Reading Scripture in the Kingdom



That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (Joh 3:6)

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. (Joh 6:63)

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. (1Co 15:50)

The convenience of math is its reliability and predictability. No matter how brilliant or dull one might be, one and one are two. The most evil person on the planet and the greatest saint still have the same sums. If an evil man has one apple and steals another, he has two. If the saint has two apples and gives one away, he has one. This, if you will, is the principle of “flesh and blood.” It requires nothing of us. Math is not an inherently transformative science.

But there are other things out there. Five loaves and two fish, divided by 5,000 should not constitute sufficient meals. But, in the hands of Christ the dinner-math collapses. Five and two equal 5,000 plus. The Kingdom of God has just this transcendent aspect. The disciples, those who witnessed the feeding of the 5,000 were on the cusp of change. They did not yet understand what was taking place, but the contradictions were piling up. The impossibility of what they saw from day-to-day, the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, Christ walking on the water, speaking to wind and sea and getting results, water becoming wine, were all building to a critical mass that exploded in their lives with the resurrection of Christ and his “opening of their understanding (nous).”

The transformation that took place within the disciples cannot be exaggerated. A band of relatively uneducated fishermen, tax collectors and the like, become the teachers of an utterly seamless garment of Scriptural interpretation that was completely without precedent. The writings of St. Paul and others give clear evidence that within less than 20 years, the full hermeneutic of the paschal reading of Scripture was in place. No evolutionary process can account for such a development. The New Testament itself is evidence of the resurrection of Christ.

But what we see is not a work of dictation. The apostles wrote and taught out of the abundance of their hearts, having been transformed from fishermen into mystical visionaries of the Kingdom of God. They themselves are purposeful contradictions, no less than water becoming wine. Later teachers would bring that vision into dialog with Hellenistic culture, but they would not see deeper into the Kingdom itself.

What was the mind that could see Christ in the Passover Lamb? Indeed, what was the mind that could see Christ’s death and resurrection as a fulfillment of Passover itself? Beneath the letter of the Old Testament, beneath the surface of its poetry, its historical stories, its prophetic works, the primitive Church discerned Christ Himself and the shape of the story which we now know as the gospel.

The shape of the gospel story is not derived from the Old Testament. It is discerned within the Old Testament, after the resurrection of Christ and His subsequent teaching). St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century, specifically references the shape of the gospel story and calls it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It is the framework and fundamental understanding of the work of Christ.

For example, that “Christ died for our sins,” is not obvious. It can be discerned in the Old Testament if one comes to understand, for example, that the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah are actually referencing Christ. Again, this was in no way obvious. However, that Christ “died for our sins” is a specific part of the Apostolic Hypothesis. It is cited as a “tradition” in 1 Cor. 15 (“that which was delivered [traditioned] to me”). When that tradition is accepted and “received” (more about this in a moment), then passages like the Servant Songs begin to open up and yield their deeper meaning.

When a gospel writer shares a story about Christ and adds, “This was done that the saying in Isaiah might be fulfilled…,” we are reading the tradition in its operation. But the passages in Isaiah do not themselves give a clue for their interpretation. That clue, the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” must come first before the others can be seen.

The giving of this tradition is described in Luke 24:44-48:

Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding [nous], that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, “and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. “And you are witnesses of these things. (Luk 24:44-48)

It is important to see that this new insight into the Scriptures is described as a noetic event. It is not described as technique or style of interpretation that is taught and learned. It is specifically referred to as a change of the nous. In the same manner, the continued understanding of the gospel is, properly, a noetic exercise.

That noetic perception is the common thread of the liturgical texts and hymns of the Orthodox faith. The liturgical life of the Church has a two-fold purpose: the worship of God and the spiritual formation of the people of God. As cited earlier, there must be a movement from “flesh and blood” to “spirit and life.” It is this spiritual transfiguration that is operative in the life of the Church.

This is the same reason that I have written against popular notions of morality. The Christian life does not consist of flesh and blood struggling to behave better. Rather, it is the transformation of flesh and blood into spirit and life. Only a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) sees and understands and lives the new life of the resurrected Christ.

This spiritual ability to see beneath the letter and perceive the truth continues in the life of the Church, unabated. It is particularly evident in the dogmatic formulations of subsequent centuries. Only a nous, properly illumined, could learn to profess the Trinity in the fullness of its mystery. The same is true of Christ’s God/Manhood and the nature of our salvation through the Divine Union.

But these habits of the transformed heart have been diminished and replaced over the centuries in many parts of the Christian world. The doctrinal formulations have become dry statements that sound merely antique. The new language of morality and psychology have largely displaced true noetic perception of the truth. The result is a Christianity that, though often using the terms of the Fathers, gives them completely different meanings. It becomes nothing more than a system of interpretation, not actually requiring God Himself at all.

Classical Christianity is not passé, it has simply been replaced by a new religion that borrows its terms and redefines them. It is like the contemporary Christians who take up bread and wine (or their banal substitutes) and engage in some form of ritual partaking, nevertheless professing all the while that, at most, a psychological event has taken place. The language of “Body and Blood,” though invoked in their ceremonies, are (they are quick to tell us) “merely symbolic.” There is no paradox, no contradiction, no depth to be discerned – only the emptiness of modern psychology.

Mere psychology cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.

But mere psychology is indeed the tool of most contemporary treatments of Scripture. Whether the empty historical analysis of biblical criticism, or the various schemes of so-called literalism, all employ discursive reason (hence psychology) to explain what can only be known noetically. The literalist will assert that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is indeed, Christ. But he has no reason for saying so apart from some reference in the New Testament. He does not see it, nor discern it, but says it like a parrot. And then he will turn his discursive reason away from these divinely revealed mysteries in order to inveigh on how the Old Testament teaches God’s vengeance and His demands of a necessary justice. In neither case has he “seen” anything or “known” anything in the manner of the Apostolic Church, much less in the manner of the noetic fathers. As often as not, the modern literalist will actually disdain “allegory” and its variations when those variations are themselves the very tools of the fundamental dogmas of the faith, used even by Christ Himself.

The noetic life that inherits the Kingdom (that which is birthed in us at Baptism) both hears the wind and sees where it comes from. It enters the gates of hell and walks in paradise. It mines the treasures buried in the field of the Scriptures. Inheriting the Kingdom is a patient work of noetic transformation received through the integral life of the Tradition. This is the true abundant life promised in Christ and given through the Spirit in the Church.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


164 responses to “Reading Scripture in the Kingdom”

  1. Patricia Avatar

    I had not heard this explained before, but this is so true! I’ve been Orthodox for 8 years now. These are the kinds of things I would have liked to have been taught at the beginning of this journey.

  2. KC Avatar

    I feel that this understanding of Scripture is what I’ve been looking for my entire life. Thanks so much for explaining it so well.

    One thing I would like to understand better is how “allegory” should work in practice today. It’s possible for modern readers to find new allegories in all kinds of places throughout Scripture, though I’m not sure they are of value. I wonder how we should evaluate them?

    Also, I’m not sure I understand exactly what “allegory” is — how does it relate to “parables”, other kinds of figurative language, or “icons”?

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Allegory,” in patristic usage, was a very broad term and included all forms of “hidden” or “symbolic” meanings: typology, etc. I highly recommend Fr. Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery. The link I’ve provided will take you to a pdf (I’m not sure if it’s the entire text of the book). It’s academic, but quite good.

    The primary way of seeing this is immersion in the hymnography and liturgical texts of the Orthodox faith. The Festal Menaion, which is available for purchase, has the texts for all the major feasts. Reading them and paying attention to how they use Scripture is an excellent introduction.

    If there is an emphasis that I have underlined in all of this, it is suggesting that people stop and think, “How can such a reading possibly be true?” How, for instance, can the Ark of the Covenant be a type of the Mother of God. The answer, I think, is more than mental association (psychology). I believe it is because the reality (the Mother of God) actually dwells beneath and within the image (the Ark of the Covenant) itself. This is, if you will, a “One-Storey” reading of Scripture. It is recognizing that the words and stories themselves are “sacramental” and “iconic” in nature. And just as I reach forward and strain for the reality of the sacrament, so I do the same with Scripture.

    Read and listen to the prayers and hymns of the Church and see how frequently they do this. Then take an image or two and “dwell” with it. Consider it in your heart. Pray about it. Ask for help to “see.” This process of “theoria” was/is an essential part of the devotional life. I not only want to “see” the Mother of God within the stories and image of the Ark – I want to know her as she is hidden there. The same applies to Christ and all the other mysteries within the Scriptures. Such activity, I might add, produces humility and less argument. It astonishes us and produces wonder. As such, it has the possibility for taking us beyond discursive reason and into true noetic perception. Be patient. Don’t expect too much – just enough. Manna doesn’t keep overnight.

  4. Fr. Ron Hatton Avatar
    Fr. Ron Hatton

    “The Christian life does not consist of flesh and blood struggling to behave better. Rather, it is the transformation of flesh and blood into spirit and life. Only a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) sees and understands and lives the new life of the resurrected Christ.” I was so stung by these words because it shows me how far I have come in Christ but also how far I still have to go. I remind myself how much I have been transformed since years gone by, but I still see how much of the “old man” is still in the depths of my heart. I struggle with “how I have to change myself” versus how much I have to surrender myself to my Lord and allow Him to transform me instead. Ah, so much I have not surrendered to Him. We have “self-improvement” so inculcated into our being in this world that it is difficult to allow ourselves to be transformed by Him. We still want “fulfillment of the Law” to be the means by which we attain salvation.

  5. Sharon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen –

    I understand that “nous” does not equal our modern understanding of “heart” – and that “heart” is not the same as emotions or intellect, but it helps for me as a newbie Orthodox to use the word “heart” when I read about the “nous”.

    Reading the scriptures with my heart requires me to be, first “relationally connectable”. Which means a condition where I am open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, lacking fear/anger etc. For example, if I am reading the scriptures to proof text one or another of my dearly held prejudices – I need to put the scriptures down.

    This requires what I interpret “nepsis” to mean: a state of watchfulness over the passions, to be certain that I am living from, and reading scripture with my nous. I would think that this is part of acquiring the Orthodox “phronema” – the way of approaching The Way.

    ***OK finally the question:
    Does anything that I just wrote approximate the correct way of interpreting these weighty terms? (nous, nepsis, phronema etc) if not – please correct me.

  6. KC Avatar

    Wonderful — thank you! I will read these references, and be patient. I’m also happy to avoid argument (I’m originally from a Baptist background, and am weary of arguments). I’m deeply grateful for your advice.

  7. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Would you please provide the reference in Irenaeus’s writings where he uses the term “Apostolic Hypothesis”? Thank you.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Against the Heresies, 1.8.1 But I direct you to Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ. It is truly magisterial in its treatment of this. He did his dissertation on St. Irenaeus at Oxford and is generally recognized at one of the definitive authorities today. If anyone is interested in the topic I’m writing on – it is a must read.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To all,
    I commend this passage from Fr. Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery. It includes a very apt passage from St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit. It demonstrates quite clearly the point of the article:

    As for the union of the Spirit with the soul, he manifests his presence not by spatial approach (for how can one speak of space when thinking of the corporeal and the Incorporeal?), but by the exclusion of passions which assail the soul from the love of the flesh and separate it from intimacy with God. To be cleansed therefore from this shame contracted by wickedness, and return to the beauty of one’s nature, and receive through purity one’s pristine form in the royal image, thus is the only way one can approach the Paraclete. And he, like the sun reflected in a clear eye, shows you in himself the image of the Invisible; in the blessed contemplation of the Image, you will see the ineffable beauty of the Archetype.On the Holy Spirit, IX.23

    Basil then goes on to say that as a result souls become spiritual—diaphanous to the Spirit—and become themselves sources of spiritual illumination for other souls. What this means Basil sums up as ‘prevision of the future, understanding of mysteries, comprehension of hidden things, the distribution of spiritual gifts, a heavenly life, fellowship with the angels in their praise, unceasing joy, rest in God, likeness to God, and the summit of their desires: they become God ’ For Basil all this is only possible in the Spirit One of his ways of expressing this is to speak of the Spirit as intelligible light (phos noeton) in which the soul becomes mind or nous. As nous the soul can contemplate: in the Holy Spirit, intelligible light, it is enabled to contemplate the Image of the Archetype, the Son of the Father. Even the angels can see nothing apart from the Holy Spirit, the light of the intelligible realm: for ‘as in the night, if you remove the light from your house, your eyes will be blind, their powers inert, all you value indistinct, so that, through ignorance, gold and iron appear alike. So in the intelligible order it is impossible, apart from the Spirit, to lead a life conformed to the law…’. The same idea is being expressed when he says:

    Since through an illuminating power we reach forth to the beauty of the Image of the Invisible God, and through that come to the surpassing vision of the Archetype, this cannot take place apart from the presence of the Spirit of knowledge, who gives in himself to those who love the vision of truth the power to behold the Image, not doing this as an external act, but receiving us into Himself for this knowledge…as it is written, In thy light shall we see light, that is, in the illumination of the Spirit we shall see the true light, that lightens every man coming into the world.(Ibid.)

  10. Janine Avatar

    I keep coming back to the idea of gratitude. What you say above, Father Stephen, makes it clear that apart from the Spirit we have no illumination.

    I always wondered how we wound up with such literal-minded readings of the bible as a modern phenomenon, when one could read, for instance, Chrysostom and his (relatively early) treatment of Genesis. How did we wind up here? Is it possible that the search for holy wisdom isn’t taken seriously? Does it come down to a failure to have faith in the possibility of that gift? I think this isn’t only about Scripture btw.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The fragmentation of interpretation that flows from the assumptions of Protestantism are certainly a major contributor. They have helped spread wondrously lousy ways of reading the Scriptures and the results speak for themselves.

  12. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Excellent post Father. How you also highlight the difficulty that we have explaining our Faith to those who see in deeply secular ways. Being products of this secular world view who have given ourselves over to the Truth, we also struggle to grasp noetic concepts. What really clicked in reading your post is why the Lord said we must approach the Kingdom as a child, that is the only way to break out of the shell of the secular thinking box and in wonder, ;earn a new way of thinking. Thank you.

  13. Janine Avatar

    I suppose starting from the very negative understanding of human nature and the Fall, one can trace from there a lack of faith in the possibility of illumination itself? Thank you for your thoughts!

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that “hypothesis” is rarely translated as “hypothesis” in our English texts. Grant, writing about Irenaeus, defines Hypothesis as something like the “plot” of a play. Irenaeus’ point in using the term is similar to his use of the “canon of truth.” The “plot” of our salvation, the basic outlines of the story, its point, etc., are required in order to fit the pieces in correctly. The Gnostics don’t know that plot (hypothesis) but use their own self-invented scheme, and so, they come up with an unrecognizable Jesus.

    I am applying this same analogy to Christians who have departed from the Tradition as it has been received in the Church, and have created their own later schemes for reading. A very clear example is the scheme (hypothesis) of the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement. It is not in the Scripture, nor was it taught by the Apostles or received by the Church. It’s a later, man-made notion that has come to distort the gospel and create a new version of Christianity that is not true. They have become like the Gnostics of whom Irenaeus says: “Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge.” Adv. Haer. 1:8.1

  15. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Thank you for this reference, Fr. Freeman. But I guess the problem I am having is that the term hypothesis in 1,8.1 from Irenaeus is used with the reference to the false hypothesis of the heretics. And, indeed, so far, every usage of this term that I have been able to locate in Irenaeus so far is a pejorative one. I am very familiar with the writings of John Behr, and greatly appreciate them; but I have been unable to find in his writings where in Irenaeus there is actually a use of this term to refer to the teachings of the apostles. For one reference he gives, where he suggests that Irenaeus use the phrase “hypothesis of truth,” it is not actually “hypothesis,” but “economy.” For another one, he relies on a retroverted translation of Rousseau; but, of course, retroversion is a tricky business. So, I am not really aware of any place where Irenaeus uses the term, “apostolic hypothesis.” I am more than willing to be corrected; but it seems to me that Irenaeus is really opposing the “hypothesis” of the heretics versus the regula fidei of the apostles. He could have referred to the hypothesis of the apostles. I realize this term did not carry the same pejorative overtones in ancient times as it does today. But I think it is possible that, having used the term pejoratively to refer to the writings of the heretics, he might have been reticent to use it to refer to apostolic teaching.

    The rub for me in this is that I think there is some needed nuancing in the way you have framed things. The apostles do write “out of the abundance of their hearts,” and I agree with you that it is not by dictation; but I think it is important to emphasize that the tradition the apostles passed down was also one which they received, from Christ and from the Holy Spirit. They did not come up with it; it was delivered to them. Additionally, I think the suggestion that “the shape of the gospel story is not derived from the Old Testament. It is discerned within the Old Testament,” sets up a false dichotomy which Irenaeus himself would not have recognized. In 1.8.1, he expressly denigrates the hypothesis of the heretics by saying that this hypothesis was not “the prophets preached, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles handed down.” And Paul, in Rom 16:26, expressly says that things which were indeed hidden, are “now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God.” I certainly agree with you that these things are not immediately discerned in the text of the Old Testament, without the re-framing provided by the Christ-event, the teaching of Christ, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But it is also important to recognize that, both for the purposes of apologetics and spiritual formation, the apostles believed these things are both derived from, and discerned within, the Old Testament. Thanks, again.

  16. Renewal Avatar

    Father, is this enlightenment of our nous something we just need to ask God for? I’ve always asked for the Holy Spirit to help me understand the scriptures, but don’t seem to have got very far. Is this something that God wants everyone to have?

  17. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Thank you. I will disagree with you on penal atonement. I believe it is in Scripture, was taught by the Apostles, and was also held by many of the church fathers. But I don’t want to get in a side discussion of this point.

    Yes, you are certainly correct that most English translations of Irenaeus don’t translate hypothesis as hypothesis, or if they do, they do so inconsistently. Nevertheless, what I am pointing out is that in the Greek text of Irenaeus, where that is available through the quotations of the church fathers, I have not yet found where hypothesis is used to refer to apostolic teaching.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll send a note to Fr. John with the question. He is a friend. On the penal substitution – having spent some years on the topic, I stand my ground and what I have said. Every defense I’ve seen otherwise engages in eisogesis – assuming where it does not exist. It is foreign to the Eastern Fathers, even specifically and categorically rejected by St. Gregory the Theologian. Western Fathers begin to be less trustworthy over time.

  19. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Thank you for volunteering to contact Fr. Behr on this question. I look forward to seeing his reply to your query. As for penal atonement, again, that is a side issue for the topic of your article, and I don’t want to distract from the main issue. But, if occasion provides, I’ll be more than happy to engage in that discussion, especially with regard to the church fathers. Blessings.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll, of course, relay whatever FR. John shares. Looking back carefully through his treatment of this passage and its importance for Irenaeus, I can see than Behr never says that Irenaeus uses the term hypothesis for what the Apostles do. Though he does go on to write about the “Christian hypothesis” and equates it with the “Canon of truth.” I think that is correct, at the very least. The term hypothesis, and several others in that context of Irenaeus are well-known literary terms of the time, according to Behr. Hypothesis certainly does not mean, in and of itself, something someone has made up (or the modern meaning of “theory”). It is the “plot,” more or less. That “plot” is certainly a core plot of the Canon of Truth, which Behr says that for Irenaeus is rooted in the Cross. It is Christ “who died for our sins.”

    I don’t think I implied, I certainly didn’t mean to, that the Apostles’ came up with anything. They indeed received it. My point is that they not only received it, but lived by it continually. It was not a single, historical reception, on the basis of which they then began to engage in discursive reasoning and treatment of the Scripture. Though the mystery is “now made known,” it still operates as it did before. It remains hidden from some (cf. 2 Cor. 3:15).

    On the PSA, do you think you see it in any of the Fathers of the East, say from the Cappadocians and earlier? Why is, do you think, that theologians of the Eastern Church to this day think it is not in the Scriptures nor the Fathers? It is simply absent from the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church – which, frankly, is the only continual Christian tradition in existence. It’s absence is striking. It is so absent from Orthodoxy, that JND Kelly, the great Anglican Church historian, actually opined that the East never developed an Atonement Theory (it’s an absurd suggestion – only illustrating how blind Western thought became to the atonement teaching of the early Church).

    Every scan I read of the early Fathers in which passages are cited supporting PSA, they are not PSA. They are typically passages that say Christ suffered for us, bore the curse, etc. That is not strange to Orthodoxy, but in none of these does a Father suggest that what has been done has somehow caused a change in the Father. Nothing is being satisfied. Rather, it is typically the language of union/exchange – He becomes what we are that we might become what He is. “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God.” In the Orthodox mind, there’s not a hint of PSA in that – rather there is a Divine Union and our salvation. Thus we are baptized into His death and raised in His resurrection, etc.

    But, it is a long conversation, one had more than once around the blog (and elsewhere).

  21. Janine Avatar

    I have observed that the concept of “exchange” is very prevalent in Christ’s teaching, and if you think about it, central to what grace is. Thank you Father. (One example: “you will have treasure in heaven” is an exchange for the material treasure the young rich man would “give up,” and of course in a subsequent life of discipleship, far more is contained in a promise. That is not a payment, it’s an investment – “trust/pistis” – on a promise toward “union” or covenant: action of faith.)

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A difficulty in conversations about things like atonement theory with the non-Orthodox, is the lack of context. All of the Fathers of the early Church were Orthodox Christians. The prayed like the Orthodox and had the same liturgical and ascetical life. The sacraments permeated their lives in the way they still do. It is the same context. People who are not Orthodox lack all of that context. If they’re Evangelical, then they are immersed in PSA and have been for years. They begin to see it when an Orthodox Christian would see nothing of the sort.

    Nothing within our Churchly life is predicated on the PSA. Nothing. Not even Confession. It simply has no place. It has no place because it never had a place. What we do, we have always done. And living that same Churchly life is the only context in which the Fathers can be understood. And even then there are struggles because of the distortions in our surrounding culture.

    I say this as well because, having seen many of the florilegia of quotes supposedly representing PSA in the Fathers, pretty much in every case, it is a quote which an Orthodox Christian would hear in a completely different manner. But this is very difficult to argue. It is, oddly, similar to St. Irenaeus’ take on the Gnostics. They used the words, but lacked the context to understand them.

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

    I just did a cursory search for the word: hupotíthēmi

    I am no theologian, but it seems to have a very rich meaning and brings added depth and immediacy to the meaning of the concept/word “traditioned” that is usually used in Orthodox description of our traditions and Gospel. It seems to suggest lived-action rather than dictation for example.

    Do I understand this correctly?

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

    I didn’t refresh and my last question appears well behind the curve, but for clarity, in my understanding, is the correct word in Greek: “hupotíthēmi “? it is the word I find when I search for the Greek etymology for hypothesis.

  25. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    I don’t have the time at the moment to make anything like a full reply to your question. But I will mention a couple of things.

    First, you refer to the “florilegia of quotes,” from the church fathers which a number of modern theologians use to support the idea of PSA. To be sure, these quotations can be trotted out quite unsophisticatedly in a kind of proof-text type fashion. Nevertheless, the very fact that such a florilegia exists is, I think, problematic for your position. A couple of years ago, on my blog, for each day of Lent, I provided a citation from a church father with regard to the cross of Christ. They were not all having to do with PSA particularly, but the grand majority of them were. After a while, when there are so many of these quotations, I think it becomes futile after a while to simply chalk them up to misunderstandings on the part of the uninitiated. Even J. N. D. Kelly, whom you referred to earlier, noted the existence of these quotations, which, in his words, “placed the cross in the foreground, and pictured Christ as substituting Himself for sinful men, shouldering the penalty which justice required them to pay, and reconciling them to God by His sacrificial death.” By no means do these citations prove that the church fathers had a full-blown atonement theory. But it does, in my opinion prove that the fathers could walk and chew gum at the same time, and that they were able to hold on to a multi-faceted, “kaleidoscopic” understanding of what Christ accomplished in his sacrificial death.

    Second, to give just one example, pre-Cappadocian, here is a citation from Eusebius’s Demonstatio Evangelica:

    “And the Lamb of God not only did this, but was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us. And what is that but the price of our souls? And so the oracle says in our person: “By his stripes we were healed,” and “The Lord delivered him for our sins,” with the result that uniting Himself to us and us to Himself, and appropriating our sufferings, He can say, “I said, Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee.”

    Frankly, as a PSA advocate myself, I would be more than happy to let Eusebius’s words serve as practically a definition of what I mean by penal substitutionary atonement. Again, this is by no means the entirety of what Eusebius believed Christ accomplished in his death; but I think it would take a hermeneutical feat of contortionist proportions to rid these words of their penal and substitutionary elements.

    If you reply any time soon, I might not be able to respond as quickly myself, due to other commitments. But I will when I can. Thanks again. Blessings.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is a very good example that you’ve cited. Obviously, every Christian of every age accepts and believes that Christ suffered, even that He was punished. But where you go wrong, is to see this as God’s wrath, or God’s justice punishing Him. That is not what Eusebius says, nor is it what the Church has understood.

    Typically, PSA, sees Christ’s atoning death as somehow paying the price, so that we don’t have to, or something like that – including that it is a price paid to God. The “scourging, the insults, the dishonour that were due to us,” were not due to us from God. Our sins might very well bring such things down on us, but not from God. Christ enters into our suffering (which we were already enduring) and makes it His own. He transforms suffering. As we sing in Orthodoxy, He “trampled down death by death.” But in so doing, we are not exempted from death. We still die. And we still suffering. We are still scourged and insulted and dishonoured – but not by God. Rather, however you understand such things, whether by nature, the devil, or by the hands of wicked men, we endure these things – but now these things have been changed. Death has been trampled down by death. The scourging has been trampled down by His bearing the scourging, etc. And now, united together with Him, through Baptism in His death, in Him we, too, trample down death by death. We, too, bear in our bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus. We, too, “make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Christ transforms death, suffering, etc. And in Him we can say, “O death, where is your sting?” Christ pulled the stinger out!

    The juridical angle is simply not there. It is not a legal debt to be paid.

    The many florilegia do not add up to a case. Zero plus zero added any number of times does not add up to more than zero.

    Again, I think Evangelicals, etc., have a “tin ear” on this matter. You hear what you want to hear because you’re immersed in it. Had you been immersed in the life of the Church as it was given us by the Apostles and the fullness of the Tradition, your ear would not be so distorted. Literally, if you had done Holy Week/Pascha even a few times, in the hours and hours of liturgical hymns and texts that are the fullness of the Fathers’ legacy – you might have a chance of reading or hearing the Fathers in their own context.

    I well understand that my treatment might seem contorted to you – but, I assure you, it seems as plain as day to me and to centuries of Orthodox faithful. I’ve had this conversation any number of times. All I can say is that you’re lecturing a man about a language that is foreign to you – you can’t hear your own accent. You describe the grammar when you’ve never heard a native speaker. The Reformed tradition is foreign to the Christian fathers, no matter how well-intentioned.

  27. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father. I have read one of your similar dialogues on this blog, but it is helpful to me to hear it put into words again. At that time, I remember a discussion of “ransom” as well, and that is also pertinent to what you are saying. Even how people hear the word and understand it. (And it would include “redeem.”) From death, the evil oppressor, o poneiros, the one who enslaves, not God. The Redeemer liberates. God bless.

  28. Dino Avatar

    As a cradle Orthodox I instinctively and absolutely harmonize with what Father Stephen is saying here. It’s intolerably awkward when any of the words of the Fathers are interpreted as containing any notion of ‘necessity’ for ‘satisfaction’ of [something higher than God, namely] ‘justice’, as understood in the PSA theory.
    It also vilifies Him.

  29. Michelle Avatar

    I have a questions; The Saints who championed the articulation of the Trinity, and the Nature of Christ did so due to their illumined nouses (not sure how to spell nous in the plural). So, the Nicene Creed is a matter of the heart/nous. Well, I don’t know much about what the Gnostics were preaching, but I gather from what I stated above that it must have threatened the path of illumination for the faithful. Any brief explanation as to how they were impeding the salvation of the faithful, i.e. preventing illumination of the nous?

    And yet, keeping all this in mind, I can imagine myself, an Orthodox Christian, mentally assenting to the truth of the Trinity, Nature of Christ, and Nicene Creed, all the while harboring a nous darkened by a self-love and pride that denies the sacrificial, ascetic life of love.
    While simultaneously I can imagine a young mother in Venezuela, lost in some heterodox or occult delusion, making the ultimate ascetical sacrifice, watching her children starve to death in the hands of a oppressive government, lifting them up in prayer, humility, and thanksgiving to her Creator, all to the glory of God. And all this being done without a stitch of knowledge of the Nicene creed, Trinity, or any other Orthodox Tradition that happens to be a matter of the nous/salvation.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well, for one, they were distorting the meaning of who Christ was and what He did. Lies and delusion darken the nous. Bad theology always has bad consequences, though it may take a long time for it to reveal itself. The grace of God is a wonderful and mysterious thing. Since God wills the salvation of us all, He clearly works everywhere and at all times for our salvation. I can easily believe in the Venezuelan scenario you describe, and have seen plenty of the other. We work in a long range, patient way, towards the transformation that is gifted to us in Christ. Trust in God’s mercy for all. The heterodox, occult delusion does not produce heroes – grace does.

  31. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you, Father!

  32. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Fr. Freeman. Two things.

    (1) I sincerely believe your interpretation of the citation I provided from Eusebius amounts to a case of special pleading. You are simply not reading it in context. Scripture is extremely clear that God is a God who will punish the wicked. When Eusebius says that Christ paid a debt for us that we cannot pay, and that forgiveness was the result of his paying this debt, it is very certain that Eusebius meant that we owed this debt to God. To argue that the punishment due to us for our sins is not from God simply ignores mountains and mountains of Scriptural testimony. God alone is the one who can forgive sins. If Christ’s paying our debt becomes the cause of our forgiveness, then it is clear that God is the one who forgives, that he was the one to whom we owed this debt, and that Christ paid the debt in our place. This is Scripture, this is the teaching of the church fathers. Furthermore, Eusebius says that the Father was the one who delivered Christ over for our sins. Again, this is the clear teaching of Scripture, that God did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all and for our sins. He set forth his own Son as a propitiation for our sins. This was a Trinitarian act. God delivered his Son, laying our iniquities on him. The Son willingly offered himself to the Father, and he did so through the Eternal Spirit. The Son’s death was in fact, within the Trinitarian action, a self-propitiation that God enacted in Christ, out of his great love for us.

    To be sure, you are certainly correct that Christ has entered into our sufferings. So you are right in what you affirm, but you are incorrect in what you deny. Christ suffered with us, but he also suffered in place of us. Again, as Eusebius says, Christ paid a debt which we could not pay; he paid it in our place, and the result was the forgiveness of our sins.

    Again, to be sure, with regard to this life, what Christ did on our behalf is to pay a “mitigated” penalty. He died for us, and yet we still die. But the Christ-event in its totality–incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension–does in fact assure that we will not die the second death. Also, to be sure, we suffer with Christ, we “make up what is lacking” with regard to Christ’s death, but those sufferings are not atoning; they do not provide our own redemption. Christ has done that alone.

    (2) PSA does not teach, as you suggested in another post, that Christ’s death caused a “change in the Father.” Christ’s death did procure our forgiveness, as the Apostle Paul says, “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph 1:7). But Christ’s death did not cause a change in the Father. The Father was already lovingly and kindly disposed toward us; he gave his Son, not because he despised us, but because he loved us.

    (3) I think this will probably be my last post on this discussion (other than a real quick reply to Dino). It’s hard to carry on a conversation with someone who repeatedly replies that the other person is uninitiated, has a tin ear, doesn’t know the language, and therefore could not possibly understand. The church fathers, in my opinion, are not the possession of any one church or tradition. Indeed, one of the watchwords of the Reformation was, “ad fontes,” back to the sources. They believed, and in my opinion correctly so, that they were recovering teaching that had been either distorted or suppressed over the course of several centuries. And it is good to hear from voices outside our own tradition in order that we might be self-critical. So, I don’t think it is helpful to argue that the outsider could not possibly provide a different perspective and show where one might have misread even one’s own tradition. Such a stance actually has more in common with Gnosticism more than it does with Christian orthodoxy. So, while I would love to continue the conversation, it would be perhaps best to drop it if the continual response is going to be that the conversation partner is one who could not possibly understand.

    Thanks, and Blessings.

  33. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Dino, just a very quick reply to correct two things in your post. First, In no way does PSA teach that a satisfaction is being rendered to some principle higher than God. God is absolutely sovereign and free, and he is not subservient to some principle. The only justice being dealt with here is God’s justice. There is no justice or some standard external to God to which God is subservient. But God is indeed a self-determined just God. And as an absolutely free just God, he does demand satisfaction for sin. And then he provided that satisfaction himself in the person of his Son. And then, second, in no way does this teaching villify God. What God in Christ was an act of extravagant love and mercy. God was in Christ, in his death, reconciling sinners to himself. There is no vilification in this teaching. Thanks, and Blessings.

  34. Michelle Avatar

    An Infinitely Just Person demanding the very same Infinite Justness from finite beings who possess no Infinite Justness of themselves whatsoever, due to their being dust, and to dust shall they return, under the threat of being eternally punished, is not just in the least. In fact, its unjust. So, this infinitely just person is breaking his own rules.

  35. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    In your last post you stated: “The only justice being dealt with here is God’s justice. There is no justice or some standard external to God to which God is subservient. But God is indeed a self-determined just God. And as an absolutely free just God, he does demand satisfaction for sin.” What is your Scriptural source for the this last statement of the quote? I do not find any such direct statement in all of Scripture.
    Explain also how sin affects God as He is immutable and Dispassionate. The effects of sin are on the sinner and those touched by his sin not on God. Adam’s sin was a self inflicted wound unto death for he broke communion with the Way the Truth and the Life. His sin did not affect God, only himself and his descendants, not by inherited guilt but by the inherited seed of corruption. Ezekiel Chapter 18 has many statements by God that the son does not die for the sins of the father. The son lives or dies in accordance with his own sin or innocence. The revealed words in this chapter are repeated in many other places in both the Old and New Testaments.
    I would also disagree with your statement because I can find plenty of places in Scripture where God has forgiven sin without demanding satisfaction in both the Old and New Testaments. An example of God forgiving sin without condition of satisfaction is found in John Chapter 8 verses 3-11. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery and asked for no satisfaction. He said: “Go and sin no more.” She offered nothing before He forgave her.
    Jesus had not yet ascended the cross so no satisfaction to justice had been given, yet He forgave sin. He forgave the sins of the man lowered through the roof without conditions as well. The problem with Western thinking in terms of the cross is that it is forensic and that line of thinking comes from not understanding what the Judgment of God really means. The Hebrew word for judgment is not a legal term; it does not mean weighing evidence and deciding guilt or innocence. The word means to set things right, to correct and to return things to a right state. It is a word of healing not of condemnation and implies mercy. The Year of the Jubilee is what Jesus came to declare.

  36. Agata Avatar

    “And as an absolutely free just God, he does demand satisfaction for sin.”

    I am also a cradle Orthodox and what you are saying here just simply does not even sound right, in the mind or in the heart….

    I am so looking forward to Dino’s reply to your comment…

  37. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Agata, thank you very much for expressing your sentiments on this. But, just to clarify, what exactly doesn’t sound right–that God is absolutely free, or that God is just, or that he demands satisfaction for sin, i.e., that he will punish those who do evil? These three things are affirmed over and over again Scripture and in the church fathers. Blessings.

  38. Agata Avatar

    Please forgive me if my comment felt too strong…
    I guess what does not “feel right” is that last part, that “He demands satisfaction for sin”… When He forgives our sins, He also forgets them, the Church Fathers affirm that for us (even if this is difficult for us to accept, but we must accept that). Those who do evil separate themselves from Him willingly (so they take a risk with their eternal destiny, good luck to them on this path!). When we keep close to God, He will help us avoid sin and that’s good enough assurance for me… The mental gymnastics about “just, free, demanding satisfaction” just don’t feel like the way the Saints tell us to think about God… He is Good and Loves Mankind…. We are safest when we love Him back….

  39. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Hi Nicholas, thanks for the question. Without going into a long involved reply to your question, I would simply direct you to Rom 3:21-26. The context here in which Paul is working is very much a judicial one. God set forth his own Son as propitiation for sin. In doing so, he was both just (in punishing sin), and justifier (declaring us to be just). All acts of forgiveness, even the ones you mention in the Gospels, are ultimately grounded in the death of Christ. This is exactly what Paul means when he says that it is in the death of Christ that we have our redemption and our forgiveness (Eph 1:7). So, it is very much a forensic context. It is also what Christ meant when he said that his blood was poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:27). It is what Chrysostom meant when he said that we are not only forgiven but declared just on the basis of the death of Christ (Homily on Rom 8:28ff). There is a definite forensic element to this. Blessings.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are things, such as the notion of a justice that makes demands, or that there must be a satisfaction for sin, that are simply not Biblical. No OT sacrifice is seen as a payment for sin, indeed, such thought is condemned. God doesn’t need the blood of bulls, etc. This is a make-believe narrative that is placed on the Scriptures and produces a distortion of what sin is, how it is forgiven, the nature of punishment, wrath, etc. I’m fully familiar with the Reform take on all of this, and, like a host of Orthodox thinkers, find it not present in Scripture and to be a distortion that sometimes borders on heresy.

    Back to the point of my article (and earlier ones), you cannot take the OT narrative as it stands and make Bibilical narrative of salvation. It turns Christ upside down. While it is Christ who turns the OT upside down (which is why the Jews did not understand what He was doing). The OT must be read through the lens of Pascha and in that, much is changed. I always come away from Reform conversations rather sad. I do not recognize the God I hear described. I’ve heard about that God most of my life, but I do not find Him in Christ. But, I’ve also seen that these conversations are like two trains meeting, but on different tracks.

    I’m sorry that Orthodoxy sounds so exclusive – that you have a tin ear – or such things. But, I really think that you lack the context for reading the Fathers or the Scriptures and coming to a right reading. The context matters. The fullness of the Tradition in the Church is, indeed, that context (as it was for Irenaeus). Irenaeus was not Reform, He was Orthodox. I find it interesting that the Fathers, who universally believed the Eucharist to be the Body and Blood of Christ, who venerated the relics of the saints and prayed to them, and gave proper veneration to the Mother of God and icons, etc., are rejected for all of those things – which are of the most primitive origin – but the very same Fathers are quoted (out of context) when they seem convenient. They would not recognize the worship within a Reform Church and would be surprised to be repudiated on the very practices that were at the core of their life. And you cannot separate their view of the Scripture, doctrine, etc., from their view on these other matters.

    It’s an incredible act of compartmentalization. But, I understand that this is not a productive conversation.

  41. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Agata, no need at all to apologize; I did not feel that your statement was too strong. I think I agree with just about everything you said in this last response. But I also think that the New Testament tells us that God’s love for us is demonstrated in sending his Son to die for us and to be the propitiation for our sins (Rom 5:8; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). So, yes, God loves us, but he does not forgive us by simply saying “I forgive you,” but he forgives us at the cost of his own Son. Blessings.

  42. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Freeman. Maybe we should just leave things at that. I do want to say that I have a great appreciation for the various Orthodox churches, and, indeed, I believe Reformed and Orthodox can learn and mutually bless each other. Blessings on your ministry.

  43. Byron Avatar

    There is much on this subject in the archives, including some good information on the word “propitiation”. One such link.

  44. Dino Avatar


    The ontological understanding of punishment is that when we read that “God hardens Pharaoh’s heart” [to choose a highly anthropopathic expression of the OT], what actually takes place is that a creature’s free inclination is respectfully “allowed” to go against its maker. Furthermore, the consequential punishments of a hardened heart, as do all punishments (due to God’s loving providence), always retain as their ultimate objective the salvific repentance of the one being ‘punished’. The Holy Fathers go to great lengths to make this clear as it is obviously a potential issue.

    I think we would do well to have a much more in depth look at the ‘ontological’ explanation of God’s union with us – a union unto death and even unto hell– as a far better reading of the Cross than PSA though.
    Christ is our ‘ontological’ propitiation [ἱλαστήριον] because, despite our disunity from Him, He is our virtue to be had, our justice at hand, our mercy, our life, our salvation, He unites Himself to us and we ourselves to Him and this ontological union is our redemption/mercy/atonement (ἱλασμός).
    Besides, it would be wise to remember that the language of Romans 3 –juridically understood– cannot be elevated to the pedestal of the ‘lens for all Scripture’ without falling into severe one-sidedness… …Don’t forget that for every bit of scripture that says one thing you can find another saying the other if you want.
    [If something could be elevated to such a pedestal, -and still not without some danger– that would be the first-hand experience of those who behold God as He is in His Paschal Light.]
    We must then grow to be a little more healthily suspicious, or just mindful of the anthropomorphic, juridical language PSA bases its extreme hypothesis on, which hypothesis ultimately results in some formidable mental gymnastics as formulated in reform theology, especially as it tries to maintain a simultaneously angry/demanding/punisher and forgiving/unconditionally loving, all-powerful God. It does, alas, vilify God in this, by positing a punishing deity – in the name of ‘justice’, (Who needs to even substitute one convict for another to ‘satisfy’ some cosmic need for justice that even the Almighty’s Love must has as a ‘condition’…[?!]) and not the true God who was revealed to us first-hand in Christ as unconditional Love.

  45. Michelle Avatar

    Its true, St John Chrysostom does talk about satisfaction, namely that God does not need any:

    “For if the wrath of God were a passion, one might well despair as being unable to quench the flame which he had kindled by so many evil doings; but since the Divine nature is passionless, even if He punishes, even if He takes vengeance, he does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving-kindness; wherefore it behooves us to be of much good courage, and to trust in the power of repentance. For even those who have sinned against Him He is not wont to visit with punishment for His own sake; for no harm can traverse that divine nature; but He acts with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him. For even as one who places himself outside the light inflicts no loss on the light, but the greatest upon himself being shut up in darkness; even so he who has become accustomed to despise that almighty power, does no injury to the power, but inflicts the greatest possible injury upon himself. And for this reason God threatens us with punishments, and often inflicts them, not as avenging Himself, but by way of attracting us to Himself. For a physician also is not distressed or vexed at the insults of those who are out of their minds, but yet does and contrives everything for the purpose of stopping those who do such unseemly acts, not looking to his own interests but to their profit; and if they manifest some small degree of self-control and sobriety he rejoices and is glad, and applies his remedies much more earnestly, not as revenging himself upon them for their former conduct, but as wishing to increase their advantage, and to bring them back to a purely sound state of health. Even so God when we fall into the very extremity of madness, says and does everything, not by way of avenging Himself on account of our former deeds; but because He wishes to release us from our disorder; and by means of right reason it is quite possible to be convinced of this.” –Two Letters to Theodore

    Same goes for St Gregory the Theologian:

    “To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things?”

  46. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Jerry, You avoided the most obvious question which was, if God needs judicial satisfaction to forgive sins, then why did God the Son forgive them before His death and at no cost to the forgiven? I agree, that one can read the verses you wrote in an English translation and draw the conclusions that you and many others do. My point about the definition of Judgment in Hebrew is to point out that Saint Paul did not think forensically as he was a Hebrew to the Hebrews and a Pharisee to the Pharisees. He would have had the Hebrew understanding of the Mercy Seat of God and of the Sabbath of Sabbaths in mind. What he meant depends on him, not us interpreting it. We can assure you that he never taught PSA in any manner. That concept did not appear until the 12th Century. It was not taught nor believed by the Church despite what people choose to read back into writings from the early periods. We cannot read in this modern age with the same mind as those who wrote the Scriptures. We do not think the same and do not have the same world view. That is why we in the Orthodox Church depend on the “cloud of witnesses” to teach us what was meant. None of these witnesses would agree with the forensic view of salvation despite how we choose to interpret what they meant. For such a doctrine would have earned itself a seat in the defense box at an Ecumenical Council. When the doctrine of PSA and the other Calvinist ideas became known to the Church the doctrines were condemned in 1672 AD at the Synod of Jerusalem. The self evidence of the rejection of PSA from the beginning is the anathemas against Calvin’s doctrines at the Synod. If we had believed that way, the doctrines would not have been condemned.

  47. Dino Avatar

    In other words, since scripturally, one can craft all sorts of hypotheses – as manifested by all the scripturally grounded heresies of the past – and since I guess I cannot invoke tradition with someone outside of Orthodox tradition, I point you to the fact that PSA’s hypothesis is fundamentally, philosophically absurd in its attempt to combine the conditional with the unconditional in God.

  48. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Thanks for all this, Dino. Several things.

    (1) You are certainly correct that there are some passages where the punishment from God is characterized as God letting us go on our own way; we simply reap what we have sown. This is often referred to by biblical scholars as the deed-consequence theory. However, biblical scholars also recognize that this way of framing things cannot by any means bear the weight of all the punishments from God in Scripture. Taking the Exodus as an example, since you mentioned Pharaoh, yes, Pharaoh reaps what he sows in his rebellion against God. However, God actively sends the plagues against him and the land of Egypt. The death of the firstborn was not simply the “natural” outcome of Pharaoh’s sin; rather, it was the result of God’s actively sending his angel to slay the firstborn. The punishment fit the crime, as it was of course “an eye for an eye” in payment for what Egypt had done to Israel’s male children; but it was not a natural consequence. God actively enacted the punishment. Furthermore, contrary to what some of the church fathers have said (by no means all) not all punishments are for the “salvific repentance” of the ones punished. God did not kill Pharaoh and the Egyptian army at the Red Sea because he loved them and had wonderful plans for their lives. This punishment was entirely retributive as far as the ones punished were concerned. Scripture does not see this any other way.

    (2) I appreciate what you say in the second half of your post. And PSA advocates do not by any means consider penal atonement to be the only lens through which to look at what Christ did for us. Rather, PSA dwells comfortably in the same house with recapitulation, Christus Victor, ransom, union with Christ, vicarious confession, moral influence, healing, etc.

    (3) I do think you need to be careful with the vilification language, lest you end up condemning the church fathers with that accusation. After all, Chrysostom himself talked about what Christ did for us with the language of “an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment” (Homily on Gal 3:1ff.) And many such other juridical formulations can be found in his and other church fathers’ writings. I certainly don’t think the church fathers vilified God when they did this. And I certainly do not either. Rather it glorifies the God who, through the death of his Son, procured our redemption, forgave us our sins, and declared us justified in Christ. Again, PSA by no means argues that Christ’s death causes God to love us, or satisfies a condition to make God to love us; rather Christ died because God loves us. God’s love is unconditional; but it is a demonstrated love, as God’s own Son was delivered to rescue us from our sins.


  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The examples taken from the OT depictions of the wrath of God and His destruction of the wicked, etc., are not the right basis for contemplating God nor creating a theology. The OT must be read through the NT. The Fathers (Anselm and Maximus) teach that the OT is shadow, the NT is ikon, and the Eschaton is the Truth itself. I have a sense in your argument that you have turned the table. The Forensic reading of the OT with added features such as satisfaction and sacrifice as payment (neither of which are in the text), becomes the story for reading the New. The PSA is not a theory among theories, it’s a false teaching among the true. For it says things about God that are not true. It mischaracterizes Him. It creates theories about His justice and righteousness that are simply untrue. Whatever “punishments” we may read of, can only properly be understood as corrective, not retributive. God has no need for retribution. None whatsoever. St. Isaac of Syria says, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.”

    The passage you cite from St. John Chrysostom is another place where you read PSA where it is not there. When you read ransom language (St. Basil says, “Ransomed us from death”) the language of ransom is allowed to stand, but the metaphor is not then developed to some logical conclusions. We know, for example, that we are not ransom from the devil or from God (cf. St. Gregory). Ransomed from death is enough.

    Yes, Christ is punished, sentenced to death. But the Father does not punish Him, just as the Father did not kill Him. He voluntarily laid down His life. When you take statements like St. John’s, who state something true, but in a reserved manner (not leaping to something that is untrue), and then you put words in his mouth to make him say PSA when he has not – that is specifically where you err.

    But the horse is dead. I’ll stop beating.

  50. Michelle Avatar

    Jerry, you said,

    “God did not kill Pharaoh and the Egyptian army at the Red Sea because he loved them and had wonderful plans for their lives. This ; was entirely retributive as far as the ones punished were concerned.”

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding, are you suggesting that God does not love Pharaoh? God does not love the damned? Im sure that’s not what you’re trying to say, but the way its written makes it seem that way. Just looking for clarification as I follow the conversation, thanks!

  51. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Hi Nicholas. No, I did not avoid your question. I answered it: “All acts of forgiveness, even the ones you mention in the Gospels, are ultimately grounded in the death of Christ.” Paul covers this when he says that “in his forbearance he [God] had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom 3:25) The sins of the OT saints, the sins of those whose sins Jesus declared forgiven in the Gospels, were ultimately forgiven in the death of Christ.

    It is a huge mistake to believe that the Hebrews, and of course, the Pharisees, did not think in forensic categories. You cannot read Romans and Galatians responsibly and fail to see Paul discussing salvation forensically. Indeed, the quotation I supplied to you from Chrysostom demonstrates that. You are certainly correct that often the terms justice and judgment in the Scriptures have to do with what we might refer to today as restorative justice. But Paul definitely uses the term forensically in passages like Rom 3:26; 8:30. And note especially Rom 8:33 — “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.” The forensic element is unmistakable.


  52. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Thanks for these quotations, Michelle. Of course, there is a bit of a problem in that authors can say one thing in addressing a particular issue for that issue’s sake, but say something that seems quite different when addressing another issue. So, in another place, Chrysostom says this:

    “And what did this mediator do? The work of a mediator! For it is as if two had been turned away from each other and since they were not willing to talk together, another one comes, and, placing himself in the middle, loosened the hostility of each of the two. And this is also what Christ did. God was angry with us, for we were turning away from God, our human-loving Master. Christ, by putting himself in the middle, exchanged and reconciled each nature to the other. And how did he put himself in the middle? He himself took on the punishment that was due to us from the Father and endured both the punishment from there and the reproaches from here.

    “Do you want to know how he welcomed each? Christ, Paul says, ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.’ You have seen how he received from on high the punishment that had to be borne! Look how also from below he received the insults that had to be borne: ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you,’ Scripture says, ‘have fallen upon me.’ Haven’t you seen how he dissolved the enmity, how he did not depart before doing all, both suffering and completing the whole business, until he brought up the one who was both hostile and at war—brought that one up to God himself, and he made him a friend?” (Homily on the Ascension of Christ)

    As for Gregory, as adamant as he may seem to sound in the citation you provided, note what he says in another place:

    “But look at it in this manner: that as for my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who taketh away the sin of the world; and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ also is called disobedient on my account. But when all things shall be subdued unto Him on the one hand by acknowledgment of Him, and on the other by a reformation, then He Himself also will have fulfilled His submission, bringing me whom He has saved to God.” (Fourth Theological Oration)


  53. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Thanks for the perspective, Fr. Freeman. But for my part, I refuse to pit the God of the Old Testament versus the God of the New Testament. With the New Testament, Irenaeus, and the faithful of all the ages, I freely confess that the God of the Old Testament is the same God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And God does not all of a sudden become a “gentler, kinder” God when we cross the divide between the Testaments. Blessings.

  54. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Good question, Michelle. I was trying to capitalize on that modern trite phrase, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Without becoming too involved in my answer, I taught a course several years ago at my seminary entitled, “A Biblical Theology of the Love of God.” It becomes pretty evident in Scripture that there are different “levels” to the love of God. On the one hand, God loves everyone. But on another level, he has a special love for the redeemed, for the church. With regard to Pharaoh, what I really wanted to emphasize was that God’s punishment of Pharaoh had nothing to do with working toward Pharaoh’s salvation. It was, in fact, retributive and not restorative. Interestingly, later Israelites celebrated what God did with these words:

    1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good.
    His love endures forever.

    10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
    His love endures forever.
    11 and brought Israel out from among them
    His love endures forever.
    12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;
    His love endures forever.
    13 to him who divided the Red Sea w asunder
    His love endures forever.
    14 and brought Israel through the midst of it,
    His love endures forever.
    15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea;
    His love endures forever. (Psalm 136:1, 10-15)

    Notice that these acts of destructions are celebrated as acts of love, but toward the Israelites.

  55. Michelle Avatar


  56. Michelle Avatar

    Sorry, hit the send button before I even started.


    First, that prayer you read from the OT is about our Baptism and our own death to sin. The Church, which possesses the Spirit of Christ, does not rejoice over the death of any sinner. This is where one should interpret the OT according to the Spirit of Christ, as it is revealed im the NT.

    Secondly, to say that God loves the redeemed in a special way that the damned do no enjoy is blasphemy. I for one hope to sit with Pharaoh in hell until I love him in the exact same way that I Christ Himself. Because that, my friend, is the heart of Salvation itself. Just as Paul says in Romans to the Jews; “I would that I were accursed from Christ…”

  57. Michelle Avatar

    Sorry, to many typos. I must repost or it will kill me, lol. I meant to say:

    “Secondly, to say that God loves the redeemed in a special way that the damned do not enjoy is blasphemy. I for one hope to sit with Pharaoh in hell until I love him in the exact same way that I love Christ Himself. Because that, my friend, is the heart of Salvation itself. Just as Paul says in Romans to the Jews; “I would that I were accursed from Christ…”

  58. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Hi Michelle. Thank you. I will, of course, have to disagree. Psalm 136 can be appropriated by the church for any number of purposes, but it is not about our baptism and death to sin. It is about the mighty works of God which he did in the Old Testament, especially with regard to the saving works he did in saving the Israelite from their enemies.

    As for what you refer to as blasphemy, you are not reading the texts fairly. God had a special love for Israel in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7). There are passages in the Psalms where it is said that God hates the wicked. There is of course the statement that God loved Jacob but hated Esau. God can talk about how he has withdrawn his love from Saul, and given it to David. And Jesus can talk about a love for the disciples that is in some way conditioned on their obedience to his commands (e.g., John 14:21). At the very least, this lead us to understand that there are different levels to, or kinds of, the love of God. Thanks, and Blessings.

  59. Michelle Avatar


    Just wanted to say I harbor no anger towards you. I realize it is probably coming across that way, but I don’t mean for it to.

    Also, I’m not accusing you of having a blasphemous disposition, but just that the Reformed theology you’ve fell victim to is, indeed, blasphemous.

    No hard feelings.

  60. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    No hard feelings at all, Michelle. Blessings.

  61. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Hi |Dino. Feel free to argue tradition. Basically that’s what’s involved in the regula fidei. However, I do deny that any one tradition has everything right. And in my opinion, there are places where the Orthodox churches have tended to read against the regula fidei rather than with it. As for your last sentence, I really have no idea how this is a problem. Do you not believe that God can make both conditional and unconditional statements? Conditional is what the covenants are all about. God is not to be micro-managed by us into conditional versus unconditional. Blessings.

  62. Dino Avatar

    I have nothing different to what Father Stephen and Michelle just commented (e.g.: regarding the baptismal understanding of the Red Sea Passing or the eschatologically salvific understanding of what appears retributive at first (St Isaac and St Gregory make a particularly big deal of this clearly), so there’s little point restating it once again. Have you read Kalomiros’ “The River of Fire” [on this blog] regarding all ‘punishment’ never being retributive?

    The OT reading you present – or rather that Reform theology presents- is not the “opening of the scriptures” that Christ bestowed on His disciples (Luke 24:25), but the juridical reading that He accused the Jews of being blinkered with (John 5:39). If one reads the whole and not just a sentence here and there in Chrysosotom and the others, PSA becomes utterly untenable.

    May God enlighten us all.

  63. Dino Avatar

    The mental gymnastics PSA theory had to resort to in order to find a way to reconcile what it saw as the OT God of wrath and the NT God of Love (with a clear predilection to get rid of the NT rather than the OT if needed!) is based on the fact that the West wanted to rationalize and construct ‘theology’ based mainly on that [ie: human thinking], with a host of other fallen problems being adopted in the process. Orthodoxy based its authentic theology on those God-bearers who encountered God first-hand and therefore retains the authentic knowledge and experience of God as Love and Salvation even in what might be perceived and called ‘wrath’ or even ‘hell’. But you need to see His eyes (Luke 15:20), upon you (Luke 22:61) the way the Saints did [and upon all] to truly understand that. You then solve the OT – NT ‘issues’ you are having. The Orthodox tradition contains this view throughout it.

  64. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Dino, this article I wrote was simply a piece of satire, and has nothing at all to do with PSA theory. The only thing I did in this article was poke fun at all those people who say we need to get rid of the Old Testament God and just have the New Testament God. This was simply my way of showing that the God of New Testament is as much a wrathful God as is the God of the Old Testament, and that the Old Testament God is just as much a God of love as is the New Testament God. Guess it sucked you in, huh! 🙂

    Reformed theology believes consistently that the God of the OT is the same as the God of the NT, and sees no need to suggest some rigid dichotomy between the Testaments. And, in this way, Reformed theology is much truer to the church fathers, such as Irenaeus. I linked to my blog post because Fr. Freeman had suggested that we cannot use the descriptions of God in the Old Testament to formulate our theology, and that the Old Testament is merely shadow. Such an idea would have been repugnant to the authors of the New Testament and to early church fathers like Irenaeus. The recovering of the reciprocal relationship between the Testaments is a service that Reformed theology has performed for the church as a whole. Jesus did not come to show us a different God than the one revealed in the Old Testament; rather, he came to give us a fuller revelation and understanding of the same God. The Old Testament God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  65. Dino Avatar

    A little more on punishment: Punishment is not unconnected to the redemptive nature of suffering – a core axiom of Christianity – and one emancipated from the secular understanding of earthly life as the totality of existence, we comprehend how this salvific nature of suffering extends even to death and beyond, somehow rendering all punishment ultimately redemptive. To suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found in God is abominable. [Issac the Syrian II/39, 2-3].
    Do we not see in the punishment and exile of Adam and Eve from paradise and the establishment of death under the guise of punishment the blessing of the resurrection to come? St Isaac is most telling here: “God decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam because of sin, … He showed it as something Adam would receive as a repayment for his wrong, but He hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared He concealed His eternal intention concerning death and what His wisdom was aiming at. Even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious, and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world. Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there … The Creator did not say: ‘This will turn out to be the cause of good things to come for you and a life more glorious than this’. Instead, He showed it as something which would bring about our misfortune and dissolution. … You should see that, while God’s caring is guiding us all the time to what He wishes for us, as things outwardly appear, it is from us that he takes the occasion to providing things, His aim being to carry out by every means what He has intended for our advantage.
    All this is because He knew beforehand our inclination towards all sorts of wickedness, and so He cunningly made the harmful consequences which would result from this into a means of entry to the future good and the setting right of our corrupted state. These are things which are known only to Him. But after we have been exercised and assisted little by little as a result of these consequences after they have occurred, we realize and perceive that it could not turn out otherwise than in accordance with what has been foreseen by Him. This is how everything works with Him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with Him it is not a matter of retribution, but he is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from His dealings with humanity.”

  66. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jerry, et al
    There is only one God. But there is a false argument that the “God of the OT is the God of the NT.” There is only one God, and He has made Himself known definitively in Christ. Christ is the “Ho On” as is noted on His icons. Christ Himself speaks to Moses, etc.

    However, together with the Fathers, we hold that in the OT, Christ is seen within shadows, types, etc. But the PSA, and much of the Reform tradition, sees no distinction to be made between a literally, rational reading of the OT and the definitive reading of the NT. Indeed, it reverses them, looking for signs in the gospels and the Epistles that the punishing, retributive God, is still with us. It makes these readings of the OT, the definitive manner of reading the New.

    There was a reason that type, allegory, etc. were so often employed in the Fathers in the reading of the OT. There is a reason it was described as “shadow.”

  67. Dino Avatar

    The old testament God is Christ Himself BTW

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, I thought the mistake “the God of the Old Testament is the Father of Jesus Christ” is quite telling.

  69. Byron Avatar

    After all, Chrysostom himself talked about what Christ did for us with the language of “an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment” (Homily on Gal 3:1ff.) And many such other juridical formulations can be found in his and other church fathers’ writings.

    This is not actually a forensic statement and here, I think, is where we differ. The readings of the Fathers by non-Orthodox automatically carry with them a legal, forensic viewpoint. Orthodox deal with the union and interrelationship of God and mankind, the healing of the latter by the former; non-Orthodox deal with a separation that must be crossed, a gulf that must be bridged.

    The “sentenced to death” is the lot of humanity in the wake of Adam’s sin; it is the self-sentence of Adam that resulted in death. The “innocent man’s undertaking to die” and “so rescuing him from punishment” is Christ, “trampling down death by death” so that the punishment of death that Adam entered himself into is lifted. There is nothing forensic here. This is the healing work of God towards the sickness (death) of mankind.

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

    Thank you for this last two comments Dino and Fr Stephen. With few words saying very much.

  71. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Fr. Freeman and Dino, yes, you are certainly correct that God is Christ Himself BTW.” But it is absolutely not a mistake to also refer to “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To refer to this as a mistake is just plain silly. But if it is a mistake, it is one that I have made along with both the apostles Paul and Peter (Rom 15:6; 2 Cor 1:3; 11:31; Eph 1:3; 1 Pet 1:3 ). When the apostles use this phrase, they are obviously, at least in these passages, using the word “God” to refer to the Father and not to the Trinity per se. So both formulations are correct: Christ is God, but he is also the Son of God.

    But, just to reiterate, I am perfectly happy, indeed, I insist on it, that Christ is also God in the Old Testament, and that he was the one who carried out acts of both salvation and judgment. Blessings.

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino’s point was that the God who acts in the Old Testament is Christ, i.e. the 2nd Person of the Trinity. He was reacting to your identification of the OT God as “the Father.” There is, of course, no contradiction or tension between the persons of the Trinity. It’s part of how the Orthodox read the OT. There is, strangely, a common Protestant treatment in which the God of the OT is seen as the Father, while the NT describes the Son. I think Dino was hearing this treatment in your statement, nothing more.

  73. Agata Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen and Dino, and all,

    Thank you for your wonderful replies to Jerry. May God grant him to know His Truth eventually… It’s so much more reassuring to read what you write about God (a loving, caring and self giving God) than the one he seems to describe (a self preoccupied and self centered God).
    He created us to share in His Life out of Love, He created the world through and for Christ, and us for Christ…. Everything else is, as Dino says, mental gymnastics that won’t matter at all at the moment we are being lowered into the grave… The only thing that will matter is if we loved and love Christ, if we lived our life “in Him”….
    There is no other Church than the Orthodox Church that teaches that Love, thru Her Saints especially (because they actually receive that direct revelation)…. May God indeed enlighten us all and grant us to see, know and love Him “with all our heart, and soul and mind and strength”.

    You are in my prayers Jerry.

  74. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Thank you for this clarification. But, again, I want to reiterate that it is not a “mistake” to refer to the Old Testament God as the “God and Father of the our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is also true that Christ is God in the Old Testament. You are correct that there are some Protestants who would deny that Christ is God in the Old Testament, but they are heretics who have broken away from their Protestant heritage. Blessings.

  75. Michelle Avatar

    St. John Chrysostom (since you keep referencing him) does an excellent job of clarifying the corrective and loving nature of God’s wrath towards Pharaoh (as well as Esau, and those punished in the wilderness) in his homily on Romans 9,

    Basically he states that Pharaoh’s punishments are strictly for the sake of drawing him to repentance, due to God’s love for him. But since, according to God’s foreknowledge, He knows that Pharaoh will continually refuse His loving invitation, He instead uses these punishments for the sake of drawing others to repentance. All God does is done out of His love towards all. Everyone one, including Pharaoh, in firsthand experiencing God’s grace, even through punishments. Nothing is mentioned at all of God’s just vengeance needing to be satisfied through the eternal damnation of Pharaoh.

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

    The human project that is the Incarnation of Christ began before all worlds and before Adam’s sin. Please, Fr Stephen or Dino correct me if I’m wrong, I’m an infant in the faith.

  77. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Byron, simply pontificating that “this is not actually a forensic statement” will not make the forensic language go away. This is not a non-Orthodox problem; it is a modern Orthodox problem. The language of “an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment” is decidedly forensic, legal language. To be sure, It is certainly more than that, but it is not less than that. As you say, it is also the healing work of God; but it is also the forensic work of God. I, for one, do not believe that the apostles and church fathers were incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. They can refer to how God performs a work of healing in the atonement, AND they can refer to the legal, forensic aspects of that atonement.

    No, Adam did not self-sentence himself, except by a figure of speech. God pronounced the sentence upon him, and then he actively enforced that sentence by exiling him from the Garden of Eden and barring his access to the Tree of Life. Even today we can, by a figure of speech, refer to how criminals have sentenced themselves to their punishments, or how they have “signed their own death warrants.” But the actual sentence is carried out by someone else.


  78. Thomas Avatar

    Fr Stephen, would you have handy a reference for J. N. D. Kelly’s statement ‘that the East never developed an Atonement Theory’?

  79. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The confession of an old man. I first read this in Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrine back in the 70’s. It’s early in the chapter on atonement. But, that’s a long memory…

  80. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Hi Michelle. This is indeed a very fine sermon by Chrysostom. But as far as our discussion is concerned, the sermon has to be taken into account with the totality of his teachings. Sometimes, when the game of “dueling quotations” is played, there is the idea that one quotation in some way cancels out other quotations. But, of course we do not usually read authors this way. We assume, when we read an author, that their statements are not ultimately contradictory. And we also grant that an author does not say everything that needs to be every time they address a particular topic. We take into account of the totality of all their writings. So this sermon does not cancel out what Chrysostom said in that Ascension homily I quoted, which in turn does not cancel out what he said in the letters to Theodore you cited, which in turn does not cancel out anything else that he said. God’s punishments are sometimes restorative in nature; at other times they are retributive because there is a finality to them. Chrysostom recognizes both. Thanks, and blessings.

  81. Byron Avatar

    Byron, simply pontificating that “this is not actually a forensic statement” will not make the forensic language go away. This is not a non-Orthodox problem; it is a modern Orthodox problem. The language of “an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another sentenced to death, and so rescuing him from punishment” is decidedly forensic, legal language. To be sure, It is certainly more than that, but it is not less than that. As you say, it is also the healing work of God; but it is also the forensic work of God. I, for one, do not believe that the apostles and church fathers were incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. They can refer to how God performs a work of healing in the atonement, AND they can refer to the legal, forensic aspects of that atonement.

    Forgive me, I only wanted to point out that the Orthodox read the language in a different way than Protestants (in general). Healing of sin and death, the primary focus of God towards humanity, does not come through the application of law and legal requirements being met (by us, or before God). To add a legal requirement to any statement that is rooted in God’s love, in spite of the language used, misses the point of it.

    No, Adam did not self-sentence himself, except by a figure of speech. God pronounced the sentence upon him, and then he actively enforced that sentence by exiling him from the Garden of Eden and barring his access to the Tree of Life. Even today we can, by a figure of speech, refer to how criminals have sentenced themselves to their punishments, or how they have “signed their own death warrants.” But the actual sentence is carried out by someone else.

    I agree that my use of “self-sentence” is perhaps a poor use of language. But God did not “pronounce the sentence” of death upon Adam, Adam brought death upon himself by moving away from Life (God) and eating of the fruit of the tree. Even when offered opportunities for repentance (in God’s questioning of him), Adam refused them, instead blaming the woman. God’s exiling of mankind from the garden is an act of setting the stage for our redemption; it denies eternal being to the corruption that Adam entered into. It is not an act of judicial sentencing, but an act of Grace.

    Blessings to you as well, my friend.

  82. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Indeed, Agata. May we all come to a greater knowledge of the truth and of the God who was “pleased to offer up for all his seed his own beloved and only-begotten Son as a sacrifice for our redemption. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.5.4)

    “By remitting sins, he healed humankind, while also manifesting who he was. For if no one can forgive sins but God alone, while the Lord remitted them and healed human beings, it is plain that he himself was the Word of God made the Son of Man, who had received from the Father the power to remit sins. He was man and God, so that, since as man he suffered for us, so as God he might have compassion on us and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our creator. That is why David said beforehand, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity” David thus points to the forgiveness of sins which comes with his advent, “erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands” and “nailing it to the cross,” so that as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, so also by means of a tree we may obtain the remission of our debt. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.17.3)


  83. Dino Avatar

    St Isaac’s statement that attributing any sort of retribution to God is a blasphemy and abomination is arguably of great gravity, greater than many others. So what if we can find forensic language (used in quite different world’s than our current one) in the words of Chrysostom…? The overarching framework is not that, and there’s little point defending and cultivating forensic sounding statements instead of the ontology of God’s unconditional love, guiding our fervour discerningly is up to us.

  84. Onesimus Avatar

    Hi Jerry,

    Fascinating conversation. As a former reformed Christian, I’d make only the following comments on your observation;

    Sometimes, when the game of “dueling quotations” is played, there is the idea that one quotation in some way cancels out other quotations. But, of course we do not usually read authors this way. We assume, when we read an author, that their statements are not ultimately contradictory. And we also grant that an author does not say everything that needs to be every time they address a particular topic. We take into account of the totality of all their writings.

    The Orthodox approach is to take the totality of the witness of all Fathers, scripture, liturgy, hymnody, etc. (the body of Traditon) as a witness. In this respect all forensic language is seen properly contextualized and referenced to the whole….and not with a theory of satisfaction read into it in retrospect. The language you describe as forensic has meaning apart from what PSA insists on imparting to it. Once on accepts the PSA model it is very difficult to allow the language to have any other meaning.

    However, for the most part, (and Father Freeman can correct this) there would probably not be an issue for Orthodox to speak in juridical terms if such speech was seen as ultimately pedagogical and emphasized as such. As it is, what we see is the ascribing of the juridical framework of justice and retribution to the nature and /or essence of God which is balanced by His revelation of Himself as love and mercy and to a degree that they must assuage Him in both regards. What often seems to be at issue, it seems to me, is that the Orthodox will not make conjectures about the essence or nature of God from inferred. extrapolated theories outside of direct revelation in Christ. As a seminarian at an evangelical seminary, all Protestant Christians are comfortable with making speculative statements about God’s nature and essence which they affirm as dogma…or with which they play around with in a haphazard fashion (from the Orthodox POV).

    Just my observations.

    I’m intrigued by your state,Kent to Fr. Freeman about “heretics who have left the reformed heritage.” What is a heretic in your view?

  85. Janine Avatar

    God’s treatment of Pharoah had everything to do with God’s people and bringing Israel out of Egypt. It was not just retributive. If one refuses salvation, one misses salvation, but that’s not retributive either or payment for satisfaction either. IF that were true it would be like saying we have to pay for grace as well. It doesn’t work on one side of the equation and it wouldn’t work on the other except to be self-contradictory

  86. Michelle Avatar


    I’m going to be a bit presumptuous here and assume you believe in a limited atonement. Please correct me if I’m wrong (and then ignore everything I’m about to say, lol).

    Assuming you believe in limited atonement, I’m also going to be bold and guess just a little part of you, deep down inside somewhere, considers yourself to be in the in crowd, as one of the elect.
    Well, hello! It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Elect! Let me introduce myself, I fully reject your (Calvin’s) Christ, and always will, my name is Mrs. Unelect! Now that we’ve been introduced, feel free to be one with your Christ and love yourself, as well as your other elected buddies in a “special” way that is not extended to me! Tell me, how exactly is it that you do love me, you know, in the less-special way? Nevermind, rather, call me Mrs. Wicked. I gladly accept the title from you, so do not be shy and feel free to be one with your Christ and hate me with that imputed righteous hate that He graces you with. It’s only Just to do so.

    Sorry for the sarcasm, but you need to get out of your head and think a little more with your heart. Just as Christ tried to get the Jews to locate their hearts when they scolded Him for healing someone on the Sabbath.

    Consider this analogy for instance, and tell me what your heart says about it:

    A perfectly just, and perfectly merciful man has a wife and a 12 yr old son. His son steels money from his father’s wallet to give to an older kid in exchange for some alcohol. In this world the perfectly just punishment for this crime is to be busted in the jaw with a brick until it breaks. So, the father, being perfectly just must bust his jaw, but, being perfectly merciful he also must forgive his child. So, in total agreement with his wife, they sit the young lad down and explain to him that his mother is going to take the bloody blow for him instead. And then the father proceeds to bash his wife in the face in front of his 12 yr old boy, beating his mother right in front of him to a bloody pulp. Now tell me, do you think the boy will have a complex when he’s older? Maybe some severe depression?

    Now imagine this actually happening in reality, as if it were really true. How do you feel about it? Do you celebrate it, pleased by the justness and mercy? Or do you cringe? Use your heart and be honest.

  87. Michelle Avatar

    Also want to give you props, Jerry. We’ve got you surrounded and your really holding your own! 🙂

  88. Agata Avatar


    Thank you for continuing this conversation with us, and especially for “drawing out” these excellent commentators and their spectacular words of explanations. It’s truly a feast today, here on “Glory to God for All Things”! 🙂
    (I am such a nobody in this crowd, and yet I cannot restrain myself from sharing a few thoughts with you).

    What I hear in what you write (and this a very very personal opinion) is such “theoretical” knowledge of God… I don’t see any practical application of what you are saying (so God forgives us because of Christ, but how does that change me and help me grow closer to Christ, as we should). The Orthodox Church offers experiential access to God, tangible, material, no mental gymnastics necessary… I am not good at keeping track of advanced theology concepts (but I am glad smart and saintly people in the Church have that figured out, and I can trust their assurance), I would really like to know how to pray, fast, cheerfully give alms, forgive people, be somebody God is pleased to look at. Even knowing the fact that He forgives me isn’t that comforting, since I know he sees the darkness in my soul better than I can myself.

    One of the most beautiful things I have ever read on this blog (or maybe it was in Father Stephen’s book) is this paragraph:

    “There will be no legal defense before God. There can be none. What takes place between us and God is entirely a matter of our being, our existence. No words or explanations, no reasoning. Just who and what you are. That’s all there is.”

    I am sorry Jerry, but nothing you write helps with that, and everything Fr. Stephen, Dino, Michelle (and all other wonderful friends) say gives me hope…. Forgive me. Thank you for your blessings, and blessings to you.

  89. Justin Avatar

    I’ve been where you are, I can sympathize. Perhaps an analogy:
    You’re pulling your hair out wondering why it’s not super-obvious that all the references in these ancient texts to “taking a shot” refer to imbibing vodka. You’re honestly baffled. Incapable of seeing it any other way. Why? because you were raised and formed in Alcoholism. It is literally impossible for you to see it any other way – it’s just SO OBVIOUS.
    But here’s the deal: these ancient texts weren’t crafted by recent Alcoholics, but Ancient Archers. “Take a shot” refers to something outside your reality: Bows and Arrows. You will NEVER be able to see this. At least, not without entering the Archer reality in which the texts were crafted, receiving the Archer Tradition of which the texts are an expression. And, fighting very hard against the alcoholic life you did receive. You are a foreigner to the life of the texts. And you can’t study your way out of that. Your study – coming from a place of death (outside the life of the texts) can never yield life/truth, only darkness/error.
    Deny yourself. The first step is to admit that you don’t know. To the extent that you hang on to the delusion that you do know, to that extent you will never know. If you are right, you will never be righteous. Lose your life to save it. Otherwise you will play the Elder Brother, outside in the field, consorting with your bottle of vodka as to what the Father could possibly be doing in there with all those silly sticks and ignorant Prodigal Sons who just can’t see the obvious meaning of the texts.
    The way down is the way up.

  90. Maria Avatar

    It is good to remember from time to time that this is an Orthodox blog and not an open Christian blog. It is revealing indeed, but for an outsider who wants to learn, not how to become God, etc., because union with God/Christ is a gift, and not attained or measured by arguments in a precise science of understanding all the texts in the bible, what has been a/for thousand years in verbal transmissions, then in text’s of distant cultures, and so on. We have fragments and with faith we rely on the fullness of Christ, and we receive it without ever having known all the debates and arguments as I have read thru these pages.
    I enjoy reading from Orthodox sources, and like Jerry said, we can learn a lot from these forgotten sources, but the need to argue, and who has got in right or wrong is really in the end God’s call, not Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. Today’s Orthodoxy almost has a flavor of a Cultic tendency mho here. You either believe this or your out….kind of like, and you are not saved. (you are not (Orthodox) Jewish, chosen people)To me that sounds like playing God or lording over ….. Intrinsically still competing and still very much Jewish. (Kabbala) Having run close side by side for the first 1000 years.
    A very interesting dialogue. Thank you everyone, even in this there is value. Blessings

  91. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Distinctions have to be made between sermon illustrations and more dogmatic treatments of central teachings. There is a reason that Chrysostom gets cited so frequently in these conversations – he was a preacher. He was not a dogmatic theologian of particular great note. But his sermons (often as expositions of Scripture) are massive, in terms of what we still have. In the course of preaching, many illustrations will be used, and many times without the careful reflection on what the consequences would be were that illustration to be taken and used as the primary metaphor for doctrine.

    Jerry says that the PSA is happy to be among the many images used in atonement doctrine. But this is not true. In Reform thought, its metaphors and images, its internal logic, is the cornerstone for all subsequent theology. Everything else is a sermon illustration. It is of primary note that the forensic language and imagery of the PSA is simply absent in the liturgical life of the Church. It is not how we sing, not how we pray. If you will, those sermon illustrations (rare indeed) that can be used in support of some PSA version, never “made it onto the charts.”

    But this is not something that can really be discussed with the non-Orthodox, because they are simply without experience and knowledge of the liturgical life of the Church. It is this lack of experience in the Tradition (and there are not “many traditions”) that makes the conversation awkward.

  92. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think that someone is out or not saved if they are not Orthodox. However, neither is the truth fragmented into the many pieces of denominational Christianity. Our culture teaches us that we all need to get along, and we therefore have an instinct to finally minimize all differences. But Orthodoxy is not a brand, not a denomination among denominations. It is the faith of the Fathers received and preserved. The Orthodox Church is filled with sinners and has no corner on righteousness. However, its inheritance within its prayers and liturgical life, the Fathers, etc., are the right and true expression of the faith. Some of that is just plain historical fact, no real argument.

  93. Michael Bauman Avatar

    Father, is it right to say (as I have begun to), that the Orthodox Church, as the Body of Christ, is as an overflowing fountain. The Grace, the Life, the truth of the Holy Trinity comes through the Church in such abundance that it overflows to every one and everything. We can not possibly contain Him even if we wanted to. Unless one consciously and purposefully rejects God and tries to unite to Satan that life reaches you. Shoot, even there to some degree.

    Still we have the fullness even when we do not partake of that fullness as we ought? Is that not one aspect of being “The pillar and ground of the truth”?

    There is an icon of the Theotokos that depicts a similar reality. It takes my breath away. Seems the Incarnation works that way: a particular mother, a particular revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, a particular group of Apostles and disciples forming a particular Body with a particular understanding given by grace. That is what is traditioned. Here for all to drink of if they come.

    We did not make it up. It was/is given, whole and complete full of every blessing.

  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Essentially, yes. We should not think of the Church in the smaller terms of an institution, though it has institutions. The Church is the whole of creation being gathered together into Christ. Sacramentally, this is expressed as the Orthodox Church, and it certainly overflows. The Eucharist lies at the very heart of the union between Christ and creation.

    The institutionalization of grace is a mistake (one largely picked up from Medieval scholasticism). Those who say “no grace outside the Church” mean “no grace outside the boundaries of the institution.” That is nonsense. Even the devil and his angels are sustained in existence by the good God (and that sustaining is grace). If this were not so, they would cease to exist.

  95. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Hey guys,

    You have certainly been very busy beavers! Unfortunately, I have a lot of things on my plate and I wasn’t able to get back to a number of you yesterday, and today’s not looking too good either. Besides doing some yard work, spending some time with the family, and other things, one of my tasks today is to prepare a sermon I am preaching tomorrow. I have entitled it, “Special Decoder Glasses, Klingon, and Where’s Waldo: Jesus Christ in the Old Testament.” It is based on Acts 26:22-23, where Paul is on trial before Felix, and at one point says this:

    “But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

    Did you catch that? According to Paul, he is not saying anything that the prophets did not say. This was the point of my initial post on this whole thread, and my concern with the dichotomy that Fr. Freeman had set up between the shape of the gospel story being “discerned within” the Old Testament as opposed to being “derived from” the Old Testament. Paul is not working with that dichotomy. If there was ever a time for Paul to give up the idea that he is not saying anything beyond what the prophets said, this would have been a good time to do it, in a process where he is potentially on trial for his life. But he holds fast to it. And he does that before the Jewish leaders, before Agrippa, before Felix, and before the authorities in Rome. Indeed, for that belief, Paul will ultimately suffer martyrdom. If Paul had simply believed that Christ could be discerned within the Old Testament by using special decoder glasses or playing a game of Where’s Waldo, that would not have accounted for his great faith. Rather, it was his conviction that what Christ did was entirely according to the Scriptures. Christ did what he did because the Scriptures “must” be fulfilled. Paul was convinced that he was not saying anything beyond what the prophets said.

    In any case, I’ll try to get back to all your questions as soon as I can. But please be patient with me. Blessings.

  96. Maria Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Freeman,
    I appreciate your response and agree that the “God given Faith and Light” to the Church is NOT fragmented, but nevertheless, it is given according to the understanding of a particular Church Culture/people, which can be limited. Just like each of our Children are different from the same set of parents, so I believe the Churches are. As a very young individual raised Baptist, attended schools with nuns, Methodist from Mothers side, living in a mainly Catholic and Protestant culture, where I belonged to a minority as Baptist, raised after WWII with a Faith to survive, I often wondered about all these splits and why we are killing each other professing the same God. So yes, I am troubled as an adult with the freedom I have to explore what I have received from the cradle to near death. I’ve come to love all the denominations if you will, and I probably will love Orthodoxy too as well, as I have enjoyed much of your writings here, though not always agreeing. I don’t think we have to resolve our differences in understandings, but RESPECT it, because it will take care and change itself. The spirit searches all things, and they shall all know him as he is. And we all might be surprised.
    Religion informs culture, and culture informs politics. And sometimes change comes hard. We see it in this NOW culture. Religion is no longer informing and giving way to culture. I see it in various traditions. And tradition is a part of culture. So not sure why you think Orthodoxy is the only right tradition to acknowledge the God of our fathers.. I love the spiritual part and understanding you have in many respects, and I think that is where all Churches are loosing ground. It is not tradition that will hold a church together I am afraid. We then will all be wearing the Ring without the love for one another. Differences is what keeps us growing and humble, and not cookie cutter Christians. No, God is not fragmented—we are as people, by religion, culture and politics etc. and in this climate we plant the seed of spiritual unity. What God did then, can not be repeated. No one needs to die in their sins, if we are willing to forgive one another or trespasses (crossing the boundaries of another) And live in such a way to create NO SHADOWS , The task of a Church for today. (my understanding)

  97. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father, esp for your last comment!!

  98. Janine Avatar


    Regarding St. Paul “But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

    Christ said — CHRIST said — He was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. That does not mean that this fulfillment did not take on aspects far FULLER than what was already understood from the Law and the Prophets. You use the word beyond but Christ illustrated the effects of His ministry – new covenant — with new wineskins that would expand to hold the new wine. What is fulfillment? What is fullness? You say he does not say “beyond” but you fail to grasp fullness. In this perspective then the Incarnation is irrelevant except to fulfill prophesy! But its content is all there already. Perhaps Christ could somehow be discerned from the OT I don’t think Orthodox tradition says He’s not there but the opposite, the OT is full of Christ. But that doesn’t mean the Incarnation was just a repeat.

  99. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your reading just baffles me. Where on earth was anything about Christ “obvious.” Yes, it is all there, once you learn to read and have seen it. But Jesus apparently was wasting His time with the needless “opening” of the disciples’ understanding (nous). And that no one(!) had ever, ever seen the pattern of the Crucified anywhere in the OT. It’s there. But before Christ makes it known, Psalm 22 (for example) would in no way have conjured up an image of the crucifixion.

    But I simply despair of any agreement on this. It’s all so obvious for you.

  100. Jerry Shepherd Avatar

    Hi All,

    My apologies on that last post. Paul was in front of Agrippa and Festus, not Agrippa and Felix. I sometimes do this Festus/Felix interchange in my mind. Probably from watching too many cartoons. 🙂


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  1. Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to…

  2. Janine, Yes! I’ve read about the ancient corporate sense and its interpretive power in scripture, but I’m hesitant to apply…

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