Justice and Mercy – With Thanks to the Pontificator


Fr. Al Kimel has recently posted an article (The Injustice of Grace) on the triumph of God’s mercy that is well worth reading.  The following is an excerpt in which he quotes passages from St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Antony the Great:

The seventh century ascetical master, St. Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)

The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:

God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. As St Antony the Great wrote:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

To Father Al’s thoughts (which take these quotes to other important conclusions) I would add my own. This thoroughly patristic understanding of God’s justice and the metaphorical sense that must be applied to such words as wrath, etc., is utterly essential in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It goes to the very heart of our understanding of God. Nothing, in my mind, has done more damage to the Gospel of Christ than the loss of this understanding, and the substitution in its place of various theories in which the anger of God has been propitiated by His only Son. It is surely true that Christ’s death is a work of atonement – it makes possible and restores our relationship with God – but it brings about no change in God. The love of God is made manifest in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The death of Christ on the Cross makes no change in the love of God – but every possible change in the sinners for whom He died.

Every other proclamation of the Gospel that says otherwise seriously distorts the revelation of God in Christ and fails to properly appropriate the Tradition of the Holy Fathers as the Church has received them.

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.



52 responses to “Justice and Mercy – With Thanks to the Pontificator”

  1. […] Fr. Stephen instructs us that God is not just. […]

  2. jacob Avatar

    Fr. Al has closed comments to his blogpost, but I do have some questions. It seems from what he has written that Christ’s death didn’t accomplish anything. While the incarnation united God with humanity, Jesus’s suffering didn’t really do anything that needed to be done. Since the incarnation healed or bridged whatever separation there was between deity and humanity, and since God always wills and does good to all men, saint and sinner alike, then all that needed to be done after that was the resurrection, to lift mortal man into the possibility of immortality by the defeat of death.

    Fr. Al quotes part of 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” almost as a proof text, but the entire verse reads:

    “He who did not know sin, [God] made sin for our sakes, in order that (purpose) we might become [the?] righteousness of God in Him (Jesus).”

    There is a becoming righteous that depended on Christ’s sacrifice.

    Also, the same St. Paul used λογιζομαι – logizomai (account, reckon) – to describe the (trans)action that occurred via the Christ event and the believer’s response. (I’m not limiting it to the crucifixion – the things “reckoned” to believers and/or that believers are to “reckon” about themselves goes beyond simply the atonement.)

    Does Fr. Al’s perspective adequately address the atonement aspect of Christ’s death that does indeed involve propitiation?

    In the parables of the workers and the prodigal son, there is no need for a sacrifice for sin(s) to restore the relationship between the sinner and God or to remove sin(s); simply repenting and/or doing what one was called to do (workers in the vineyard) restores or perfects the relationship.

    Jesus told other parables, too – e.g., about a King throwing a wedding feast and/or planting a vineyard and hiring it out. Those who tried to seize the inheritance and/or weren’t appropriately attired did not meet a dispassionate all-loving King, but one who threw them into outer darkness with the hypocrites, and where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    I’m probably rambling a bit here. Forgive me.

  3. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    It seems to be nevertheless an error to pit God’s justice against his mercy – which I don’t suppose St. Isaac is really doing. It seems more like he is saying that a simple system of rewards and punishments fails to understand the justice of God. God’s justice is restorative – justice means setting the creation right.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar


    Good questions. I think it states things to succinctly to speak of the incarnation without at the same time speaking of Christ’s death on the Cross and Resurrection and Ascension. I see them all as one event that is saving of man.

    The icons of the feasts show that the Nativity, Theophany and Pascha are considered more or less versions of the same event. The “Pascha” shape is Christ’s entrance into Hades. Becoming incarnate is not a “non-suffering” event, but part of the emptying of Christ that is brought to complete fulfillment in His death.

    There is no birth of Christ apart from His death. In a sense, in doing Orthodox theology, we must begin at Pascha and see everything from there, before and after. It is Pascha that interprets the Nativity and even, to a degree, shapes its narrative in the Scriptures.

    It is not the incarnation alone that saves, though there is no death on the Cross without an incarnation. Thus the incarnation-suffering-death-harrowing of Hell-resurrection-Ascension, etc. are saving.

    BTW, I would read the logizomai as stronger than just intellectually reckoning. I would tend to translate it: impute or something even stronger. What God reckons is real and true.

    But humanity was not only living in the flesh (thus an incarnation could save) but was living in the flesh enthralled to death. Only His atoning sacrifice on the Cross and destruction of death could save us.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    Of course God’s justice and mercy are not in conflict. Only false understandings – which is what is at the heart of St. Isaac’s teaching. God’s justice is His mercy and vice versa. It’s the human demand for human justice that we will not receive.

  6. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    It’s the human demand for human justice that we will not receive.

    Thanks be to God.

  7. Sean Avatar

    I think comments are open on this same essay posted simultaneously at this site: http://frjeffreysteel.blogspot.com/2008/01/injustice-of-grace.html

  8. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Whenever I used to complain to my first priest about the injustice in my life and about how so and so got away with such and such, he would tell me I really wouldn’t want God to be “fair” to me. I have heard that sentiment echoed since, and I hear it echoed here. I wonder if this justice and mercy of God is what caused Lucifer and his minions to revolt?

  9. Pontificator Avatar

    I would like to thank Jacob for his comments on the atonement. I probably cannot offer a convincing response. I am, quite frankly, skeptical of most “theories” of the atonement. I believe that we may speak of the reconciling work of Christ in his death and resurrection under many aspects, even the penal and propitiatory, but always, I think, we must remember the metaphorical nature of our language.

    But I do not believe that the death and resurrection of Christ literally moves God from a state of wrath to a state of love. I believe we misread the New Testament if we read it in this way. On this point I agree with Fr Stephen wholeheartedly. This is not to render the passion, sufferings, and death of our Lord irrelevant–quite the contrary–but it does compel us to interpret their significance in other ways. If we wish to speak of the death of Christ as propitiatory, and I think this is a legitimate way of speaking, then let us also acknowledge the figurative nature of this language and seek to penetrate through it to the realities to which it points. God does not need to be placated. He is, after all, the one who provides himself as the sacrifice. Do we not in fact see in this a complete subversion of the pagan notions of appeasement?

    Consider, e.g., 2 Cor 5:21. Why should this be understood as supporting a penal understanding of the atonement? It does not even necessarily support a forensic understanding of justification! What it does support is a reconciling exchange in which sinners are truly incorporating into the divine Son and thus come to share in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.

  10. jacob Avatar

    Fr. Al:

    Thanks for your response to my comments. After 30 years as an Evangelical/Charismatic/non-denominational heavily-Pauline Protestant, it is hard for me to read Paul (and other parts of the NT) through new or different eyes, and I continue to wrestle with some of my former modalities. I cannot say that I am able to reject them completely – e.g., I have difficulty with the widespread (it seems to me) rejection by many Orthodox (a la The River of Fire?) of propitiatory atonement as being an aspect of Christ’s death. I’m not able to see God’s wrath as being nothing but His love as experienced by those who reject Him; or if that is the case, I’m not able to see that clearly taught by Jesus or the Apostles. Not yet, at least (if indeed it is the proper way to see things).

    I’m glad you are back blogging again.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would have difficulties in any account of atonement that portrayed God as in need of any change, or bound by His justice, etc., none of which are theologically acceptable in a classic sense. There is much preaching about atonement that uses imagery in a literal way, that at best can be seen as metaphorical. Our sin has created no need in God. The need is in us. Christ’s death certainly satisfies that need, but, I would have extreme difficulty if it were seen as satisfying something in God. God has no needs.

  12. Steven W Avatar

    Hello all,

    I’ve enjoyed this blog and the Pontificator’s over the years, mainly because of just how different they are. I’m coming from a Reformed Presbyterian background, so fair warning.

    I would argue strongly that God does take vengeance, and I’d rely on the Old Testament as well as the saints’ plea in the book of Revelation. Their call for vengeance shares the “dik” stem which appears in all of the “righteousness” and “justification” talk throughout the New Testament. It seems that justification is directly connected with God avenging His beloved. The 1st century served as a exile/wilderness period, where the Christians, the true sons of God, where awaiting the big passover and sack of Jericho which occurred both at the Cross and AD 70 when the Jews were finally judged for their persecution of the Church.

    This idea of vengeance makes sense if we look back at the Old Testament’s kinsman-redeemer figure. This figure had two major duties. He was to marry the widow of his kin (Ruth 2:20), and he was to seek down any murder and kill him (Numbers 35: 19-21).

    We’d all, I’d suppose, be willing to see Christ in Boaz and Hosea. Why then do we not see him in the avenger? The Hebrew term is the same- g#l (ga-al)

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    This is a good reason I am not Reformed. You do not have the advantage of the Church Fathers and their interpretation of the Scriptures to guide you, and thus arrive at a wrong interpretation of Scripture. Christ was quite clear to his disciples when they wanted to call down fire on the villagers who would not receive them (like Elijah). His rebuke is very telling, “You know not what Spirit you are of.” Luke 9:54 ff.

    You quote grammatical tidbits about dikaiosyne, and yet do not know the righteousness of God. “And this is condemnation that light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the light,” or that “the Son of Man did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved.”

    Instead, there is a matrix of Biblical interpretation that is cogent, but not rooted in the Apostolic matrix or the Tradition of the Church, and therefore proclaims another Gospel.

    You will not listen to St. Isaac or St. Anthony and the list could be added to over and over. This is the testimony of the Fathers, to whom God committed the faith, once and for all delivered to the saints.

    Does God have passions? Is that how you read Scripture. Then you must also say that God actually got tired when he created the heavens and the earth and need to rest. Or a whole lot of other absurd conclusions.

    Read the Bible – but read it as Christian Tradition in the Fathers has interpreted it. But don’t quote the Fathers apart from the Tradition. Apart from the Tradition it is not possible to read the Scriptures correctly. And that, too, is the testimony of the Church Christ founded.

    Forgive me if I’ve been harsh in my statements. I mean no animosity. But these interpretative matters are open to discussion, but not to change.

  14. jacob Avatar

    Even though Jesus replaced the eye-for-an-eye law code with love your enemies, He did not totally rule out God taking vengeance upon His enemies. Nor did He say that “God never takes vengeance, but He loves everyone, and His wrath is simply the fire of His burning, jealous love that feels like suffering to those who hate Him until they learn to love Him.”
    I wonder if things like scapegoat theology (a la Girard?) and writings like The River of Fire are causing people to view God differently than the Scriptures seem to portray Him?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    These questions were answered in the life of the Church in the writings of the Fathers. And the Old Testament is read through the New. Somethings must be read metaphorically rather than literally. Christ is the key to the Old Testament and not the other way around.

    If you want to go back and rehash the Council of Nicaea, it could be done, but to what end?

    This is not new interpretation. Dr. Kalomiros in The River of Fire said nothing new, but grounded his every word in the Fathers of the Church. His footnotes are even more valuable than his essay. If you want to read the Bible, then read it as the Church reads it. We have many things that direct us so that we do not “wrest the Scriptures to our own destruction.”

    And these are deeply important matters – if you are to know God. If you have no love for your enemy – then you will not know God. Indeed, we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.

    1 John 4:7-8 (with a few permutations).

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will add. I’ve heard the wrath of God stuff for a good portion of my life – and from it I never met a saint. Not one who demonstrated the love of God for enemies.

    Only in the Orthodox Catholic tradition have I seen such love. I cast my vote for such love. The rest can keep their grammar.

  17. Steven W Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Your response is also why I’m not Orthodox. I may be wrong, but I basically read your response as saying “Your opinion is worthless.” I wonder how much was assumed about me just by my background. It seems to me that some passions managed to obscure our conversation. Let me try again.

    I don’t think an assertion of the wrath of God is the same thing as the theological meaning of “passions.” “Without passions” is a phrase which appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith, to which my tradition subscribes. The Reformed are all agreed that God is impassible. We also believe that God is simple and that his attributes are co-terminous with his essence (a discussion that I know will elicit some genuine EO wrath), and thus there should not be (however mistaken this gets on the street level) any conflict between justice and mercy. Theologically speaking, Reformed Protestants are themselves bound to not bind God to human reactions.

    If God doesn’t have wrath then he’s Ned Flanders. He’s a Precious Moments doll. He’s a bad PBS show. He’s a Top 40s pop song. Just as the misuse of wrath can terrify you, so too can the wrongful rejection of it.

    The whole point of the Apostles not calling down for vengeance in their lives, but rather asking for forgiveness and serving as martyrs, is that God will be the one to take out the vengeance in His good time. The martyrs in Revelation also show us that this is the case, as they want the vengeance now, and they are instructed to wait a little more.

    Jesus preaches peace, but he also brings a sword. His Mt. of Olives discourse is full of vengeance on a Jerusalem who has rejected the prophets.

    Of course, I do not deny that wrath is an experience of God’s love. God’s wrath is precisely that of a Lover. This is why I pointed out the role of the kinsman-redeemer who operates in both functions. In fact, I could see an argument that Jesus allows his own life to be taken, but not the life of his bride. Stephen the martyr models Christ in this respect. When the attacks come upon the Bride though, action is taken. The woman is defended.

    You are free to take or leave my advice though. I am simply trying to say that the concept, the image, and the theme of an appropriate role for vengeance is indeed in the Bible. I would also encourage everyone to lay down their lives for others, but in the case of their wives, they should fight and fight hard.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    Your irenic response puts me to shame. Forgive me.

    I would agree, if you will, that the metaphor of vengeance and wrath are quite appropriate. Indeed, the unrighteous experience “wrath”, but in the writings of the fathers, this “wrath” is explained not as rooted in the anger of God, but in the unrighteousness of those who reject Him – who find His love to be nothing but wrath, though it is still the same love that the righteous receive.

    An Old Testament example, is found in Exodus 14:

    19 And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face,
    and stood behind them:
    20 And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these:
    so that the one came not near the other all the night.

    Same cloud – two experiences.

    As your Westminster Confession has it, God does not have passions. The teaching of the fathers explains how it is that God does not have passions and yet people do experience “wrath.”

    I think living next door to Ned Flanders, by the way, would feel like wrath to me. 🙂

    The differences here, particularly based on what you have said about God and the passions, need not be signficant. Orthodoxy certainly understands there to be a judgment. But we believe that the judgment is entirely at the fault of human beings, not located outside them in a necessity within God.

    Thus condemnation is that Light has come into the world, and men prefer darkness to the light.

    My experience of God, and of the light of God, are clearly that in the darkness of my own heart, though I confess it to be love, I find it to be otherwise in my sinfulness, and cry, “Have mercy on me.”

    And you, please have mercy on a sinner who wrote with a heavy hand. I thank you for your irenic reply. May we (myself especially) continue to speak in such a way.

  19. Bailey Avatar

    Fr. – Can we not agree that God pouring his wrath out on his Son as a propitiation is strongly supported by scripture? And it’s not only confusion about Paul’s writings. For example, read Isaiah 53:5 –

    “He was wounded for our transgressions;
    He was crushed for our iniquities;
    upon him was the chastisement
    that brought us peace,
    and with his stripes we are healed.”

    Forgive me, but isn’t this more authoritative than the fathers? Sometimes it seems as if commenters on this blog believe that Reformed Christians just dreamed this stuff up. Read it. It’s in the Bible, and yes, Paul talked an awful lot about God’s wrath, namely, that we are “children of wrath” prior to regeneration (Eph 2:3).

    John’s gospel also makes this quite clear: “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

  20. momesansnom Avatar

    The point about vengeance for the saints, vengeance for the bride, was brought up earlier.

    This is much different than a concept of God getting revenge for our sins.

  21. momesansnom Avatar

    I mean to say that God’s vengeance for his bride, his children, is more like vindication than it is “payback,” which is how most people tend to think of the word “vengeance.”

  22. fatherstephen Avatar


    Of course the idea is in Scripture. It’s a question of how it’s interpreted. By the way, though I see that Christ is crushed, wounded, and suffers the chastisement that brought us peace, etc., but I don’t see anything that says this is the wrath of God being poured out on Him. He suffers for us, absolutely, no argument from me whatsoever.

    The careful difference is that there is something God needs or demands from us to satisfy Himself or His justice or honor, etc. There is a firm interpretation, at least in the Eastern Fathers, that this is incorrect theologically. Christ suffers for us – He endures all that He must in order to rescue us from the hell into which we had plunged ourselves.

    Gregory Nazianzus’ Second Paschal Oration is an excellent read on the topic. The Fathers knew the Scriptures better than most of us – but were quite careful in how they stated the matters of our salvation. The punishment notion of the atonement is not fully articulated for almost a 1000 years (Anselm). That’s almost modern by Orthodox standards.

    I readily agree to the language – but am articulating how the Church traditionally has handled that language. It goes very much to the heart of who we believe God has revealed Himself to be in Christ.

    I believe “wrath of God” describes or is synonymous with being out of right relation with God and living in a manner that is destructive to that relation and to ourselves and to others. I do not believe that it describes how God is.

  23. Pontificator Avatar

    Can we not agree that God pouring his wrath out on his Son as a propitiation is strongly supported by scripture?

    I’m not sure. Can we? Is this really so obvious and clear in the New Testament?

    It seems to me that one must make some hermeneutical and theological decisions here that affect how we read the Scriptures. So let me begin with one of my foundational theological principle: God loves every human being unconditionally. I can give reasons for this belief, but for the moment, these reasons are irrelevant. The question I would like to ask Steven, Baily, and Jacob is this: do you accept this?

    If yes, then what do you mean when speak of God’s wrath? If no … well, then that is where the true dissensus lies.

  24. Bailey Avatar


    God “hated” Esau (Romans 9:13), so that would invalidate your foundational theological principle.

  25. momesansnom Avatar

    And Bailey:

    Christ commands us to “hate” our families, so that would invalidate your foundational understanding of hate in the Bible.

  26. momesansnom Avatar

    Also, God blessed Esau in the end. Pretty strange kind of hate.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    But do you interpret “hate” in this passage to mean that God did not love Esau. God who not only loves, but “is love.” How does Love hate?

    As the Pontificator noted – there is a hermeneutical principle at work. You cannot but interpret. If here you choose to be literal, then you will come to a conclusion that is different than the conclusion of the sensus fidelium. It does no good to simply say that “this is what the Scriptures say,” for the literal sense is not always the sense accepted by the faithful, and never has been (not even in Antioch).

    But it is as the Pontificator noted. If you take that statement to be literal, then, yes, we disagree.

  28. Bailey Avatar

    Attempts to reason God’s wrath out of the NT are nothing more than the age old attempt to make God in our own image. It is distasteful and against human nature to accept. If the church “fathers” deemphasized it, fine. Lest we forget these were sinful human beings too?

    Jesus knew he was under God’s wrath when he asked why he had been forsaken on the cross. Paul’s writing, and meaning, could not be more clear on the fact that the God of love is also a God of wrath:

    “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…(you) were by nature children of WRATH.”

    Now I ask, who was wrathful? The fact that God has chosen “many” (not all) to be saved by His grace is the very definition of grace. The difference is that Catholics and Orthodox believe you must repent (and fast, confess, etc.) to earn grace, while Reformed Christians know that we repent BECAUSE we are already saved.

  29. momesansnom Avatar

    Our image is wrath.

  30. Pontificator Avatar

    Bailey, so your response to my question “Do you believe that God unconditionally loves every human being?” is no. Is that correct?

    May I also presume, on the basis of your citation and interpretation of Rom 9:13 that you are a strict predestinarian, perhaps of the TULIP variety?

    I’ll be interested to see what Jacob and Steven have to say.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are mistaken about what the Orthodox teach on grace. We believe that nothing even exists apart from grace – not even the evil. In Him we live and move and have our being. And that He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to a knowledg of the truth. It is considered heresy by the Orthodox to say that God is the cause of anyone’s damnation (through predestination). You may not be saying that, and I might be misunderstanding you.

    But as sinful men go, I know that I am chief. But I will place the Cappadocian fathers next to John Calvin anyday – and I suspect that he himself would not have considered his interpretation to be superior to that of the Cappadocians.

    These saints, though truly sinful men like us all, are among those who are considered teachers of the Church and have been accepted by generations of Christians as teachers of the Truth as the Church received it by Christ.

    Orthodoxy does not believe that we can earn anything by our actions. It is grace that saves us. Without grace we could not repent, fast or do anything.

    But we believe that God has abundantly poured forth His grace upon all. As I said, without it, we would not even exist.

    But it seems clear that we have differences. Apparently even those within the Reform movement have differences among themselves. How do you come to agreement with each other?

    Were I to be interested in Reform (though I do not have such an interest) to which reform group would I turn? Which one of them has the Truth?

  32. Bailey Avatar

    Pontificator – what I believe is meaningless. I’m more concerned with the explicit teaching of the New Testament, and will take that any day over what a select group of “fathers” had to say. Of course, they didn’t always agree, which is why you don’t hear much about Augustine around here.

  33. jacob Avatar

    Fr. Al:

    I’m going to read that Paschal sermon that Fr. Stephen mentioned. Maybe then I’ll have more to say re: my position on this topic. I am more in an asking questions & raising objections mode than actually arguing for a Puritanical (?) or Calvinistic theology.

  34. momesansnom Avatar

    What you believe has everything to do with what you find to be explicit in the New Testament. There is no reading without interpretation.

  35. Steven W Avatar


    Good to talk to you again. We met up in New York at the Augustine conference. This is actually my first notice of your resumed internet activity.

    You ask: “Do you believe that God unconditionally loves every human being?”

    You also ask: “May I also presume, on the basis of your citation and interpretation of Rom 9:13 that you are a strict predestinarian, perhaps of the TULIP variety?”

    I can step up to the plate and say that I am a strict predestinarian of the Synod of Dort variety. The “TULIP” variety is largely American pop-theology with no historical grounding, so I’ll decline that title.

    As to whether God loves every human being unconditionally, I have to say it is an interesting question. I do like that term “unconditional,” but I’d want to clarify what we mean. God loves every single person, but this does not elicit the same result for every single person. God does not love every single person in the same way. He does not really appreciate it when evil men smash the infants of believers on rocks. He doesn’t like it when they intrude upon holy things without following his instructions. He also does not appreciate it when they kill his prophets. These things all make him, um, not happy.

    God does reveal an unconditional love to all through the person of Jesus Christ. The gospel is offered to all, and there is genuine desire on God’s part that all be saved.

    Is that anything close to what you are looking for?

  36. Bailey Avatar

    “Were I to be interested in Reform (though I do not have such an interest) to which reform group would I turn?”

    Good point Fr. Stephen. We are almost as fragmented as the Orthodox Church!

  37. fatherstephen Avatar


    The current problems with jurisdictionalism in America and some other areas is not fragmentation, though we recognize it is not canonically correct. There is no fragmentation in the teaching of the Church, or the sacraments, or the life of Orthodox Christians. We’ve surely got at least as many sinners as anyone else, no argument there. But the “divisions” such as Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc., are not divisions over doctrine or any matter that touches the faith.

    There are places where, sadly, history has brought about very difficult problems with schism – the Ukraine comes to mind immediately. But, even there, where there are bitter arguments over these divisions – there is no differing over the teaching of the faith. Variety of opinion is not the nature of Orthodox sin. We find other ways to sin (and its not very pretty either).

    And to all,

    I recognize that there are real disagreements here, and that as passionate men we care deeply about what we believe. I genuinely pray God do good things for you always, and ask your forgiveness for being a poor witness and argumentative. It’s too easy to make a point and then add a little jab. I really am sorry. I’m past my bedtime (not an excuse, just a good evening til tomorrow). God’s peace (and I pray no wrath) be with you.

  38. jacob Avatar

    Okay, I read Gregory of Nazianzen’s Second Paschal Oration. I had read parts of it before, i.e.:

    22. Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence. But that brazen serpent [Num. 21:9] was hung up as a remedy for the biting serpents, not as a type of Him that suffered for us, but as a contrast; and it saved those that looked upon it, not because they believed it to live, but because it was killed, and killed with it the powers that were subject to it, being destroyed as it deserved. And what is the fitting epitaph for it from us? “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Thou art overthrown by the Cross; thou art slain by Him who is the Giver of life; thou art without breath, dead, without motion, even though thou keepest the form of a serpent lifted up on high on a pole.

    The part about the brazen serpent is interesting, because even though it seems to me that in John 3:14-15 (cf. John 12:32), Jesus is identifying Himself with the brazen serpent, it appears from my reading of the above that St. Gregory is almost identifying the brazen serpent with Death, and rejecting it as being a type of Christ. He also seems to be saying that the brazen serpent (which was never a living thing to begin with) was killed, and its death halted the power of the “fiery” serpents that were plaguing the Israelites.

    I looked at the LXX, and instead of “fiery” (s’raphim) serpents, they are called τους οφεις τους θανατουντας (“the serpents the putting-to-death [ones]” – I guess an allusion to the fact that their stinging (“fiery”) venom kills). Maybe this is where St. Gregory gets his language about “killed” and “killed with it” (which may be θανατοω in Gregory’s original Greek), as well as his citing the passage about death’s (θανατος) sting. Also interestingly (or maybe not), the LXX rendering of the Hebrew for placing the bronze serpent on a pole/standard (nes) is επι σημειου – and Jesus’s being “lifted up” was indeed a σημειον, even though St. John may not have explicitly called it that in his Gospel, where he calls many things that Jesus did σημειον.

    Much to ponder.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar


    He has always put me through my paces. I’ve been reading him for better than 30 years and I am still stretched by every reading. His Greek (particularly some of the poetry) is quite good. Even his prose is quite poetic.

  40. Pontificator Avatar

    Hi, Steven. Did we meet after the Louth lecture?

    God does reveal an unconditional love to all through the person of Jesus Christ. The gospel is offered to all, and there is genuine desire on God’s part that all be saved. Is that anything close to what you are looking for?

    Yep, sounds good. Glad we don’t have to argue double predestination.

    So please explain how you reconcile your unconditional affirmation of God’s unconditional love with with divine “vengeance” (your word, not mine).

    Oh, btw, I want to congratulate you on a nice couple of sentences:

    “If God doesn’t have wrath then he’s Ned Flanders. He’s a Precious Moments doll. He’s a bad PBS show. He’s a Top 40s pop song. Just as the misuse of wrath can terrify you, so too can the wrongful rejection of it.”

    I like that. But I hope you realize that neither Fr Stephen nor I is asserting a sentimental Ned Flanders deity. God does not indulge or overlook evil and wickedness. But he continues to love passionately and hopelessly even the most wicked of men. Christ died for the ungodly!

  41. David Bryan Avatar

    If I might insert a segment of an article I wrote for an Orthodox forum that pertains to the discussion of Justice and Mercy (for the full article go HERE):

    (Regarding 2 Cor. 5:18-19) “Notice, now, that the ‘demand’ of the Father (and it can and should be called that) was satisfied by the reconciling of fallen human nature and holy divine nature in the Logos, but notice especially the motivation behind said reconciliation. This is the main point of our difference: not that the Father doesn’t demands that we come to Him through the sacrifice of Christ (for He most certainly does), but that we come to Him through the sacrifice of Christ because He knows we can not enjoy His presence any other way, and this is what He wants for us. Christ died, not because of some external demand of an offended Father who seeks to regain His own honor and so He might have an airtight case in justifying letting us into heaven (as if this were the Father’s problem), but rather because He was not going to change one iota of His holiness when all things (us included) were submitted to Him, and this would, by natural consequence, mean our torment. So His demand stems not from wounded honor, but from selfless love for those who once were alienated from His divine nature and union therewith, but who now have access to the throne of Grace through the divine sacrifice of the Logos, whose very Person has reconciled the fallen creation with its divine Creator.”

  42. Benjamin Avatar

    Father, this is something I wrote back in November. I wrote it for myself, attempting to come to terms with a lot of thoughts on God and his judgement Only the Lord knows how far I’ve missed the mark:

    We are right to say that God eschatologically judged the world in Jesus. To be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into that judgment, to receive that judgment. But that judgment, in Christ, is transformed into, “Our Father…”, transformed into, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

    God’s judgment, his anger, is the separation of the wheat from the tares. It is a dethroning of satan and his un-work and a throning of God-With-Man and his holy work. It is the separation of death from life which undoes the former and re-does the latter.

    Fallen human anger is a self-protective act. It is an act of force, spawned, at its core, from fear, shame or danger- or a combination of these. God knows neither fear, nor shame, nor a viable threat to himself, thus his anger cannot be as ours is. It is a healing anger, removing the sick part to save the whole. It is a dispassionate anger. His anger is the action of dethroning the devil and his works and minions. Israel knows God’s anger when it has become entrapped in these dark works and when God comes to separate it again, for its own sake.

  43. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’d be comfortable with that explanation and imagery. Thanks.

  44. Steven W Avatar

    Fr Al,

    Yep. We were eating little octopus crackers because apparently Yankees have never discovered real food.

    Is the fear of the term “vengeance” that it will be mistaken with human vindictiveness? I don’t believe that God works like that, but I do see the term for vengeance in several places in the Bible, so I cannot forbid it.

    The congregation I attend sings through the psalter and we use the imprecatory ones. This stuff is there, and my fear is that we obscure it in trying to avoid historical mistakes and popular misconceptions.

  45. Pontificator Avatar

    I remember well the squid and octopus. Quite a shindig! Great to run into you here.

    Is the fear of the term “vengeance” that it will be mistaken with human vindictiveness? I don’t believe that God works like that, but I do see the term for vengeance in several places in the Bible, so I cannot forbid it.

    But of course words like “vengeance” and “punishment,” when attributed to God, need to be interpreted and purified in light of the gospel and a proper understanding of the Holy Trinity. It’s not just a matter of historical exegesis but of theological exegesis. I see St Isaac engaging precisely in this sort of theological interpretation when he insists that “Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution.” I am thinking here particularly, for example, of a proper articulation of the doctrine of Hell. The long-standing popular image within Western Churches is God throwing the damned into the physical fires of hell for everlasting punishment. How literally do you want to take this image? It was interpreted quite literally for centuries and centuries. How do you reconcile it with the God revealed in the parables of Luke 15?

    I fully endorse praying the psalter as a whole. By no means should we avoid the difficult parts. But those difficult parts still need to be interpreted. Being the broken sinner that I am, it may well be that I may well need to pray for God to dash the infants of my enemies against the rocks, but I hope we will agree that this prayer does not accord with God’s will as revealed in Christ.

  46. benjamin Avatar

    …infants and rocks, indeed. That Psalm is sung right before Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church during Lent. We certainly do not avoid it: in it is suprisingly made into a sort of centerpiece, if you will. It speaks of Exile, and the longing for return, which is a very Lenten theme. And the cries for vengeance and violence have been shown to mean that Christ himself will conquer our enemies – the demons, death, hell, and the budding seeds of all things that set themselves up against the Kingdom. As Fr. Al said, interpretation is key. I think the Orthodox would say that in light of Christ, this Psalm’s primary meaning is not the cry of an angry Israelite but a cry for Christ to save. This is a theological reading, not necessarily a historical-critical reading. The priority is often given to the former, especially in an Old Testament context.

  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    As benjamin noted, the liturgical life of Orthodoxy is not a changing thing, so that the fads and fastidiousness of any given time and culture are not given authority within the Worship of God. We use all the Psalms, but they are almost always given a Christological interpretation as was the practice of the Fathers. The text of the Great Canon of St. Andrew prayed during the first week of Lent over the course of 4 evenings is a treasure trove of patristic interpretation of Old Testament images. It permeates our services. It’s a very sobering set of prayers in which we compare ourselves to every sinner of Scripture and confess that we are worse, and then hear the assurance of God’s salvation.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Correct me if I’m wrong, I do not have the background and knowledge in theology that many of the posters here do. It seems to me that the idea of God “pouring out his wrath on His Son” assumes that Christ is wholly different that us. It seems to forget that the reason for the Incarnation was to take on our nature which includes our flesh. Did not He also assume the consequences of our falleness-death even though He was innocent of all sin? In His human nature did He not also experienced the separation from God that we experience in our falleness, not just an individual but for all? Wrath seems to be a good name to me for such an experience, but that does not mean it equates with human anger or resentment.

    Why are people so quick to reject the idea that God is all merciful and that the wrath comes from our rejection of that mercy? Love does not excuse sin or fail to take notice of it, in fact quite the opposite. Genuine love convicts us of sin, even condemns us if we do not repent. Love is not sugar or without strength-that is sentimentality. Love is the ultimate weapon against evil and the only way evil is defeated. It is God’s love that orders the universe and allows virtue even in the midst of corruption.

    Dr. Kalomiros exposition is not as simplistic as some here apparently assume. One of the footnotes Fr. Stephen mentions is a reference to a sermon by St. John Maximovitch http://www.stmaryofegypt.org/library/st_john_maximovich/on_the_last_judgment.htm St John seems to express an idea far different that of Dr. Kalomiros, but Dr. Kalomiros did not seem to find it so very different somehow or at least did not comment on it. Dr. Kalomiros incorporated it as part of what he was saying.

    I also think we must learn to discriminate between polemical diatribe and speaking with authority what we know even if it offends. It is one thing to say that Reformed Theology is simply wrong on many things, quite another to be offended by someone who believes that theology.

  49. fatherstephen Avatar

    St. John’s descriptions are interesting. It is worth noting, and I suspect St. John would have known this, too, that the Orthodox Church rejected the notion of a material fire in judgment in its rejections of the Council of Florence (St. Mark of Ephesus’ writings). Thus, St. John writes of an “inner fire.”

  50. Marc K Avatar
    Marc K

    St. Dorotheos explains the meaning of the Ps. 137: 8-9 in his instructions, “On Taking Care to Cut off Passions.” This portion of the Psalm, he explains, tells us to destroy the passions while young. Do not let them grow and mature, because they will be far more difficult to overcome.

    St. Dorotheos is saying, God is not interested in dashing the heads of children against a rock. Rather, He wishes us to overcome the passions. St. Dorotheos mimics St. Paul in seeing the deeper spiritual meaning in figurative language. Compare how St. Paul interprets the phrase “you shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain” (1Corithians 9:9).

    How blessed we are to have faithful guides, like St. Isaac and St. Dorotheos, may they always be remembered as a gift from God to His lost sheep.

  51. Benjamin Avatar



    You may have already seen the above link at Energetic Procession today. The article therein really hits the nail on the head regarding “proper” interpretation of Scripture in light of the Apostles, and, implicitly, in light of the Fathers and the Community. And it comes out of Westminster!

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