St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

IsaacTheSyrian-headerThere is a strain within some forms of Western theology that is deeply concerned with the “justice” of God. Some even go so far as to say that God is constrained by His justice – that He cannot deny its demands (to do so, they argue, would make Him “less than just”). It is common for Orthodox theology to find this problematic. Here St. Isaac of Syria states the case quite clearly:

Mercy and justice in the same soul is like the man who worships God and idols in the same temple. Mercy is in contradiction with justice. Justice is the return of the equal. Because it returns to man that which he deserves and it does not bend to one side neither is it partial in the retaliation. But mercy is sorrow that is moved by grace and bends to all with sympathy and it does not return the harm to him who deserves it although it overfills him who deserves good. … And as it is not possible for hay and fire to be able to exist in the same house, the same way it is not possible for justice and mercy to be in the same soul. As the grain of sand cannot be compared with a great amount of gold – the same way God’s need for justice cannot be compared with his mercy. Because man’s sin, in comparison to the providence and the mercy of God, are like a handful of sand that falls in the sea and the Creator’s mercy cannot be defeated by the wickedness of the creatures.

I understand that many have a passion for the justice of God – believing that in the end everyone will be requited in the proper manner and this “balancing” will somehow make right all of the evil that may have been tolerated for a while. There is no doubt that many times our evil actions bring evil consequences on us (not as punishment from God but as our own self-willed estrangement from His Divine Life). But the vision of the Fathers and the vision of Christ’s revelation of the Father as received in the Church is of the infinite mercy of God. 

Abba Ammonas states:

Love is not in enmity with anybody, it does not abuse anybody, it does not detest anybody neither believer nor unbeliever or foreigner or fornicator, or unclean. On the contrary it loves more the sinners and the weak and the negligent and for their sake it toils and mourns and weeps. It empathizes with the wicked and the sinners more than it does with the good, imitating and drinking with them. Therefore when He wanted to show us which is the true love he taught saying ‘be then compassionate as your Father is compassionate'(Luke 6:36) and as he sends his rain on the good and the wicked and makes His sun rise on the honest and the dishonest, the same way he who truly loves, loves everybody and has compassion for all and prays for all.

This sort of discourse can provoke anger in some readers – particularly those who demand that justice must, in the end, be done. I cannot help but feel that those who demand justice of God are like those who stood about the woman taken in adultery and demanded her stoning. Christ rebuked them, seeking to show them the sin in their own heart (“he who is without sin let him cast the first stone). By a strange quirk of Christian theology, there are those who feel “righteous” in their own heart, arguing that, having accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, they now have the righteousness of Christ (“imputed righteousness”) and thus feel safe in calling for justice to be done to others (thinking, I suppose, that this threat will provoke repentance). But justice is a very dangerous thing indeed. Though it may be called for in the interest of provoking someone to repentance, it can quickly become a thing in itself, and gather us up into the company of those who are outwardly righteous but inwardly “full of dead men’s bones.”

Spiritually, it is of far greater benefit and safety to simply beg the mercy of God for those who are trapped in sin, and see and treat them with the mercy of God. We are commanded to love even our enemies. I can think of no commandment that says we are to judge the unrighteous. 

By the same token, I think it becomes theologically dangerous for us to project this judgment onto God who has shown us His mercy in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This unbounded love of God is limited only by theologians who seek to set requirements on the reception of the love of God. Let them return to His mercy and first determine where it ends before they suggest the beginning of something else.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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






41 responses to “St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice”

  1. coffeezombie Avatar

    I don’t think I can read enough of this line of thinking. I know I still struggle with this in my own life. After years of growing up Baptist, I still have a very “just” idea of God, feeling that, when I sin, I anger Him, and so on. It leads to a certain despondency, where it can even become difficult to pray, because, in the back of my mind, I feel those accusations, “How can you dare to approach the throne of God, filthy as you are?”

    It is good to remember that this is not the way God truly is. Now if I can just teach myself to really believe that. 🙂

  2. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! A resoundng Amen! Thank you for saying it again so clearly. We don’t realize that we are seeking our own condemnation every time we wish for justice to be vindictively served in the case of someone else’s sin.

    What is maddening is the theological schizophrenia induced by seeing God’s justice as in opposition somehow to His mercy and the double standard introduced when we adopt notions of “imputed righteousness” on the basis of what is in effect largely a nominal understanding “faith.” In so doing, we have to redefine God’s impartiality everywhere affirmed in Scripture to mean its opposite!

    Even when language is used insisting that God’s mercy and justice are compatible (in Western theologies of penal substitution), one will find that “mercy” has merely been redefined, in George Orwell “1984” fashion, to mean God’s selective and partial favor shown to a few “repentant” sinners. Only when mercy really means the unconditional and extravagant love of God poured continually on all His creation and His freely extended forgiveness to all sinners does the gospel really sound like “good news.”

    “A rose by any other name smells as sweet.” But we can call something “mercy,” and redefine it however we like, but if it doesn’t act like Jesus on the Cross or with the woman caught in adultery or like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it’s not the real thing.

  3. Karl Avatar

    what then are we to make of justice? It seems like the prophets speak of justice, particularly of God bringing justice to Israel and defeating her enemies. This is brought about through Jesus and is ultimately the defeat of death but we all await the judgement of Christ. This, I think, is when God brings justice. I am definitely challenged by your writing here on how I am to live toward my neighbours and my enemies but I am still curious about justice and mercy from God.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    A priest whose work I have been reading, noted that the biblical meaning of “justice” is totally different than the Greco-Roman one. The word that is “justice” or “righteousness” used in the hebrew Bible means “compassion and mercy.”

    “Lord hear my prayer be true to thyself and listen to my pleading then in thy righteousness answer me. Bring not thy servant to trial” (Ps. 143) would make no sense whatsoever in the Greco-Roman definition of righteousness.

    On the 5th Sunday of Lent we sing the hymn with the phrase:

    “The righteous man is he who shows mercy the whole day.”

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    See the comment in answer to Karen. We read the word justice in the OT and think we know what it means. Christ is the definition of the Father, and the definition of Justice, mercy, etc. We must not take theologically created definitions and foist them onto God. God has made himself known and declared his Justice in Christ. Simply postponing things to a “judgment day” when we can then create our own imaginary scheme so that Westernized justice can still win out – is simply another way of ignoring Christ. It’s as if we say, “He is merciful until judgment day, and then He’s going to wreak vengeance on all evil doers.” If this is so, then all humanity will go to hell, sent by a vengeful, wicked (but just) God. This God as imagined by much non-Orthodox theology is simply not the true God.

    Look at the article by Kalomiros, the River of Fire.

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

  6. Karen Avatar

    What are you reading, Father? Sounds like something I’d be interested in. 🙂

  7. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Please forgive my extreme ignorance but I still wrestle with why the death of Christ was needed. I am Orthodox now but my roots go deep into the imputed righteousness that you speak of. So what does it actually mean when the scripture states that “Christ died for our sins”? if it was not to cover our sins? and yet we continue to sin as if little has changed (I at least speak for myself). I suspect that His death has everything to do with love, the ultimate expression of self sacrifice. If this is true than it is not a matter of necessity but a revelation of who He is. Can you offer any clarification?

    I think that you are hitting on a very central theme here, as to why many Westerners have turned there backs on Christianity and adopted atheism or agnosticism. Why should one believe in a God who is somehow less merciful than they feel themselves to be?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Christ died for our sins – not to shield us from the wrath of God (Christ is God, after all) – but to free us from the consequences of sin in our life which severs us from the love of God (not from God’s side, but from ours). Christ’s death is the great healing and freeing event of the universe. It heals us from our sin, and frees us from the bondage in which we have placed ourselves. Through Him, we may cross the Red Sea and enter the promised land. It is not the God of the promised land who is the problem, but Pharoah.

  9. namiknom Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’ve read the Kalomiros text before, which I’ve always felt complimented Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” and actually came away from the text with a new, very-relevant fear (at least for me). Where before I might have feared the wrath of God at judgment day, now I begin to fear that when come before God I will be so tainted by my own sin that I will *willlfully* turn away from Him. God’s mercy will be there, but I will refuse it.

    I’d like to think that at that moment the delusions of my sinful life will fall from me and I make the correct choice, but I know that I am a loathsome creature. I’ve traded in my fear of God for a fear of my own willfully-embraced wickedness.

  10. Robert Zeurunkl Avatar
    Robert Zeurunkl

    “Mercy and justice in the same soul is like the man who worships God and idols in the same temple. Mercy is in contradiction with justice. ”

    Mercy and Justice are only contradictory if you deliberately exclude JESUS from the picture.

    Without Jesus, then yes… Mercy and Justice are contradictory. Justice demands punishment of sin. He must punish it to be called “just”. But he must somehow not punish it to be called “merciful”.

    Sin must be, will be, AND HAS BEEN punished, IN CHRIST.

    God is not willing to forgo punishment. Every sin MUST be punished. But God is willing to punish Christ and have Mercy on you.

    You feel a discomfort at standing by watching someone else take a beating that you know you should be taking. And it further discomforts you that you are so cowardly that you will stand there and let that man take your punishment while you lift not a finger in his defense.

    But that is exactly what Christianity is all about, and that is exactly what Jesus came to do for you. Don’t feel bad about it. Exault in it! You know who your redeemer is, and you know that he lives! And you know that your sin has been punished IN HIM and that he did it for you willingly and gladly.

    To stand here, now, trying to conjure up ways to explain away God’s glory (Justice AND mercy), in light of what he has done for you is nothing short of “robbing God.”

  11. Marsha Avatar

    I agree with coffee zombie in that I need to read this over and over and continually hear it to counteract the “justice” that seems to come so naturally..and perhaps that is what is the problem with it, that it is natural to our sinful self.

    Also with namiknom, I have a great awe and fear and awareness of my sinful self when reading “River of Fire” and I, too, pray that I will not willfully turn from God at any time.

    Good stuff. Keep reminding us.

  12. Brantley Thomas Avatar
    Brantley Thomas


    I think maybe you have an un-Orthodox view of what sin is and exactly how Jesus “paid” for it.

    There’s a link on the right hand side of Fr. Stephen’s blog labeled “River of Fire” that may be of interest to you. It is a challenging read, especially for Christians who have a Western theological outlook (which I suspect you have.)

    Feeling guilty is *NOT* what being a Christian is all about. Love is what being a Christian is all about.

  13. katia Avatar

    “…In considering these and similar arguments we should remember that it is not for us to determine the boundaries between the unutterable mercy of God and His absolute justice. We know the Lord “wishes that all will be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.” However, man, through his own free will, is capable of rejecting God’s mercy and all His means of salvation. St. John Chrysostom, explaining the depiction of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, remarks: “When the Lord spoke of the Kingdom, He said: “Come you blessed ones, inherit the Kingdom,” and added, “Which was prepared for you from the beginning of creation. “But when He spoke of the fire, He didn’t use the same words; instead He said that it was prepared for the devil and his angels. Thus He made the Kingdom for you, but the fire not for you, but for the devil and his fallen angels.” (From the sermon on the gospel of Matthew). In the book of Revelation St. John calls the condemnation at the Universal Judgment the second death.

    We do not have the right to take the Lord’s words as only a threat or as a certain pedagogical method used for the rehabilitation of sinners. Bishop Theophan the Recluse explains: “The righteous will enter eternal life, and the satanized sinners into eternal punishment in community with the demons. Will these torments end? If satanism and becoming like satan will end, then torments may end too. But is there an end to satanism and becoming like satan? We will behold and see this then. But until then we shall believe that just as eternal life will have no end, so eternal torment that threatens sinners will also have no end. What did satan not see after his fall! How he himself was struck by the power of the Lord’s Cross! How up to now all his cunningness and malice are defeated by this power! But still he is incorrigible; he constantly opposes; and the farther he goes, the more stubborn he becomes. No, there is no hope at all for him to be corrected! … This means that there must be hell with eternal torments.” of world

  14. Karen Avatar

    From the Doxastikon of the Aposticha, Great Friday Vespers

    “O Lord, when Thou hast ascended on the Cross, fear and trembling seized all creation. Thou hast not suffered the earth to swallow those that crucified Thee; but Thou has commanded hell to render up its prisoners, for the regeneration of mortal men. Judge of the living and the dead, Thou hast come to bring not death, but life. O, Thou Who lovest mankind, glory to Thee.”

  15. DavidD Avatar

    Unfortunately, Robert’s post demonstrates the theological twisting of biblical justice that Fr. Stephen spoke of as well as transforming the concept of “mercy” into something entirely different than what we see in Christ. How is it “mercy” if the scales of “justice” must be balanced? How is God merciful or forgiving when payment has been extracted from another? Would we consider a landlord merciful who “allowed” us to continue living in a home when another paid the rent on our behalf? Assuredly not. We would consider it the height of INJUSTICE if the landlord did NOT allow us to continue residing there when the rent had been paid. Likewise, IF Christ has indeed paid the full penalty for every sin ever committed in the sense that Robert’s post insists, how can God be just and still threaten punishment for those who do not repent? This is requiring double payment.

    No, forgiveness is the canceling of a debt owed, not having it paid by another. Mercy is the utter compassion of God toward undeserving creatures based on nothing but His love for them!

  16. katia Avatar

    “Those seven thousand (I Kings 19:18), he said were saved by Grace…  By saying ‘election’, he showed them to be approved, but by saying ‘Grace’, he indicated the gift of God….  And if by Grace, it will be said, how did we not all come to be saved?  Because you refused.  For Grace, even though it be Grace, saves the willing, not those who will not have it, and turn away from it, those who persist in fighting against it, and opposing themselves to it……”

    Saint John Chrysostom

  17. Kevin Isaac Avatar
    Kevin Isaac

    This is indeed a hard struggle for the western mind.

    I recall my priest saying that justice in the Roman Empire was regarded as a goddess, and the notion of justice becoming a principle higher than God Himself, to which even He becomes subject and required to satisfy.

    To which Saint Isaac speaks:

    “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? … 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? Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us!”

    — St. Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homilies, 51

    A difference in mindsets was illustrated to me a number of years ago, before I became Orthodox, in a Bible study on Psalm 139. I noted that God’s intimate knowledge of us was comforting and reassuring, to which someone replied that, on the contrary, they found such knowledge disconcerting and uncomforting. My point was that God, knowing all about me, hasn’t dealt justly with me according to my sins, but deals mercifully with me in longsuffering patience and lovingkindness.

    Just my thoughts on a very large topic.

    Peace to all!

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Robert Z.
    If you were knowledgeable about the history of Biblical interpretation then you’d know that I haven’t conjured up anything or left Jesus out. The justice theories of the atonement and the reading of later Greco-Roman definitions of justice into the Biblical text is quite late in Christianity – largely not appearing for almost 1000 years. I am setting forth the teaching of the Fathers of the Eastern Church – the same good gentlemen who stated the doctrine of the Trinity, the two-natures of Christ, etc., They preached the word, converted the known world, and loved not their lives to the death (many martyrs) – all without ever teaching the justice theories of modern evangelical protestantism. These are simple historical facts.

  19. John Coolidge Avatar
    John Coolidge

    Having considered the topic at hand (and agreeing) I was wondering what we do with verses like Rev. 6:9-10 which contains the martyrs under the alter asking God “how long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth.”

    I am no Greek scholar nor am I a NT scholar. I am a simple catechumen who has is trying his best to understand his own mindset (Protestant,
    Western) and learn to operate outside of it.

    What do we make of these martyrs asking for judgment and vengeance?


  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is no different than the image of the fires of gehenna and the worm that dieth not. Ultimately, God’s justice and His vengeance are nothing other than His mercy. Those who hate God’s mercy will find it to be tortuous (as described in the River of Fire article). The prayer of the martyrs is ultimately, to bring and end to the present age (when mercy/justice will be brought to its completion – or the completion it will have at the end of this age). St. Isaac and a few others speculate about things beyond the close of this age – but we have no revelation in the matter.

    There is a nervousness born of our backgrounds that is deeply afraid of the literal character of these passages (it is what we were taught). But the teaching of the Fathers is a solid foundation and ultimately grounded in Scripture and its Traditional reading.

  21. John Coolidge Avatar
    John Coolidge

    Thank you Father Stephen. I had forgotten about those other passages that are similar in nature, like the ones you mention. My own priest has shown to me some of the differences in the way we think and I forgot to apply it here. How silly of me.

    Thanks again,

  22. Mercy and Justice…

    Father Stephen Freeman wrote two fantastic interrelated posts today. Take a moment to read them both before reading my feeble thoughts on them.
    St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice
    More on the “Justice” of God
    I had read a fair amount of St. Isaac…

  23. Sam Avatar

    Father, I just wanted to add something to what you said in the comments above about righteousness vs. justice. Even the word “dikaios” in Greek can mean either righteousness or justice, depending on the context. Pre-Christian Greeks were big on “retributive justice” (which is really just retribution dressed up to look legal), and so pre-Christian Greek texts often have this meaning. But the Jewish-Greek meaning in even the NT in ever case I can think of means not “justice” but “righteousness”. For example, many English texts say that Joseph was a “just” man, and so wanted to put Mary away privately. But if he had been “just” in the old Greek sense, he would have had her stoned. He was rather righteous and merciful.

    My family has also been the victim of two murders (one accidental) and several suicides. Every family member that made the conscious effort to forgive the killer in the last murder–even show him mercy and visit him in prison–healed so much more quickly than those who were slow to make that decision. There were some who didn’t make that decision, and bitterness ate at them till the trial came. The killer had been offered a plea bargain (against the wishes of the lawyers on BOTH sides) that if he plead guilty, he would be charged with only second degree murder, so that one day he would be free. This small act so moved him that he not only plead guilty, but he addressed my family, thanked my father in particular for visiting him, asked for forgiveness, said he would spend the rest of his life repenting for what he did, and committed to teaching an AA class in prison. How often do you hear that in the papers? This also moved the other family members to forgive, though we all still feel the loss. But ultimately, the devil lost that battle. I believe if we had been bitter and full of retribution, as is so often the case, we would have fretted ourselves into an early death and given the devil his delights.

    Based on this experience, I feel I can say with 100% certainty that the way of God is mercy, not justice. And thank God for that, because we’d all be condemned if that weren’t the case.

  24. Brantley Thomas Avatar
    Brantley Thomas


    Thank you for sharing that story. I’ve often wondered what I would do if I were placed in a similar situation; I pray that I would have the fortitude and integrity that your family has shown.

    This past Lent I really struggled with the idea of forgiveness. What is it? Is it simply pretending something didn’t happen? (No) Is it happily accepting that the thing has happened but that we’re unaffected by it? (No)

    The best answer that I got was from a podcast by Fr. Tom Hopko, where he says simply that forgiveness is the act of destroying evil. It’s the active process of not letting evil take root and multiply.

    This appears to be what your family has had the courage to do. May God bless you all for it.

  25. Epiphanist Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen.

  26. Karen Avatar

    Yes, thank you, Sam, for sharing your story. Very powerful. May the Lord continue to have mercy on all the members of your family.

  27. […] 1) Mercy and Justice […]

  28. mary Avatar

    fr.stephen,do you think when we go before the judgement seat of christ that maybe,just maybe our judgement will be personal,just like our confession is?my mom use to tell me”i should be ashame of myself,now everybody will see on that big t.v.screen in the sky what you just did”. great ,like charlie brown now i have guilt. like sin,my guilt is a sin.a no win situation. when i came into the orthodox faith, at my chrismation i received pardon for all that sin. but at times i can still hear my mothers voice in my ear. that’s what going to a catholic mass in the morning, than going to a southern baptist church later in the morning will do to a person! mary

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would suspect that this is so. Why would God tempt the rest of us to judge each other?

  30. Ryan McNamara Avatar
    Ryan McNamara

    Question Father:

    I have been reading your blog and its comments with relish. Glory be to God that you posted the link on Facebook of all places! Anyway, I have been pondering much on God’s Mercy and Justice and how they can or can’t both be part of His Essence and Energy. I have certainly appreciated all points of view, and how they are important to the AtOneMent. Therefore, what I humbly fail to grasp, is why both points of view can’t in fact be right.
    Why can’t an Infinite Being have both Infinite Justice (fairness – on His terms of course), and Infinite Mercy? He balances the Scales, and we in our sinfulness will always on our own tip the Scales to our condemnation. Our Divine Gift is to have the Free Will to ask, with a repentant heart, for His Mercy, which He in turn will give freely to tip the Scales in our favor. Is this not correct? If I understand you correctly, though, our definition of Justice, as it pertains to God, is all wrong; that the word dikaio (sic) should usually be translated instead as “righteousness”. I see how that may change the meaning of many passages in Scripture to one where there might be no set of Scales at all.
    My struggle, though, Father, at this junction would be how we should understand ekdikaio (sic) as in “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”. This of course is the OT as quoted in the NT, but it still implies a more (small t) traditional sense of legal justice.
    Likewise, in my own naive sense, and as a result of my mixed Eastern and Western education, I have understood the Atonement to be multifaceted. God the Son indeed ransomed us from death by his Death and Resurrection; but did he not indeed, as an Infinite Sacrifice, atone our sins when the Temple sacrifice could not? And do we not also eternally offer that sacrifice in Liturgy? I guess in my ignorance I fail to see the problem with accepting both Penal Substitution and Christus Victor as reasons for the Cross. In both, He died so we can live.
    Thank you Father, and forgive me, all ye theologians, for posting my ignorant drivel on this blog. I hope I haven’t wasted anyone’s time.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, when speaking theoretically, many things can both be true. And, I think, when speaking of the Atonement, there have historically been a fairly wide range of metaphors and understandings used in the Church and the Fathers. The reality is greater than our models.

    The question with any one way of thinking about it is what it may infer about other things. Does God need to be propitiated, for instance, and, if so, what kind of God do we have? Some of the writings of St. Isaac, for instance, seriously question that kind of imagery – which is where I started on the two posts about the subject.

    One of the problems of reading the OT sacrificial model into the NT, is that it is, in fact, backwards. The OT reading that most people in the West are used to, reads the penal substitutionary model into the OT on the basis of having accepted it as the proper (and in some cases only) understanding of the atonement. This distorts the OT sacrificial model.

    An example worth pondering: St. Paul says, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” The paschal lamb and the offering on the day of atonement are very different events that have to be understood differently. Though, it is certainly the case that a comparison between the sacrifice of Christ and the various sacrifices in the temple is made in Hebrews. Obviously the conclusion has to be that, somehow, the sacrifice of Christ is foreshadowed in all of these sacrifices – though the sacrifices have a variety of purposes and ways to be understood. I think that strictly on the face of things it would be hard to find an example of a penal substitution within the OT sacrificial system (the issues seem to have had far more to do with the removing of a stain, etc., than any payment of a debt).

    The legal debt, I have argued, is an idea that largely postdates the NT and has within it many elements of Romano-German law (thus its evolution in Western thought). It is not entirely at home within the Hebrew world of the OT, and I think it is helpful to be cautious about seeing it where it may not be.

    The sacrifice on the altar is indeed the sacrifice of Christ (the very sacrifice on Calvary made present – not a re-sacrificing). It is our peace and at-one-ment with God. But as an effective sacrifice – the question for me is – “What is wrong with us such that we need a Savior, a sacrifice?” I do not think that what is wrong with us is a legal problem or even a justice issue.

    On the basis of the parables of Christ, St. Isaac suggests that the “justice” of God seems nothing like the justice-equality, etc. of our human models. As such, it may not be a helpful category (or useful translation of the dikaios family of Greek words. Thus is vengeance a good translation of ekdikaios? Perhaps not. And God’s taking it away from us and saying it belongs to Him is not the same thing as saying that He will offer vengeance as we imagine it.

    If I push too much in one direction, forgive me. I think that historically the push has been in the other direction – with such force that Scripture itself has been forced occasionally to say what it may not say and to be read in a manner that need not be.

    I’ve been rummaging around in my office for a work on OT sacrificial models, by a contemporary Catholic Scholar. My memory fails me on title and author at the moment – but it’s a good historic treatment of the texts – a book I have found useful.

    There is a sort of “make-believe” Judaism that many modern Christians read into the OT – some of it comes out of the Reformation debate – it’s as if there were a need for the OT to be a legalistic approach to God so that the Reformation will be the triumph of grace that it claims. Thus the Jews of the OT get to play the role of medieval Roman Catholics (also caricatured in much Reformation treatment). My own understanding has found the legal models that are an inherent part of the 16th century debate to be off-the-mark and problematic. Thus, if it is possible to look at the issues without throwing the legal metaphor into the mix, all the better. Many Fathers in the East do this quite well (thus it is possible to speak of the atonement in non-legal terms). It certainly can be looked at in legal terms – but I personally think it creates more problems than it solves and that it is not necessitated by either Scripture or the Tradition of the Faith.

    No waste of time – believe me.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    Found the book: Problems with Atonement by Stephen Finlan. He is not necessarily someone with whom I would agree on every point – but his work is decent scholarship on the topic and worth reading – particularly as he looks at the theme of sacrifice in Scripture.

  33. Ryan McNamara Avatar
    Ryan McNamara

    Thank you so much. My Amazon gift card now sweats in my palms! While my individual sins may be crimes, I will continue to do my best to look at Sin itself as a disease (fatal without our Physician). Yes. I do feel I need atonement, and I seek it daily that through prayer, penance, and the Sacraments, I might acheive that “One-ment”. Should “hilasterion”, then, mean “propitiation” from our perspective? Because it is in our sinful nature to believe God to be wrathful, part of the purpose of the Crucifixion was to “satisfy” us, while only appearing (again through OT motifs) to be necessary to satisfy the Godhead?
    I have never heard it put that way, and maybe it’s my own poor logic coming to that conclusion.
    Forgive me again, Father for my rudimentary Greek, provided mostly through referring to the Concordance. Lessons remain on the lifetime to-do list, I promise!

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s difficult to know how to translate hilasterion. It literally means “the mercy seat.” It could be rendered: Christ is the place of offering for our sins, or the place of atonement for our sins. But propitiation and expiation, the two most common translations, are translations that already contain assumptions about the doctrine that is implied – thus being several steps removed from translation.

  35. Ryan McNamara Avatar
    Ryan McNamara

    Do you know of any Orthodox Concordance? It would help at any rate as a reference to LXX. The switch of translation to “mercy seat” sort of works in Romans, not really at all in Hebrews. The translation in 1 Jn becomes very interesting – Christ is simultaneously the *location* of the sacrifice, while being the One Who offers, the Sacrifice offered, and the One to Whom He is offered.
    That imagery goes well with your one-storey universe piece. With heaven and earth merging not only in the Person of Christ, but in the spatial “place” of Christ.
    Thanks again!

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    A thought on the book I mentioned – it’s very much modern scholarship (even somewhat “liberal” Roman Catholic in approach). But I’ve not seen anything else that treats the sacrifice material as thoroughly. But I didn’t want you to be taken aback at a book that I’ve suggested. I’ll read stuff from all corners – I’ve done it for years – but frequently that requires a lot of sifting.

    I was just re-reading parts of it…

  37. simmmo Avatar

    On meaning of sacrifice in the Old Testament, I once heard the former Catholic Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan say that when the Israelites were performing the sacrificial rites “they weren’t thinking ‘God hates us, but nevermind let’s take it out on the goat!’”

    The word sacrifice literally means to make sacred, it doesn’t necessarily have substitutionary overtones. What’s happening here is that you go and sacrifice the animal, then you have a meal with your God – having made the meal sacred. It’s restoring the broken relationship with God. You sacrifice (“make sacred”) the goat and have a meal with God. When Jesus taught us the meaning of his death, he didn’t give us an abstract theory. He gave us a meal. The meaning is wrapped up in the mystery of participating in the holy meal.

    Father, I wonder whether this line of thinking can explain the early church’s prohibition on eating food sacrificed to idols. Certainly the perception would have been that if you were eating food sacrificed to other gods, it would be like you were making peace with them. This may give the wrong impression to outsiders and injure the conscience of weaker believers.

  38. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your thoughts on the eating of meat sacrificed to animals is very much the concern of the early Church.

  39. Octavian Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Could you tell me where this quote is coming from (the one with mercy and justice)? I’ve been looking in a couple of volumes, but I did not find.

    Thank you!

  40. David Brent Avatar
    David Brent

    The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, I, 51, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. 243-244.

  41. Octavian Avatar

    Thank you!

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