Whose Fault Is It Anyway?


I am publishing this post a day early for the sake of the conversation generated by my recent atonement posts. I hope the conversation goes forward well. My recent post on “Are You Saved?” generated perhaps our longest list of comments, thus far, and, by far, the most erudite and serious. The subject of the atonement, and the picture of God presented by the doctrine have been a touchy subject between some in the Eastern Orthodox Church and others in various Western confessions over the past number of years.

Orthodox writers, following the lead of John Romanides and others, have seen the West as an easy target and have rather simplistically accused them of changing the doctrine of the atonement and, as a result, altering the image of God and the heart of the gospel all at the same time.

This has brought a flurry of responses from various sources. Some have found quotes from within the Orthodox corpus of writings to support doctrines similar to those attacked in Western writers. Others have cited sources to show that the doctrine ascribed to Western writers has been oversimplified and caricatured.

Doubtless all of these things are true. Those writing in the name of Eastern Orthodoxy have taken unfair shots and those defending the West have both sought to raise an indefensible dogma to a defensible level as well as to drag the East into the same culpability with regard to its teaching.

All that being the case I will state this much: images of the atonement which portray the problem with human sin as an affront to the dignity, honor, justice, etc. of Almighty God and in need of payment, have a problem. The problem is that it makes the issue of sin a problem centered primarily within God.

Rather, by far the Patristic synthesis, is to see the problem with humanity. God is a good God who loves mankind. We are the ones who have cut ourselves off from Him, despite the fact that He loves us. God is the God who so loves us that He gave His only begotten Son for us. Not as a payment to assuage His own offended justice, but as one who emptied Himself and became even as we are (to the extent of entering death and hell) in order to retreive us and restore us to fellowship with the Father.

 No council (of the Seven Great Ecumenical) has ever declared authoritatively on atonement imagery. Thus, in Orthodox understanding, there is no definitive atonement imagery. Christ reconciles us to the Father and that is that.

But it is essential for all, East and West, to learn to speak of our reconciliation to the Father in terms that do justice to a God who so loves mankind that He would empty Himself and pour Himself out for us. Imagery of offended justice, and ancient debts, really (lacking conciliar authority) fail in proclaiming the gospel in this modern culture. It is useless to run to an appeal and say, “Yes, but this is really what happened!” For that is to make of imagery a dogma, that even the Fathers refused to do.

It is better to proclaim the gospel as it stands: Christ died for the ungodly. While we were yet sinners Chris died for us. He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. And the verses could be multiplied.

Whatever “wrath” we have avoided in coming to God in Christ, is not a wrath of anger (God is not angry as man is angry), but rather describes a state of being in which we dwell when we set ourselves in opposition to God.

We must learn the discipline of discerning the difference between literal and metaphorical language, and learn when metaphors are helpful and when they are of no use.

We dwell in a culture that from various sources has heard but a caricature of the gospel – and the caricature has left many with a childish view of Christian preaching. It is little wonder that they reject such a God. The Church must be careful to proclaim a God who is worthy of worship, who can challenge the culture at its most existential level.

 The best of Patristic material and the best of the Tradition is capable of all these things. I don’t really care whose fault it is that the gospel became caricature in our culture. But as a minister of the gospel, one to whom the mysteries of the ages has been entrusted, I do well to struggle to present those mysteries in a way that is both understandable and truly a challenge to these evil times to repent and believe the gospel – not a poorly truncated late medieval version – but a timeless presentation of the Truth of God in Christ Jesus. Having done that, none of us will have to apologize.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





14 responses to “Whose Fault Is It Anyway?”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photograph is of the grave of C.S. Lewis, whose grasp of the gospel probably unites as many Christians in our modern world as any contemporary I can imagine. I visited his grave this summer – being told, “It’s only Americans who come these days.” Perhaps that is so – but I still think of his universal grasp of the gospel. I once heard Bishop Kallistos Ware refer to him as “that anonymous Orthodox” at which a room of better than 700 Orthodox priests rose in ovation. My argument here is for a “mere Christianity” of the Atonement.

  2. Benjamin Avatar

    “Christ’s death redeemed man from sin, but I can make nothing of the theories as to how!”
    -CS Lewis

    I cannot remember where I read this, but I did post it on my old blog at some point and your current post, father, reminded me of it. It is a frank and apt sentence. The atonement cannot be a cut and dry explanation and I think it does take some humility to admit this, a humility that cuts against our incessesant desire to explain everything in a tight, neat little package.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I think the tight little packages were some of the things that drove me towards non-belief as a teen. I remember sitting through a Young Life retreat, and once again listening to sinners in the hands of an angry God (or version 88.2 of the same) and it was just losing me.

    When I first read accounts (they happened to be Eastern) that spoke of the atonement in terms of union, in non-Anselmian (I’m only using shorthand here and not accusing Anselm) terms, I rejoiced, more honestly, I wept. I do not believe in the angry God, the God whose justice, honor, etc. must be satisfied. I just think it’s wrong and is a lousy metaphor and is so problematic. I also do not think it is Scriptural when the Scriptures are read in a mature manner distinguishing between metaphor and the literal (as the Fathers were wont to do).

    I don’t know why anybody has a dog in the race to keep the image of an angry God. But there are some for whom this is important. I will always be a problem to them, and I don’t want them preaching in my parish if they are Orthodox. Just to be plain about it.

    I will continue to proclaim that “He is a good God and loves mankind,” that “He is kind even to the ungrateful and the evil.” I know no gospel beyond this and will proclaim no other. The theories make my hair hurt and when the theory is there to explain why a God who would go to Hell for you is also angry with you then I think it’s not me that has the problem, but someone else.

  4. mrh Avatar

    I don’t think that the metaphor of a payment to the Father necessarily contradicts what you’ve insisted on, Father Stephen.

    As I recall Anselm, he too saw the need for payment as resting on a problem with us – it is we who have a need to see payment made; God takes the payment out of condescension to our need to see justice done. As I said there is no notion in Anselm of the Father being “angry”. Yes, his teaching easily gets distorted in that direction, but I’m not sure it has to. I think it is possible to accept images such as those in Anselm and Cabasilas without contradicting the patristic synthesis you are insisting on. But I agree they are not and should not be primary in Orthodox teaching.

    Anyway, thank you very much for this series.

  5. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, you write,”I also do not think it is Scriptural when the Scriptures are read in a mature manner distinguishing between metaphor and the literal (as the Fathers were wont to do).” Have you perhaps omitted the word not somewhere in that sentence? I’m having a hard time following it otherwise.

    I have been trying to understand this part (the part you are discussing) of the Orthodox view of soteriology since coming across an essay “River of Fire” at http://www.orthodoxpress.org/parish/river_of_fire.htm. It seems a nice, clear treatment of the subject, and I trust it represents reasonably well the Orthodox understanding (perhaps someone here can correct my impressions if need be). I see some of the ideas from that essay appearing in this discussion, though this discussion differs somewhat from the essay as well.

    Here are a few questions that occur to me as an Evangelical.

    1. C.S.Lewis, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe portrays Aslan’s redemption of Edmund through Aslan’s offering of Himself to the White Witch (rather than to the Emperor-over-the-Sea)in Edmund’s place. The White Witch (representing sin? death?) makes her claim on Edmund based on the law of the Emperor written on the stone table. Am I right in thinking this picture is close to an Orthodox understanding of what Christ did, paying our ransom to an enemy, rather than to His Father?

    2. I can readily quote Scripture that appears to support a notion very much like “substitutionary atonement” (I am using the term descrively since I do not know any denomination’s precise doctrine on the point) for the sake of justice: “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” “God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in His blood. He did this to demonstrate His justice, because in His forebearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. He did it to demonstrate His justice at the present time, so as to be just and the One who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus.” From the discussion here, I take that the Orthodox Church, while recognizing these passages, also sees other passages describing Christ’s work and our salvation in very different terms. The Councils, then, never undertook to combine all the descriptions into a single, coherent account of the “mechanics” of what Christ did for us. Thus we are wise to rejoice in each of the facets of His work that these descriptions reveal while recognizing that the true nature of His work, the single jewel to which these facets belong, is a mystery. Fr. Stephen, is this a fair summary of the counsel you are presenting?

    3. Similarly I can readily find passages expressing God’s wrath: “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant hearts you are storing up wrath against yourselves for the day of God’s wrath when His righteous judgment will be revealed.” Or the seven bowls of God’s wrath in Revelation. Or Christ’s anger against the merchants in the temple and against the hardness of heart of the Pharisees (over, say, His healing on the Sabbath). Are you saying that Jesus’ expressions of anger belong to His human nature alone, the divine nature being impassible (I think that is the right word — not subject to suffering or the changeable passions of men — just as Jesus, as a man, could die even though as God He is immortal)? Thus the other descriptions of God’s “wrath” must be understood figuratively or quite differently, as (I think you put it) a state in which we place ourselves by our separation from God’s life?

    I ask, not to criticize or to debate, but simply to understand the points you are making. Whether I end up agreeing or not, my purpose in coming here is to learn, and I am grateful to you all for taking the time to hold this discussion.

  6. Mark Avatar

    Many of these questions are addressed in Fr Thomas Hopko’s volume on Doctrine, which Fr Stephen has listed in the side bar as the “Rainbow Series.” With regard to questions of ransom and wrath, I recall finding the following passage very helpful. Fr Thomas quotes St Gregory the Theologian’s Second Easter Oration, and then offers these reflections:

    “In Orthodox theology generally it can be said that the language of ‘payment’ and “ransom” is rather understood as a metaphorical and symbolical way of saying that Christ has done all things necessary to save and redeem mankind enslaved to the devil, sin and death, and under the wrath of God. He ‘paid the price,’ not in some legalistic or juridical or economic meaning. He ‘paid the price’ not to the devil whose rights over man were won by deceit and tyranny. He ‘paid the price’ not to God the Father in the sense that God delights in His sufferings and received ‘satisfaction’ from His creatures in Him. He ‘paid the price’ rather, we might say, to Reality Itself. He ‘paid the price’ to create the conditions in and through which man might receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life by dying and rising again in Him to newness of life (See Rom 5-8; Gal 2-4).

    “By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus Christ cleansed the world from evil and sin. He defeated the devil ‘in his own territory’ and on ‘his own terms.’ The ‘wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6:23). So the Son of God became man and took upon Himself the sins of the world and died a voluntary death. By His sinless and innocent death accomplished entirely by His free will — and not by physical, moral, or juridical necessity — He made death to die and to become itself the source and the way into life eternal. This is what the Church sings on the feast of the Resurrection, the New Passover in Christ, the new Paschal Lamb, who is risen from the dead:

    Christ is risen from the dead!
    Trampling down death by death!
    And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

  7. Reid Avatar

    Mark, thank you for the reference to Fr. Thomas Hopko. I’ve just looked at the section you mentioned, and also the one on judgment. It is a lot to try to take in — in some ways so like the account we Evangelicals give, and in some ways so different. I guess I’ll have to keep meditating on it.

  8. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I think Mark has said well most of what I would say. I think when we speak of wrath, we are speaking metaphorically, of a relationship with God in which our rejection of Him has become destructive, though from the side of God only exists to bring us to repentance, never to punish. This is a consensus among the Fathers I know who are actually touching on this subject.

    I an eschewing doctrine, but I am saying that the atonement does not have Conciliar authority, though certain images of it have been raised to such by some evangelical authorities (many evangelical schools require a statement of faith that includeds acceptance of the “Substitutionary Atonement” that is a problem for some of our people). I think, since when did one image among many become a doctrinal matter when it was not a doctrinal matter among the Fathers.

    Christ died for us. He became what we are (sin, death, etc.), that we might become what He is (partakers of the Divine Nature, eternal life, fellowship with the Father, etc.). We did not have to pay the devil (St. Gregory Nazianzus makes that quite clear). Neither did we have to pay the Father.

    There is no justice to be dealt with in all this. St. Isaac of Syria says, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” God’s justice, apparently is paying those at the end of the day the same as those at the beginning of the day. The idea that there is an offended justice that must somehow be paid is just wrong. God is not mad with me, or in need of placating. That is pagan. God loves me. All that I have is His – everything is owed to Him and that is right relationship. Not some, but all.

    But these theories of the mechanics of how the cross works are mythological in the extreme and frequently create more problems than they solve. I think our preaching should stay as close to the mainstream and fullness of the Church as possible. PReach Scripture, and the language of the services (there’s enough language between the two to feed all sermons forever).

    Orthodox need to quit looking for the smoking gun and who ruined Christianity. Good Orthodoxy would say, “We ruined it by not being faithful and good Orthodox.” The problem is me not you. And that’s that.

  9. Benjamin Avatar

    I think that there is a sense in the Scriptures, especially those of the Old Testament, that God’s justice, his righteousness, has to do with his making things just and setting things right. God’s justice is the tearing down of the mountains and the filling up of the valleys; the tearing down of the rich and the raising up of the poor. In that sense, I believe that the cross is about justice. God destroyed his enemies: sin, death and the devil, and raised up those that were poor (us). God set things aright; he manifested his justice. I think justice, in this sense, is the state of original creation: being with God in a holy place, a place free of death and sin.

  10. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I would agree with you and have no problems – the making of things right. But there are things, like the murder of 6 million, or simply the murder of one, that justice cannot really touch. There’s not something you do to make it right. Forgiveness and mercy make it possible to be healed, but justice is something in such matters that it is not good to look for. The lex talionis, or eye for an eye, is a effort at such justice, but Christ rejects it. It might keep a community from just destroying itself but 2 blind people do not establish justice.

    It is where St. Isaac of Syria tells us not to seek justice, only the mercy of God. And in this there is wisdom. I believe that God will make all things right, but I think, finally, my yes to all of that will depend upon my having embraced mercy as God is merciful.

    I have ministered in situations that involved murder. Justice is simply not possible. Mercy is always possible.

  11. Steve Hayes Avatar

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head again. “Thou art a good God and lovest mankind”.

    Different images and theories of the atonement are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I can even agree, given the ethos of Anselm’s age, that there is a sense in which our sin is an affront to God’s honour. But in our Orthodox liturgy the central image is of Christ defeating the powers of evil and trampling down death by death.

    I have a memory, no doubt similar to yours, of an interdenominational group being called upon to run a vacation Bible school in an Anglican parish, and the leader asked the teenagers “Have you seen those signs saying ‘Smile, God lovers you’? They are wrong. God doesn’t love you. He’s very angry with you, because you are a sinner.”

    The kids knew it was wrong, and the experience was good for them, since it forced them to articulate their theology. At the end they had a better appreciation of what the Fathers of the Ecumenical councils went through.

    The point is not that the juridical view of the atonement is altogether wrong and to be anathematised. What is wrong is making it the central or only view of the atonement. One Protestant theologian who has explicated it in a way that is (in my view) not incompatible with Orthodoxy is G.B. Caird, in his commentary on the Revelation of St John the Divine. He puts forward the juridical, forensic aspect of the atonement as part of a much wider thing, so that it is not so much a view of the atonement, as an aspect of it, which he describes in relation to the other aspects. It is the ignoring of the other aspects that causes the problem.

  12. Cheryl Avatar

    A side comment. You mentioned here that

    “Whatever “wrath” we have avoided in coming to God in Christ, is not a wrath of anger (God is not angry as man is angry), but rather describes a state of being in which we dwell when we set ourselves in opposition to God.”

    I just remembered–in my class on Romans and Galatians in college–a discussion we had about Romans 1, specifically talking about sexual impurity and idol worship. If you read it in context it seems that those things [signs of a corrupt, diseased life] ARE the wrath being made manifest. The reason we see that wrath is because we’ve turned away from God…

    it made sense to me then, though it was the first time I’d ever read it that way, it seemed clear to me to fit the wording better. Now, it makes even MORE sense to me, with an Orthodox understanding of wrath, of sin, of atonement.

    Thank you, Father,


  13. Annie Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    A friend introduced me to your excellent blog just recently, and I am so grateful to have found it. The issues with which you wrestle are subjects with which I have struggled all my life. As an amateur and avid theolog, and a Christian since high school ( I am now 51), I have never read such a clear explanation so well stated. Please keep writing; these posts are so helpful! Having grown up Presbyterian, and Reformed, I am increasingly drawn to Orthodox theology, which, while preserving the mystery of God’s redeeming work on our behalf, in all it’s facets, nevertheless knits together aspects of theology in a way that addresses areas which have Long troubled me. Yours is a helpful and needed guiding hand through the fog.

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  1. My last comment begs the question of how the story of Christ in Holy Scripture relates to our personal experience…

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