Where the Gospel Begins

Where does the Gospel begin – how do we tell the story of Christ?

This question may seem too obvious to require an answer. However, it is increasingly relevant in what some describe as a “post-Christian” era. This reality came home to me years ago, during the first year of my ordained ministry. A woman began attending the Church where I served and presented herself for Baptism. Our conversation quickly turned to her background, what she knew and believed and what would need to be done in preparation for her entry into the Church. To my surprise, she had no knowledge of God in particular and only a vague sense of who Jesus was. “I know he was an important religious figure,” she explained.

She had not grown up in the American South (a region known as the “Bible Belt”). She was from Hawaii, part of an American military family. Her experience within American culture (including plenty of television) gave her no general content in answer to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” I felt like St. Paul in his first exposure to Athens (no one knew what he was talking about – his hearers thought “resurrection” was the name of a new deity).

By the same token, many who have been raised within the confines of the Bible belt have an understanding of the gospel – but an understanding that is formed and shaped by modern questions – none of which are the questions that shaped the four gospels of the Bible. Thus the gospel as found in the writings of the early Church and its subsequent centuries of the fathers, often differs in structure and understanding when compared to the gospel believed by many Christians of the modern world.

Where does the Gospel begin?

That the Gospel would begin by reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) would seem the handiest answer to that question. But this leaves another question unanswered: how do we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? St. Irenaeus (2nd century) gives an extremely insightful example in a discussion directed to Gnostics, whom he contended could not read the gospels correctly.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

Quoted from Christianity Today’s Church History site.

Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), it is worth noting, knew St. Polycarp, who knew St. John. Thus he was third-generation in the life of the Christian Church.

Irenaeus’ contention that those who are not in the line and community of the Christian Tradition are not able to properly interpret Scriptures (in a Christian manner) is dramatically important. It sets the Scriptures in a non-objective context. The Scriptures are not “self-interpreting,” as some modern Protestants would contend, neither is their reading and interpretation a matter of reason or historical knowledge. Their reading is ecclesiastical, traditional, liturgical or, in Irenaeus’ language, “according to the Apostolic Hypothesis.” In short, the Scriptures are understood within the life of the Church and cannot be rightly read in any other manner. St. Paul’s letters are written to Churches or individuals holding positions within the Church. None of his letters are addressed, “To whom it may concern.”

In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians he states, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col 4:16 KJV). The Scriptures are to the Churches, read within the Churches, and interpreted within the life of the Churches.

St. Irenaeus, as noted above, referred to the primary Church Tradition as the Apostolic Hypothesis. Today we would describe this “Hypothesis” as a Creed (quite similar to the Apostles’ Creed). Such statements can be found within Scripture itself.

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve (1Co 15:1-5 NKJ)…

Within this “Apostolic Hypothesis” St. Paul uses the key words “delivered” and “received.” In Greek the words (paradidomi and paralambano) mean “to tradition” or “to hand down” and to “receive” as in to “receive what has been handed down.” They are the technical words for how the Tradition operates in the Church.

In this same manner, we see the four gospels shaped according to the Apostolic Hypothesis. The primary piece within each of the gospels is Christ’s Pascha: His suffering and death, and His resurrection and entrance into glory. The whole of the gospels are shaped by this essential narrative. The story of Christ’s Pascha occupies around 25% of Matthew’s gospel; 40% of Mark’s; 30% of Luke’s and over 50% of  John’s. It is not an event within Christ’s story – it is Christ’s story. Other events within the gospels (such as Christ’s Nativity, His Baptism and Transfiguration) often have a Paschal shape in their telling. The Church’s iconography of these feasts reveals this “shape.”

The same “Apostolic Hypothesis” is also the framework used for the interpretation of the Old Testament. The use of the Old Testament in the life of the Church (particularly as evidenced in the Church’s liturgical texts) is allegorical. Christ dies for our sins “according to the Scriptures (the Old Testament),” but it is also true that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are according to Christ’s death for our sins. Christ Himself instructs the Church in this manner of reading. In the resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus, Christ rebukes His disciples for their failure to understand “the things which have happened in Jerusalem:”

Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25-27 NKJ)

However, it would not have been possible to have grasped “Moses and all the Prophets” until the events of Christ’s Pascha.

Very clear summaries of the “gospel” can be found by reading the Eucharistic prayers of the Church (such as St. John Chrysostom’s or St. Basil’s). This heart of the Church’s prayer offers both the events of Christ’s death and resurrection, and a theological summary of their meaning.

The gospel of Jesus Christ begins in His suffering, death and resurrection. Even the opening chapter of Genesis is read by the fathers in terms of its Paschal meaning. Theories (such as penal substitution) that tend to shape Christ’s death and resurrection according to themselves, rather than being shaped by the Paschal narrative, fail to be guided by the Apostolic Hypothesis. The Old is interpreted by the New.

Christ is risen (“the Kingdom of God is at hand”), and so the gospel begins.

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.





103 responses to “Where the Gospel Begins”

  1. Lou. Avatar

    “Theories . . . that tend to shape Christ’s death and resurrection according to themselves, rather than being shaped by the Paschal narrative, fail to be guided by the Apostolic Hypothesis.”

    Father, I do not understand your meaning here. Could you please explain?

  2. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } glory2godforallthings.com – Today, 10:05 […]

  3. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I have been struck, when reading St. Paul, by his reference to “tradition” (2 Thessalonians 15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the tradition which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle”). So many Protestants have no use for tradition, or for anything passed on by word of mouth, believing that such things come to be distorted over time. That’s certainly true of human traditions, and the usual way of tales passed on by word of mouth; but the early Christians were so aware of the importance of keeping the Truth of Tradition, that distortion was not even a factor.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is something of a fine point – at least as stated in this post. It could use a separate post of its own. But I’ll expand a little and see if it is helpful. The penal substitution, in which the theory of atonement is Christ’s payment as an appeasement of God’s wrath, is derived not so much from the Paschal narrative itself, but from theories based on a prior reading and interpretation of the OT sacrificial system. It turns Christian interpretation on its head, making the Old dominate the New. Christ “corrects” Moses (eg. Mark 10:4 ff).

  5. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    An excellent post, Father. Thank you.

    What we believe concerning Jesus Christ as Christians is received Tradition. There is no place for innovation.

    I agree that Jesus Christ and the Paschal mystery are prefigured in Genesis.

  6. Philip Jude Avatar


    Penal substitution is one of Paul’s major themes. It isn’t the only theme, but surely it isn’t a Reformation-era innovation. Penal and substitutionary language is present throughout Biblical and patristic texts. The Apostle speaks repeatedly of Christ as having suffered and died for our sins, thus satisfying the righteous justice of the Father.

    Do you really believe that penal substitution is totally opposed to Scripture and Tradition? Such a conclusion seems awfully narrow to me; just as narrow as those Protestants who have no place for Paul’s other themes (Christ as moral exemplar, as victor over death, as Second Adam [recapitulation], etc.).

    What is wonderful about Paul is that his theology of the Cross is so multifaceted.

  7. Philip Jude Avatar

    Saint Paul had an intimate encounter with Christ which led to his conversion. During this encounter, he was given special revelation and instruction by the Lord. Afterward, he learned more of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry from the disciples, the Lord’s closest companions. Given certain statements (like that referencing the five hundred witnesses in I Corinthians), he also seems, like his own protege Luke, to have done a good deal of interviewing and question-asking throughout the early Christian communities.

  8. Philip Jude Avatar

    By disciples, by the way, I do not mean the Twelve. Of that number, only Peter is named specifically. The others, I assume, were already dispatched to the ends of the earth.

    However, the outer circle of disciples, who nonetheless walked and talked with the Lord, Paul must have met. Likely, these comprised a number of the five hundred mentioned in I Corinthians 15:6 as witnesses of the Resurrection.

    Of course, some of the Twelve might still have been present at the Council of Jerusalem, in which Paul participated. “Apostles and elders” are mentioned in Acts 15.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    I would suggest that your account of St. Paul’s sources of information is too limited. You seem to assume that all of the information on that topic can be found within Acts or in direct statements within his letters. His use of the phrase “That which I received I also delivered” in 1 Cor. 15, is also to be found in his account of the institution of the Eucharist in 1 Cor.

    Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. (1Co 11:2 NKJ)

    For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (1Co 11:23-25 NKJ)

    Both use the technical verb “receive” “paradidomi.” He does not say, “I told you what was told to me,” or “I told you what I heard…” He says, “I traditioned to you what I received (by tradition)” Paradidomi and Paralambano are not the normal verbs used to describe information heard and passed on. They are far more formal, and refer to a more formal kind of transmission – i.e. tradition.

    Some want to assume that “what I received from the Lord,” refers to St. Paul’s account in Galatians

    But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood,nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (Gal 1:15-19 NKJ)

    There is no reason to make such an assumption. Frankly it would be odd for him to “receive from the Lord” a virtual verbatim of the traditional account as found in the gospels. It would be a very weird notion of how such private revelation works. The Tradition of the Eucharistic Institution is a “Lordly” Tradition, coming straight from the lips of Jesus to his disciples (the Twelve). By the time of St. Paul’s conversion, such things were long set in a very tight, unalterable form.

    Just some thoughts…

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    I think that penal substitution is a misreading and is not to be found in the early fathers. Your comment illustrates my point. You said, “The Apostle speaks repeatedly of Christ having suffered and died for our sins.” Yes. Of course. But then you add, “thus satisfying the righteous justice of the Father,” and he does not say this. You inferred it. The cross is indeed multifaceted, but adding a later atonement theory (Gustav Aulen attributes the penal substitution to Anselm) is making it more faceted than it is. It is not the metaphor (or facet) found in the NT, though there are numerous ones. It has become a dominant metaphor within many modern circles, but those circles do not include the early fathers. You might be interested in my article on the Wrath of God.

    NT Wright has done some interesting work recently on St. Paul and justice themes that you might find of interest as well.

  11. Dee Avatar

    The penal substitution theory is Anselm’s creation just like relativity theory is Einstein’s concoction.
    It is not found in the Orthodox understanding of scripture (including the Old Testament) that has survived the test of time.
    Saint Maximus the Confessor (who takes up the biggest portion of the Philokalia, by far), has many explanations of OT passages (that Western Christianity might assume to allude to a form of penal substitution), in that particular ontological understanding that is bestowed to the “carriers” of our Tradition by the vision and experience of God and His Love.
    Saint Silouan is another very obvious example of how a “knower” of God understands scripture.
    These saints have such a strong experience of the Light of the resurrection that everything gets ‘translated’ through that and there is no space for anything like Anselm’s penal substitution theory after that experience, that ‘theory’ denotes a lack of first-hand knowledge of God in the Holy Spirit.

  12. Andrew Avatar

    Reblogged this on sojourner and pilgrim and commented:
    A very clarifying discussion of the Gospel presentation, speaking not just about the words written in the first 4 books of the New Testament, but living in the tradition of those “spiritually descended” from the Apostles and uncovered in reading the Old Testament in light of the New.

  13. Philip Jude Avatar


    You may have misunderstood what I was driving at.

    I was simply answering Know-it-all’s question regarding how Paul knew about Jesus Christ. The answer is, pretty clearly, from having spoken to Peter and other minor disciples; having observed the established communities at worship; and having personally encountered the Lord.

    Anyway, can you really speak of “tradition” in the first generation?

    As for penal substitutionary atonement, it is most certainly Scriptural and patristic.

    God is just, and the just punishment of sin is death. This is seen in Genesis and Romans and everywhere in between.

    The Father accepted Jesus in our stead, punishing Him for our transgressions, and so making righteous any man who clings to Him.

    “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:24-26).

    Why would the Father need propitiation unless He was wrathful, wrath being the righteous result of His perfect justice?

    As for the fathers, they are indeed not strictly committed to substitutionary penal atonement. They employ many categories and themes and images, as is appropriate, given the mystery of the Cross. But from the very beginning, the “logic” of the theory is present, if vaguely. My mind goes immediately to Justin Martyr:

    “For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.’ And no one has accurately done all…If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves” (Dialogue with Trypho).

    Two great easterners, Athanasius and Chrysostom, have similar passages in their writings. Is this not SPA in its simplest form: Christ suffered the penalty of sin in our stead? Notice I say “simplest form,” because it does not get into the matter of imputation, the Scriptural and patristic bases of which are considerably more ambiguous.

    Too often, I have seen a caricature of this theory bandied about by Orthodox. Consider reading J.I. Packer’s lovely and nuanced essay on the subject:


    Thank you for giving me the chance to engage with you. You are a wonderful writer and lovely Christian. Keep up the good work. God bless!

  14. Philip Jude Avatar


    “The penal substitution theory is Anselm’s creation”

    That’s simply not true. It is, at very least (very, very least!) as ancient as Augustine:

    “What does Faustus find strange in the curse pronounced on sin, on death, and on human mortality, which Christ had on account of man’s sin, though He Himself was sinless? Christ’s body was derived from Adam, for His mother the Virgin Mary was a child of Adam. But God said in Paradise, “On the day that ye eat, ye shall surely die.” This is the curse which hung on the tree. A man may deny that Christ was cursed who denies that He died. But the man who believes that Christ died, and acknowledges that death is the fruit of sin, and is itself called sin, will understand who it is that is cursed by Moses, when he hears the apostle saying “For our old man is crucified with Him.” (3) The apostle boldly says of Christ, “He was made a curse for us;” for he could also venture to say, “He died for all.” “He died,” and “He was cursed,” are the same. Death is the effect of the curse; and all sin is cursed, whether it means the action which merits punishment, or the punishment which follows. Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that He might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment” (Against Faustus 14).

    The cross is penal because Christ suffered the punishment that man deserved for his transgression. It is substitutionary because man deserved to die, being sinful, rather than Christ, who was without spot or blemish.

  15. deanna Avatar

    “Christ dies for our sins ‘according to the Scriptures (the Old Testament),’ but it is also true that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are according to Christ’s death for our sins.”

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this helpful post and for the statement above. Friends of mine understand the gospel as only coming from the writings — I’m beginning to call this ultra-Protestantism, and it’s what I believed for several years. In this view, Jesus learned who he was only by studying the Scriptures, and this is how he expected his followers to know and keep his teachings. The view made sense to me, as I was thinking all we have is the Bible, in its obscure languages; therefore the “good works” we do in faith must all be related to discerning, on our own, the truth in the texts.

    But Orthodoxy, if I’m gaining some right understanding, grants me a view of the people around Christ learning from him and via the Scriptures through the Tradition (the faith once delivered). The language wasn’t obscure to them; they were taught by Jesus and his apostles and guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ’s resurrection was, as you say, central and changed everything, even for the people who died in faith before Christ came. What a gift it must have been for them to recognize their history as part of the tapestry of coming to understand Christ’s death for our sins.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    There is a subtle point – the issue that drives much of the Orthodox critique of penal substitution. The question is whether the atonement brings about a change in God – or a change in us. This is the problem with theories that speak of God’s wrath, God’s just punishment, etc. and these things being taken away. It is possible to read Augustine’s passage (against Faustus) as Christ taking our consequences (death, sin, punishment) in an Orthodox manner (Christ trampled down death) without turning them into a change in God’s wrath, etc. Indeed, this is how this would most frequently be read by the Orthodox.

    The difficulty in the penal substitution, as it is most often stated, is that it locates the problem within God (if only God would give up His wrath, justice, etc.) then we could be saved. Some accounts even create a tension between God’s mercy and His justice – there can be no tension within God. Orthodox thought on the atonement would locate the problem within man and our refusal to live in union with God. Christ’s death destroys sin and death and brings about a change in us, that we may live freely in union with God. God does not change. Our encounter with God’s justice is also an encounter with His mercy – there is no contradiction within them.

    The penal substitution has a tendency to be rather literal with some language that the Orthodox would tend to treat allegorically, recognizing a metaphor as a metaphor, rather than using the metaphor as a means of defining and interpreting God. I disagree that the penal substitution is to be found in St. Paul and the New Testament. I know that it seems obvious to many that it is – but from my experience, it is because they are wearing penal-substition colored glasses. It is isogesis instead of exegesis.

  17. Philip Jude Avatar


    You wrote, “It makes absolutely no sense that God should sacrifice Himself in order to save mankind from His own wrath. There is a term for this: schizophrenia.”

    But God did not “sacrifice Himself.” The Father offered up His beloved Son, and the Son gladly sacrificed Himself for His wayward creation. But the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father.

  18. Philip Jude Avatar


    “God does not change.”

    In a sense, this is true. In another sense, it is not.

    I imagine you are thinking of God’s immutability in terms of Hellenistic philosophy, which is not strictly Biblical. The God of Scripture, unlike the God of Plato, is dynamic and responsive, sensitive and personal.

    J.I. Packer commented on this subject:

    “This means, not that God is impassive and unfeeling (a frequent misunderstanding), but that no created beings can inflict pain, suffering and distress on him at their own will. In so far as God enters into suffering and grief (which Scripture’s many anthropopathisms, plus the fact of the cross, show that he does), it is by his own deliberate decision; he is never his creatures’ hapless victim. The Christian mainstream has construed impassibility as meaning not that God is a stranger to joy and delight, but rather that his joy is permanent, clouded by no involuntary pain
    [Impassibility is] not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in face of the creation; not insensitivity and indifference to the distresses of a fallen world; not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief; but simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us, for his are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are.”

    God changes in a manner that exceeds our understanding. To simply affirm the Incarnation is to accept this mysterious tension between God’s transcendent and immutable dimension and His immanent and dynamic dimension.

    The total dismissal of penal substitutionary atonement suggests a lack of seriousness about sin and justice. How does your theology of the atonement account for mankind’s countless transgressions?

  19. Karen Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    The Father is God, and the Son is God, therefore, although in certain “penal substitution” schemes the Son is sacrificed for the Father, still logically God is paying a sacrifice to God.

    You have correctly stated, though, that the Son gladly sacrificed Himself *for His wayward creation.* His action was fulfilling the will of His Father to save His creation. The Orthodox would want to point out that Jesus’ sacrifice satisfied God’s wrath not because justice was served by this action in the sense of man’s criminal action being vicariously punished (balancing some cosmic scale of “justice”), but because Jesus’ sacrifice effectively destroyed sin and death and reversed the curse, bringing mankind back to God. As Fr. Stephen said, this is something of a fine point and requires careful nuances of distinction, but we understand this whole Divine economy as effecting change in humankind, not in God.

  20. Pete Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    Thank you for engaging Fr. Stephen and the commenters here. Forgive the length, but I read this earlier today, from Saint Anthony the Great (251-356), and I think it applies:

    “God is good, dispassionate and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, while 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 to imagine that God feels pleasure or displeasure in a human way. 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 by resembling God we are united to Him; but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are seperated 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 punish 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 change, but that through our actions and turning to God 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.”

    Also, you speak of God being dynamic and responsive. I don’t necessarily disagree with these terms in having beheld the Incarnation and Resurrection, but I would ask this to have you ponder: if you can agree that God is all-knowing and outside of time in His deity, when does He in any sense change? Your thoughts would be appreciated, and forgive me if you disagree with the assumptions of the question.

  21. Philip Jude Avatar

    “The Father is God, and the Son is God, therefore, although in certain “penal substitution” schemes the Son is sacrificed for the Father, still logically God is paying a sacrifice to God.”

    Let me try again: The Father, wishing to justify mankind, offered His Son; the Son, who obeys His father and also seeks the good of His handiwork, willingly and gladly submitted. There is nothing “schizophrenic” about this. It is the work of the two Divine Persons on behalf of mankind. It is the great offering of the Father and the great sacrifice of the Son, motivated by their infinite love of helpless humanity.

  22. Philip Jude Avatar

    “I don’t necessarily disagree with these terms in having beheld the Incarnation and Resurrection, but I would ask this to have you ponder: if you can agree that God is all-knowing and outside of time in His deity, when does He in any sense change?”

    This is a very challenging question.

    I suppose that sometimes appears to be a change in God is actually a change in our relationship to Him.

    On the other hand, if God is truly the fullness of all things, then He would be able to “realize” a particular attribute in a special way without forsaking the others. He doesn’t “change” so much as show a different dimension of His infinitely-faceted Being.

    This is way above my “pay grade,” however. I will readily play the mystery card! 😉

  23. Philip Jude Avatar

    *I suppose that sometimes what appears to be a change in God is actually a change in our relationship to Him.

  24. Pete Avatar

    Philip, thanks for the response.

    “I will readily play the mystery card!”

    Haha; “I don’t know” is always a reasonable answer in my book–and many times a safe answer when discussing God! =)

    I think it is good to keep in mind that your tradition seems to have developed a way of looking at salvation in a juridical way, and the Orthodox tend to see salvation as reliant upon ontological categories, that is, things dealing with the very nature of God, man, and all of creation. If you keep that in mind, try reading the New Testament once with one focus, and once with the other, and you will hopefully see where the Orthodox are coming from more clearly with regard to the Atonement. Fr. Stephen’s answers above will make more sense, too. =)

  25. dee Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    I agree that the penal substitution theory of Anselm has its roots in St Augustin, just like Einstein’s theory has many precursors…
    It goes even further back historically, in that it believes that “Justice”, “Good”, “Beauty” are above God Himself (Platonism). As if His freedom n e e d s to obey to something higher!
    It demonstrates a lack of direct experience of God -Who ‘is Love’- and an over-reliance on philosophical human reasoning typical of Western Scolasticism.
    It also believes that God’s ‘substance’ is more important than God’s ‘hypostasis’, as if it is His real being, although in Orthodoxy, Being IS Communion (of hypostasis/persons).
    It is a difficult point to explain but a very crucial one that I hope one day Father Stephen might address.
    Western forensic ethics are actually related to this, as well as the western notion that one needs to “know first” in order to “love afterwards”. In the Orthodox church, however, even an unlettered peasant can have ontological knowledge -through experience- (not philosophical -through reasoning), that one “Loves first” and only then comes to “Know afterwards”…
    We must Love God -or our neighbour- first, to get to trully Know Him…
    Sin, even when labelled a ‘transgression of God’s law’, is never understood as that in Orthodoxy, but, in Western thought; sin is an ontological return to “creatureliness” and therefore, death, nil, that nothingness from which we were created. The Uncreated God has his hand constantly stretched out -from the day He first “loved” us into existence, just like human fathers sometimes do, but, just like some kids choose not to hold on, so does the sinner choose to clasp at something else rather than the Source of Eternal Life Himself…
    There is no “penalty”! I can take my hand away and not get punished by Him, there is a consequence however, because I am a creature, not a God…
    According to Metropolitan John Zizioulas:
    God made the world so that it could live, so that it would be able to transcend “its createdness”, its tendency to return back to “nil”, He did not implant in its nature any kind of force that would ensure its immortality, because that would have automatically rendered the world eternal, and it would no longer be a creation; it would have become an immortal god.

    If God had placed such laws within the nature of Creation, which would have -once and for all- ensured the survival of the world, then that world – albeit with a beginning “from nil”, as something non-eternal – would have ended up eternal “by nature”.

    This means that God would have created another, eternal, god.

    Therefore, this is not the way for the world to overcome “nil” and continue to live.

    The only way to transcend death is to be in a perpetual relationship with God.

  26. dee Avatar

    I think a more succint explanation of the Orthodox understanding of sin is needed:

    Sin (the repetition of the fall) consists in the refusal to make being dependent on communion…
    But life for the creature is perpetual communion with the Creator – anything less is death.
    There is no penalty involved here, none at all, death is the natural consequence of the free refusal to remain in communion with one’s Creator and Giver of Life

  27. Darlene Avatar

    It’s odd, and troubling, how the “gospel” can mean different things according to the particular ecclesial camp from which one resides. Being familiar with Reformed theology, “gospel” was used and taught within a much different framework than in Orthodoxy.

    Need I say how refreshing and uplifting to the soul, mind, and body, Orthodoxy has been to me? Well…I did say it, didn’t I? 🙂

  28. Dee Avatar

    Now, according to that previous definition of sin (and the Fall) as refusal of communion, Christ on the Cross does not pay any “penalty” for us, but, first and foremost, (infinitely ‘reversing’ the Fall) REFUSES TO SEVER HIS COMMUNION WITH ALL…

  29. Dee Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    it took me a while to read through all this conversation and I come to the conclusion that western theology, based on human reasoning corners itself, (with notions such as “penal substitution”) in an ugly place while Orthodox patristic theology offers a hand out of that impasse and into endless fullfilment, its wisdom based on the Spirit…may He illuminate us all and lead us to salvation, eternal unbroken communion with Him

  30. Philip Jude Avatar


    I am very fond of eastern Christianity, and well aware of the how the Orthodox view Christ’s work on the cross.

    I’ve read Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Chrysostom, Palamas, Silouan, Sophrony, Schmemann. I listen regularly to Ancient Faith Radio. I’ve attended services at the local Greek Orthodox church. My Bible of choice is the new OSB. I’ve probably read every post on this blog. Heck, I even crack the Philokalia now and again, though a lot of it is corrupted with Hermetical nonsense.

    So . . . my problem isn’t ignorance or a closed mind. Indeed, I must reluctantly say that I find many Orthodox — especially converts from Protestantism — rather obnoxious when it comes to western theology, especially penal substitutionary atonement.

    Their understanding of PSA is often crude and cartoonish. They were poorly informed as Protestants and they are poorly informed as Orthodox. Too often, they dismiss western theology as vile, superficial, and loveless on the basis of caricatures gleaned from Jerry Falwell.


    We don’t disagree as much as you think we do. I readily accept the existential/ontological aspects of the faith and the cross. You are the one being so exclusive!

    That said, how do you interpret the following verses?

    “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

    “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26).

    “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (I John 2:2).

    “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10).

    The entire sacrificial system was built upon the notion of a scapegoat: one on behalf of many.

    Furthermore, how do you make sense of the Levitical ordinances? What relationship do they have to the work of Christ on the cross?

    “This is to be a perpetual statute for you. In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you must humble yourselves and do no work of any kind, both the native citizen and the foreigner who resides in your midst, for on this day atonement is to be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins; you must be clean before the Lord. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must humble yourselves. It is a perpetual statute” (Leviticus 16:29-31).

    Honestly, how is it possible to understand Calvary without substitution? Clearly, the cross is not simply a matter of punishment and substitution, but they simply cannot be excluded.

  31. Scott Morizot Avatar

    Phillip Jude, I’m not a cradle anything Christian. My childhood formation is more complex than that. I am presently Protestant and may or may not someday be Orthodox. Nevertheless, I will note that the following statement is both rude and dismissive.

    “Their understanding of PSA is often crude and cartoonish. They were poorly informed as Protestants and they are poorly informed as Orthodox.”

    Quite frankly, I’m reasonably certain Fr. Stephen was not poorly informed as a Protestant and is not poorly informed now (though I’m fairly certain he will assert he is an ignorant man). I may be poorly informed (though I’ve listened to what Protestant teachers actually *say* and have read much of the material from those who are acclaimed as knowledgeable on PSA), but it’s not from lack of effort — and I find your assertion insulting.

    Historically, while there are elements of things that will be taken up in the PSA theory in Augustine, there is no sense that it’s God who is satisfied by the sacrifice on the Cross until Anselm and the penal theory explicitly is not developed until the Reformation. It’s a very late developing idea and it outright contradicts earlier orthodox theology. For example, St. Gregory the Theologian makes one of my favorite statements and I think it’s abundantly clear.

    “The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…”

    I’ve read enough of Augustine to believe he is fairly appalled at the direction Anselm and then the Reformers took the things he wrote. The PSA is dismissed by the Orthodox not because it is poorly understood, but because it is wrong and contrary to the Apostolic inheritance of the church. It asserts things about God that are untrue. At least, that’s the way I see it.

    I generally restrain myself from commenting on such threads because I know I have a tendency to be argumentative. I’ll leave it to Fr. Stephen to decide if I’ve been too argumentative in this comment and delete it if I have. (And for the record, I take no offense at having my comments on someone else’s blog deleted. In this instance, I would even be grateful if it seems I spoke too forcefully or harshly.)

  32. Dee Avatar

    One needs to understand the Resurrection first and Cavalry second,not the other way round!
    It is key to constantly keep in mind in this discussion, that death is not a punishment (as understood by Augustin) but the natural end of a creature created from nothing and cut away from its source of life and Creator…
    Now Jesus came to make dead men live…
    There is no ethical penal substitution at work for this, but ontological grafting upon Himself.
    But life for the creature is perpetual communion with the Creator – anything less is death.
    His “propitiation” (not to be understood in Old Testament or Neoplatonic or Roman Law or Greek philosophical terms as if God is not free and has a “need” – for propitiation) is this: He did as a human -not under the original sin- (in that capacity) what we should have done ourselves (in Adam, and failed and carry on failing) and infinitely more: He refused to sever communion with ALL… taking upon himself all of man’s madness and sin and death.
    “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (I John 2:2) is to be understood as: He is the unbroken communion, God’s idea for man, God’s reason (Logos) for creating, offered to us, to save us, if we accept, from “our refusal to make our ‘Being’ dependent on communion”…
    The terminology is exclusively ontological.
    Love is (freely) at work here, there is no necessity involved, no need to appease.
    He suffered, despite His divine nature, because He freely wished to undergo all those things for our sake.
    The factor “freedom” is strictly respected, in all major phases of the mystery of Salvation only with this understanding…
    St. Maximus the confessor is very clear that God would have become incarnate even without the Fall having taken place, as this hypostatic union of creature and Creator is what overcomes the corruption natural to createdness.

  33. Philip Jude Avatar

    Good thing I wasn’t talking about Father Stephen, though the statement stands for a few folks I’ve met on this blog (no one in this thread).

    “I’ve read enough of Augustine to believe he is fairly appalled at the direction Anselm and then the Reformers took the things he wrote. The PSA is dismissed by the Orthodox not because it is poorly understood, but because it is wrong and contrary to the Apostolic inheritance of the church. It asserts things about God that are untrue. At least, that’s the way I see it.”

    I believe many Orthodox today dismiss PSA, but I do not think this was always the case. As a Catholic, I share one thousand years worth of patristic writings in common with the Orthodox. I assure you, the fathers regularly deploy the imagery of punishment and substitution, albeit more as a “motif” than a “theory.”

    David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox philosopher of the first rate, has criticized the east for caricaturing Anselm and his ideas. So what I’m saying is hardly motivated by sectarian animosity.

    I think this may speak to the issue. Benedict XVI wrote this when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger:

    “In the history of the Christian faith two divergent lines of approach to the contemplation of Jesus have appeared again and again: the theology of the Incarnation, which sprang from Greek thought and became dominant in the Catholic tradition of East and West, and the theology of the Cross, which based itself on St. Paul and the earliest forms of Christian belief and made a decisive breakthrough in the thinking of the Reformers. The former talks of “being” and centers around the fact that here a man is God and that, accordingly, at the same time God is man; this astounding fact is seen as the all-decisive one …

    The theology of the Cross, on the other hand, will have nothing to do with ontology of this kind; it speaks instead of the event; it follows the testimony of the early days, when people inquired, not yet about being, but about the activity of God in the Cross and Resurrection …

    The theology of the Incarnation tends toward a static, optimistic view. The sin of man may well appear as a transitional stage of fairly minor importance …. The theology of the Cross, on the other hand, leads rather to a dynamic, topical, anti-world interpretation of Christianity” (Introduction to Christianity, pg. 229).

    He goes on to propose that these poles cannot be synthesized, but rather must be used to correct and discipline each other.

    Anyway, no offense taken. I hope I haven’t been rude, either. If I speak not with charity, and act not in love, my “theory” of the Cross is damnable, anyway.

  34. Dee Avatar

    The transcending of death, is the Gospel par excellence, which the Church offers us.
    “God became man that we may become gods” (St. Athanasius).
    When God offers the Cross, He offers Resurrection, this cannot be understood moralistically -if God is free from necessity to conform to any morals. It is ontological.
    When man is allowed to see his true weakness in all its existential vastness, as well as God’s indescribable Love he knows “Being”…
    One cannot belittle that word!
    God “I Am that I Am” (“o On” – ΕΓΩ ΕΙΜΙ Ο ΩΝ) is Being and Being is Communion, we have (God wouldn’t have) no being without Communion!
    That is Ontology – made from the word Ων and the word Logos (Ωντολογία)…

  35. Dee Avatar

    I think the best thing to do concerning your earlier NT quotations is to quote Father Stephen himself:
    “Christ Himself is the definitive revelation of God and that revelation is not corrected by either an Old Testament reading (for “these are they which testify of me”) nor by an Epistle, for Christ as witnessed to in the gospels is the definitive revelation for interpreting even the Epistles.”
    “Intricate theories of the atonement which involve the assuaging of the wrath of God are not worthy of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I can say it no plainer. Those who persist in such theological accounts do not know “what Spirit they are of.””

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    I hate to say that Pope Benedict (as Cardinal) was wrong – but he mischaracterizes the East under the “incarnational” motif. The Theopaschite Controversy, as well as the proper union of Trinitarian Theology, Christology and Soteriology are Eastern. These are the great doctrines of the faith. I’ve heard this characterization (Benedict’s) before – it is a theological canard – but has always been incorrect. It is one of those things that, quoted often enough, comes to be taken as true even when it is not.

    Augustine, interestingly, is not particularly a “theologian of the Cross.” He gets tied up in the “will” as he battled Pelagianism, and even crossed over into heresy (with a double-edged predestination) at one point. His theology of the will is poor, almost trite, when compared to that of St. Maximus’ whose theology becomes the doctrine of the Church in the 5th and 6th Councils. Augustine never had any particular place in the Councils at all. He is, for the East and the development of doctrine, a bystander. He becomes dominant in the West because of ignorance (Greek ceased to be known by and large).

    I think Augustine is brilliant, and a wonderful Christian. Some even call him the first modern man. He certainly seems to have invented the autobiography as a literary form. But he is not a great theologian. Oddly, I think Luther is far deeper.

  37. Brian Avatar

    I have been following this discussion with interest. It seems to me that at least some of the divergence of thought may come from a variance in understanding of the terms ‘righteous’ and ‘justice.’

    I note that we do not find many hymns or prayers in Orthodox liturgical services (not even those of Holy Friday) that speak of ‘payment’ for sin. What we do find repeatedly and in all kinds of poetic language is how Christ willingly chose death for our sakes and how He destroyed death by descending into it Himself, thereby uniting even death itself to the Godhead, having assumed it along with all human nature (and all creation) into God who is life. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

    Someone will say, “But there are some Orthodox hymns that speak of payment for sin…and what about all the Scriptures and Church Fathers that talk about the justice of God?” There indeed are some that employ the imagery of ‘payment’ and ‘justice.’ However, some hear these words through the prism of the juridical concept of the Atonement while most Orthodox Christians throughout time have understood such words in an entirely different light. The concept of ‘payment’ is understood in terms of the priceless value of the life of Jesus. His sacrifice on our behalf was infinitely ‘costly,’ but we should not infer from this that anyone (i.e., God or the devil) was thereby ‘paid.’ In much the same way, a soldier who dies in battle can be said to have sacrificed his life and ‘paid the cost of our freedom,’ but we do not infer from this that this payment was made to anyone. Likewise, the concept of justice generally held in the Christian East (and in the Bible in general) relates to righteousness, love, goodness, compassion, and fairness. When God is said to be ‘just’ in giving His Son over to death for our sakes, the Church has generally understood this to mean that He conquered death and the devil and redeemed us out of His goodness, love, and compassion. God’s justice is thus understood in the same way the Scriptures describes the Betrothed when he discovered that Mary was with child (an offense worthy of death under the law), “…and her husband Joseph, being a JUST man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” This concept of justice is entirely different than the justice that exacts retribution. Following in this understanding God’s actions in saving us were accomplished ‘in fairness’ with absolute respect and love for all His creatures, even including the devil. Thus He condescended to our level of existence, emptying Himself of all the prerogatives of deity, and conquered sin, death, and the devil not by the raw exercise of power, but through humility and weakness (“for the weakness of God is stronger than men”) and, as it were, ‘on equal terms’ with His adversary, redeeming us back to Himself by beating the devil at his own game, so to speak, and on his own terms. This understanding of justice sheds an entirely different light on God’s justice in the Atonement than that which is held among some, and it causes the following passages to take on an altogether different connotation:

    “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it BECAME Him (it was befitting of His character of goodness, compassion, and divine humility) for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all one (of one nature, sharers in frail humanity): for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren…”
    “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith TO DEMONSTRATE HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, THAT HE MIGHT BE JUST and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

    This perspective was helpful to me in understanding this. Please forgive me if it I not helpful to you.

  38. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you all for a most interesting discussion. I sympathise with Philip Jude’s observations that all-too-frequently the [Protestant-convert-to] Orthodox attitude western Christianity is confined to a critique of penal substitutionary atonement as if it were the only show in town and as though it had never drawn criticism from western theologians either. The strident, though entertaining, Orthodox Revolutionary website is a case in point; likewise the folksy, but equally entertaining, Our Life in Christ.
    At the less exalted level at which I operate, I know it has had its shortcomings questioned by C.S. Lewis, John Stott, J.I. Packer and so forth. And from a somewhat older set of lectures to undergraduates at Cambridge, collated as “Christian Doctrine”, by J.S. Whale, the idea of O.T. sacrifice – as it informs the Cross – as not being propitiatory in the simple sense is well explored.
    Still, “if I have all prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, bso as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

  39. Dee Avatar

    it is against love that the penal substitution ultimately goes against, and it is love that cannot ever accept it. God’s “justice” (as Saint Isaak the Syrian eloquently expounds) is His Love…
    Also, our understanding in the East, is that Athesism, western militant atheism in particular, was born as a reaction to PSA…

  40. dinoship Avatar

    Today’s reading from the Epistle to Hebrews is extremely pertinent:

    “If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, Who is made, NOT AFTER THE LAW OF A CARNAL COMMANDMENT, BUT AFTER THE POWER OF AN ENDLESS LIFE. For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
    For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.”

  41. Philip Jude Avatar


    ***”The transcending of death, is the Gospel par excellence, which the Church offers us.”***

    Nobody espousing PSA denies that the gospel is about transcending death.

    ***“God became man that we may become gods” (St. Athanasius).***

    Two can play at this game:

    “Thus taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did for sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was therefore voided of its power for men” (On the Incarnation, 8).

    ***”When God offers the Cross, He offers Resurrection, this cannot be understood moralistically – if God is free from necessity to conform to any morals.”***

    You say “moralistically” as though the concerns of PSA are trivial. Is justice trivial? Is fairness? Is the abysmal sin of man trivial, or the perfect holiness of God? Whatever label you assign to these things, be it “moralistic” or otherwise, do not downplay their significance in a rational understanding of the Deity.

    ***”It is ontological.”***

    And PSA does not exclude the so-called “ontological” motif.

    ***”When man is allowed to see his true weakness in all its existential vastness, as well as God’s indescribable Love he knows “Being”…”***

    But what is man’s weakness? It is the propensity to sin.

    “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

    So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:14-25).

    Honestly, Dee, it is amusing to hear you condemn “intricate theories” of the atonement! You spout dense and obscure existential philosophy — heady concepts additionally shrouded by vague language — while largely avoiding the text of Scripture or even the fathers’ writings. Everything is “Being” or “ontology,” off-set by a withering contempt for those who don’t accept the supposedly self-evident doctrines of Maximus the Confessor or Gregory Palamas or [insert little-know theologian beloved by erudite western Orthodox here].

    Anyway, check out the J.I. Packer essay if you ever have twenty or thirty spare minutes. You might discover PSA all over again, so to speak. I apologize if I came off gruff in this discussion. It can be a touchy issue, clearly. Let us rest not in our own righteousness, but in the righteousness of Christ. God bless and keep!

  42. Karen Avatar

    Wonderful discussion here! Thanks to all and especially to Scott and Brian.

    Scott, I was thinking of that quote from St. Gregory, but didn’t have time to look it up.

    Brian, I was thinking of this essay by Frederica Mathewes-Green, but you make the point quite well:


    Philip Jude, thanks for raising this issue and continue to pursue it. Perhaps Frederica’s essay may be of interest to you as well.

  43. Karen Avatar

    Philip Jude, this is indeed a touchy issue for many of us because it goes to the heart of how we understand the very nature and character of God Himself (and of our sin), which is the very core of our faith and the power of our salvation. Forgive where some of us may come across heavy-handed or preachy. Whatever the nuances of Augustine’s, Anselm’s and the Reformer’s reasoning (and from what I have read N. T. Wright does a good job of getting back to a much more nuanced understanding of penal substitutionary thought), many of us coming from an Evangelical, or especially heavily Reformed, Protestant background have had some of its less nuanced versions pressed home so many times and in so many ways, it has seriously compromised our ability to clearly understand and trust in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

    From my own experience, it is interesting to me that what is taught within Orthodoxy corresponds quite nicely to the intuitive understanding of God and the work of Jesus Christ that I formed as a child in my Methodist Sunday school simply hearing the Gospel accounts read. Yet, it flatly contradicts the later theological indoctrination of the nature of sin, salvation and judgment in the penal substitutionary scheme that would eventually threaten to completely undermine that early childlike trust in the unmitigated goodness and grace of God and the nature of His judgment.

  44. dinoship Avatar


    You said:
    {“You say “moralistically” as though the concerns of PSA are trivial. Is justice trivial? Is fairness? Is the abysmal sin of man trivial, or the perfect holiness of God? Whatever label you assign to these things, be it “moralistic” or otherwise, do not downplay their significance in a rational understanding of the Deity.”}

    Can you see that this reasoning implies God is a slave to man’s idea of “justice”, “fairness”, it is Neo-Platonism to the extreme.
    But, God is completely free from ANY necessity/causality…
    In fact, there certainly exist bigger concerns than those of the PSA which, nevertheless are also completely unfounded in the Spirit of God but similarly founded in flawed human reasoning.

    E.g.: That the Son of God is of the essence of the Father does not mean that He is the Son by necessity. Based on this principle that already existed since Athanasios the Great, the Cappadocians proceeded to make the following, delicate distinctions: The distinction of causality, i.e., that the cause of the Son is the Father, since the Father Himself willed His own hypostasis, therefore He must have equally willed the Son’s hypostasis.

    Orthodoxy has described the limits of ontology; we cannot go any deeper. Asking if God exists because He wants to exist, or because He cannot but exist. When we say that “He willed His own hypostasis”, we are saying that He exists because He wants to exist, and not because He cannot do otherwise but exist. It was on the basis of this principle of Athanasios that the Cappadocians named the Father the “cause”: It is His “fault” that God exists; He is the cause.

    Similarly, His unconditional love for us DOES NOT NEED a cause/condition in any notion of ‘fairness’ or it wouldn’t be what it is…

    You also said that: {“But what is man’s weakness? It is the propensity to sin”}
    Yes, but, sin is to be understood as revealing and actualizing the limitations and potential dangers inherent in creaturehood, if creation is left to itself (NOT as bringing about something new or something that needs ‘atonement’ because it somehow harmed “God’s Ego”!!!)

    We cannot understand through human reasoning how “communion is constitutive of being in the Triune God”, because for creatures the fact of existence is a ‘datum’ from which we cannot escape, but wanting God to bow to any necessity (be that of Existence, of Fairness etc. etc.etc. points to a deity created by human reasoning (like those of the ancient Greeks)

  45. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I always appreciate where you’re coming from and your blessed efforts at peacemaking. They don’t go unnoticed. Thank you.

  46. dee Avatar

    you are an unquestionably bright mind indeed, but we cannot turn such a gift of God against an even more precious one such as our innermost heart of hearts, where the Lord reigns and should reign.

    For penal substitution atonement theory the substratum of existence is rational Logic.
    But, “The substratum of existence is not being but love.” The truth possessed by the “logos” (Λόγος) of existence depends ONLY upon love, and not upon some ‘objective structure of a rational kind which might be conceivable in itself’ (reasoned notions of “Justice” and “Fairness” are such structures).

    This is extremely important for an understanding of the logos concept, for it leads to an identification of the “logoi” (λόγοι) of things not with nature or being itself, but with the loving will of God… God’s knowledge of His beings is nothing other that His love. (St Maximus)

    Since God knows created beings as the realizations of His will, it is not being itself but the ultimate will of God’s love which unifies beings and points to the meaning of being. And precisely here is the role of the incarnation. The incarnate Christ is so identical to the ultimate will of God’s love, that the meaning of created being and the purpose of history are simply the incarnate Christ. All things were made with Christ in mind, or rather at heart, and for this reason, irrespective of the fall of man, the incarnation would have occurred. Christ, the incarnate Christ, is the truth, “for He represents the ultimate, unceasing will of the ecstatic love of God, who intends to lead created being into communion with His own life, to know Him and itself within this communion-event.”
    This is also the context in which one might understand Cavalry.

  47. Philip Jude Avatar


    I agree with you on many points!

    I simply believe that punishment and substitution are important — nay, necessary — dimensions of any theology of the cross. They are not, however, exhaustive. You have raised many other critical facets of the marvelous and terrible event on Calvary.

    It is my contention that the penal substitutionary motif has Scriptural basis and patristic pedigree. You have deployed considerable philosophy, but you have yet to draw seriously from Scripture or the fathers.

    This leads me to believe that you have a strong instinctual aversion to the idea. But so what? I have an aversion to certain parts of the Old Testament. I do not understand why God sanctioned the destruction of whole peoples, children and infants included. Yet He did. Knowing Him to be all wise and all holy and all good, I accept these actions.

    Anyway, we have obviously reached an impasse. I wish you well. God bless!

  48. Philip Jude Avatar

    ***I always appreciate where you’re coming from and your blessed efforts at peacemaking. They don’t go unnoticed. Thank you.***

    Aye, I appreciate your sage comments, Karen.

  49. Andrew Avatar

    Sorry if this is just simple minded, but religion is not just the preserve of the theologian, but also that of the wayfaring man with no interest in theology. It just seems to me impossible to deny that in some sense what happened to Jesus was (a) penal and (b) substitutionary. I can allow that that is not the full picture – of course it isn’t: I can also grasp that God is love, perfectly revealed in that same Jesus. What am I missing here?

    If Jesus, then, was not penalised in at least some way, why then did he die like a punished criminal? Why choose a manner of death that people could so easily mistake for being punished? Why not, say, contract a nasty disease: e.g. succumb to the leprosy he so often cured himself? Or go down in a blaze of glory fighting the Romans? He could even just merrily have grown old and died, then risen again. If all he needed to do was bear my burden, or go down into death there was a myriad of opportunities available to him – given that he is free and not constrained by any necessity.

    How do we read Isaiah 53? “[5] But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” Or [10] Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief. And so that well-known passage goes on and on, thirteen times to mention punishments which he bore which Isaiah at any rate thinks due to people like me.

    Why would he make pronouncements like “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” if he wasn’t doing something on our (my) behalf? Why would Paul insist that “he loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2.20)?

    Now, I can buy that God’s justice is not human justice. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard makes complete sense to me: I do not question to whom and in what measure God dispenses his grace (provided you turn up, even if somewhat late in the day). But as Hamlet rightly observes:

    My lord, I will use them according to their desert.
    God’s bodykins, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?

    It is just this whipping which we are trying to avoid.

    I can certainly see why PSA would turn people on to militant atheism. But if it weren’t this, it’d be something else, surely? The whole Old Testament is a story of apostasy: “find me a single righteous man!” cries God to Ezekiel. Why, for example, were the (atheist) Bolsheviks so brutal towards the Orthodox in the Soviet Union? Heck, it must have been all that incense or that beautiful music! People will always find a reason not to have anything to do with any religion which mentions Jesus. Try it at your next dinner party: folks are happy with spirituality; they’re even happy with God; what they cannot stomach is Jesus.

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    If Christ is my substitute, then he is doing something for me that I don’t have to do. But if he is my substitute, then why am I baptized into his death (Rom. 6)? I am baptized into his death because he is not my substitute, but he has united himself to us (He made him to be sin, that we might be made the righteousness of Christ). I’m still going to die, but my death is made into something quite different because it is now united with his death and resurrection (as I myself am united to his death and resurrection). He is not substitute, but he becomes my death, my resurrection. Thus he is bruised for my inquities (that my inquities might become righteousness, etc.).

    Substitution needs no understanding of union and undoes so much in the NT written on precisely that point. Substitution as a satisfaction of justice, is again something that happens apart from me (no union needed). Justification and Sanctification thus become severed and seen as two distinct things and this is just wrong, it seems to me and to Orthodox understanding.

    Christ has united himself to our humanity (the incarnation) that we might be united to his divinity. This is the faith of the apostles and the fathers. This is so much more than “taking our place.” He becomes our place, and that is important.

    Philip Jude,
    It is not clear to me that God ordered the slaughter of anyone. A number of the fathers treat such passages in a very non-literal manner (for the purpose of doctrine and understanding). Such a literal handling of the OT and applying it to God is precisely the sort of thing I was referring to when we doing not read the Bible with Christ’s Pascha in a privileged position, but instead let a non-Paschal reading to take the privileged position. I am no dispensationalist. The God revealed to us in Christ is the God we are to see everywhere and at all times. I cannot reconcile that revelation with some of the OT accounts if those accounts are to be used in a literal manner for understanding who God is as well as His Divine character.

  51. dee Avatar

    All the theological-philosophical talk that I struggled to talk (about the difference between the true, ontological approach to salvation as union with Christ freely offered us by Him, vs. some sort of “satisfaction of justice”), was just gracefully and succinctly clarified by our blessed Father Stephen.

  52. Karen Avatar

    Philip Jude and Andrew,

    Here is an online work by Dr. Robin Collins, Evangelical professor of philosophy at Messiah College that was very helpful to me in putting into words what seemed “off” to me about PSA vis-a-vis the whole witness of the Scriptures in their full context. I apologize for the length of the work, but I think it is pretty well organized and accessible for the lay person. He has a more scholarly version for other philosophers. This was never published (except online) and was addressed to an Evangelical audience.


  53. Andrew Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you: that is a most helpful reply. I don’t want to multiply words, but a reasonable charge to lay at the door of PSA, as it is propounded in many churches today, is that not only of “cheap grace” (in Bonhoeffer’s famous phrase) but also of a generation of Christians who are, frankly, and forgive me, worldly and shallow.These seem to be a direct consequence and danger of separating the work of the cross from any personal involvement in it.

  54. dee Avatar

    you mentioned that:

    {“You have deployed considerable philosophy, but you have yet to draw seriously from Scripture or the fathers.
    This leads me to believe that you have a strong instinctual aversion to the idea.”}

    I have no aversion to the idea, on the contrary, I would have liked to have used that method, but, I decided it would become a fruitless excercise as soon as you mentioned in response to my quote:

    {“***“God became man that we may become gods” (St. Athanasius).***


    {“Two can play at this game:
    “Thus taking a body like our own…} etc.

    please forgive the overt pre-cautiousness, but I instinctively thought that to play “that game”, bouncing scriptural and patristic quotes back and forth would not suffice…

    In any case, as Saint Silouan said, scriptures could be lost and be re-written in the Holy Spirit, and it is that Spirit first and foremost, that testifies about the Love and Freedom I struggled to counter-present against the notions connected to PSA.

  55. dee Avatar


    there is a world of difference between forgetting God, or being distracted through other allurements, or other ‘gods’ – as in the OT apostasy – and militant atheism born as a reaction to the legalistic PSA ‘translation’ of the Gospel.
    As far as the bolsheviks are concerned, their philosophical (Marxist) atheist notions can be very clearly traced to western philosophical systems of the “Enlightenment”.
    Militant atheism is a “cure” for a “disease” (connected to the supposed “science vs religion” ‘issue’ as well as the PSA theory), but, in true Orthodoxy, that disease does not exist in the first place, so we would never need such “cures” if western influence hadn’t altered our thinking in the east too.

    We have a poignant saying in Greece dating back to the 14th century: “it is better to be (bodily) enslaved by the Ottomans, than to be (mentally) enslaved by the Franks”

    and eminent historians such as Sir Steven Runciman agree that the 400 years of Turkish occupation was a blessing in disguise for greek orthodoxy, as if westernization would have been more of a catastophy!

  56. Philip Jude Avatar

    ***If Christ is my substitute, then he is doing something for me that I don’t have to do. But if he is my substitute, then why am I baptized into his death (Rom. 6)?***

    Because He died in your stead. Baptism is the Christian’s painless partaking in Christ’s most strenuous and terrible undertaking, which He endured for our transgressions.

    “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (II Peter 2:24).

    Paul said that we have “the sentence of death within ourselves” (II Corinthians 1:9). This sentence Christ took upon Himself. Thus He said, “It is finished,” which is how we translate tetelistai, a word found on ancient tax receipts. Tetelistai was a legal term referring to the satisfaction of debts.

    See where this is going…?

    ***Substitution needs no understanding of union and undoes so much in the NT written on precisely that point…Substitution as a satisfaction of justice, is again something that happens apart from me (no union needed)***

    Wrong, wrong, wrong!

    Father, you grew-up Protestant, right? How is it that you do not understand the basics of Reformed atonement theory?

    In the Institutes, Calvin wrote that Christ took “what was ours as to impart what was His to us, and to make what was His by nature ours by grace,” that we might become “members and bones” of His body.

    Calvin understood that we receive grace only by union with Christ. “This is the wonderful exchange which, out of His measureless benevolence, He has made with us; that, becoming Son of Man … He has made us sons of God with Him; that, by His descent on earth, He has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, He has conferred His immortality upon us.”

    Luther and Calvin, and especially the English divines, wrote extensively about union. They were passionate about this topic, as are many of their descendents today, because without a strong visible church, the spiritual relationship between Christ and Christian becomes paramount.

    This matter has been explored extensively by Reformed scholars. Just recently, Robert Letham published “Union with Christ” to fine reviews.

    ***Christ has united himself to our humanity (the incarnation) that we might be united to his divinity. This is the faith of the apostles and the fathers. This is so much more than “taking our place.” He becomes our place, and that is important***

    You make it sound as though such ideas are unique to eastern Christianity, when in reality all orthodox faithful embrace the wondrous implications of the incarnation and our life within the body of Christ.

    ***It is not clear to me that God ordered the slaughter of anyone.***

    The Bible says otherwise:

    “Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (I Samuel 15:1-3).

    ***A number of the fathers treat such passages in a very non-literal manner (for the purpose of doctrine and understanding).***

    The fathers are fallible men, whereas Scripture is God-breathed. Me, I’ll side with Scripture.

    Anyway, many of the fathers were philosophically and culturally Hellenistic. They were eager to downplay the “vulgar” or “primitive” aspects of Scripture. Thus you have the likes of Origen performing the most elaborate exegetical gmynastics to explain simple verses.

    I love a good patristic text as much as the next fellow, but this blind allegiance to their ideas, some of which are rather silly, is simply unnecessary.

    ***Such a literal handling of the OT and applying it to God is precisely the sort of thing I was referring to when we doing not read the Bible with Christ’s Pascha in a privileged position, but instead let a non-Paschal reading to take the privileged position.***

    The Old Testament must be read historically and typologically. To avoid the Divinely sanctioned violence of the Old Testament is to simultaneously impugn the historical credibility of Holy Writ and question the holiness, wisdom, and goodness of God, from whom came the commands of I Samuel 15.

    ***The God revealed to us in Christ is the God we are to see everywhere and at all times. I cannot reconcile that revelation with some of the OT accounts if those accounts are to be used in a literal manner for understanding who God is as well as His Divine character.***

    If you’re having trouble with “some of the OT accounts,” read the Apocalypse. Christ the King is just as righteous as His Father; just as concerned with the satisfaction of justice, the destruction of evil, the punishment of wickedness, and the vindication of His saints.

    “11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in[a] blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

    17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave,[b] both small and great.” 19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence[c] had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. ”

    1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit[a] and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

    4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

    7 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven[b] and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

    11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

    This ain’t baby Jesus meek and mild!

  57. Drewster2000 Avatar


    “Sorry if this is just simple minded, but religion is not just the preserve of the theologian, but also that of the wayfaring man with no interest in theology.”

    I heartily amen this statement. I can certainly go that far with you, Andrew. As to the penal substitution, for much of my life I could easily adapt myself to that way of thinking. But the longer I walked with God, the more I decided this was us projecting our own limited, fallen human nature on Him. Just because I get angry or sometimes call for vengeance or retribution, it doesn’t follow that He would do the same. I see a lot of that with the Roman and Greek gods; He is not them.

    Again, I look at things simply from a layman’s perspective. Like you. I start with what I know, things like: God is good. And all-powerful. He loves us and has a plan for us.

    Then I ask: Would the God I know seek vengeance or have to get recompense for our sinfulness? Would He need to?

    I decided that He would not, that He doesn’t need us in any form. His relationship to us is based on love, not an agreement or contract. Not like any human relationship I’ve ever known. Once that decision was made, I saw the world through that lens and begin to see more and more ways it was true.

    One big turning point for me was “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis. Perhaps you’ve already been there. Even if you have, it’s many-layered and worth another read.

  58. Philip Jude Avatar

    ***Just because I get angry or sometimes call for vengeance or retribution, it doesn’t follow that He would do the same.***

    Luckily, PSA has little, if anything, to do vengeance or retribution, and everything to do with the love, justice, righteousness, holiness, mercy, and humility of God.

    That said, our God is a God of vengeance. At least, the God of Scripture is a God of vengeance.

    “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies” (Nahum 1:2).

    “But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him” (Deuteronomy 7:10).

    “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them” (Deuteronomy 32:35).

    “O LORD, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forth” (Psalm 94:1).

    “Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you” (Isaiah 35:4).

    “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever” (Revelation 14:9).

    “The wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience” (Colossians 3:6).

    I find so much appealing about Orthodoxy. One of its main defects, however, is the utter inability to understand the holiness and righteousness and justice of God. At least, this is the case in the west. Many of the eastern Orthodox still seem to understand that God is capable of terrible hatred and wrath against wickedness.

  59. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    I had a protestant childhood, but was never Reform Protestant. The element of union found in Calvin is certainly accurate and is Calvin at his best – and I think it changes the meaning of substitution in a way that would make sense to me and to the NT. But, I might add, it is fairly rare in Reform circles to run across much use of the union imagery. Glad to hear you use it.

    I disagree with the treatment of tetelistai (it has other meanings – and would be weirdly out of context to mean this on the Cross – though I don’t think you would agree with me at all on this). Baptism and the Christian life into which I was Baptized are not painless, either ontologically, morally, physically, etc. “Taking up your cross,” “deny yourself” are not painless disciplines. They are the path to martyrdom.

    As to the point about slaughter…

    Here, you use a historical reading of the OT as a means to knowledge of God apart from Christ, and you use it to come back and correct the story of Christ, arriving at “this is ain’t baby Jesus meek and mild.” Forgive me, but you seem to take some pleasure and delight in the destruction of the wicked. Not even God delights himself in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). This, it seems to me, is one of the perversions of the heart that can come from a wrong reading of Scripture. There is no knowledge of God apart from Christ. We are told in John:

    17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
    18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.
    (Joh 1:17-18 NKJ)

    “Declared” is exegasato – that is – Christ “exegetes” the Father. If you want to know God, you must see Him through and in Christ. Thus the account in 1 Samuel must be read in and through Christ and not the other way around. Even a “literal, historical” reading does not trump the revelation in Christ. You do this all the time with certain of the requirements of the OT law. But those who understand the law as a shadow somehow get to historical accounts and drop all shadow and want to use them as a revelation of God, and even seek to correct “meek and mild baby Jesus.” There is no scandal in the wrathful God – just the same retribution we see all the time in our fallen world – only drawn very large. It is a great screen upon which the project our own unrighteous hearts. The scandal is the radical kindness of Christ “For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.” (Luk 6:35 NKJ) Many comfort themselves in the face of this kindness by saying, “Yes he is kind to the evil, he offers them salvation. But in the end if the evil do not repent, we burns them for eternity,” thus finding the comfort that in the end, God will cease to be kind to the evil (and then delighting themselves in such destruction).

    The fathers are certainly fallible. However, when they write of the mercies of God, I find them utterly reliable. I do not put my trust in Scripture, read “historically” and “literally.” I put my trust in the merciful God made known to me in the God-Man, Christ Jesus. For I have no hope apart from Him. And I want my heart to be conformed to His heart, learning to be kind to the unthankful and the evil.

    St. John Chrysostom, beloved in both East and West, said, “The killing of a heretic in the name of God is an unpardonable sin.” He perhaps overstates the unpardonable bit – but it makes the point. And he was right.

    Murder is murder, killing is killing. All the moral gymnastics never justify it. Those who think it does are most often those who have never killed anyone. The canons of the Church make this clear and direct our hearts to the good God who can forgive, heal and deliver us from the spirit of the evil one, “who was a murderer from the beginning.” I do not want to be like him, or to encourage other Christians to harbor murderous thoughts in their hearts.

    Your treatment of Revelation was murderous, forgive me for saying so. It is not good for us to think in such ways. May God have mercy on us, and save us through union with His Son!

  60. dinoship Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    let me try and give some scripturally based explanation as well, nevertheless (…) as I clearly believe that the juridical mentality and stance towards the ‘Antilytron’ (substitution) – when analyzed carefully – essentially does not only not explain the meaning behind the Lord’s sacrifice, but on the contrary, it abolishes it altogether, as regards its significance in relation to death.
    It also paints the type of image of God that the Serpent wanted to provide Man with from the start…

    Scripturally, the significance of the word “Lytron” Λύτρον (an offer for one’s release/freedom) has been misinterpreted multiple times. “Lytron” implies the compulsory payment of a certain sum of money for the release of a captive. But let’s see what the word really means, in the Holy Bible:

    “When these things begin, you must rise up, and lift up your heads, for your final release (apo-Lytrosis) is imminent” (Luke 21: 28).

    “….we sigh, in anticipation of the adoption, of the release (apo-Lytrosyn) of our bodies”. (Romans 8: 23).
    Given that the above words are used in reference to the Second Coming of the lord, they cannot possibly imply a payment of any kind. It is therefore obvious, that the expression “final release” signifies a setting free, without any payment demanded.

    ”Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He visited and implemented the release (λύτρωσιν – Lytrosyn) of His people..” (Luke 1: 68).
    In this excerpt also, it indicates that the “release” has already taken place (text is expressed in the past tense), before the time of the Lord’s sacrifice. We see therefore that nothing was actually “paid”, and that the word “lytron” is used in the sense of “releasing” or “liberating”.

  61. Dee Avatar

    I am afraid that I will have to disagree with your use of Scripture.
    especially the way you went (!) with Christ’s final word: Τετέλεσται…
    That is NOT the understanding of that word bestowed on someone by God’s Spirit, but, is the understanding arrived at through a theory (PSA) which, I repeat, portrays God how the ancient Serpent would have him portrayed!

    “The Scriptures are not more profound, nor more important than Holy Tradition but… they are one of its forms … But removed from the stream of Sacred Tradition, the Scriptures cannot be rightly understood through any scientific research. … Men are wrong when they set aside Sacred Tradition and go, as they think, to its source – to the Holy Scriptures. The Church has her origins, not in the Scriptures but in Sacred Tradition. The Church did not possess the New Testament during the first decades of her history. She lived them by Tradition only—the Tradition St. Paul calls upon the faithful to hold. It is a well-known fact that all heresiarchs have always based themselves on the Holy Scriptures, only their interpretation differing.” (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 88)

    “Scripture cannot stand alone as a source of authority, for it is always the Scripture of a particular community and always needs interpretation—the inspiration of Scripture cannot be separated from the inspired use of Scripture within the Church.” (John Behr in ABBA: THE TRADITION OF ORTHODOXY IN THE WEST, p 163)

    “Scripture exists within Tradition, and by the same token Tradition is nothing else than the way in which Scripture has been understood and lived by the Church in every generation.” (Bishop Kallistos Ware, THE INNER KINGDOM, p 10)

  62. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    While the theological and linguistic components of this disccusion are beyond my capability to comment, a few things are not:

    1. To artificially separate the Incarnation from The Cross as the Pope did is to completely misunderstand both. The Incarnation (God becoming man) was/is the Cross.

    2. The Cross is not so much about the punishment our Lord suffered although that is integral, it is about the forgiveness He pronouced in the midst of that horrible demonstration of evil and disunion with God. He forgives us at our worst so that we can know that we will always have recourse to His mercy. But wait, there’s more…He goes on to crush the power of the lie that we can live separate from Him who creates us–death.

    Properly understood, it means that we need fear nothing any longer. We are truly free. Of course, freedom is not easily born and most of us choose continuing slavery of some form or another–slaves especially to the passions and arrogance of our own minds as our ability to reason so often replaces our ability to submit to God’s love. Remember, He forgives us because “we know not what we do”.

  63. Dee Avatar

    {“To artificially separate the Incarnation from The Cross as the Pope did is to completely misunderstand both. The Incarnation (God becoming man) was/is the Cross.”}

    very well said Michael!

  64. Philip Jude Avatar


    ***Here, you use a historical reading of the OT as a means to knowledge of God apart from Christ, and you use it to come back and correct the story of Christ, arriving at “this is ain’t baby Jesus meek and mild.” Forgive me, but you seem to take some pleasure and delight in the destruction of the wicked. Not even God delights himself in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11).***

    And yet: “And as the LORD took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the LORD will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you” (Deuteronomy 28:63).

    And again in Proverbs (1:24-27), this sharp rebuke from the very mouth of Wisdom:

    “Because I have called and you refused to listen,
    have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,
    because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
    I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when terror strikes you,
    when terror strikes you like a storm
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.”

    God does not take delight in the death of the wicked because He prefers repentance. But that does not preclude a righteous satisfaction with destroying wickedness.

    ***“Declared” is exegasato – that is – Christ “exegetes” the Father. If you want to know God, you must see Him through and in Christ.***

    I agree. The problem is, your picture of Christ is woefully incomplete. The Suffering Servant is but one dimension of Christ. He is also Judge and King, the Mighty One who dispatches the goats to darkness, flame, and ever-gnawing worm.

    ***Thus the account in 1 Samuel must be read in and through Christ and not the other way around. Even a “literal, historical” reading does not trump the revelation in Christ. ***

    What exactly would that reading look like? Some absurdly contrived allegory about the passions?

    I realize that you are very fond of this method of interpretation, but it does serious damage to Scripture.

    ***There is no scandal in the wrathful God – just the same retribution we see all the time in our fallen world – only drawn very large. ***

    God’s wrath — His justice in action — IS THE VERY REASON THE CROSS IS SCANDALOUS.

    We deserved punishment; we received pardon. We deserved death; we received life. We deserved damnation; we received grace. And not only did we receive pardon, life, and grace, but we received it through the very Son of God, by His work and suffering and execution on our account!

    If God is not wrathful, the cross does not make a darn lick of sense!

    “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).

    “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).

    ***Your treatment of Revelation was murderous, forgive me for saying so. It is not good for us to think in such ways.***

    Father, I honestly respect you, and I have spent dozens of hours pouring through your archives, enjoying much of what I find. That said, I think your treatment of Scripture is often comparable to trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

    I cannot help but suspect that you approach Scripture with a preconceived image of God, and you twist and excise the text until it fits that image, which you consider enlightened and far superior to the “savage” God of Joe Pewsitter, with his “barbaric” commitment to justice and punishment.

    I do not relish the idea of a righteous and holy God who loves justice. Indeed, it terrifies me. But that is the God Scripture proclaims.

    I think we should probably not take this discussion any farther. You are a brilliant and loving man. I respect and admire you. Please continue your service to our Lord. I apologize if I have been harsh or uncharitable. One day, hopefully, we will both see the face of God, and know the truth of His deity, free of our own prejudices. God bless.

  65. Dee Avatar

    let me repeat again, why would you want to portray the picture of God that the devil tried to portray from the beginning? …it is not just wrong interpretation (I already explained the crucial word “Lytron”)
    {” the Mighty One who dispatches the goats to darkness, flame, and ever-gnawing worm.”}

    the word used in the original is “πορεύεσθε” it doesn’t exactly mean “I dispatch you”… it rather means “you are already on a way”

  66. Philip Jude Avatar


    What picture are you talking about?

    As for “lytron,” it doesn’t matter. Whether damnation is predestined or freely chosen, it testifies to God’s justice and hatred of sin.

    Like I said, I really don’t want to carry on this conversation. We’ve all made our cases. We can only agree to disagree.

  67. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I just read the main body of Robin Collins’ discussion of the Atonement. It was excellent. Thank you for the reference.

  68. Darlene Avatar

    While I am thankful for many of the truths Orthodoxy has shown me, I readily admit there are some things that I continue to affirm from my former Christian tradition, incomplete though it was. I can attest to the truth of many of the things which Philip Jude has written here. Simply put, I believe that Jesus Christ died for me in my place. That is how I used to teach the young children in Sunday school, and such a view can only serve to make one thankful and humble, eastern or western notions notwithstanding.

    The eastern tradition does not hold a monopoly on the truth. I am not one to cast aside the contributions of Western Christianity simply because it is western. Many saints hailing from the western Church are to be emulated and admired for their love of Christ. There is a deep spirituality and witness to the Truth, Who is Jesus Christ, to be found within Western Christianity.

    I have not tossed the baby out with the bath water.

  69. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank, everyone for the discussion. Philip Jude, you’ve been patient and more than gracious. May we indeed meet Him together face to face. I hope to get a new post up before the end of today – perhaps for a new discussion.

  70. Dee Avatar

    Concerning scriptural use:
    Orthodoxy knows that without enlightenment or theosis, the Holy Bible cannot be interpreted correctly.
    The notions of the Holy Bible regarding God are extinguishable concepts. They are abolished, by the experience of theosis. Before theosis they serve as necessary indicators leading to God. (J.Romanidis)
    So Scripture is a guide towards God, but this description of God in the Holy Bible has no actual similarity to God.

    It speaks of God, it speaks of the truth, but it is not the Truth itself.

    It is a guide towards the Truth and the Path, which is Christ.
    One cannot properly theologize on the basis of the Holy Bible alone. If he does that, he cannot avoid becoming a heretic, because the proper interpretation of the Holy Bible is accompanied by the experience of enlightenment or theosis.

  71. Karen Avatar

    Drewster, thank you for your kind comments. Dr. Collins has done us a good service in his work. I owe a debt to Fr. Stephen for modeling and encouraging the virtues of patience, kindness and irenic tone in discussion. I love the quote he uses: “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.”

  72. Philip Jude Avatar


    Forgive me, but I have not the slightest clue what on earth you are talking about. Your ideas stand in stark contrast to the simple, wholesome, and straightforward wisdom of Holy Writ.

  73. Philip Jude Avatar

    Furthermore, your radically subjective and experiential gospel seemingly has no room for the objective work of Christ. I rest not in any mystical flutterings within my own mind, but in the labors of Christ.

  74. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you, all, for the various contributions and references. I think everyone should now resolve to turn off their computers and go out and do something kind to someone today!

  75. dee Avatar

    you mentioned you had read Saint Silouan and Father Sophrony earlier on in one of your posts, there is no difference in what I have said to what they say, it is fully based on Saint Silouan, Elder Sophrony, Saint Gregory Palamas

  76. dee Avatar

    Furthermore, (concerning Scripture) there is no objective, “straightforward” reading of Holy Writ as demonstrated by the huge gamut of heresies, actions, (even tortures!) based on them, or even this conversation.

    Saint Peter himself even mentions that based on scripture one can be led astray – re Saint Paul’s epistles.

    We therefore, need someone who has the word of God inscribed in his heart by the Holy Spirit, someone who has reached Theosis (like Silouan, Palamas, Maximus, Sophrony, etc) -this, I hope, is not something you see as “mystical flutterings”- in order NOT to be led astray and explain Holy Writ to us.

    It is a lot easier than we might think to know a lot “about God” than to “know God”, (even a tiny bit), the persons I mentioned (and based all I have said on), do belong to the second category, (and one should be prudent and check who they read/trust based on this criteria)

    I am very sorry to have come across as ‘radically subjective and experiential’. I am afraid that having said a fair amount on the subject, any further clarification would still be classified as reiterating the same things now.

  77. Marie Avatar

    God is not a Prosecutor, but a Physician — A wonderful blog entry by Abbot Tryphon from his “Morning Offering”: http://morningoffering.blogspot.com/

    “Rather, Christ came as a Physician intent on bringing healing to fallen mankind. . . .
    The Lord Jesus Christ established His Church as a hospital of the soul, and it is within Her walls that we are given the medicine to bring about the healing we so need. ”


  78. dinoship Avatar

    that’s a nice little gem:
    “We are ill. Our sin is not about law, but about illness”

    Reminds me of that hymn sung just before Pascha, by the epitaph, which uses the image of the pelican piercing his side and pouring out his own blood onto his offspring to heal them from the snake bite…

  79. dinoship Avatar

    Furthermore, my guess is that the first of those two portrayals of God – as a Prosecutor vs as a Physician – is how the “Serpent” would have Him “portrayed”, in fact that is the greek name for Diabolos, he who portrays a twisted picture of God (διαβάλει)

  80. Brian Avatar

    Perhaps the wisdom of Sirach applies in the case of this apparent impasse.

    “My son, prove thy soul in thy life and see what is evil for it, and give not that unto it. For not all things are profitable for all men, nether hath every soul pleasure in every thing.”

    I know there have been times in my life when even the truth wasn’t helpful to me because I was not prepared to receive it.

  81. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    I don’t comment here often, but this has been am absolutely fascinating conversation, a rare discourse into the some of the real differences between western and eastern Christianity. For me, when you read how the Orthodox faith has been defended at its critical points in history against the Catholics at the time, it really came down to this difference: the Orthodox experience of their relationship with the living God as they know Him personally versus “what the scripture says…”. My own experience as Jesus as an all-loving and all-forgiving God is simply incompatible with a God of Judgement as presented in the PSA argument. When and how the Judgement occurs at the the General Resurrection is surely beyond our understanding, but the God I know will surely have mercy on us.

    I spent many years working with a strict reformed Protestant that “knew” his Bible far more than I did, he was certain in the Sovereignty and Judgement of God as he understood it, and I understand now it was just an over intelligent, rational man’s understanding of the Holy Writ. The years of arguments wore me down, but juxtaposed I saw none of the kindness, long suffering and love that I saw among the Orthodox I grew up with and the holy people I know now. But he always knew better, and was always ready to put me quickly in my place. It was a painful experience, but a lesson I will never forget. Knowing your Bible and being quick with the ability to pick out the right verse in an argument means absolutely nothing.

    Based on my direct experience, it isn’t long before people steeped in their “PSA thinking” earn themselves the right to perform God’s righteous judgement against enemies here on Earth, which is what they have always done in history. They don’t see or understand the fruit of self denial, fasting, and prayer, which leads to a direct relationship with God. They simply don’t do it. It’s the reality! How many Catholics fast anymore? It does not exist for them or for any Protestants – it is only found in Orthodoxy! They think they can get there with Bible study instead. The scholasticism vs. direct experience yields fundamental differences when scholasticism is performed with an absence of asceticism..

    Often, I don’t think we as Orthodox understand ourselves how different we are, and the very different results you get from our approach. Of course, our approach is the very core of the Tradition that only we have kept unaltered, given to us by Jesus himself. All the others only have the musings of Men. This is what so many of us have died and suffered for! You can see how soon opponents are frustrated, as they always know better! Can you imagine a world, if the Orthodox capitulation at Florence was total, our whole tradition was completely abolished, and all that was left were “Christians” of the PSA kind?

  82. Dee Avatar

    it is obvious from my previous posts that we are in agreement, but, I would hasten to add too Philip:
    I sincerely believe your faith -as is- is no obstacle to what really matters, namely, your eternal salvation, whatsoever. There is no argument against you personally at all, the argument with the ideas you hold on to, is simply with the ideas. I just don’t like what I perceive as their (PSA theory’s) result, let me explain:
    I have witnessed so many people blaspheme against a God that they have formed in their heads based on the common “Prosecutor” misunderstanding that they hold from popular western influence in the media (even in Greece).
    They are, of course, pleasantly shocked/surprised and won over when they find out what the true orthodox view is… Although, I sadly add, some of them stay unconvinced, as if they want to have a reason/excuse to be angry with their creator, or with their idea of the church (…)
    May we all “see His face” and may “His name be upon our foreheads.”

  83. fatherstephen Avatar

    I myself would want to be less sweeping in my judgments of Western Christians. It is certainly possible to become too scholastic with Scripture, but I know many in the West, including many who hold the PSA, who are very pious and whose experience is profound. This is true among both Protestants and Catholics. My arguments are with a position and its dangers (as I described).

    Philip Jude was quite respectful and patient (though we pushed him a bit towards the end). Such respect and patience are evidence of a good heart. For those who hold PSA and have grown up with it (as a “tradition”), the sort of questioning that it undergoes here, much less the use of interpretation of Scripture with which I’m quite comfortable, is not only challenging, but can seem down-right heretical. All of which should encourage us (the Orthodox) to be patient in our challenges and not surprised that we encounter resistance.

    As you noted, the exchange is fascinating. It is always worth having – provided we maintain our peace. Good to have you comment!

  84. Andrew Avatar

    I think St. Silouan (like St. Paul) must have known this (else he would not have known anything), that God made them not Jews or Christians (whether this sort or that) nor Muslims or Hindus for that matter — but in He made them simply in His image (=”human being”). That is quite enough.

  85. brambonius Avatar

    Wow, I can’t believe I just read all those comments…

    Thank you for this post, Father Stephen. I might not be part of the Orthodox Church, but the Orthodox perspective is helping me a lot in my spiritual journey as a post-evangelical Christian looking for roots…

    I think I would’ve lost my faith if I had to believe in penal substitution the way popular Christianity presents it. I don’t have much quotes from the Fathers ready in this discussion (I liked some of the stuff here though: http://therebelgod.com/AtonementFathersEQ.pdf) , but my basic understanding of the atonement to go back to is Aslan taking the place of Edmund in the Narnia story. Substitutionary, yes, but it is the Wrath of evil, dead and a wicked humanity, and even Death, sin and sickness if we take the Isaiah passage, that Christ endured in our place, not of God. The wages or sin are death, and not because God punishes us with it, but because it naturally leads us away from God into destruction…

  86. fatherstephen Avatar

    Brambonius – Indeed. The understanding you suggest is quite Orthodox. The issue ultimately isn’t substitution (though I prefer union to substitution). It is what is defeated and what is changed. The change that occurs is death is destroyed. Christ destroys it. Thanks. May God help you in your journey and have mercy on us all.

  87. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your feedback. Of course you are correct, I don’t mean to paint all western Christians with a broad brush, but one is so limited with the written word sometimes. I have great respect for the Catholics I have known – in fact my children go to a local Catholic school, and through the school we are quite involved in their community. My wife was raised Catholic as well. I think, though, that the holiness of the simple believers exists in spite of the new teachings, which most are not learned enough to understand their nuances. When pressed, in my experience, their “default” understanding concerning the pope or the Virgin Mary for example, is often closer to our understanding.

    Also, I sense that committed Catholics seem to go to confession even more often than us Orthodox. In my humble opinion (which might not count for much) the sheer act of going to confession on a regular basis is a huge step in attaining real Christian humility. Many of my wife’s relatives were really holy, and prayed the Rosary at home on a regular basis. They were granted with many of the miracles us Orthodox claim to have, including foreknowledge of their own deaths. Although I am firm in defending the Orthodox faith, I cannot claim on the basis of knowing and loving these family members first hand that the grace of God cannot be with them. Maybe it is in spite of the inaccurate teaching concerning some items, but the reality is that most of them never ventured beyond a simple faith that God loves them and forgives them. They probably would never understand or wish to understand any of PSA arguments back and forth documented here. The love of Jesus was enough for them. I didn’t always understand this, which is why I have come to believe firmly that our Lord and Creator loves us, and will have mercy on us, and so should we treat our fellow men.

  88. Philip Jude Avatar

    For anyone interested in a Reformed defense of PSA by appeal to the church fathers, see this essay:


  89. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    A useful reference, thank you. Reading it through, however, tells me why we can reach no agreement. The author sees Penal substitution where I can see none. Either I am perverse (but this would include pretty much the Eastern Orthodox tradition of reading in these passages) or the author sees what he, himself, wants to see.

    As an Eastern Orthodox priest, I live daily in the life of the liturgical texts (which are vast, beyond the Western imagination), that represent the prayers and theological perception of the Orthodox faith, at its deepest. These have barely any awareness of the penal substituion as put forward by the author of the paper you reference.

    It’s hard for someone whose experience does not include an immersion in those prayers to see just how differently both Scripture and the fathers are treated. But I see why conversation in these things is often quite difficult.

    Thanks again.

  90. dee Avatar

    I must confess that I am dumbfounded and completely flabbergasted at the way the author thinks he finds “evidence” to support PSA in there…
    I mean, …he can see “to fulfill (πληρῶσαι)’ (Matt. 5:17) as meaning payment (!) instead of fulfillment.
    I am sorry to say this,but for me, parts of it give off a strong sense of rationally supported delusion,
    just like, Saint Silouan’s writings, for instance, exude the fragrance and undeniable authority of the Holy Spirit.
    {“scholasticism vs. direct experience”} as GeneB said.
    What a world of difference!

    If it WAS all about some legal payment given to the Father (as if He was “insult-able” like a human), then we wouldn’t even NEED Christ united to us anymore! (which even Calvin describes by the way)

    I must have been naively overoptimistic, thinking that we could reach some agreement here; as Father Stephen just said, based on your endorsement of that article that might not happen.
    The closest to PSA theory you will find in Orthodoxy (although it simultaneously sort of goes against it), is what father Sophrony describes somewhere as this:

    Christ-Man – selflessly united to the “whole of Adam”- justifies selfish Man in the eyes of God on the Cross; while Christ-God -“God on the Cross” justifies God in the eyes of men (who have a tendency to blame God for their woes)

    Irrespective of any of our differences, I just hope that, through God’s infinite mercies we are all granted a rich entrance into his Kingdom.

  91. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    If I recall the stories, Aslan takes the place of Edmund, who has betrayed (in some way) the evil queen. The queen demands the death of Edmund, citing the “Deep Magic” rather than any personal affront she has taken and Aslan offers himself instead. Aslan accepts that the Deep Magic is binding, but knows that there is a deeper magic regarding the death of an innocent. Something like that anyway.
    Now, we are in the world of allegory, here, so the temptation is simply to make a direct mapping between characters and concepts in the story and our understanding our faith. Lewis was no cheerleader for penal substitutionary atonement, but the Narnia story here is susceptible of that interpretation: Edmund does not appear to have offended “God” by his actions but he has transgressed and is due for the chop; Aslan takes his place.

    “We are ill. Our sin is not about law, but about illness”
    With this mindset, how do Orthodox folks regard the Flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Would the argument run like this:

    1) These were completely natural phenomena, not from the hand of almighty God.
    2) In our darkness, fear and ignorance, we wrongly attributed them to the actions of a wrathful God who was displeased with us for our sin (“The guilty fleeth where no man pursueth”)
    3) Kyeuch: silly old us. We are sick and to be pitied rather than sinners who need chastisement.

    Socrates famously said no man errs willingly, in the sense that if men knew what was right they’d inevitably do it; but because men clearly do wrong all the time they must be blind to the truth. The “sickness” worldview reminds me of this: we are to be pitied rather than condemned. It just seems incomplete: we all know the difference between being ill – people are sympathetic and nice to us; and being in trouble, waiting outside the headmaster’s study for a thrashing. What kind of pathetic excuse would this be “I am sick, Sir, and couldn’t help doing wrong”. It just sounds lame.

    Likewise we all know the difference between pity and forgiveness. If there was no offence, no affront caused to God then there is just no need for forgiveness. As far as I know, no Bible yet has translated phrases like “your sins are forgiven” as “your sickness is to be pitied”.

    Yes God heals but he also forgives.

  92. brambonius Avatar

    Edmund did not ‘offend’ the queen in the first place, he just did what Adam and Eve did, he did eat the ‘forbidden fruit’, and gave himself over to evil, and becomes a traitor. (Not knowing what he does) and so he belongs to the queen, who is evil and wants to kill her. There’s no-where said that Aslan or the Emperor over the sea is offended by Edmund, and that he needs to be punished. Aslan is the one who wants to save him…
    The wages of sin is death, not because we need to be punished for sin, but because sin leads to death and destruction, and cuts us off from God, the source of all Life. The law is just there to show us which things are destructive, in a very real way. without the law murder, stealing and gossip are as destructive for both ourselves as the world around us as with the law…
    If you are able to see PS in the narnia story (while Lewis didn’t agree with that doctrine at all and uses an ancient ransom motif) then it just means that both language and metaphor are quite fallible in what they try to do…

  93. brambonius Avatar


    Very interesting. Protestants sometimes seem to be obsessed with ‘how do I get forgiven’ without going further, as if only forgiveness is the goal… And modern evangelicals are quite individualistic in that forgiveness…

    I would think the bible teaches more than just forgiveness of the individual the restauration of Creation, in which God will be ‘all in all’ (through Christ). So Union might be more important than just the substitution evangelicalism seems to place at the heart of the gospel… I think the problem here is that we’ve made everything so abstract, or postponed it to the next life, that we’ve put the omnipresent God at quite a distance, only there in the bible. A more healthy view of how God is present and the Orthodox idea of theosis would do protestants good I guess…

  94. dinoship Avatar

    I believe that Father Stephen has already answered this better than I ever could.
    One needs to start from Christ and keep in mind that God’s ultimate will is that ‘all be saved’, in order to understand all this correctly…
    It is also worth reminding ourselves that this God of ultimate Love knows all, and His freedom is total, there is no higher ideal or cosmic law that he needs to adhere to, or then he wouldn’t have total freedom, yet we…
    we know extremely little and are chained to a miniscule portion of space and time which gets smaller the more we rely on our own reasoning and is completely transcended when united to our Maker through His Grace.
    Questions can always arise about this and that and the other, and one might be lucky enough to have a wise and extremely discerning elder like F. Porhyrios to keep asking, however, as the foutnain of questions never runs dry, it is better to remember this overall context which might not have the answers in concrete words, but, makes the questions seen in a completely different light

  95. Philip Jude Avatar


    “A more healthy view of how God is present and the Orthodox idea of theosis would do protestants good I guess…”

    Many Protestants do indeed espouse theosis.

    Others find it flatly diabolical. They say that the creature should not desire to be the Creator, for that is the sin of Satan. They will furthermore point out that Scripture is almost entirely silent on the subject, save a couple highly debatable verses.

    The fight against idolatry is a constant battle. I am grateful to my Reformed brethren for helping me stay vigilant, keeping my eyes on the Creator rather than the creature, although they occasionally overreact.


    ***If it WAS all about some legal payment given to the Father (as if He was “insult-able” like a human), then we wouldn’t even NEED Christ united to us anymore! (which even Calvin describes by the way)***

    I’ve explained this more than once in this very discussion: If one is not united to Christ, one does not receive the benefit of his vicarious suffering, death, and resurrection. That is why all Protestants, however thoroughgoing their attachment to PSA, possess a doctrine of union with Christ.

    “We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son–not for Christ’s own private use, but that He might enrich poor and needy men?

    First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from Him, all that He has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.

    Therefore, to share with us what He has received from the Father, He had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, He is called ‘our Head’ (Eph. 4:15), and ‘the first-born among many brethren’ (Rom. 8:29). We also, in turn, are said to be ‘engrafted into Him’ (Rom. 11:17), and to ‘put on Christ’ (Gal. 3:27).

    For, as I have said, all that He possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with Him. It is true that we obtain this by faith.”

    –John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed, Ford Lewis Battles, trans, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960 [1559]), III.i.1.

  96. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    You’re right: Edmund ate the turkish delight and was lost! Indeed there is no offence given to Aslan – so the allegory doesn’t support PSA – but what I was driving at, badly, was that he [Aslan] was in some way compelled by Edmund’s transgression to offer himself in his stead. I guess it comes down to what we make of this idea of Deep Magic.

    Points taken, and agreed with, about the rather limited portrayal of the gospel in certain circles.

    You know, I agree with what you say and especially like the quotation about the fountain of questions never running dry. They should not become a distraction. In my own experience, I am firmly convinced that the God, who raised Jesus from the dead, has delivered me from despair, depression, alcohol abuse, a foul mouth and an arrogant almost cruel heart, lasciviousness and laziness (to list my more likeable qualities). None of this happened by my understanding certain points of doctrine, or by my pathetic efforts to be obedient to the law, or by my self-regarding humility, but by weeping on my knees and crying with the Reverend Toplady:

    Nothing in my hand I bring;
    Simply to thy Cross I cling;
    Naked, come to Thee for Dress;
    Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
    Foul, I to the fountain fly :
    Wash me, Saviour, or I die!

  97. dinoship Avatar

    that is, more or less, the passage I was referring to by Calvin, where he DOES state our need for union with the Lord, we are in total agreement here.
    What I meant about the implications of PSA when I was saying “If it WAS all about some legal payment given to the Father (as if He was “insult-able” like a human), then we wouldn’t even NEED Christ united to us anymore! (which -need for Unity- even Calvin describes by the way)” is that PSA’s juridical approach opens the way for a salvation outside of us, based on the appeasement of an “insulted God”, and Platonically makes God bound to some “cosmic law” instead of utterly free. Father Stephen has explained this many times and more eloquently…

  98. Philip Jude Avatar


    Do you think God can be unloving? I assume not. So what, then? Is he “bound to some ‘cosmic law’ instead of utterly free”? Of course not. Loving is simply what He does. It is His nature. Similarly, being just is God’s nature. Indeed, just as He is Love, so He is Justice. He was not obeying an outside necessity, but acting in harmony with His own nature, which contains the perfection of everything good, justice included.

  99. dinoship Avatar

    It is typical of western philosophy, which thinks “nature” comes before “hypostasis” (or person), to think like that. It lies behind virtually all western philosophy and also led supports the filioque.
    But orthodoxy maintains that person, which always exists through communion, never comes after ‘nature’.
    THAT is a subtle but crucial problem, which needs sorting out before we can get anywhere concerning all this!

    This neo-platonic idea that one cannot escape his nature, including God (!) Himself led eventually to Anselm saying: Why did the Incarnation happen? So that the Son of God could be punished in the place of man.
    Meanwhile, Gregory the Theologian said: Incarnation happened, “because humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God”. The exact contrary if you stop and think about it. And he continues: the only thing God wants, is this:

    “to stop ‘wear’ “.

    It is impossible to build legalism on a position such as that…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Bonnie, for me the description of the warehouse reminds me of the original emptiness of my heart and the work…

  2. Father Freeman, Your description of renting a space could be a metaphor reflecting the task facing Christians who seek ways…

  3. Janine, I’ve been thinking about the veil of Moses as well. I love taking “deep dives” on such things.

  4. Oh silly me again 2 Corinthians 3 — esp verses 7 – 13 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20Corinthians%203&version=NKJV

  5. I found this sort of interesting excerpt on the web, but I’d need a subscription to get the rest of…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast