The Scope of Passover and Penal Substitution Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Basil additionally makes this statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And at the very moment of His betrayal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.

Transformation and Forgiveness

There are various applications in our culture directed towards “feeling good about ourselves.” In contrast to being shamed and condemned it is an improvement. But it also misses the truth of things. Pretending that everything is ok does not make it so. There is within this, a kinship to the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement, in which God agrees to see us as righteous (because of Christ’s sacrifice) even though we are not. The faith of the Orthodox speaks of a true transformation, a righteousness that is truth because it is.

God is the author of our being – He deals in reality, not in fiction. The great weakness of legal/forensic models of sin and salvation is their failure to think in terms of reality. If sin is a legal problem, then its problem is not within itself but within some legal understanding that exists elsewhere. In the state of Tennessee, possession of marijuana is a crime. In the state of Colorado, it is not. Both are fictions. Pot itself is not “legal” or “illegal,” it is just pot.

I have been working my way through an interesting book, Robert Meagher’s Killing from the Inside Out. He is a Catholic theologian examining Just War theory. However, his approach is not one of examining the ideas of Just War. He examines, instead, the actual effects of killing and war in the lives and psyche of soldiers. His work consistently reveals the emptiness of Just War Theory to account for the actual experiences of human beings. War is not a legal problem; it is a matter of life and death.

Meagher spent some years interviewing soldiers. He notes the sad phenomenon of the suicide epidemic among our war veterans. In one chapter, he quotes a sad note left by one soldier for his mother:

Mom, I am so sorry. My life has been hell since March 2003 when I was part of the Iraq invasion. . . . I am freeing myself from the desert once and for all. . . . I am not a good person. I have done bad things. I have taken lives. Now it’s time to take mine.

Meagher uses the term “moral injury” to describe the wound carried by such veterans. They have acted against their own moral compass and find it difficult to live with themselves. This analysis, unfortunately, subjectivizes something that is quite objective. More than a “moral injury,” sin is an ontological wound. It haunts us because it is real. It is the madness of Lady Macbeth’s, “Out! Out! Damn spot!” tortured by Duncan’s blood that she imagines to always be on her hands.

It has been commonplace in American military chaplaincies (at least as I’ve come to understand them) to use Just War Theory as a means of supporting soldiers in the spiritual problems that surround their actions. “If you had not killed him, he would have killed you.” “You’re protecting the lives of our citizens,” etc. Such legal justifications are revealed as ineffective against the “moral injury” that Meagher describes. The same could be said of the whole of the moral world when conceived in legal terms.

I will suggest a primary text for considering our true, ontological transformation:

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:18)

St. Paul does not equate beholding the glory of the Lord as a reward for a life well-lived, or as an imputed righteousness at the end of our journey. He is describing something that is taking place at this present moment. When we are properly directed towards God, we behold the face of Christ. We see two things: Christ’s face (the truth of Who He Is), and our own selves (the truth of who we are). That encounter often provokes something like shame within us. The emptiness, brokenness, and sinfulness of our lives, when seen for what they are, make us want to hide in His presence. But as we turn our eyes back to Him, there is a slow cleansing, healing, forgiveness, and filling that take place. This occurs because, standing before His face, we are in communion with Him. Who He is begins to heal who we are.

Two passages from St. John’s first epistle come to mind:

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn 4:7).

And

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)

To “walk in the Light” I take to be synonymous with “beholding His face.”  “Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! They walk, O LORD, in the light of Your countenance.” (Ps. 89:15) To see Christ “as He is” I take to mean in the “fullness of who He is.” St. Paul notes that our present sight of Christ is “dim.” We do not see Him clearly because of our own brokenness and sin. This requires that we return again and again to the face of Christ. This is the slow, patient work of repentance. We cannot do it quickly – to see His face in that manner, all of a sudden, would be to die.

As noted earlier, to see Christ is also to see ourselves. Everything is revealed in the truth of its existence in the presence of Christ. St. Paul uses a very rich image of judgment:

For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:11-15)

That which lacks reality (sin, darkness, etc.) will disappear in the face of reality (described as “fire”). That which is real and true (the truth of who we are) will be refined. The false is lost, the true is saved.

This fire already burns among us:

“I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Lk. 12:49)

This “fire” is the presence of Christ in the fullness of its truth. The writer of Hebrews combines this image of fire with the image of shaking:

…whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:26-29)

In both, it is the impermanent (hay, wood, stubble, the unstable) that are removed. It is the less-than-real-and-true that are burned and removed. If this imagery is placed into an ontological context, we see it as a purification, the destruction of sin and everything that distorts our being and existence.

The “moral injury” of a soldier is merely one example among ever so many. He carries his injury and sometimes feels as if the injury is greater than himself, that his life has been overwhelmed. The damage done cannot be healed through the various legal fictions we extrapolate into our world. Something must be changed, removed, shaken, consumed in the fire of God’s love. I have long loved the imagery in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It paints sin in ontological terms. On the one hand, sin reduces our reality, leaving us ghost-like and thin as smoke. Sometimes sin is even seen as a ghostly lizard that whispers and controls every action. In his book, forgiveness is a matter of moving deeper into heaven, of becoming more real, more solid.

I imagine that many read his work as a metaphor for the legal/forensic forgiveness of sin. That, it seems to me, would be a very sad reversal. Lewis’ imagery is more expressive of the ontological truth than any amount of forensic reasoning. Sin is real and its effects are real, regardless of how we might reason about it. There is nothing for it other than to submit ourselves to Reality itself.

This theme resounds in the poetic words of St. Simeon the Translator that form part of the prayers in preparation for communion:

O Lord, now as I approach Holy Communion, may I not be burned by partaking unworthily. For you are fire and burn the unworthy, I pray cleanse me of all sin.

Of Your mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Your mystery to Your enemies, neither like Judas will I give You a kiss; but like the thief will I confess You: remember me, O Lord, in Your kingdom.

Stand in fear, O soul, as you look upon the deifying Blood for it is fire and burns the unworthy. May the divine Body sanctify and nourish me. May it deify my soul and wondrously feed my mind.

You have sweetened my longing for You, O Christ and transfigured me with Your love. Let my sins be consumed in the immaterial fire and grant me to be filled with Your joy, that I may rejoice in both and glorify Your coming, O good One.

How can I, the unworthy one, enter the radiance of the saints? For should I dare to go into the room, my clothing betrays me for it is not a wedding garment and I will be bound and cast out by the angels. But, O Lord, purify the stains of my soul and save me, for You are the Lover of mankind.

Master, Lover of mankind, Lord Jesus Christ my God, may these holy things not be for my condemnation, for I am unworthy. May they be for me a cleansing, sanctification of both soul and body and for assurance of the life and kingdom to come: for it is good for me to cling to God and to place my hope of salvation in the Lord.

 

 

 

 

Good News – Your Debt is Being Cancelled

BrokenChains-500x285Recent conversations on the blog have bounced around the imagery of debt in the Scriptures. Contemporary Protestant thought often likes to express the notion of a “sin debt.” The idea runs that God’s righteousness and justice have proper demands. When we fail to keep the commandments, we create a debt for which God’s justice demands payment. Christ’s innocent self-offering on the Cross is seen as the payment for that debt. This imagery is absent from Orthodox thought. Indeed, I believe it is absent from the New Testament itself. It is, instead, an image that was created apart from the Scriptures themselves (originating as an atonement theory), and has been read back into the Scriptures, repeatedly misconstruing the actual meaning of the text. This reading has been a dominant part of modern Evangelical thought, and has been mined and minted so thoroughly, that many within the Evangelical mainstream treat it as a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. It is not only not Orthodox, it is not orthodox. It is a false teaching.

First, a few thoughts about atonement theory.

The atonement treats the question of how it is that Christ’s death and resurrection are “for us.” What is it about them that frees us from sin and reconciles us? The word “atonement,” is uniquely English. It is a hybrid word, consisting of  three words: “at-one-ment.” It is that understanding of what it is that makes us one with God. But, as a hybrid English word, it is not found in the Scriptures. The closest thing in the Scriptures might be the word “reconciliation” (καταλλαγή). One of my favorite renderings of “atonement” is the German “wiedergutmachung,” literally, “making good again.”

Atonement theory refers to the story and explanation of how it is we are reconciled. It necessarily includes a theory of the nature of sin and human responsibility. It also includes a theory of why God would want to reconcile us in the first place. In short, atonement theory is the story of what is wrong with us and how God fixes it. For a newcomer to this conversation, it might seem surprising that the answer to such a basic thing isn’t obvious or clearly covered somewhere in the Scriptures. The truth is that the entire New Testament could be seen as an extended presentation of atonement theory. However, a short, neat description is simply nowhere to be found. Instead, there are multiple references, describing or inferring a “back-story,” that more-or-less form a theory of the atonement.

The Eastern Church, which means the Church whose history was rooted in the early Roman and later Byzantine Empire, is often described as having never developed an atonement theory. Of course, the notion that the Church of the first thousand years of Christian history had no explanation how what was wrong with human beings and how God fixes it, is patently absurd. There were a number of images used in the writings of the fathers and the liturgical prayers of the Church. But no one of them came to utterly dominate. What was not present, however, was the notion that sin creates a debt with God or His justice that must be paid.

The word “debt” and its cognates (“debtor,” “owe,” etc.) is actually quite rare in the New Testament. It occurs in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts”). It occurs in the parables where a servant’s debt is forgiven by his master. It also occurs (depending on the translation you use) in Galatians 5:3 (“For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” King James Version). However that verse is far more accurately and euphoniously translated: “For I testify again that every man who is circumcised is bound to do the whole law.” The concept of debt in that context would be extremely abstruse.

That’s it.

What is clear is that this almost no mention at all. The parable regarding debt is a classic use of the rabbinical kal vachomer (וחומר קל) argument, which is called the “light to heavy.” Its logic is simple: If this is the case, then how much more should this be the case. In the parables, a man is released from a massive debt, but refuses to let a tiny debt to someone else go. When his master, who had released him from the massive debt heard this, he was angry and had him thrown into prison. It is a straightforward teaching. If someone does you an enormous kindness, you should certainly not refuse to extend small kindnesses to others. The parable in no way establishes some primary story for interpreting the whole of the gospel message. To claim that it does is absurd, and an abuse of the parable.

If you were looking for images that shape a mature, overarching account of how God reconciles us to Himself, you would certainly look for something that has a presence beyond an unrelated parable and a badly translated verse. The historical fact is that the God-as-Creditor (penal substitution) theory of the atonement is not Scriptural. It was a theory put forward first (more or less) by Anselm around the year 1000. His version used Medieval feudalism as its basis (without any pretense of being a Scriptural model). Anselm said that God’s honor had been offended and had to be compensated. In the feudal world of Europe where honor was the basis of government and war, it was, perhaps, an unsurprising fiction. Anselm’s fiction, however, was gradually changed into the penal/substitution model of the Reformation, in which mankind’s sin creates an infinite debt to the righteous judgment of God, deserving of wrath. Christ bears the wrath of the Father as payment of the debt we owe. However, this is a development of Anselm’s theory, not a reading of Scripture. Worth noting that at the same time holding debt was being elevated by Protestant teaching to a Divine attribute, Protestant teachers and rulers were abolishing the condemnation on usury that had been in place since the earliest Christian tradition. Debt is Divine and good business!

There are a couple of concepts involving debt-like matters that are worth examining. In one, Christ says “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (Joh 8:34). This concept or image is not isolated. We are not made debtors to God, but we are enslaved by Sin. It is common in the New Testament to see Sin treated as though it were a person. Sometimes it almost seems to be synonymous with the devil himself, though we should not draw that conclusion. But it is seen as an adversary, one who enslaves us. Many people, influenced by the moralistic teachings of contemporary Christianity, are puzzled by this description of sin. For them, sin is simply something we have done wrong. They do not see it as somehow separate from themselves. But it is (cf. “You Are Not Your Sin”). St. Paul distinguishes between himself and “sin that dwells in me” (Ro. 7).

This bondage or slavery to sin is also similar to language applied to the devil:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (Heb 2:14-15 RSV)

St. Paul elsewhere says that the “wages of sin is death.”  St. Paul places sin, death, the devil, all in this category of that which holds us in bondage.

This collection, sin, death, the devil, is not the imagery of debt, per se. Rather, it is the category to which debt itself belongs. Debt is something that binds us. Debt is an evil thing that God sets clear boundaries around lest it destroy His people. And, as we shall see, it is something He abolishes (He doesn’t pay it. He abolishes it!).

There are other passages that use this imagery of bondage:

While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive (Rom 7:5-6).

The law is something from which we are discharged. And we accomplish this by dying. We die with Christ. St. Paul says, “He who has died is free from sin” (Ro. 6:7). St. Paul describes Christ as leading “captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8). That which held us prisoner is itself led as a prisoner. Sin, death and the devil and debt are trampled down by the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ does not set us free by paying our debt. He sets us free by dying and trampling down death. And this becomes effective in our lives because we, too, die, being “buried with Him in Baptism” (Romans 6:3). To bring the notion of a debt payment into the conversation of being Baptized into Christ’s death is just weird. It doesn’t fit or make sense in any manner.

Some might struggle with the personification of sin, of our being held in bondage by it and sin being destroyed, etc. But that is the consistent imagery of Scripture. Debt can be placed into that category and treated in that manner. But there is simply no Biblical imagery of God paying our debts.

In the Old Testament, the system of the Sabbath (Sabbath Day, Sabbath Year, Jubilee Year) was a system of abolishing debt. You could hold a slave for only seven years, then he had to be set free. No one paid for them. Land could be bought from someone, but all land and debts had to be cancelled in the 50th (Jubilee) year, at the end of seven cycles of Sabbath years.

On the Sabbath day in Nazareth, Christ takes up the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and reads this:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The “acceptable year of the Lord,” is a reference to the Jubilee year, which Isaiah raises to a cosmic level. There will come the “Day of the Lord,” and all debts will be cancelled. The captives will be set free. This is the heart (in its full cosmic sense) of what Christ means when he preaches, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The coming of the Kingdom is nothing less than the Day of the Lord. Interestingly, the Jubilee year begins with the sound of a trumpet. It is that very thing that signals Christ’s triumphant return, “Then the trump will sound…”

But nowhere in this rich Biblical imagery, is there a notion of anything being paid. Christ doesn’t pay our debt, He destroys it! This is deeply important. The penal substitution theory runs the risk of treating the holding of debt to be a good thing, reducing debtors to the cast of evil doers. This is utterly contrary to Scripture where the opposite is true.

Look at this one last example of the destruction of a “debt.” Interestingly, it is a passage frequently abused in the penal substitution theory:

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:13-15)

I have heard this passage interpreted as Christ writing “Paid!” on our bill of debt and nailing it to the Cross. But, again, this is simply an abuse. The “handwriting” is the requirements of the Law, which have begun to work death in us because of Sin. Here, Christ nails them to the Cross. The handwriting isn’t a debt being paid. It is a bondage being “disarmed” like the principalities and powers over which He triumphed. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the penal substitutionary theory is its habit of misusing one thing and ignoring another. This passage in Colossians is clearly about one thing, the destruction of what holds us in bondage.

Debt belongs to the realm of death, sin, slavery and bondage. Christ has come to destroy all of these things and lead us into His kingdom. You are free.

Glory forever!

A Lesser Atonement

3676650187_4aae798e18_oIt has long been known that people tend to see what they think they are seeing. This is particularly the case where what we think is familiar and expected. The case of “mistaken identity” flows from our assumptions and expectations. This is no where more true than when we are reading Scripture. If a passage has years of associations, it is almost impossible to see anything else. I have noticed this to particularly be the case when Christians are reading and thinking about the death of Christ.

For a large number of contemporary Christians, the suffering and death of Christ are clearly seen as punishment, and as punishment for our sake. All that He endures, He endures for us and in our place. The suffering Christ is a substitute for my suffering. He takes upon Himself punishment that rightly belonged to me.

When it is asserted (as I often do) that the Scriptures say nothing of the sort, the response can be one of incredulity. “How can you say that? It’s obvious!” However, it is not obvious. Indeed, it is not there. Christ is not our substitute.

Recently, a priest shared a question with me regarding the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53. He had been pressed to explain how such a passage is not about the substitutionary atoning work of Christ:

Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed
for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being 
fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.

All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But
the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him. (Isaiah 53.4-6 NASB)

 Also offered was the passage in Galatians that reads:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on A tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3.13-14)

The heart of the question is about the controlling metaphor, the root story of the atonement. For the verses cited do not spell out a substitutionary atonement. They me be read that way, if the reader assumes that the back-story is the punishment of the substituted Christ. But the back-story, the “controlling metaphor” must be understood before the passages are interpreted.

The controlling metaphor of the substitutionary atonement is that of the justice of God that must be satisfied. Our sin has engendered a debt of injustice that must be paid. Christ is seen as accepting the punishment that was our just desert. The payment having once been made need only be accepted. It’s acceptance is our salvation, our deliverance from a punishment that was due.

If we think about this story, its driving force is the justice of God. It is God who must be satisfied. As a controlling metaphor it is very inadequate (it is also less than 1000 years old in the history of Christian interpretation – a “johnny-come-lately” in Biblical terms). It only addresses the notion of a blood atonement. It says nothing about the nature of the Holy Life, prayer, the sacraments, etc. It is a back-story that requires yet other stories to support the Christian life, and, as such, is inadequate.

One inevitable effect of its inadequacy is the shrinking of the gospel in order to make it fit. Historically, this story was a well-intentioned attempt to make sense of the gospel in the cultural demands of the Western Middle Ages (thank you, Anselm). Today it is used to meet the demands of contemporary culture. But its diminished version of the gospel has produced a diminished version of Christianity. That same Christianity finds its own cultural expression in the secular consumerism of the modern world. The gospel should not be diminished.

The older, more complete account of the atoning work of Christ is grounded in our union/communion with God. God is the Lord and Giver of Life, in Whom we live and move and have our being. When our sin broke communion with Him, death was unleashed and we were bound. In the Incarnation, Christ became what we are, entering into union with our humanity. He “empties Himself,” in the words of St. Paul, and enters into death and Hades. But as God, He could not be held by death. He rose again, thus trampling down death by death, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

Our salvation, His atonement, is a work of union. He unites Himself to us that we might unite ourselves to Him. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is.

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21 NKJ)

By the same token, we are Baptized “into His death,” (Romans 6:3), and raised in His resurrection. The Holy Eucharist is also a fulfillment of our union with Him, a communion (koinonia) in His blood.

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. “For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. (Joh 6:52-57)

This language of union supports the whole of the Christian gospel. It is the proper foundational imagery of the Christian faith. It also makes better sense of passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, as well as the Pauline Corpus.

Christ does not die “for us,” in the sense of “substitute.” For we still die. Our suffering has not been removed by His suffering, nor was our suffering ever properly understood as a punishment from God. Christ dies “for us,” in that He takes our death (all death) into Himself and makes it His death. He  becomes our dying that our dying might become His life.

The same is true of the “curse.” We in no way avoid the shame of the Cross. Everything Christ says in His teaching to us points us towards union with His Cross. His Cross does not substitute for ours, but changes ours from defeat and the curse of death into victory and triumph of life.

The integrating nature of this imagery easily illustrates why it dominated early Christian thought. The Christian faith is not a divine drama within a legal court. It is life and death and life again lived out in union with Christ. Everything from the doctrine of the Church (the Body of Christ), the imagery of marriage and the Kingdom (our union with God), as well as the whole sacramental order are all spoken for within the divine/human union.

The same language also moves comfortably within the liturgical and ascetical life, as well as the language and thought of the central dogmas of the Trinity and Christology. It is certainly possible to use the language of substitution, and with sufficient nuance, even the language of punishment. But they will yield an insufficient gospel, disconnected from the full scope of the Christian life.  

In my experience, bad theology eventually produces bad results. We are already reaping the fruit of the penal substitutionary model. It constitutes a spiritual famine.

 

The Human Project

fuzzy“Becoming human” is a baffling phrase. Surely we are simply born as human beings. Of course this is true, but the nature of the modern world allows us to configure our lives in ways that can be described as “less than human.” When we visit a zoo and see a tiger pacing in its cage, we are not seeing a “true” tiger, but a distortion of the animal. Tigers cannot truly be tigers in small, confined spaces. Neither can human beings be truly human in just any configuration. Some ways of existing a simply destructive of what it means to be human.

Modern consciousness recognizes this under the general heading of human rights. Certain forms of living – slavery, extreme poverty, etc. – rob us of something essential. Infants, for example, sometimes die from the lack of human contact in an illness known as “failure to thrive.” Modern economies have created the widest range of choices in all of human history – but some choices leave us as caged tigers or neglected infants.

Human beings are social. We have a need to interact with our environment in certain ways. We are physical and sexual. We are spiritual and hunger for transcendence. We are speakers and makers of words. We impose order on chaos. The fullness of being human is beyond my ability to describe here. But it is essential to understand that the Christian faith, when rightly understood, has among its goals the fullness of human existence. Classical Christianity is inherently humanist.

The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. (Joh 10:10 NKJ)

The “thief” of our humanity comes in many guises. We steal humanity from one another. Sometimes we give our humanity away. Often we simply refuse the gift, choosing alternative ways that avoid the path of fullness. Not every abundance is truly human:

And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luk 12:15 NKJ)

Modern cultures have defined themselves by the abundance of their economies. The average level of wealth enjoyed is staggering when compared to any time in the past. We eat foods without regard to seasons. We build homes without regard to climate. We choose mates without regard to children or tribe.

But we do not generally make choices without regard for economic or employment consequences. We uproot our families, dismantle the extended family, abandon friends and routine, place and every form of belonging with little hesitation if we can say, “I took a job in ……” It is an explanation that is universally acceptable – the equivalent of a moral Get Out of Jail Free card. Today I could easily imagine someone justifying a disruptive move for the sake of better cellphone coverage.

Much of contemporary Christianity has been formed and shaped in this very culture, and its most successful theologies are those that conform best to the consumer model. The simplicity of the Evangelical version of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement – that is – the account of why Christ died and how we are saved by His death – is a primary example.

That model is essentially put forward as a Divine contract. God does something for us, and we choose to accept it (or not). That choice establishes a relationship, understood as a contract (frequently termed a Covenant). This reduction of human life to contractual agency destroys the wholeness of our lives. We are not contract-based. True humanity is communion-based.

Our daily experience confirms this. Modern marriage is frequently discussed in terms of contract (thus any two people can enter into such a “marriage”). But no relationship would be experienced as satisfactory were it lived like a contract: demands, duties, negotiations, performance reviews, etc. We long for relationship as communion: mutuality, sharing, giving, trust, sacrifice, love, etc. There cannot be a contract to love. Human society as a contractual world is a world devoid of love.

A symptom (and they are legion) of our contractual life is the explosion in litigation. Every element of our modern life is increasingly surrounded with rules driven by the fear of litigation. Political-correctness in speech (and so much else) is rooted in this same fear. The boundaries of contractual life are also barriers to our humanity.

Of course, such mundane symptoms seem to be a far cry from doctrines of the atonement. But explanations that are essentially contractual arrangements become popular precisely because those who hear them think in contractual terms. It is of little use to engage in historical argument about where such thinking began. But it is essential for Christianity in the modern world to recognize this aspect of our culture and refuse to support it. The theology of the contract simply underwrites the culture’s destruction of our humanity.

I will suggest a strange measurement for true humanity: How do we suffer as human beings and how do we rightly bear the tragedy of our existence? These are unusual questions in the context of a culture that is designed to maximize pleasure and satisfaction and to minimize suffering. But suffering is an unavoidable part of human existence. And regardless of all attempts to the contrary, we will die, and everything we have done will pass away (this is our tragedy).

Suffering and tragedy are not only inevitable and universal, they also challenge our lives at the very point of their meaning. It is here that the modern project most often reveals its emptiness and the hollow nature of its promises. For even pleasure begs the question: to what end?

It is not surprising that end-of-life issues have become prominent in our times. It is at the end of our lives that suffering tends to cluster. Death is often painful and ironic. It mocks our ability to choose. We fight back demanding that we be allowed to choose the manner of our death. And so being human is finally defined by the ability not to be.

Such an elevation of choice becomes the engine of our inhumanity. In the name of ending suffering, we end our existence itself. And this is always true. When the primary goal of life becomes the absence of suffering, then we agree to do murder. For suffering cannot be abolished, only killed.

This sheds an interesting light on the question: “Why does God allow people to suffer?” Apparently, the Christian God does not think the elimination of suffering to be the ultimate good. And there is indeed something greater.

What is greater is the transcendence of suffering, the taking up of suffering into a life and a world in which it has meaning and purpose, in which suffering is ultimately and profoundly human and productive of being human.

Christ reveals the nature of true humanity:

“For on the night in which he was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world…” (St. John Chrysostom)

The voluntary self-offering of Christ is not a transaction, a sacrifice or payment required for the forgiveness of sin. It is the voluntary self-offering of God by which we are united to Him. It is also the primary revelation of God to man.

For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:10 NKJ)

But the salvation we have “by His life,” is not a salvation without suffering. If anything, the Christian life contains specific promises of suffering. Christians are those who have followed Christ and voluntarily lay down their lives.

It is true that we are promised a final victory, but that victory is not a birth beyond self-offering, but a new birth into the eternal self-offering that is the life of God.

The Christian Church is the living Tradition of the self-giving life of God. Everything within that Tradition is in conformity with that life and moves everything within it towards that conformity.

There is no such content in the modern project. Instead, the false promise of life without suffering is offered for a price (whatever the market will bear). And, of course, it is itself a mockery of the larger part of humanity. For the suffering that can be alleviated for some cannot be alleviated for all. And those who are condemned to contemporary suffering (those who cannot afford the alleviation) must watch in tortured entertainment while the suffering-free world is constantly displayed before them as the media sells it to others.

The modern distance is more than a space between the have’s and the have nots: it is the gulf between those who can afford to postpone their suffering and those who cannot. The American culture not only fails to lift its poorest from their poverty. It also imprisons the largest proportion of a population in the free world. Of course, unlike Stalin’s slave-filled prisons, these must suffer, knowing “they deserve it.”

I am not offering an indictment of an economic system. We should be free and work and live and play. But we do so to the wrong ends. Our culture suffers from a deep spiritual sickness rooted in the false promises and doctrines of the modern project. It is simply not working by the measurements of our humanity.

There is no substitute for the gospel, nor can the gospel be altered to make it conform to a false promise. Christianity that is rooted in the modern project is not able to save. Like the modern project itself, it mocks human beings by underwriting the false assumptions of their culture. Christianity as the “modern economy at prayer” is among the saddest forms ever forced upon the Scriptures.

We hunger for communion with God and each other even while we make contracts to avoid it. But Christ is the truly human who takes upon Himself the sin of the whole world. That reality is inexorable and cannot be erased. The Divine Communion presses itself upon us and calls us to itself, a sweetness so wondrous that even its suffering is known as “joyful sorrow.”

All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, unless otherwise noted. 

The Debt of Sin and the Sin of Debt

debtthingThere are a number of ideas and phrases that most Biblically literate Christians would swear were in the Bible, but are not. Among those is the phrase (or concept) of the “debt of sin.” It is simply not there. Nor is there a phrase that describes sin as something that we “owe.” Again, it’s simply not there. The phrase, “the debt of sin,” or “sin debt” is extra-biblical. It is an idea that has been created by the theory of penal substitutionary atonement theory and frequently “read into” Scripture. But the phrase, and the idea, are simply imports. More than that, they run counter to Biblical thought and the traditional theology of the Orthodox faith.

Debt is a very strong and significant Biblical concept, but is no where depicted as belonging to God. God does not work on the principle of debt.

To justify this last statement, it’s worth seeing what the Scriptures do teach about debt.

Debt, in the Bible, is largely seen as evil – it is a means by which one person enslaves another. There are strict limits placed on debt within the Old Testament Law.

You shall not charge interest to your brother– interest on money or food or anything that is lent out at interest. To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all to which you set your hand in the land which you are entering to possess. (Deu 23:19-20 NKJ)

More interesting is this:

At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the LORD’S release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother, except when there may be no poor among you; for the LORD will greatly bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance–only if you carefully obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe with care all these commandments which I command you today. For the LORD your God will bless you just as He promised you; you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you. If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. (Deu 15:1-8)

Debt is compared to Israel’s bondage in Egypt. To be indebted to someone is to be owned by them to a certain degree. And though in the right circumstances such debt is allowed, no debt can extend beyond seven years. 

In the Law of the Jubilee (50 years), even the property sales that have occurred over the past 49 years are undone. All property reverts back to its original owner. Debt is not everlasting. Needless to say, these laws were significant parts of Jewish life in ancient Israel. All commerce worked beneath the shadow of such regulation. A debt incurred in the sixth year, could not extend beyond that year.

Christ used the imagery of debt in a number of His parables. In most cases His point was towards the forgiveness of debt – letting else someone go.

Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying,`Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying,`Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying,`Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him,`You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. `Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses. (Mat 18:23-35)

When Christ stands in the synagogue in Nazareth, He is handed the scroll of the book of Isaiah from which to read:

And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed;  To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luk 4:17-21)

Christ’s proclamation that the Scripture is fulfilled is the announcement of a Jubilee Year (for it is this to which Isaiah refers). The “coming of the Kingdom” that Christ announces wherever He goes, is nothing less than a “cosmic” Jubilee. He has come to cancel debts. And we see the mark of that cancellation: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the outcasts are reconciled, and the debts of many are cancelled (cf. Zacchaeus).

Mankind indeed has a debt, but not to God! God is not a creditor. Creditors are seen as oppressors and the enemies of God’s people. Some would look at the parable cited earlier and say, “But the king was a creditor!” Indeed he was. But the king is not cited as an example of righteous man – simply of a wealthy man.

There is a rabbinical technique known as the kal va-chomer (light to the heavy). It argues: “If this light thing is true, then how much more must this heavy thing be true.” Christ uses it on a number of occasions. That is the thrust of the parable, not God as a creditor.

The debt that mankind labors under is the debt of sin, the oppression and bondage of death itself. It is not a bondage created by God, but something alien to us that drains our very life. Debt is not the creation of wealth but its diminishment.

Christ’s victory over death and hell, His Pascha, tramples down death by death and frees us from our debts. We no longer owe anything to death or sin.

St. Paul invokes the image of debt in his letter to the Romans (ch. 4). But he places debt within the realm of the flesh and of the law, such that those who are righteous “according to the Law” live in accordance with “debt,” in that they seek what is “owed” to them. But He contrasts this with the salvation we have in Christ, which is according to grace, a “free gift” rather than a debt.

It is certainly the case that sin and death operate like debt in our lives – but it is not God who drives this frightful burden. More vaguely, the creditor is most often described as “sin” itself, or “death” itself, as though these were independently existing things.

We may easily infer that this burden is magnified by the wicked one – but we are not taught that we owe the devil a debt. We only know that what we experience as debt has been abolished in Christ. God’s great Jubilee is an announcement of freedom to all flesh from the bondage of the enemy. In the Jubilee year, the debts are cancelled, not paid. Debt has no substance or being in and of itself. It’s emptiness is revealed to us in Christ’s resurrection.

Thanksgiving Communion

Whom should I thank?IMG_2938

The question is normally a matter of polite acknowledgement. A gift was given and received. Who gave it? Whom should I thank?

It is inherently the nature of giving thanks that thanks must be given to someone. I cannot give thanks to nothing or no one. As such, the giving of thanks is an act of communion on one level or another.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in the last sermon of his life, said, “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.” I would expand that and say as well, that everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of becoming human – for the fullness of our humanity is found primarily in communion. And the communion of thanksgiving is perhaps communion at its deepest level.

The prominent place of thanksgiving within the life of the Old Testament seems strangely obscured by most Christian treatments. The system of sacrifice is often misunderstood. The offering of bulls and goats is easily interpreted as a system of payments to an angry God. Our sins have created a debt and deserved guilt. What is owed to God must be paid. But this very treatment of sacrifice is condemned within the Old Testament itself.

I know all the birds of the mountains, And the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High. (Psa 50:11-14 NKJ)

The offering given to God is given in thanksgiving or it is useless.

It is quite accurate to view the whole of the life given to Israel as an economy of thanksgiving. The system of the tithe, giving to God a tenth of possessions, is not a system of payments, “rent” given to a heavenly landlord. It is an offering of thanks, an act of communion, sharing with God the very life of the land itself. God and Israel have a communion in the land – something which truly makes it the land of promise.

The system of the Sabbath, when rightly observed, has the same character. The Sabbath Day represents God’s time, set aside from labor. Acquisition stops. Time itself becomes an act of thanksgiving. The more radical practice of the Sabbath, when an entire year (the seventh year) is set aside demonstrates how profound the nature of this communion was intended to be. Debts were cancelled in the seventh year. We set others free from their bonds because God has set us free from ours. Former slaves should not create new slaves – it would be an act that negated the giving of thanks.

It seems to me not surprising that the penal substitution theory of the atonement has had such a cultural popularity over the centuries. It became at home in a penal culture – one of debts and punishments. The good, the industrious, the diligent and the frugal prosper and reign. The sluggard, the weak, and the slothful fall ever further into poverty, driven by their own sin. There are many things that ameliorate this model in modern culture, but it remains at the structural heart of our lives.

The atonement, Christ’s death and resurrection, do not have a place within such a structure. His death is not a payment within a world of payments – an ultimate sacrifice that we could not afford. It is rather the trampling down of the whole world of payments, demolishing the greatest debt of all: death. The sacrifice of Christ is not like the blood of bulls and goats, only human. It is Life poured out on death, thanksgiving triumphing over necessity. Every act of thanksgiving is a communion in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is for that reason that the thankful are capable of salvation – for the giving of thanks makes manifest the fundamental shape of salvation.

All of this is the reason that from the earliest times, the offering of Christ’s Body and Blood has been known as the Eucharist. It is the Thanksgiving. Were this not so, the Church would have named this most central act of its life something else: the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. These are later titles given in an effort to distinguish Protestant worship from Catholic. The word Eucharist is returning to common usage, however. It will be truly significant when the Eucharist (thanksgiving) returns to Christians as a way of life.

The stuff of our daily lives should have more kinship with Old Testament sabbath-thought than with the theories of Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, Maynard Keynes and the like. For when we work for some reason apart from the giving of thanks, we labor as slaves, bound to whatever it is that we perceive as necessary. Christ would free us from such bondage:

Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying,’What shall we eat?’ or’What shall we drink?’ or’What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Mat 6:30-33 NKJ)

This is not a commandment from Christ to cease working. But it is a commandment to work rightly.  Our labor is right and good when it is done in communion with God, and this is done primarily in the giving of thanks. The heart of thanksgiving precludes the sense of entitlement – for who gives thanks if what he has was something to which he was entitled? My work, my cleverness, my investments do not give me claim to wealth. For if they give me claim to wealth, then why should I be grateful for what I have?

But Christ gives us everything: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” And, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” If all that I have is a gift for which I give thanks, a means of communion with God, then why should I begrudge sharing it with anyone? Indeed, the act of sharing is itself a primary and inherent part of giving thanks. We give to others because what we have has been given to us. Like Israel, we have communion with all those who are strangers to the goods of this world, for we ourselves once were strangers:

Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exo 23:9 NKJ)

The giving of thanks is not a moral activity: like communion, it is a mode of existence. There is no Christianity that does not include the giving of alms. Sharing belongs to the ontology of the faith.

But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. (Heb 13:16 NKJ)

 

 

 

 

Thinking about the One God

ws_E=mc2_852x480There are many things Christians can learn from science – among them is how to think. In thought about the deeper matters of science (particle physics, mathematical theory, etc.), there are a number of accepted rules that are useful in theology as well. One of those is the requirement of “elegance” when constructing a plausible theory. It is understood within scientific and mathematical thought that what is true and accurate as explanation and theory should somehow be “elegant.” For example, there is a simple elegance in Einstein’s E=mc2. That something as universal as the relationship between matter and energy could be expressed in such a simple manner is indeed elegant. Doubtless there might be another manner to express this relationship, a more convoluted and complicated manner, but science would rule it out in favor of Einstein – elegance and simplicity are somehow more accurate as a description of reality. The continued search for a “unified field theory,” a theory that “explains everything,” is not a pipe-dream or figment of the scientific imagination. It is an instinct and understanding that reality is one, that it ultimately “makes sense,” and does so in a manner that can finally be understood and stated in an elegant manner.

There have been numerous theories throughout human history that gave an “account” of the world. Some of them were quite complex. I think of Ptolemy’s explanation of the movements of the planets, complete with “epicycles” injected into their overall movement to account for why planets sometimes seem to “move backwards.” Such movements, it turned out, were far more simply and elegantly explained once it was learned that the planets, like the earth, revolve around the sun. Their movements therefore appear different from those of the surrounding stars we see.

Christian theology, when done rightly and in a mature manner, has something of the same quality as good math and physics. Theology is, after all, speech or thought about the One God, and not about complexities and multiple theories. Christian theology is not, when rightly done, a collection of Trinitarian doctrine, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, moral theology, etc. Such compartmentalization of Christian doctrine is a holdover from medieval scholasticism, perhaps the lowest point in the history of Christian thought.

The Protestant Reformation, though seen by some as the beginning of the modern period, must also be seen as a development within Christian scholasticism. Both Luther and Calvin were products of the scholastic model and their theologies (and particularly those of their successors) reflect this historical reality. Thus there are within the Christian movements founded by the reformers, the fragmentation and compartmentalization of medieval thought. Though the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist have been fundamental realities of the Christian life since its beginning, many Christians can give no proper account for their significance. To say that they are “commandments” of Christ simply begs the question and leaves the sacraments as afterthoughts, Ptolemaic epicycles, glued to the surface of some scheme of justification, which is glued to Christology, which is glued to Trinity, all of them only lightly connected, even carrying within them mutual contradictions, held together only by some sense that they should all be there (perhaps because they are actually mentioned in the New Testament).

Such presentations of Christian thought lack elegance and simplicity. They present a confusing array of theories (complete with their own specialized jargon) but without unity or a proper sense of the unity of God and His relationship with His creation. It is little wonder that such fragmentation is often utterly powerless to answer the questions of the culture that surrounds it. A few isolated verses of Scripture are simply useless in the face of the “unified” theory of human sexuality and gender being offered by the modern world (to give but one example). A Christianity that cannot present a gospel that is, in fact, a truly complete world-view, is a neutered artifact, an antiquity that is both boring and sterile. It does not “preach.”

I embrace the traditional teaching of the Church on matters of gender and sexuality, but struggle to do so in a unified manner. Mere assertion of tradition is finally insufficient, a symptom of theology’s abandonment.

In the years that I have studied (and lived) Orthodox theology, among its most profound and enduring aspects is its inner unity. Orthodox theology is not a collection of thoughts – but rather a single thought which may been seen from various angles. In the centuries of the great councils, a common language of Trinity and Christology developed, such that we may speak of the Person of Christ (hypostasis) with regard to the Trinity, and the Person of Christ with regard to the Incarnation, using the same word, with the same word carrying the same meaning. Some refer to this as the “Neo-Chalcedonian” thought of the Cappadocian fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, etc.). It was the failure to embrace this completion of theological language that created the schism between the “Eastern” Orthodox and the “Oriental” Orthodox, the so-called “Monophysites.” The language of St. Cyril of Alexandria, championed by the Orientals, was correct in its place, but inadequate for the growing synthesis of expression that was giving a growing account of the fullness of the faith.

My experience has been that the whole of the Orthodox life, its theological expression, its understanding of moral activity, its sacraments and liturgy, are but one thing. I sometimes describe this one thing as union with God. It is certainly the only phrase I know that holds everything in its proper place and understanding. To stand within such a theological “structure,” is to be shielded from the fragmentation of the world and an undisciplined, scattered collection of doctrines. The One God is not readily perceived by a scattered mind, and is even more obscured if the theology of that scattered mind is itself a collection of discrete fragments.

It is in this context that I raise periodic objections to the penal substitution theory of the atonement. As epicycles go, it is a major gloss on the fabric of the Christian faith. When I read discussions of this theory I see a variety of fragmentations introduced. God’s holiness and its inability to endure sin; God’s justice and the necessity for equity; God’s mercy and love sometimes pictured as rivals of His holiness and justice. And all of these aspects of God stand divorced from the sacraments, Trinitarian thought, and other areas. Indeed penal substitution theory, at its worst, wreaks complete havoc on Trinitarian dogma. The Son is made subject to the Father’s wrath to such an extent (in some accounts) that He is utterly cut-off and separated from the Father. The Orthodox certainly confess that “One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh,” but in the same hymn declare, “Who without change didst become man and wast crucified, O Christ our God.” I was recently told by an Evangelical that the Incarnation represented a “change” in God (not to be confused, he said, with God’s immutability). It is just such compartmentalization that creates the confusion of much Protestant thought and occasionally absurd statements (similar sources have spoken to me about the beauty of hell and of the sinner’s condemnation).

The fragmented character of most non-Orthodox theology is a reflection of its poverty and the loss of a proper Christian vision. The unity and simplicity, even the intuition of the early fathers that such a unity should exist, are reflected in the Creeds and liturgies of the Church. St. Irenaeus of Lyon said, “Our doctrine agrees with the Eucharist and the Eucharist confirms our doctrine.” Such a statement makes no sense in the context of modern Christian thought.

Modern Christians attend Church, celebrate the Eucharist, are justified and are working on being sanctified. They think about various aspects of God. They are liberal or conservative, tough on sin or soft, Biblically-centered, or culturally sensitive. They are many things but never one thing. Thus when engaging them I have to ask, “Which of your gods are you now describing?”

God is One, and His creation is one. Good speech about either has this in mind. I have acquaintances who are “Young Earthers.” Unable to reconcile an old universe with the absence of evolution and literal readings of the Creation story, they build a box and a wall between themselves and much of modern science. They protect themselves by arguing, “It’s only a theory,” as though their various hermeneutical creations were somehow not theories and more reliable. But as theories go, theirs has little unity and is only a strange combination of confusing assertions.

True theology has no need to fear human science when it is done well. It does better to insist on elegance and simplicity and other hallmarks of the truth rather than to set forth medieval scholasticism of any sort. The world should, in turn, demand as much of Christians theologians.

 

 

 

Justice Enough?

The human desire for justice is insatiable. And that is a problem. It is a problem because an insatiable desire can never be satisfied: there is no end to our desire for justice. It is a problem because many Christians use justice as a lens for understanding the work of our salvation. The fathers have a term for insatiable desires: passions. What human beings experience as a desire for justice is not a virtue – it is a passion, a disordered desire of the soul.

Virtues, the desires that are rightly ordered, have a proper end to their desire. They can be satisfied because they have a proper end. The experience of hunger, when rightly ordered, is perfectly natural and is able to know and experience a sense of completion. Enough is enough. When hunger is disordered it cannot rightly discern its end. The desire for food becomes confused. The result is gluttony – experienced by too much or too little food. I recall a friend, a recovering alcoholic, who said that the problem with alcohol was that “there was never enough.”

The Law in the Old Testament recognized the disordered character of human justice. It placed limits on our desire for justice. The Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is not a prescription for what must be paid for an injury: it is a limit on the maximum that may be extracted. Our desire for justice is never satisfied with an eye for an eye. We would like two eyes, a hand, a foot, an electronic ankle bracelet and 6 million dollars in punitive damages (and even then we are not actually satisfied).

This disordered desire for justice becomes deeply disturbing when cast in the role of theologian. Most versions of the “penal substitutionary model” of the atonement begin with an assertion regarding God’s justice. The requirements of that offended justice are considered infinite. Man’s sin against God is somehow deemed to be “infinite.”

…if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83.)

Edwards is slightly antique, but his reasoning continues to be standard fare for those who teach the penal substitution theory. His reasoning appears flawless. Our obligation to God is infinite, so its violation is infinite. Infinite crime warrants and infinite punishment: ergo eternity in the torments of hell.

The flaws in this reasoning are an important matter. But more important, and of greater consideration in this article, are the human desires that surround justice itself. I understand the desires we have – my family has endured two murders over the course of my lifetime. I know what it is to want justice. But, in fact, there is nothing that can be done to satisfy that desire. For what I want (what all of us want), is for the event never to have happened. No amount of punishment is sufficient to counterbalance the crime. The death of a murderer does not equal the death of an innocent. When all is said and done, two people are dead. That is not justice – it is just sadness upon sadness.

St. Isaac of Syria famously said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” The parables of Christ give an illustration of God’s justice. To the unjust servant who owed his master 10,000 talents, the Master demands that he be thrown in prison. When the servant asks for more time to pay his debt, the response is the cancellation of the entire debt. How is that just? As for mercy, it is beyond anything we can imagine. The master grants not more time, but no debt! (Matt. 18) The judgment meted out in the parable is not about the debt, but about the servant’s own lack of mercy.

Edward’s contention that our obligation to God is “infinite,” goes back at least as far as Anselm’s infinite offense to God’s honor. The reasoning seems to be that because God is “infinite,” those things that are owed to him (our obligations) are infinite. Of course, infinite is a problematic category to apply to a creature, who is, by definition, finite. Created with an infinite debt, finite creatures cannot do otherwise than burn in hell eternally. Infinite is simply an inappropriate adjective to use in our relationship with God. It brings inappropriate and incommensurate results in its train. It is more accurate to say of our relationship to God, and those things that belong to it, that they are “immeasurable.” What is required is not without limit (for the infinite cannot be required of the finite), but it is beyond our finite ability to measure.

This is a far more accurate way to approach the justice of God. His justice is not properly described as infinite (what would that mean?). His justice is inscrutable – we simply cannot know it, fathom it, or understand it. It is a useless concept when it comes to understanding our obligations to God. God is just – because He is not unjust. But what it means to say that “God is just,” is beyond our ken.

The result of the distortions caused by faulty theologizing about God’s justice, is a God who is not worthy of worship. There are those who not only glibly consign sinners to hell, but also postulate that the righteous will rejoice in the torment of sinners because of their delight in the goodness of God’s justice. Those with normal human sensibilities are repulsed by such notions. Those who embrace such heresy have their soul’s perverted desire for infinite justice confirmed. Such theology does not heal the soul – it corrupts it further and feeds its passions.

St. Isaac draws us in the right direction. Though we cannot know, fathom or understand God’s mercy, such ignorance should not limit our trust. God is a “good God who loves mankind.” He is philanthropos.

Our salvation is rightly understood through the lens of God’s mercy and not through His justice.

Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin…. Descending through the Cross into hell—that he might fill all things with Himself—He loosed the pangs of death. He arose on the third day, having made for all flesh a path to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be a victim of corruption. So He became the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born of the dead, that He might be Himself truly the first in all things (Liturgy of St. Basil).

The Eucharistic prayers of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, summations of atonement understanding par excellence, are virtually mute on the subject of justice. At most, St. Basil acknowledges the justice of our expulsion from paradise. Our rescue, however, is not achieved by justice, but by the merciful descent of Christ God into hell. Even St. Basil’s mention of ransom, has nothing of justice about it. For a ransom is not a just payment, but the unjust demand of the wicked.

Our passions do not give us an accurate read on the world. They are the insatiable torments of the soul. Whenever they become a force in our lives we find ourselves in torment. The greed of a lover’s jealousy, the madness of gambling, the thirst for alcohol – all of our various addictions – have the character of torment precisely because they are desires that cannot be fulfilled. It is not uncommon in the modern world to treat some infinite passions as noble: the desire for justice or fairness. But it is not accidental that such passions have been the fuel of obscene revolutions and mass murder. It only becomes more obscene if such “noble” passions are ascribed to God.

His mercy endures forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Orthodox Christians (New Calendar) commemorate the death (Dormition) of the Virgin Mary today. For those for whom such feasts are foreign, it is easy to misunderstand what the Orthodox are about – and to assume that this is simply a feast to Mary because we like that sort of thing. Flippant attitudes fail to perceive the depths of the mystery of our salvation. The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of many doorways into that mystery – all of which is Christ – who alone is our salvation.

The Christian life, as taught by the Scriptures and the fathers, is grounded in the mystery and reality of communion. We do not exist alone, nor do we exist merely as a collection. Our lives are a communion of lives. We share one another in ways that permeate the whole of our being. I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.

The belief that God became man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, makes no sense and has but little value apart from the reality of life understood as communion. It is thus crucial that the Creed confesses, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The womb of the Virgin was not “borrowed space” which God inhabited until His birth. The womb of the Virgin is also that place and that source by which God “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”

There are many theological accounts of Christ and His work of salvation that center almost solely upon the idea of Christ as a sacrifice on the Cross that pays the penalty of our sins (the doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement). This account tends to “stand on its own.” There is nothing inherent within Christ’s birth from a Virgin to such a view of the Atonement. Nor does the Virgin herself have any inherent connection to the saving acts of God as made known to us in the Scriptures. Thus those who profess her virginity in such cases only do so because it is recorded in the Scripture – but they do not do so because they understand its true role in our salvation.

However, our salvation is not achieved by an objective payment (even if the image of payment may be found in the Scriptures). The unifying teaching of the Scriptures with regard to Christ is our salvation through union with Him, through true communion in His life.

His Incarnation thus becomes a part of reality of God’s restoration of our communion with Him. He becomes a partaker of our life, that we might become partakers of His. This reality is made profoundly clear in that God not only comes to dwell among us, but comes to do so as a man, having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary. He becomes “flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone” (Ge. 2:23). And yet another image: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). Mary is united to Christ in the flesh, and mystical in her soul as well.

Her role in the salvation of the world (through union with Christ) is so profound that it is prophesied in the early chapters of Genesis (Ge. 3:15). She, and the Virgin Birth, are pre-figured repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (as interpreted by the fathers). There is a traditional hymn, sung during the vesting of a Bishop that makes reference to just a small sample of such prefigurements:

Of old the Prophets aforetime proclaimed thee,
the Golden Vessel, the Staff, the Tablet, the Ark,
the Lampstand, the Table, the Uncut Mountain,
the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible,
and the Throne of the King,
thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.

Perhaps the greatest collection of such references can be found in the 6th century hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos.

This prefigurement and their abundant use in the fathers, all flow from the fundamental understanding of salvation as communion. Thus she, as the Mother of God, belongs with Christ. She belongs with Him as the Golden Vessel belonged with the Manna (she is the vessel who contained the Bread of Heaven); she belongs with Him as Aaron’s Rod belongs with the buds which sprang forth (that He should be born from her virginal womb is like the life which springs forth from Aarons lifeless rod); she is the Tablet as Christ is the words inscribed; she is the lampstand as Christ Himself is the Lamp, etc.

As the Creed tells us, Christ died, in accordance with the Scriptures. This does not mean in “accordance with the Gospel writings”, but “in accordance with the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (we first see the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Through the eyes of the fathers and the Tradition of the Church we begin to see that in accordance with the Scriptures is more than the few references that can be found that refer to payment or sacrifice or that point to the Cross. The Gospel given to us includes a very wholistic understanding of salvation and its story – and unfolds that from beginning to end.

The union with the flesh of the Virgin is the union with our humanity – indeed with the whole created order. What Christ takes to Himself in that action, He takes with Himself throughout His ministry, taking it into death and Hades and raising it again with Himself on the third day. Thus St. Paul can say:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Romans 6:4-6).

These comments on death and resurrection in the context of Baptism, in which “we have been united together,” only make sense in an understanding of salvation as communion.

The death of the Mother of God (for He who was born of her was truly God as well as truly man), commemorated in the Feast of the Dormition, is something in which all of creation shares. For the point of the Incarnation was not simply to take flesh of the Virgin, but to be united with the whole created order. And so creation itself “groans and travails” as it awaits the final completion of our salvation (Romans 8). Or as the Church sings:

All of creation rejoices in Thee, O Full of Grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child.
Our God before the ages,
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O Full of Grace, glory to thee!

Her Dormition is indeed a day the earth stood still – for the Mother of us all passes from death to life.

Where the Gospel Begins

Where does the Gospel begin – how do we tell the story of Christ?

This question may seem too obvious to require an answer. However, it is increasingly relevant in what some describe as a “post-Christian” era. This reality came home to me years ago, during the first year of my ordained ministry. A woman began attending the Church where I served and presented herself for Baptism. Our conversation quickly turned to her background, what she knew and believed and what would need to be done in preparation for her entry into the Church. To my surprise, she had no knowledge of God in particular and only a vague sense of who Jesus was. “I know he was an important religious figure,” she explained.

She had not grown up in the American South (a region known as the “Bible Belt”). She was from Hawaii, part of an American military family. Her experience within American culture (including plenty of television) gave her no general content in answer to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” I felt like St. Paul in his first exposure to Athens (no one knew what he was talking about – his hearers thought “resurrection” was the name of a new deity).

By the same token, many who have been raised within the confines of the Bible belt have an understanding of the gospel – but an understanding that is formed and shaped by modern questions – none of which are the questions that shaped the four gospels of the Bible. Thus the gospel as found in the writings of the early Church and its subsequent centuries of the fathers, often differs in structure and understanding when compared to the gospel believed by many Christians of the modern world.

Where does the Gospel begin?

That the Gospel would begin by reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) would seem the handiest answer to that question. But this leaves another question unanswered: how do we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? St. Irenaeus (2nd century) gives an extremely insightful example in a discussion directed to Gnostics, whom he contended could not read the gospels correctly.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

Quoted from Christianity Today’s Church History site.

Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), it is worth noting, knew St. Polycarp, who knew St. John. Thus he was third-generation in the life of the Christian Church.

Irenaeus’ contention that those who are not in the line and community of the Christian Tradition are not able to properly interpret Scriptures (in a Christian manner) is dramatically important. It sets the Scriptures in a non-objective context. The Scriptures are not “self-interpreting,” as some modern Protestants would contend, neither is their reading and interpretation a matter of reason or historical knowledge. Their reading is ecclesiastical, traditional, liturgical or, in Irenaeus’ language, “according to the Apostolic Hypothesis.” In short, the Scriptures are understood within the life of the Church and cannot be rightly read in any other manner. St. Paul’s letters are written to Churches or individuals holding positions within the Church. None of his letters are addressed, “To whom it may concern.”

In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians he states, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col 4:16 KJV). The Scriptures are to the Churches, read within the Churches, and interpreted within the life of the Churches.

St. Irenaeus, as noted above, referred to the primary Church Tradition as the Apostolic Hypothesis. Today we would describe this “Hypothesis” as a Creed (quite similar to the Apostles’ Creed). Such statements can be found within Scripture itself.

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve (1Co 15:1-5 NKJ)…

Within this “Apostolic Hypothesis” St. Paul uses the key words “delivered” and “received.” In Greek the words (paradidomi and paralambano) mean “to tradition” or “to hand down” and to “receive” as in to “receive what has been handed down.” They are the technical words for how the Tradition operates in the Church.

In this same manner, we see the four gospels shaped according to the Apostolic Hypothesis. The primary piece within each of the gospels is Christ’s Pascha: His suffering and death, and His resurrection and entrance into glory. The whole of the gospels are shaped by this essential narrative. The story of Christ’s Pascha occupies around 25% of Matthew’s gospel; 40% of Mark’s; 30% of Luke’s and over 50% of  John’s. It is not an event within Christ’s story – it is Christ’s story. Other events within the gospels (such as Christ’s Nativity, His Baptism and Transfiguration) often have a Paschal shape in their telling. The Church’s iconography of these feasts reveals this “shape.”

The same “Apostolic Hypothesis” is also the framework used for the interpretation of the Old Testament. The use of the Old Testament in the life of the Church (particularly as evidenced in the Church’s liturgical texts) is allegorical. Christ dies for our sins “according to the Scriptures (the Old Testament),” but it is also true that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are according to Christ’s death for our sins. Christ Himself instructs the Church in this manner of reading. In the resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus, Christ rebukes His disciples for their failure to understand “the things which have happened in Jerusalem:”

Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25-27 NKJ)

However, it would not have been possible to have grasped “Moses and all the Prophets” until the events of Christ’s Pascha.

Very clear summaries of the “gospel” can be found by reading the Eucharistic prayers of the Church (such as St. John Chrysostom’s or St. Basil’s). This heart of the Church’s prayer offers both the events of Christ’s death and resurrection, and a theological summary of their meaning.

The gospel of Jesus Christ begins in His suffering, death and resurrection. Even the opening chapter of Genesis is read by the fathers in terms of its Paschal meaning. Theories (such as penal substitution) that tend to shape Christ’s death and resurrection according to themselves, rather than being shaped by the Paschal narrative, fail to be guided by the Apostolic Hypothesis. The Old is interpreted by the New.

Christ is risen (“the Kingdom of God is at hand”), and so the gospel begins.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Orthodox Christians (New Calendar) are currently observing a two-week fast in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition, a day which marks the death (“falling asleep”) of the Mother of God. For those for whom such feasts are foreign, it is easy to misunderstand what the Orthodox are about – and to assume that this is simply a feast to Mary because we like that sort of thing. Flippant attitudes fail to perceive the depths of the mystery of our salvation. The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of many doorways into that mystery – all of which is Christ – who alone is our salvation.

The Christian life, as taught by the Scriptures and the fathers, is grounded in the mystery and reality of communion. We do not exist alone, nor do we exist merely as a collection. Our lives are a communion of lives. We share one another in ways that permeate the whole of our being. I am unique, and yet I am also the child of Jim and Nancy. Though I am unique, so much of who I am and what I am is their lives and the lives of generations of human beings and culture – not just genetic relatives – but all of humanity. Without such knowledge (whether conscious or unconscious), we do not love as we should and will not live as we should. Your life is my life; God help us.

The belief that God became man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, makes no sense and has but little value apart from the reality of life understood as communion. It is thus crucial that the Creed confesses, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” The womb of the Virgin was not “borrowed space” which God inhabited until His birth. The womb of the Virgin is also that place and that source by which God “took flesh of the Virgin Mary.”

There are many theological accounts of Christ and His work of salvation that center almost solely upon the idea of Christ as a sacrifice on the Cross that pays the penalty of our sins (the doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement). This account tends to “stand on its own.” There is nothing inherent within Christ’s birth from a Virgin to such a view of the Atonement. Nor does the Virgin herself have any inherent connection to the saving acts of God as made known to us in the Scriptures. Thus those who profess her virginity in such cases only do so because it is recorded in the Scripture – but they do not do so because they understand its true role in our salvation.

However, our salvation is not achieved by an objective payment (even if the image of payment may be found in the Scriptures). The unifying teaching of the Scriptures with regard to Christ is our salvation through union with Him, through true communion in His life.

His Incarnation thus becomes a part of reality of God’s restoration of our communion with Him. He becomes a partaker of our life, that we might become partakers of His. This reality is made profoundly clear in that God not only comes to dwell among us, but comes to do so as a man, having taken flesh of the Virgin Mary. He becomes “flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone” (Ge. 2:23). And yet another image: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). Mary is united to Christ in the flesh, and mystical in her soul as well.

Her role in the salvation of the world (through union with Christ) is so profound that it is prophesied in the early chapters of Genesis (Ge. 3:15). She, and the Virgin Birth, are pre-figured repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (as interpreted by the fathers). There is a traditional hymn, sung during the vesting of a Bishop that makes reference to just a small sample of such prefigurements:

Of old the Prophets aforetime proclaimed thee,
the Golden Vessel, the Staff, the Tablet, the Ark,
the Lampstand, the Table, the Uncut Mountain,
the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible,
and the Throne of the King,
thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.

Perhaps the greatest collection of such references can be found in the 6th century hymn called the Akathist to the Theotokos.

This prefigurement and their abundant use in the fathers, all flow from the fundamental understanding of salvation as communion. Thus she, as the Mother of God, belongs with Christ. She belongs with Him as the Golden Vessel belonged with the Manna (she is the vessel who contained the Bread of Heaven); she belongs with Him as Aaron’s Rod belongs with the buds which sprang forth (that He should be born from her virginal womb is like the life which springs forth from Aarons lifeless rod); she is the Tablet as Christ is the words inscribed; she is the lampstand as Christ Himself is the Lamp, etc.

As the Creed tells us, Christ died, in accordance with the Scriptures. This does not mean in “accordance with the Gospel writings”, but “in accordance with the Scriptures of the Old Testament” (we first see the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15:3). Through the eyes of the fathers and the Tradition of the Church we begin to see that in accordance with the Scriptures is more than the few references that can be found that refer to payment or sacrifice or that point to the Cross. The Gospel given to us includes a very wholistic understanding of salvation and its story – and unfolds that from beginning to end.

The union with the flesh of the Virgin is the union with our humanity – indeed with the whole created order. What Christ takes to Himself in that action, He takes with Himself throughout His ministry, taking it into death and Hades and raising it again with Himself on the third day. Thus St. Paul can say:

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Romans 6:4-6).

These comments on death and resurrection in the context of Baptism, in which “we have been united together,” only make sense in an understanding of salvation as communion.

The death of the Mother of God (for He who was born of her was truly God as well as truly man), commemorated in the Feast of the Dormition, is something in which all of creation shares. For the point of the Incarnation was not simply to take flesh of the Virgin, but to be united with the whole created order. And so creation itself “groans and travails” as it awaits the final completion of our salvation (Romans 8). Or as the Church sings:

All of creation rejoices in Thee, O Full of Grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child.
Our God before the ages,
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of creation rejoices in thee,
O Full of Grace, glory to thee!

Her Dormition is indeed a day the earth stood still – for the Mother of us all passes from death to life.

How Much Is Too Little? How Much Is Enough?

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One of the most pervasive rules in Christian believing is the Latin phrase, “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” usually rendered, “The Law of Praying is the Law of Believing.” It is a simple way of saying both that we believe what we pray (praying will inevitably bring about a conformity in believing), and that if something is to be preserved it must become part of the liturgical life. Time and history have largely born this out.

It has been a rule that concerns people who write or translate liturgies – and it has been a rule for those who helplessly watch as others write and translate liturgies. For it is simply the case, if the people do not pray it, in time they will cease to believe it.

This principle is linked in my mind to the question of what is needed in theology. What do we need to believe to actually confess the Christian faith? Are there elements, which if neglected, would bring about a change in the faith – possibly even a fatal change?

I believe the answer to this last question is quite clear: it is possible to leave certain elements aside with the result that what is left is no longer Christianity, however it may be disguised.

When I was studying systematic theology (I know, Orthodox Theology is rarely accused of being systematic), it was well understood that if something was not an integral part of the faith, it would soon enough become not a part of the faith. Doctrinal belief is like muscles in our body – if left unused, it atrophies.

I am convinced that for an increasing number of Christians, an increasing number of essential elements are no longer essential to what they believe – the result being the creation of increasingly new belief systems. These may still be described as Christianity, because they are religions centered around the figure of Jesus Christ, but are, in fact,  new belief systems.

I began to be convinced of this as I read the systematic theologies of others. The same conclusions can be reached by anecdotal evidence – speaking with various believers about what they think is important.

This morning, for instance, I celebrated the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Ascension of Christ (40 days after Easter). I was also aware that probably two, possibly three other Churches in my town were doing something similar. There is a Catholic Church and I’m sure there was at least one mass, if not more. There is an Episcopal Church, and it is possible, though not not necessarily the case, that there was a liturgy today or tonight. I would also think it possible that the feast was kept by one or two of our Lutheran congregations. What I have mentioned is indeed a minority in our Southern town. For most Christians, the Ascension of Christ will never be mentioned to them in a way that would make them think that the event was significant.

We had a number of conversations within my congregation (which is largely convert) back at the end of Holy Week and during the early parts of Pascha. Most of them admitted that it was not until they became Orthodox that they even realized that Christ descended to the dead when he died on the Cross. Some even told stories of having been in Bible studies when young, and, when reading the verses regarding Christ’s descent to the dead, were told, “We don’t know what these verses mean.” Needless to say in the churches these people had first acquired the Christian faith, it made no difference that Christ had descended into Hades.

I believe that there is a truncated version of Christianity that is moving towards a dominant position with our religion. It is simply the atonement – largely taught in the language of penal substitution, as the only important dogma of the faith. Thus to believe that “Christ died for our sins,” means anywhere and everywhere that he paid a price that we could not pray and that by trusting in Him we will be spared the punishments of Hell.

Everything else, if mentioned at all, is simply a corollary to that single thought. Thus (and I know this is extreme) some years back I had an argument with an Episcopal priest friend who said, “I would be much more comfortable with the doctrine of the resurrection if we could find the bones of Jesus.” He certainly believed that Christ had paid the price of his sins, and that through faith in Christ he would be saved. But the bodily resurrection of Jesus was not important to that theology and he found its primitive, literal quality to be a bit of a bother.

I warned you – it was an extreme case. Many if not most Christians believe that Christ was raised from the dead – but they increasingly do not know why, other than as a reassurance to us that we will be raised as well (Lazarus’ resurrection could have done as much). Indeed the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is troublesome for many Christians who would rather prefer to believe in “Life after death, or eternal life.”

This same principle can also be applied to the sacraments of the Church. Many are the young couples who would say, “I don’t need a piece of paper declaring me to be married.” Joni Mitchell sang in her sweet warble, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall/ keeping us tied and true/my old man/ keeping away my blues …” The rate of illegitimacy for children in the black community exceeds 50% and draws closer to that mark in the white community. And this, of course, is only thinking about the sacrament of marriage.

The sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism may soon be on the way out for many. Many Churches long ago reduced them to something done at a service other than Sunday morning, and then only four times a year. It is not a sacrament that seems integral to the story of salvation as that Church teaches. Never mind the fact that Christ said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”

I spoke this week to someone who was joining one of the new “Anglican” Churches, I believe the one that is under an African Primate. I asked him about their communion teaching. “Do they practice open communion?” The answer was yes, with the addition that there was some sort of statement of what the Church believed and asked that only those who ascribed to that statement should receive communion. This, of course, is far more than is required in most Christian Churches today, despite the fact that closed communion was the normative practice of virtually every denomination of Christians until the late 1960’s.

Private Confession, long ago jettisoned by most Protestants, has become fairly rare for many within the Catholic Church. Lent as a season of fasting has atrophied beyond recognition.

Actually writing or summarizing the teaching of the Church in which all of the major events in the story of our salvation are given their proper weight is a minimal requirement if one is actually to be or become an Orthodox Christian. What is it about the Descent into Hades that is necessary to our salvation? What is it about the Resurrection that is essential to our salvation? What does the Ascension have to do with being saved (and it does)? What does the second and glorious coming of Christ have to do with our salvation? What does being born of a Virgin have to do with Christ’s saving of mankind?

In Orthodox understanding, all of these things are integral parts of Christ becoming what we are in order to make us what He is. The metaphor of the substitutionary atonement, though not unknown, is simply too thin and weak to bear the full weight of the story of our salvation. Christ became fully human, that we might have a share in His divinity. It was into the depths of our humanity that He descended when He entered the Virgin’s womb, having done no damage to the freedom that belongs to mankind. It was into the depths of our damnation that He descended, when, dying on the Cross, He entered Hades and loosed the bonds of the captives. Now there is no where we may go that He has not filled with Himself. It was still in glorified union with our humanity that He rose from the grave, having trampled down death by death. It is our humanity that he bore (“like a yoke” we sang last night) into the very heavens themselves and in that union sat our humanity down at the right hand of the Father.

These actions, all primary statements in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, not only provide a summary of the events in the life of Christ – they are the utterly essential elements of our salvation. As the Creed states: “…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…”

All that Christ did is and should be an integral part of any proper account of Christian salvation. They should thus be integral parts of the worship and prayer life of the Church. Where they have been relegated to some lesser status – there you may be sure that some essential part of our faith has been laid aside and remains in danger of ceasing to be part of the Christian faith – except for the fact that it will remain a part of Scripture.

Two years ago this was demonstrated in an embarrassing manner when a large number of Christian Churches in America closed their doors for Sunday worship in order to steer clear of conflict with the “family holiday” of Christmas.

There is no lowest common denominator of Christianity. There is no modest form of the faith around which we may gather. There is only the “faith, once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Anything less is either no longer Christian, or building a foundation for something that in time will not be Christian.

How much is too little? How much is enough? I consider that if Christ thought it necessary to do certain things and to give us certain things, it was because they were needed for the fullness of our salvation.

How much is too little – anything less than everything.

How much is enough – only everything.

Some Modest Thoughts on the Atonement

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The doctrine of the Atonement, that is, the doctrine of how exactly it is that Christ has reconciled us to God, is a matter of much discussion. For some, particularly among conservative Protestants, the Atonement is defined by the model of the penal substitution (Christ bore the wrath of the Father that we deserved and thus made propitiation for us). Some have rejected this model as either bound too strongly to a model of God’s wrath and justice that cannot be supported by the Fathers or Scripture. There are other models of the atonement (I think particularly of the three different models that Gustav Aulen described in his magisterial work Christus Victor). There is some excellent work being done today that examines again the model(s) of the atonement found in Scripture (here I think primarily of Finlan’s Problems with Atonement) and offers the observation that there are a fair variety of images used but still looks primarily at the image of union with Christ.

What I offer today is something far more modest, to say the least. And it is in saying the least that I find the greatest hope in discussions of the atonement.

Though there are early discussions of the atonement, none are particularly conclusive. None of the early councils of the Church focused on this as a matter of critical debate. The various anaphora of the Church (the prayers of the Eucharist) all offered language that described the atonement, but even there some variety can be found (even in a single anaphora).

Though the Nicene Creed was not placed in its final form until 381 (not including later Western changes that carry no weight in the East) it nevertheless represents one of the earliest statements of faith of the Church. Indeed, I would argue (and I’m not alone in this) that Creedal statements (what St. Irenaeus would call the hypothesis of Scripture) predate the Scriptures themselves. Had not such hypostheses existed, Scripture could not have been written in a manner that agreed with itself.

We can find early evidences of such stated hypotheses in places such as St. Paul’s 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (3-5).

Here St. Paul uses the very specific language of Tradition. “I delivered,” (literally “I traditioned”) “what I received” (what had been traditioned to him). What follows is clearly some echo of the Baptismal Creeds that were part of the Church’s life from its beginning. These statements of the faith represented the Apostolic hypothesis, the summary of the faith, the scaffolding on which all Christian thought would be erected.

In the Nicene Creed we have a very short summary of the ministry of Christ:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried. And the third day rose again in accordance with the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Please forgive the elipsis, I do not mean to treat that statement of the Creed with any less importance – but my focus here is on atonement. My modest suggestion is that the Creed in no way ignores atonement, but simply offers this short summary of the economy of our salvation as the very hypothesis by which we are to approach Scripture and its interpretation.

Thus, all that Christ did, from the incarnation to His ascension and judgement itself, is “for us men and for our salvation.” God has not acted in any way other than for our salvation.

Is this asking us to say too little? Should the details of the atonement be described more fully?

There are numerous models to be found in Scripture. Indeed, Finlan notes that sometimes St. Paul will include more than one model in a single sentence. But all of them are in agreement with the hypothesis we hear in the Creed. Why should more be required?

More may be said, if it agrees with the Creed and if it does no damage to the hypothesis offered there, but none can be enshrined as “the doctrine of the atonement.” Such a modest proposal as mine leaves us free to discuss “problems with atonement” and to see strengths and weaknesses of various images, from the point of view of the Apostolic hypothesis.

The Church’s use of councils through the centuries has ever been only to defend the understanding of salvation as given us in the Apostolic teaching. The use of councils to multiply doctrines where no need exists is an abuse of our conciliar life. Councils should be seen as “necessities” but only for purposes of crisis and where the understanding of our salvation is endangered. Thus the Eastern Church has relatively few Councils.

We do better to pray than to argue doctrine unless the latter is of utter necessity. For many, it has become something of a parlor game, and this has been to the detriment of Christianity and even of our salvation. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes less is enough. This is my modest proposal.

“Are You Saved?”

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My life in the South has been marked by the question, “Are you saved?” As a child, street preachers from the local fundamentalist protestant college would hold forth in front of the Dollar Store (which was also the bus stop), guaranteeing something of a captive audience. The question in that context had a simple meaning:

a. you are born with the sin and guilt of Adam

b. you are thus deserving of hell.

c. only by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can you be saved from those punishing flames.

d. Jesus is a God’s substitution who suffered the penalty which I deserved.

I know this sounds caricatured or may fail to do justice to the complete teaching of the Substitutionary Atonement, but it is as complete a version as was preached on the streets, or in the pulpits of my native South Carolina hometown.

By age 13 certain contradictions within this account of salvation became obvious to me. For one, the problem of extrinsic righteousness. I didn’t know that was the term for a righteousness that is understood solely in terms of my legal standing before God – but it was certainly what I had been taught. The problem with it is that it seemed to me to lack something.

One thing it lacked, was an actual change in me. Everyone I knew did not want to go to hell (who would), but I can’t honestly say that I knew many people who wanted to go to heaven for heaven’s sake. Heaven only seemed desireable as an alternative lifestyle. Indeed, the idea of praising God forever and ever sounded boring beyond belief.

Thus it was that at around age 13 I came to not believe in God, or, at least, not in the God I had been told about. It seemed too boring, too beside the point and even childish. I was interested in God (if there was one) but not in that one.

I could expand on this – and probably will at some time in the future. But I had arrived at a fairly precocious age where many people in our culture have reached: atheism as the rejection of a false gospel.

Today I have learned to say to atheists: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; I may not believe in that God either.”

I’ll pick up the autobiography another time – but I will leap ahead today to a question I sometimes hear from local Protestants when they are asking me about Orthodoxy (I am not infrequently the only Orthodox Christian some people have met around here). That question is: “Do you believe in salvation by grace?”

Now this is a better question than, “Are you saved.” And it is able to be answered more easily from an Orthodox perspective. The answer is simply, “We not only believe in salvation by grace, we think that grace is what salvation itself actually is.”

This is to say: We believe that grace is nothing other than the very Life of God. What is wrong with us as human beings (sinners) is that we have cut ourselves off from this Life of God. We have rejected Him, and rather than walking in the Light of His Life, we walk in darkness and do deeds of darkness, hurting one another and distorting yet further the image of God within us. Thus salvation is turning to God and “uniting ourselves to Him.” We believe this happens in our acceptance of Him as Lord and Savior, and is sealed within us in Holy Baptism, nourished by Holy Communion, and every action of our life together as the Body of Christ. Grace is not simply how we are saved, it is the very content of our salvation.

I could draw fine points and say that this salvation by, in, with and through the Grace of God also requires our cooperation, but still this means only that we must live in relationship with God as persons, that is in relationships of love and freedom. Any other kind of relationship would be a distortion of what God has for us in union with Him.

We are saved by grace, by the very Life of God, but most obviously, this salvation is a process, or must be seen as something of a process. “Do you believe that you can lose your salvation?” Some Baptists in the area ask.

We believe that, despite the love of God, despite the steadfastness and complete commitment of God to us, we can in fact still exercise freedom to turn away from God. We not only believe this is so, the Church has seen this any number of times. “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world,” (2 Timothy 4:10), Paul writes with haunting implications. The word “Apostasy” would mean nothing if there were no possibility of “falling away.” Indeed, Scripture speaks of a “falling away” that will occur (2 Thessalonians 3:3) before the end of all things.

And yet we hope in God. But to the question, “Are you saved?” Orthodoxy is always hesitant. We would not ask the question that way, because it is not a Scriptural question. “Have you united yourself to Christ?” is the question placed at Holy Baptism.

But away from all theory – the simple reality is the grace of God, the very Life of God Himself. Do I live in union with His Life? Do I yield myself to Him at every moment? Do I understand that His Life is my life, and that my true self can only be found in Him? These are the questions of salvation questions worth asking, not only of myself, but with my closet friend, with my priest, with someone. What else in life could have such importance?

Perhaps as important as any of those questions is the fact that the Orthodox understanding of salvation presumes a change in me. Salvation is not extrinsic, but works in the inner person, transforming us and conforming us to the image of Christ.

I am aware that the West placed much of this thought into a category of “sanctification,” but this can also be to make it secondary instead of primary.

It is primary because without an inner change we remain what we are and the possibility of honest, true fellowship with God remains impaired, not to speak of honest, true fellowship with one another.

I have found it to be important that those who are living the Orthodox faith together in Church always remember that they themselves need to be changed and are not yet what they are going to become, and that those around them need to be changed and are not yet what they are going to become. With that understanding, we can practice mercy and patience towards one another, pray for one another, and labor together for our common salvation as Christ (and only Christ) transforms us from the broken persons that we are into the persons we are to become.

I will continue to post, from time to time, more thoughts on Orthodox salvation. Indeed, everything may be about Orthodox salvation if we look at it hard enough.