What’s At Stake in the Atonement

One of the more common topics both on this blog and on a number of other Orthodox sites are questions about the Atonement. In general the Atonement refers to how it is we understand that Christ reconciled us to God. When we say, “Christ died for our sins,” what does it mean?

The questions of the Orthodox tend to center around the doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement, which in conservative Evangelical circles is often made a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. It is referenced in many Christian schools’ statement of faith – required of teachers and students on a par with the Resurrection of Christ.

Questions of the Atonement seem significant from a Protestant direction (in classical terms) based on Reformation debates with Roman Catholics. In those debates Protestants tended to hear Catholics say that there was something that could be added to the “merits” of Christ’s death – something that made His death on the cross less than sufficient. This is an historical argument. Generally Catholics did not mean what Protestants accused them of saying and neither group was interested in finding common ground. The purpose of debate was to prove the other wrong.

The ground shifted on Atonement doctrine during the 20th century when liberal Protestants began to question Atonement theory, in some cases making reference to Christ’s “death” where traditional texts had read “blood.” This was famously the case in some verses of the RSV translation of the Scriptures which was a translation sponsored by the National Council of Churches, and thus dominated by liberal Bible scholarship. Though the intention on the part of the translators was probably not to deny anything about the blood of Christ, the hue and cry of conservative Protestants was, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” (The same translation rendered the Greek hilasterion as expiation rather than propitiation, again alarming conservative Protestants that Christ’s atoning death was being denied.) 

Orthodoxy comes late to this entire discussion, having been completely absent at the Reformation, and not a party to the debates between liberal and conservative Protestants in the 20th century. The understanding of Christ’s atoning death developed in a very different manner in the Eastern Church. Untouched by the debates of the Reformation, alien to the metaphors that came to dominate in the Latin-Germanic West in the Middle Ages, the atonement never became a matter of debate or conciliar doctrine in the East. The language used in the prayers of the Liturgy were probably the most eloquent statements of Christ’s atoning death, but generally made no mention of the ideas found in the Substitionary model.

Today, those ideas have occasionally come under sharp attack from some Eastern Orthodox (Kalomiros’ River of Fire is probably the most commonly cited screed), though elements of the Substitutionary model can be found in a number of Orthodox prayers or catechisms of the more modern period. It can be argued that these examples are largely borrowings from Protestant writings rather than developments from within Orthodox patristic thought.

The clearest Orthodox complaint about Substitionary imagery is the role played within it by the Justice of God and the Wrath of God. In classical Substitionary doctrine, God’s justice is understood to have been offended by the sin of man (in Anselm it is not so much justice as “God’s honor.”) Indeed, God’s justice or honor is “infinitely” offended in most classical treatments. Thus, man is infinitely deserving of infinite punishment. However, God’s love responds with infinite mercy and, in Christ’s death on the cross, He offers His only Son as a substitute for man, Christ Himself bearing the burden of the wrath of God on behalf of all humanity. In accepting His substitution on our behalf (by faith) man comes into a saving relationship with God.

There is no Orthodox complaint with the mercy of God, nor with Christ’s death as God’s saving act for mankind. The primary complaint is with the imagery of God’s wrath being raised to the point of dogma – that is to a place where the whole turn of a central doctrine of the faith depends upon this image. Equally problematic is the language about God’s justice, which is frequently described as “requiring satisfaction.”

The Orthodox problem with these images is that they are just that: images. Orthodoxy teaches that, through Christ, we can know God, though God in His essence is unknowable. The mystery which surrounds God and even our knowledge of Him is essential in Orthodox understanding. There is always a warning within Orthodox theology when we speak very plainly about God – that we know only what God has made known to us – and though we know Him, that knowledge is itself frequently a mystery – something that cannot be expressed sufficiently in words.

Thus to speak of God’s wrath (as the Scriptures certainly do) is not to say that God is angry in any way comparable to the anger of man. To speak of God’s wrath is a theological statement about the rupture in our relationship with Him and should not be confused with a statement about how God feels. Much use of the imagery of wrath in modern conservative Protestantism is often used in this literal manner, coming dangerously close (and in some cases crossing the line) of saying things about God that are simply untrue and deeply offensive. These literal uses give rise to caricature on the part of some (Monty Python comes quickly to mind) or rejection of God on the part of others (I have had conversations with many atheists and agnostics whose background was conservative Protestant and whose present rejection of God is primarily a rejection of the God of Wrath).

There are as well problems with speaking of God’s justice in terms that are all too human. St. Isaac of Syria famously remarks that “we know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” His argument is drawn from examples such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard – those who begin work late in the day are paid the same as those who work all day. There we see only God’s mercy, not His justice (the Saint says). That God is just is not a point of argument – what it means to say that God is just, however, remains largely a mystery. Anyone who claims to know what he means when he speaks of God’s justice is delusional.

Of course, raising such questions can sound like an echo of liberal Protestant attacks on Scripture and its reliability. Orthodox do not question the reliability of Scripture, only its misuse or misinterpretation. In general, Orthodoxy is uncomfortable with a dogma that seems new or foreign to its own continual usage. If it is central then why does it find no place in the Creeds or the Councils?

Of course, Orthodoxy did not face the same opponents as the West has had within its own internal life. Conservative Protestants, having been wearied by the constant shifts and changes and chimeric positions of liberal Protestants, are justifiably cautious when things that seem so certain for them are questioned by anyone.

A proper Orthodox answer is probably not to “come out fighting,” but to reassure that Orthodoxy has never wavered on the atoning death of Christ, nor questioned that His blood was shed for us, nor that He is the only way to the Father. The language of Orthodoxy has been shaped in the crucible of the great doctrinal debates surrounding the Trinity and the Doctrine of Christ – as well as within the spiritual world of apophatic theology, in which great care is taken not to assert of God what cannot be asserted. This language and this world have preserved a spiritual Tradition that has not wandered from the Truth nor lost its mooring in the reality of God. Conservative Protestants can be understood in their anxieties, but their anxieties cannot be justified in the face of Orthodox faithfulness.

Orthodox questions about Substitionary Atonement language and imagery are a worthy discussion for Protestants. It is the voice of Christian Tradition, rooted in the Fathers that calls for carefulness when speaking of God and circumspection when asserting something as dogma. Orthodoxy is no stranger to dogma and holds it in the highest regard (you can’t imagine), but just so, it questions a dogma when it cannot find it within its own two-thousand year history of councils and canons. Those questions should give pause to any Christian of good will.

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.



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38 responses to “What’s At Stake in the Atonement”

  1. PB and J Avatar

    i think this was a great thorough discussion on all sides of the issue, without being too biased. i am recently opening up to the world of Orthodoxy (I took a Church History course and realized there is a lot of great things in the Eastern tradition). with that said, i have recently been grappling with the issue myself. substitution or not???

    well, i am not sure the Scripture is clear one way or the other. one thing i am sure of, Christ died for us. He is an atonement. how that works is secondary and not worth fighting over.


  2. Meg Avatar

    I think the Catholics weighed in a little more heavily on substitutionary theory than might seem likely to someone who only knows them post-Vatican-II. I, on the other hand, was educated in the pre-Vatican-II Church, and God’s wrath and the need for satisfaction was very firmly impressed upon all us impressionable little Catholics — why do you think so many of my generation have basically given up on Catholicism?

  3. Anastasia Theodoridis Avatar

    Thank you for this, Father. Yes, the reassurances are very much in order!

    And yes, while pen-sub atonement presents a host of problems, the main one is indeed its portrayal of God. There’s a corollary to that, too: if that is who God is, what does it mean for me to try to become god-like?


  4. mrh Avatar

    I think this is a very good summary of the issues.

    One of the things it reminds me of is the difference between godly wrath and sinful anger. As a human father, I sometimes have to bring “wrath” on my children. When it is a measured response to wrongdoing, designed to chastise and correct them, I think it is godly. But when I lash out in raw anger at them, it is sin.

    I think that popular conceptions of penal substitution are based on a confusion of the two. God disciplines and chastises us for our benefit (Heb 12:7). He does not lash out at us in rage. If he did, we might look around in fear for someone stronger to get between us and him to take the blows for us. But that is not what happened on the cross.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    First basic: God is love and His love is defined by Christ on the Cross. Clearly we are chastised by God, though it’s a word we use only because we have no better.

    I sometimes think that even conservative Protestants wish they could speak of the Atonement, properly acknowledge what Christ has done for us, while avoiding the image of the Wrathful God, first, because it is so easily misunderstood, and secondly, for some, their own instincts tell them there is something amiss in this imagery.

    I understand that pre-Vatican II Rome was strong on the Substitutionary model – and the wrath, etc. On the other hand, 19th century Orthodox documents were frequently not a lot better (again many would argue that these elements were produced under influence of the West).

    People have misused God to frighten and control others in many places. It’s just wrong, and always has been.

  6. Esau McCaulley Avatar
    Esau McCaulley

    Father Stephen, thank you so much for this essay. It has cleared up many misconceptions about Orthodox beliefs about the atonement. I am still getting used to the idea of apophatic theology. It seems that in the West we have a dogmatizing (if that is the correct word) instinct. The Orthodox appear to be more hesitant. I read Lossky’s Mystical Theology, but to be honest the discussion was too esoteric to find compelling. So often I feel like I need a theological translator when reading Orthodox material. If I have it right it appears that Orthodox at least in regards to the atonement are happy saying Christ paid the penalty to death for our sins and leaving it at that.

  7. Esau McCaulley Avatar
    Esau McCaulley

    Also, this leads in a direction that has divided Prot & Caths for years. The effect of substitionary atonement for Catholics was to make us righteous so that we could then be like Christ. If this process was not complete in this life then it was completed in purgatory in the next. I know that is a simplification, but it is close. In the protestant tradition the atonement is imputed to our account and if we do not complete the process of being made right then God will transform us at the resurrection and all will be well. How does all of this relate to theosis? What happens in the Orthodox worldview if we die and we are not yet Holy enough to go straight to heaven? In other words how does the Orthodox view of the atonement impact your view of the process of salvation?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Generally, Orthodox see the process as continual until it’s complete, though not with a purgatory. In a sense, Orthodox remain open to the possibility that after death there are things we do not quite know – like what the ultimate disposition of someone who dies but is not obviously a believer – since God alone knows the heart and knows the truth of a person. We pray for them – indeed for all the departed. Some writers have described the prayers of others for us after we die as an “echo” of our life, continuing on in prayer for us. I like that image.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa tended to hold to an idea of eternal progression (or some such term) that we never complete our growth in the Lord (since He is inexhaustible). There is more silence and less definition in these matters with the Orthodox – though our confidence in the saving power of Christ and the willingness of God to save us is unshakeable.

    I started with Lossky, too, and though most was over my head, I knew I had come to the right place, though my conversion was some 23 years later. I’m a slow learner.

    On one day a year, in the service of “Kneeling Vespers” on the afternoon of Pentecost, we pray for all the departed from the beginning of the world. It’s a very bold prayer, but one that echoes, surely, the heart of God.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    I should have said, too, that we believe that when we die, the soul “anticipates” its future state – paradise, etc. Nothing is complete until we are fully resurrected. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, St. Paul says, but we still await the resurrection of our bodies. And according to Scripture, we pray continually for those who are here.

  10. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Because all sin is sin against God (Psalm 51:6), only God can atone for our sins. Atonement always involves intercession and blood sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement the high priest shut himself up in the Holy of Holies and prayed all night for the people. He removed his shoes so that he would not fall asleep. In Gethsemane Jesus interceded for our sins, asking his followers to stay awake with him. In that night of prayer, Jesus was our great high Priest, and at Calvary He was the Lamb of God, making atonement for our sins. According to Paul, Jesus is God’s ambassador, atoning for the sins of his people and now interceding for us at the right hand of the Father in heaven. It is through His blood that our consciences are purified.

  11. Allen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you, for your even-handed essay. I am new to the great riches of Orthodoxy and the wisdom of the holy Fathers. Most of my life has been in Evangelicalism (I have a Masters in theology).

    I agree with you, that the penal-substitutionary imagery introduces an uncomfortable contradiction within God the Father. His mercy and wrath are wrongly understood as contrary. For years I have been bothered by this. How freeing to realize that the atonement is unquestionable. But the theories of how it might be explained have been numerous in the Western church. The Eastern branch is vitally needed by those in the Western tradition.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A hint on reading Lossky: My son and I were reading it as a part of a men’s theology group. He found that if your read the end of a chapter first, Lossky becomes much clearer and far less esoteric than he at first seems. I followed the hint and found my son is correct. At least in “Mystical Thelogy” Lossky seems to start chapters with a very diffuse idea that gradually comes together at the end after he wanders around a bit. It is an unusual style that can be difficult to follow and my son found that if he read Lossky’s conclusions first, he could follow the thought and examples in the rest of the chapter with greater ease. It helped me too. I would never recommend it as an introduction though. It would be a tough place to start.

    My personal favorite is St. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation” It sheds light on the nature of atonement within the Eastern Tradition as well.

  13. Lawrence Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! The perspective you offer will be of great help when discussing my faith with those brought up in the Protestant tradition. Sometimes images become so ingrained in one’s thinking they wind up as “facts.” It is sad that the image of a wrathful God has led so many souls away from God and as you astutely observed to a place of anger and/or parody. I especially appreciate St. Ambrose’s statement that we no nothing of God’s justice, only his mercy.

  14. Ian Avatar

    Thank you Father; coming from a background that was very much into PSA and the “wrathful” God, these beliefs and concepts are still with me, and while I am now safe in the Orthodox Church, I still have many struggles with this doctrine in terms of what I believe. Thank you for helping me to progress, slowly, to a better, and more whole, understanding.

  15. Deb Seeger Avatar

    Sigh, I am overwhelmed thus trying to define what God has calls me. ..a Cathsestant or a Protestolic —I was raised a Catholic until I was 18 then I “found the Protestant tradition” in the Jesus movement of the 1970’s. After 24 years of being a Protestant, I returned to the Catholic church to worship and discovered a new Jesus. The one I was taught as a child was harsh, critical and insisted on perfection in the flesh. In the Prostentant vein I learned a new side Jesus, Father and Holy. The atonement that makes me worth to approach the throne of grace. I can do nothing but plead the blood of Christ to accept His atonement-daily…daily picking up my cross and working out my salvation with fear and trembling.

  16. Ioannis Freeman Avatar

    St. Isaac of Syria, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.”

    I would like to say that spiritual knowledge relies on God revealing the Divine Self to human beings, as represented by the Saint’s quote, which Father Stephen noted (cf. paragraph # 11 above). Arguably such knowledge should be contrasted with speculative propositions, such as substitutive justice as doctrinal interpretation of salvation offered by Jesus Christ our God.

    What is known about God starts from revelation, according to Orthodox Tradition. However, revelation is not the solitary basis of “knowledge,” according to Roman Catholics. Of course, the difficult question to answer in drawing the distinction between “knowledge,” as defined by revelation in Orthodox Tradition, and any other definition of “knowledge,” is: What value is added by human reason to God’s revelation through Orthodox Tradition?

    I do not answer this question in my post. Rather, I turn to a complementary doctrine to salvation as substitutive justice, and explore the English-language media frenzy that combines substitutive justice with the so-called “Rapture” of the Church.

    Along the lines of an interpretation of salvation that complements and divides many non-Orthodox Christians is Darby’s predispensationalist millinialism from the 19th century (the basis for the “Rapture” theory). This interpretation of the Eschaton now dominates the radio and television airways of media stations that are members of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB: http://www.nrb.org/), Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN: http://www.tbn.org/), and Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN: http://www.cbn.com/). The interpretation is pernicious, infectious, and opposed to real evangelism…and only faintly resisted among many Orthodox Christians for lack of will and/or understanding to contend against it.

    As a child growing up outside Dallas, Texas in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I witnessed the popularity of the way that “preachers” weaved substitutionary justice and Darby’s eschatology to form what was considered “knowledge” about Christ. Representative of this era was the release of the first edition of Hal Lindsey’s text: The Late Great Planet Earth (1970)–cf. http://hallindsey.org/).

    I was scared of the spiritual isolation that I felt by the double whammy of these interpretive schema. Perhaps some of you know of others, such as I was as a teenager outside Dallas, who have become frightened and spiritually isolated by contemporary doctrinal adherents, who include most of the “preachers” of NRB, CBN, and TBN.

    If you know of others who are frightened by such doctrinal combinations as I discuss, the good news to share with them is that all of us can know the mercy of God through the Orthodox Church. Thank you, Father Stephen, for carrying God’s mercy on this blog.

  17. Michael Avatar

    How should we understand the Isaiah 52-53 passage about the Lord laying on Him the iniquity of us all, that He was bruised for our inquities and crushed for our sins, and upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole? That sounds rather substitutionary.

  18. Daniel Avatar

    In response to Michael’s comment concerning Isaiah 52-53
    it is interesting to consider Matthew 8:16-17 and
    1 Peter 2:24-25:

    Matthew 8:16-17 (NIV)
    16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.
    17This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.”

    Peter alludes to the same section of Isaiah, and the NASB editors cross reference both Isaiah 53:4 and 53:5 in the following (1 Peter 2:24,25):
    And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.

    I don’t have a point, other than it seems that there is room for a broad interpretation of Isaiah. I am curious if anyone knows of commentary from early fathers of the church that might shed some light?

  19. fatherstephen Avatar


    Indeed, this is a well made point. There is far too much building of a single point of doctrine on a single interpretation of Scripture. It’s much better to stand back. and see the general sweep. As I’ve noted, everything is Pascha – He is our Paschal Lamb (and everything else in Pascha). God has done it all for us and entered into the depths of everything. The event in Matthew 8 is a “little Pascha” as is every healing. No healing of humanity is accomplished accept by the means of Christ bearing our infirmities (a Pascha event). We should not think of healing as somehow separate. Neither should we only think of the Cross as sacrifice and not also as healing, etc. It’s not one thing, it’s everything. Glory to God.

  20. Death Bredon Avatar
    Death Bredon

    What bothers Orthodox commentators is the Western idea of penal, quid-pro-quo substitutionary atonement.

    As for THE Orthodox view, I harp back to the Anaphora of St. Basil again. The tragedy of the Fall is Death, and indirectly the tendency toward sin it entails. And by his bloody death (plainly stated but not dramatically emphasized in the New Testament), Christ Jesus was able to Passover Death bringing LIFE to the New Israel (whereas of old the Angel Death passed over the Old Israel) — a LIFE without concupiscence. Thus, for Orthodox, unlike in the Old Testament, Christ’s sacrificial death (to Death itself) was not a quid-pro-quo sin offering but an offering to Death to defeat Death and thereby sin — a process, a means to end: Eternal LIFE with the Father, as always intended, which necessarily overcomes and moots the sin of the temporal world. Good Friday to Easter comprise the antitype of the Day of Atonement and Passover, but we see a mirror image — the types were “backwards” or “reversed” as it were.

    So, the New Testament use of Old Testament sacrificial language is correct, just with a twist. The sacrifice is not effective in-and-of itself (as the West seems to think along Old Testament lines) without the Resurrection and Ascension and Parousia. The sacrifice is to DEATH itself, and is an defeats sin indirectly, by process, not quid-pro-quo. It is representative (for those “in Christ”) more than substitutionary and it is not penal — to satisfy the honor or wrath of God. Rather it is the ultimate expression of Gods love for us!

  21. Scott Bennett Avatar

    As a Protestant I find many Orthodox theological positions to be very refreshing! Especially this one on the atonement. In the Roman Catholic faith all of the atonement models (penal, satisfaction, moral influence, and even Christus Victor) give us a perspective of the truth, but all fall short in and of themselves. The Protestants seem to have missed the fact that these are all metaphors and have grasped much too literally only the penal view. I find the penal view to assert many things about God that is just not true as seen in the life of Jesus. If Christ came to reveal anything about God is was not that God is vindictive and unforgiving without blood.

    The penal view says that God can’t forgive without the perfect blood. This is very pagan and in reality seems to create, in the mind of the believer, a polytheistic view of the God head where one Deity is depicted as petty, legalistic, unapproachable, and angry whereas the other preferred to spend His time with sinners and was willing to forgive anyone who would come to Him. God was in Christ Jesus reconciling the world to Himself and Jesus was the expressed image of the Father.

    Forgiveness was never an issue with God, but being repentant has always been a problem for sinful men. God’s love for us revealed at the cross is a truth so powerful that it can change our minds about God, melt away our defenses, and cause us to realize that God is not our enemy, but our best Friend and Lover. This intimate knowledge of the Father, that Jesus revealed, is eternal life for those who accept it.

    If salvation is for those who have faith (intimate loving trust) in Christ’s testimony of the Father then what more could the evil one do than to create a theology where God seems to be petty, exacting, volatile, unforgiving, and vindictive. Those character attributes would destroy any possibility of trust. Anyway if God needed blood in order to forgive then God is not really forgiving . . . is He?

    In Christ,

  22. […] to help us understand the gospel, but as Father Stephen of the Eastern Orthodox church shows here, there are also other ways to understand salvation.  Father Stephen has a problem, one which I […]

  23. […] Eastern Orthodox view of the substitutionary […]

  24. David Avatar

    When I read articles like this, I shudder. I have to be honest…I became Orthodox in overreaction to Catholic shenanigans post Vatican 2, but I left Orthodoxy and returned to Rome largely BECAUSE of what I perceived as Orth. rejection of the Atonement.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m not sure why the shuddering. I stated towards the end:

    A proper Orthodox answer is probably not to “come out fighting,” but to reassure that Orthodoxy has never wavered on the atoning death of Christ, nor questioned that His blood was shed for us, nor that He is the only way to the Father. The language of Orthodoxy has been shaped in the crucible of the great doctrinal debates surrounding the Trinity and the Doctrine of Christ – as well as within the spiritual world of apophatic theology, in which great care is taken not to assert of God what cannot be asserted. This language and this world have preserved a spiritual Tradition that has not wandered from the Truth nor lost its mooring in the reality of God. Conservative Protestants can be understood in their anxieties, but their anxieties cannot be justified in the face of Orthodox faithfulness.

    There is no denial of the atonement in Orthodoxy – you cannot listen to Chrysostom’s Anaphora or that of St. Basil and say there is no atonement – though the questions to which their language speaks are somewhat different than developed later in the West.

    If Orthodoxy is weak on the atonement, then you’d have to posit that the early church was weak on the atonement, and that seems rather odd to me. I would say a key word in your comment is “perceived,” and I would say I think you’ve strayed into some academic or scholastic territory or something.

    If you read St. John of Damascus – how does he deny atonement or any of the great fathers of the Eastern Church? If some modern Orthodox are reactionary to misuse of imagery by some in the West, how does that make Orthodoxy guilty of rejecting the atonement? Does this article reject the atonement?

    Not unless atonement is defined as the appeasing of an angry God. This would be a departure from the faith of the Fathers. If one find such a doctrine of the atonement (an appeasement of God) necessary, then, yes, you’d have problems with Orthodoxy.

  26. David Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your response. I really wasn’t trying to be nasty or put down anyone’s faith…I want you to realize that. I just take Christianity very seriously and, well, gnaw things over and over till I come to some understanding, like a dog with a doctrinal bone.
    I was raised with two STRONG influences growing up…Catholicism and Calvinistic Anglicanism…so yes, I do see God as angry with mankind and I have always seen mankind as totally depraved (as also in Aquinas). (My Cath. priest tells me I need to be careful not to fall into the heresy of Jansenism.) And as I read the New T., it just seems to me that the sacrificial language is everywhere…that Jesus’ blood actually was the propitiation for our sins that appeased God’s wrath.
    When I entered Orthodoxy no one ever said I shouldn’t hold that belief and one day (in Confession) when I espoused it, the priest said to me, “What?! You buy that nonsense of Jesus paid it all so I don’t have to?! A little blood for your sins?!” I was shocked at his mockery of what I consider the most sacred thing in our Faith as Christians. That, added to other issues…I just felt I had nowhere to go BUT back to Rome.
    I hope this makes sense. I’m actually glad to have made contact with you…perhaps it will be a vehicle for me to air some things and maybe come to a different understanding. I’m still pretty hurt by things that happened in my Orthodox experience. Thanks for listening.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand the background – though mine was probably a bit gentler. The difficulty in reading the NT text – is that you cannot start with the text (you can if you’re a Protestant, but it would be incorrect from a historical or patristic basis). The NT uses such imagery (working with the OT as its “scriptures”), but theologically has to read all of that through Christ and the Apostolic Tradition of the Church. Certainly the consensus among the Eastern Fathers never went in the direction of the appeasement of an angry God – and condemned the notion and it can be historically demonstrated how the idea developed and became dominant in the West – i.e. it was not in the West in the beginning.

    I understand having influences and seeing something – but I think the EO case that atonement must be understood in a manner other than a payment to God is simply solid – Traditionally, historically, patristically.

    More importantly, it is simply a dangerous misportrayal of God that is fraught with deep problems whose fruit has been disastrous in the history of Christianity.

    Nevertheless, I probably would not have said what was said in your confession (just because I’m a gentle priest), and would have doubtless created problems for you long before because I am pretty clear about atonement issues (thus your catechumenate would have been different). But I’m not a perfect priest either – filled with short-sightedness and many other faults.

    I’m glad your RC priest warns you about Jansenism, because it is a serious danger. Interestingly, many RC theologians would probably take a very Eastern view on atonement questions today. The same is true of a growing number of Protestants of very serious mien. I’m not a reader of NT Wright, but I understand that he is probably among the Protestants who would look afresh at the question of the atonement.

    One of my problems is simply that I do not think it to be a teaching of the NT or of the Early Church. Rather, I think it is a novelty, developed in isolation from the mainstream of Tradition. How is it possible that the Church Fathers who essentially gave us the first seven councils missed all of this on the atonement? And would have said otherwise (as did St. Gregory Nazianzus). If it was so essential, why is it absent (in its Western form) from every early Eucharistic Prayer of the Church? It just doesn’t make sense if the Western version is what some in the West think. It is poor theology to make a leap from a reading of the NT across centuries to support a new doctrine when the doctrine did not appear in centuries prior. Not on something as central as the atonement. There is an atonement doctrine in the East – but it is not the same as later evolved in the West – the only possible explanation being that the West engaged in a novelty – for there is no lack of continuity in the matter in the East.

    Glad to listen. Sorry for the hurt you experienced as Orthodox. I don’t mean to be trite – but everybody hurts. Sometimes salvation is found in places that hurt.

  28. David Avatar

    Just to clarify, the “hurt” I experienced was not just over this particular matter of dogma. It was from a priest (in one of the larger jurisdictions remaining nameless) who 1) repeated what was said in confession to lay people (not just my confession) and 2) accused others falsely of sins and then acted as if his accusations were true. I and others could have sued him AND the church…we didn’t. Thank the Catholics for that one…they talked me personally out of doing that.
    There is also a second doctrinal issue: I heard in Orth. sermons and read more than once a saying that our life purpose is “to acquire the Holy Spirit”. When I asked how one “acquires” the Holy Spirit, I was told by doing good works, by going to Liturgy etc. That simply did not sit rightly. St. Paul made it very clear that we do not receive the Holy Spirit because of works…but through “hearing with faith”. Further, Our Lord told us simply to ask for the Holy Spirit and our Father in Heavenm “who loves to give good gifts to His children” would answer. Also, Christians receive the Holy Spirit in baptism. The point of Christianity is that we can NEVER do enough to earn or acquire the Spirit of the Living God…the Spirit, like Salvation and all else, is pure gracious Gift.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, you are correct. The phrase they were quoting is from St. Seraphim of Sarov, who spoke of the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit,” but simply used it as a metaphor to speak of striving to know God. Those who confused his teaching with the Church’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit and our salvation were not treating his teaching correctly. I’m sorry.

    If a priest broke the seal of confession, he would have been liable for disposition. I am deeply sorry for the failings of such a priest. The damage can be incalculable.

  30. stephen Avatar

    I was brought up in a pretty secular home, it wasn’t so much atheistic as totally apathetic towards anything spiritual. I was converted at the age of 22 after going to live and work in South Africa in the early 1980’s during the Apartheid years. I became interested in the bible and Christianity when pressurised to have my first son baptised by my grandmother for whom it was a spiritual insurance payment. I came to it having had absolutely no prior knowledge of the bible, I had never read or even looked at one in my life, despite growing up in a “Christian country”. I was converted in a Conservative, Reformed, Evangelical, Anglican Church. Unlike what is seen as the stereotype, the denomination was vibrant, alive, growing, and very doctrinally strict. It was neither “charismatic” or “dry as dust”. I studied Theology at a reformed conservative interdenominational college, with Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals, members of Independent African Churches, Dutch Reformed Churches and just abut every variation of Protestant from Staunch Arminians to HyperCalvinists. What is the point of my biography ? simply to give back ground to my next comments really, context is everything after all ! I have had very little exposure to Orthodoxy, (very unsure of the term as it seems it imply everyone else is Heterodox). I found your views on the Atonement, helpful, informative and challenging in a very positive way. However I feel that as is so often the case when trying to put someone else point of view for them, that you put up a bit of a straw man when it comes to describing reformed protestant views of Penal substitution. I don’t know any serious theologian or bible student from the reformed tradition who would claim that Penal substitution is the perfect, irrefutable, wholly exclusive explanation or model of the atonement, which is what you seem to imply. For myself and I can only speak for me, how Christ’s death upon the cross solved the problem of my sin, and restores the fellowship between creature and creator is and always be mysterious. Like so much theology it is as Anselm says “faith seeking understanding”. I prefer to think that it is at times more like a 5 year old trying to understand integral differentiation ! Having said that, I feel that while far from being perfect, the concept of penal substitution does substantially make sense of so much of the biblical material both Old and New Testaments. However the concept of atonement is a very complex, mysterious thing no one concept gives full justice to it any more than describing a four dimensional object in two dimensional terms. Many of the alternative views of the Atonement have elements in them that have the ring or truth too. As I was once told, “ a simple answer to a complex question is usually a lie”.

    The great danger for Conservative Reformed Protestantism is that it becomes fossilised in the reformation and doesn’t move into the 21st C. But one of my problems with what I have seen of Orthodoxy in your excellent easy is that seems to have been fossilised. In the first 5 centuries AD. It seems to have largely ignored any theological development and believes that all points of theology where pretty much settled by the end of the patristic period. Forgive me if I am wrong but that is how it comes across.

    With regard to the wrath of God, I can see why some people have a tendency to confuse Gods righteous anger at sin with a vengeful spite, especially if they have been affected by that in their early years. My own mother would beat us wildly with sticks, shoes, bats and just about anything she could get her hands on when she was angry and frustrated at our bad behaviour. However there is a huge danger in seeking to deny biblical truths because they might be misunderstood. The idea that the God of the OT is vengeful and angry while the God of the NT is full of love and compassion is a dangerous and very simplistic viewpoint. After all as Jesus said himself “if you have seen me you have seen the father”, and again, “the father and I are one” ! The same problem can occur (and has in my own experience as a pastor), with the concept of God as our father. It is sometimes enough to drive people away from God to think that he is anything remotely like their father who had abused and mistreated them. Most however, understand that their abusive fathers were not good examples of what it is to be a father. In the same way most people can very simply be led to understand that there is a difference between abusive vengeful anger and righteous wrath at sin and it’s consequences. The idea that the wrath of God drives people away is so often a very useful bandwagon to jump on and a convenient excuse for practical atheism.

    I came because I am teaching a class this evening on the Atonement and some of your points will certainly feature in my lecture

    May the Lord Bless you richly

  31. ray Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I was glad to find your site as I was considering all the questions that Penal Substitutionary Atonment raises. However, after reading there are still a few issues maybe you can clear up for me.
    You seem to be saying that the early church fathers’ interpretation of scripture is as central to the faith as the text itself. In other words, scripture is taken “with a grain of salt”. Is this correct, and if so, does this differ from the Evangelical near-deification of the Bible as “God’s Word”?
    You seem to aknowledge that imagery is used throughout the Bible suggesting PSA. But you also seem to allow for error here, as if the writers were seeking to solve a mystery they did not fully comprehend(and were biased with a Jewish view of a God of wrath). Do you have a problem with the Old Testament view of sin and sacrifice(the use of scapegoats and the blood of innocent lambs)? Are you saying that a new post-Christ understanding of atonement was needed to reveal truth that was lacking in Judaism?
    While personally repugnant to me, PSA does seem to tie up alot of loose ends for those seeking to integrate the old and new testaments. It brings to my mind the story of Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac. Some see it as a beautiful prophetic image of a loving Father God willing to sacrifice his son Jesus. I tend to see it as a crazy old man willing to kill his little boy because he hears a voice in his head. Is there some middle ground here that I am failing to see? I don’t want to end up chucking the whole religion if I am not seeing things correctly. Maybe you can help me?

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    The PSA is so deeply ingrained in most Western readings of Scripture, Old and New, that you see it many times where it doesn’t exist. It simply is not anywhere near the dominant theme of interpretation concerning what Christ did for us in our salvation in the early Church fathers. Indeed, it is a theory that is rather late in its arrival. There is a great deal of misunderstanding of the OT sacrificial system as well that has been begotten by this theory. It’s sort of sad to hear Christians trying to tell Jews what Jews are supposed to believe.

    I believe in the authority of Scripture, but only as it is read in the Tradition of the Church. The disciples did not understand until Christ opened their understanding. That understanding resides within the Life of the Church and is embodied in her doctrines and teaching, her prayers, hymns, iconography, and well as the living testimony of those who loved not their lives unto death – the saints.

  33. ray Avatar

    “…as it is read in the Tradition of the Church…” So, are you saying Scripture is only good for the “Fathers” to consider when establishing doctrine? What about us common folk? Is that why you don’t address the particular verses cited by the Evangelicals?
    You say PSA is not the “dominant theme”. Well, in effect you are saying that it IS a theme, then. Dominant theme or not, is it true? Is it taught in Scripture? Those seem like more valid questions, I would think. Or maybe that is because my mindset was shaped by the Protestants. Your tradition seems much more comfortable with leaving it all a little mysterious, not so cut and dried. Maybe that’s a good thing.
    I guess I was hoping you guys had figured out a way to explain all these things outside of all the “legal” analogies. Unfortunatly, I see Christianity as an outgrowth of Judaism, in which LAW is the dominant theme. Even Jesus said he was pro-law and also that he came to “fulfill” it. Just more “proof” for PSA.
    I hear your view as being twofold. 1) I am Orthodox and we don’t stress PSA, so I don’t either. And 2) If the Fathers did not see it in the Scriptures, it must not be there.
    I would love to hear you explain your views more in depth but if you would rather leave it at a mystery, I’m cool with that. Peace.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ray, I’ve got numerous articles on the topic – plug in atonement in the search box. Or read the article by Kalomiros (“the river of fire”) that’s on the side bar. Sorry not to take more time with this today. I have a bishop arriving tomorrow for three days and cannot give this the time it deserves. Forgive.

  35. Gail White Avatar
    Gail White

    This is very well said. The wrath of God does indeed properly belong under the heading of religious imagery. I suspect that some other things the church regards as dogma (such as the birth of Christ to a virgin mother) belong under that heading also.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    Gail, the teachings of the Church are clear – both on the nature of religious imagery (i.e. the wrath of God) and that which is to be taken quite literally (the Virgin Birth). Though the Virgin Birth is indeed quite “literal” it also carries great depths of meaning, layer upon layer. As much a fan as I am of the allegorical nature of much in Scripture – I am an Orthodox priest and accept and teach that which the Church accepts and teaches. Our salvation is more than a literary event. Indeed, I cannot comprehend Christ apart from a Virgin birth.

  37. SMB Avatar

    Can you please give John Piper and Wayne Grudem etc a call and ask them to sit down with you? I think they need to be given a reasonable explanation why things like substitutionary atonement are probably not as traditional as they think it is. And also that there is a very old tradition in Christendom (i.e. Eastern Orthodox) that does not hold to it. And also on their teaching of hell fire. Often used as a blatant scare tactic. And that their extreme dogma on these issues and their castigation of others based on these things are not in harmony with the faith they profess in Jesus.

  38. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this Father Stephen. And I too am happy that David has found you. That has been a great value added to an already inspired post.


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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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