The Death of Christ – The Life of Man

A recent comment posed a fundamental question with regard to the Christian faith: Why do we believe that Christ had to die? What is the purpose of His death on the cross?

Preliminary Thoughts

IMG_1007Part of the information accompanying the question was the experience (of Mary K) with teaching on the atonement that centered largely on the wrath and anger of God. (I paraphrase and summarize) We sinned  (both ourselves and Adam and Eve) – God punished us. God sent Christ whom He punished in our place. Now through faith in Christ we can escape the punishment we deserve. Along with this were a number of questions about the blood of Christ. How does it cleanse us from sin?

Of course such a question could be the occasion for a book. As is, it is the occasion for an answer of readable length (barely). Readers who feel that more should have been said about one thing or another are asked for patience. The heart of things, it seems to me, has to do with the primary images used to understand both what is wrong with humanity and creation (sin) and what it is about Christ that saves us and heals us (His death and resurrection). If there were only one way of speaking about this or thinking about this, then the question would not have been asked.

The truth is that Scripture, including within the work of a single writer, uses many images to describe the reality of what Christ has done. Some of those images are simply useful analogies or metaphors, others seem to have a more “literal” character about them – though nowhere do we find a definitive account that sets all others aside.

I want to also add a preliminary word (for our questioning reader) about the language of Scripture. Though many Christians would agree that the words of Scripture are “God-breathed” (inspired), this does not mean that every statement in Scripture is to be read literally. There are many things that are read figuratively, metaphorically, and otherwise. That is to say, the Scriptures cannot be read without help and a guide. This has always been true. For this reason the Scriptures, when read in a traditional Christian manner, must be read with Christians who themselves have been taught to read them in a traditional manner.

In this matter, you will find great diversity among Christians, for the interpretation of Scripture has been a major point of division between Christians for almost 500 years. Much of what was described in the background to the question that was posed are examples of modern, fundamentalist Christian interpretations (of which there are a variety). What I offer here is the general understanding of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The Problem

What is wrong with humanity, and creation, such that we are in need of anything from God? What is sin?

At its most fundamental level – sin is death. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The fact that we die is not a punishment sent to us from God but the result of our having broken fellowship (communion) with God. God is Life and the only source of life. Created things (humanity included) do not have life in themselves, it is not something we have as our possession and power. Rather, life is the gift of God. It is not just our life that is the gift of God – but our very existence and the existence of all that is. God is our Creator. The Scriptures say, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Genesis offers us the story of Adam and Eve in which we hear described their disobedience from God. He had warned them: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Many early commentators on Scripture were careful to note that God did not say, “In the day you eat of it I will kill you,” but “in the day you eat of it you shall die.” Rather we are told: “God did not create death, nor does he delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).

St. Athanasius explains that when humanity chose to break its relationship with God (through disobedience) we cut ourselves off from the source of life. However God did not take life from us (He does not take back the gifts He gives) but we removed ourselves from it. And so we die. We not only die physically, but we have a process of death at work in us. St. Paul speaks of this process as “corruption.” This movement away from and towards death and destruction reveals itself in the many broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs and alcohol. We are dominated by greed, envy, lust, anger, etc. We cannot help ourselves in this matter because we do not have life within ourselves. Only God can give us the true life that alone can make us well.

The Answer

Above all else we should remember that “God is a good God and He loves mankind” (from the Orthodox dismissal). This we hear clearly in Scripture: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We hear this echoed in the words of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

You [God] brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come.

This good God who loves mankind is not an angry God. He is not a vengeful God. He does not will us harm or punish us for our destruction. Though the Scriptures use these images, the Fathers of the Church have been consistent in understanding that this language is figurative and should not be understood literally. For instance, St. Anthony says:

God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor 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 honor 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.

There are many Christians who would handle Scriptures in a different manner – but I think they do not listen to the fathers of the Church and interpret Scripture according to their own opinions. In this, I think they are in error and should not be listened to.

This good God, the only Lord and giver of Life, had compassion on us when we fell away and became subject to death and corruption. In His compassion He sent His only Son who became one of us – taking our human nature upon Himself. Uniting us to Himself, He lived a life without sin (for He is Life), and taught us by word and deed the goodness and kindness of God and to become like God by loving even our enemies.

His love was so great, that He extended that love beyond the grave. He accepted death on the Cross, suffering the hatred and evil doings of those around Him.

And here, as we approach Christ’s death on the Cross, it is appropriate to ask, “Why death?”

There are many meditations on the death of Christ. Meditations that see Him as the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us, as the “Serpent lifted in the wilderness,” and others. Here, temptation sets in and Christians seek to explain Christ’s death by comparing it to their own faulty understandings of lesser things. For it is not the shadow of things to come (Old Testament) that interprets the things to come – but rather the reality (New Testament) that interprets the shadow. It is Christ’s death that gives meaning to every type and foreshadowing and image of that death to be found in the Old Testament.

Thus it is more accurate to say that the Paschal Lamb in the time of Moses is like Christ’s sacrifice, rather than to say His sacrifice is like that which came before. As Christ said of Moses and the Prophets, “These are they which testify of me” (John 5:30).

One of the most common and helpful images in Scripture and the fathers of the Church is the image of Christ’s union with humanity. Christ became incarnate, taking to Himself our human nature. He became what we were, yet without sin. This union should be understood in more than a metaphorical manner. For Christ literally and truly became man. His humanity was not a new creation, but he took flesh “of the Virgin Mary.” He became a partaker of our humanity.

In becoming a partaker of our humanity, Christ opened the way for us to become partakers in His divinity. “For as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). St. Paul uses this language as well in his explanation of Baptism:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be raised together in the likeness of His resurrection. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that we should no longer be the slaves of sin (Romans 6:3-6).

This imagery is common in St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

If you are risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

These things only make sense because Christ has united Himself to us, and us to Him. We are united to His death and resurrection in our faith and in our Baptism. We become one flesh with Christ. We truly become a part of the Body of Christ.

And this goes to the heart of the answer to the question posed: why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead. We were trapped in the lifeless death of sin (which yields corruption and physical death as well). Christ is God who has come to rescue us from our prison of sin and death. He became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. We were created in the image and likeness of God – but our sin had marred us.

We did not inherit guilt and a legal penalty from Adam and Eve. We inherited a world dominated by death. In such a world we behaved as the slaves of sin and sought to live our lives apart from God Who alone is Life. God alone could rescue us from the place where we had confined ourselves. Christ enters death. Christ enters Hades and makes a way for us to follow Him into true life.

In our present life, this true life is made present within us in many ways. First, it is made present in our knowledge of God. “This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We know God and have a true relationship and communion with Him. We also have within us the power to overcome sin. This is sometimes manifest as obedience to Christ’s commandments, and, as God pleases, it is sometimes manifest as physical healing in our bodies (and miracles in creation – Romans 8:21).

If the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead dwell in you, He will make alive your mortal bodies (Romans 8:11).

The true life of humanity is a common life. It is common in the modern world to think of ourselves only in terms of discreet individuals. But the Scriptures and teaching of the Church bear witness to a common life in which we all partake. Thus, what happens to one of us effects all of us. This commonality is also an important part of our spiritual life and our salvation. The Church in particular is the place where Christians live their common life.

This common life is also the place where we come to understand the references to “Christ’s blood” (since this was part of the question posed). His blood carries a number of meanings. It is His death, His “life poured out for us.” It is also His life given to us in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. His blood cleanses us – just as Baptism cleanses us – for His death destroys death and makes the whole creation new. There are many links between the image of blood in the Old Testament and Christ’s blood in the New. However, it is easy to become overly detailed about his connection and miss the larger point of Christ’s death – by which He destroyed death and gave us eternal life.

There are many voices across the Christian world. Taken together – they are a madhouse of confusion. Confusion and contradiction is the only result of those who listen first to one teacher and then to another. No one will arrive at the truth by such a route.

Instead, I counsel anyone to take up the life of the Church. Be Baptized (or otherwise received into the Church) and stay put. Listen to a godly pastor who lives the Scriptures and respects the fathers of the Church. Those who have built private empires and practice ministries that are in submission to “no one except God” are frauds and live in delusion. They are scandals waiting to happen.

No Church, including the Orthodox Church, ever exists without scandal. But that scandal can be disciplined. True teaching can be found and life in union with the resurrected Lord can be lived.

A Short Word About Wrath and Anger

These are words, I believe, that are so charged and dangerous, that they must be used seldom and only with caution and careful nuance. Hate and anger and wrath are generally only experienced in a sinful manner by human beings and most people are deeply wounded already by such abuse. Those who preach such terms are often engaging in spiritual abuse and should stop. If someone who teaches or preaches the Christian gospel but cannot do so without reference to these words, then I think they need to stop and pray and see if there is not something fundamentally wrong with their understanding. I’m not trying to edit these things out of Scripture – simply to say that they are abused by most who read them. Imagine you are explaining the gospel to a 4 year old. Will the child misunderstand the concept of God’s wrath? I am rather sure of it. I have not found adults to be that much more emotionally mature. My challenge of these images (on the blog and in my writings) is, I hope, an occasion for other Christians, particularly Orthodox, to think carefully about these very powerful words. If we do that – then I’ll have done a little good.

[Of course, Scripture and the Fathers use the image of anger and wrath, generally with the understanding that such anger or wrath is an expression of an aspect of God’s love and not an effect created in God by our actions. A common example is the double aspect of fire – in which it is both heat and light, purification and illumination. Of course, the words “wrath” and “anger” are seldom used with such subtlety by many who preach or teach them and in so doing may be saying something that the Gospels do not teach.]

It is quite possible to give a very good account of the Christian gospel without the use of “wrath” and “anger.” St. John only uses the word wrath once in His entire Gospel. It is not an integral and necessary part of the theology of the Cross. To say that it is – is to make of an illustration and metaphor a matter of dogma. If you disagree, argue with St. John.

Conclusion

I pray that this answer is of help to the reader who posed the question. I also ask pardon of those readers who have been patient with me for the posting of this answer. It comes at the end of a busy week. May God give us all grace to hear the Holy Gospel.


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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124 responses to “The Death of Christ – The Life of Man”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Wonders,

    Yes. I did forget that one. Though, it, too, requires interpretation to see that it speaks of the resurrection of Christ. Thanks for that one!

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Anastasia,

    Good point. Literalism has to yield to such things. We seem to understand that when we say “right arm” that we mean something greater. But weakness in teaching has made people read references to emotions as though they were literal – with much ill-effect.

  3. Sea of Sin Avatar

    By definition a word (written or spoken) is a method of communication. But words cannot communicate meaning without interpretation – without such they would not be words, but mere meaningless scribblings or unintelligable sounds. Language is an example of an interpretative context which provides meaning to words -hence communication occurs when a common language is used.

    The supposed plain meaning (“perpescuity”) of Scripture is a modern invention to support the protestant concept of the invisible church (among other things). But this is false as no communication is plain, easy or clear without interpretation. Plain scripture ultimately leads to the loss of meaning and endless fragmentation.

  4. Sea of Sin Avatar

    Oooh shoot I failed to add the best part:

    Which, or whose interpretation then shall we use?

  5. mic Avatar
    mic

    haha, Sea you slay me…well, wait, no not literally

  6. oruaseht Avatar
    oruaseht

    Father Stephen,

    How does Holy Orthodox Tradition interpret/understand these verses in light of what has been discussed above?

    “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.” Deut. 32:35

    “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rom. 12:19

  7. Aaroneous Avatar

    Speaking as not-Father Stephen…

    The take home message for me in these two scriptures is simply that I am not to take vengeance, period. What God does is His to do and a mystery not grasped by my human understanding, hence it is not mine to do and would cause more harm than good, to me and to the one it is directed towards, if I tried.

    This “plain meaning” does not require God to do anything “bad” (harmful). It is only my own fallen experience of vengeance that potentially makes it so and draws close to saying something blasphemous of God.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think how God works these things is a mystery – but even his vengeance is for the salvation of all. Our hunger for a retributive justice is, I believe, ultimately a sickness. I say this as someone who has endured murders of family members. I do not want such a hunger in my heart.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  9. Anastasia Theodoridis Avatar

    Christ pillaged Hades; He plundered the grave. He despoiled satan of his subjects and his chief weapon, death, by which he had kept us in slavery all our lives. “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:15) Here is Christ, not the victim of God’s Wrath, but the one pouring it out, with His blood, taking “vengeance” upon death, upon satan, upon evil.

    “…the gate-keepers of Hades trembled at beholding Me clothed with a robe spattered with revenge; for I being God, have vanquished my enemies with the Cross, and I will rise again…”

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Glory to God for all things.

  11. Robert Avatar

    oruaseht,

    This subject has been treated at great length by Fr. Stephen, and in the combox discussions as well. You may want to do a search on “anger”, “wrath” or “vengeance”. The River of Fire touches on this as well (link on homepage).

  12. oruaseht Avatar
    oruaseht

    Thank you all for the replies. I have read & re-read Fr. Stephen’s posts on wrath and anger, as well as the River of Fire. I find these all to be very enlightening and intriguing, like nothing else I have ever experienced in my time as a Christian and a Theologian.

    What I must point out though is that though we ought not to harbor such hungers as vengeance, hatred, violence, retribution & justice – of which I fully agree – it does not negate the fact that the Scriptures and some Church Fathers *do* speak of God in this way (as noted above).

    Anastasia’s comment is truly wise and helpful. Thank you!

  13. Lizzy L Avatar
    Lizzy L

    Oruaseht, we also know from Scripture that God has said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” We may not assume that the Holy One experiences, shares, or partakes of those human passions that we name “vengeance” or “wrath.” I agree fully with the poster who said that to suggest this is to say something blasphemous of God. May we be forgiven for this!

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orusaseht,
    It is indeed intriguing to me how poignant the topic is (of anger and wrath). It invariably draws the most comments of anything I post. For a variety of reasons I think it is one of the most important things that I ever write about. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos believed that he had “a word for this age” (almost sounds charismatic or pentecostal, doesn’t it?). But I believe this to be true – that he was a saint given uniquely to the modern world. I have been greatly touched by his life and by that of his disciple, the Elder Sophrony and the community of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. St. Silouan had a grasp on the mercy of God and of a reality that transcends the language of wrath and anger. His life in Christ is not without suffering (at the very deepest level) nor was he unaware of torments. And yet his witness was of the love of God triumphant over all and beckoning us to union with Him and entering into the fellowship of His suffering. His life and writings are a well – when once having been well-drunk – seem to overcome concern for the literal treatment of anger and wrath. It is a passage into the truth of the faith.

    This is not only true of St. Silouan – but, I think, particularly true of that strain within Orthodox Tradition that is particularly rooted in the ascetic struggle. It is strange that those who in this life were often the most harsh with themselves and their bodies were at the same time more compassionate and driven to prayer for the ungodly. St. Silouan does not pray for the souls in torment as if they are other than himself. This is true compassion. This is the love of God that “empties itself” – this is the gospel of the Cross.

    And, it seems to me, this is the true gospel of the Cross, and not the sterile, legal formulas offered by some “theories” of the atonement. This is the Cross for which we must deny ourselves and which we must take up daily. Indeed, the other, legal Cross, makes no sense within the phrase “take up your cross…” In some places taking up your cross has come to mean no more than “put up with your daily hardships,” banal advice for those in cultures as wealthy and stricken with leisure as my own.

    But God would bid us join Him in the very depths (to which His love took Him) and share in His prayer and sacrifice for all of creation. This is the “living sacrifice” to which we are called.

    I only ever skim the surface in my writings. But I greatly recommend Father Sophrony’s works on St. Silouan and those works on his own life. There’s a good link to 8th Day Books on my sidebar – they stock all of his works. I would add to those the writings of St. Isaac of Syria (or Met. Hilarion Alfeyev’s book on him). The life of St. Seraphim of Sarov bears this same witness – as does the contemporary books on the character Fr. Arseny. I could add more to the list should you be interested. These sources offer a great wealth of which I only hint. It is, I believe, the true great treasure of the Orthodox faith (and thus of the Christian faith).

    There are, of course, Scriptures and fathers who use words like anger and wrath without offering any qualification of the image. But it is Orthodox Tradition that such passages be read with the whole of the Tradition in mind – which would include these more exact treatments of those images.

    I do not think, on the most fundamental level, that we need seek any further than the Person of Christ to understand the meaning of God’s wrath and anger. There is no destruction in Him, no hatred, even if there are parables of warning and words of “Woe.” As he tells his disciples who would call down fire, “You know not what Spirit you are of.” Christ Himself is the interpretation of Scripture, the “exegesis of the Father.” We cannot theologize about God apart from Christ or profess that we have any knowledge of God prior to Christ. He is the Logos of the Father.

    Of course, when I write such things, I am sure to have those who will quickly cite Scriptures that (for them) represent contradictions to what I have said. May God have mercy on me for saying such things, but I think that greater knowledge of Christ is required. If we truly knew Him, we would have no doubt about the character of His “anger” or “wrath” nor any hesitancy about the quality of His mercy.

    “Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone who loves knows God and loves God. He that loves not, knows not God, for God is love.”

    But I repeat myself. Many blessings!

  15. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Dear Father, bless!

    I would love to see a list of the works you recommend following the spirit of the teachings of St. Silouan. The striking connection between the deeply ascetic spirit and practice of these Saints and the renown of their humility and love as well as their depth of conviction and insight about the mercy of God has not been lost on me either (and it is a deeply sobering realization).

    It occurred to me over the past day or so as I have thought about what I have read or imbibed culturally of a “traditional religious” reading of the Scriptures (e.g., Calvinism, etc.), that the Apostle John (and his brother), these “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) were pretty “Calvinist” in the Gospels (at least in the Luke 9:54-56 account) in their view of God and the nature of His reign, His justice and wrath! It’s easy to see how they might have gotten the nickname Jesus gave them. But they ultimately underwent quite a transformation so that much later in his life the Apostle John would pen his Gospel, the most theological of the Gospels, without using this wrathful terminology (as you pointed out). I believe it was you who pointed out also recently that this particular Gospel was written and arranged for catechising converts in the early Church–that was the first time I ever heard this, but it makes sense. (Is there any further commentary on that, which I could read? I’m sure it would be instructive to know more about it.)

    The first epistle of St. John from which you drew the above verses, is among the texts of the NT that has always spoken most powerfully to me and to which I have been drawn over and over again during the course of my life. Isn’t there a story about the Apostle that toward the end of his life whenever he was asked to preach, all that he would do is repeat, “Beloved, love one another!”? It seems to me I heard something along this line years ago. . . . Thanks for being willing to repeat yourself so often! I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates it.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Karen,
    I have had a deep love for St. John’s writings for all of my adult life. He made me love Greek (the language). I was living in a Christian commune in the early ’70’s. My best friend was studying Greek in college (I was working in a factory). He told me that the gospel of John had a vocabulary of somewhere around 600 words (quite small), and noted how quickly one could learn to read it. I began studying Greek with his books. The next year when I finally started college, I began formal classes in classical Greek and had declared my major (classical languages) within months. I was reading St. John by the end of the first semester. The sheer beauty of his language continues to overwhelm me. I have since learned (as I’ve added other languages) that regardless of the language – the beauty of his gospel is never diminished. It is one of the finest pieces of literature in every language of the world (in which it is translated).

    Your observation that this is one of the two “sons of thunder,” is very apt. It is a reminder that we read the gospels that are written by those who were themselves living after the gospel. They see themselves and give us the true account of their lives. St. Peter is accurately portrayed as one who denied Christ, etc. Indeed, the whole of Scripture never places heroes before us in a less than honest manner: David the adulterer; Paul breathing murders; Thomas breathing doubts, etc. And yet these are those whom God calls “friends.” There’s hope for us all.

    St. John pray for us! Grant us grace to love the One who loved you, O “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

  17. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Dear Father, bless! Okay, now I am inspired to want to take advantage of my benefits as an alumna of my local Christian college and start auditing Greek classes just so I can have that experience, too! I am not surprised by what you write. . . . Amen to that prayer.

  18. Shawn L Avatar
    Shawn L

    Father, this is precisely the view that leads to such widespread skepticism and Biblical illiteracy among us Orthodox.

    It does no good to say we can’t trust ourselves to understand the plain meaning of Scripture by appealing to the plain meaning of the Fathers. If we can’t interpret the Bible correctly using common sense, then how can we be sure we’re properly interpreting the Fathers, also using common sense? If God didn’t literally mean He gets angry at sin (even though He’s so explicit about it), then what reason do we have to take St. Maximus or St. Isaac literally when they are so explicit about God’s love? They may not have meant that literally either, even if the plain meaning of their words would suggest it.

  19. Basil Avatar

    Glory to Jesus Christ!

    Dear Shawn, I’m succumbing to one of my tiny pet peeves and offering an ‘answer’ to a question you specifically ask Fr Stephen. 🙂
    I expect he’ll add some depth and breadth.

    For my part I recall this very objection you raise from an Evangelical-Orthodox ‘dialogue’ book, as I was trying to figure things out.
    I think the heart of the answer is not very intellectually satisfying– of course we dont *know*.
    True the logical problem is just a step removed. But the real problem I think isn’t actually this sort of ‘epistemic skepticism’ in the first place.

    If you and I are just being quite straightforward, simple, and honest in our reading wouldn’t we consider it fair to say that the quote from St Antony in this post is meant as a clear commentary on just your question about the language of scripture?
    God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone… may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as… turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry… He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same.

    St Antony can offer such commentary because he is holy. He reads the same scriptures as us but knows God more closely and sees how we can be confused by this language of God’s anger, etc. He was a true theologian, experiencing God and knowing him directly through true repentance and communion of prayer.
    We Orthodox listen to him because we believe this is how God is known, this is how the Apostolic Faith is passed down and along to us.

    I think we may resist accepting his interpretation more because of complex inner workings in our hearts (unknown to ourselves) that incline us to hold onto a competing false understanding.

    I dont think our Tradition teaches that the “plain meaning” of the scriptures can be understood by you and me so readily. We are absolutely admonished to *read* them, learn them, come closer to God through them, but even though they are as clear a communication from our Perfect God as can be offered, it is you and I who are “unclear” and muddled; I cannot receive the full and plain meaning of the Scriptures because my heart is impure. God cant speak more clearly, but I have a long way to go before I can understand Him clearly.

    with love;
    -Mark Basil

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Shawn,
    I can understand the frustration – though I think there are different causes to Biblical illiteracy, such as priests not emphasizing Biblical studies or teaching such classes. I teach and have plenty of interest and students. It doesn’t have to be either or. But the great teacher in these things is to listen long and frequently to the constant commentary of the liturgy and services, composed almost entirely of Scripture, and use them as a starting point for Biblical study. It’s possible to use the common sense approach, it’s just that you’ll frequently run into things that don’t mesh with other things, or with meanings that are treated quite differently.

    I’ve seen plenty of evangelical churches where the “common sense” hermeneutic is used. Why are so many of them clamoring for Orthodoxy? There is no one single hermeneutic that we can extract or impose on the reading of Scripture. We have to be taught how to read, as we have been taught how to read. The act of reading and understanding the Scripture is no easier for us than it was for those first disciples of Scripture – whose common sense did not reveal Christ. Reading Scripture is a “tradition” that must be learned. The failure to teach that living tradition is indeed worth criticizing.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Basil and Shawn,
    I would probably add that I’m not sure they are very clear. Christ explicitly said he taught in parables so that some might not understand. Many things in the OT are quite obscure. Poetry that is over 3000 years old is just not going to be easy to read at every turn. No one should expect it to be. Most priests no longer read the original languages – if they don’t and the people don’t – then neither of them can arrive at the “common” sense of things. Bible study is not simple, nor are Orthodox Christians to think of themselves as a “Bible Church.” We read Scripture, we pray Scripture, we sing Scripture and in the life of the Church we come to understand it (especially if it is well taught).

    I might add that “Biblical literacy” is rare, extremely rare, particularly among those Churches who stress “Biblical literacy.” I was raised in it. “literacy” cannot mean the simple ability to cite where a story occurs, etc. It means true understanding. This is exceedingly rare in our culture (rare anywhere). But the idea that the faith will be advanced if only there were more “Biblical literacy” has been tried and it did not work (not if the literacy is of the sort the Reformation sought to teach). We have to do the hard work of “making disciples.” This is slow and will keep a priest and others (catechists, etc.) as busy as they could ever imagine. It should be done, but is a slow work.

  22. Robert Avatar

    Pray tell what common sense is there in Christian doctrine? What plain understanding is there in our faith? In the Trinity? The hypostatic union? The Virgin birth perhaps?

    It is a mistake to think we can apply “common sense” to something so uncommon as God’s revelation: there is nothing common about the Scriptures, Tradition or the Fathers. I cannot recall the Fathers ever appealing to common sense in the defense of the faith against heresies.

    The proliferation of thousands of bible commentaries since the 16th century is evidence there is no such thing as a plain reading of Scripture.

  23. Darrell Lahay Avatar
    Darrell Lahay

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. I appreciate your insight.

    “Victory came cruciform!”

    No doubt volumes of posts could be written on this subject to as to fill the blogoshpere, and still not be able to explain away the un-explainable. I fear that in some people’s attempts to understand subjects of theology, they vainly expect to do away with the ‘mystery’ of it..

    Shalom

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