Getting Your Mind Right

cool-hand-luke-egg-sceneIn the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke (1967), the lead character struggles in a Deep South prison chain-gang setting. Very cool towards authority, he is finally, at the Warden’s direction, beaten by the guards. There is a memorable bit of dialog:

Luke (lying in a grave he’s been forced to dig): Oh God! Oh God! I pray to God you don’t hit me anymore. I’ll do anything you say, but I can’t take anymore.

Workboss: You got your mind right, Luke?

Luke: Yeah, I got it right. Oh, I got it right, Boss.

Workboss: Suppose you was to backslide on us? Suppose you was to back-sass?

Luke is in a hostile universe whose only reason to exist is to produce docile cooperation in the cheap labor of the chain gang. Some tiny modicum of peace (though no dignity) is promised, if only you get your mind right. In the end, Luke cannot do what is asked of him.

The character is one of the classic anti-heroes, typical of its decade.  After a time of seeming docility, Luke makes a break for it and even runs the dogs to death! Of course, he dies. Shot unnecessarily in order to make the warden’s point.

Luke is something of a Christ figure, a symbol of a truly free mind to those who remain imprisoned . “He was a world beater!” one of the men declares.

“Getting your mind right,” has remained a very active image for me over the years. It is the abiding threat of a world that promises rewards to those who no longer mind. “Going along with things” is bad enough. However, to “go along” because you have actually yielded your heart and your will is soul crushing. Something properly human is lost.

In a strange way, I see this at work within the ranks of many Christians. And here I do not refer to getting your mind right and agreeing with the world. Instead, I mean getting your mind right and agreeing that God and His justice is the author of our worst fears.

When God meets with Moses on the Holy Mount, the people become distracted and demand that a golden calf be created so they can worship it. God becomes angry and says to Moses:

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses begged the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people.

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’”

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exo 32:9-14)

Of course, this is a very strange passage and has perplexed generations. “The Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do…” But, rather than getting lost in idle speculation, the text points to something absolutely essential. Moses does not “get his mind right” and agree to go along with the wholesale destruction of the people of Israel. He pleads their case before God.

Moses is not alone is such actions. Abraham famously does something similar when the Lord tells him of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we are all too lacking in the likes of Moses and Abraham.

What I see, all too frequently, is a willingness both to argue why it is right for God to destroy His people or to eliminate whole cities from the globe. Some go so far as to assert that it is not only right but actually necessary. “God is a holy God. He cannot deny His justice,” they say.

I think I understand the nature of the argument. There is a concern that something within the Scriptures might be violated. There is a concern that gainsaying the punishments of God is just one more effort of modernity to set aside the teaching of the faith. But what is not seen, I think, is just what is happening to the heart of a Christian when he gets his mind right and makes peace with the “punishments” of God.

First, he parts ways with Moses and Abraham. It is not only Moses and Abraham who are lost, but the whole heart of the Orthodox tradition. For that heart is clearly heard in the words of Moses and Abraham. They do not argue theology with God. But neither do they stand aside and say, “My heart must be wrong.” They do not get their minds right.

I believe that God didn’t want them to get their minds right. In the merciful pleading of Abraham and the rebuke of Moses, God heard the echo of His own heart. He can say of Abraham, “This is a man after my own heart.” Moses is the “friend of God.”

When such a heart is absent, we simply become functionaries, explaining to others why things must be as they are. We become apologists for the very thing that Moses and Abraham resisted.

In modern conversations, the topic of God’s punishments seems to turn on what is necessary or right and wrong. Those are interesting questions, but they are beside the true point. The point is found in the heart of the matter. Will we plead for God’s mercy for all? Will we argue with Him and take the side of those who deserve punishment? Will we beg for another year’s mercy for the fig tree so that it may be tended and cared for yet again?

I have written before that the story of Christ’s Pascha is the central core of the Christian faith and the reality that must shape all of our understanding. The position of Moses and Abraham is paschal in nature. Moses stands over an idolatrous people, deserving of destruction and pleads for them. He is Christ-like, descending into a desert Hades to lead his people out…even if he has to rebuke God in order to do so. Abraham delays the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as he argues with God.

Christ came for the unrighteous. He seemed to go looking for harlots and tax collectors. Christ is the revelation of the heart of God. It is a heart that “broods” over Jerusalem like a mother hen gathering her chicks. He rebukes the disciples when they eagerly ask to call down fire from heaven to consume an entire village.

There are mistakes of the heart to be made in the other direction, as well. It is possible to substitute some interpretive position that all will be well, in such a way that the argument and the rebuke disappear. In this, there is no Moses, no Abraham, just the universe going about its way while we blissfully go about ours.

St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life,” and then he prayed as though he believed it. There certainly is a judgment, and there certainly is a hell. Many suffer, both just and unjust. We have not been appointed to construct a metaphysics that we find pleasing or satisfying. We must never “get our minds right.”

To use the imagery of the movie (which are highly paschal), the world and its present arrangement are a road prison. Our job is never to become apologists for the Warden and the guards. The “justice” of their world is no justice at all. We await, not a new, just Warden, but the abolition of the prison itself. We dare not justify the sufferings of this life, much less extend them into the age to come. We have been appointed to intercede for the world, to argue and to rebuke. The martyrs in heaven beneath the throne of God complain. The widow importunes the judge. The Samaritan woman begs for her son’s life like a little doggie at the master’s table. And it is there that we find our true heart and become the friends of God.



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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109 responses to “Getting Your Mind Right”

  1. Bruce McPherson Avatar
    Bruce McPherson

    Father Bless!!!

    Very thought provoking…

    The question of my ability to ‘discern’ the will of God is one that seems much larger than me … way beyond me. How can I begin to trust my judgement or discernment of what to argue and what to faithfully accept?

    How do we reconcile the Abraham that argued with God with the faith of Abraham so rightfully elevated as central to our lives and our inheritance as one willing without argument to slay his own son at God’s request?

    At least to me, much of what I need to slay is that mistaken belief that I can know the will of God apart from Him. How do we both abide in Him and argue with Him?

    Much love in Christ….Bruce

  2. Stephanie Avatar

    “The abolition of the prison itself.” I like that picture of freedom from death and corruption. As a relatively new convert from a Protestant church, 4 years ago, I very much appreciated your recent post, The Death of Christ and the Life of Man.
    Could you please explain the passage from today’s post when God says to Moses, “therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”
    How do I rightly understand this when I am trying explain to non-orthodox people that God is not an angry, wrathful God. They just take this literally and say that God is, indeed, full of wrath against sinners.
    Thank you, Father.

  3. Corey Avatar

    I’m reminded of the fight between God and Jacob, and Jacob’s new name. Some times people attempt to translate this in a less shocking fashion, but here it is all the same: “Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Gen 32: 28). I once read a book, deeply flawed in many ways, where the culminating point of the novel was simply that God was looking for someone to argue with Him, to defend even those that God said he was about to destroy. I haven’t the slightest clue what practical effect this might have on our day to day lives, but someone it all feels important.

  4. RVW Avatar

    Father, bless,

    The intercessions of Moses and Abraham, I think, are mirrored in the litanies of the Church, as St Paul urges “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…this is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim. 2:1, 3-4). The work of the Church is constant intercession for all, especially for the salvation of all: whatever will happen is not our task, rather we are to be constantly pleading with God for everyone’s salvation, with the example of Abraham and Moses giving us hope that our prayers will be answered.


  5. Bruce McPherson Avatar
    Bruce McPherson

    One other question/comment:

    If the model of Love is manifest in the Trinity and a foundation of that Love is lack of argument but a Faith that always defers and faithfully trusts in the Other, how do we rightfully elevate argument with God as virtue and not vice?

    I’m also reminded of Christ’s comment to Peter …. ‘get behind my Satan’ when in worldly expression of love He attempts to get in way of the Otherworldly Love we can not understand but can participate in.

  6. ben marston Avatar
    ben marston

    Father, I am no theologian, and I have tried and failed for most of my 66 years to get my mind around the mystery that is ours in Christ. I am concerned here that there is here, in what some Orthodox call the New Soteriology, a tendency to a Marcionite rejection of the God of the Old Testament, of the giver of the Law, hence a God of justice, and that of the New, the font of mercy. The souls under the altar,after all, called out for Divine vengeance. I think of the apostle Wh said ´knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.’ It seems that it is a false assumption, that retribution is the same as hatred, whereas Divine justice is consonant with Divine goodness. It seems to project onto final Judgment that each individual is in the driver´so dear of his final disposition in Christ, is contrary to the Creed and to Litrugical assertion that He shall come to be our judge, and by a sovereign and free determination, enact our ultimate sentencing. Otherwise God is neither sovereign or free. Of course we have a problem with God but only because we have a behavioral and ontological problem with ourselves. We break the righteousness of the Law because we are in ourselves inveterate lawbreakers. We shall be judged by our deeds because we are embodied beings who inner ontology is expressed in deeds, hence judgment comes by God by vs good justice or his good mercy, according to the deeds done in the body, which is not an ontological, but a legal category.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Stephanie, one of the great difficulties in the Church is coming to peace with the reality that God acts in antinomical ways with us. That is two seemingly contradictory realities are, in fact, one truth. Separating them in any way distorts the truth.

    The biggest of these is that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. How can this be.
    Yet historically and existentially when one of these seemingly opposite poles is chosen over the other, heresy results.

    Somehow, I know not how, the seemingly contradictory dualities of judgment and mercy are a whole. St. Paul points this out routinely in his teaching. Over and over again he stresses the immutability of the truth and what happens when we go against it: we will suffer the consequences, yet what are we to do with Hebrews 4:16 and 1 Cor 3:12.

    It was when I realized that the Orthodox Church considers the mercy and judgment of God a whole reality that I knew I was home. I had seen too many who live in the hardness of moral and spiritual judgment and too many that were instantly wiling to forgive everything because “we are not to judge” and “God loves us just the way we are”. Both are wrong. Both are heretical in nature I think. (That does not make anyone who professes them a heretic BTW–please do not think that as all of us have or partake to one degree or another with heretical thoughts and beliefs).

    It is certainly, as Father writes, not about moral or spiritual progress as those do not really exist as we think they do. The actions of Moses and Abraham in their interceding are a preview of the Incarnation I think. Flesh crying out to be raised up not to die in our shame: our ignorance of God. (Ignorance is both a passive lack of knowledge and experience as well as an active refusal to pay attention, i.e, to ignore God).

    I am not sure you can counter your friends arguments without the danger of making the duality more stark and falling into error yourself (unintentionally). The only way I know to avoid that is to acknowledge the truth of what they say and then tell them “the rest of the story”. What I call the Paul Harvey approach to evangelism.

    Such an approach takes great sensitivity and humility and a deep understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ who unites all things, transforms all things, raises all things. Nevertheless, we can at least say, you are right, but there is more, much more revealed in the life and teaching of our Lord. Tell your story to the extent that you know it, in love and fearlessness if God leads you to do so. Some people are not ready to listen. It is those that you bless, asking that God fill their lives with mercy and all good things.

    Humans beings are indeed mud. But our muddy composition is such that in the right circumstance, with the right conditions we can become radiant stones. As the old country song states: “I am just an old lump of coal, but I’m gonna be a diamond some day.” Even coal ash that has gone through the fire can be transformed, not of our own will but by the grace of Him who is everywhere present filling ALL THINGS.

    We are things, creatures who can do nothing, know nothing of ourselves. Yet God has revealed Himself to us and has not departed.

    Glory to God for his grace and mercy, his pruning and his trials.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not certain about a so-called “New Soteriology.” It’s hard to call St. Gregory of Nyssa new, etc. My insistence is that Pascha is, and always should be, primary in our life, faith and practice. I also contend that the justice stuff is itself “new,” particular as it came to be expressed in certain strains of the Christian faith. Christ will indeed come to be our judge. But the role of a judge is to set things right. He is our advocate. I like very much the imagery that I’ve used in the article. We are all in Egypt together, all in the Road Prison. Read St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily over and over again. There’s a reason the Church reserves it for the pinnacle moment of the Christian year, to be read everywhere and by all. Nothing else in all of the homiletic treasures of the Church enjoys such a privilege. Read it. Chew on it. Let it chew it’s way through the fog of legal imagery.

    These images of “sovereign,” “just,” etc. are simply not the primary images of the Fathers. Frankly, they are the primary images of Calvinism. They frame the questions in the wrong way. If all we had were the gospels, and no other part of the New Testament, such concerns would clearly be seen to be those of the Pharisees, not of Christ nor of those whom He saves. And my point is that this is a matter of the heart. Our hearts have been darkened and chained by these justice images. Where is the feast of God’s judgement? There are certainly warnings (and they should be heeded). But there is no joy or peace that is given to us in the imagery of justice.

    The charge of Marcionism is false, and, I think, comes from a misperception of the Scriptures and the heart of the Patristic witness. There is indeed a great struggle around these things. We have a long way to go to free ourselves of the dark legacy of the forensic gospel. Read the homily. Read St. Silouan. Pray for a good heart.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ben, my perspective as I read and listen to Father Stephen is not that he is like Marcion at all, rather he is rejecting the defacto Calvinist idea that the New Testament be interpreted in light of the Old. Father is following the Apostolic way, indeed the way of Jesus Christ Himself that the Scripture (what we call the Old Testament) are all about Jesus Christ, His salvific work.

    It is not easy to get into when the prevailing religious mind is quite contrary to it.

    I had the great grace of hearing Father in person this last weekend. He said many things that have stuck with me and have begun to penetrate my soul (Thank you again Father). Two things that he said in passing are really relevant here I think:

    “Where is the ever-virginity of Mary in the Bible?” His answer: “The Burning Bush”
    “Where is the descent into Hades in the Bible?” His answer: “The Book of Jonah”

    There is a deep fullness to the reality of salvation that most treat with a cavalier certainty that approaches blasphemy at times. Our brains and our logical thoughts are entirely unable to penetrate to the depths that are required, especially when our premise that we can is so wrong.

    I think it is worth noting here that Calvinism has officially been rejected by the Orthodox Church in 1672 that was published as the Confession of Dositheus.

    While there are points in the Confession that can be questioned and the language is certainly archaic, but its refutation of the Calvinist thought remains normative, I believe. It affirms the Eucharistic quality of the life of the believer which rests, as Father Stephen points out in giving thanks to God for all things so that all may be transformed by his Grace.

    All that results in death and subjugation is not of God whether it be the secular mind of the world or the dark mentality of doom, condemnation and guilt that permeates so much religious thought. Equally as dark is the mentality that equates freedom with license and says “do what you will, God forgives”. Sane people flee from such things.

    The reality of salvation is much more profound, much deeper and requires the human heart to enter into the seeming contradictions, embrace them and allow God to resolve the seeming difference.

  10. kLutz Avatar

    Thank-you, Michael Bauman, for stating this (19Apr2016,9:42am):
    “Ignorance is both a passive lack of knowledge and experience as well as an active refusal to pay attention, i.e, to ignore God.”

    Long before I knew anything of Orthodoxy (which is just now being revealed to me!) I found this truth of my ignorance, indeed, of the arrogance of my intelligence, which I hang upon the Cross daily. This ignorance, especially of the later instance, seems to be the matter of death, the root of sinfulness. And possibly the greatest stumbling block to our communion with God. His immeasurable Love will not contend with a self-infatuation that puts Him in a box of human understanding/ignorance.

    Please pray for this deranged neophyte.

  11. Dan Avatar

    I have always struggled with what felt like Christians demanding that I “get my mind right”. First in the protestant form of mental formula, then in the pacifist strain of not wanting justice. In the spirit of Cool Hand Luke, and Moses and Jacob, I really can’t accept either notion.

    Amongst the pacifistic strain, it seems so many things become wildly conflated. Perhaps its in reaction to these ideas becoming conflated in a Calvinist strain. I don’t know. Justice isn’t merely a stew of hatred, rage, revenge, wrath etc. Moses uses an appeal to justice to advocate for God’s mercy for the Israelites. Other times Justice is hard, but its not hatred. The idea that we don’t defend other people against evil is immoral and awful. Sometimes justice requires force, and we can, should and do rejoice in that, because its natural and good. We have to “get our mind right” in order to drum that goodness out of ourselves. Fairy tales are full of this sort of justice, and they resonate with us because they are about justice and goodness, which are much more the same thing than justice and wrath.

  12. Pete Avatar


    Thank you for your words.

    This whole stream of thought has been my meditation for the last 5 or 6 months. It is pounding in my brain and I can’t shake it. I must carry the mantle of Christ to its full end. The ‘fullness of the stature of Christ’ are expressions we bandy about. When we start to really understand and live in a manner that willingly absorbs the wounds of my brothers and sisters…. that is the fullness of the stature of Christ. Only now are we ‘starting’ to see. Oh, my God, I’ve been such a fool for so long! How could I not see this!? is the lament and confession.

    Understanding the fullness of the communion of his sufferings (Phil 3:10). This is a martyrdom; a martyrdom done for others. There is no sense of a ‘spiritual feat’ being done, because the object is love.

    The truth of this is unpleasant initially (or for long periods). We can’t be worldly and ‘do’ this. One must develop ‘a taste for it.’ The path to do this consistently, it seems to be, by the testimony of our saints (who are our brothers and sisters, what a joy to contemplate!), is to pray for others; to know those we pray for well; to know something of their hell so, I can better participate in their sufferings. I must live to bear my brothers burdens. Love willingly bears torment. I no longer have a reason outside of this to even live; … to even live. Anything less is merely playing with my spiritual “rubrics cube” and that will be its own reward.

    This kind of martyrdom comes only through a genuine perception of our ontological state (think St. Mary of Egypt, think St. Andrew of Crete). We miss this because we never see our transformation (From and To – that is the key reality here – transform/transfigure) from the psychological state to the spiritual state. There is a chasm. We have crossed the other side. Have faith.

    Colossians 1:13
    13 (Christ) Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:

    The whole stream of thought here is best read from Colossians 1:9 through v. 13.
    This takes tremendous courage and absolutely no cowardice because we are really talking about our martyrdom, but it’s not our martyrdom!, it is Christ’s martyrdom (see Phil 3:10) done with our community and the living saints (in the eschaton) even now.

    This is the breath of the spirit that our saints capture. This certainly calls to mind St. Mary of Egypt, St. Ignatius (who literally couldn’t be martyred fast enough!) and St Seraphim of Sarov. We draw much nourishment from our cloud of witnesses that we are growing to know.

    Of course, St Silouan is a luminary among the stars I return to “at all times.”

    Father, I love your imagery of Cool Hand Luke.

    It’s a great and blessed thing when every day things start to speak to us in profound ways.

  13. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank You Father. Very thought provoking. The tendency of getting the mind right reminds me of a few church groups that seem to make the news often. This has plenty to chew on.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As I noted to Fr. Andrew, my caveat is to the heart. How easily the rightness of the heart is thwarted by a strange peace we make with something that should rock our senses and bring us to outrage. It is, I think, something that makes us less than human. The worst Christian example that comes to mind is the easy peace that some make with the damnation of those who never heard of Christ. Why don’t their hearts rage against it? The head, guided by some wrong apprehension of dogma, short-circuits our humanity and turns us into purveyors of doctrinal monstrosities. And, somehow, we fail to see how inhuman all of this is.

    We forget that many Christians supported, or at least tolerated Hitler’s rise to power. I think that toleration was set in place by generations of complacent acceptance of bad doctrine. “Bad people must suffer.” The heart learns very dark habits – something that any child would find naturally abhorrent. Anytime the faith is being used to assuage and change such natural abhorrences, bells should sound in our heads. Something strange is afoot. Guard your heart!

  15. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless,
    I agree with your caveat wholeheartedly. During the Incarnation, we saw God enfleshed and yet, He never condemned the sinner or called for a stoning. He sought redemption and healing for the many sinners He came to save. If we can see any angst towards a sinner it is in the self righteousness of the Sadducees and Pharisees and He was speaking of their attitudes not their persons. As God did tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and yet prevented him from doing so, I have to wonder if He was pushing Moses and Abraham to express their compassion instead of being “Yes Men.” It takes a special person to stand aside from the crowd mentality and it almost seems to me that Abraham and Moses were being groomed.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The worst Christian example that comes to mind is the easy peace that some make with the damnation of those who never heard of Christ.

    As well as those who willing condemn infants who have never been baptized. Sometime those who claim they are atheists are refusing to believe in a monstrous God but have never been shown any other.

    How strange it is that when shown even an inkling of a God who is not monstrous, there is a revolt or at least a serious remonstrance.

    God forgive me.

  17. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Does not our Lord Himself contradict the words of Scripture/Jewish tradition and this Satanic notion of justice we are all so fond of when he said, “You have heard it said, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, but NOW I tell you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. Is Christ not the definitive answer to the prayers of Moses and Abraham? Did He not love and pray for those who nailed Him to the Cross? Does not mercy triumph over judgment?

    Yes, God is just, but His justice is restorative, not retributive. His justice is about making things right: restoring humanity to our rightful place as priests of His Creation in full union and fellowship with Him, He who IS love. This is why Christ the great High Priest indeed is the first fruits of the dead, God and man fully united, the archetype and fulfillment of our destiny who will receive His scandalous love.

    Forgive me, brothers and sisters.

  18. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Very thought provoking. Thank you.

  19. Dee of St. Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St. Herman’s

    Father Stephen and Michael Bauman, thank you for your comments here.

    My understanding about the language used concerning God in the scriptures and the various ways people might misinterpret them is shaped partly by what I witnessed as the difficulties students have to understanding phenomena at the molecular level.

    I taught chemistry to college students and sometimes they took molecular models presented in their texts in a literal fashion. All molecules and atoms are active and moving. Research shows that even at 0 degrees Kelvin there is vibrational motion in molecules. But all texts represent molecules as though they were static. Furthermore, we teach specific degrees of angle within molecules, which again, as a concept taken by itself, sounds like we are ‘preaching’ molecules as static entities. Therefore when shown a computerized version of molecules that vibrate and are ‘active’, students seemed to understand what they saw on their computer, but still they are not able to translate that back to their texts. In fact, it seemed to the students that what we chemists were giving them was conflicting information about molecular phenomena.

    Almost all of our instrumentation we have to explore molecular processes still delivers that information to us in a kind of “snap-shot” fashion. In every respect scientists must use their experience working with the data over time to get a fuller, deeper understanding of the processes going on at the molecular level. Just reading research papers (or textbooks) doesn’t really support this deeper understanding. Rather it is active, engaged, lived exploration that lends to our understanding. And yet such understanding is not garnered alone, we still need a community–our understanding is relational.

    Observing students’ difficulties in their interpretation of their texts helped me to understand how important contextual learning is to our understanding, particularly with things that cannot be seen with our eyes. Perhaps it is for this reason Christ often used parables to teach and also why He had disciples that walked and lived with Him in His life before the Cross. I am only a catechumen and my understanding is still tenuous, but what understanding I have so far has come to me from the Tradition of the Church which is also the Life of the Church. I believe understanding the Scriptures also requires “living in them” or rather living in the embodiment of them in the Church.

    This is how I understand what Father Stephen has said, when he mentions that understanding is a matter of the heart. I hope I’m paraphrasing correctly. God is infinite Justice and infinite Love. But what is meant in these words is a matter of the heart. The Life Boat that is the Church as helped me to understand the words of the Gospel more deeply. The God of Jonah spared Nineveh, and yet Jonah almost seemed to grumble in the end about God’s justice shown in the act of love.

    My heart is in flames for my sins as I approach my baptism. But to the best of my understanding it isn’t the wrath of God that has put my heart into flames and neither is the fear of God’s wrath the reason that I approach the Cross. It is Love in all of its glory.

  20. Byron Avatar

    Wonderfully stated, Dee! Thank you for that!

  21. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I’ve recently heard at least 2 presidential candidates who, in their endeavor to stop ISIS, would want to carpet bomb Syria or bomb Iraq back to the stone age (I’m paraphrasing, but this was their theme). Sounds like someone wanting to call down fire from heaven. It’s almost as if it’s impossible for these men to believe that, at least before the recent wars, millions of our Christian brothers and sisters live in the Middle East…besides all the innocent Muslim children such bombing would provoke. My heart aches from such short-sighted statements. Also, I’m Orthodox, but I was so pleased to see Pope Francis bring back the 3 Syrian refugee families with him to Italy, highlighting the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, again many of whom are Christian.
    Thank you again for your articles. Your short statement recently on sin was the best I’ve read, focusing our attention on its relational rather than legal character. Dee, your comments such as the one above are wonderful, relating your science/teaching perspective to what father has written. Thanks.

  22. Maria Avatar

    Dee of St Herman’s,

    thank you for your easy to understand post. Blessings to your meaningful baptism coming up and Church life. Your teaching skills will work wonders I pray.

    Thank you Father Freeman for giving us your understandings of scripture. A lot to chew on and much appreciated.

  23. Pete Avatar


    Something to keep in mind is that God is supra-rational. He is beyond rationality as we would understand it. If he were merely rational and everything about him was counter intuitive to us, that would point to a mere polarity which he clearly is not. The model is too simplistic. It would be a ‘reduction’ to the uncircumscribility of God.

    We already know we will not ‘get our head’s’ around him. Apparent ‘contradictions’ only ‘make sense.’ Only a God that is not knowable makes sense. The Church understands this, of course, as his essence.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Because it’s not quite so rational. The nature of that relationship of love seems, for the sake of our salvation, to include argument and rebuke.

  25. Tullius Avatar

    Thank you father for this:

    “These images of ‘sovereign,’ ‘just,’ etc. are simply not the primary images of the Fathers. Frankly, they are the primary images of Calvinism. They frame the questions in the wrong way. If all we had were the gospels, and no other part of the New Testament, such concerns would clearly be seen to be those of the Pharisees, not of Christ nor of those whom He saves. And my point is that this is a matter of the heart. Our hearts have been darkened and chained by these justice images. Where is the feast of God’s judgement? There are certainly warnings (and they should be heeded). But there is no joy or peace that is given to us in the imagery of justice.”

    And thank you Michael for this:

    “Rather [Fr. Stephen] is rejecting the de facto Calvinist idea that the New Testament be interpreted in light of the Old. Father is following the Apostolic way, indeed the way of Jesus Christ Himself that the Scripture (what we call the Old Testament) are all about Jesus Christ, His salvific work.”


    “All that results in death and subjugation is not of God whether it be the secular mind of the world or the dark mentality of doom, condemnation and guilt that permeates so much religious thought. Equally as dark is the mentality that equates freedom with license and says ‘do what you will, God forgives’. Sane people flee from such things.”

    Sorry simply to repost. But now I can find these lovely insights more quickly.

  26. Dean Avatar

    My comment above should have read, “besides all the innocent Muslim children such bombing would kill.”

  27. Bruce McPherson Avatar
    Bruce McPherson

    Thank you for your comments Father Stephen and Pete

    However, I have done a poor job of communicating my real point. In my earlier post, I think I acknowledge the straight jacket of rationality with my statement that describes God’s will as an ‘Otherworldly Love we can not understand but can participate in’.

    Here is my key point. I believe, at the level of my rather immature journey with Christ, it is a mistake to elevate argument above obedience. I have lived much of my life in argument and disobedience to a God who would not conform to my desires and plans. A small god of my own selfish desires that the world revolve around me. Real growth for me, and I believe many of us, is to daily (moment by moment) let go of this idea that God is on trial and His will conforms to my desires as I embrace the absolute certainty that what I will and what God wills are different but that true communion with God is found in trusting, obeying, and and faithfully relying (not defying) Him.

    Without attempting to argue here, listen to these words from Thomas Hopko which capture the key point I’m very poorly attempting to make:

    It is beyond any doubt that we Christians are convinced that we are created for life; it is not God’s will that we die. God doesn’t want death; He wants life. In the Scripture, death is the enemy. The Apostle Paul even calls death, “the last enemy”. Death is not natural, not a natural part of our life and not willed by God. The Wisdom of Solomon, which for us is part of the Bible, says very clearly, “God did not create death”. Death comes into the world as a rebellion against God. Death comes into the world because people do not choose life, but choose death, darkness, and themselves over God.

    St. Athanasios said, “if you choose yourself you are choosing nothing, because that what you are without God”, since we are created out of nothing. For God gives our whole life to us, Who is the living God and the only One Who lives.

    It is our teaching that death results from human rebellion against God from the beginning and with the help of the demons (who are lovers of death, darkness and evil). The Bible teaches actually teaches kind of a ‘package plan’, you have God, truth, life and glory, or you have the demons, darkness, death, satan, sin, corruption, ugliness and rot. This is the basic reality, and there is no middle path.

    In the eight chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says, “working in our members is always a heterosnomos (another law)”. Human beings think that they are economists, in other words, they are ‘a law unto themselves’, but according to the Scriptures we are not. Either there is the law (nomos) of Christ, which the Apostle Paul calls the law of the Holy Spirit and Life in his Epistle to the Romans, or there is the law of sin and death. There is either one law or the other that works, if it isn’t the one it is the other. Here we interpret the Genesis story as the choice of death. Furthermore, it is even not strictly Orthodox to think of sin as a corrupted choice or making the wrong choice. I believe that our teaching is that the problem is not whether it is right or wrong but choice itself (as taught by St. Maximos the Confessor), because if you are a creature you have no choice.

    If there is God and God is God and God is the living God and God is Who He is, our only choice is to give up our choice and listen to and obey Him. This is very important to understand, because the modern people think that the more choices they have and the more they deliberate the more the freer they are, however this is not Biblical. What we say is that if there is God, at any given moment the only choice we have is to give up choice and obey Him, listen to Him, trust Him, to love Him and to believe Him. The primordial sin is exactly saying “no, I will not obey, trust or love God. I will do it my way”. You know what takes place when you do it your way; you perish and die. That is where death comes from. Where there is obedience, love and trust in God, there can not be death. If one was to obey God totally, live in communion with God, trust and love God in everything, that person will not be able to die.

    So, given my history, it is very dangerous for me to engage in argument with God when my track record suggests that this argument leads to disobedience and the true sin of separation from My Life and My God.

    I am not yet advanced enough to honestly be capable of arguing with the same God that I am struggling to accept fully as ‘Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Everywhere Present Filling All Things, Treasury of Good Gifts, and Giver of Life” and thus invite Him to “come and abide in us and save our souls O Good One’.

    The reality that so much of what I see is one where He is not yet everywhere present and filling all things shows that my journey is still just beginning. And rather than argue with God, I pray for new eyes to see and ears to hear …. and that the source of these eyes is from Him not me.

    Your blog is a great blessing and gift to me. I am truly grateful for you and the amazing body of work God has revealed through you.

    Much love in Christ….Bruce

  28. Laura Avatar

    Father, bless.
    Thank you for this post. There’s more I want to say, but I just want to think about pleading for God’s mercy, not only for myself but for all.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you are correct in how you understand this. My point probably should not be generalized too easily. First, I am convinced beyond everything that God is good. I think that both Abraham and Moses are deeply convinced of this as well…because they know God. The dialog we get in the Scriptures is just that – a dialog. I’ve often thought of Moses as telling God to be who he is. It is, as I noted, a very problematic passage.

    My concern is for the heart in writing this. Specifically for the heart that makes peace with bad theology. I have, for exampe, been chilled to the bone in conversations with Calvinists. But, perhaps I push the point too far. Blessings!

  30. Chris Avatar

    There’s still something amiss for me in God’s judgement/wrath, particularly when it comes to incidences like Sodom and Gomorrah. If we are to understand God’s judgement/wrath working for the good – being therapeutic and pedagogical – how can this be applied to a group of people whom God delivers to death (like the townsfolk of Sodom and Gomorrah)? Perhaps death (or the seconds leading up to death?) was the only means of salvation for a people that unrepentant, corrupted, and distorted?

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I think there is a problem trying to know about God historically and conceptually. Good theology it seems to me is founded in real experience. Some things just need to be shelfed. IMO

  32. Peter Avatar

    Two things that come to mind, the first is the story of King Solomon judging rightly between the two mothers. 1 Kings 3:16-28

    The grotesqueness of a king commanding that an infant be cut in half. The true mother pleading for the child’s life out of love, even if the child will no longer be hers. The indifference from the false mother. The mercy and compassion of the king.

    This makes me think of Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh, Abraham and Issac, our shared life and humanity.

    Another thing that comes to mind is in terms of parenting. There are times as a parent where we suggest that we solve a problem by doing something that is grotesque and silly, to bring things into perspective. The right thing is seen to be more truly right when put in contrast with the grotesquely wrong.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s not exactly clear. However, Christ says it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than it will for Capernaum (Matt. 11:24). So, for one, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is not the final word, there is something that remains for them. The judgments of God are “righteous altogether,” and way more mysterious than we tend to think in our oversimplifications.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To All,
    Many of the passages on judgment, etc., occur in parables, which means they are stories told for our instruction. It is good then to be instructed – but especially to consider what the point of the instruction is. I’ve seen the parable of the sheep and goats used, for example, as though it were a parable on heaven and hell, when it’s a parable on “the least of these my brethren.” And then, many, misunderstanding, rush out to judge and cast into hell, the least of Christ’s brethren, have considered them to be among the goats.

    This is why I say that it’s the state of the heart that is essential in the reading of Scripture and the understanding of the Tradition. The disciples clearly do not understand Jesus until after His Pascha. There are many (maybe even most) Christians who try to understand Christ and the whole of our faith apart from Pascha, and therefore always get it wrong.

    The messiah expected by the disciples was pretty much what many still think, only they’ve postponed it until His Second Coming. I’ve heard that Jesus was very nice and gentle in His First Coming, but will coming as a Judge (and therefore stern and full of rebuke and condemnation) in His Second Coming. And then, these same people think that their imaginary Second-Coming Jesus is the model and standard for Christian teaching and behavior. It’s a sort of “end run” around Pascha, to get back to the false Messiah expected by so many.

    The angels tell us that this “same Jesus” who ascends into heaven will return. His character does not change, nor was He only pretending to be kind and generous. There will be judgment, though the Judgement Seat of Christ is His Cross. It is the Crucified Christ that we will appear before (just like the 2 thieves).

    I hear a gospel of Christ preached quite often in which you get Jesus with an asterisk (Jesus*). So that every kind word He speaks, every act of generosity, every movement of forgiveness, must carry a caveat saying, “But He will not always be this way. He’s going to come back and be really angry…”

    And what all of this means is that the God of our heart is, in fact, the Second One, the angry one, the consigner to hell, worm and fire. And I think that this is a darkening of the heart and is championed because of the darkness of our hearts. I’m not sure how to persuade others of this, other than to keep writing and throwing one image after another up until, by grace, we might realize that the problem is not in the Scriptures but in our hearts. Only grace can make that possible.

    There is a sort of Marcionism at work in all of this. Only in reverse. Marcion denied the God of the OT. This new Marcionism doesn’t deny that false reading (the “God of the OT”). Indeed, it champions Him and treats Jesus as mostly just an interlude between the OT wrath, and the wrath of the Age to Come. It isn’t the OT God who is denied, but the Paschal Christ who is diminished.

    I have just finished the service of the hours in the Church in which the entire gospel of Matthew is read aloud. My heart is full.

  35. Dan Avatar


    It seems possible to me that God, in his all knowing judgement, saw the level of debasement and spiritual death in Sodom and Gomorrah and knew that, in this life, the townsfolk could/would only continue to move further away from him in life. An abrupt end might actually be the best way to keep them “close” or as close as possible and allow the best chance at salvation, restoration, reunion, on the other side of the veil? I’m just speculating on a way this could all be consistent with God’s character and desire for us, not trying to make any theological argument or claim. I’m comfortable with it being a mystery.

    I do think there are people who can get such bad theology/philosophy and cultural formation that they lose the ability to choose God. Take the case of a child who grows up brainwashed into becoming a suicide bomber or something similar (and there are probably many much less dramatic examples). Anyway, it seems possible to me that where God commands or carries out mass exterminations, it could, in his all knowing wisdom, actually be merciful.

  36. Constantine Avatar

    Father, bless.

    I was drawn in by your use of Cool Hand Luke as an example. I know that this is not the time or place to discuss movies, but I was interested to read your take on it. I have to admit that when I first saw the movie I was disappointed by the ending. I thought it was the familiar Orwellian slant of 1984, the system always crushing the individual, no matter how hard he tries.

    I much prefer the idea of Luke as someone who keeps fighting against getting his ‘mind right’ as the one who dies as a rebel.

    I kept re-reading the post and although I don’t grasp some of the details, I think you speak in favour of following our hearts/consciousness even when hard and personally inconvenient. I find this so hard to do! Yet, if this is the underlying meaning of Luke’s story, I have been too hasty in judging him…

  37. Chris Avatar

    Thank you for your insights, Dan, Father, and everyone else. I know I really don’t have the proper mind and heart of the Church when it comes to the interpretation of these passages. I think it’s partially rooted in inexperience, but primarily in not fully believing that God is all-good, merciful, etc. Please pray for me.

  38. Pete Avatar


    It is interesting to note that the two times in the Old Testament where someone argued with God is in the area of petitioning God on behalf of his people.

    If the Old Testament is a shadow, the New Testament an icon and the eschaton truth (St.Maximos the Confessor), seeing things in these passages may not be so problematic.

    You said Bruce and I certainly think this ties in,

    “The reality that so much of what I see is one where He is not yet everywhere present and filling all things shows that my journey is still just beginning. And rather than argue with God, I pray for new eyes to see and ears to hear”

    Moving to the New Testament where we are speaking of icon, (to see what’s been hidden) a very interesting passage by St. Paul is found in Romans 8:26-27

    26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

    27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.

    This stream of thought continues in only a few verses, Romans 9:1-3
    I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost,
    2 That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart.
    3 For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh:

    These are intense passages about intercession. To have the heart of God in front of God, this is the picture (icon) the Holy Apostle Paul puts before us.

    This vision; these eyes and these ears to hear, is this the ‘end of the law?’, in the sense of that which is complete? i.e., perfected in us – in the sense of wholeness. ‘To be accursed from Christ for my brethren,’ These are the words of a saint.

    It is the plea of a saint that carries into the eschaton.

  39. Justin Avatar

    Fr Stephen:
    I have also noticed the “Jesus with an asterisk” mentality. (In fact, I was raised on it.)
    Of supreme import in this regard is Christ’s auto-identifying his entire life of meek Humility – including the Cross – not by saying “I do what I see the Father needs to appease/satisfy His wrath/nature” or anything like that, but rather,

  40. marybenton Avatar

    A fascinating post and discussion that I am just getting to tonight. Too many fine points to comment on them all.

    One valuable thing that occurred to me in reading the post is another new consideration in understanding Old Testament stories. As you have often pointed out Fr. Stephen, Scripture was not recorded with the intent of being a history book, particularly not in the sense that we moderns look at history. What occurred to me this evening is to reflect on why a given story may have been told.

    With the stories of both Abraham and Moses begging God to be merciful, our minds often fixate on the “evil” that God was about to do and we puzzle over how God could have been planning to do evil. But that may have been incidental language in the telling of a story that was really ABOUT something else. The story may have been recorded to tell of God’s mercy, this love personified in the begging of the holy man to save his people who, by their actions, were creating their own destruction. The Mercy (I believe) was always there – but the story was to help people to see it, to know its truth.

    I think we often imagine that God’s justice and mercy are at odds with each other – and yet how could they be? Do we imagine that God is full of “wrath” and that we must pray so that He will change His mind? This is not the God of my heart.

    I have been reflecting and writing in the last year on themes related to God’s wrath/love and justice/mercy. I share links to a couple of such articles here, in the event that they might add something to the reflections here:
    (Fr. Stephen – feel free to remove this last paragraph if you prefer not to include the links.)

  41. Gaius Avatar

    Interesting article, Father. I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It would have been interesting to discover how you think the story in the Book of Job fits in to this also.

  42. Mark Avatar

    FINALLY! (re: the heart of Moses and Abraham)

    I know I’m late in writing, but this blog has rather brought to a head a subject I have been on the verge of wrestling with since I became Orthodox (maybe am becoming would be more accurate).

    While I’m willing and even glad to believe that we are not born guilty (culpable was Fr. Hopko’s word, I believe), but rather “inclined” toward sin by fallen nature. The idea of debt is still hard to reject. One Evangelical writer pointed out that the Lord’s words “It is finished” are the same words written on the certificate of debt in the Roman prison system when a guilty party had served his time. Apparently the words meant “Paid in full” at least according to this person. There is also the parable of the man forgiven a debt of 10,000 talants.

    I am not arguing for the concept of indebtedness, I’m looking for a new way to see what I’ve seen before. My “theology”, such as it is, has become rather fluid in my conversion.

    Regarding the wrath of God though, there was the earlier incident of the flood where God “repented” that He had made man. There was also the command to Israel to wipe out the inhabitants of the Promised Land even down to the animals. I do know some of the practices of those inhabitants and understand, at least superficially, how vile they were. I also agree with the words from Ezekiel that “God takes no pleasure in the death of the ungodly…”. So how do I see these events.

    I know I’m late to write, Fr. Stephen and I hope you look back sometimes at your blogs. I really have no one else to ask about the subjects you bring up.

  43. Alan Avatar


    I see the parable of the man forgiven the large debt as a rejection of the Protestant idea of debt. To me, if the Protestant idea was true, the parable would read differently. The person who chose to simply forgive the debt would say something like….”look, I’d like to forgive this debt you owe me, but justice demands payment, therefore I can’t do that. Someone has to pay.” The same thing is true with the prodigal son. The father doesn’t say that justice demands that someone pay. Rather, because the father is loving, he simply freely forgives the son and welcomes him back. No payment.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, I strongly suspect what you’ve heard is a bit of Evangelical “urban legend” style preaching. The verb can indeed carry the meaning of a debt being paid. It’s just interesting to think of the Roman prison system operating in Greek. Roman law was decidedly a Latin affair. A lot of Greek for other stuff…

    Debt is an important concept in the Scripture, and it’s always a bad thing. There are strict laws controlling debt in the OT and guaranteeing that it cannot be used to permanently enslave anyone. God does not want to make slaves of us. The notion of a “sin debt” is abhorrent in that sense.

    In the parable of the talents, the debt is not paid – it is forgiven. A very different thing. Jesus came to destroy debt, not to pay it. Here is a link to an article on debt.

    Learning to the read the Scriptures, in which its stories reveal things to us about God is difficult. All Christian reading of the OT must be read through the lens of Christ. Those who do this in a backward sense fall into error.

    The Fathers said that the OT is a “shadow” of the truth. Too many people try to read it as though it was a clear, literal presentation of the truth. It is not. That is the witness of the Fathers. It is shadow.

    The New Testament is “icon of the truth” according to the Fathers. It is a faithful image and can be used to understand and clarify the shadow. The age to come is the truth itself, the fathers said, when all things will be clear.

    Frankly, at a certain point in Christian history, an alternative gospel was created. This was not the gospel of Pascha, the primitive and abiding witness of the Orthodox faith. Instead, it was the story of the wrathful God and the infinitely indebted people of earth. We are the bad guys, deserving of every possible punishment. Etc.

    The scope of Scripture and the message of Pascha is utterly foreign to that story. The true Paschal story is of a people who are in bondage, held captive. They are to be pitied rather than blamed. Christ comes to destroy the false debt of death and set us free. He leads us into the promised land. He tramples down death by death. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is.

    The false story makes no sense of most of Christian practice. The sacraments are like “add-on’s”. They don’t fit in the story, and so they become less and less important in the practice of a false Christianity. The mystery of the Eucharist, the true participation in the life and death of Christ, the salvation and union given to us in His Body and Blood, fade into a light memorial, grape juice and crackers, minimally practiced and minimally understood.

    The debt and legal nonsense of the false narrative gave us marriage as a contract rather than marriage as a union, giving rise to the insanity we see today of contractual marriage of every possible configuration.

    On and on, the consequences of the false narrative and its distortion of the Christian faith have reached its metaphors into almost every aspect of Christianity. Its fruit is confusion, chaos and caricature.

    My suggestion to those in Orthodoxy is to lay aside everything that has been suggested from those tainted sources. Drink pure water. Read the services of the Church. Let Holy Week bathe you. Get its service books and read them. Let them guide your mind and heart in the understanding of the faith and of Scripture.

    There are many people of good heart and good intentions who have never heard anything but the distorted gospel of the debtor God. God give them grace. But their conversations largely produce doubt and confusion, and sow guilt in the hearts of the faithful and a fear of God that is a distortion of the true fear enjoined in Scripture.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have often wondered what impact Dante’s Inferno had on our image of God? Was it a reflection of theology or did it help form what followed?

  46. Mark Avatar

    Thank-you Fr. Stephen for “looking back”. Little by little light is dawning, the cup is filling, the good news becomes better and better.

    To the best of my understanding, God entered my life in grace and communion; it wasn’t non-verbal, but it wasn’t particularly “rational” either. I’m hesitant to use the word “felt”, but my knowledge of Him was more along the lines of intuitive than it was contractual.

    I prayed a prayer, some months later I heard a voice. I had no doubt Who it was. I understood things about the speaker that the words themselves didn’t communicate. I said “Okay”. My life changed. I’ve wanted to retrace my steps and learn more of the One Who spoke.

    Thanks for helping.

  47. Mark Avatar

    By the way, regarding debt: when Jesus first spoke in the synagogue He said He came to do several thing, but the last one was to proclaim “the favorable year of the Lord”. Would that have been the year of jubilee? The forgiving of all debts.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, it is a reference to the Jubilee. The coming of the Kingdom should be understood as a fulfillment of the Jubilee – the Great Jubilee of which the earlier ones were but a shadow.

    I will add that this aspect (Jubilee) is entirely consonant with the Paschal imagery of liberation, defeating death, setting us free. I has nothing in common with the paying what is owed/forensic model.

    That model, again, is simply out of place in the Christian story.

  49. Justin Avatar

    This is SO worth the read. Especially the last sentence.

    It is simply impossible to reconcile the true God of the Scriptures with the false god of forensic satisfaction. Take just about anything. Here are a few examples:

    True God: “God is love,” and “love keeps no record of wrongs.”
    False god: keeps a record of all wrongs, for which he demands full satisfaction, down to the smallest one.

    True God: “Love covers a multitude of wrongs”
    False god: “…with myriad abusive blows to the innocent in place of the guilty.”

    True God: “It is the glory of the righteous to overlook an offense.”
    False god: cannot overlook a a single offense, no matter how slight, demanding full satisfaction for each and every one.

    True God: “Forgive as I have forgiven you.”
    False god: So-called “forgiveness” consists in finding an innocent other to beat the snot out of in the offender’s place. Therefore, according to this command, so should his followers.

    True God: “Be holy as I am Holy.”
    False god: So-called “holiness” demands an innocent person be punished in place of the offender. Again, according to this command, this god’s followers are required to relate to other humans this way.

    True God: “Follow me.”
    False god: “Do as I say, not as I do.” You are required to live to a higher standard than the god is capable of – the god demands his satisfaction, but you are forbidden the same.

    True God: “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.”
    False god: “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, find an innocent bystander and slap HIM on the left in the offenders place.”

    And on and on, and on and on…

    God is the Father who runs to embrace the Prodigal Son, not the satanic elder brother who refuses the Prodigal, demanding that someone MUST pay for the Prodigal’s offense (even if it is the innocent Father himself. Interestingly, “all I have is yours” ISN’T ENOUGH for the elder brother, who demands infinite satisfaction because of his nature. Sound familiar?).
    God is the Good Samaritan, not the priest/levite who passes disdainfully by.

    The final Word (note well the capital letter there):
    “I strip naked, become a slave, bow down at your feet and wash them…I DO WHAT I SEE THE FATHER DOING.”

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To use the imagery of the movie (which are highly paschal), the world and its present arrangement are a road prison. Our job is never to become apologists for the Warden and the guards. The “justice” of their world is no justice at all. We await, not a new, just Warden, but the abolition of the prison itself. We dare not justify the sufferings of this life, much less extend them into the age to come. We have been appointed to intercede for the world, to argue and to rebuke. The martyrs in heaven beneath the throne of God complain. The widow importunes the judge. The Samaritan woman begs for her son’s life like a little doggie at the master’s table. And it is there that we find our true heart and become the friends of God.

    I find that this same process goes on in confession, or seems to. The priest is there with us, not to condemn us, but to be an intercessor for us, a guide and a guardian as we go naked before the Lord. He clothes us with his stole and keeps the world at bay. He lays his hands upon us, the same hands that offer up the bread and wine to be transformed into the Body and Blood. As Father Stephen points out, he helps us bear our shame.

    On the tours of my parish that I have given in the past, I frequently point out the small kneeler at the side where we come to offer confession and both the position and what goes on in our confession is unique in the Christian world.

    Nothing we do is ever done alone, not really. We don’t even die alone as the angels come to escort us.

  51. Mark Avatar

    Please forgive me, Fr. Stephen. In my BTW comment, I mentioned “debt” again. I didn’t intend to sound as though I was trying to shore up the “debt scenario”.

    Dusting off memory cells (my Bible isn’t handy), I believe in the Jubilee year all things were restored: boundaries that had been moved, lands lost, slaves freed, those who had fled to cities of refuge allowed to safely leave. Although it followed the 49th year, a Sabbath year, the year of Jubilee was also a Sabbath year, perhaps foreshadowing the “eighth day”. “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” (somewhere in Hebrews 3, I think).

    Anyway, thanks again.

  52. Jessica M. Avatar
    Jessica M.

    Regarding the metaphor of debt to describe the work of the Atonement – I can see that it is easy to misunderstand and misapply in the modern context, all the more for one raised Baptist as I was. But I have been meditating on the idea of cancelling a debt for the last several days as I follow the comments, and it has been, I think, life-giving and awe-inspiring for me (in contrast to penal substitution, which is not).

    If a creditor freely cancels a debt, does it not imply that the creditor “eats the cost” of that debt – in writing off the loss, does not the creditor suffer? And might that not be another way to understand the Cross – as God in Jesus absorbing the loss in Himself, rather than demanding payment from a solvent (innocent) bystander? I suppose another way to ask this might be – could we redeem the debt metaphor, too, if we shift the emphasis to God Himself suffering in Christ, rather than Christ suffering to satisfy God?

    Please correct me if I am wrong. I am deeply over my head.

  53. Karen Avatar

    Jessica, I think God in Christ absorbing the cost (and suffering) of our “debt” is spot on. Christ’s language of ransom/redemption in the Scriptures is taken from the context of ransoming a slave from slavery (i.e, buying his freedom). In this context, it is an apt image completely consonant with the shape of Pascha.

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suppose I’m still doubtful of describing God as holding a debt. Christ does not ransom us from the Father. What is problematic for many is that the debt, the slavery, the being held in bondage are all descriptors used of our situation. But it nowhere defines who is doing that to us. St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus), examined the question, and concluded that neither the Father nor the devil could be described in this manner, and added that the matter ends in silence.

    If the debt had been owed to God, who then chose to absorb it and let us go, then He would have done so long before. He has no desire to see us enslaved.

    The Cross is eternal (the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth) in some mysterious manner. Christ has always been setting us free. That reality was made manifest in history in 33 ad. but has been true from the beginning. We tread in deep water in all of these things. What becomes difficult is to describe the Cross in straight-forward historical narrative (as so many attempt to do).

    I like the destruction of our debt, but find it difficult to extend the metaphor beyond its destruction. It is, of course, a metaphor.

  55. Karen Avatar

    The “debt” is not to God. It is death (or the fear of death), not God, that holds us in bondage to sin according to the New Testament. There is no disagreement it seems to me that it is God in Christ who freely pays the cost of delivering us from that bondage. However, it is taking the image too far to claim the debt was actually owed to God or to the devil. That the debt was held by God is explicitly denied by St. Gregory the Theologian (as Fr. Stephen has many times pointed out in this blog), and that it was legitimately owed to the devil (a popular image in the early Church) was also ultimately officially explicitly repudiated in the teaching of the Church within its first few centuries (and this is also clearly articulated by St. Gregory, whose position was that held to reflect the mind of the Church).

  56. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Fr Stephen,

    If there was no debt to Satan or to God, who’s left?

    It seems there was no debt to be cancelled!

  57. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Moses appears to have well had the mind/ heart of God in his intercession for Israel. Picturing for us, too, the ultimate Intercessor, our Lord Jesus Christ. He neither outsmarted God, nor outloved God, but was tested to prove his love for the people and his confidence in the mercy of God!

    Just so, Paul tells us: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Romans 12:1-3.)

    And Peter reminds us: But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen. (2 Peter 3:18).

    Just as we have the mind of Christ, so too, are we to grow in this knowledge of Him, by his Spirit.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, we can use the image of debt. However, you make demands of a metaphor that are not given to us. You demand that the metaphor (debt, ransom, etc.) be a literal configuration. You want a cast of characters and a sort of flat-footed account of exactly how things work. These kind of explanations create as many theological problems as they solve and profess to know things that they don’t. They create a sort of literal description of the metaphysics and mechanics of heaven that are about as silly as the stories of the pagan Greeks, which they resemble.

    The tradition, interpreting Scripture, does not supply a character as the holder of a debt. It simply speaks of debt or ransom. St. Basil describes our being “ransomed from death,” but says nothing more. St. Gregory specifically and categorically eliminates either God as debtor or the devil as debtor, saying that the matter is simply shrouded in silence. He doesn’t jettison the image, but he clear points to its limitations.

    Others, abandoning the tradition for their own imagination, have insisted that someone has to hold the debt, and so their imagination supplies an answer, I can only suppose because they imagine themselves to be greater than the Tradition. Doing theology in an Orthodox manner means that sometimes you end in silence and sit there. God does not give us silence in order for us to improvise our own solo. There are so many improvised Protestant solos that get sillier and sillier in their pretensions to knowledge.

    I know the debt. We all know its bondage. We can know the ransom and the freedom in Christ. And that’s what He gives us to know. It’s a useful metaphor. Perhaps it is only a metaphor, something that “carries across” (the meaning of metaphor) a reality that cannot be completely expressed in other manners. The insistence on a literal mechanical description of the atonement is a late invention of human arrogance and has done a great deal of damage.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I indeed think that what is happening in Moses is something God understands. I don’t think Moses changes God’s mind in some literal manner. But I’m not a literalist, so I’m not bothered by that.

  60. Pete Avatar


    Since the very natural of all things in Eastern Orthodoxy is ontological and therefore communal (and only because of That) our salvation is ontological and communal (therefore there is no ‘exchange’ separate from this), I am thinking that the notion of ‘deficit’, in the sense of what is lacking in that relationship between God and man, maybe a better word than ‘debt?’

    As you said, these various expressions such as ‘debt’ are ‘images’ we use. Is it logical to assume the image we use contains the fullest of all possible expressions? An icon (image) in this age participates fully in ontological truth. But I am talking about what can be Expressed Fully in a given image used.

    Definitely curious to know if the root word in Greek for the words ‘deficit’ and ‘debt’ sheds some light, given the Orthodox understanding of salvation, which is quite clear.

    Your thoughts, Father?

    May you and all your parish have a blessed Holy Week.

  61. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Fr Stephen, Thank you. Are there other ECFs who have weighed in?

    A debt appears to be something owed someone by someone. With no “debtee” (creditor), how can there be a debt? I am not trying to force anything, but trying to understand the language used.

    Perhaps the notion of debt is entirely misguided?

    “Ransom” is generally defined as, a “sum paid for the release of a prisoner or captured man.” If there are other definitions being used by the Orthodox, please enlighten me.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are the one insisting on there being a creditor. But the Scriptures do not supply the identity of such a thing, certainly not in the sense that you want it. Misguided is not what I would say. “Not exhaustive,” or “explanatory.” It’s illustrative of one aspect.

    We are held captive by death. But God is not the captor. The devil is not the captor. Our state (a movement away from God and towards non-existence – which is what death is) is what holds us captive. I could multiply that many times.

  63. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Agreed, Father. Death is surely not our creditor. So, where is the “debt”?

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We experience death like a debt. It’s like a captor. It’s like an oppressor. It’s like disease. It’s like…

    Metaphors. They are used to describe, not define. You keep looking for creditor in the definitive sense. What we have is an experience that is like debt. You could personify death if you like and call it a creditor, so long as you know what you’re doing. The NT personifies death. It also personifies sin, speaking of it as if were actually a person, etc.

    The penal/debt theory, however, errs by imagining something that isn’t in the Scriptures (a debt owed to God). And that imaginary exercise winds up saying things about God that are not true, and thus it becomes a very serious error, even a heresy and a false depiction of God. That is why I say that it has done great damage. Many people have concluded that based on the God depicted in that theory they either don’t believe in God or they want nothing to do with Him.

    I rejected that God at age 13 and quit Christianity. His mercy brought me back, but without that erroneous depiction. It took me some time to discover that this depiction was relatively modern and not part of the Tradition. It certainly played a very key role in the early beginnings of my journey to Orthodoxy…something that took over 20 years.

  65. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you, Fr Stephen. The 1st half of your answer is very helpful.

    My mind’s still “not right” with regard to the 2nd half. 😉

    It does help me better understand you, and for that, I truly am honored your wrote it to me.

    I still “labor” under the paradigm with such texts as, Romans 3:20-26 ~

    20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

    21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:

    23 for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 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; 26 to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

    I have to dig out my Chrysostom and read more….

    A most blessed Pascha to you & all yours!

  66. Dino Avatar

    I am not entirely sure about this Hugh, but, having been created from nothing, having been created to live, knowing that Christ our Life Himself, and union with Him is the only way to fulfil this raison d’être of ours, we understand that our move of separation from God is what creates and sustains a ‘debt’ of sorts… This self-chosen separation from our Creator is the means through which our creatureliness was/is revealed as a life ‘unto death’ rather than ‘unto life eternal’. So, the point I am making is that if you really want to make use of the notion of a debt, perhaps this philosophical idea of our given “purpose of existence” (our logos) and the necessity to fulfil this (as human union with God) according to our nature can be viewed as a ‘debt’ we haven’t’ fulfilled and which Christ the Logos, as man, restored…?
    I think this can be explained a lot better though and more correctly than I did.

  67. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann


    I don’t “really want to make use of the notion of a debt,” I just want to know the origin of the idea, and whether it’s appropriate and why.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suspect your reading of this passage is also influenced by a false translation of hilasterion. It is not a “propitiation,” i.e. an offering that changes the one to whom it is offered. That is pagan and not found anywhere in Old or New Testament.

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The origin is best traced to the thought of Anselm of Canterbury and his notion of a debt to the honor of God. That is changed in later Western thought.

    The West, relatively early on, already had a propensity to think in legal terms, something quite foreign to both Greek and Jew. The West took the term “Law” and ran with it when it got to Luther, completely distorting the concept. Earlier Roman Catholic thought primarily worked with the term “merit,” again, found nowhere in the Scriptures, and constructed an entire atonement edifice on that sandy soil. Luther rebelled against that construction, but did not see clearly enough that the problem wasn’t just in the conclusions but in the very assumptions. The Reformation was an argument between two lawyers (Rome and Protestant).

    I’ve read much more sophisticated treatments of the Roman understanding of merit in which it is removed from the forensic mind, but I think this is a much later effort at rewriting Roman thought.

    The turn down the wrong road occurred early in the Latin West. I think that its separation from the Eastern Church removed a saving influence from the West and left it free to develop in the manner that it has (spawning the many errors of Protestant thought).

  70. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Does not the modern project demand of us that we think the “correct way” or be punished?

    It seems to me as if both Orwell and Huxley in their anti-utopian novels make that point many times over.

    The aim of the modern project is to crush our souls and enslave us in such a way we no longer recognize we are slaves.

    Egalitarianism, nominalism, fear of death and the myth of progress are tools toward that end.

    Orvso it seems to me. Paradoxically, genuine obedience to our Lord (loving the Creator more than the created thing) is what sets us free.

    Father have you ever written on this type of obedience directly? If you have I don’t remember it. If not, I’d like to suggest it as a topic.

  71. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thanks, Father. Hang Anselm, for all I care.

    St Paul said that those under the law are debtors to do it all: For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. (Gal. 5:3.)

    As Mark said on 04-21, The idea of debt is still hard to reject. And, There is also the parable of the man forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents.

    Yes, there is: Matt. 18:21ff ~ 21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

    22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. 23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

    26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.

    28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. 29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.

    31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.

    32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33 shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?

    34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

    The Lord Jesus uses this language in reference to God.
    God’s law is not our debt to him? We are not commanded to perfectly keep his laws?

    THAT’S the language I am struggling with: Jesus’s and Paul’s, not Anselm’s, Rome’s, Luther’s, or Protestants’.

    I am only wanting to know how to read the Bible. I see it one way. You all say I am wrong. Please show me how & why.

  72. Byron Avatar

    It seems to me as if both Orwell and Huxley in their anti-utopian novels make that point many times over.

    Oddly enough, I picked up 1984 in the book store just this last week and thumbed it open – landing square on the torture scene near the end. “How many fingers do I have up?”

    It struck me as an apt illustration of modern society.

  73. Pete Avatar


    To all your fine points:

    It is this notion of ‘deficit’ that I was getting at. Deficit not in the sense of a national deficit (implying a mere exchange; i.e., of something owed – this model is far too constricted), but a deficit that we have as a ’life unto death.’ i.e., not a life unto eternal life (only God has that: 1 Tim 6:16). The word deficit is used more in the notion of (ontological) deficiency, as opposed to a debt owed.

    Of course, our deficiency is quite radical.

    Our telos (our life) viewed in the context of 1 Tim 6:16 (God)Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.

    Curious to know that if in the Greek the root words for deficit and debt are the same, similar or if the terms can be used to shed light on this a bit? perhaps/perhaps not?

    To me, the word ‘deficit’ implies more of the notion of a lack of ontological content in relation to another, where ‘debt’ implies perhaps, the limits of an ‘exchange’ that needs to be made right.


    I love your comment – The Reformation was an argument between two lawyers (Rome and Protestant).

    I never heard it put quite that way.

  74. Matt Avatar

    Michael, can one not turn that around and say that Christianity is enslavement to Christ, and prescribed with it a change of one’s mind so that one does not even recognize the enslavement?

    I have no answer in mind, just felt like pointing out how equivalent this can look to an unbeliever.

  75. Onesimus Avatar

    Hugh et al;

    I think Karen struck on this….

    But debt is not really a “thing.” It is an idea. We never really “owe” something to another person except by conceptual agreement and submission to the concept or to the demand of another. Debt is a construct, not a reality….but we make it our “reality” by allowing ourselves to be ruled by it.

    If I give you two apples from a tree and demand nothing in return, there is no debt. If you take two apples from a tree and I never demand that the tree is mine and that you give me two apples in return, there is no debt. A debt only exists where two people accept and agree to a notional economy, which dos not truly eXist. The apples exist independent of any economic notions we attach to them and our interactions over them.

    In our fractional reserve system, one does not actually borrow money that exists. The bank “creates” wealth by lending nothing, but creating a contractural bond to which we bind ourselves out of fear of man-made consequences. (bankruptcy, liens, credit reports, etc.) The debt is entirely notional and exists only within our minds, but then finds itself as the very foundation by which we live our lives. that which is unreal, and untrue -a lie – becomes our bondage.

    This is how I see debt. It’s a figment, which we bind ourselves to out of fear. In response to the fear of death, we sin, thinking somehow we can free ourselves from death….or at least stave it off or make it less painful. Death, like the apples is a reality…but we only bind ourselves to death by sinning and bargaining with Satan over death. In my fear of death, I desire to escape it, and as a consequence do things which will alleviate my fear…even if those things hurt others. In seeking reprRieve from death, we bargain and create a binding act of sin which places us beholden at all times to death. the lie…the bargaining itself is the only power that continues to bind us to death…if we did not fear death, we would not bind ourselves to the notion of debt. The debt paid, or canceled is a destruction of the lie itself. The debt is slavery to a lie, and Christ destroys the lie itself, not by paying a notional debt to anyone but by becoming the cancellation of the notion itself.

    We can now embrace our death, because we know that there is no power in the lie or the liar, and there is no fear of death, for Christ has conquered death, and never bargained with it in the first place.

    I don’t know if I’ve made this clear in any manner…but these are my thoughts, opaque abstract as they are.

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No. You’re not actually giving the language of Jesus of Paul any credit whatsoever (no pun intended). Because you take the least mention of debt as a concept, and want to drive the entire truck of the Protestant penal substitutionary model into the conversation.

    To be a “debtor” to the Law, means, not the whole debt scheme, but simply that you can’t just pay attention to one aspect of the Law without incurring a responsibility to the whole Law. Jesus used the parable (for God’s sake it’s a parable!), to illustrate the truth of forgiveness, not to provide some cosmic scheme or metaphysic of the atonement. To draw a connection between the “deliver him to the tormenters,” and some imaginary metaphysical scheme of our salvation is simply perverse.

    As a scheme (what St. Irenaeus called the “Apostolic Hypothesis”) the penal/debt stuff is simply flimsy and ignores the bulk of the New Testament. It has no integral relation with anything. Not with Baptism. Not with the Eucharist. Etc. It is a primary reason that Protestant thought is a truncated and distorted as it has become, filled with big screen tv’s while scoffing at the sacraments established by our Lord.

    How to read the Scriptures. First, there is a need to grasp the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” What is the underlying, overarching theme/metaphor/scope of the story in the New Testament?

    The testimony of the Fathers, stated as early as the 2nd century, though clearly in both St. Paul and St. John, is that God became what we are that we might become what He is. That is built on a metaphor of union/communion/participation. The whole doctrine of the Incarnation, the Communicatio Idiomatum, the whole of the Conciliar presentation of Christian dogma, are built on that edifice. The conciliar thought of the One, undivided Church, never(!) mentions the idea of penal theory. So, set it aside.

    Read Athanasius’ De Incarnatione. Read Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching. Read some solid modern Orthodox writers, such as Andrew Louth’s introduction to Orthodox theology. There are ancient wells that you’ve never drunk from.

  77. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    instead of crying ‘this person can go to hell’ when faced with a person whose behavior towards me is crushing is it appropriate to pray “go to heaven!!” with the hope that the person comes to know God’s love and how wrong he is about reality, though it is not appropriate for me to correct him?

    this person is my elderly father

  78. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you so much, Father Stephen.

    Again, it is my privilege to interact and get these from you!

  79. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Onesimus, our readings of the law of God differ greatly.

    Call it a “figment,” or say as Fr Stephen does that I am merely misreading Paul et. al., but we are simply reading the words differently.

  80. Byron Avatar

    Ironically, I just found (entirely by accident) and read a “STUDY GUIDE for ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN’S FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD” (it is only 1 1/2 pages long). In it, the author states the following:

    In reading For the “Life of the World”, the Protestant reader needs to bear two things in mind. The first is that Eastern theology is weak in the area of juridical theology. By this I mean that the East has a relatively weak understanding of how God has made matters right between Himself and His rebellious subjects….Eastern theologians generally do not have a good understanding of the work of
    redemption, a doctrinal area developed mainly in the West…. Similarly, the East stresses that salvation is re-creation and as a result man becomes readjusted to God’s world (which is true), but misses the point that this re-creation is only possible on the basis of a judicial transaction between the Father and the Son accomplished on the cross.

    Honestly, I physically cringe reading this, while at the same time marveling at the lack of understanding it reflects. Please forgive me for the tangent.

  81. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Elder Cleopa of Romania used to say (to all), “May Paradise consume you!” It works well.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think this might be one of the finest summaries I’ve ever read. Well done.

  83. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Yes, Father, I see it that, “To be a ‘debtor’ to the Law,” means precisely “the whole debt”!

    And that this is the same as to say, “that you can’t just pay attention to one aspect of the Law without incurring a responsibility to the whole Law.”

    This is how we read the law and the prophets and the Savior and the apostles.

    We see Jesus both “illustrating the truth of forgiveness,” as well as “to provide some cosmic scheme or metaphysic of the atonement.” Or at least, to refer to such via a parable.

    “To draw a connection between the ‘deliver him to the tormenters,’ and some imaginary metaphysical scheme of our salvation [COULD BE] simply perverse,” OR, it may be God’s very thinking.

    We maintain that “deliver him to the tormenters” is metaphorical language for eternal damnation/ torment. Surely the Fathers have written on this…

    Either one of us is wrong, or we’re both wrong. But we agree that we disagree! 🙂

    Again, thanks.

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “You” don’t read the law differently. You’re just reading what has been taught to you and has so shaped your mind that you seem unable to shake it. But it’s a very “tutored” reading of Scripture. As noted in Byron’s quote from a “study guide” of Schmemann (that’s not Orthodox), the Eastern Church does not have this juridical nonsense. And since the Eastern Church is pretty much the ethos and mind that produced everything of early doctrine, the Councils, the Canon of Scripture, etc., that absence speaks volumes. Here we have the case of the greatest minds and theologians in Christian history who don’t seem to give a fig about a juridical view. They don’t see it. Why don’t they see it? How could they be so blind? How could these Fathers, some of whom knew the very successors of the Apostles themselves (such as Irenaeus), not have seen something that you think is self-evident? Were they reading a different Bible? Or are you reading a different Bible? Or are you seeing things that are not there? Why would you see such things?

    Those kinds of questions are what started me on my journey back in the 70’s. I literally threw that understanding (the juridical) under the bus and began to ask, “If it’s not there, then what is, in fact, there? What does the text actually say?” I quit assuming that I knew the content of certain words (“law” “debt”, etc) and began to read and think outside of a Protestant box. I read the Eastern Fathers and let them teach me how to see what they saw. I let their categories of understanding and interpretation become mine.

    I also assumed that if a theory didn’t develop until a thousand years after Christ, then it could not possibly be true or correct. It’s like I also assume that any denomination that began in America is bogus. Any Christianity that is primarily American in its world-view is bogus. And that is simply by reason of anachronism. A modern interpretation of Scripture cannot possibly be true because the Scriptures are not modern.

    In fact, a Protestant interpretation of Scripture cannot be true for the same reason – it’s a modern set of ideas in which almost everything that was normative and common for Christianity for a 1000 years is simply absent. It is, in fact, a modern religion. It uses the same book, but uses it in the wrong way.

    Those are extreme claims on my part, but it’s actually just the consequence of actually taking history seriously. It caused a lot of problems in my life, eventually destroying one entire career track (my Anglican priesthood). But pretty much all of the assumptions behind that track turned out to be false. And that matters.

    There is, of a necessity, a Christianity without Luther or Calvin. Both of them are modern. If your Christianity doesn’t really stand without them, then it’s simply not true. For example, imagine a Christianity in which Romans and Galatians are not seen as the cornerstone of the New Testament. They never were before Luther. He privileged his own peculiar reading of them (something he invented!). There are consequences if you pay attention to history. If you don’t care about such historical problems, then you can make up anything you want. But don’t call it traditional Christianity.

  85. Onesimus Avatar


    Thus the bankruptcy of sola scripture itself. It is not a matter of simply reading words one way or another.

    Two men are sitting besides the ocean. One reads a book about marine biology, the other enters into the water and sees for himself. When he returns from the depths of the ocean he tries to relay what he has seen. But the man who stayed at the shoreline and refused to enter the water seeks to argue about what the other has seen and experienced by arguing about the description he is reading in the book. ‘ It cannot be as you have said…the book says such and such.”

    The man who has entered the water has seen the truth, and can put the book into its proper context. The man who mistakes the words of the book for a reality he has not seen mistakes his imagination and conclusions of the words for reality, and will not accept that it is not as he imagines the words describe. The man who has seen such things sees the book as but a manner of coming to approximations and descriptions of a reality and experience which is incomprehensible to the one who will only read the book and demand that marine biology conform to his ideas for,Ed in reading the words.

    The law of God is a “schoolteacher”…it comes to make one “aware” of sin and death, and the lie, and to point towards the ocean. It is none of those things in itself. One can continue to sit by the Oceanside and argue….or one can enter the waves and sink into the depths. When he returns, he finally sees the book as it is meant to be seen, and the reality he has experienced puts the words of the book into their right perspective.

    Only one who chooses to swim in the ocean can truly understand the book. The book is never a replacement. Only the Spirit can illumine those things that are of the Spirit. The. Ind illiumines itself and mistakes its own fallen understanding of the words for reality itself.

  86. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you Fr Stephen and Onesimus.

    Cheerfully agreeing on our disagreeing,


  87. Dino Avatar

    you make a very significant point – I am inclined to even see it as the key to the overwhelming majority of heresies and delusions that have come up from Western thinking, i.e.: there is a distinct lack of the first-hand experience of Theosis as the main informant of Theology and the lifeblood of Tradition, and this leads to various rational constructs (like PSA theory) which only have the appearance of robustness but are rotten inside.

  88. Dino Avatar

    There is indeed a notion of debt creeping up throughout the Christian Tradition, but it has nothing to do with the juridical one, as understood in the (relatively recent) Western constructs of debt.
    This debt is simply the ‘indebtedness’ that we owe, but what we owe is therefore chiefly thanks. We do owe our existence, as well as the renewal of our existence; we are therefore indebted and ought to be above all grateful for all and in all. Having been brought to being from nothing, we chose death, and having been brought from death onto life eternal, we continue to default back to our falleness, yet Christ has placed Himself in such a position that we simply need to remember His mercies, our forgiveness, His relinquishing of all our indebtedness by His unconditional love, and live once more eucharistically.

  89. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matt, our “slavery” to Christ is neither forced nor does it involve adherance to the untrue, the passions or to death.

    We submit to His love and are transformed into who we really are and therefore become wholly free to move from “glory to glory”.

    That is the opposite of the forced adherance to a created and demonic ideology of some kind.

  90. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Onesimus, you are spot on about the nature of debt. I find it quite concrete and a strong critique of our consumer/debt economy where there is no real value.

    Helped me see a lot. Thank you.

  91. tess Avatar

    “God does not give us silence in order for us to improvise our own solo.”

    ^^^ I love this, Father Stephen!
    I think I might put it on a magnet on my fridge. 🙂

  92. Karen Avatar

    I agree with Tess. That quote is definitely a keeper!

  93. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    Matt, if Christianity is enslavement to Christ, then it means that a Christian is nobody else’s slave. If I am a slave of God, then nobody and nothing else has power or authority over me.

    Unbelievers tend to say that they don’t want to become slaves of God but they do not recognize their enslavement to their passions and sins. Thus, they choose passions, sins and other ‘darkness’ of this world to be their masters.

    And who is the Master of Christians? It is God. And our God is love. Moreover, He died for us and He calls us His children. “Enslavement” to God means a life in union with our Heavenly Father Who is love, light and the source of life.

  94. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    Hugh McCann: “I am only wanting to know how to read the Bible.”

    Hugh, if you want to know how to read the Bible, read it with comments of the Holy Fathers. I would recommend The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel. You can find it on Amazon.

  95. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    As we have been discussing “debt” in the NT and its meaning, I decided to search the NT and find the uses of the word and then consult the Greek text and Lexicon to see how the Ancients may have viewed the word. The word used is ὀφείλημα, which appears in the Lord’s prayer and several other places. What is interesting is that the various English translations I consulted all treated the translation of that Greek word differently depending on its location in the text. When I consulted the Greek Lexicon I discovered that the word means both something that is owed or it can be used as a metaphor for offense or sin. I have not chewed on this enough to have an opinion nor have I researched what the Early Church Fathers say about which meaning they take it to be, but it may be worth investigating to clear up questions that Hugh is raising (valid ones). It might also be helpful to study the verses being discussed and see how many of them use this word in Greek and if not, what word is actually used. It could change the dynamic of this discussion greatly.

  96. Jessica M. Avatar
    Jessica M.

    Fr. Stephen and Onesimus, thank you for your thoughts on debt. I will meditate on those.

  97. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you, Dino & Alex & Nicholas.

  98. Alan Avatar

    Hugh, you have written:
    “Onesimus, our readings of the law of God differ greatly.”
    “I am only wanting to know how to read the Bible. I see it one way.”

    This is because you are a Protestant and that’s how the P world works. That’s why there are THOUSANDS of P denominations, with wildly varying beliefs, yet all claiming to “just take the plain teaching of the Bible.” In the P world, YOU read the Bible, YOU decide what it means, then YOU find a church that agrees with your take. YOU sit in the judgement seat of your pastor, making sure that everything he says lines up with how YOU read the Scriptures. If he errs, then you’re off down the road to the next “church.”

    That’s now how it works in Orthodoxy. We rely on The Church to tell us what the Holy Scriptures mean. Which makes sense, because the Bible came from The Church.

  99. Matt Avatar

    Thanks for the answers! I’m reminded of how C.S. Lewis walks us through just what the significance of acquiring power means in The Abolition of Man

    Beautiful summary! Though I’m left ever more convinced that our current debt-based economic and monetary system is the 666 from Revelation and there’s’ little if anything any of us (being on the internet implying we’re paying for internet and thus have money) from being burned when Christ destroys the lie, even if not eternally then still probably very painfully… as though some of us aren’t being burned already!

    A recurring thought as I’m reading these responses to Hugh: one thing I keep seeing between upper-middle-class white anglo Americans (and nonwhites assimilated into that culture at the expense of their ancestral one) and almost everyone else – East Asians, South Asians, Africans, Italians, – is this idea that it is at all normal or normative for parents deal with their children in arm’s-length “stranger” transactions for any reason except to make an insurance claim or to protect assets from third parties (usually potential ex-daughters-in-law).

    I cannot imagine that such stranger-transactions could have been the norm between immediate family in first-century Jewish Palestine. Without that modern legalistic, family-blind separation of persons, the only debt one can have for one’s loving father that has any true practical force (and the only one such a father will enforce) is a general one of gratitude and filial duty, not an accounting of a specific transaction.

    Now which of those worldviews about parent-child relationships better fits this:

    For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?

    or the parable of the prodigal son.

    tl;dr I don’t think the Bridegroom is interested in signing a prenup.

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  1. My last comment begs the question of how the story of Christ in Holy Scripture relates to our personal experience…

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