalty acts upon the “thing” that is sin, not persons. However, Protestants believe in total depravity, which confuse our human nature with a sin nature. Maybe it’s perfectly Orthodox to consider sin as something we naturally abhor in a violently expulsive way, rightly likened to a penalty, but can this be said about persons? We may ontologically move toward non-being, or we could say “sin-being”, but we never actually achieve it because we are forever Christ-shaped vessels. The Image of God that is our true nature always remains, and we never change into “sin-shaped” things.

    In the Bible healthy people expel lepers from the cities, maybe sometimes even violently. But the leprous person never becomes leprosy. And, thus, when Christ encounters the leper he expels the disease, and embraces the person.

    Not sure if this helps, hope it does.

  38. Fr. Mark,
    Again, the point is a non-nominalist understanding of “legal.” And when legal is understood in a realist way, then it actually isn’t what the modern word means at all. Yes there was a “debt” a “handwriting against us” – but – do note the word “legal” is not in the Greek at all. It is “dogmasin” from dogma (teachings,). Note, by the way, that St. Paul doesn’t use the imagery of paying the debts here. Instead, he nails them to the Cross. And he follows this with the image of the disarming of the demonic powers and making a public spectacle of them. This is not the imagery of a legal exchange, but of Christus Victor. This is the righteous judge destroying those things that were against us. God is not a debt-keeper. He hates debt. The imagery of the Old Testament is consistently His willingly destroying debt.

    Again, the legal terms used, are not the terms of a nominalism inspired legal understanding – they are, if you will, far more sacramental in character – nothing at all like our violence based legal understanding.

    If modern readers could rid themselves of the false mind of nominalism, I would cede ground on the use of the term “legal.” But, in fact, they always only ever understand the term in its nominalist meaning. It is anachronistic and incorrect. Torah is nothing at all like the modern laws of our land. In that sense, it is not “legal.” It is, again, more like sacraments, and the like.

  39. Terry,
    Yes, it’s a little strong. It’s the result of having this same tortured conversation with Hugh for many months. Same thing. Same points. Again and again. My reason for saying, “You don’t believe the Scriptures,” is because “the wages of sin is death” means nothing to him. He dismisses the text and leaps to “eternal torment in hell.” The text doesn’t say that…but it does in his mind. He believes in hell, not the text. The only thing he seems unwilling to question is the notion of eternal torment in hell as God’s justice. He is seeing it even when the text doesn’t say it. That’s what I mean by not believing the Scriptures.

    Traditionally, Orthodox fathers come face to face with passages like Matthew 25 or others dealing with judgment/hell, and they wrestle with them. They parse the meaning. Other things are given equal or greater weight. Hell is nuanced in many ways. Generally it is not seen as retributive – as punishment. God’s justice does not require that anyone be tormented in hell. That exact sentiment (particularly the justice part) is found nowhere in Scripture.

    I find the Reform take on all of this to be repulsive and odious. It creates more atheists than not.

  40. I don’t know the the person who posted.


    ‘You believe in hell more than anything else’.

    That must be true of all us ‘legalists’.

    I don’t accept that at all. With all due respect.

  41. Terry,
    Strong words you refer to are strong medicinal balm to my heart badly mangled by Protestants as a child with Seminole heritage at the hands of unwitting teachers of Protestant Christianity.

  42. I think a Christian in good conscience should wrestle with hell – should wrestle with God about hell. There is this readily accepted caricature, worthy of a cartoon, notion of eternal torment in hell simply as this huge punishment hanging out there – with no questions other than how do we avoid it. This is not the way of the Fathers. Read some of St. Isaac of Syria if you want to see a serious treatment of the topic.

    But, yes, legalists must believe in hell above all else because the modern notion of “legal” only has meaning if someone is willing to do violence to make it true. God is not willing that any should perish. That is the Scripture. So, if God is not willing them to perish, how can anyone say that He is torturing them in hell?

    There are many, many contradictions surrounding the topic. But some ignore all the contradictions and fight tooth and nail to keep a cartoon hell as the foremost doctrine of the Christian faith. They will fudge on the Trinity, but not on hell. That legal world doesn’t exist. It never has. God is a good God who loves mankind.

    Whatever is meant by the verses referring to hell and its imagery, it is not the cartoon. It is ultimately God’s love – and not God’s justice. There is a deep mystery there – but instead we’re treated to cartoons. I believe in the long run that it darkens the heart of a believer and obscures God. In the worst cases it creates a false God.

    As for “legalists,” read the article again. Is the so-called legal point of view that you hold (if you do) actually based on a modern meaning of legal (nominalism). If not, then how do you understand it. If it is based on nominalism, whether intentional or not, then it is not Biblical, nor the faith of the Fathers.

  43. Clearly, the ‘legal view’ is not adequately shared here, and I’m not going to try it.

    To make rational statements about irrational Protestant beliefs is funny to me.

    One thing I have learned here is that I am no stronger or further along on accepting the hospital/cleansing view than when I started.

    To ask questions without faith is the only way I know to ask questions. If I had that faith, I wouldn’t need to ask that question.

    When I became a catechumen, I considered myself an Orthodox. My power is up.

  44. Terry, I wrote,

    “In the Bible healthy people expel lepers from the cities, maybe sometimes even violently. But the leprous person never becomes leprosy. And, thus, when Christ encounters the leper he expels the disease, and embraces the person.”

    A Protestant’s “ontological penal substitution theory” would say that the leper does, indeed, become leprosy (because with total depravity the person does become a “sin-shaped” thing by nature) and thus the leper should, indeed, be expelled. In their atonement theory Christ saves them from expulsion by trading places with them, and He in turn is “expelled” (takes the full penalty), and by grace they gain His cleanness and get to remain. In the Orthodox version, though, the leper does not become leprosy, so they are not under threat of expulsion. Only the disease is ever subject to expulsion.

  45. Lordy! For many of the past 20 plus years that I’ve been Orthodox I always considered it an embarrassment to have come from an Episcopalian background. Knowledge of Scripture: 0. Able to locate the Bible in my family home: 0. Knowledge of Doctrine: 0. Knowledge of theology: 0. The priest who was my catechist seemed delighted because he considered me to be pretty much a clean slate. We never argued. What did help, oddly enough, were serendipitous readings in Buddhism/Confucianism with a light dressing of Christian mysticism. When I came to Orthodoxy I simply had to stop every now and then to mute whatever strains of western rationalism and linear thinking intruded into my thoughts. For me, the revelations of Orthodoxy are like those giant puzzles that take up the surface of a card table. I stop every now and then and see if I can find a home for each piece which don’t look like they belong anywhere and everywhere. In the mean time, I wait for Fr. Stephen to post something new and “Bingo!”– another piece of the puzzle now has a home and the overall picture becomes clearer. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Father! Keep it up! I suppose I should be grateful that the only “baggage” I brought with me was an empty head and a poor spirit. And thank you Episcopal church for not teaching me anything!

  46. Terry,
    Briefly, the “hospital/cleansing” view is not the alternative to the legal view. Properly, the larger term is the ontological view and it has a great deal of Scripture and Tradition supporting it. The hospital can be a useful metaphor, but it’s not the larger view.

  47. I am wading in here where I’m not part of the earlier conversation. Please pardon me if what I write is unhelpful.

    Mark 9:47 “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire— 48 where ‘Their worm does not die/And the fire is not quenched.’” (Quoting from Isaiah 66:24)

    So the imagery here is one of fire. But looking throughout the Scripture, Old and New, “fire” is the image of the Spirit of God, and it’s in the burning bush, and it’s all over the place. Eventually it has to be cleat that this is the fire of God’s love, but our experience of it is all in what we choose to discard or not (“pluck it out”) . This fire is going to purify and refine and do all sorts of things — but it’s how we can stand in it with what is compatible or not as far as I can see.

    Not the “eye” imagery: how we “see,” are we envious, lusting, how are we desiring, etc

    Anyway I hope to chip in something… forgive me if it is unhelpful please

  48. PS

    I am to be baptized this Sunday, but I now think I should postpone it.

    This is important.

    I also have a real problem with the Orthodox view of cremation. I don’t want a discussion on cremation at all. Father would really not like that.

    But I do think these two are enough to postpone my baptism.

    Thanks for sharing. I’d like to hang around here, if that is ok.

  49. Gregory,

    You can’t come with an empty head. That is impossible.

    With all due respect.

  50. Father,

    If the ontological view is the correct view and the hospital/cleansing view is a metaphor, then why have all this discussion .

    Why are you all so strongly supporting the hospital view.

    That does not register with me

    You last post was a real surprise to me.

    Thanks, father.

  51. Hi Terry, my priest this week said there is one thing you have to believe: the resurrection of Christ.

    Christ is risen.

    Christ is risen.

    Christ is risen.

  52. Thanks Nicole,

    That’s not what I’ve read in Orthodox literature, nor what my priest shares with me.

    In fact a catchment must answer ‘yes’ to the questions: ” do you forsake all your former protestant beliefs and do you believe the Orthodox faith”?

    Truth is I can’t say yes to either of them.

    Thanks, Nicole.

  53. Terry,
    My head was essentially empty of Scripture, doctrine, and theology. Growing up as an Episcopalian as I did, “sin” was something like eating your entre with a salad fork. No one thundered at us from the pulpit. Had he done so he would have been out of a job. The thrust of Christian living was to lead a decent, pleasant life with lovely thoughts. Even mentioning Jesus outside of church and the obligatory prayers before each meal was considered very bad form. If you have any “religious” sentiments you keep them to your self. Just reading the theological stuff that other Protestants bring to the comments section makes my head ache. The bulk of what is in my head is essentially Orthodox because there wasn’t all that much “church” stuff in there to begin with because I never encountered anyone in the Episcopal church to put it in there. We simply would not have tolerated such a person. It simply was not who we were. If you wanted that kind of stuff you should be a Baptist or something. Like I said, I used to be embarrassed by my near total ignorance of Protestant doctrine and theology. I now see that I dodged a bullet. What a lot of clutter to carry around in one’s head!

  54. Father,
    Even as a teen growing up pentecostal, the idea that a good God would punish someone eternally in hell because of a misspent 70-80 years cut deeply into my young sense of justice. In the Air Force I became agnostic. However, through the prayers of a faithful wife and mother, I eventually received Christ into my life, the best I knew how. But even as a then middle of the road evangelical, God was still a good God to me. An over-arching picture of the Father was the one framed in the parable of the prodigal son. The father there scanned the horizon daily, waiting for his beloved son’s return (he had always remained his son). And one hot Palestinian day, in the distant horizon, he sees his younger son bedraggled, but slowly heading homeward. The father can’t contain himself by staying on the porch, but runs in his joy to receive his son home! This was the God who I knew as a Protestant and later as Orthodox, the lover of mankind.

  55. Terry,
    I pray God give you grace in all of this. Sometimes the blog here is like jumping off the deep end. The conversation, to a degree, has been going on for nearly 10 years. There are almost 2000 articles. It’s good to go back to earlier thinks sometimes.

    Here’s one on the notion of hell, torment, etc. It’s not my writing.

    Another one, on the ontological model:

  56. Dean,
    Yes. I agree. My path had some similarities. Whatever hell is, it is not the willful torment of a human being by God for the purpose of satisfying His justice. The purpose of hell is not torment. God has no need to torment. If there is torment, God is not its cause. God is its cure.

  57. There you go, Terry. You wrote to Nicole that you were unable to answer “yes” to the question about forsaking all your former beliefs. That was easy for me to answer “yes” to because I didn’t have any to forsake. Of course forsaking my sinful life was not so easy but, God being my helper, everyday I try.

  58. Unless you totally erase your memory, you can not empty your head of prior thoughts and baggage.

    Everybody has it tucked away somewhere in their mind

    Thanks, Gregory.

  59. Gregory

    I’m cradle Orthodox. And yet I feel that every day God asks me to give up my thoughts and former beliefs — every day my mind and heart have to be open to change, transformation, metanoia. Somehow God opens up new doors where I had closed ones, and that requires some kind of change of mind on my part, as stubborn as I might be. Happens in all kinds of surprising ways. I think you are right about the open mind

  60. Terry, may God guide you. I will just say this. Being received into the Orthodox Church is not at all like making a rational decision based upon answered questions (although that is a part). The rational decision based upon questions can go on forever. I have seen it.

    Coming into the Church is because you want to unite with Christ and you know that He is inviting you.

    That is it. Many real questions simply cannot be answered until you have received the heavenly spirit, have Him sealed within you and partaken humbly of the Body and Blood.

    Then you enter into the mind of the Church and can begin to learn.

    It can be scary. Only you can answer, Is Jesus asking you to follow Him in the Church, now.

    The only reason to be in the Orthodox Church is because you encounter Him here and want to follow Him here..

  61. Last time, my friend, Gregory.

    Impossible. The fact that you think you brought no baggage is baggage in and of itself. I think it has and will cause you problems. That is only my opinion. Which is worth nothing.

    It is physiologically and psychologically impossible.

    Memory is one of the best and one of the worst ‘graces’ God has given us.

    I know I have baggage, and everybody I know knows they have baggage.

    I don’t think you’re an exception.

    With all due respect.

  62. Janine,
    It seems to me that, in large measure, you have to give them up because they won’t work. You can’t plug them into Orthodoxy and expect it to all work. Things are just going to short out, so to speak. The only thing to do is take a deep breath, calm down and start over–simply. The one thing that the Orthodox Church has which none of the others have is wisdom–volumes and volumes of wisdom. Knowledge is good but wisdom is better. The Church, in her wisdom, collected and saved all that wisdom because, well, She is wise. The answers you seek are right in front of you but our minds are so cluttered we can’t see them. As Otche once said to me, “The biggest obstacle in your path is not Satan–it’s you. You want to save your soul get out of the way. You think too much!” But we have a hard time with this because we have literally become “hard-wired” into believing that our “success”, our spiritual progress, is something which we must make happen by using our brains. Alas, the harder we try the less we “succeed”. Exasperation sets in and we go crazy. Relax. Go back to the beginning and try again. It’s there, and when you begin to see it you’ll be amazed.

  63. Father,

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    Another problem I see surfacing is the attitude of the Orthodox that they are the only ones who are ‘right’.

    I grew up under that attitude, and it caused all kinds of trouble.

    Still, using Scripture and the writings of the Church of Christ fathers (preachers and teachers of the past). I can ‘prove’ the Church of Christ is right and the others are wrong.

    I bring this up because the idea is in everything written here. It is certainly in this thread.

    I’ve been at this study of Orthodoxy for over two years. Before I am baptized I’ll like to handle a few things, especially the closer my baptism is.

    This may not be the right place.

    As I said earlier, my priests and have discussed these in detail.

  64. My priest and some of you say I won’t understand until I actually become Orthodox.

    That sounds to me like Gnosticism: we know something you don’t know. And you won’t know it until and unless you join the select few. Then we will share it with it.

    I agree experience is a great teacher.

    Again this post is directly related to comments made here.

    I would like to know what (Orthodoxy) is and also what it isn’t.

  65. “Another problem I see surfacing is the attitude of the Orthodox that they are the only ones who are ‘right’.”

    That may have more to do with most of us here being American, rather than Orthodoxy. The only thing Americans love more than their politics is being right about their politics. For me, personally, this love of being right often spills over into almost all other aspects of my life as well.

  66. Thanks, Michelle.

    You are funny. And you seem so enlightened.

    Please, explain how one can be wrong and still please God. I know one can ‘play around’ with the word ‘wrong’.

    If we already discussed this, I apologize.

  67. Father, I just wanted to thank you for writing about the mercy seat. It’s been a phrase that feels mysterious and important to me, but I haven’t known what to do with it other than sit quietly with it. Your thoughts are both enlightening and keep well with the quiet. 🙂

    And your observations about language have convinced me that Barfield should be my next buy. 🙂 So many books, so little time!

  68. Fr. John,
    These are very difficult questions. The verb is related to hilaskomai – itself built on the root for “mercy.” Almost every way its rendered someone is making a theological decision. I prefer staying somewhere closer to mercy seat. I might even render that line “Hail, mercy seat of the whole world.” I’ve also seen it translated as “ransom.” Propitiation can carry a certain meaning, i.e., a very Latin understanding of the atonement that has a lot of baggage. Many translators have chosen to render that word as “expiation” elsewhere to avoid the baggage of “propitiation.” Do you have any thoughts yourself on it? I would be most interested.

  69. The problem with that translation is that “Mercy-seat” is itself a mistranslation. The word in Hebrew neither means “mercy” nor “seat”. A better translation would be “Place of Reconciliation” or “Atonement”. The word in Hebrew is closely related to the word for “payment” or “ransom”.

    We also have other hymns in which we ask saints to propitiate God on our behalf.

  70. Yes. It is actually related to mercy – the verb form. “Hilasterion” “mercy seat” – place of reconciliation is quite good. Atonement is good, too, particularly in its root meaning.

    Theological translations in English are tricky because the history of our language is largely Protestant, and certain very Western. Thus, every theological word we have in common sometimes comes with baggage that may or may not be useful. I think it played a role in many jurisdictions choosing to render “theotokos” as “theotokos” rather than “birth-giver of God” or “mother of God,” etc. England uses Mother of God, I think. Most of the liturgical translations in England were done by the late Fr. Ephrem Lash. He was an interesting character.

    I once attended a symposium on Orthodox liturgical translations. Lash was on a panel with Kallistos Ware, Archbp Dmitri of Dallas, Fr. Paul Lazar and Fr. Paul Tarazi. The discussion was full of fireworks – of a beautiful sort!

    I would assume that when we ask the saints to propitiate God on our behalf we are asking their prayers for our reconciliation and union with Christ, and the forgiveness of our sins. It’s much the same thing in the Church’s normal litanies, in which, for the living, we conclude the petition, “and for the forgiveness of their sins.”

    Have you read Fr. Patrick Reardon’s new book on Atonement (it’s only the first of 3 volumes)?

  71. The Hebrew word actually is not related to the Hebrew word for mercy. It is, however, related to the Hebrew word for payment, and ransom.

    We we pray that the saints would propitiate God, we are clearly not praying that they expiate God. This does mean we are asking for their prayers that we be reconciled to God, but “propitiate” is the way that would normally be translated.

    No, I have not read Fr. Patrick Reardon’s book on the Atonement. It is one of those books that I will try to get to.

  72. Fr. John,
    The Hebrew word indeed for mercy seat is not related to mercy. However, I’m willing to take the LXX as well when thinking of doctrine. The NT writers were apparently reading the LXX rather than the Hebrew.

    Your original question was about translating a word in the Akathist. I’m hesitant to look for the Hebrew underneath the Greek. For one, the Greek writers themselves used a form of the word mercy in rendering the Hebrew term – I don’t second guess that decision. The consciousness of the NT and the early Fathers seem to me far more dependent on the LXX than the Hebrew.

  73. Gregory,

    I’m sorry that your experience with your Episcopal church was poor, yet your singular background should not be a judgement of ALL Episcopal churches. We have have found that scripture, liturgy and wrestling with all matters of faith and life are encouraged in our Episcopal church. Our faith is strengthened as we partake in the sacraments, learn, love and try to follow Christ in all areas of our lives.

    (Nota Bene: I still love Orthodoxy; we were Orthodox for decades, and unfortunately, had to leave due to a very personal reason. I’m grateful for the priest and people of our former parish, and try to never speak against those good people. 🙂

  74. The LXX is of course in Greek, but it is still a translation of the Hebrew (except for some deuterocanonical books), and so if you want to talk about what the words used to translate the Hebrew actually mean, you need to start with the Hebrew.

    But if we focus on the Greek word, you can argue for expiation in some cases, but it is either expiation or propitiate. But the Greek word does not mean “place of mercy”.

    We are stuck to some extent with the word “mercy seat” when speaking of the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, but we should always clarify what that word actually means.

  75. Fr. John Whiteford,

    After reading your comments and your blog post I wish to ask, which do you find to be the proper way to view this payment, or ransom, in an ontological or forensic way? Or maybe both?

    Forgive me

  76. Fr John,
    I think we might differ a bit on the Greek. The suffix “terion” generally carries the meaning “place of.” Hilasterion is “the place of mercy.” The place of mercy is the place where the atoning mercy takes place, etc. But place of mercy would, indeed, be correct, and is fairly normal as a rendering of hilasterion.

    I agree that the Hebrew should be considered. I am among those who treat the LXX as an inspired translation, certainly hallowed in its usage in the NT and the Church. My Greek is on fairly solid ground. It’s my primary training.

    One of the problems with both expiation and propitiation is that neither word carries much meaning in and of themselves. They both entail some sort of theory to explain what is meant by the word. The nice thing about “atonement” (since it is an English neologism made up for the very purpose) is its simplicity “at – one – ment” which is the best way, I think, to understand what takes place in our reconciliation with God, i.e. “Do you unite yourself to Christ?”

    It also renders the Hebrew fairly well, as I think you noted. “Place of atonement” would thus be a good rendering for “hilasterion.” Or so it seems to me. Gotta go. I’m on Eastern time here.

  77. Fr Stephen,

    Are your beliefs in the next paragraph shared by all (the majority of?) the Orthodox faithful, or merely opinions allowed by Orthodoxy?

    Whatever hell is, it is not the willful torment of a human being by God for the purpose of satisfying His justice. The purpose of hell is not torment. God has no need to torment. If there is torment, God is not its cause. God is its cure.

    Thank you!

    I will go read Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology & Seraphim Rose’s The Soul After Death. Are they representative of the true Orthodox faith?

  78. Terry, on your vital journey let me encourage you to calm your thoughts and practice parking your mind down in your heart- your personal center. Only there will Christ and the Holy Spirit meet and illumine you. If thoughts are allowed too much freedom to roam under the power of their own nervous energy we’ll find it almost impossible to find peace in God’s presence — that is, unless we are overtaken by grace like Saul on the road to Damascus. We’re not Saul but we can be illumined if we will be silent and wait for Him. In such prayer many questions may be answered or put to rest by revealed realities (mostly about us!) that our minds of themselves are incapable of grasping.

  79. The word in question is most directly related to the Greek word “ἱλασμός”, which is in fact the exact word used in 1 John 2:2, and if you look at the history of the use of that word in Greek, it means either “propitiation” or “expiation” — see the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 3, 310ff. The NRSV translates it there as “the atoning sacrifice” which works too. In Romans 3:25, the NRSV also translates it as “sacrifice of atonement”, which also works. The key idea is not simply that God is merciful, but that God is somehow made to be merciful… specifically by a sacrifice.

  80. Michelle, I view the payment / ransom to be a verbal image that points to a facet of the the whole truth of our salvation. I think emphasizing some images, and disregarding others distorts the whole picture we find in Scripture and Tradition.

    I’ll let St. Gregory Palamas do the talking here:

    “Man was led into his captivity when he experienced God’s wrath, this wrath being the good God’s just abandonment of man. God had to be reconciled with the human race, for otherwise mankind could not be set free from the servitude. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified and sinless priest” (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 124).

    “Christ overturned the devil through suffering and His flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim — how great is His gift! — and reconciled God to our human race” (p.125).

    “For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil’s tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)”( p. 128f).”

  81. Thanks for your response, TC.
    My experience was long ago and is more of a reflection of the Episcopal church frequently encountered in those days–the church of the upper classes and those wanting to be identified as such. I gather that the church has attempted a lot to counter that old reputation and your witness here affirms that. But, as I write this, I am house/pet sitting for one of my brothers who, along with his wife, are life-long Episcopalians and are attending a “Benedictine” styled retreat for the week. He showed me the daily schedule they would be experiencing and one daily activity caught my eye: Scripture reading followed by “imaginative reflection” on those same readings. I thought “How very Episcopalian”. When at home, that same brother attends a weekly “Bible study” at his church. The priest attends the study but does not participate or moderate except to affirm that whatever anybody “feels” Scripture is saying to them is the right way to understand Scripture. It’s easy to mock this approach but one positive outcome is (as it was for me) that your head is not packed with rigid doctrinal/theological beliefs. Flimsy, personal feelings are easy to displace. For many former Protestants I know who are trying to grasp Orthodoxy it’s like a massive log jam in their heads. So when I express thanks that I didn’t learn anything as an Episcopalian I’m not being facetious. Reading the back and forth between Fr. Stephen and some of the commentators trying to understand what he’s saying wears me out. I’m really and truly grateful I’m not burdened with all that clutter. What a lot of work having to break up that log jam in your head just so you can actually begin to live the journey awaiting you on the other side. Having said all that I have to admit that I’m truly envious of friends who can locate something in scripture by the simple expedient of slipping their finger into the Bible at just the right place and doing so with amazing accuracy. Of course it’s a lot easier to do if you’ve spent your life reading Scripture. So there is that.

  82. Dear Fathers, respectfully, from someone who knows no Greek:

    The saving sacrifice is of God Himself toward us.

    He does not change. He changes us by slaying death and uniting Himself to our corrupted nature. In this act He invites us to follow Him in sacrificing ourselves toward others He loves, even toward our enemies.

    God wants sacrifices because that’s how the living gift life to the dying and dead. We too are broken and distributed.

    He does not want sacrifices for appeasement or satisfaction. That is the god of Marcion or Muhammad.

  83. Michael, we are talking about what the words mean. There are all kinds of statements about God in Scripture that St. John Chrysostom would say fall into the category of condescension… namely, that God condescends to speak to us in terms that we can understand, but which are not to be taken in overly literal ways.

    Christ gave Himself as a ransom for many. That means something. It does not mean a ransom was paid to the devil, nor does it mean that God’s wrath had to be satisfied. But it does mean that his sacrifice was not without cost, and it also suggests that that sacrifice was necessary. It is also clear that he, in some sense, died in our place.

    Again, St. Gregory Palamas makes it clear:

    “For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil’s tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)”( p. 128f).”

    If we think we understand Orthodoxy better than St. Gregory Palamas, chances are good we are wrong.

  84. Michael,

    I have my thoughts under control. I regularly ‘practice’ the Jesus Prayer. And I have been at this Orthodox study for two years.

    Thanks for your concern for me. It is greatly appreciated.

    If I weren’t in my ‘right’ mind, I would not have exposed so much of myself personally.

    Thanks for your concern.

  85. It is very important to see what St. Gregory says and what he does not say. He does not describe wrath as a righteous justice that must be satisfied. Instead it is a wrath that was “God’s abandonment of man.” This echoes Romans 1 where God “gives the idolaters over to their own lusts.” And then St. Gregory describes us as in bondage to the devil. The sacrifice cleanses us and frees us, but it is not done to satisfy the wrath of God. I see this passage as an extended use of the ransom theory of the atonement, certainly not the PSA. The sacrifice is Christ’s own entrance into death to free us from servitude to the devil and death.

  86. Hi Terry!

    How can one be wrong and still please God? I think there may be an array of ways to answer this depending on how you take the question.

    But I will answer it this way (this is actually a modified comment I made a few weeks back concerning a different topic, but I think it works for our topic too):

    The Saints of the 3rd century, who championed the articulation of the Trinity, and the Nature of Christ, did so due to their illumined hearts. They were the few who almost all would agree were truly right, of whom God is well pleased. But possessing correct knowledge is not enough to be pleasing. These men did not please God by possessing and proclaiming true facts alone.

    I can imagine myself as an Orthodox Christian who mentally assents to the truth of the Trinity, Nature of Christ, and Nicene Creed, as well as all other truths concerning God, and yet, all the while,harboring a darkened heart of self-love and pride, refusing to truly live a life of sacrificial love.

    Simultaneously, I can imagine a young mother in Venezuela, lost to some heretical version of Christianity, or maybe even a pagan delusion, and yet living the ultimate ascetical life of sacrificial love -helplessly watching her children starve to death in the hands of a oppressive government, and yet never failing to lift them up in constant prayer, with a humble spirit, while always giving heartfelt thanks to her Creator. And all this being done without a stitch of knowledge of the Nicene creed, Trinity, or any other Orthodox Tradition that happens to be a matter of true knowledge.

    We both know that the young women was wrong about many important Orthodox truths; while myself, the arrogant Orthodox Christian, was quite right about great many things. And, yet, we both know it is not I who will be the one joining Christ at His table with His Saints, being found to be well pleasing.

    It’s not that true dogmatic knowledge is unimportant. The 3rd century Saints thought it was quite important for the salvation of our souls. And it is. But God is working towards the salvation of all people, at all times, in all places. And in my illustration His grace was wondrously effectual in saving a poor Venezuela mother, making her to be well pleasing in His eyes.

  87. Fr. John, again with respect, I don’t see how the wonderful quotes you’ve supplied clarify the meaning of the few words at issue. This seems to have rather quickly turned polemical instead of illuminating. But thanks for the quotes!

  88. He does speak of our separation from God being due to God’s just wrath. Furthermore, he says that “A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us…” And he does say that Christ paid the penalty that was due to us, and suffered in our place:

    “For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil’s tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)”( p. 128f).”

    Also, St. Nicholas Cabasilas spoke of Christ’s death as a satisfaction of God’s honor, and St. Philaret of Moscow, in his catechism (which was approved by the entire Russian Church) speaks of Christ’s death as “a perfect satisfaction to the justice of God” — not a satisfaction of God’s wrath, but a satisfaction of God’s justice.

  89. Why doesn’t someone jump in this discussion and settle it with the ontological understanding of salvation?

    Sorry for the question.

    I understand the ontological argument for the existence of God, but I don’t remember the term solely being applied to salvation.

    Someone, please, explain this. I don’t I understand. I would like to see it sort of summarized in one post, if that’s possible.

    Father, I did look at the links you recommended.


  90. Yes. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile – to bring together – by bringing us out of our bondage, not by appeasing or satisfying the wrath. Palamas has to be read in the long tradition of that kind of language all the way back to St. Athanasius, instead of reaching forward to bring in Latin ideas of the PSA. Context matters.

    I can’t speak to St Nicholas Cabasilas. St. Philaret’s catechism is one of the most Latinized statements ever put forth in the Orthodox world, and was approved at a time when the Russian Church was itself highly Latinized in its manuals of theology. I have no idea what you think of Florovsky’s critique of all of that (“the Latin Captivity”). I think he is spot on.

    It’s certainly kosher to cite Philaret if that’s how you want to present Orthodoxy – but it is strikingly unlike what went before throughout most of Orthodox history, and has been subject to significant and important criticism over the past several generations.

    I’ll not argue any of this. I’m just stating where I am on it. I’ve certainly met Orthodox clergy who have no trouble with the PSA. I think it is full of theological problems and represents a departure from the patristic tradition. I’m not alone in thinking that. That certainly was the thought of Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory. But, if someone wants to defend the PSA, then they’re free to do so. I’ll continue to criticize it because I think it is wrong. I’m not alone among Orthodox thinkers on this point.

    There being no dogmatic proclamations on the exact nature of the atonement the conversation and disagreement will doubtless continue.

  91. Hugh,
    It’s certainly representative of the thought of many within Orthodoxy – certainly those to whom I am responsible. But a majority? I have no idea. In my circle of acquaintance, which is fairly wide, I would say is pretty representative.

    There are, of course, Orthodox priests who would defend PSA. I do not. I think it’s wrong and a deviation from the Tradition. But there is not a dogmatic declaration in the matter – it’s still an argument to be had.

    Not everything in the Christian faith is spelled out…at least not within Orthodoxy. Much is, but there are questions to which we don’t have definitive answers. And we don’t have them because God hasn’t given them. So, we reason, pray, listen, argue, write, etc. If you read the letters of the fathers, you can see that this same process has been with us since the earliest days of the faith.

    I do not recommend Pomozansky or Rose when it comes to dogmatic expositions of Orthodoxy. There are much better things to read. And, some would argue with me there, too. They would likely be vocal critics of Orthodox seminaries as well. I am not.

  92. Thanks, Michelle.

    A great explanation.

    I’ve never been to Venezuela, but I’ve been to Guatemala many times. I can relate your comments to the ladies there.

    Can you further explain your view of ‘universal salvation’, my choice of words. I wasn’t aware Orthodoxy taught ‘universal salvation’. That is news to me.

    Thanks a bunch.

  93. I’m a convert of 21 years to Orthodoxy and had to repent of Calvinism.

    Having learned in those years just a little true theology, I cannot see how PSA squares. What’s more, it is an utter shame to prevent people from anticipating the love of God through all His works from before creation, through the old testament where He desired sacrifice but for reasons unknown to Calvinism and PSA. He still wants sacrifices and that’s why we too are anointed, consecrated by the Holy Spirit in the Divine Liturgy to be broken and distributed like Jesus.

    Yes God wants sacrifices. It is the way of life taught us by Christ THE Lamb for sinners who He became as a volunteer out of unfathomable love.

    I wish we could all just leave God’s attitudes to Him and take leave of high notions about what His justice is. We know from the prodigal son’s father that God’s justice incomprehensible. Can’t we stand in awe of His mercies and stop talking like we’re His lawyers? One thing I know – that is not humble enough (like God is humble) to be Orthodox theology.

  94. Father,

    Wow, your comment surprised me: your negative comment about Pomozanski and Rose is disturbing.

    I cut my Orthodox teeth on Pomozanski and Rose, especially Pomozanski. And your comments about seminaries.

    I think I am involved here with a moderate/progressive view of Orthodoxy. I was educated in a small conservative Serbian Orthodox Church.

    I know you will disagree with my last statement because you are sure you are right. I have no problem with your views other than the desire to better understand them.

    Not trying to be negative; trying to be honest and upfront with you and the others.


  95. Michael,

    I offer as a reminder: one cannot lump all Protestants together in one neat pile. There is such a variety of Protestant beliefs. There is a vast difference between my former church teachings and what many Protestants teach.

    Would you please explain what is or is not ‘humble enough to be Orthodox theology’?

    Thank you.

  96. Thanks, father.

    I do want to understand the ontological view of salvation.

    I look forward to your explanation.

    I will pray for you; please, pray for me.

  97. Fr Stephen, when I dealing with questions about salvation, partly coming from my family, my spiritual father mentioned readings from St John of Damascus. Could these readings be considered helpful for an ontological understanding?

  98. Terry, I think the best way to answer your question is to ask you to learn who Orthodox call theologians. Those few best exemplify true, humble Orthodox theology. They encountered God, being humbled beyond measure, mere creatures with nothing but what they’ve received.

    The truth about sacrifices is revealed by the Lamb who sacrificed Himself for us, to reach and rescue us in the midst of corruption and death.

    He condescended to us. We cannot be more humble than God. We can know Him only by being like Him. Being like Him is our calling and the fulfillment of our nature. Humility and thanksgiving are doors in our hearts leading at all times to paradise – because they locate Him in there. We are temples and He is our hope and glory.

    Sin is best explained in this: “Adam, where are you?” Our job is to be found, to put ourselves always in His presence. He is everything and without Him everything is nothing.

    In practical terms this works out for me like this: I try (always failing) to recognize that every slight, every urge to anger, every passion, every shame, every person and thing that disturbs me is paid for by His sacrifice. He bore it and allows me to participate in His forgiveness of all those sins. This is why King David could say that he, a convicted adulterous murderer, had sinned against God and God only. It’s true only because God Himself was lowered into the depths of hell and death by taking on all the corruption, pain, dislocation and suffering David caused. We have to do with Him and Him alone. When we realize that it is humbling to go to Him in prayer. Doing that, then, is Orthodox theology.

  99. Terry,

    As far as I know, a pagan back in Jesus’ day was rightly not considered to be one of God’s chosen people. Rather, the Jew’s were God’s people. Of course, a pagan could become one of God’s people by converting and becoming a Jew. I don’t think Jesus taught otherwise, and yet, paradoxically, almost mysteriously, Jesus proclaimed the daughterhood to God the Father of a pagan Canaanite women. And proclaimed as a son of God a pagan centurion, stating his faithfulness to God was greater than had ever been witnessed in all of Judea.

    I don’t think Christ denied the concrete reality of the Jews being God’s Holy People. But, paradoxically and contradictorily, outside of this Holy People that was Judaism were pagan women, and pagan centurions, who were, in fact, God’s Holy People. They did not first have to convert to become this Holy People, and yet the Truth only rested in the concrete, and very real House of Israel (not in paganism).

    So, likewise, the concrete, real Church is the the Orthodox Church. It is the House of Israel. Yet, some who are outside of it are somehow actually paradoxically, or mystically, within it.

    So, its not a universal acceptance of all faiths, just like the pagan women didn’t manifest an acceptance of paganism as a means to Salvation.

  100. Michelle,


    Nobody can be saved incidentally or accidentally. People are saved on purpose with a purpose.

    I used to teach that the Kingdom of God consists of:

    1) those who died before the ‘age of accountability’
    2) the saved of the Old Testament
    3) the mentally handicapped, and
    4) those in the church, the body of Christ

    People do not enter the church or are saved accidentally or incidentally. One becomes a Christian on purpose with a purpose.

    Being in the right place at the right time does not automatically save one or make one a Christian or put one in the church.

    If one can be saved outside the church, there is no need of the church.

    If all are saved, the church is not needed.

    Again, thank you.

  101. Terry, (also Fr Stephen in case you haven’t heard this one)
    Here is a link my spiritual father recommended when I presented him with a fairly provocative question on salvation. It is a podcast put out by Ancient Faith Radio. In this podcast the writing of St Athanasius is presented on the Incarnation and is entitled using the Saints words “what was God to do?”. It’s short –about 13 minutes.

  102. Thank you Fr Stephen (and Fr. John) for your comments on what Palamas says and does not say.

    Even in modern Greek there is a tone of “substitution” in the word but it immediately suggests the image in my mind of Christ standing in for us, shedding his blood and taking the punishments of the evil one in our place, and overturning the prince of this world by doing so. I think justice is in His witnessing.

    So for right now my definition is: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends”

  103. Dee,

    A great video. I liked it and it helped my understanding.

    “God became man so that man can become God”.

    A great quote which I have read or heard many times, but it never looses its appreciation for deification or theosis.

    Thanks, Dee.

  104. Careful, Janine.

    Your post comes mighty close to describing the penal substitution idea of salvation/atonement.

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate the way you worded it

  105. Fr. Stephen,

    Your issues with the distorted understanding of the atonement that you find in western theology should not cause you to dismiss perfectly legitimate images of our salvation that are found throughout Scripture and the Fathers.

    You cannot legitimately dismiss legal imagery that is Scriptural and Patristic, and suggest that we have no such imagery. We will all face a final judgment, for example. What is that if not a legal image?

    As for St Nicholas Cabasilas, you can find the pertinent quote and reference to where it is found in his classic “The Life in Christ” here:

    People like St. Philaret of Moscow used formats and some terminology that you can label “Latinized”, but he is doing the same thing that modern Orthodox writers do, without batting an eye — he was expressing Orthodox in terms and via media that were meaningful in the intellectual sea of the times he swam in.

    One day contemporary writers may get some other label, because they spoke in existentialist or post modern terms, but the issue is not whether you convey your ideas in terms meaningful in your own intellectual and cultural milieu — the issue is whether or not the ideas you are conveying are faithful to the Orthodox Tradition. And if you want to take issue with what St. Philaret of Moscow said, or with Fr. Michael Pomazansky, simply dismissing them because they came from a cultural milieu different from your own does not constitute actual engagement with them on a substantive level.

    I think Florovsky’s critique of “the Latin Captivity” have some merit, but it depends on the specifics. I think St. Philaret of Moscow and Fr. Michael Pomazansky both had a far more thoroughly Orthodox mindset than most of us could ever dream of. It is certainly worthwhile to ask the question of whether or not all the trends in the Russian Tradition have been faithful to the Patristic Tradition, but the wholesale dismissal of it is certainly no better than unquestioning embrace of it… and I would argue that it is far worse. If you take a look at where many of those who think they are so much more Orthodox in their thinking have actually taken things, it should give one pause about assuming that we are in such a better and more purely patristic time of Orthodox thought. For example, it is fairly easy to prove that the Church would never countenance any suggestion that homosexuality might not be a sin, and yet many of our American Orthodox “Theologians” today, who have thrown off the shackles of the “Latin Captivity” have clearly come to that conclusion, and embraced views that have more in common with Unitarian Universalism than they do with the Fathers.

  106. Terry,
    I would not describe my work as moderate or liberal Orthodoxy. I am, however, willing to engage in critical reflection within Orthodoxy. That is not always common with everyone. It is quite common within academic settings such as seminaries and Orthodox universities. Orthodoxy is not monolithic. We are even strained in our relations with each other from time to time. Certain questions test our love for one another. My critique of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement runs fairly deep and is probably well known. But I’m only a priest. I’m simply an example within Orthodoxy.

    What you encounter you will encounter more than once if you venture outside the parish and have wider conversations. Pomozansky and Rose are perfectly Orthodox, and St. Philaret of Moscow is a saint. But you will hear criticisms from some. You will hear criticisms of me and many others, too.

    Orthodoxy is the truth, it is the harbor of salvation. I believe critical examination is healthy, if it is measured and works within a consensus in the Church, and is willing to be responsible to authority. I believe there have been periods in our history that Orthodoxy has been tested and tried. God has always corrected the Church and kept it on course.

    Pomozansky, for example, represents what is often described as the “manuals” in theology. They were very common in Russia in the 19th century. The criticism has been that Russian thought was overly influenced by Latin (Jesuits) for a period of time as the Tsars sought to organize and regularize life in Russia, including the Church. They looked to outside models to do so. The result was a very organized presentation, such as Pomozansky’s work. And, it is perfectly Orthodoxy within the wide scope of things.

    A major criticism arose in the 20th century, driven largely by the work of Fr. Georges Florovsky, one of the emigres from Russia after the Revolution. He described that period in Russia as part of a “Western Captivity” of the Church. He worked instead to return theology back to the consensus of the Fathers and away from the “manuals.” His work has inspired a generation of scholars across the Orthodox world. Of course, Florovsky himself was the object of criticism by some.

    Pomozansky is not widely used in America – but is still used.

    When I was first in the process of becoming Orthodox (studying, visiting, discussing) I ran across certain arguments that were quite troublesome. At the time, one major jurisdiction was out of communion with almost everyone, and the arguments sometimes got quite bitter. Some of this conversation has echoes of that argument.

    But, learning all of this did not deter me from becoming Orthodox. It opened my eyes to current events and present history. Recently, 4 Patriarchs refused to attend the Council in Crete. It was not, ostensibly, about theology, but there were certainly theological tensions – within the Council as well.

    This is been true throughout the history of the Church. All of the councils had such difficulties and some of the councils simply failed in their work and the Church’s critical reception essentially declared that they were false councils. Orthodoxy does not operate with a central controlling authority, such as a Pope. That means that theology happens in a “conciliar” manner. Sometimes that conciliar approach gets a little testy. But its healthy.

    It would be wrong to have an extremely monolithic view of Orthodoxy. Some who do so spend a lot of time declaring their opposition to various Bishops, etc., and take a very defensive posture. I entered Orthodoxy being well aware of the tensions. But looking at Orthodox history, I saw that the tensions worked. God has preserved the Church. The tensions are healthy – and indeed are signs of health.

    I’m sorry that it is troubling for you. But you seem to have a good heart and a good head. Pray, study, don’t be afraid. Orthodoxy is solid and is everything that it says it is. But the reality is fairly large and has a variety of conversations.

    I would prefer never to disagree with another priest – certainly in public. Indeed, it’s something I generally avoid. But it’s not unhealthy.

  107. Fr. John,
    Your points are well taken. The imagery is there – though – and in this article I have tried to go to the heart of the matter – the “legal” imagery, when used in the manner of the Nominalists – gets distorted. I have no trouble with the imagery and do not want to deny that it is there. I want to push to the depth of its understanding.

    I would not want to dismiss either St. Philaret nor Pomozansky and do not doubt their Orthodoxy. But it is also ok to reflect on the character of the work. I agree that it’s possible to err plenty of ways in our contemporary life in the Church. We are certainly far from a better and more Patristic time of thought. But we, like they, have to struggle towards the fullness of that mind. Those who are advocating any change of the Church’s teaching viz sexuality are certainly not in my circle of acquaintance. But it’s a strange landscape –

    It is worth noting that Florovsky’s work is not treated with an uncritical eye. Theology requires reflection. God give us such grace. I pray that I have not given offense, and beg the prayers of St. Philaret.

    But I take your words to heart. I will try to write in a manner that includes them within the conversation.

  108. Terry, what Father says of Fr. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory is not a put down. Though I never met him I consider him instrumental in bringing me to the Church and that is not uncommon for many, like me who came to the Church in the late 1980’s-90’s. That does not mean he is a good source for dogmatics. He did not really concern himself with dogmatics but with prayer and struggle. In that arena he is quite a blessing for all of us.

    I cannot really comment on Pomozansky. I read his work Dogmatic Theology and despite high praise from my brother, it did not engage me.

    Keep in mind too that the Church’s method of arriving at the truth has more than a bit of resemblance to the Hebraic method if constant study and testing of personal understanding by dialog in prayer with our brothers.

    Compared to other Christian traditions the Orthodox Church has realitively few dogmas. What we have is admirably summed up in the Creed.

    The rest involves how we live, repent and strive for holiness. Those are often quite existential questions and always deeply personal. How we work out our salvation in our particular community and time is unique to each one of us and our marriage to Christ. General things can be said and their are a lot of “don’t go there” signs.

    It is this temendous freedom that can be difficult to deal with.

    Look at the conversation between Fr. Stephen and Fr. John. Two highly respected priests who love God, Jesus Christ and His Church.

    They show the living process of constantly navigating the narrow road. We each of us correct and guide the others with the sight we have been given. Each of us requires guidance and correction.

    On that note I want to say to Dee how much I have gained by her comments. She is young in the Church yet , IMO, shows wisdom and insight.

    Thank all of you.

  109. “If one can be saved outside the church, there is no need of the church.”

    I never said one could be saved outside the Church. In fact, I was trying to say quite the opposite. This is why I said the Canaanite women presents to us a paradox. A paradox means that something that appears contradictory somehow is not. It’s presents a truth that we cannot easily explain.

    To be one with Christ, which is to say to become God, is salvation. This is why becoming God’s own body (the Church) is equivalent to the word “salvation.” You cannot become God apart from His body. But you say people will themselves to be in the Church on purpose, with a purpose. Tell me, how does one become God on purpose, with a purpose? The Orthodox are not Arminians. It’s not a matter of choice.

    Rather, the truth consist in another paradox -yes, we are saved synergistically, and yet it is impossible for a person to become God on purpose, by a purpose, in any way. To become God is 100% grace, 0% human purpose. The paradox is that even though its 100% grace, God does not use force to save people against their will. We also are not Monergists.

  110. Father,

    Your post makes perfect sense. I can see the same history/context in my former church.

    Honestly, at this time I don’t know a lot about Orthodox writings as far as ‘who is in’ and ‘who is out’. Who is popular and who is not. Who is on the NY Times top selling list and who is not. I think you get the gist of what I’m trying to say. Who is ‘old country’ and who is ‘new country’.

    As far as venturing out, a lot of my reading, I think, shocked my priest. I’m sure he’d prefer I didn’t read all that. And besides that, I am here on this blog, being exposed to ‘the other side’ and learning a lot. I was searching and reaching out when I found this blog.

    I think this blog will really open my eyes.

    What I said and how I said it in no ways says or implies I don’t respect you and your position.

    Thank you, father.

  111. Thanks, Michael,

    What you said rings true inside me.

    If the fathers are willing to engage each other (and I really appreciate their discussion) and to grow. I certainly am willing to engage and grow.

    A great post, and it really spoke to me.


  112. Hugh,

    Father’s words: “Whatever hell is, it is not the willful torment of a human being by God for the purpose of satisfying His justice. The purpose of hell is not torment. God has no need to torment. If there is torment, God is not its cause. God is its cure”, are quite reminiscent of St Silouan, I think that (St Silouan the Athonite – the first part “A monk of the Hoy mountain”) is abook that would open your mind while not disagreeing with your heart.

  113. Michelle,

    The only think I would add to your post is that becoming saved and becoming God are not the same. One is the beginning; the other is the end. I know there is mixture all along the Christian path, but one cannot become God without first being saved.

    One does not accidentally stumble or fall into the church. One becomes a Christian, a part of the church by engaging God and responding appropriately ‘on purpose’.

    I like your post. They are ‘engaging’. Thank you so much.

  114. If one can be saved outside the church, there is no need of the church.

    If all are saved, the church is not needed.

    As Michelle noted, there is paradox here. It is always dangerous to state things in such absolutes; we are not given to understand everything. Better stated, not everything has been revealed to us. “We know where the Church is; we do not know where it is not.”

  115. Byron, sometimes I think we don’t always know where the Church is or rather whom the Church is. Too often I catch myself thinking the Church is my opinion. God forgive me.

  116. Bryon, thanks for stating Michelle’s comment.

    I still stand by what I wrote. Perhaps it is not a heaven or hell issue. In time I may come around to your and Michelle’s understanding. I’m still studying. It is where I am at the present.

    “I can do no more; God help me”.

    And I’m not a Luther fan.

    Thanks. I am impressed how you all stand behind and stand up for what you believe.


  117. Fr. Stephen,

    I have a deep appreciation for this post and thread, and for many others like it, because of the incisive way you’ve deconstructed false notions of God such as we get in PSA teachings and Calvinism. These have damaged so many people who now need illumination and healing just to see that God is the prodigal’s father who loves His child’s return. Every price of justice, whatever they are, He absorbs at great cost out of the purest love.

    Sacrificial imagery appearing with wrath and angry flashes of lightening in the Old Testament have a very pure motive that is not explained by PSA stories which treat them as images of justice. Christ taught sacrifice in Old Testament examples and then gave His own life so He could give it to us where we are, in the death we earned by walking away. He taught by example that we too must lay down our life because He can only be found in death, which fortunately for sinners is inevitable.

    Jesus upbraided teachers who kept the people from seeing a loving groom who had come to seek them out. They would keep people from seeing God laying dead for three days in a tomb so His broken body could be raised to feed them with divine manna. Whatever His justice is — it is HIS. Our job is to meet Him, to sacrifice ourselves too so we may obtain Him and His life.

    Nothing now separates us from the Father, the perfectly beautiful Father Who’s gentle nurturing is strong, Who gives food and breath daily, Who so kindly attends to us that we should blush in the face of such Love. He gives us His glory because it is the proper raiment in His house. He wants us there.

    Missing the mark, or sin, is not complex. It is missing Him. We don’t need bible lawyers of justice. We need to sacrifice ourselves on His altar, dying daily to ourselves for Him toward those whom He loves. We can say yes to the comforting Holy Spirit and present ourselves at any and every moment. This is what sacrifice means.

    Father, I hope you don’t mind me unloading here. The heresies your posts effectively tackle need to be tackled and your exposing them helps to save souls like mine. Thank you!

  118. Terry, simply continue to seek God in all things. If we “stand up” or try to answer your questions, it is only ever to help you along whatever path He leads. God bless you in your journey as I am sure He has and will!

    I found a fun quote by Neils Bors that I like to think of when I get too analytical in my thoughts: “No, no, you’re not thinking; you’re just being logical.” It lets me poke fun at myself. 🙂

  119. Michael,

    Jesus absorbed the wrath & justice of God the Father so that we would enjoy those blessed benefits that you & I so rightly love to enumerate.

    To conflate 2 Cor. 5:21 & Gal. 3:13, He who knew no sin became our sin, and took upon Himself our deserved curse so that we might enjoy only life, righteousness, light, love and mercy from God the Father.

    I cannot know what version of “PSA” you were subject to, but as Fr John has here indicated, not all such thought is entirely antithetical to Orthodoxy. Please.

  120. I repeat, with all due respect, the Orthodox cannot lump all Protestants in one pile and judge them as all equal/identical. They all teach different things,

    I’d rather see you evaluate, as many do, a specific Protestant doctrine and not Protestantism.

    Having said that, I am not at all pro-Protestantism.

    Perhaps at this stage I am actually more anti-Protestant than I am pro-Orthodox. And I am working hard on that. I think God is pulling/leading me to the Orthodox faith. I am going, but I guess I can’t help going screaming and kicking.


  121. Hi Terry, thanks for your comment

    The thing that makes it ‘not penal,’ so to speak, is that it depends on who is doing the punishing. As the punishment is from “the evil one,” it is about injustice and cruelty and violence, the rule of the prince of this world. The One who takes it for us — in the condescension of Incarnation — and upends it for all time, setting us free, is the Lord of love. It is all an act of love in which we follow as “witnesses.” The justice is in freedom and mercy

  122. Conversely (or, coordinately), Terry, neither am I Pro-All-Things-Protestant.

    And cannot be Anti-All-Things-Orthodox! 🙂

  123. Thanks, Janine.

    Would you further expand “the justice is in freedom and mercy”. I don’t follow that.

    Please, would you explain the differences between grace and mercy.


  124. It’s true, Terry, there are many different kinds of Protestants. I think there are likely even different nuances between those who hold some form of PSA. Some aspects of PSA are quite Orthodox. Others of its aspects cannot be reconciled with Orthodoxy at all it seems to me. I like to think in terms of being pro Christ first of all and the pro personal repentance and pro all my brothers and sisters whatever camp they may be in, rather than being anti this or that. I don’t always succeed in that, but that is where I would like to land. In upholding the centrality of Christ, I believe Fr. Stephen’s late Bishop of blessed memory, Bp. Dimitri (Royster), is a beautiful example.

  125. Hugh,
    I could give a description of a substitutionary model, perhaps even penal, within an ontological understanding, I think. The language of the Father punishing the son, etc., can be very problematic. Again, the Nominalism, unspoken but assumed in almost all modern accounts of the PSA renders it more than problematic. You can, as Fr. John has illustrated, find a quote here and there, that repeats Western versions of the PSA within Orthodoxy. In the case of St. Philaret, he is working in a time and place in Russia when Latin (RC) catechisms are being used as the model and being corrected for Orthodox usage, but at a time when Orthodox education was at a low point internally. St. Nicholas Cabasilas writes in 14th century Byzantium, in a period under heavy influence from Catholic scholasticism. He, I understand, rejected the doctrine of the Divine Energies as they were being articulated by St. Gregory Palamas (a direct challenge to Roman scholasticism). So, both quotes are drawn from weak periods in the Orthodox culture.

    On the other hand, the ontological view, as I’ve described it in my following article, is drawn from the heart of the fathers, St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians, St. Maximus, etc. who are the giant figures of Orthodoxy at the very height of its dogmatic formulations. Not all Fathers are equal. The PSA in the West is often the centerpiece of thought and theology – certainly something it has never been in Orthodoxy. I would suggest that the Conciliar period is a common inheritance of all Christians and should be the primary touchstone for how to read and understand the Scriptures.

    Is it antithetical? Close. And if it’s moved to the center, then it is out of place.

  126. PS it seems to me that Christ is the absolute unimpeachable witness (literally “martyr” in Greek) against the prince of this world. He is the truly innocent who suffers unjustly from the one who “was a murderer from the beginning.” So we are to follow in His example.

    The courtroom language is not about God’s punishment; it is about the true Judgment and witnessing at the end of the age. Since the other image for that time is the wedding feast we have yet another understanding that it is full reconciliation and life

  127. Terry, you said,
    “One is the beginning; the other is the end………One becomes a Christian, a part of the church by engaging God and responding appropriately ‘on purpose’.”

    I actually agree with you here. There is a journey to be trod towards theosis. But, again, there is a paradox. Christ said, “the Kingdom of God is at hand!” What He is saying here is that the ‘end,’ as you put it, has been accomplished and is here, right now! But it certainly doesn’t look like it to our darkened eyes. If we had eyes to see, we would see the Kingdom in it Fullness right now, this very moment! And yet, paradoxically, there is a journey to be had, a ‘beginning,’ as you put it, in order to find this ‘end.’

    I think Christ proclaimed this ‘end’ when He exalted the pagan Canaanite woman. She was at the beginning of her journey, so to speak, and yet Christ calls us to wipe away the darkness from our eyes and see that the Kingdom, in all its Fullness and Glory, truly resided in this humble woman’s heart. Its a paradox, my friend.

  128. Janine, if the imagery of the final judgment is not at all about punishment, why does the parable of the sheep and the goats end with: “And these shall go away into everlasting *punishment*: but the righteous into life eternal”?

  129. Fr. Stephen, I read there is some confusion about St. Nicholas Cabasilus because of the way some articles were written about him and a close associate who actually defected and became a Roman Catholic during the Hesechast controversy–St. Nicholas is sometimes confused with the associate. From what I understand, St. Nicholas was a firm supporter of St. Gregory Palamas and the monks of Mt. Athos. Of course, that doesn’t mean he didn’t borrow language from the RC scholastics.

  130. Fr. Stephen, do you think St. Gregory Palamas represents some weak point in the history of Orthodox theology?

    St. Philaret of Moscow and St. Nicholas Cabasilas use the term “satisfaction”. However, neither us it in reference to satisfying God’s wrath. At a time when honor and satisfaction of that honor were powerful aspects of the culture, this was a powerful image that conveyed a completely biblical point, and as such, this is a completely legitimate image, as they used it.

  131. Fr. John,
    Not to put words into Janine, but the final judgment has a great deal written about it, ways of describing what is in fact going on other than simply standing in front of the throne and being told where to go. Of course there is a final judgment – but the interior of that reality cannot be exhausted or simply limited to an almost cartoon-like image. Judgment, for example, “has already begun in the household of God.” Some Orthodox writers describe the sheep and the goats as being two aspects within each person. It’s not, by any means, a proclamation of a legal moment with sentencing, etc. That fails to do justice to the many ways the judgment is treated in the Tradition.

    What, for example, is the nature of “everlasting punishment?” etc. As surely as you can quote St. Philaret and St. Nicholas Cabasilas, I could quote St. Isaac of Syria or St. Gregory of Nyssa, etc. St. Gregory has much to say in this matter…and was later declared “father of the fathers.”

  132. HI again Terry:

    Freedom: Fr. Stephen has spoken above of the ransom model. You can see it still today in the Middle East. Innocent captives are taken and held for ransom. Someone has to pay for hostages to be released. Christ “paid” for us. He is Liberator, and Redeemer. He is the “stronger man” who binds the “strong man” of this world. The kidnapper is not God. Rather Jesus has told us that those who sin are “slaves to sin.” It is evil that keeps us captive.

    He “pays” by serving as the ultimate unimpeachable witness against the evil one — and we are set free for all time. (“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”). This is His free sacrifice of love. We do not have to be slaves to this “worldly” way of thinking and being. We can follow Him; we are liberated because He gave up His life (trampling death by death). How you look at the crucifixion is everything (“As Moses lifted up the serpent …”). If you see justice in the crucifixion itself it is wrong. IF you see the victory of God over injustice and slavery to violence and evil then we are seeing correctly.

    Again I’ll refer back to Fr Stephen — it depends on who’s demanding the payment. It is the unjust evil one who demands death. The devil gets his due, but it is his end — the total transfiguring power of the Cross is just there. We are set free from his rule.

    Difference between mercy and grace — I don’t really know how to make this distinction and I would have to defer to Fr Stephen or others wiser than I. That seems to be a kind of mystery to my mind. I am an amateur thinker of things theological 🙂

  133. If one pays attention to the vigil for the Sunday of the last judgment, they cannot fail to not that eternal punishment is a highly emphasized aspect of that final judgment.

    And every year, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Church anathematizes anew the idea that there will be an end to the punishment of the damned:

    Furthermore, Met. Hierotheos (Vlachos) makes the case that St. Gregoy of Nyssa did not teach this heresy, and certainly the Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council did not believe that he did either. The quotes, allegedly from St. Isaac the Syrian that you would cite were unknown to the Church until very recent times, and have not been preserved by the Church. There is therefore no way to know how accurate those texts are, but at they very least, it is outside the accepted norms of the Church when we anathematize that very every year.

  134. Fr. John,

    I think you will find the answer to your question to Janine in her August 12 at 12:46 am comment to Terry. She is apparently not denying punishment per se–she is denying that the punishment is meted out by God, rather than the evil one, which, IMO, is another way of suggesting the punishment or torment occasioned by our persistent attachment to sin is not something extrinsic to the sin itself, but rather the natural consequence of sin. Sin, being a matter of ontology–of ontological corruption–is its own punishment.

  135. It is simply not Biblical to suggest that the devil does the punishing, and that God simply let’s it happen.

    St. Paul wrote: “since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

    Commenting on these verses, St. John Chrysostom wrote:

    “There are many men, who form good hopes not by abstaining from their sins, but by thinking that hell is not so terrible as it is said to be, but milder than what is threatened, and temporary, not eternal; and about this they philosophize much. But I could show from many reasons, and conclude from the very expressions concerning hell, that it is not only not milder, but much more terrible than is threatened. But I do not now intend to discourse concerning these things. For the fear even from bare words is sufficient, though we do not fully unfold their meaning. But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that “they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction.” How then is that temporary which is everlasting? “From the face of the Lord,” he says. What is this? He here wishes to say how easily it might be. For since they were then much puffed up, there is no need, he says, of much trouble; it is enough that God comes and is seen, and all are involved in punishment and vengeance. His coming only to some indeed will be Light, but to others vengeance” (Homily 3, 2nd Thessalonians).

  136. Thanks Fr John, Karen, Fr Stephen, Terry, et al

    Hi Fr John thank you for your question to me

    Thank you Fr Stephen for your words and teaching also

    I would also say that along the same lines of what Fr Stephen wrote, the Judgment is such a great mystery. It also involves the mystery of time and the end of the age. What is the fullness of time going to be? What is the reconciliation of the end of the age? If we see the wedding feast parable, there are those who show up without the garment that was a gift of God. I would say to remain outcast *at that time (whatever that time and its nature really is)* is in itself an eternal punishment. IF eternal life is on offer, to be without the substance of that life is a kind of eternal loss. And yes the age begun with Christ’s Incarnation. When will we realize its fullness — ‘no one knows the time but the Father in heaven’ and Christ seems to make it clear that’s not really ours to speculate on

    It is like the “holy fire” we either stand in or are burned from (I wrote about this in a comment far up the thread). What do we fail to discard from ourselves that is incompatible with it? How much time do we have? I don’t know the answer to that. I think faith itself is a great mystery. God looks into our hearts and finds who loves God. Who can see past all the rest of us?

    IF I remember from classes (!) Gregory of Nyssa suggested the idea of universalism. I think again that belongs to the mystery of time. Forgive me if I offer a weak answer 🙂

  137. Fr. John,
    As I stated yesterday, I do not understand St. Gregory Palamas to be espousing the forensic view of the atonement. It belongs rather to the ransom model. But all fathers at every time and every place have strengths and weaknesses. There is no golden age of Orthodoxy nor has there ever been. The fathers have to be read together and read with wisdom and discernment. This is what Florovsky meant when he described a “neo-patristic synthesis.”

    As to the matters of the 5th Council, etc. and the anathemas, I do not want to get into that debate here. There’s far more to be said than you’ve offered in your summary. But I really do not want to argue it. I understand your position (I’ve seen it plenty of times). I have my disagreements with it – though probably not the ones you might imagine.

    I hold all the fathers in reverence, but I think that means holding them all together, in the context of the liturgical and ascetic life, under the omophor of my bishop, etc. I think you probably do the same.

  138. Fr. John,
    Chrysostom: “we do not fully unfold their meaning.” Yes. And that is the point. Punishment requires a lot of unfolding. For example, the same coming is Light to some and vengeance to others. That itself is something to ponder how this is. Thank you for your comments.

  139. “His coming only to some indeed will be Light, but to others vengeance”

    The presence of the Lord, it has been said, is a fire to those who hate Him and a blessing to those who seek Him. Fr. Whiteford, please forgive me, but I have not read anything which you have posted that would refute this. I think that we are punished, not by God’s desire or direct action, but by His presence; now as in a mirror, then in full. The fullness of God to those who hate Him yet are resurrected in His Presence may be considered “eternal destruction” (it’s an interesting phrase – to be eternally destroyed? to be destroyed over an eternity of time? If God never removes His Image from His creation, this is really as close to non-being as we could ever be. But I don’t believe it is He that destroys, but our own race towards non-being as we flee His presence that does that). Just my thoughts.

    As Fr. Freeman has noted before, we should struggle with the idea of Hell but we should never consider it separately from the love of God. To my knowledge, Hell is not clearly defined in the scripture or the Tradition, although it is much considered.

  140. Thanks for the replies and explanation.

    I am also impressed at the understanding of the Orthodox faith you all possess.


  141. Terry, it seems to me you have a passion for truth. Loving the Person who is Truth is what it’s all about isn’t it? God bless, keep going.

  142. Terry,

    Forgive me for chiming in. I also grew up in the coc and was an inquirer/catechumen for 8 years before finally becoming Orthodox. I have a lot of baggage, so I can relate to a lot of your comments.

    But you are correct that the coc and Orthodoxy both make claims to holding the “right” belief. It was my desire to be “right” that first lead me from the coc to the steps of an Orthodox church. However, there is a big difference in this, too. Growing up, I believed we were the only ones who were right, and that everyone else, (my Baptist school friends, my lapsed uncle) were going to hell because they were “wrong,” in other words, they weren’t following the right rules. This emphasis on “rightness” was ultimately very isolating to me – I had a hard time loving or connecting to people outside of my denomination. That may not be true for everyone, but it was for me.

    In Orthodoxy, though, while we do believe we’re “right,” it isn’t our “rightness” that saves us. Our right belief is a right understanding of what salvation means. Its about communion with all of mankind and with God. We are saved communally. This has changed my whole relationship to the world. Most of my friends and family belong to other denominations, but there “wrongness” is no longer a central matter for me. We are in this together. Loving them saves me. (And, as it turns out, arguing with them doesn’t.)

    Of course, this is what Fr. Stephen is saying so much better than I could. But I wanted to share that in my experience having confidence that you believe the truth doesn’t have to be at the expense of everyone who disagrees.

  143. Father Stephen:

    First, an observation of a God-fearing Protestant. To return to the start of your blog post, I have long looked on in wonder at Fundamentalists taking about the “Blood of Jesus.” It can be frightening. I’m not sure what they mean, but it is utterly CONCRETE.

    My (Episcopal) church had a Vacation Bible School where being “washed in the Blood of the Lamb” was highlighted. After a week, a gang of adults gathered asking to learn what the heck we had just been talking about! And the kids did not seem to be a quarter as put off or puzzled as their parents.

    I presume the Orthodox have a more sane way of dealing with the topic.

  144. All,
    I have begun eliminating some comments on this thread. I think salient points have been made and simply saying the same things in disagreement is not useful. Read, ponder. The topic will not and should not go away. But if you find a comment not appearing, it’s the work of the Moderator.

  145. re hell, etc. Maybe it’s neither here nor there, but I always think it’s notable that Jesus seems to be speaking to His disciples when He talks about it, His close followers. The warnings are to *us* (believers) especially about how we treat “the least of these.” I would say it’s particularly strong for those in leadership in His Church in terms of what and when and to whom He delivers these teachings in the Gospels. “To whom much is given . . .”

  146. It is more than a little significant that in every place in which Jesus describes hell/judgment, it is in a parable. That invites us to go deeper. I think that in reaction to universalism, some go too far in the direction of literal and fail to ponder what’s going on. There are many things in various spiritual elders and the like who make very helpful comments on the matter.

  147. Father,
    It is interesting to note that the word translated as punishment has for its first meaning in the BDAG Lexicon: Correction. I found that interesting. I also found it interesting that the word often translated as “propitiation” appears in the All Holy Trinity prayer of the Trisagion as either blot out or pardon depending on whose Liturgy book one addresses

  148. Hugh,

    In this is your error: “Jesus absorbed the wrath & justice of God the Father”

    He paid our price (the price of our sins with all the tragic pains and effects) to inherit us for Himself and bring us to His Father’s house (kingdom) as a bride.

    Jesus did not pay the Father for us. The Father was not holding us back or keeping us out. We have all gone astray.

    Unlike Adam, when God says “where are you?”, we can answer “Here I am in your Son!” And we know we are in Him if we love as he loved, with sacrificial love to the end – til death.

    Salvation is costly. It is not trivial like some bail bond or pardon. Human life is always sacrificial from arche to telos. We live and die for others as Christ does for us. Made in His image, our nature is only fulfilled following Him in every respect possible. Since He keeps pouring out divine grace, everything is possible and required of us. This bar is much higher than any legal bar.

  149. Ladies and gentlemen,
    A verse from the Apocrypha, often overlooked by the non-Orthodox that more or less settles certain things. God did not punish Adam and Eve with death. He warned them of it be was not its cause.

    For God did not create death: neither does he take pleasure in the destruction of the living. (Wis 1:13)

    The second half of the verse is quoted in the NT.

  150. Father,

    I understand God either does things or He allows them to be done.

    Would you explain this to me.

    I goofed up on the other part of this post. Sorry


  151. Terry,
    Death is not any “thing” at all. It didn’t have to be created. It is a movement away from communion with the Lord and Giver of Life. Death is a “natural” consequence of rebelling against the only One who keeps us in existence and in well-being (and desires to give us eternal being). The statement in the Garden was a warning. Don’t do this, because this will happen. It is not don’t do this or I will kill you.

    And even death is not pure non-existence. Because only God could take existence away but He does not. “The gifts and callings of God are without repentance.” He doesn’t change His mind. It’s why the devil and his angels still exist. Their existence is God’s gift.

    But death is a “relative” non-being, a movement towards non-being. It results in the death of the body (the separation of the soul from the body) and the dissolution of the body.

    The healing of that death is the resurrection. Salvation is not complete until the “redemption of the body.” Romans 8:23

  152. Father would you say that despite our distinct personness that I’d God were allow anyone to pass into non-existence it would mean the same for all because we exist only in Him not as discreet and unconnected individuals who are autonomous?

  153. Thanks, Michael Patrick, though your first and third paragraphs don’t make sense, I agree with the second!

    He paid our price (the price of our sins with all the tragic pains and effects) to inherit us for Himself and bring us to His Father’s house (kingdom) as a bride.

    But I don’t see what “curse” otherwise means.

    At the last, all outside of Christ will suffer God’s wrath for their sins. No?

  154. Terry,

    God bless you and your earnest seeking.

    Fr. Bless,

    You ministry here is a gift to all of us. Thank God!

    Perhaps – if you continue along this pedagogy and the ontological theme so necessary for Orthodox life – you can tie in the centrality of Love within ecclesial life to ontology.

    I feel as if this connection is the “missing link” that makes us modern Christians view formulaic doctrine and theology as primary instead of a reflection and gift of Love working amongst its members “in the Spirit.” Correct doctrine as it were is not what makes Orthodoxy…Love is what makes Orthodoxy, and doctrine is simply an outpouring of charismata overflowing from that Love.

    Perhaps for Terry and many of us who have never had the connection overtly made, I think it is fundamental in parsing out what it is to be saved through faith working in Love, which is greater than faith. (1 Cor 13:13)

    Perhaps this is not the time, but having read the comments over the last few days, I feel as if this may continue to illumine many readers to the questions at hand. If anyone can make that connection clear, by the gifts of God working in us, it is you. For me, this connection was / is key and is the primary difference between Orthodoxy and all other “orthodoxy.” It is not simply a matter of doctrinal opinion, but wholly a matter of “putting on Love” which binds us in perfect harmony. Misunderstanding what the “haritikon anthropon” is and conflating this “divisive man” from one who simply holds an incorrect idea seems crucial to my understanding of ontological soteriology we participate in “in Christ.”

  155. Onesimus, thanks for the encouragement.

    Over the years I have preached and taught several lessons on Onesimus.


  156. I’ve been disturbed about something, and this blog post is the best place to bring it out, I think. Please forgive me if I’m hijacking the conversation.

    For Lent this year, I decided to read the Lenten homilies of St John of Kronstadt in the book “Season of Repentance”. The homilies were great. But as I was reading, in some places, I detected a hint of PSA. But when I got to the end of the book, 2 of the last several homilies were blatantly in-your-face, God punished Jesus in our place. It left me very depressed and discouraged, that one of our saints would seem to be so off of the Orthodox beliefs about something so important.

    Thanks for allowing me to post this.

  157. Michael Bauman. I like first names but there are two of you.

    Would you please explain to me how we exist as non-discrete, connected, non-autonomous individuals.

    I hope I said that right. I don’t understand.

    Thank you.

  158. Hugh,

    God’s “wrath” and “curse” relate to His grace. I have little confidence we can discuss these because I suspect that our understanding is too far apart. But I’m willing to try.

    Let’s start with the foundational positive attribute of grace. What is His grace to you?

  159. Michael B. Thank you for your kind words. Sometimes I fear I go overboard. Lord have mercy.

    I think Michael B. might be referring to our connectedness in God’s image, the basis of our nature ontologically. There is more than this I realize, but I would be getting out of my depth to say any more.

  160. Michael B.,

    I wasn’t trying to be nasty. I really don’t understand.

    In some of these posts one needs a theological dictionary to refer to.

    If I’m having trouble, surely others here are.

    And I am learning here.

    Part of learning is expanding your vocabulary, and I can do that here.


  161. Terry,

    Not speaking for Michael B., and I’m butting in… (forgive me) But I’d offer what I can, and he can offer his response. I think Michael B. And I understand this generally the same way.

    Generally, within Orthodoxy there is a difference between a Person and an individual. These are not the same. A person is what God created us to be, an individual is what we have become according to the fall.

    In the simplest terms, a person is a unique and true aspect of human ontology which reflects the “image and likeness” of God and His Trinitarian personhood. It is the pre-fall condition and what we are being “renewed” into “In The image and likeness of Christ.”

    Opposite this; An “individual” as we commonly understand it, is a fallen manner of being and a perversion of personhood, which actively divides itself from the whole. It’s reference become itself. It seeks its own, and not the wellness of the other.

    Getting more into the dogmatic aspects of this reflected in the Ecumenical Councils;

    Trinitarian theology of the Ecumenical councils expresses that the 3 Persons of God exist in one substance. In Greek this is 3 “Hypostases” = persons and 1 Ousia = substance. Love unites the Trinitairian Hypostases into One indisolvable Ousia eternally. This Love is a free and eternal “mode of being” which is constituent of Life Himself and our “being” relies on likeness to that “image” gifted to us in creation by grace. God is Life by His “mode of being.” His mode of being is Love. Only in Trinitarian love can we receive eternal life, and have personhood re-established within us. We crucify the “old man” (individual) and put on the ” new man” (I.e. Christ).

    Mankind is created in the Trinitarian “image and likeness” of God. We are unique and unrepeatable persons who can only find our created personhood and receive our “being” and the telos of our personhood in Christ-likeness, which seeks to be One Ousia with both the Father, and with us. Life and identity are found in selfless, co-suffering Love. Our being – our very existence – is tied directly to the mode of being of God, “in whom we live, move and have our being.”

    Ontologically falling from “image and likeness” means “corruption” or a disintegration of humanity’s Ousia (a gift of God by which we share in His being) into individualistic parts which actually denies our true Hypostasis (personhood bound in Love). True Being is only be found in ‘being” like God in one Ousia bound by selfless Love. Individuality is not personhood. It is the opposite of personhood, as it sees itself as “it” and conceives itself in reference to itself, not in reference to its true hypostatic nature and Ousia (image and likeness) by which its being is contingent.

    All of this is very deeply connected to Trinitarian expressions of the Fathers and Ecumenical Councils which of course we believe is given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

    Forgive me if this is overly abstract at this point. I have only quickly typed this out and it will no doubt lead to greater questions. I’m pointing to the tip of an iceberg. I have faith that the further down this road you travel the more it with draw all things together. It is complex and deeply interrelated, but I can recommend further reading both online and in book form if you are interested.

  162. Onesimus,

    Thank you for that explanation. You are right: I need to do a ‘bunch more’ reading.

    However, my reading list and my to-do reading list is booked for weeks and even months.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts. Thanks

  163. Terry,

    I completely understand. May God bless you.

    When we are “amputated” (in one respect or another – even as “Orthodox”) from the Trinitarian aspects of human anthropology and the centrality of Trinitarian Love to the Gospel and the restoration of our true humanity and personhood in Christ, we lose the cohesiveness of the problem of sin and death and the depth and breadth of salvation.

    This is the power of the ontological that the forensic (however well intended as a teaching tool) cannot contend with. I feel that the forensic can have immense power (as Fr. Whiteford suggests). But I would suggest that this power is only established when bound to and leading to the ontological. Unfortunately, in my view, by and large, the former has been divorced from the later and been mistaken for the Gospel itself, and PSA extrapolated from the trucation of one aspect of something that points to the ontological. Fr. Freeman I think seeks to confront that departure head on and shock many of us out of a very shallow interpretation embraced by a large swath of Christian doctrine and praxis.

    God speed. Pray for me ( I need it.) I will pray for you.

  164. Onesimus, I appreciate your emphasis on ontological coinherence. The dislocation, corruption and stink of sin is best understood by seeing what it actually does to the body. Ours (humanity) and Christ’s (trinity).

    Thank you!

  165. Onesimus,

    Thanks so very much.

    I’ll try harder.

    You are a good man and kind.

    Thanks for your prayers. I will also pray for you.

  166. Father,

    Sorry to be a Quibbler, but I think it should be clarified that when you say that nominalism came in in the “Middle Ages” you meant the *late* Middle Ages. In the High Middle Ages, there were nominalists in the West but I believe they were in the minority. Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure et al were linguistic and legal realists: they believed concepts and the law referred to the very nature of things as created by God. Joseph

  167. Fr Stephen:
    It seems to me, with regards to death as non-being (or as close as you can get to it): All life is ontologically God’s Life. When God gifted us Life (His Life), then non-being becomes impossible, for His life is mine, and my life is His – we share One Life. My created life is His Uncreated Life. Perhaps I can put it this way: There is only One Life – God’s. There is no ‘life’ other than His own which can be annihilated without Him disappearing along with it. Or, to put it another way, God cannot section off the ‘piece’ of His gifted-to-me life that is ‘me’ and cause it to cease to exist while the rest of His life that is ‘Him’ continues. While we are eternally separate and distinct (I am eternally created by the Uncreated), we are also eternally inseparable, eternally One Life.
    These things are so very difficult to express in human language. I’m sure anything I’ve written above is highly susceptible to gross misinterpretation. I hope I’ve blabbed enough to make myself fairly clear.
    This is what makes sin so tragic. Here is an ontological definition of sin:
    “existence moving away from Existence toward a non-existent non-existence.”
    This is what makes sin so uncreative (it is limited – you can only move so far toward non-being) while righteousness (moving toward God) is infinitely Creative because it is Unlimited. Seen in this light, the cartoonish notions of hell, punishment, nominal legalism, psa, annihilationism, etc. just stand out as absurd. It seems to me the basic Reality I’ve attempted to describe here (albeit perhaps rather poorly) is intensely clarifying. It really has a way of cutting through all the bs and getting down to the heart of things.
    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  168. PS I just read your most recent article on Ontology – looks like you have already given your thoughts! Thank you Father! 🙂

  169. Westy Goes East,

    It is not only St John of Kronstadt but also some Fathers who used the language with a hint of PSA. But this doesn’t mean that they preached it.

    I believe St John of Kronstadt used the language for educative purposes. He talked to common people, using the language they could understand. He emphasised the sacrifice of God’s love for us, saying that we were bought at a very high price.

    It means that once we broke our union with the Source of Life, we were not able to “fix” the problem by our own efforts. No moral rules and no human practices could help us. We needed God as the Divine Physician to heal our corrupt nature and save us from death which is the main result of the broken communion.

    Thus, please don’t be disturbed. It is very common to hear these words – “bought”, “paid”, “payment”, “God punished Jesus in our place”. They are all human terms to explain the divine process. (Even when we say “God the Father” and “God the Son” – they are all human terms that help us to have an idea about the first person and the second person of the Trinity. In fact, the reality of the Trinity is beyond our human experience and understanding).

    So, when you read the works of St John of Kronstadt, read them, as Michael Patrick says, with the Orthodox mindset. I.e. with prayer, humility and under the consensus of the Fathers who shared St John’s faith that Christ rescued us from sin, corruption and death. In other words, the Son of God transformed our human nature and restored our broken communion with God.

    I assume Christian faith gives us the right understanding of the relationship between God and man: God is love, ultimate love. That is the key.

    “A certain monk told me that when he was very sick, his mother said to his father, “How our little boy is suffering. I would gladly give myself to be cut up into pieces if that would ease his suffering.” Such is the love of God for people. He pitied people so much that he wanted to suffer for them, like their own mother, and even more. But no one can understand this great love without the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (St. Silouan the Athonite)

    St. John Chrysostom: “God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.”

    We can’t comprehend divine processes, therefore we have to use human terms and certain analogies. They can be of some help. However, they are always limited.

    PS For those who inquire about the Orthodox faith, I want to say that it is not our knowledge that makes us Orthodox Christians. Any demon can know all these things better than we do and still stay the same demon.

    What really matters is the proper spiritual life that draws us near to God.

    If we want to know God, i.e. to have an encounter with Him, the Church gives us the tools. She teaches us the right prayer (with attention, humility, reverence, gratitude, love and repentance), fasting, giving the alms, keeping the Gospel commandments, and reading the Bible with the right interpretation (under the guidance of the Holy Fathers). In the Church we partake of the Holy Sacraments and unite ourselves to God through receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church also teaches how to purify our hearts and fight against our passions and sinful thoughts. Thank God for He left us His Ark of Salvation!

    Let’s never forget that it is not our knowledge that makes us Christians. We are not Christians because we agree that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, or because we know the Bible from A to Z, or because we have the right understanding of what happened at the cross. We are Christians because we imitate and follow Christ, bearing our own cross and keeping His commandments. We are Christians because we see who we are: great sinners, failures and wretched souls who can do nothing good on our own. Therefore, we are always in need of our Savior. We need the Lord every second of our life, day and night, more than we need a breath of air or a gulp of water.

    We can know the theory. We can try our best to keep the Gospel commandments (though we often fail. Well, at least me). But if we can’t see that we are perishing, if we can’t cry from the bottom of our heart, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Then who are we? “Theoretical Christians?” Moralists? Theory and good moral qualities help but only God saves. On condition, if we plea to Him, in repentance and humility.

    I am sorry for I wrote so much. Please also excuse my poor English. I just wanted to say to those who are interested in Orthodoxy, try to pray more than you read. At least for some time. Please come to the Church. Attend the Divine Liturgy. Even if you have no idea of what is going on, repeat the Jesus Prayer or its short version: “Lord, have mercy!” (With attention, humility, reverence, and repentance).

    Imagine that you died and now stand before the Lord, what will you say to Him? What will you bring to Him? Your knowlege? Your “good deeds”? Pure and loving heart? As for me, unfortunately, I am afraid, I will be empty-handed. Wish I could bring love, repentance and humility but I am lack of any virtues and full of many sins. I pray so that on my deathbed, with my last breath, I had enough time to say, “Save me, Lord! Have mercy on me!”

    God bless.

  170. Westy,
    Our saints are also people of their own times and circumstance. Prior to Nicaea, for example, there is some latitude in how even saints speak of the Trinity. St. Cyril’s confession of One Nature is perfectly Orthodox prior to Chalcedon. In modern times, particularly, the PSA has simply floated in the culture, including Orthodox cultures. Russia in particular had a very strong presence of Catholic and Protestant (mostly Lutheran) thought.

    The PSA, as much as I dislike it, has echoes in various times and places for various reasons. Elements of it are often used within preaching. It paints a vivid picture and can be very moving at times. Moralism is also a not uncommon feature. They used to sometimes speak of “preacher’s license.” That’s the use of things in order to make a point even thought the things might be a little questionable.

    Most people have very little theological training and have never engaged in rigorous theological reflection. That often means that their “theology” is more than likely drawn from moralistic imagery or other things they’ve heard preachers say.

    St. John of Kronstadt is not a “theological saint.” The Catholic Church makes the distinction of calling some saints “Doctors of the Church,” meaning that they fulfilled a key roll as teachers. It’s not a title given to all. It’s a somewhat accurate description of things. I have drawn some wrath before by stating that St. John Chrysostom was not a great theologian. He was a great orator. He was not a wonder-working saint. St. John of Kronstadt was not a great orator or theologian. He was a wonder-worker.

    The fallacy that saints are perfect people in every respect is simply not true. Almost every canonization is done in spite of certain flaws and problems. Like our other brothers and sisters, we have to take the flaws as they come and not despair.

  171. Justin,
    I first started thinking/praying/believing with the ontological understanding when in the late 70’s. I’ve lived with it for years. I’ve noticed a number of things about it. For one, I think it has an inherent drive towards the universal apokatastasis. Every Father who writes in this mode has leanings in that direction and some state it blatantly. I find that interesting. I do not state it blatantly because I believe there is sort of a fence at that point that says, “Don’t go there.” But, like many, I believe it is permitted to hope for such.

    It is probably the great dividing line between accounts that are rooted in the legal/forensic view and the ontological. If you embrace the ontological, you will likely at least peek over the fence on occasion. It also does much to explain the difference between those theological figures who are willing to have a conversation about the apokatastasis and those who rail against it with all their might.

    I believe the ontological approach does a far better treatment of understanding love and mercy (and even judgment).

  172. Alex, thank you very much for you comment at 6:17 am. It stuck me as being very much on target and quite eloquent. (I don’t think your English is lacking anything.) 🙂

  173. Father, regarding your comment:

    “Whatever hell is, it is not the willful torment of a human being by God for the purpose of satisfying His justice. The purpose of hell is not torment. God has no need to torment. If there is torment, God is not its cause. God is its cure.”

    I can understand the torment of hell not being God actively torturing the soul (rather the souls torment is caused from separation from God) but I can’t understand the idea that He isn’t the one facilitating that torment.

    How can we understand Luke 13:28 if it is not God himself who rejects the sinner?:

    “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.”

    There is a “throwing out” that God facilitates. When some try to enter, they won’t be allowed in, they will be actively cast out:

    “…you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.'”

    That doesn’t sound like the God you’re describing where if one tries to enter they are gladly accepted. That form is elaborated in the parable of the Prodigal Son, to be sure, but then how do we understand the divergence of these two parables—the parable of the Narrow Door and the Prodigal Son?

  174. Nes,
    I take certain things about God as a given. For example, God is love. There are certain aspects of that without qualifiers. Not actively torturing would seem obvious.

    I believe a Christian should be uncompromisingly committed to that understanding. The whole of Christ’s ministry points to that reality. Even on the Cross He pronounces His forgiveness to His enemies and tormenters.

    Having said that, we turn to things such as the parables regarding hell and judgment and statements similar to them. Those statements and parables are not given to us in order to convery a geography or mechanical account of the metaphysics of hell. Generally, they have a clear point – and that is their point. It says, “Take this very seriously.”

    Sadly, many have taken such moral admonitions and parables and elevated them above foundational understandings such as the love and goodness of God. The result is a complex, semi-pagan deity, with wrath, anger, retribution, pleasure, delight, etc. Everytime I hear someone say “but” in response to the love and goodness of God – I wait for gospel to disappear in smoke.

    So, I take certain things as givens. Then I struggle to understand the other things and ask God for wisdom.

  175. Terry, I should have left it at non-autonomous. But, even though we are created in the image and likeness of God we are contingent to God. Our existence, our being is nothing without God. Through Him we are all interconnected. We bear one another’s burdens and share in one another’s joys even when we are not aware of it.

    As the great Christian poet John Donne wrote “no man is an island”

    When Jesus Incarnated He took on our full nature including a fully physical body all of which He took with Him when He ascended.

    We are even more tightly linked to Him because of that. Therefore while we can still seek non-being or be tempted to it, I am not sure it is possible to achieve. We can certainly do a lot of damage to ourselves and others but at the same time the prayers of those striving for holiness and union with Christ are pulling us up. All are drawn to the Cross on which He is lifted up.

  176. Michael B,

    By interconnected do you mean relationships?

    I agree to seek for non-being is not good.

    I don’t know many people who are seeking non-being.

    Thanks for helping me to understand your thoughts better.

  177. At this point there are 199 comments! Is that a record? Mostly to make it a round number, I will share this: Terry, I am praying for you. I was chrismated into Orthodoxy just 3 months ago (on Great and Holy Saturday) and I do remember getting cold feet right before I did. I believe it was demons, trying to sway me away from taking that step. When I went through the long day, which included my chrismation and receiving the Holy Eucharist for the first time, I was mostly numb (partly from fasting and tiredness!), but since then, the reality has been sinking into me, and I am so certain this is the right path, despite the struggles (my husband has not converted with me and mocks my practices–“oh, you’re starving today?” “how many times are you going to church this weekend?” etc.). This experience is not like a gnostic aha (which does not exist except as delusion) but it is more like an embodied awareness. I am an intellectual–I have a doctorate in English, but being Orthodox is not about knowing enough information. (I love knowing there is enough for me to keep learning about Orthodoxy from now until I die!). It is about being in God’s presence, with the help of the mysteries.

  178. Isadora,

    What a pretty name.

    My wife is not Orthodox, and it looks like I won’t be either, at least for quite awhile. My wife and I have been married 46 years. While she is anti-Orthodox, she is not at all anti-Terry.

    The width and the depth of Orthodoxy boggles the mind. When I think I understand something, I read/study more and realize I don’t really understand much at all.

    I suppose that is what attracts me, at least one of the things.

    Again, thanks

  179. Terry,
    Understand, my friend, that becoming Orthodox is a process. It does not come all at once and one grows in depth of understanding the longer we seek His Face and are within the fold of the Faith. A few years ago, I would have said I knew it all. I knew why I converted and what I thought was the a fullness of the faith. I discovered I was in the shallow end of the pool. I discovered that there is far more to the faith than I first knew.

    I understand your reluctance as one of being unsure that you can accept all that you have seen in the last few days. The good news is that we all have the same doctrine,we are just wrestling over how to view things best. The actual mandatory doctrines of the Church are few. You already accept them or you would not have come this far.

    We each grow at different rates and we will continue to grow now and unto the ages as we grow closer to and more like our Lord. You have come a long ways already. I pray that you will continue your journey.

  180. I am most pleased to find this writing, Father, I am currently reading “Ideas Have Consequences” by Richard Weaver. “Cliff Notes” type of summary is at

    And from that….

    The triumph of nominalism in the medieval debate proved to be “the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.”

    Occam left man with no higher authority for moral judgment than himself; universal terms became mere names arbitrarily created to serve our convenience. As a result, Weaver tells us, reality as it was perceived by the intellect was rejected in favor of reality as perceived by the senses. With this event, Western society changed course.

    From the denial of universals eventually came the denial of truth beyond anything
    transcending experience itself. Once truth was out of the way, nature became regarded as containing the principles of its own constitution and behavior, and so a careful study of nature came to be called science. The Aristotelian doctrine of forms and abstract universal concepts of perfection was discarded. With forms out of the picture, the doctrine of original sin perished next.

    After all, if physical nature is the sum total of existence and if man is natural, we cannot think of him as suffering from some innate evil—indeed, evil is a word now lacking meaning. Thus, if man is naturally good, his defects must spring from either ignorance or environmental deprivation.


    Weaver can be a little hard to follow. I have a friend online who has read the book four times. He claims that it is second to the Holy Scripture for creating his worldview.

  181. I don’t know if this is correct, but I generally consider the Scripture’s language about God’s direct and active retributive punishment of sin, “hardening of hearts”, etc., as an accommodation to human modes of thought in the same way that the Scriptural references to God “repenting” of an intention or changing His mind is an anthropomorphism not reflecting metaphysical reality, but rather describing the effects of sin, and God’s refusal in His goodness to underwrite sin, on human experience. I think of the Bible’s propitiatory language in much the same way. It seems to me that to treat these anthropomorphic passages literalistically like moderns do (whether modern liberals who think that’s simplistically what the text means and reject its teaching for that reason or modern Fundamentalists who embrace it) has some pretty serious problems and is a hindrance to the clear teaching and proclamation of Christ and the gospel in the modern era, not merely because of the modern heretical baggage attached to it, but also because of the heresies about the nature of God and of salvation this will tend to create in the modern mind.

  182. I recall hearing somewhere that the Scripture esp the NT is a verbal icon of Christ. I understand icons to be gateways or windows into a deeper reality, but not necessarily true in every single aspect – or at least not ‘literally’ true. For instance even icons of our blessed Lord show nail marks in His hands, when it is well known that the Romans crucified their victims through the wrist area (hands could not support the weight of a person). Does this make the icons false and the Church corrupt? Some might think so, but they’d be missing the deeper truth while insisting on some absolute literal presentation of ‘fact’.

    In the same way I believe parables about hell etc. need to be understood as not 100% literally true. The point Father makes is well taken in light of this understanding, I would venture to say. That there are, for example, those whom are parabolically told to depart does not necessarily entail that it is God condemning them – it may well be their own heart judging them. That and their desire to remain, as it were, may not be too sincere – they presume on God’s mercy rather than humbly ask for it.

    Love is the interpretive lens. Love does not punish other than to bring correction unto life. Any reading of Scripture which would suggest otherwise is a terrible misreading and misrepresentation of our Heavenly Father.

  183. Terry, “Another problem I see surfacing is the attitude of the Orthodox that they are the only ones who are ‘right’.”


    Have you ever heard of John Piper, John MacArthur, James MacDonald, Mark Driscoll. My rebuttal to your point is that every church I’ve ever been in (Orthodox, RC, and somehow even the Protestants) thinks they are the only ones who are right.

    The difference is, the O are old enough to recall when they were the only Church.

    Here’s my analogy. We see the color green. But a group comes along and slowly changes the shade. And each generation after them slightly changes the shade of green. After a few hundred years, they now have the color orange, but still call it green. Worse yet, when the original group that had the color green (and never changed the shade) comes around, they scream at them “how dare you call your color green and how dare you claim you alone have the color green!”

  184. @ MichaelPatrick,

    Thank you for your comments in this thread. As a former Calvinist myself, your comments have been most helpful and encouraging to me.

    Thanks again!

  185. becoming Orthodox is a process

    I have found it very helpful to not overindulge in my reading selection. When I first was learning of Orthodoxy and first became Orthodox I read quite a few books. I now find it better to slow my reading down and read books with a “more Orthodox mind” instead of a slant towards apologetics and theology. I am currently reading Laurus and it is wonderful. My brain gets to relax and yet still be immersed in something that brings me into a right worldview. Just my thoughts.

  186. Do the Fathers ever take the account of David and Goliath as a type of Christ’s victory over death? Goliath challenges Israel to send a champion to face him in single combat (like Peter and Miraz in Lewis’s “Prince Caspian”). The armies are then to take the outcome of that combat in place of the battle the armies would have fought. Thus David becomes a substitute for Israel, but as a champion, not an object of punishment.

  187. Mako,
    Very interesting. I like how seriously you’re working with the concreteness of everything…including Temple furniture, etc. The juridical view just falls apart when it comes to furniture!

  188. Temple Furniture:

    Interestingly, it was in doing a paper on this topic – the Temple furniture as types of Christ – that I was brought to the realization of Mary. I kept noticing that Christ kept referring to Himself as the things contained within the Temple furniture, and not the furniture itself. John’s Gospel especially presents this (not surprising, given who he was upon encountering Christ). He is the Lamb, but not the altar. The water of life, but not the laver. The Bread of life, but not the table of showbread. The Light of the world, but not the lampstand. The Breath of life, but not the altar of incense. The clay Tablets of God’s Word, the Manna from heaven, the Branch (Rod of Aaron) – but not the Ark containing them. The Glory of the Father, but not the cherub-ed Mercy Seat.

    I began to notice that the Temple Furniture was the concrete, physical containers for all the things Christ said Himself to be. Which left it rather obvious as to who the Temple furniture was!

  189. Reid, I love your example of David and Goliath. It is exactly in this way, as our Champion, that I have thought of Christ as the first Adam’s “substitute.” This would be an Orthodox understanding of substitution, IMO. I believe this is also an important aspect of “recapitulation” in the Fathers.

  190. Beautiful images, Justin! Thank you for that. There’s a whole article on the place (and holiness) of the Theotokos and, by extension, the whole Church as the Body of Christ in your comment it seems to me.

    Also, I’m reminded of Christ’s words to the Pharisees about swearing by the altar vs. swearing by what is on the altar in terms of which sanctifies which (Matt. 23:18-20), the implications of which in light of the observations in your paper ought to be a scandal to Protestants denying the holiness and power to sanctify of the Theotokos and the Church! The holiness of the Theotokos and the Church comes from the Presence of Christ within her, but we and our gifts to God are, in turn, sanctified by the Theotokos and the Church as channels of the very Presence of Christ upon which we are fed in her embrace.

  191. Mako, your articles look like an excellent resource. Thanks for sharing that link. Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancy in their books, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made and In His Image? They look at the model of physical disease and health and its implications for what the Scriptures teach about the nature of sin and spiritual life and health and at the Scripture’s use of the parts of the body and its systems as analogies for spiritual realities such as the cleansing and vivifying properties of Christ’s Blood and Christ’s Headship of the Church. In Protestant fashion, it treats these Scriptural images as metaphorical only and doesn’t make the kind of link to the sacramental nature of the Church that an Orthodox would, but the material there is still rich for reflection and the books show how organic and medical analogies make much more coherent and richer sense of the gospel than that of the cosmic courtroom.

  192. Wonderful, thank you. Reminds me of the law being the shadow of Christ. Col 1:17.
    The deeper the grasp of the ontological the deeper the freedom in Christ I find. Thank you for liberating the word propitiation for me.

  193. Mako, and anyone else interested,
    I left a lengthy comment on your blog. Its awaiting moderation right now, I think. But I really enjoined your blog, thanks! It got my brain going!

  194. Fr. Stephen, I had reason to return to your blog and the comments. Thank you for your graciousness. If I might trouble you, I’d love your thoughts on this deepening of the previous interpretation of the sacrificial system. I believe we can see that the whole annual cycle, with the horizontal movement of the high priest into the holy of holies, is a “recapitulation” of Moses’ vertical movement up Mt. Sinai. I also found corroboration from Irenaeus, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and Pseudo-Macarius. I think this weighs even more heavily against those who try to read legal-forensic-penal meanings into the sacrificial system:
    Thank you kindly. A blessed Lent to you.

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