Existence and Truth

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, as a young man who returned to the faith following a flirtation with Marxism, came to an understanding that the Christian faith is not to be understood as a moral structure, but as a matter of true existence. This distinction is deeply important in Orthodox understanding, and has been a hallmark of Orthodox teaching in the 20th and 21st century. Few matters of the faith draw out this distinction as clearly as considerations of the Atonement.  Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin and thus the essential nature of the Atonement, are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith – though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor, isolated father of the Church, but one of the primary architects of the Ancient Church’s statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply be dismissed as “odd” on this point. Scripture, both in St. Paul and St. John, make the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather the failure to live in communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the Fall, but rather entered the realm of death (as God had warned). Theories of the Atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West and more recently in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a walking existential crisis – verging on non-existence itself. This is not a result of God’s wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the “good God who loves mankind” and our preference for death over life. I can think of nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say, the faith as delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the wonder of His gift of salvation.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

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.





52 responses to “Existence and Truth”

  1. practicinghuman Avatar

    Fr Stephen, I find myself constantly struggling with the particular realities of Jesus. So many people I know interpret the particular realities of Christ to understand that He must be interpreted only with in His historical and cultural context. Since our historical and cultural context has shifted, then our understanding of Christ must also shift. This formulation in my estimation subjects He who has eternally existed to the confines of interpretative space and time. I can understand Christ giving new meaning and breathing new life into each historical and cultural reality.

  2. Moses Avatar

    I enjoyed this post. It reminded me of a few Christian writers/theologians I have grown to love. It may be a cliche’, but you can always go to C.S. Lewis, like his bit in The Great Divorce:

    “…Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”

    It reminds me too of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of Christ and reality.

    “Therefore is is only in Him…that there can be an action which is in accordance with reality.” (Ethics)

    Again, I enjoyed this post and will recommend it to a few others.

  3. forrest curo Avatar

    I believe that the Quaker faith calls us to much the same viewpoint, though many in the Society of Friends have not yet realized this. I find your statement here both confirming and moving!

    Your “practicinghuman” [ I too am playing human in hopes of getting better at it] seems mistaken about the value of studying the birthlife of Jesus via historical study. Sometimes this has meant “dismissing God’s work in the stories we’re given”, but sometimes a deeper understanding of 1st Century times just shows us Christ a little more clearly; certainly it reveals how we and our contemporaries are blinded by many of the same issues that blinded many of his opponents then.

    William Herzog in books like _Jesus, Justice & the Reign of God_ — or the simpler, more recent _Prophet and Teacher_ has added much to my understanding. NT Wright’s work is better for the aspect of ‘how Jesus understood and followed God’s intention for him’– but even students who get things wrong seem often to learn something good from the effort of seeking.

    Years ago, I met a prophet who told me to “make mistakes and learn from them.” Only recently did I realize that what I’m supposed to learn is not “how not to make mistakes,” but how to keep seeking and following God, at the risk of making mistakes as I learn.

  4. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Father, the catechism of the Catholic Church has on this subject in #457

    Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for it to be given back to us. Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Saviour; prisoners, help; slaves, a liberator. Are these things minor or insignificant? Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state? Gregory of Nyssa

  5. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Thank you for this Father.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Practicing human,
    Those who make a great deal about historical particularities are mostly engaging in the imagination. Though Christ’s life is certainly a historical event, the writers of the gospels write in a manner that tends to include and transcend history (intentionally). The Christ of the Gospels is the Christ of the Church – it is not an independent document to be read and interpreted by all. It is the Life of Christ given to us in Gospel form, just as the Life of Christ is given to us as sacrament. Given to us in Gospel form, the content of the Gospel is presented in a way that we may truly know the living God (who transcends all times). Were the Gospels merely historical documents, Christ would be inaccessible, locked behind a historical presentation and unreachable. I refer back to my post on Time and History.

  7. Miriam/Cheryl Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I definitely have loved seeing this parallel mentioned often in your writings. I’ve often thought of it in this manner: when we walked away from God through sin, we quite literally divorced Life. If you divorce Life, what else would you have except Death? (…and corruption in every sense of the word)

    My only question though, is that it seems to imply that those who move farther and farther away from God, would eventually become non-existent entirely. Doesn’t this lead to a form of annihilationism?


  8. Micah Avatar

    Not only Christ, Father, but the entire host of heaven…

  9. Yannis Avatar

    This is really great.

    The correlation has been made by others, yes.

  10. davidperi Avatar

    Blessings. I just finished reading Orthodox Psychotherapy by Hiero- Vlachos at a Monastery. In chap 4 he wrote how these passions of ours are to change. In West Christianity, R.C. Luth, etc…we are to mortify those passions..putting them to death. By most, it is putting them to death by our self-will..or self control..by not doing it or submitting to the passion(s).

    In Orthodox, we are to transform these passions by the Holy Spirit into what God intended man to be in the image of God before his fall. In Christ, these passions are transformed by the Holy Spirit. I wish I could give you examples but I don´t have the book with me because I could only loan it from the library and leave it there after I leave. Perhaps, to continue this conversation, Fr Stephen could give some examples.

  11. Lina Avatar

    Self-will, says, I can overcome this bad habit on my own. And then I get the credit. I am so good. Submitting, confessing, our weakness to God and asking Him to change us, opens the door so that He can come in and clean house. He is much better at housecleaning than we are.

  12. Justin Kolodziej Avatar
    Justin Kolodziej

    So much to comment on, I spent all day yesterday trying and could not come up with anything I was entirely happy with and short enough to post.


    I had been wondering the same thing, wouldn’t Hell actually be nonexistence if the damned are completely cut off from Him? The answer I came up with was that that is exactly what the damned would deserve, nevertheless God in His Mercy will not allow it but keeps the damned in existence, albeit in Hell. Probably, part of the torment is that those souls would prefer nonexistence to their condition, and are denied that by an apparently (to their minds) cruel and unjust God. However it is better to exist in Hell forever than be erased from the universe entirely without even the memory.

    I had been thinking about how St. Thomas Aquinas defined evil, as “the deprivation of a due good” and initially it sounded like the same thing Father talked about, but that word “due” creates the entire debt mentality of sin, because now it is all about what we owe others and God. He does make the point that only God exists independently, everything else exists by His will. So that is similar, in that denying our communion with him is denying our own existence. It does have one good side in that God owes no creature anything so trials are no reason to get upset at Him.

    Finally, my favorite Catholic writer is St. John of the Cross, who speaks of active and passive mortification, or the famous “dark nights”. The active is your own efforts* to purge yourself of passions and false ideas of God, and he is clear they are not enough, it is up to God to clean them out in the passive dark nights. He also is very wary of images and apparitions and the like, certainly they are not to be desired in any aspect. Sounds like he could have been a great Orthodox father from what little I know 😉

    I hope some of that made sense, if not I apologize for my mind getting in the way.


  13. Karen Avatar

    “Those who make a great deal about historical particularities are mostly engaging in the imagination.”

    Dear Father, bless! How true I find your statement above to be from my own experience. The difficult part is so many do not realize that there is an alternative that is nevertheless still faithful (actually more truly faithful) to the truth and historicity of the sacred text.

    It’s interesting reading the Epistle for today from the Orthodox Church calendar (Galatians 4:22-27) where St. Paul gives a very a-historical interpretation of the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar (although, that Paul assumes what this narrative relates actually happened in the history of Israel is also a given). This is a perfect example of the way the Fathers of the Church have read the Scriptures in light of the full revelation of the gospel in Christ. I can’t help but wonder what St. Paul would think of many modern Christian conservatives who make much of the connection between the historical enmity between Ishmael and Isaac and the current events between Arab Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land. Based on his teaching in Galatians, it seems likely he would consider them to have largely missed the real spiritual import of that narrative. When I was Evangelical, I was always mystified about how the NT writers came up with their interpretations and applications of many of the OT stories and Scriptures (having been indoctrinated into believing rational analysis of the historical, literal meaning of the text in its context was the most important and reliable way to understand and apply Scripture)! 🙂

    Lina, thanks for the helpful clarification, putting this truth in simple terms so even I can understand it. I easily become confused and frustrated because I often mistake the former self-willl effort for the latter opening of myself to the work of grace.

  14. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Here is what the roman catholic church has to say about the atonement. it’s in #616 of the catechism

    616 It is love “to the end”446 that confers on Christ’s sacrifice its value as redemption and reparation, as atonement and satisfaction. He knew and loved us all when he offered his life. Now “the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” No man, not even the holiest, was ever able to take on himself the sins of all men and offer himself as a sacrifice for all. The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons, and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    No it does not lead to annihilation. Existence is the gift of God and He does not take it back. It is sometimes described as a “meontic” existence, that is one that is constantly tending towards non-existence but not achieving it.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not pretend to understand Roman Catholic thought, which makes it hard to comment on. It still seems married, at points, to a forensic point of view, though recent efforts have tried to mitigate that somewhat.

    It may be of some use to make comparisons between Orthodox though and Catholic thought, but they are not the same (for instance “due good”). St. John of the Cross is, indeed, an interesting writer and offers much to be considered.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    RE: Non-existence

    When Jesus assumed our nature into the Godhead (it’s still there), the possibility of non-existence ceased.

    The question of why some are damned instead of letting them passed into non-existence assumes, incorrectly that we are just individual souls and not linked to one another and God through the Incarnation.

    It is not that God is in all of us, but that all of us are in Him.

  18. Justin Kolodziej Avatar
    Justin Kolodziej

    Wait a second though. What does that mean for the fallen angels who have chosen to rebel? Nobody assumed their nature into the Godhead. Will they cease to exist?

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Again, existence is the continuing gift of God and He does not take it back. It is always a gift and not based on any “laws” of metaphysics, but on the free action of God, which is love. Thus all angels will exist by God’s grace, and will exist (qualitatively) according to their relationship with God.

    In a sense, the great question of our existence is not whether we will exist, but “what kind of existence will we have?” It is not dissimilar to the daily questions we face at the present. You exist, but what kind of existence do you have. Do you want to exist well? (According to the Kingdom of God) Or do you wish to live an existence that is tending towards non-existence and therefore, lack authenticity and reality? Christ alone can give us true and authentic existence.

  20. Death Bredon Avatar
    Death Bredon

    Thanks for a very “heady” and challenging post. Though I majored in philosophy, I still have a very hard time getting my head around these concepts!

  21. Miriam/Cheryl Avatar


    Ah. Being a mathematician, I think I get it. It’s kind of like what we call “asymptotes”…or “limits”.

    Meontic, interesting. Thanks.


  22. Fr Gabriel Rochelle Avatar

    Excellent piece, Father! I got the reference through a friend and former student, Judy Bellow Khazoum, who follows your blog.

  23. Gus Avatar

    One thing I don’t understand about many modern Orthodox writers is their insistence that forensic views of the atonement are completely alien to Orthodoxy.

    Thankfully, Chrysostom wrote plenty on the subject in very clear terms. Since Chrysostom is regarded as Orthodox, then Orthodoxy doesn’t need to shy away from understanding the Atonement in such a way.

    There are clear statements by Chrysostom that many modern Orthodox would consider “too forensic” for Orthodoxy.

    Let the Cross offend.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Cross offends – but not because of the forensic imagery. What was done with the forensic imagery during the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, as well as some of the Protestants a little later, created a number of theological problems, particular in its tendency towards a reductionism that falsely portrayed God and failed to give full voice to the whole Tradition. None of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Orthodox Church make any particular use of the forensic model, for example. It’s not that you never find such language (as you cited Chrysostom) but in his context, it should be read in a somewhat different manner, in that he is not writing in a context in which the forensic metaphor is dominant nor reductionist. Chrysostom is a great user of illustrations. I would not take his illustrations and raise them to the level of atonement theory.

    No one should argue that forensic imagery is not found in the East or in Scripture – but never as a the primary understanding of the atonement or as the dominant model for understanding God. Of course, the imagery does come into influence in Orthodoxy of the last few centuries, when Western thought was largely being forced upon the Orthodox (for at least 200 years or so of Tsarist Russia and through various influences to the areas under Ottoman domination). The general rejection of forensic imagery or theory in the modern period has largely been a reaction to such influences and impositions.

  25. […] am regularly encouraged by Father Stephen and this time about the theology of being which has persisted from the early church throughout Orthodox theology, and in a slightly mutated […]

  26. Gus Avatar

    I’ve noticed that, quite often, whenever the forensic metaphor is expressed, even repeatedly by the likes of Chrysostom, the first reaction is not to consider the amazing and profound glory of how God loves us so much that He “paid for our sins” and “bought us with a price”. Instead, an endless train of paragraphs are written to make it clear that such metaphors are only one way to understand the Gospel among a variety of other ways, even though the other metaphors may be obscure to most people.

    “Don’t get hung up on that way of understanding the Gospel…” seems to be the mantra among modern Orthodox when dealing with the atonement metaphor.

    Whether we like it or not, this is the metaphor that most people understand, not because we’re brainwashed by Western culture, but because every human understands in their conscience that sin deserves “punishment” or has a “deserved consequence” that cannot be dealt with in any other way except to fulfill it through some sort of just “payment”.

    This is why so many religions throughout history have created sacrificial systems or ways to please dissatisfied gods. It’s part of the human psych. It’s the concept of justice put in our souls, not by Western culture, but by God… since we are made in His Image.

    Now, if the way of conveying the Gospel is best understood by humans through the use of this metaphor, why try to explain it through a variety of other pictures when you can use a picture that every human can relate to because they understand the basic universal concepts of guilt and payment and justice?

    In my understanding, the Gospel is for that sort of sinner who is at enmity with God because he knows in his conscience that he is guilty and deserves God’s wrath for following evil (which God hates) through the activity of sin. Don’t most sinners fall into this category? …not just Westerners who are “brainwashed” into such a worldview? Doesn’t the knowledge that Christ paid our debt with blood more effectively convey the Gospel of God’s love and cause sinners to repent and turn to God with gratitude and devotion than any other metaphor being utilized? If not, what metaphor does?

    I just don’t understand downplaying a metaphor used in Scripture and the Fathers, even if it’s one among many others, that works effectively to enlighten both children and adults to the knowledge of God’s love in Christ.

    Why do I sense “bitter aversion” (if I may call it that) among Orthodox authors and speakers against such a way of conveying the Gospel if it’s an effective and valid way which is clearly employed by the Scriptures and even Chrysostom on multiple occasions?

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Because Orthodoxy rejects the idea that God or His justice needs to be “paid” for our sins. The payment imagery fails to give a proper account of the nature of sin (which is an internal corruption (death) at work in us), and it portrays God as needing to be satisfied, when He does not need anything. What chastisement we receive from God, according to the Fathers, is always for our correction, never for our punishment (“He takes no delight in the death of a sinner”).

    This imagery the forensic or judicial does make easy sense, but it misportrays God, particularly in its most popular forms. Chrysostom is not the first or last word on anything, though he is a serious father of the Church. But Orthodoxy has spoken in many places with care about some of this imagery (St. Gregory Nazianzus is one such spokesman) and found it repugnant.

    The East would not perhaps be so “bitterly averse,” had the West not made of the forensic model a matter of a false Orthodoxy (many protestants require that you give assent to the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement), nor had Rome not so abused the forensic model with merits, etc. It is a minor image in Scripture and is not useful in trying to explain the nature of the sacraments, nor the true nature of salvation (which is union with God – grafted into His life). The forensic model is inherently extrensic and thus gets separated from the full work of salvation – so that Protestants mistakenly talk about “salvation” and “sanctification” as if they were two different things. As a model, it has been so abused, that I find myself (as a missionary in the American South) dealing with lots of people who have renounced the Christian faith, rejecting the image of God taught by certain aspects of this metaphor.

    Why not teach the Scriptures with their primary metaphors and images?

  28. Mark Basil Avatar

    Dear to God Gus;

    I dont agree with you that, “every human understands in their conscience that sin deserves ‘punishment’ or has a ‘deserved consequence’ that cannot be dealt with in any other way except to fulfill it through some sort of just ‘payment’.”

    I grew up in a Protestant Christian home. Ever since I was a child I had a deep sense that the God of love I knew in my heart, could not be as petty and simplistic as this notion of “deserved punishment for sin” suggested. I knew how complicated sin was in my life and the lives of others- though I lacked the language for it or any theological affirmation through the teachings of my (then) churches, it was clear to me that people sinned out of an illness and brokenness that they participated in with varying degrees of willingness.
    God is merciful toward us because of His great love and also because He knows our condition truly: Adam and Eve were innocent, but spiritually immature, as infants. They did sin and fall away from life, but they were also deceived by the Serpent.

    If God loves us, he wishes to bring us to health and fullness of life. Punishing us for the wrong we have done is not helpful in this respect; certainly not if it is done as some rigid requirement or measure for the wrong we have done. God does not punish like this- everything He does is for our well-being and restoration. God’s love for us- which does include punishments- is always directed toward our future recovery, and never mindful of our past transgressions.
    God’s punishments are always salutary and always directed at our recovery. There is no “justice” in this- it is not “fair”, as it is not the treatment we deserve for the evil we have done.
    So these categories of justice that you speak of as common us all and present in so many religious systems, do not actually apply to the real, living God.

    Even when surrounded by this false understanding of the atonement in Protestant churches, I never believed it rightly captured the God of Love that I knew.
    So I know it is not correct that everyone “naturally” has this sort of understanding of justice that you speak of. Justice- as I know it in God’s treatment of my own self- is nothing but love and mercy; always healing, kind, and good, even when it is a punishment or chastisement that I have come to welcome in my own life.

    -Mark Basil

  29. anon Avatar

    Personally, I’ve never met any Orthodox that want to downplay the Cross, that deny that Christ died for our sins, that He paid the price for our redemption, etc. etc. Perhaps they exist, I’ve just never encountered one and I’ve been around a lot of Orthodox.

    I’m curious if anyone on this thread thinks that Chrysostom is making an appeal to the kind of forensic model that Father Stephen is addressing – that seems anachronistic to me.

  30. Yannis Avatar

    Yep, i do. And also never believed that Christ “died for my sins” in a clear exchange manner, although undoubtedly there are many Orthodox who do, as you say. There are also many Orthodox that spend infinitely more time around the macchinations of 666, the end of the world in 2012, the Illuminati, defaming other faiths and accusing and castigating other people for their sinfulness than spending time for their own salvation. In fact, many of them happen to consider themselves as “true” Orthodox, and some even the “only true” Orthodox. It would be very nice if salvation was a matter of profession to theological doctrines or to puritanic morals, rather than of humility, consciousness of one’s own sinfulness and ever going struggle against the ego and the passions. And in fact, it is very nice for the many people who approach faith in the Divine in this way. Very convenient.

    All that i personally understand from the “died for my sins” sentence is that human sin – which i interpret as a distorted metaphysical inner predispotion from which wicked acts spring rather than as wicked acts – can never be overcome by man and man’s power alone. What is impossible for man, is possible with God. And the cross, is the testament, symbol and proof of God’s wilingness towards making man’s salvation possible.

    It is immaterial to me and to all in fact, how exactly this event translates in Heaven – it is very important though for me and in fact for all, how it translates on Earth. In that sense, it is a beacon of self-emptying, which sends a very clear and strong message out – both by implication and by example.

    Salvation is always personal in my experience and works within the characteristics, givens, conditions and life of each person. “An eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth” cannot explain salvation or the cross, ie forgiveness or a conscious and complete self-sacrifice.

  31. Anon Avatar

    With all due respect that was a bit rambling. I’m not sure you said anything contradictory to Chrysostom either.

  32. Yannis Avatar

    You asked a couple of questions, and i answered.

    Yes, there is someone in this thread that thinks that Chrysostom is making an appeal to the kind of forensic model that Father Stephen is addressing.

    There are also Orthodox that, in your words, “want to downplay the Cross, that deny that Christ died for our sins, that He paid the price for our redemption, etc. etc.” or, in mine, perceive Christ’s sacrifice in a different way than simple give and take.

    I just didn’t know that you were looking for yes and no replies, that’s all. Forgive me for that.

    Better be clearer next time you address questions to others, if you want to avoid ramblings.

  33. Micah Avatar

    Wonderful that Christ used very simple imagery but simple is not the same as reductionism. Had He done that He would have negated the Tradition and there is only one tradition that bears witness to the whole truth…

  34. Vincent Capuano Avatar

    It is true that the analogy of paying a debt is inadequate. Salvation has to do with existence and life. Perhaps the problem is with us and not with St. Paul and others who use that analogy. I was reminded of this on the feast of Nuestra Señora de la Merced. That feast has its origin in the Mercederian order of St. Pedro Nolesco. Their work centered on the redeeming of captives. The Muslims of the 11th century had the habit of kidnapping Christians and holding them for ransom. These mercederians heroically took the place of captives redeeming them from their captors. The mysticism of these friars centered of Christ the Redeemer.
    Christ giving himself up frees us from the power of sin and death, we are redeemed from the bonds of sin and death to live in freedom. The life of a captive is not real life; the life of the redeemed is real life. The price of freedom is not silver or gold but the blood of Christ who handed himself over into the hands of sinners in order to save sinners.
    This is different from paying off a mortgage or a debt. Most of us don’t have much experience being a captive of kidnappers. To understand the image we have to put ourselves in the place of the captive brought out of captivity by the heroic act of one who takes his place. It is not quite an ontological change of being but it is a life changer. The redeemed are vivified by the life (vida) of another.
    This is not so much a philosophical or theological argument as a pastoral image for preaching. The analogy of the redemption of captives while inadequate is better than the analogy of paying off a debt.

  35. […] Read More. We were talking about something similar at Bible Study last week, as a rabbit trail from the second chapter of Hebrews. Q: Why did the divine Word become Man and die for our salvation? Common answer: Because of divine wrath, or justice, or whatever…. But: Jesus is God as well, and besides, that’s ridiculous — it’s putting an attribute of God higher than the will of god Himself! Orthodox answer: there was a whole lot more and other going on there. […]

  36. anon Avatar

    Forgive me as well – I didn’t mean to sound critical, I just wasn’t sure what to make of the digression on the Illuminati, etc…

  37. Karen Avatar

    Dear Gus,

    Mark Basil speaks for me as well. I found that the Orthodox view of the Atonement emphasizing God’s Self-emptying for OUR sakes (i.e., to reach/change US, not to appease or change anything in the Father or in the Godhead) returned me to the instinctive and intuitive understanding of Christ’s words and works in the Gospels that made me fall in love with Him as a child growing up in the Methodist church. I believe it is the full revelation of this Self-emptying love, which transforms (saves/sanctifies) each individual soul (1 John 3:2).

    It was when I was in high school and college that I was introduced to the Evangelical theology emphasizing the debt repayment and vicarious penal punishment theories of the Atonement. At first, with my own instinct for self-preservation predominating, and also a sincere appreciation for the beauty of Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice Himself being foremost in my consciousness, I was quite happy with this explanation. As I grew in my faith, my understanding of the mystery of sin as sickness and not merely transgressions, self awareness of my own sinfulness (along with an increasing understanding of my indebtedness on every level to grace), and an increasing compassion for others, particularly the “lost,” began to create within me unease with the picture of the nature of the Godhead “Penal Substitution,” more closely examined, inevitably requires one to embrace. What kind of “God” would require this vicarious retributive punishment? To what end? Though I saw how it could be rationalized from Scripture, In the logic of love (as well as in the light of much of Scripture), it was completely nonsensical. In my experience, as well as in Parables like the Forgiven Debtor and the Prodigal Son, it was God’s kindness and generosity that led sinners to repentance, not the threat of punishment (nor His punishment of another in their stead). Also, there was a certain illogic in the insistence under this theory (except by adherents to the TULIP Calvinist heresy), that Jesus’ bore the punishment in this sense for the sin of all mankind, and yet to insist that unrepentant sinners would yet still be punished in everlasting fire for their sins! Only a fully Orthodox understanding can produce a coherent understanding of this paradox.

    I knew all the proof texts and rational arguments from Scripture for Evangelical Atonement theories, but the deeper my self-awareness of my own sin and compassion for others, the more disturbing and even menacing a picture of the Godhead (and one notably in contrast to the picture presented by Christ Himself in the Gospels), this view, when its presuppositions are very closely examined, presented. I found myself in the predicament of realizing that embracing what I had been taught as essential teaching about the nature of salvation from sin required me to embrace a “God” I found inherently and irremediably repugnant, unlovable, and untrustworthy! I found myself in a lethal spiritual double bind because I could not reject the facts of the Gospel as presented in Scripture, but I was incapable of trusting the “God,” this evangelical protestant theology and explanation of Scripture required me to embrace. Thanks be to God, it was when I reached the end of my rope, the Lord (in a rather miraculous way) led me to Orthodoxy–in my ignorance, it was the last place I had expected to find the answer.

    I don’t know if this helps you to understand some of the answer to your questions above, but I think I am hardly unique. Sadly, like Fr. Stephen, I have run into many examples of those raised with this Evangelical protestant explanation, who, rather than embrace so repugnant a “God,” despair of any traditional understanding of Christianity altogether, embracing instead heresies like New Age spirituality, “Gnostic Christianity” (an oxymoron if there ever was one), or various forms of atheism or agnosticism.

  38. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Are there works in English in which I could find some of the writings of St. Gregory that you mention here? I should very much like to read him.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are a number of sources. One is the volume in the Post Nicene Fathers, which is on-line, I think. The translation is very 19th century (done by British scholars) but still worthwhile. Sometimes (especially in Orthodox usage), he is referred to as St. Gregory the Theologian. He was a close friend of St. Basil the Great. I’ll look for a url.

  40. Yannis Avatar

    Its ok anon, i understand.

    What i wanted to say is that consesus beliefs are not what the spiritual is all about, even among Orthodox. Believing in a doctrine, even the right one, is not guarantee of spiritual advancement, neither does it have importance in this way, at least in my personal perception. Its through the eyes of humility and self-emptying that all has to be seen in order to be rightly understood, rather than through theological argument.

    If however my words did not make sense – and i understand that this may be – then maybe the words of Elder Paisios the New will say it better:

    “Theology that is taught like a science usually examines things historically and, consequently, things are understood externally. Since patristic ascesis and inner experience are absent, this kind of theology is full of uncertainty and questions. For with the mind one cannot grasp the Divine Energies if he does not first practice ascesis and live the Divine Energies, that the Grace of God might be energized within him.

    Whoever thinks that he can come to know the mysteries of God through external scientific theory, resembles the fool who wants to see Paradise with a telescope.”

    May God be with you.

  41. Micah Avatar


    By the 15th century certainly, Christian and Ottoman princes had developed highly sophisticated methods of ensuring their respective captives were returned unharmed. Suffice to say that good Samaritans were found on both sides but I cannot say who initiated the spiral of violence history records as the Crusades.

    Too narrow a historical perspective may well generate eschatological problems — something Fr. Stephen has spoken of many times – and which (as St. Paul affirms in Cor. 1:15-17) find their ultimate meaning only in the immanence of the Lord’s return…

    Thank you for this account which is historically accurate and offered in good faith.

  42. Steve Taylor Avatar

    Thank you for this article – as I do for all your writings and lectures. As a Scottish man from a Reformed/Evangelical background your teaching had been life transforming for me. I am reading Bulgakov – ‘The Lamb of God’ and my impression is that Bulgakov himself believed in Penal Substitution – or have I misunderstood his point of view?

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Bulgakov is an interesting read. He’s often more “creative” and “speculative” than most Orthodox (which got him into a bit of trouble now and again). But, it is the case that Western thought often dominated the Eastern Church (without much notice) over the past few centuries. There was a growing awareness, beginning in the 19th century, that there were problems. Fr. Georges Florovsky described this as the “Western Captivity” of the Church. It means that you’ll find things (like penal substitution) being mixed in from time to time without a clear notion that there is a problem.

    The problem, on the whole, was the lack of education in the East. The Greeks and those in the Middle East were under the Turkish Yoke for many centuries. If they wanted education, they often had to travel to Western Europe, their own institutions having been non-existent. The Russians were slow to develop their own adequate educational institutions (for a variety of reasons). They often relied on Ukrainian and Polish institutions that were Roman Catholic (which they would “correct” for their own use, but often rather badly).

    There has been a process of coming out of that “Captivity” over the course of the 19th-20th centuries, that sped up over time. Bulgakov was part of a group of exiled Russian theologians, centered in Paris, who were quite helpful in that process.

    The great “treasure” of Orthodoxy though has not been in its education but in its unchanging liturgical life (and the life of private practice). That unchanging body of prayer and worship preserved the inner life that has become far more nurtured as educational institutions have been established.

    That’s the reason that you’ll see stronger critiques of things such as the penal substitutionary atonement. As a doctrine, its almost wholly absent from Orthodox liturgical materials (particularly in the form of a payment to assuage the justice and wrath of God). Nevertheless, you’ll see it occasionally as you look back at an earlier writing from that period (such as Bulgakov).

    In the West, where penal themes abound, particularly in our culture and way of life, it’s little wonder that we imagine God to be part of the whole system. I remain strongly convinced that it’s a distortion within Christianity that can become barbaric when handled badly. I’ve often noticed, as well, that people tend to see it where it doesn’t truly exist. Thus, they’ll read the word “punishment” and immediately leap to the conclusion that the whole system of penal substitutionary atonement is implied. I suspect that some of that might be at work in your reading of Bulgakov. But, it’s been years since I read “The Lamb of God.” But, on the whole, Bulgakov’s atonement thoughts are far different than penal substitution. They are ontological/eucharistic. But that’s a long topic.

  44. Steve Taylor Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply so comprehensive. It is very much appreciated. You explanation is very helpful. For me, and this was even before I discovered Orthodox teaching, which has become so liberating, the whole concept of Penal Substitution had become troubling in that did not compute, to me at any rate, with the intrinsic nature of our God who is Love. I could say a lot more but will leave it there.

    Thank you again – you are very much appreciated and I send my greetings also to your wife and family from ours here in the Isle of Skye, Scotland.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I am resisting the temptation of “envy” with your note that you live on the Isle of Skye. I am a “Britannophile” (or some such thing) who studies and observes the lands of my ancestors from afar (the internet allows that to be possible). My father often spoke of building a log cabin and returning to the farm-life of his childhood. As it was, he moved to a trailer on a small bit of land. I’ve never entirely fantasized about life on the Isles, but I do wish that time and health permitted me to visit this storied places.

  46. Steve Taylor Avatar

    Father Stephen
    Thank you. Many people from this area moved to yours at a time in history here called ‘the clearances’ – indeed before that when people saw the writing on the wall for these communities fairly large numbers emigrated to North Carolina. Interestingly, near to where we live is a small hill called Caroline Hill which it is said is where the name Carolina came from. If you ever make it to Scotland I would be delighted to show your round the island.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It might be the “kiss of death” for some Scots to know this – but my mother was a Campbell. Not sure when her family came over, but they were in South Carolina by the time of the American Revolution, at the very least. My family is filled with English, Scots, Irish, Welsh – a typical blend for Southeastern sorts here in the U.S. Indeed, my DNA stuff says that there’s nothing else, other than a sliver of “Scandinavian,” which is a typical Scot/English thing (north of the Humber).

    My brother, when in the Navy, was stationed in Dunoon for a time. He once said, “You should come over here – you’d recognize everyone.”

  48. Steve Taylor Avatar

    Ha ha .. the Highlands and Islands are most certainly Campbell country as I’m sure you know. A lot of mythology surrounding that famous massacre of course! But that’s another story. Would certainly be interesting to discover the location of your own Campbell forebears. You must try and visit one day! The sliver of Scandinavian will be from your Viking side! 80 percent of our place names here in Skye are from the Viking era ..

  49. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Pardon the interruption – I read all the new comments. Steve, do you know there’s an Orthodox monastery on Mull? They also now have an “outpost” on Iona, the first monastic community in the area for centuries. The web site is mullmonastery (dot) com. Fr Seraphim is a dear man who has visited my parish several times. There is also a YouTube channel. If you have the opportunity, perhaps you could visit; I know you would be very welcome. I hope to be a pilgrim there one day.

    My paternal grandmother’s line traces back to somewhere around Glasgow. Surprisingly, as far as I know they were Catholic.


  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, despite the “Western Captivity” the longer I am of the Church, the more the synergy of Theology, Sacrament and Devotion manage to, by God’s Grace, to overcome any deficiency so the truth, the living Truth, shines through.

  51. Steve Taylor Avatar
    Steve Taylor

    Hi Dana .. thank you. Yes I had heard of the Monastery on Mull and have listened in a little on U Tube. Perhaps one day. Thank you for taking the time to tell me though. Much appreciated.

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