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…

Christ Our Passover

In 1 Corinthians 5:7, St. Paul states that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.  Though St. Paul’s identification is incredibly clear and straightforward, the identification of Christ as Passover lamb and of his death and resurrection as a new Passover are ubiquitous in the scriptures.  In Orthodox liturgical practice in English, we tend not to translate the word Pascha.  Pascha is simply the Greek word for Passover wherever it occurs liturgically.  Therefore, we call our festal celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection ‘Passover’ on a regular basis.  The Old Testament establishes patterns of God’s working with humanity and in his creation, including our redemption.  These patterns are then taken up and fulfilled, i.e. filled to overflowing, by Christ. …

Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates – Psalm 24 and the Harrowing of Hades

Psalm 24 (23 in the Greek collection) is a Psalm deeply immersed in the religious world of ancient Israel.  The Psalm represents a specific polemic against the pagan beliefs of her Canaanite, Phoenician, and Syrian neighbors.  This Psalm mocks the pretensions of the demonic being whom they have chosen to worship directly and specifically.  The means for understanding the context into which Psalm 24 was written and the beliefs against which it was directed lay buried in the sand in Lebanon for more than 3,000 years.  Nevertheless, the original meaning of this Biblical text was maintained in the Orthodox Church until the present day through its liturgical usage.  This text is, therefore, not only a prime example of the way…

The Testament of Jacob

In preparing his Latin translation of the scripture, St. Jerome translated the Greek word “diatheke” and the Hebrew word “berith” with the Latin “testamentum.”  From the latter word, the English word “testament” is derived.  The original Hebrew term, “berith,” refers most commonly to treaty documents, and in its usage in the Torah particularly refers to a particular type of treaty, that issued by a suzerain to a vassal at a king’s accession to the throne.  This usage is in view in the New Testament in every instance of its usage but one.  To convey this usage, the word is generally translated “covenant.”  The translators of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek translated the word with the Greek “diatheke” which is likewise…