The Tree of the Cross

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said regarding Christian readings of the Hebrew scriptures, “there followed a fury of interpretation and construction that cannot possibly be associated with a good conscience: however much Jewish scholars protested, the Old Testament was supposed to speak of Christ and only of Christ, and especially of his Cross; wherever a piece of wood, a rod, a ladder, a twig, a tree, a willow, a staff is mentioned, it is supposed to be a prophetic allusion to the wood of the Cross; even the erection of the one-horned beast and the brazen serpent, even Moses spreading his arms in prayer, even the spits on which the Passover lamb was roasted all allusions to the Cross and as it…

The Name of the Lord

The pivotal moment in the life of Moses as related in Exodus is his prophetic call at the bush which burned but was not consumed.  Within this call narrative, an important and well known moment is the revelation to Moses of the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Despite how well known this moment is, there are a number of misnomers regarding the revelation of the name Yahweh, as well as precisely what this name means and indicates.  This is true not only in terms of popular understanding but even major scholarly theories based on references to this name have recently lost most of their popularity if not been completely overturned.  Archaeological finds have given further relevant…

Apocalypse Now

In the common vernacular, the term ‘apocalypse’ is used to refer to the end of the world or some imagined future in which the present world societal structures have been destroyed or ceased to exist.  In fiction, this was typically some sort of nuclear or environmental catastrophe, though in recent years it has tended more toward disease outbreak in general and one which turns humans into zombies in particular.  This popular usage has come through a particular interpretation of the final book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse of St. John, or the book of Revelation.  Centuries of interpretation which holds that this text, or at least the greater part of it, describes events which will take place at the…

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. …