Some Modest Thoughts on the Atonement


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.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





11 responses to “Some Modest Thoughts on the Atonement”

  1. Steve Avatar

    Councils were held to settle doctrinal disputes when something was clearly wrong. There was no need for closer definition until someone questioned what was generally accepted, as Arius did. The “hypothesis” or “rule of faith” was enough.

    The problem with the Western atonement theory propagated by Anselm was that his work was published after the Great Schism, and therefore did not really impinge on the Eastern consciousness. It was not even on the agenda of meetings held to try to heal the schism, but it also made attempts to heal the schism more difficult, because it moved the sides further apart without their even realising it. It gave rise to a different mentality in the West so that the common ground gradually shrank.

    My own simplistic way of describing this is to say that Western theology tended to see sin and evil primarily as something God punishes us for, while the East saw and sees sin and evil primarily as something God rescues us from.

    Aulen picked this up, of course, and perhaps it was he who drew the discrepancy or the gap to the attention of Western theologians, but Western theology is dominated by the satisfaction model, even when reacting against it. On the internet I read lots of things written by atheists and ex-Christians, and the satisfaction model is central to the kind of Christianity they reject. I think Stalin’s League of Militant Atheists may have had a different agenda. But Western militant atheists seem to speak with near unanimity on this point.

    But the baptismal liturgy and the Liturgy of St Basil are fairly clear expressions of the Orthodox understanding, and even the Resurrectional Tones from the Octoechos. What Calvinist could dream of saying “Hell became afraid, O Almighty Saviour…”?

  2. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree with your assessment – and have written elsewhere that the worst versions of the substitutionary atonement have been a cause for atheism for many in our culture (I would include myself in that number from about age 13 to 15).

  3. benjamin Avatar


    I too read Finlan’s book and found part of it very helpful and a good part of it very pretentious. On the helpful side, he does a wonderful job of putting Pauline metaphors in their context, both Jewish and Greek, explaining just what exactly Paul may have meant by redemption, expiation, etc. On the pretentious side, Finlan magisterially concludes that most people have been wrong in their explanations of the atonement (the Father’s included) and that he alone has found the answers in his book. He seems to pick and choose from the Fathers: accepting and promoting their idea of theosis but dismissing as unimportant, or crude, or just plain wrong their mentions of expiation, sacrifice, propitiation and whatnot. I found that the first half of the book was a delight and the second half of the book a discouragement. He does well to clear the waters on the different terms in Scripture but then goes on to muddy them with a grand synthesis that dismisses all that he has just explained. Did you get this feeling, or anything like it? (Listen to me rant).

    At any rate, what you’ve written in this post I do believe is important. The Scriptures offer us a multitude of understands and we cannot have an either/or with Scripture, we must take it as a whole.

    And thank you for continuing to write about the atonement here. Mysteriously it is almost somewhat of an Orthodox “taboo”, as if anything God has done for us should be taboo!


  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    Excellent review of Finlan. I would readily agree. Like many books written by non-Orthodox writers, I have to sift. But there was a lot of good primary research there that I found helpful. Conclusions, not so helpful.

    I think a lot about the atonement, partly, because it was the wedge that many years ago drove me towards Orthodoxy (many as in over 30). I owe a great debt to Orthodox thought on the atonement.

  5. […] FR. STEPHEN– “Some Modest Thoughts on the Atonement”; “The Unplanned Life“… […]

  6. Mary Christine Erikson Avatar
    Mary Christine Erikson

    uh, the Scriptures do not predate any creeds.

    St. Paul received DIRECTLY from Christ Himself,
    remember? Paul met the Risen Lord on the Damascus
    Road, was struck blind and sent to a Christian
    to be healed and baptized. Then, according to
    what Paul tells us in Galatians, he went into the
    desert to learn from God. Probably more personal
    visitations from Jesus. Also studied the Scriptures.

    The Scriptures predate the creeds. To argue that
    the canon wasn’t finalized till three or four
    centuries later is irrelevant. The individual books
    in the canon existed long before, and were all
    written by eyewitnesses, and stand as their record
    to correct any deviations that come from mishandling
    the traditions they left.

    The present canon’s contents you find in use and
    listed as accepted among all the churches long
    before they were finalized, and this list only had
    to be discussed because spurious writings were around.

    Finally, there is plenty about God’s wrath AND His
    love in the Scriptures. The substitutionary atonement
    idea is NOT incompatible with God’s love as shown in
    Scriptures, and is not unknown in the early writers,
    it is just part of a bigger picture and not on its

    The penal substitution is not a display of God’s wrath
    but of His love. And no, He is not rendered subject
    to some law of justice other than His own nature and
    integrity, see St. Athanasius on The Incarnation.

    I think one day this slipshod crap is going to be
    addressed – negatively – by some ecumenical council
    in future. The denial of the atonement is strongly
    present in all the pseudo Christian New Age and
    occultic stuff. That in itself should warn you that
    somnething is wrong.

    The only reason it ever got played down was patristic
    toadying to pagan philosophy to make the Gospel more
    palatable. Also, Origen was an influence on many later
    writers, incl. the Fathers, before the council that
    decisively anathematized him and “his impious writings.”

    And then the West overdid it, and threw the focus
    morbidly on this alone.

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Forgive me, if you disagree that’s fine. But what I have stated is not a novel idea nor contrary to the facts of Scripture and the teaching of the Church. St. Paul shows evidence of knowledge of Creed-like statements. You may not be aware of them if you do not read Greek. It is making pure assumption that everything Paul knew, including certain parts of oral tradition he received only from the Lord. This is not a necessary assumption but insinuates a kind of literalism where it doesn’t belong. He also mentions going to Jerusalem and conferring with the leaders there. He was part of the Church, not above it.

    Of course, in my discussion there is no denial of the atonement. Christ has reconciled us to God. The penal substitution theory, which developed rather late in history is more the focus of my thought when I offer a criticism. I would suggest reading in St. Irenaeus in order to follow some of the argument I was suggesting. He (2nd century Bishop of Lyons) was a friend of Polycarp who knew St. John, so he wasn’t exactly out of the loop, as we say today. He writes about the Apostolic Hyposthesis, referring to a general understanding and framework shared by all the Apostles and taught in the Churches, generally in a form not unlike the Apostles’ Creed. He says without it you have no guide for understanding Scripture (the Old Testament). Some of your comments suggest that you and I may have some different thoughts on the literal character of Scripture. I do not doubt or question Scripture, but I believe it should be handled as the Fathers handled it. But you seem to have a lot of thoughts on the subject yourself. I do not think that the complexities of early Church history should be tossed about so easily. The Fathers did not “toady” to pagan philosophy. That is a fairly incorrect reading of the dominant Fathers of the Eastern Church.

    What did the Church live on before the New Testament was set in writing? What did Paul teach when he went from town to town? The Apostolic Hypothesis, which I described as being similar to the Creeds in form, was the framework on which they all taught, at least according to St. Irenaeus. Our faith is rich, far richer than some imagine. The Scriptures are trustworthy when rightly read.

  8. Chuck Blanchard Avatar

    Father Stephen:

    This was a very useful discussion of atonement, a concept that I have been thinking about fr the past few weeks of Lent. Ultimately, I come to a similar conclusion–but I think that the inquiry about atonement is very helpful.

    Here is what I recently wrote on my own blog about atonement:

    I find the traditional Western explanations very unsatisfying. They largely assume that there is some debt or penalty that must be paid for our sins. And the more liberal modern theories such as the moral influence view, which teaches that that Christ’s death on the cross served for humankind as an example of God’s great love and Christ’s obedience, seems to downplay the divinity of Christ.

    To me the challenge is this: I believe in a loving God who through Jesus Christ has, by Grace, offered salvation from sin and death. Why would this loving God demand a sacrifice as the price of this Grace? Could God not have offered us the grace of salvation without the Cross? After all, we did nothing to serve the grace that results from the crucifixion of Christ, so what is the reason for the Cross? With or without the Cross, the Grace is equally undeserved and unearned.

    I am beginning to wonder whether the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was not because God required this death as an atonement for our sins, but because we required it.

    At the time of Christ’s crucifixion, humankind could only imagine atonement through violent sacrifice. After all, the violent sacrifice of an animal was the means of atonement in both the Jewish and Pagan worlds in the First Century. The only way to break us out of this cycle of scapegoating and sacrifice was for God to make the ultimate sacrifice of his Son. And God knew that the only way to seize our attention and have us commit to the new way of living by love described by both Jesus and Paul was by the Cross–the violent sacrifice of the innocent and divine Son of God.

    In other words, the loving God could by his grace alone have reconciled us with no atonement and no sacrifice, but we could only have hope of accepting this grace if God took the additional and astounding step of putting his Son on the Cross. God did not demand such a sacrifice. We did. And I can think of no more loving act.

  9. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I think that many have gone crazy with sacrificial stuff. The image is there, certainly, and in abundance, but sacrifice in the OT is also a multilayered thing – a sacrifice for this a sacrifice for that – and when moderns speak as though there was only one meaning of sacrifice it’s not true even of the OT. The meaning is shifting. A practice, shared by pagans, is taken up into Judaism, and undergoes a change. It is revelatory, but no revelation is clear for Christians until Christ. He is the one who reveals the Father.

    That said, he dies on the cross, and the imagery is there. It can be used and should be used, but not in the mechanical “of course it means this” sort of way that some have treated it.

    At its deepest level, for me, Christ dies on the Cross because we were dead and He comes to retrieve us, to utterly unite Himself with our sinfulness (He made Him to be sin who knew no sin) that He might unite us with His righteousness. And I do not understand those to be forensic terms, but fairly literal descriptions of who we are and what we became and what we are to become.

    Thus I’m not sure I would say He could have reconciled us without a sacrifice (we were dead, and in need of life). The problem does not exist in God but in us.

    Interestingly, according to Rev. “the lamb was slain before the foundations of the earth.” Everything was created for Pascha.

  10. Cheryl Avatar


    This post captured my attention, because part of what drew me to Orthodoxy was a study on the Atonement at school.

    If you ever have extra time, I recommend “A Community Called Atonement” by Scot McKnight. I haven’t reread it since I started more fully exploring Orthodoxy, but it was my favorite book I read (along with Aulen’s Christus Victor).

    I would never have guessed that a small pondering about the Atonement could ever have prompted a journey into Orthodoxy (though I’m not quite there yet…)

    Thank you also for the part your blog has played in this journey for me.

    🙂 Cheryl

  11. Karen Avatar

    Cheryl, you might also be interested in the podcast by Fr. Pat Reardon at this link:

    I’ve read Scot McKnight’s book and think it is a useful bridge to a more Orthodox (Patristic) understanding of the Atonement, especially for many evangelicals. I have also recommended the following online thesis to many, and it was also a significant part of my journey to Orthodoxy:

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