A Lesser Atonement

3676650187_4aae798e18_oIt has long been known that people tend to see what they think they are seeing. This is particularly the case where what we think is familiar and expected. The case of “mistaken identity” flows from our assumptions and expectations. This is no where more true than when we are reading Scripture. If a passage has years of associations, it is almost impossible to see anything else. I have noticed this to particularly be the case when Christians are reading and thinking about the death of Christ.

For a large number of contemporary Christians, the suffering and death of Christ are clearly seen as punishment, and as punishment for our sake. All that He endures, He endures for us and in our place. The suffering Christ is a substitute for my suffering. He takes upon Himself punishment that rightly belonged to me.

When it is asserted (as I often do) that the Scriptures say nothing of the sort, the response can be one of incredulity. “How can you say that? It’s obvious!” However, it is not obvious. Indeed, it is not there. Christ is not our substitute.

Recently, a priest shared a question with me regarding the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53. He had been pressed to explain how such a passage is not about the substitutionary atoning work of Christ:

Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed
for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being 
fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.

All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him. (Isaiah 53.4-6 NASB)

 Also offered was the passage in Galatians that reads:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on A tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3.13-14)

The heart of the question is about the controlling metaphor, the root story of the atonement. For the verses cited do not spell out a substitutionary atonement. They me be read that way, if the reader assumes that the back-story is the punishment of the substituted Christ. But the back-story, the “controlling metaphor” must be understood before the passages are interpreted.

The controlling metaphor of the substitutionary atonement is that of the justice of God that must be satisfied. Our sin has engendered a debt of injustice that must be paid. Christ is seen as accepting the punishment that was our just desert. The payment having once been made need only be accepted. It’s acceptance is our salvation, our deliverance from a punishment that was due.

If we think about this story, its driving force is the justice of God. It is God who must be satisfied. As a controlling metaphor it is very inadequate (it is also less than 1000 years old in the history of Christian interpretation – a “johnny-come-lately” in Biblical terms). It only addresses the notion of a blood atonement. It says nothing about the nature of the Holy Life, prayer, the sacraments, etc. It is a back-story that requires yet other stories to support the Christian life, and, as such, is inadequate.

One inevitable effect of its inadequacy is the shrinking of the gospel in order to make it fit. Historically, this story was a well-intentioned attempt to make sense of the gospel in the cultural demands of the Western Middle Ages (thank you, Anselm). Today it is used to meet the demands of contemporary culture. But its diminished version of the gospel has produced a diminished version of Christianity. That same Christianity finds its own cultural expression in the secular consumerism of the modern world. The gospel should not be diminished.

The older, more complete account of the atoning work of Christ is grounded in our union/communion with God. God is the Lord and Giver of Life, in Whom we live and move and have our being. When our sin broke communion with Him, death was unleashed and we were bound. In the Incarnation, Christ became what we are, entering into union with our humanity. He “empties Himself,” in the words of St. Paul, and enters into death and Hades. But as God, He could not be held by death. He rose again, thus trampling down death by death, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

Our salvation, His atonement, is a work of union. He unites Himself to us that we might unite ourselves to Him. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is.

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21 NKJ)

By the same token, we are Baptized “into His death,” (Romans 6:3), and raised in His resurrection. The Holy Eucharist is also a fulfillment of our union with Him, a communion (koinonia) in His blood.

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. “For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. (Joh 6:52-57)

This language of union supports the whole of the Christian gospel. It is the proper foundational imagery of the Christian faith. It also makes better sense of passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, as well as the Pauline Corpus.

Christ does not die “for us,” in the sense of “substitute.” For we still die. Our suffering has not been removed by His suffering, nor was our suffering ever properly understood as a punishment from God. Christ dies “for us,” in that He takes our death (all death) into Himself and makes it His death. He  becomes our dying that our dying might become His life.

The same is true of the “curse.” We in no way avoid the shame of the Cross. Everything Christ says in His teaching to us points us towards union with His Cross. His Cross does not substitute for ours, but changes ours from defeat and the curse of death into victory and triumph of life.

The integrating nature of this imagery easily illustrates why it dominated early Christian thought. The Christian faith is not a divine drama within a legal court. It is life and death and life again lived out in union with Christ. Everything from the doctrine of the Church (the Body of Christ), the imagery of marriage and the Kingdom (our union with God), as well as the whole sacramental order are all spoken for within the divine/human union.

The same language also moves comfortably within the liturgical and ascetical life, as well as the language and thought of the central dogmas of the Trinity and Christology. It is certainly possible to use the language of substitution, and with sufficient nuance, even the language of punishment. But they will yield an insufficient gospel, disconnected from the full scope of the Christian life.  

In my experience, bad theology eventually produces bad results. We are already reaping the fruit of the penal substitutionary model. It constitutes a spiritual famine.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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90 responses to “A Lesser Atonement”

  1. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Amen. Thank you for this !

  2. newenglandsun Avatar

    I’m trying to sort this all out as well. I used to hold to penal substitutionary atonement when I was an Evangelical Christian. From what I know of the accurate atonement theory as has been sorted out in church history, the sacrifice of Jesus is to the Father as an act of love in order to bring about the Holy Spirit’s presence and transformation of this world.

    From this, I can agree that substitution and punishment can be used but in a very qualified sense. As St. Thomas Aquinas states, “if we speak of a punishment that is medicinal, in this way it does happen that one is punished for another’s sin. For it has been stated (7) that ills sustained in bodily goods or even in the body itself, are medicinal punishments intended for the health of the soul.” (Summa Theologica, Jesus’s death was substitutionary in the sense that he was acting for us (not as us) as he did it.

    I don’t think I fully understand this and perhaps I’ve messed up here. But very much agree. Most Christians because of this understanding of penal substitutionary atonement that has inflicted the Church have managed to assume that as long as they believe Jesus took their penalty for them (paid their wages), they can enter Heaven. No transformation whatsoever. I think of your argument with Fr. Johnathan from “The Conciliar Anglican” a while back. Fr. Johnathan seems to suggest that baptism serves as a protection from the wrath of God (WHAT?!?–We need protection from GOD?!?) so that he won’t consume us. Ugh, that haunts me.

  3. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    It also might be helpful to reflect upon the Hebrew word use in the Old Testament for “judgment.” It does not have a legal aspect but means “to set things right.” This understanding goes hand in hand with the ideas of restoration and healing taught by the Early Church as the purpose of the Incarnation and stands in stark contrast to Anselm’s viewpoints on atonement.

  4. Alison Cloonan Avatar
    Alison Cloonan

    So would you say that our union with Christ happened on the cross? Is that why, in our Baptism, it is when we go under the water that we are united at/ in His death?

  5. Alison Cloonan Avatar
    Alison Cloonan

    Which would be why He said to the thief TODAY you will be with Me in paradise?

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Alison, I do not think that we should isolate and say “this moment or that moment,” but every moment is the Crucified Christ and every moment is the Resurrected Christ. When Christ says, “It is finished,” it is a statement of the completion of God’s work in “creating” human beings (we can say). And then He rests (in the tomb). And on the 8th Day (Sunday) He is raised from the dead and all things become new (us included). But we must be crucified with Him in order to be raised with Him.

    Our Baptism is the mystical/liturgical expression of this reality. And then it must be lived moment by moment. There will always be plenty of crucified moments. Love will always lead us there.

    And the thief, in a single moment (so we sing), entered paradise. He united Himself with the crucified Christ. He could say in the most literal form, “I am crucified with Christ.”

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Fathers (St. Gregory the Theologian) rejected the notion of Christ being offered to the Father (or to the Devil as in some speculations). The Father requires no offering from the Son for anything. It is His own self-offering that He might set us free from sin, death and the devil. But when we say “offering” it is not a payment. It is simply an act of giving Himself up in order to cause our freedom, healing and forgiveness.

    The offering as payment makes all of it into a transaction. There is no transaction. Even though we say He is a “ransom” the Fathers refused to say to whom a ransom was paid. St. Basil, at the most, says “a ransom to death.” St. Gregory said, “At the end of this matter there is a great silence.”

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here’s a story board for the atonement. You’re standing next to very deep, cold, dark lake. You do not know how to swim. The water is rising and you know that you’re going to drown. You say to Jesus, “Help me!”

    Jesus says, “I’m going to jump in and I want you to hang on to me as I do.”

    “But I might drown,” you say.

    “You definitely will,” He says in return. “But so will I and then everything will be fine. You’ll see.”

    This is not a substitution model – it’s a model of divine solidarity (to use a term in St. Athanasius). He becomes what we are that we might become what He is.

  9. Jeff Avatar

    It’s very popular to quote Aulen, but hart thinks he gets anselm all wrong : ( from Harts beauty of the infinite)

    , “Anselm is already situated in the tradition of Christian discourse, he already knows that Christ has recapitulated human nature in himself and conquered evil on our behalf; it is from this narrative that Anselm has undertaken a (by no means final or exclusive) reduction of the tale, in order better to grasp the inner necessity of its sacrificial logic. He pauses for one critical moment, to contemplate the cross as the grave inner meaning (or inevitability) of God’s condescension. If Anselm’s account appears to leave the resurrection as a mere coda (which indeed is a failing), it also corrects a certain occasional aporia in patristic thought, insofar as the latter often fails to say how the resurrection vindicates – rather than merely reverses – Christ’s self-oblation. Easter is the triumph not of an indestructible and otherworldly savior, but of the entire motion of Christ’s sacrificial life of devotion to the Father; the overthrow of death and the devil is accomplished by the peaceful self-donation of one whose life fulfills entirely the vocation of humanity to offer itself in love to the God who gives all things in love. Moreover, Anselm’s reading of the cross devotion to the Father; the overthrow of death and the devil is accomplished by the peaceful self-donation of one whose life fulfills entirely the vocation of humanity to offer itself in love to the God who gives all things in love. Moreover, Anselm’s reading of the cross would be impossible except in the light of Easter, inasmuch as he obviously understands Christ’s sacrifice to be, at the last, aneconomic (Christ’s death purchases nothing, but his obedience calls forth a blessing), and so his reading is clearly governed by his knowledge that the Father does not retain the “price” paid by Christ’s blood, as a ransom (in the human man sense of a tribute ceded in exchange for favor or benefit), but raises Christ freely, according to a justice that surpasses retributive equivalence. As for the absence of any clear ontological dimension in Anselm’s account of atonement, of any clear talk of the change wrought in human nature by salvation to balance out its more “fiduciary” terms, one might remark that Anselm already writes from within the precincts of the church’s pneumatological life; certainly patristic theology never suggests that the transformation of human nature occurs anywhere else: the newly refashioned human nature established in the incarnation As for the absence sence of any clear ontological dimension in Anselm’s account of atonement, of any clear talk of the change wrought in human nature by salvation to balance out its more “fiduciary” terms, one might remark that Anselm already writes from within the precincts of the church’s pneumatological life; certainly patristic theology never suggests that the transformation of human nature occurs anywhere where else: the newly refashioned human nature established in the incarnation is found nowhere apart from the social reality of the church, whose practices of love and forgiveness are already the new life of the sanctified.

  10. Jeff Avatar

    Summing : ” When Lossky points to a thinker like Athanasius, in order to call attention to the divergence of Anselm’s model from its patristic predecessors, even while acknowledging the presence of many of the themes of Cur Deus Homo in Athanasius’s thought, the irony is peculiarly keen. At one juncture in De incarnatione, Athanasius, lamenting the loss of humanity’s original beauty in the fall, argues that redemption was necessitated by God’s (consistency, righteousness, honor, glory), which requires the maintenance and execution of his twin decrees that, on the one hand, humanity will share in the divine life and that, on the other, death must fall upon the transgressors of holy law; to prevent the second decree from defeating the first, guilt must be removed from humanity through the exhaustion of the power of death in Christ’s sacrifice (7.I-4). The hold death had on us was just, says Athanasius, and it would be monstrous were God’s decree that sin shall merit death to prove false (6.2-3); but it would be unworthy of God’s goodness were he to let his handiwork come to nothing (6.4-I0). Nor could God simply accept our repentance as just recompense for our offense, as repentance would neither suffice to guard God’s integrity nor serve to restore our wounded nature (8.3). In his body, then, Christ exhausts the wrath of the law (8.4; 10.5) and renders satisfaction for our debt (9.I-3). Already present in Athanasius’s theology is the very story whose inner shape Anselm will, in a moment of intense critical reflection, attempt to grasp as necessity. Far from an arbitrary arrangement of jurisprudential transactions calculated to effect a kind of forensic reconciliation between humanity and God, the atonement as Cur Deus Homo depicts it is an assumption of solidarity with us by an infinitely merciful God in order to fulfill in us that beatitude intended in our creation (2.1), by accomplishing on our behalf half what, in our impotence to do good and in his unwillingness to employ unjust just means (1.12), could never otherwise have been brought to pass.”

    Definitely hart is a much saner read for common sense

  11. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Atonement for sin? I am still trying to understand this. Am reading Brothers Karamazov. I like the way Doestoyevsky turns sin, suffering, and redemption over and over. And Ivan, the athiest, who proclaimed our modern world: “Destroy in man his belief in hiw own immortality, and at the same time not only will love disappear but also all vitality and all sense of moral decency. Everything will be permissable.” Then Demitri says he must atone for his father/brothers’ sins, that he is his brother’s keeper. I am still trying to understand this. Alosha is love, a believer, and says and does things even he doesn’t understand, like he is God’s messenger. What a book! What a mind!

  12. Dallas Avatar

    A discussion with echoes of the Fall as disease, therapeuo, Christus Victor, expiation, theosis… all elements that blend and reveal the Gospel of the loving God that sits so lightly in my soul. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  13. David Avatar

    Fr. Stephen
    I am thankful for your post, in fact your whole series on forgiveness and atonement has brought me heavenly help in a time of extreme pain in my life. I have debilitating stomach and abdominal pain for three years now and just had another colonoscopy this week with no ground-breaking diagnosis. I am blessed to be surrounded by christian friends and family that help me and pray for me as I walk through this. You know, I am more thankful for their love than I am for any diagnosis or medication that might relieve some of the pain. The problem of pain has caused me to struggle with God many times, asking Him when will He heal me or what have I neglected to do that will magically lead me to healing. It sometimes seems everyone around me has a story to share of God taking away their pain in a miraculous moment, but that is not my story. My moments of painlessness are times when I can walk with someone else, share my story and my struggle with them and in the process, we share love and worship in some divine sense that I cannot explain.

    I read somewhere from a recovering addict that pain is not our enemy, but our friend telling us there is a deeper wound and problem. If I really consider my pitiful (sarcasm) situation, I don’t want to be free from pain, I just want someone to see me and walk with me through this. And as I said, as we walk together, the pain is relieved.

    As long as I demanded that Christ come down and take my suffering, I was bitter, waiting for God to heal me and refusing to do anything but wallow in my pain until that happened. But our God did more than wave his hand and take away our iniquities and afflictions. He is the God who walks with us in our pain, no stranger to pain, temptation, or abandonment. He is the God that cried “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.” He is the God that willingly “made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.” There is nothing we will suffer that He has not walked through or won’t walk through with us. There no glory we know that did not come from His loving bosom. He is the God that relates with us that we might be united again with Him.
    I could go on for hours about God’s inclusion of us in His great love. I could talk of Barth’s “naked revelation” and Richard von St. Viktor’s “Trinity of Love.” But all I can say is that God did not simply atone for our sins to end our suffering, but that we may share in His Being of love in every way possible.

  14. Al B. Avatar
    Al B.

    “The Christian faith is not a divine drama within a legal court.”

    This was the passage I found most troubling in this article. Forensic language is all over Scripture and the Fathers did comment on it.

    E.g. Cyril of Alexander wrote

    “Bearing the Cross upon His shoulders, on which He was about to be crucified, He went forth; His doom was already fixed, and He had undergone, for our sakes, though innocent, the sentence of death. For, in His own Person, He bore the sentence righteously pronounced against sinners by the Law. ”

    And, St. John Chrysostom wrote “As then both he who hanged on a tree, and he who transgresses the Law, is cursed, and as it was necessary for him who is about to relieve from a curse himself to be free from it, but to receive another instead of it, therefore Christ took upon Him such another, and thereby relieved us from the curse.”

    Sounds pretty “legal” to me.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, the antinomical mystery if life in Christ. The legal and the ontological are not a dichotomy, although it is easy to treat them that way.

    The fact is there is no justice without mercy and no mercy without justice. No change of being without change if behavior accompanied by a deep and abiding sense that I have done wrong and more deeply that I am deeply disordered.

    Read and contemplate our brother David’s testimony.

    All of the various things we posit as antinomies even freedon and pain are united on the Cross

  16. Barry Bruce Avatar
    Barry Bruce

    Sometimes we stretch. And sometimes we stretch others, like the Church Fathers as to what they said and meant by it; and also shrink the same.

    St. John Chrysostom wrote “As then both he who hanged on a tree, and he who transgresses the Law, is cursed, and as it was necessary for him who is about to relieve from a curse himself to be free from it, but to receive another instead of it, therefore Christ took upon Him such another, and thereby relieved us from the curse.”

    Without getting opening the box of to whom what is paid, it sounds a bit legal, to me.

  17. Anna Avatar

    Al B.
    I think, as you do, that substitutionary language is everywhere, but I think what Father is saying is that it is not the only metaphor, nor the overarching metaphor, for salvation presented by the scriptures or the fathers. In Protestantism, I found myself conditioned to see it as the controlling and ultimate metaphor, with God as the one requiring payment for our debt.
    In both examples you cited, I found it interesting that we don’t learn who receives payment from Christ – God, death, sin, or the law are all possibilities.

  18. Lazarus Avatar

    It seems that somewhere in my memory there is the recollection of Fr. Thomas Hopko saying that there are a multiplicity of ways in which the saving work of Christ Jesus are articulated and “a kind of substitution” is spoken of as occurring. Take, for example, the Passover lamb and the ram caught in the thicket. Both are offered as a sacrifice “instead of” the first born. (As a matter of fact, as I write this, I do remember the acknowledgment of substitutionary language and action as being part of Fr. Thomas’s comments in his “The Names of Jesus” podcasts.)

    There is, in fact, substitutionary language in the Sriptures. I don’t believe we can just do linguistic maneuverings to “shoo it away” and say it isn’t there. Honestly, it is there.

    I have had folks attempt the “shooing away” both from the Protestant and Orthodox perspectives and it comes off like they are attempting to massage the text to fit there preconceived notions.

    I would rather admit the diversity of language and then attempt to address it in with a reasonable faith that desires to be carried and nurtured by a deep trust in the ultimate mystery and power of God’s merciful love in action.

    So, I guess I deeply agree with you, Fr. Stephen, that the governing metaphor gives us a context in which to understand.

    But, I want to maintain the need to acknowledge the diversity of language used in the Scriptures regarding the saving work.

    So, while substitution is occurring, it is not occurring to appease an angry God or as the object of the punishment of a legalistic unmerciful God.

  19. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    Thanks Jeff, it looks like it’s time for me to break out Athanasius “De incarnatione” once again.

  20. RC Avatar

    Father, I carried with me to liturgy this morning, the image you shared of the deep, dark lake and my impending drowning, Christ at my side to enter the darkness together. It brought a deeper understanding to texts I hear over and over. I just wanted to thank you for that, and to perhaps encourage you to use such images more frequently, as it helps bring home much of what you’ve been talking about these past few months. Sometimes all it takes is a powerful image such as that to blow down the wall of separation between understanding and not understanding.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Legal language, substitutionary language with out doubt. However in the context of the hypostatic union these languages take on different nuances than I have experienced.

    We have to stay away from thinking of salvation in one paradigm only. Less linear and more quantum.

    Salvation is a deeply personal (not individual) experience.

  22. Seraphim Avatar

    So your issue is with the penal language or the substitution language?

  23. newenglandsun Avatar

    Thanks for the explanation of the atonement. It’s more easy to understand now. Goodness, those theologians can complicate anything, can’t they?

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Seraphim. I don’t have an issue with either language. I do have an issue with the various theological ideologies that have grown up around the languages. That is one reason I’m Orthodox.

  25. Athanasios Avatar

    I spent the vast majority of my life reading the Scriptures from a forensic penal substitution point of view. I have spent the last several years reading the Fathers and Scriptures (and other more contemporary Orthodox literature). I have so far found Fr. Stephen’s assessment to be true: we see it if we want to see it.

    A couple points:

    1) I would expect to find certain language in the Fathers (or around their time) that was not adopted as the primary understanding of the Church. The very fact that the Cappadocian Fathers commented on the topic as they did indicates that this would be the case.

    2) The guiding interpretation of the Scriptures comes, ultimately, not from the texts of Church Fathers, but rather from the living life of the Church. It is the conciliatory witness of the Church in her ministry, ascetic discipline, communion of the Bishops, liturgical worship, and so on that is the guiding principal for our understanding the Scriptures.

    This does not mean that everyone in the church is always right (Fr. Alexander Schmemann has written much of the “Western Captivity”). But even in the face of tremendous external pressure and internal manipulation, the Church remains the Church in her life and worship. It is this lived life that unites us to Christ and the Scriptural authors, and allows us to properly understand them.

    St. Irenaeus speaks this way in Against Heresies when he makes the bold claim that by the martyr’s death they prove the resurrection. He doesn’t use a historical analysis he might find in the text of Scripture as the basis of his proof, but rather the very life and death of the living Church.

    St. Athanasios (my patron) says the same at the end of On the Incarnation, where he proclaims that those who truly understand the Scriptures are those who live the lives of the Holy Fathers that wrote them.

    Even with this understanding, though, I do not believe it is necessary or even obvious that the quotes presented above are forensic or substitutionary in nature.

    “Bearing the Cross upon His shoulders, on which He was about to be crucified, He went forth; His doom was already fixed, and He had undergone, for our sakes, though innocent, the sentence of death. For, in His own Person, He bore the sentence righteously pronounced against sinners by the Law. ”

    Our idea of “legal” and “forensic” doesn’t jive with the Old Testament Law. The Law was given to Israel to teach them precisely about their sin, and more importantly what it means to be in union with God Himself. This is seen in the writings of St. Paul when he uses the language of the “Law of Faith” (meaning the “new Law” that Christ brings). The teachings of the Law are not “forensic” but rather have everything to do with union and communion.

    “For our sake” does not imply substitution. I do many things “for my children’s sake” and I do it with them. The “sentence righteously pronounced” only implies a forensic sentence if we interpret within our own understanding of what “legal frameworks” are today. Our understanding of legality is far removed from the Old Testament, and once again does not jive with the Law given by God, nor with “sentences” pronounced by God. The first, for example: “On the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” This may be read as a “sentence of punishment” (God will punish them with death), as it often is today. Or it can be read, as it is classically, as a “sentence of results” – that God is telling them precisely what will happen as the result of doing this. That sentence the Lord takes on Himself.

    And, St. John Chrysostom wrote “As then both he who hanged on a tree, and he who transgresses the Law, is cursed, and as it was necessary for him who is about to relieve from a curse himself to be free from it, but to receive another instead of it, therefore Christ took upon Him such another, and thereby relieved us from the curse.”

    I think what I said above about the Law applies here as well. As well as substitution. There’s nothing in here that even implies either.

    I say this as someone who used to be a Lutheran and is well-versed in the Law/Gospel language of Martin Luther and the Reformers. This understanding developed in the Middle Ages, as far as I am aware.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is very much as Athanasios has said. It is easy to see “legal” words and import the entire legal scheme. I think it does an injustice (sic) to the Scriptures. It is not substitution in the sense of taking our place and suffering instead of us. Even reading the sacrifice of Isaac in such a manner can be misleading. “God provides the Lamb,” is not substitutionary in any necessary way.

    I indeed push back against this, and am probably guilty of pushing too hard. But the substitution imagery, and certainly the legal imagery, never (!) formed the dominant liturgical image or shaped piety of Orthodox Christianity. It is a much later innovation. Find a quote in St. John Chrysostom – fine. But try to find it in his liturgy. You’ll look in vain.

    And it not only becomes dominant in the West, it came to such a pitch that some Protestants make its acceptance a matter of Christian orthodoxy. It it changed their piety and has been part of a great disruption and diminution of the gospel, plain and simple.

  27. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri

    New England Sun,

    Regarding baptism as the seal against the wrath of God, I might say in a qualified sense we do need protection from God’s energies or agents insofar as we as fragile creatures in a state of nature, marred by sin, cannot stand in the presence of God. Both in late antique Jewish apocalypses, mirroring gradations within the Jerusalem Temple and priestly purification, there was a need for ritual purification and angelic transformation/theosis during heavenly ascent, aided by revealed prayers and recitation of the divine name and apotropaic objects to secure this transformation for Job’s daughters/Abraham/Enoch, of the visionary precisely to protect him from the wrath of angels at various levels of heaven and the sight of God.

    Also, baptism as apotropaic seal seems a reference to the Passover wherein the blood of the covenant identifies the Israelites as part of God’s clan from the Angel of Death, or the Destroyer. The Destroyer is an unusual character since in some apocalypses it is identified with Mastema and Belial, clear enemy of God in Jubilees, and other times as a contentious agent of God, like in Job. This seems to me to be the tension between a legal vision of God and a salvific vision of God as battling outside forces such as the Destroyer. This figure encapsulates, I think, the duality between legal theology of atonement and solidarity models. On the one hand, God at least permits the Destroyer to attack the Israelites as in the case of the seraph serpents and then must provide the apotropaic counter-agent in the Bronze Serpent. Is God here acting as legal Judge who unbinds the Destroyer or as the Savior who rescues his people from the Destroyer? In the case of the Exodus, is God allowing Pharaoh and his gods to commit evil–God tarrying to act–or defeating him and his idols behind which fallen forces hide? On a cosmic level, is God allowing the inimical forces of death and hell, Rahab and Leviathan, to unmake creation (as in Genesis 6), restoring creation with the Flood, or passing judgment?

    I think the Western ‘legal’ theology, in its best sense, would say both. God must create the rules. So, when the Shekinah leaves the Garden, mankind is subject to natural death just as Israel is ‘cut off’ from its blessed afterlife with the ancestors following the Exile, cut off from the resurrection. From one perspective, one might say with Athanasius (that God cannot take back his Word that man will, as a state of nature [as in ‘wages of sin is death’], die because that is how creation through eternal law is constituted) and Anselm that a ‘debt’ is created to owed to death and the law, the law made by God. This places ‘the flesh’ under the authority of death and the devil so that, as early medievals said, the devil gained a ‘right’ (even a right from God because things only happen because God permits them) over humanity through death. In that sense, the debt is ‘paid’ for all to death and the devil. But Anselm had to invoke God because, by the nature, the devil cannot hold any debt from humanity. It is in this sense that a debt is paid to God. So, once God is seen as having established eternal laws and respecting them either through privation or direct action, reducing Athanasius’ ontological language, then legalism enters the equation.

    But even Athanasius at least acknowledges a legal aspect to ontology insofar as God establishes it from the beginning. From another perspective, though, leaving the language of law behind, death is the ontology of sin so that the Shekinah leaving the Garden and the Temple, thus leaving the people to be vomited from the Land, is a ‘natural’ consequence. Death is the fallout from shattered covenants, cosmic-entropic death from the cosmic covenant of Genesis 6 and Enochic literature. Death for Israel, the new Adam, is the fallout of its own covenant, leaving it prey for the elements and false powers of this world. That ‘unmaking’ could be seen as judgment legally but also, more importantly, catastrophe ontologically, death and false powers encroaching on Israel as it encroached on Cain or the Holy of Holies to be purged on the Day of Purgation. Israel and Adam will be vindicated before the nations enslaved to the fallen elements whom they worship before the divine Judge from what can either be seen as judgment or privative fallout open to death.

    In a sense, the problem with legal theology is it is presumptive – that is, it asks why God has not acted or rather knows that God has acted either by commission or omission (‘I form the light and create darkness’). It does affirm God’s sovereignty and thus his power to right wrongs but makes the buck stop at him, making the problem ‘legal.’ In an ontological theology, the powers of death and hell are given space to operate and allowed to become opponents of God so that, like the seraph serpents, God can save us from them. So the Passion becomes less about God’s judgment than a breaking and healing of the fallen nature and freeing it from the control of the elements, including death and hell, under which the ‘old Adam’ had fallen. Western theology, if I may make this generalization, was caught up with legal language in an effort to shore up the absolute power of God so early medievals, including greats like Abelard, who rejected Anselm’s objection, were left to affirm a legal right of the devil over humanity given by God. This need to shore up God’s power resulted from West’s interests in logical syllogisms and systems, a step in the direction of Calvin’s absolutist God: If God is all-powerful and things exist only by his will, then God must, directly or indirectly, either hold rights or give them away to the devil and hell. Evil cannot be left an independent mystery from the sovereignty of the One God so ‘law’ and ‘justice’ must fill the gap. Admittedly, this process begins with Gregory and Abelard when legal rights are assigned to the Devil. This is a short jump to satisfaction. Athanasius, except for a brief glimpse, leaves the issue of eternal law behind the curtain and focuses on this fallen world as we observe it – filled with death and decay, not asking as if there was another possible world whether by privation we were under judgment or legal condemnation. But, in the essence, the question boils down to why God could act but has not. The answer, in either case, would be that God has, once, through the Incarnation and Passion, and that is where it should end.

    I would almost say that, in a strict sense, neither theology is ‘wrong,’ but that an ontological perspective is more pastorally effective and more true in an Incarnational sense where God has in effect entered this story narrative himself. Just as we can only see the internal effects of sin from inside this world and not from the perspective of any eternal law or any possible number of worlds, and thus from the inside death is our enemy, so too has God entered on the inside to experience the narrative from our insider’s perspective, that of ontology.

    I cannot help but think of Fr. Kimel’s recent review of David B. Hart’s book on the topic of evil, and I probably owe some of this to that review.

    I apologize for the long post. The reflections strayed from the original topic as I thought more through it.

  28. Brian Avatar

    Someone will say, “But there are some Orthodox hymns that speak of payment for sin…and what about all the Scriptures that talk about the justice of God?”

    There are indeed some hymns that speak of ‘payment’ and ‘justice.’ However, it must be realized that assumptions are made when these words are heard through the prism of the legal/forensic model. Orthodox Christians have always 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 rightly be said to have sacrificed his life and ‘paid the cost of our freedom,’ but we do not infer from this that such a ‘payment’ was made to anyone.

    Likewise justice, both in the Scriptures (including the Old Testament!) and in the writings of the Fathers , means righteousness, love, goodness, compassion, fairness, right ordering, etc. When God is said to be ‘just’ in giving His Son over to death for our sakes, it has always been understood to mean that He redeemed us out of His righteousness, goodness, love, and compassion. The justice of a godly sort is revealed and understood in the way that Luke writes of the Betrothed when he discovered that Mary was with child, “…and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (rather than do what so-called ‘justice’ would seem to demand). The sort of justice that exacts retribution is foreign to the Biblical meaning of the word when speaking of God. This truly (i.e., Orthodox) understanding sheds an entirely different light on God’s justice in the Atonement than that which has unfortunately come to be commonly believed, and it causes passages such as these and many others 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 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 of one, 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 (again, the old Testament!) 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.”

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Brian. Absolutely.

    I would suggest that someone should marinate their soul and brain in 10 years worth of Orthodox liturgies and Vigils and then go read the Scriptures. Only then will they begin to yield their true meaning.

    It is as I said at the beginning of the article: you read what you think is there instead of what is there. A 10 year dose of the Father’s mind on union with Christ will yield a new ear – and the truth of things.

  30. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri


    Yes. Regarding ransom language, the OT even can speak of Abraham being as “redeemed” as in Isaiah 29:22: “This is what the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, says to the descendants of Jacob.” This isn’t any sort of real payment to anyone except maybe metaphorical slave-holder ‘Death’ insofar as Abraham is bought out of slavery and captivity to idolatry and ‘dead’ gods, brought to God’s own land, and made free from the elements of the world to serve and brought to life in the One God. So the Passover ‘bought’ the Israelites out of slavery to false gods and the terror of the Egyptians but without a real receiver of any payment.

  31. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    We can speak of the worth of a life traded for others, like Mother Theresa, like a natural loving mother of girls or boys who become women or men, like a man who will lose his life protecting others from senseless violence on a mean city street, and countless other examples. None of these trades is legal or forensic and yet we can speak of their worth, their value, the “deal” they made and how God was pleased. Yes, we can speak of a transaction in this way about Christ’s inestimable work on our behalf.

    To say, however, that he had to appease the Father’s wrath or satisfy the Father’s justice is where the words go wrong. If God was just he needn’t give us a thing including our very life.

    Anything that puts a wedge between Christ’s love for us and the Father’s love for us is ignorant about the Holy Trinity. God the Father was revealed on that cross. He wasn’t siting behind a high courtroom bench waiting for Jesus to say “it is finished” so he could bring down a gavel and open his arms. God is love.

  32. Greg Avatar

    Jeff while I appreciate deeply much of DB Hart – and am sympathetic to the project he attempted in Beauty of the Infinite – his reading of Anselm is pretty unconvincing. I don’t know anyone personally that finds it otherwise.

  33. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    I am lead to offer the conviction that the idea of substitution in general regardless of whether or not it is motivated by a desire to appease an angry God (escape punishment) is certainly inadequate in another sense — our essential participation.

    For me, such a “model” or “metaphor” completely sets to the side the essential nature of my participation in salvation through ongoing repentance/dying WITH and IN Christ. It deprives me of positive responsible relational investment.

    That is the fault of the notion of “instead” or “in place of,” in my opinion.

    The baptismal liturgy does not, as I read it, allow for such an interpretation of God’s saving work in Christ Jesus. We are all essential participants in the saving work.

    The substitutional “model” makes salvation something Christ Jesus does all alone. We become spectators. That is not what I see taking place in the Old and New Testaments.

    I see the at-one-ing work of God being accomplished “along with” and “in union with” humans for the sake of humans. Actually for the sake of the whole universe.

    Am I understanding you correctly, Father?

    Isn’t that what you were pointing to in your post “Our Conciliar Salvation”?

  34. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri

    Fr. Thomas,

    I agree with you. But I think the other side of this is Luther. It was his emphasis on Christ’s work ‘instead of’ our own own that reflects this substitution of Christ ‘for’ us – i.e., us obtaining the gift of Christ’s own righteousness, essentially alien to us and thus a pure gift, because we are unable to live righteously. This freed him from what he saw as an oppressive regime of repentances – what he characterized as the new ‘Law’ or ‘Torah’ given to us by the Church. The repentance could never be ours in his estimation so substitution is, for him, a liberation from ascetic demands.

    I don’t agree with Luther on this point, but I think it is with him that this dichotomy of drowning, to use Father’s analogy, ‘instead of’ us rather than ‘with us’ was introduced.

  35. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas


    I suspected that Luther would come up in the conversation at some point.

    The creation of a false adversarial relationship between faith and action makes the “instead of” necessary. And, it feeds the need for reading back into the Biblical narrative a substitutional motivation as the primary motive of God.

    One mistake nourishes and encourages the other one. They build on one another.

    Am I understanding you correctly?

  36. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    “…us obtaining the gift of Christ’s own righteousness, essentially alien to us and thus a pure gift, because we are unable to live righteously”

    I would have to say that I believe living righteously is not “alien to us.” I understand the word “righteous” to mean “true being” or “right being” or “being in right relationship with” rather than primary a matter of actions.

    We receive by participation “with” Christ in His dying and rising, “right being”. Once again it is “in participation” with not “instead of.”

    I think it is right to say He participates in my “wrong being” and I participate in His “right being”. My right being is not separate from His right being. Neither is it confused with His right being. They are united.

    So, Christ’s righteousness is shared with me not just attributed to me. I actually become righteous by participating in the gift of His righteousness. Isn’t that the original design for humanity?

    Father, please gently correct me if in any way I am off the mark.

  37. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Of course we are utterly other than God and therefore unable to participate with him essentially. I think the Orthodox understanding of grace might also be helpful here, i.e., participation in God is through His energies extended to us and no other way.

    In Western theologies where “grace” means something else or something less, many well-meaning mistakes can be made by those trying to understand how humanity can participate in the life of the God who’s incomprehensible nature is inaccessible. As a result, participation gets reduced to a joining of wills, of sufferings, or even put off into some future heaven where human nature will be changed. All these false notions miss seeing the glorious epiphanies where God revealed Himself in divinizing power and begged us to therein to participate.

  38. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    Indeed, all of what I put forward – theosis and divinization – is by grace in the fullest/best sense.

    Thanks for pressing me to add what I needed to add to my comment in the first place.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Thomas,
    Yes this is the essential thing. The understanding rooted in union makes for a seamless approach to the whole of the faith. It is the only adequate metaphor or image. Others can be useful, but only union has the ability to support the whole of the faith. It is simply foundational.

  40. newenglandsun Avatar

    Dante Aligheri,
    I agree that we need to be transformed in order to tolerate the overall perfection of God. But it’s more like waking up and seeing a bright light on. Our pupils need to be adjusted before we can tolerate the light. But this is much more of our own changing than it is so much that we need to actually be protected from the light. The light is not actually damaging us. The light is just simply something we cannot tolerate or are prevented from seeing in its fullness due to our present state. Hence, in the West, at Passion Sunday, we cover up the icons because our sin prevents us from seeing them in their fullness. But the icons are not harming us, per se, we are preventing ourselves from seeing them fully and are waiting for them to allow us to be transformed. Moses was unable to see the fullness of the glory of God because his own sins would have prevented him.

    If we note, Paul discusses further this veiling in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
    “But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed.” (2 Cor. 3:14-16)
    “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.” (2 Cor. 4:3)

    The men who perished in the flood refused to unveil themselves to the truth of God and were unable to tolerate the holiness of God. This, I think is what transformation does for us. It enables us to tolerate the goodness and splendidness of God. Wrath is much more metaphorical.

  41. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri


    I’m not so sure that Hart’s reading of Anselm is unconvincing. I think the major difference here is the different readings of law and justice versus ontology. It is possible to translate one into the other but with major repercussions. Yet we speak of natural law all of the time. So, it is part of fire’s nature to burn hot or tend upwards. At the same time, one could say it is a natural law that fire burn hot. The problem is that, conceived as law, then one has a tendency to conceive a situation outside the law where fire could burn cold or that some force is restraining fire within the law. Seen from ontology, with Athanasius, we fall from pure Being and hover over non-Being as, in our nature, we are literally nothing but not in the same way that God is No-Thing. Within our experience of this world, this is the case. The devil is ‘the lord of this world,’ and the nations are under the powers and principalities–the flesh, the world, and the devil–in our experience. Israel too is subject to the flesh under the Torah and thus in a state of death, subject to the nations. In all of human history, there is no possible world, except Eden, where this is not the case. Seen from this perspective, we are thrown into a situation from which we must be saved–that is, under the dominion of death and false principalities that God tramples by death. We also know, as a matter of course, how God has saved us from the devil and death and instituted the sacraments as vehicles of God’s life to us.

    But what law does is envisage a range outside of ontology. It is no longer a matter of nature but what law decrees. Justice or law becomes the quality by which fire burns hot. God could, in theory, if He so wanted as Sovereign, make fire burn cold. But God has elected only that fire burn hot. In a legal rendering, it is the law of being that God has created and chosen to respect as a matter of justice that when human beings are cut off from the source of Being they fall into non-being: it is “fitting,” as he might say. But law framing introduces the possibility that this decree might not be. So it becomes a matter of justice or natural law that sin leads to death and makes creation captive to the devil and death. God upholds this justice as much as he saves. It is this rendering that so disturbed Anselm. It asks the question why God, who is all-powerful, has allowed this state of being so that things must be the way they are, to go on. In the OT, too, this is seen as judgment. The ‘unmaking’ of creation at various times is, indirectly, attributed to the absence of God or his commission by absence, leaving the Garden or the Temple. But, in a legal reading, this is a matter of ‘natural law.’ In the ontological conception, it is in the nature of the thing. In the legal reading, the answer then is located in the way creation is constituted–that is, eternal law from the beginning. At that point, then, one is left to ask what rights the devil has over creation, and then one must conclude that God has at least allowed this situation to go on as a matter of justice and have done so because that is how God elected to do things because we know how God has in fact elected to act – thus, “it is fitting” that the Incarnation occur although salvation is conceivable in another way. It is against this very ancient majority reading of rights given to devil and death that Anselm reacts, unsuccessfully. Athanasius constructs the case of ontology in such a way that no other possibility is possible. I tend to like an ontological reading myself. But, spun positively, the Anselmian reading then at least allows in an extreme nominalist way for a free election and expression of gratuitous love – as it is in the Fransicans and Isaac of Nineveh. That, out of all possibilities, God has chosen to save in this way, that in itself has no bearing on the outcome. Thus the West gets into all sorts of quandaries about God’s ‘rewarding’ merit on behalf of an undebted action, etc.

    So it seems this is repercussion of talking about nature and creation as if it were a government obeying laws. Even today, scientists carry the baggage of talking about gravity or traveling light as though it were a natural law with a cosmic traffic officer. Now it isn’t really a law just as death due to falling from Being isn’t a law. But this reading, due to a legal understanding of God’s power, has opened up questions that Athanasius only briefly entertained where he said God could not revoke His Word but that the West has had to grapple with for better or worse. Just as Luther literally created a question of justification which never existed before him, and thus he framed the debate.

  42. Boyd Avatar

    Keep preachin’ it Brother!

  43. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri

    New England Sun,

    I absolutely agree. I don’t particularly like the legal reading nor that way of talking about wrath. It is, as you said, a “metaphor” just saying a hurricane is “angry” is a metaphor. A hurricane is simply what it is. But then we put ourselves there. One is from God’s perspective and the other from our limited human one.

    The only reason I brought it up, there and elsewhere on this post, was to explore some patristic sustainability for the Western narrative, particularly of Anselm, and maybe a rationale for for why the narrative took the form that it did, the particular issues it raises, and how it works within Scripture. For better or worse, the West responded to different theological questions, between the ‘fortress Europe’ mentality following the Turks, the collapse of the Empire and Gregorian Reform and the Protestant Reformation, and thus developed its vocabulary in its own way.

  44. Jeff Avatar

    I think Hart doesn’t suffer with ontological obsession , he can ‘see’ and explain things in different ways , epistemology , ontology , whatever, …, I’m sure that John Manoussakis new book ‘ For the unity of all’
    wil help those who can’t think in different categories , sometimes we make a religion out of ontology vs what others are actually trying to say ,

  45. newenglandsun Avatar

    Dante Aligheri,

    Thanks for the explanation. As much as I like the scholastics, I do think they stumbled upon some hermeneutical issues here and there such as with the fate of unbaptized infants.

  46. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri

    I am with you on that one. And, for as much as I try, I still prefer the more lively styles of an Athanasius or Theophilos to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa – although Thomas’ Scriptural commentaries have more personality to them than the Summa.

  47. maria Avatar

    But I hope Father Stephen will address the wrath of God, which is all through the Old and New Testaments.

  48. Dante Aligheri Avatar
    Dante Aligheri


    I seem to recall that Father Stephen has discussed the topic of divine wrath elsewhere in the blog, though I can’t place the title.

  49. Athanasios Avatar

    I have found The River of Fire helpful when considering the wrath of God: https://glory2godforallthings.com/the-river-of-fire-kalomiros/

  50. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    I think what Richard Feynman said about physics could also be applied to theology and I have thought this for a long time……..”Therefore psychologically we must keep all the theories in our heads, and every theoretical physicist who is any good knows six or seven different theoretical representations for exactly the same physics.”
    chapter 7, “Seeking New Laws,” p. 168

  51. drewster2000 Avatar

    You know, in a way the whole discussion comes down to a question like:

    Can I trust God or not?

    In my experience, when it comes to God this is the backwards way to approach it. Instead I first have to start with the assumptions that a) there is a God and b) He is good and c) He loves us.

    I believe it is from this foundation that we are best suited to understanding the difficult scriptures and deciding which view to take.

  52. lilium45 Avatar

    Beautiful! Father your blessing.

  53. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    Athanasios, here is something from the River of Fire. Do you suppose he is talking about Roman Catholic theology? He didn’t specify. If this is true I need to become Orthodox as soon as possible!

    What is salvation for Western theology? Is it not salvation from the wrath of God? 2
    Do you see, then, that Western theology teaches that our real danger and our real enemy is our Creator and God? Salvation, for Westerners, is to be saved from the hands of God!

  54. Athanasios Avatar

    Leonard, I cannot speak for every Western Christian or denomination, but I have generally found that to be the case. I grew up in the Baptist south (definitely not a Roman Catholic), and this was the understanding I had from my youth, as well as that of all my friends.

    There are those, though, like Bishop N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis (among others) who do not hold to such a view. During my own journey to Orthodoxy, I spoke with many Protestant pastors on this topic, and they said that I was not understanding the nuances of the wrath of God properly. Perhaps that is true, but whatever nuances they held to, I couldn’t hear it in their preaching – I simply heard the message that the Father needed to punish (pour His wrath out on) me for my transgressions, but that the Son stepped in to take that punishment in my place.

    I cannot say what anyone should or should not do, though, in their life. I made many mistakes on my journey to Orthodoxy, most especially because of my lack of patience and my growing dislike (and even fear) of Western theology. I would encourage seeking out an Orthodox Church, attending, speaking to the priest, but also keeping family, friends, and one’s current pastor aware of what is happening. Patience is key, and my priests helped me learn that… though I was a very impatient student and didn’t feel I learned that lesson quickly enough.

  55. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    I am no art historian or expert on iconography so I could be all wrong.

    So, this is just a guess.

    I am beginning to wonder if there is somewhat of a proclamation of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement in the Western portrayals of the crucifixion vs. the re-union model of the atonement in the iconographic portrayal. One can tend to be gory and the other portrays peace.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Thomas,
    Some have thought so. I’m not so sure. Art is very complex in its interplay with culture – particularly in the West where there were no canonical guidelines. Fr. Tom Hopko thought that Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was driven by that image, and I disagreed (though I may watch it again this year and reconsider). Pondering,..

  57. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    Mel Gibson represents the lunatic fringe of the RC Church. I personally think he’s a Jansenist which would explain his movie.

  58. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    As one who is journeying toward Orthodoxy at an excruciatingly slow pace from the Anglican Church and find myself somewhere in the frontier between the two, I have spent my whole life hearing what are called the “comfortable words” after the confession. One of the passages quoted is 1 John 2.1b-2 which reads:

    “And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”

    In light of this very enlightening and practical helpful post and discussion I find myself faithfully struggling to hear it with new ears via the union model. It sounds very “courtroom-penal” no matter how I listen to it. I guess I need to do what Fr. Stephen suggested all of us need to do, allow the “marinating in” as much of an Orthodox prayer life as possible continue and let it just be a question until the passage opens up to me by God’s grace.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Thomas, the 1979BCP (forgive me) renders the comfortable words: “and He is the perfect offering for our sins…” it works.

    You also might like Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition by Alchin

  60. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Fr Thomas,

    My understanding is that “propitiation” was a made-up sort of word, and that in Greek it is actually “mercy-seat” – which is the place in the Tabernacle/Temple where God and Man meet in worship. As both God and Man – union – the Lord is rightfully not only in that place, but is the “thing” itself. Perhaps that will help; if not, please forgive if it brings any confusion.


  61. Brian Avatar

    I would very interested to hear from Dino, our resident expert in Greek, about Dana’s comment.

  62. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    I tried to find it and I think ἱλασμός is the word translated propitiation. I could be wrong

  63. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    Here is one discussion of the word…….from the text……First, note the difference and distinction that Liddel and Scott make between
    secular and biblical use; Plutarch uses ἱλασμός when speaking of appeasing a god and
    segregates ‘propitiation’ and ‘sacrifice’ as (dare I say ‘solely’?) a New Testament


  64. drewster2000 Avatar

    Gibson’s Passion of Christ was so full of intense emotion that it’s difficult to discern whether or not there is a penal or substitution undertone to it. I think in this case it may be more according to Fr. Stephen’s comment that you see what you’re looking for.

    My opinion has always been that Gibson did the Crucifixion very well. My only regret is that neither he nor anyone else has been able to follow it up with a picture of the Resurrection that would balance it out. I’ve watched this film during Holy Week for the past 5 years or so and it never gets old. I have to watch it alone because no one close enough is strong enough – and perhaps I’m not strong enough – to share such deep pain. I never find myself sitting back, no longer awed by the performance and feeling that it’s been cheapened somehow by an aura of appeasing an angry God or something like that.

    Mel Gibson has many problems, but the Passion of Christ was a gift from God given through him as far as I’m concerned.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I tend to agree. I tend to prefer the resurrection left vague – I’m not certain how I would want to treat it.

  66. drewster2000 Avatar

    I had thought of that, the Resurrection being left vague for lack of our being able to treat it well. Still, if His final days on earth before ascending could be done with the same ability to capture the true spirit of how it was and what a risen Christ would be like….

  67. Robert Avatar

    ” you see what you’re looking for.” No doubt. And this is especially a problem for cinematic depictions, controlling not only the content of what is shown, but also how this content is experienced by the viewer.

    Not that the written word is entirely exempt from this problem, but at least there’s no musical score… 🙂

  68. drewster2000 Avatar

    True, Robert.

    But we all run cinematic productions in our head, of which we are in complete control. (grin) We all write a narrative of “the story of me” that Fr. Stephen talks about. No one is exempt from narrow and short-sighted bias.

  69. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    When interpreting Scripture, we need to remember to refer to the Fathers of the Church for the accepted meanings of what we are reading. We can plow through reams of material or refer to the Ancient Christian Commentary. The hard copy version is very expensive to have the full collection but one can get it on CD from Amazon for less than $300. It is organized so one only needs to search the data base by Chapter and verse and all comments made in any source (homily, epistle, commentary etc) are available at a click. I find it eases the burden of trying to understand the more difficult passages and concepts in Scripture.

  70. Robert Avatar

    Drewster, my point is that cinema in particular serves as potent fuel to what I like to call our “imachinations”. It feeds on our delusions through careful and deliberate manipulation of the senses to the point where we can’t distinguish between fact and fiction.

    That is not to say movies are completely without merit.

  71. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    I just read Sermon 142 on St. Luke’s Gospel, by St. Cyril of Alexandria.

    Wow… A stunning example of the union paradigm.

    It testifies, in my estimation, to the ability of the authentic paradigm of atonement to inherently and elegantly include every aspect of the Christian life.

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The drama of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection are poignantly told (with music) in the Church’s services of Holy Week – precisely that we might experience them rightly.

  73. Jeremy Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I go back and forth on whether substitutionary atonement is merely grossly overemphasized among Protestants or whether it is a total innovation as I think you are saying. I’d like to agree with you on this as it would make the matter much simpler to dismiss substitution categorically. Unfortunately, there are some obstacles I haven’t been able to get around.

    I can see how Isaiah 53 should be read as describing Christ’s participation or solidarity with us in our sufferings and not as a substitution. Good. However, there are so other many stories in the OT that are analogies of Christ’s sacrifice and many of these offer substitutional metaphors that I can’t find the power to explain way.

    Can you help me to see these from a non-substitutionary perspective?

    -the scapegoat

    -the passover lamb

    -the ram provided in place of Isaac

    -the love-child of David and Bathsheba

    -the redemption of every firstborn male

    -pretty much any time an animal was sacrificed

    You talk about the controlling metaphor. Would it not be passages like these from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures that would have provided the controlling metaphor for the apostles and the early church fathers (and still do for the church today)? I understand there are plenty of other metaphors found in the OT that are not in the least substitutionary, but how do we deal with these if we are not to ignore them?

  74. Athanasios Avatar


    Just to give a very quick crack at your question, I think the root of the issue lies in how we read the Scriptures. Do we begin with Jesus and what He reveals in His incarnation, death, resurrection? Do we take His life and teachings and understand the Old Testament in light of His revelation? Or do we read the Old Testament “forward” (so to speak)? Do we interpret Christ’s death in light of a particular understanding of Old Testament sacrifice?

    Interpretation has to happen somewhere. I was often told that I was reading the Old Testament wrong – that it was obvious that all of those things were not only substitionary, but explicitly dealing with penal substitutionary atonement and forensic justification.

    I now see this as taking a starting point other than Christ Himself. We interpret the Old in light of the New, not the other way around. This is not to say that ancient Israel even understand these events as substitutionary and we’re “reinventing” them. I believe there is ample evidence that they too were concerned with union, not penal subsitution. Regardless of how others have or have not understood these things in the past, the key question for us becomes: where do we begin?

    I could choose all kinds of starting points in the Scriptures. Based on my own economic, political, religious, or ethnic background, I could understand any number of verses or passages differently from others – and then interpret Christ’s death and resurrection (and my salvation) from within the context of my life experiences and particular understanding of Old Testament passages. Most people do this. I have absolutely done this.

    But the Church begins (and always has) with Jesus, Who came to unite us to the Father, to bring us back into communion with Himself, to rescue us from the grave by dying that we might be raised with Him.

  75. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    I think it might also be helpful to remember that we are not reading the Scriptures in their original language but in versions translated by others. Each person who translates brings their own set of beliefs into translating, either deliberately or as a consequence of how they think. Greek and Hebrew words do not always translate directly into one English word. Often we have to find words that get at” the concept present in the original language.
    A good example is the Hebrew word Hesed. Tied up in the Hebrew are ideas of mercy, good disposition toward another, and self giving to mention a few. We see this word translated as “loving kindness,” “long suffering” and “mercy.” One place in particular is where the Psalmist says “and your mercy endures forever.” In English, this statement can be a little flat but in Hebrew it is a rich and deeply meaningful phrase much richer than our English.
    We cannot all be language scholars but we can read the Church Fathers. While even their writings are translated we can get some idea of what was accepted as the meaning of the texts in question. We in the Western cultures see the world through eyes that seek justice and demand punishment for wrong doing. Therefore, when we translated the Hebrew word “Shophet” we write judgment and it conjures up images of a court room proceeding lending credence to the concept that jurisprudence is central to salvation. However, to the Hebrew the word means to set things right and reads as a promise of healing and correction. They do not mean or think of judgment in terms of a court room proceeding but as God as the Great Physician healing the ills of our souls.
    I hope this helps some in this discussion……

  76. Michelle Avatar


    You may find this helpful, its a quote from another poster from a while back. Its one of the best explanations of the sacrificial system of the OT that I’ve ever come across. It shows the meaning of animal sacrifices without the use of substitutional metaphors:

    From the article “The Moral Path of Being,” https://glory2godforallthings.com/2015/02/09/moral-path/

    AR says

    February 12, 2015 at 8:54 am

    “Ben, just to start with, I would like to point out that the groundwork for Paul’s legal teaching is his understanding of Old Testament Law. And this law, with its system of sacrifices, has been grossly misunderstood by people teaching substitutionary atonement. In the law, there is only one explicit instance of a person’s sins being “transferred” to an animal, for the animal to bear the consequences of that person’s sin. This animal was the scapegoat. And importantly, the scapegoat was not killed and eaten, or offered to God as a sweet savor. He was sent out of the camp – rejected, as we must do with our sins.

    We are not told that Christ is our scapegoat, but that he is our lamb.

    All of the other sacrifices are very different indeed. This was not ritual slaughter for the sake of the blood and the pain and the agony of the animal. It was not as if God was appeased by the animal’s suffering. Rather, these were food animals. These were animals that their owners would normally have killed and eaten for food. It had to be a male, because males are the food animals, while females are for breeding and milk. And it had to be the best, out of honor for God.

    The proof of this is the fact that grain, oil, and wine offerings were treated exactly the same way as offerings of meat.

    Then what happens? This food is given to God instead of being eaten at home. But then – mark this – the food, after being sacrificed, is given back to the family who offered it and they eat it in a celebratory meal! (Certain offerings were burned whole.)

    The picture is so different now. Instead of the lamb being a victim who bears the punishments of others so that God’s justice can be appeased and the law can have its due, we now see sinners voluntarily giving of their substance – their livelihood – their own life – their own being – to God. He gives it back, and God and sinner eat a meal together, reconciled, made family. It is this rendering of the life back to God that is the debt we owe him. It is this familial “boundary” if you will, that has been ruptured by our sinfulness. And it can only be healed by this action-in-good-faith on our part, and by what God makes of it when he returns our offering to us.

    Why, then, were animals never enough? Why was Christ shown to be the true Lamb of God, bearing away the sins, not just of a select family, but of the whole world?

    Christ, being flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood, becomes the very best that we have – our life – and we offer him to God, and God gives him back to us and we eat the Holy Meal with God, in the Eucharist, made family again, made whole again, truly and finally reconciled. His greatness in being is such that he is meal enough for the whole world – a spiritual meal, not just a physical one. His greatness is such that he is an offering worthy of the repentance the whole world owes to God.

    If you start there, you may be able to tease apart some of the other scriptural issues that come up.

    For Paul, I think that freedom from the law was very important, so he pointed out that even before the system of sacrifices was in place, Abraham was justified similarly just by believing God. He quotes Genesis to this effect. If we assume that Abraham, without the law there to help him, did the same basic thing that the law later led people to do, we now see that believing God is a form of offering one’s life and repentance to him, and can be counted as righteousness even without following the law. Since Paul explicitly makes this argument, it’s hard to see that he is being very legal.

    Christ fulfilled the law by being the Lamb that all the lambs pointed to – the Bread of Life that all the grain offerings pointed to. In so doing, he freed us from the specific requirements of the law – that is, we no longer have to offer lambs because the Lamb has been offered once for all.

    ‘Justified’ means, made righteous. An evangelical must assume that it means “legally counted as righteous even when you’re not,” in order for this verse to be in his side.

    Finally, I’ll point out that no evangelical has ever known what to do with John 6. If they point out the stuff from Paul, you can mildly mention that Christ said no one can be saved without eating his flesh and drinking his blood. That’s pretty ontological.”

    Took me awhile to find this. Hope AR doesn’t mind me quoting her, but its a good one.

  77. Robert Avatar

    “We are not told that Christ is our scapegoat, but that he is our lamb.”

    Perhaps he is not called the scapegoat, but reference is made to Christ functioning as scapegoat, such as in Hebrews 13:12.

  78. Jeremy Avatar


    To be more clear, I am not defending *penal* substitution. Indeed, none of the OT passages I listed involved any courtroom proceedings. The story of Isaac on Mt. Moriah had nothing to do with punishment whatever. In the case of the death of David’s son by Bathsheba, God is pronouncing the consequence of David’s sin, but it is not a legal transaction in any literal sense. And the only way to read the passover as penal substitution — where a sentence is passed, but then another receives the penalty in the place of the guilty party, thus rendering the sentence fulfilled — is to arbitrarily impose that courtroom metaphor where it doesn’t belong (unless your preconceived notions prescribe it). I get that.

    But I can’t deny that substitution of some kind does take place in these stories. Consider the following passage from Exodus 13:

    11 “And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstlings of your cattle that are males shall be the Lord’s. 13 Every firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem. 14 And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 15 For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes; for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”

    Clearly the passover lambs, and the subsequent lambs killed to redeem each firstborn son of Israel, are offered in place of the firstborn sons of Israel. Again, there is nothing forensic about this, but the lamb is taking the place of the firstborn child. It is not joining with him in death, it is dying instead of him.

    I love what Fr. Stephen said about Christ death being an act of union with us, and that is not only true, but is probably the paramount explanation of his sacrificial death. Nonetheless, Scripture and the fathers use other figures as well to convey what Christ did. Since 1st Corinthians 5 calls Christ our Passover Lamb, we evidently *are* supposed to interpret his death in light of that OT concept. I don’t see how we can deny that Christ took our place in some sense. I am not sure exactly in *what* sense.

    It doesn’t seem to occur to most Protestants that offering a sacrifice or being a sacrificial victim doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with punishment at all. When Noah made sacrifices after the flood, he did so as a means of giving thanks, and not because of any sin. The same may be said of all the sacrifices of the patriarchs, and most of the sacrifices of the Aaronic priesthood (some were sin offerings, but most were other types of offerings — and even the sin offerings, such as the atoning scapegoat do not naturally fit into the paradigm of executing a courtroom sentence).

    With that said, several questions seem to follow: What is the meaning of a sacrifice? What would be the hypothetical meaning of a firstborn son being sacrificed? What is the meaning of a lamb being offered as a victim in place of a firstborn son?

    It is just as you said, Athanasios! The answer to these questions it to be found in what Christ did on the cross. That event is what all the foregoing sacrifices were pointing to. But look at what that means: it means that every significant aspect of those prefigurements has been recapitulated and fulfilled in what He did, and therefore the Church’s soteriology must be broad enough to embrace every aspect of those prefiguring sacrifices — including the substitutionary aspect which some of the most famous of the sacrifice stories undeniably had.

  79. Robert Avatar

    I don’t think anyone is contradicting that here Jeremy. It is more an issue of emphasis, as to what is the controlling metaphor that is used.

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar


    Sacrifice is actually quite problematic – with the meaning somewhat obscure. Clearly, the offering of the firstborn was a common Middle East thing, both prior to Abraham and Israel, and contemporary to it (the worship of Moloch involved this). It was essentially a fertility offering. The firstborn was offered as a sacrifice to guarantee the God’s pleasure and its willingness to bless you with more. It is the likely background to the sacrifice of Isaac. Many people ask, “How could Abraham have even considered it?” Because it was normal practice at the time.

    And there is certainly something of a substitution (not penal) as you say. The “take this one instead” has something of that about it. But there is a very strong notion that in such a substitution, it is not just that the sacrifice takes my place, but that somehow the sacrifice and I have a union, and it is still me that is being sacrificed.

    It is worth noting that the sacrificial system was subject to abuse in Israel – and the abuse was the tendency to see it as “buying God off.” This was certainly the case for pagan sacrifice. God railed against this in the prophets. The sacrificial system must be seen for what it is. God took a pagan practice and changed it – because it could be given the deeper meaning and union with the coming and primordial sacrifice of Christ.

    Our modern culture has simply lost touch with the notion of union. Everything is about contract and legal understandings. Thus, the punishment theory of the atonement simply rings true in some cultural sense. But our culture should be seen as having lost something, and passed into a new “paganism” in which contract and legal notions reign supreme. We sacrifice out children to the culture of freedom and consumerism, etc.

    So, we have to redeem these things as well. It is true, Christ was/is in all of the sacrifices and types.

    On atonement theory – Finlan’s book Problems with Atonement is worth a read.

  81. Jeremy Avatar

    Thanks for your response, Father.

    “But there is a very strong notion that in such a substitution, it is not just that the sacrifice takes my place, but that somehow the sacrifice and I have a union, and it is still me that is being sacrificed.”

    I’ll have to ponder that for a while.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think one of the things that occurs to me is that God does not demand the sacrifice of our first born. He “redeems” what was a terrible (and common) religious practice. There, the god Moloch (and others) was “owed” the life of the first born. It was hideous. So, first, God rescues Abraham and Israel from this terrible practice. But the meaning remains hidden (to be revealed in Christ).

    On the “union” aspect – this sense is a deep part of most ancient cultures, Israel included, and only becomes obscure with modern theories of the individual.

  83. Brian Avatar

    It occurs to me that when we speak of the Atonement and its foreshadowing in the O.T. sacrifices we tend to focus almost exclusively on the death of Christ – or, if not His death alone, then on His incarnation, life death, resurrection, and ascension ‘alone.’

    But there is another aspect to many, if not most, of the sacrifices prescribed by the law, most notably the Pascal lamb. The sacrifices were eaten, and this eating was understood to unite one’s self with the one to whom the sacrifice was offered. This is rather clear when St. Paul writes…

    “What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship [communion] with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?”

    Perhaps this could serve to broaden our contemplation of the Atonement and its foreshadowing by way of union? It seems also even to widen the scope of the Atonement itself. At least from our perspective as persons, can the Atonement – that is, our union with God – be complete apart from the union that comes of eating the flesh of Christ and drinking His blood? When I contemplate this in the context of the whole Baptismal Liturgy, the immediate communion that follows, and what our Lord said…

    “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.”

    …it makes my head spin with joy!

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed this particularly points to the inadequacy of the punishment metaphor. It simply does not account for the sacrificial meal and its unitive aspect. In Christianity, it does not account for the sacraments, but ultimately leads to a loss of the sacramental world-view. The more Patristic metaphor of union alone is able to sustain the whole of the gospel.

  85. Justin Avatar

    You know, I never understood this idea of “union” until I read the rest of Leviticus 10, carefully.

    Verse 17 (after all the drama): Why did you not eat the sin-offering in the holy place? For because it is most holy he has given you this to eat, that you might take away the sin of the congregation, and make atonement for them before the Lord.

    It still just leaves me agog at what this seems to imply.

    Thank you,
    Justin (a lurker)

  86. Athanasios Avatar

    Brian, that is a very good point. I was thinking something similar with the sprinkling of the sacrificial blood on the people, and St. Paul’s words regarding putting on Christ. The sacrifice for the people was always united to the people in some way. It’s quite a different thing than, say, throwing a virgin into a volcano sort of substitution.

  87. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. The Virgin in the volcano is a good example of substitution, even penal substitution. It has been made to seem “kinder” by banalities of how God’s justice must be satisfied, etc. That notion is simply false. There is no “must” in God, and, frankly, it is at least wrong, possibly heretical to assert that there is such a necessity.

  88. Dino Avatar

    The unitive (rather than punitive) element of Christ’s solidarity with mankind is also explained by Elder Sophrony, using a kind of notion that can be seen as ‘justification’ – a kind of ‘Double justification’:
    When Man sides with the accuser, accusing his Maker for the evil and suffering he sees around him, (rather than looking to find its source elsewhere), Christ (as all-loving God on the Cross) ‘justifies’ God, reversing what the accuser suggests. On the other hand, Christ (as an all-forgiving man on the Cross) ‘justifies’ mankind.
    Indeed, the Cross is the all-transforming center of all being, and our union with the Cross is -paradoxically- our unbroken unity with eternal life.

  89. Wesley Avatar

    I so love this article. I have being sharing an atonement based on identification rather than on substitution for a few years and have become progressively more convinced of the importance of it. Your article is a real blessing.

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