Tabor and Hermon

In the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church, much attention is paid to the revelation of Christ’s glory as uncreated light.  This is fitting, as this element of the event and of the feast became critically important to later doctrinal disputes within the East and ultimately between East and West.  There are, however, other important elements of the event and feast relating to the revelation of Jesus as not only Christ but as God which may be all too quickly passed over as a result of this emphasis.  Certain liturgical elements of the feast and of scriptures telling of the event give clues to these other elements if they are followed through attentively. One of…

Atonement for the Whole World

First John 2:2 states that Christ has offered himself as an atoning sacrifice “not only for our sins but also for the whole world.”  For most of Christian history, this verse has been used as a football in various theological disputes.  First, it was used as a proof text against the Donatists who saw their churches in North Africa as the totality of the church of Christ.  Second, it was debated in regard to the condemnation of apokatastasis or universalism.  Beginning in the period of the Protestant Reformation, it became a key text in the debate surrounding the Calvinist doctrine of limited or particular atonement.  While what St. John has to say to the Johannine community in 1 John may…

The Handwriting of Our Sins

One verse cited often with regard to the crucifixion of Christ in the Orthodox liturgical tradition is Colossians 2:14.  “When he canceled the handwriting in the decrees against us, which were opposed to us.  And he has taken it from our midst, by nailing it to the cross.”  This verse describes how, as the previous verse says, we who were dead in our transgressions were made alive by having those transgressions taken away.  The language used here offers us yet another window through the scriptures to understand the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sakes upon the cross.  Though it may not be apparent in English translation, this language of the handwriting of a decree is part and parcel…

Propitiation and Expiation

Debates surrounding atonement theology over the last several decades have centered on two terms, propitiation and expiation.  Both of these terms describe the function of particular sacrificial rituals.  There is not, of necessity, a conflict between the core meanings of these two terms.  They have come, however, to be emblematic of entire theological positions regarding the atoning sacrifice of Christ.  Clearing away the accumulated theological baggage from these terms, however, allows them to highlight two important elements of the sacrificial system described in the Hebrew scriptures which will, in turn, reveal elements of the Gospels’ portrayal of Christ’s atoning death.  Rather than summarizing two incompatible views or options or theories regarding “how atonement works,” these elements, along with others, convey…

The Wrath of God

The wrath of God is a topic unpopular in the present era.  Much theological ink has been spilled in the modern period in an attempt to explain away or otherwise neutralize the idea, despite its clear presence in the scriptures and in the writings of the fathers.  An entire fully developed complex of ideas in later Western theology, including not only God’s wrath but also a particular conception of his justice and of penal substitution, is seen by many modern commentators as an inextricably linked whole.  This complex idea is then caricatured in various ways and rejected wholesale.  To reject the teaching of the church at the foundation, however, along with the later erroneous edifice built upon it is to…

Atonement

Over the next several weeks, posts will examine the Biblical concept of atonement from several angles in an attempt to synthesize the teaching of the scriptures on this topic.  Before delving into the teaching of particular portions of the scriptures it is important to have a working definition of what “atonement” is in the first place and how the terms in the original languages of scripture which are translated by this English word are used in a general sense.  There also needs to be a certain amount of disambiguation regarding common popular uses of the term in Western theology and popular Christian discussion.  Many of these usages import concepts and theological notions which postdate the scriptures by centuries.  The “reading…

Being and Chaos

In our modern understanding of being, being is commonly opposed to nothingness.  Something exists and by this we mean has some sort of material reality, it is a thing, or it does not exist, meaning that it is imaginary and has no real time space existence.  The difficulty of discussing the existence of God as ‘a being’ within this paradigm is what has created most of the unprofitable discussion surrounding atheism in our society.  This understanding was preceded for centuries, particularly in Western thought, by an understanding initiated by Plato and further elaborated by the Middle and Neo-Platonists.  Platonism opposed being not with some concept of non-being that equated with non-existence, but with becoming.  There are things which simply are. …

The Oak of Mamre

The episode at the oak of Mamre, recorded in Genesis 18, is one of the strangest and most mysterious in the scriptures.  It has long been depicted in Orthodox iconography as the Hospitality of Abraham.  Beginning with Andrei Rublev, a detail of this scene has been the only approved Orthodox iconographic depiction of the Holy Trinity.  This Trinity icon is used by some local Orthodox churches as the icon for the feast of Pentecost.  The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost marked the conclusion of the revelation of the Holy Trinity to humanity.  The episode of the oak of Mamre, in many ways, represents the beginning of that revelation. Genesis 18 begins by stating that Yahweh appeared to Abraham…

Creation and Ascension

The feast of Christ’s Ascension represents one of the most important liturgical moments of the Christian year.  It is, unfortunately, generally under-appreciated.  Due to where it falls in the cycle of feasts, it is sometimes seen as a sort of epilogue to Pascha.  In our modern life, it falls in the summer which has become a time for vacations, time off from work and school and even sometimes church.  It falls in mid-week, which in the modern working world makes its participation more difficult for many people.  For ancient people, however, the feast of the Ascension of Christ would have been intuitively the most important.  The Ascension represents the culmination of the gospel which was proclaimed throughout the world by…

Calendars Old and New

One piece of recent Orthodox history and continued current controversy that often strikes those first learning about the church as odd is the controversy between the old and new, or Julian and revised Julian, calendars.  For those outside the church, and even some inside, this controversy may seem odd.  The difference in celebrating the immovable feasts two weeks earlier or later may seem almost irrelevant.  The tenacity with which people hold to one calendar or the other and the vehemence which the arguments between them can reach may seem strange or misplaced.  The idea that it is one date for everyone else in the world and a different date at church in an old calendar parish may even seem fanciful…