Secularized Sin

EYXHI have had numerous responses across social media about yesterday’s article on sin. It’s title, “Sin Is Not a Legal Problem,” drew some strong reactions. A particular concern is worth thinking about carefully. There is, as many have pointed out, plenty of juridical language in both the Scriptures and in the liturgical tradition of the Church. Quite specifically, someone noted that 1John 3:4 has this: “Sin is lawlessness.” One translation that I was confronted with had it: “Sin is illegality.” What can be said of this? Have I made a point that denies both the Scriptures and the Tradition?

There is no argument about the use of juridical language. However, such language in our modern usage tends to be read in a highly modern manner. It takes us into the realm of our secularized world, where ideas and psychology are the only realities between people. The language of Scripture and Tradition has a world-view in which law, legality, justice, and the like, have a concrete content, and are not simply relational abstractions. And this changes everything.

When the Fathers used the word “symbol,” they understood that something was actually, really and truly made present. A symbol makes present that which it represents. This is fundamental in the doctrine of the Holy Icons. In our modern world, a symbol represents something that is not there, it is a sign of absence. Indeed, because our modern world-view is essentially one of nominalism, we believe that the ancient notion of symbol is simply impossible. It feels like superstition to the modern consciousness.

However, as moderns, we have a very strong sense of psychological realities. In the same manner, we have a very strong sense of legal and social obligations. These seem to be abstractions to us, a network of responsibilities with requirements and consequences. But we do not think of these obligations as having an actual substance. They are how we think and feel, or how we should think and feel. But none of this disturbs our fundamental world-view that we are utterly distinct individuals in a material world in which only abstract associations connect us.

Modern marriage is a good example. Contemporary culture believes that the relationship of marriage is essentially a psychological agreement, the result of a choice and a willingness to cooperate. However, the language of the Church is that of union. We say that the “two become one flesh.” For the modern consciousness, such language can only be understood as a metaphor, a beautiful way of expressing a psychological or legal “relationship.” For the Church, such language is quite real and concrete. They truly become one flesh. This difference between the ancient Church and contemporary consciousness explains the present development of same-sex “unions.” Contemporary Christianity very weakly responded to the demands for same-sex marriage with legal imagery: “it is against God’s law.” And this only meant, “God does not like this.” Nothing stronger could be said. The argument based on marriage as a union has no standing in a culture whose worldview is grounded in nominalism.

And so we come to the use of legal and forensic imagery in theology and doctrine. The Biblical and Traditional use of this language has everything in common with the Church’s understanding of marriage. The commandments are not an abstraction, a statement of preferred obligations, regulated by reward and punishment. They have substance. Indeed, if we understand them correctly, they are nothing less than the divine energies.

Someone shared a wonderful passage from St. Justin Popovich on 1John 3:4. It illustrates my point quite well:

Sin defiles man and his being, which is in the divine image of God and God-given. It is the fundamental impurity, proto-impurity, and the origin of all impurities. Purity is, in reality, purity from sin and its impurities. That is holiness. For only through the help of the holy energies, which are received through the Holy Mysteries and holy virtues, is man able keep himself from sin. For such purity, such holy purity, is the divine law of man’s being. This purity is achieved and maintained by living in goodness, in love, in prayer, in righteousness, in meekness, in fasting, in self-restraint, and in the rest of virtues of the Gospel–simply put, in holiness, conceived of as the synthesis and unity of all the holy virtues and grace-filled energies. In opposition to purity, to holiness as law, to the divine law of man’s being, stands sin as the first and fundamental lawlessness…. In sinning, man breaks all of God’s laws and brings about lawlessness, and through lawlessness comes anarchy, disorder, and chaos. Sin is the transgression of the law, it is transgression of the law of God. The law is from God, while lawlessness is from the devil.

If, in a modern context, we say that sin defiles someone, a person who hears us only hears a psychological reality. It means nothing more than that someone thinks that person is defiled. It is one of the reasons that traditional Christian language is being labeled as “hate speech.” If I say that something is an abomination, all that is heard is that I think it is an abomination. Many have taken this same mode of understanding and imported it into their Christian consciousness. They believe that something defiles someone, because God thinks it defiles someone. The defilement only exists in the mind of God. God is just one more psychological actor in a universe of relationships.

But this brings us to my description of sin as not being a “legal problem.” St. Justin says that “sin defiles a man and his being.” This is not contemporary language. He means exactly what he is saying. It is of a piece with St. Athanasius’ description of sin as death, corruption and non-being. Sin is something, not just a thought in the mind of God. It kills us, and not because God is doing the killing. Sin is death itself. The “lawlessness” of 1John 3:4 is the anarchy, chaos, and disorder of death and corruption. Sin is utterly contrary to the life that is the gift of God.

This is why St. Justin (and the Church) can say that the remedy of sin is holiness, the “synthesis and unity of all the holy virtues and grace-filled energies.” When we partake of the holy mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, they “cleanse us from all sin.” This is not a simple change of our status in the mind of God. His Body and Blood are life. They are the antidote to death, decay, corruption and non-being. They destroy the lawlessness that is the anarchy, chaos and disorder of death and corruption.

In point of fact, I have no problem with juridical language, nor should any of us, so long as it is understood in a manner free from the nominalism of modernity. I have used the word “legal” to describe this hollow notion of psychologized abstractions. That is all the word “legal” means in our modern vocabulary. If we speak with one voice, the same voice of the sacraments, the holy icons, and the dogma of our faith, then our use of juridical language will be rescued from the ash heap of modernity. However, contemporary thought forms are very deeply engrained. We do well to take care with them.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



72 responses to “Secularized Sin”

  1. George A Rozes Avatar
    George A Rozes

    You are still using consequential language. Sin defiles and such. What is sinful? If it’s not killing and not being in a same sex marriage, I guess I’m safe. Apophatic theology always was a theologian’s fantasy. Orthodox have yet to offer anything other than circular statements.

  2. Mark Avatar

    Fr. Stephen
    I very much appreciate your courage (a virtue, I believe).

    In an earlier blog you asked, “Who would argue with gravity?” It isn’t a “law” in any legal sense. As Fr. Hopko pointed out it is simply the way things are. Perhaps “governing principle” would express it.

    Even those of us mired in modernity struggle to find some shred of self-respect in keeping standards – our own or those of others. Again as Fr. Hopko (and many others) has pointed out sin in Greek is an archery term, missing the mark. Our problem is ever that we think of the mark as either an abstraction, a state of mind, or a set of laws to be kept when, in fact, the mark is a person.

    I have heard it suggested that love coerced isn’t love at all. I’m not sure that “ought” and “should”, the language of law, have ever led to communion (love). I wish I could understand more of Orthdox life as invitation rather than obligation.

    Interesting that it would be considered O.K. to hate cancer, or AIDS, or anything that destroys the outer man, but to hate something that destroys our eternal being is somehow wrong.

  3. Jeremias Avatar

    Thank you for addressing that flippant attempt at “proof-texting” modern notions.

    It has also helped further develop my understanding of your previous posts. The reference to anarchy and chaos makes sense of that unity between juridical language and ontological realities. The Divine Logos, the order and architect of reality (not just some moral code imposed extrinsically upon it), unites the What-is with the How-to-be, the latter intrinsically arising from the former–distinct perhaps but not separate.

    Certainly I have had a tendency to think of law as something imposed upon and against nature to exercise control upon it (and especially the people within it)–an edict, a constitution, a social contract, etc.–and then I’ve unconsciously transferred that idea to God. Slowly but surely, and with your help, I’m training myself in deeper and truer understandings–both about the nature of sin and indeed about the richness of the whole world. The Poetry of the Universe, to which you’ve often drawn my attention, does not exclude law then either. Everything is more, fuller, more beautiful than just what it appears to be.

    Thank you.

  4. Ralph Williams Avatar
    Ralph Williams

    I appreciate these remarks, and the previous blog on sin as well.
    I think you would appreciate the work of two very different authors who wrote about sin. They say very similar things, but each comes at it in a much different way.

    Vernard Eller, a Quaker theologian (that sounds like an oxymoron), wrote The Mad Morality; The Ten Commandments Revisited. It has long been one of my favorites, and I have given away many copies. He argues that the Ten Commandments are a prescription for freedom, that any breach of the commandments of God extinguishes freedom, and God loves freedom.

    E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary to India (contemporary with Ghandi), speaks elequently about the nature of sin and its consequences in a book of his sermons, Living Upon the Way; Selected Sermons by E. Stanley Jones. The book is actually his granddaughter’s doctoral dissertation. Jones argues that sin (and holiness) bring their own consequences… not punishment and reward as we tend to think, but the natural consequences of choosing or rejecting God’s way. Jones is careful to point out that he is not advocating a form of health-and-wealth gospel… some of his writing could be interpreted that way, but he points out the problems with that approach.

    Very different approaches, yet in a sense very similar to what you are saying.

  5. Jeremias Avatar


    Probably what you’re looking for is not here, but I don’t see how it can be labeled circular. Fr. Freeman has not avoided the language of consequences, but rather he has cautioned against conflating consequences with retributive punishments.

    “Don’t look directly at the sun,” as a statement, is something like a rule, but it is a rule the reflects the very nature of two realities: the eye and solar light. It is more like doctor’s advice than a police officer’s admonition. The consequence of violating this “rule” is blindness, but it is a consequence in keeping with nature, not imposed by some cosmic judge.

    By analogy, the acts we call “sinful” (e.g. staring at the sun) are those that bring about/contribute to/participate in blindness, disintegration, fragmentation, and death. Just as the converse, what we call “healthful” (or perhaps “righteous”), refers to acts which bring about/contribute to/participate in life, integration, unity, and peace.

    Perhaps none of this is helpful for you, or perhaps you’re not looking for more than an opportunity to be contrary, but it is not circular, nor is it (I think) an instance of apophatic theology.

  6. Dino Avatar

    George A Rozes,
    the never-ending variation of sinfulness’ expression does not mean we do not know the simple answer to “what is sin?” without resorting to juridical language. I think it comes across very well in Father’s writings. However, a ver succinct way of thinking of sinfulness is as a missing of the target, the target being unceasing communion with God.
    More practically, we miss this target to the degree that we make ourselves or any other created being our god: the failure to live by the commandments [the expression par excellence of God’s life in words] of love, first and totally towards God and second towards neighbour as a corollary of the first, express this.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, I’ve used consequential language. Not sure what the issue is about that. But the consequences are grounded in the very nature of things, not simply in consequences as punishment. That sin is death, corruption, chaos, etc., then it’s something we want to avoid. The commandments of Christ point us toward how to live in true communion with God, how not to live in death, corruption, chaos, etc. If I hate my neighbor, it’s not simply the breaking of a rule for which I will be punished, it is something that severs my communion with God and thrusts me deeper into the throes of death, corruption, chaos, etc. The ultimate end of that is a movement towards non-being.

    In the language of the fathers (as in the passage from Athanasius), non-being is the same as a movement away from God, who is the Truly Existing One. We never achieve true non-existence, because our existence is a gift from God and He does not take it away from us. But the devil, for example, is called a “murderer from the beginning.” He hates not only God, but existence itself, including his own existence. He seeks to destroy us. And so he lures us in the direction of death, chaos, corruption, etc.

    This is a much stronger language for thinking about sin than merely saying it is a breaking of the rules. The rules that can be used to diagnose sin are useful. But they actually describe realities that are more than simply, “God doesn’t like that.”

  8. Lena Avatar

    George A Rosen’s question got me thinking how to define sin (to my children first of all)

    A sinful heart – a heart that wants to kill, a holy heart – one which even cannot conceive thought of killing, a repentant heart (sinful on the way to holiness) – one which feels tremendous pain about those killing thoughts and runs to Christ for the medicine.

    Dear Fr Stephen, thank you for tirelessly teaching your readers. I get so much from your and your co-thinkers writings. It’s essential and priceless.

  9. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father, these last two posts have made a great deal of sense. I think the most telling point in this post is your discussion of meaning in the language. I agree with you especially as language changes over time and we cannot assume that something written long ago would carry the same meanings as we assign to words today. Just think of the word cool.” How many times in your life time did the statement “I am cool” change meanings? If someone said that in the 1940’s another might offer them a sweater. The same sentence 10 years later would have been an occasion to say ehhh like the Fonz. If only some would learn this then the arguments in another thread would possibly subside.

  10. Byron Avatar

    This is a much stronger language for thinking about sin than merely saying it is a breaking of the rules.

    Christ’s teaching, and some may say “extension”, on adultery comes to mind. It is not the simple rule-breaking that is sinful, but the movement of the heart and mind.

  11. Orthodoxmom Avatar

    Yes, it is this nominalistic way of thinking about the juridical language of the Scriptures that leads off the mark of a true understanding of the Scriptures’ meaning, which relates, as you say, not just to how God thinks or feels about things, but to their very real nature.

    I was impressed again that this nominalistic mindset of modernity has many and diverse consequences. Just this morning at the store, I ran into a dear non-Orthodox Christian friend and her middle-aged unmarried son who have both been actively engaged in ministry for decades at their Evangelical church. She told me he was coming out as transgender and in transition to becoming a woman, so they were buying make-up. She asked me to use the pronoun “she” and address him by his new name. I feel nothing but compassion for them both, but for a variety of reasons, though I intend to honor the request, I will only be able to do so with a profound sense of grief for the loss of true wholeness in Christ this represents to me. I would be grateful for Orthodox prayers on their behalf–God knows their names.

  12. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Exactly. The infection of sin, the Seed of Corruption brings about an attitude shift that focuses one onto himself at the expense of the other. There is a Hebrew saying: “Sin of the High Hand.” It invokes a picture in my my mind of someone telling God to : Talk to the Hand.” This attitude is the real consequence of the sin infection. Many acts can be holy or sinful depending on the circumstance and attitude of the person taking the act. Take for example human sexuality. It is made by God, it is very good……in the right circumstance and context that He has prescribed. Outside of that context, the act loses its holiness and becomes profane as it is polluted by our attitude of disobedience.

  13. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Father! Your writing is again a wonderfully instructive!

  14. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for writing about this, Fr. Stephen! God bless your efforts!

  15. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    To avoid “modern” misinterpretations, let us go back to St Paul, not St Justin.

    “Ungodly,” “sinners,” “justified,” “reconciled,” etc. speak of law-breaking.

    ROMANS 5:6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
    7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
    8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
    [Not righteous or good.]
    9 Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
    10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
    11 And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

  16. Sophia Avatar

    Father thank you for the last two articles, although I have to admit that many passages are difficult for me to chew and I cannot pretend that I’ve understood everything that you’ve written. Nevertheless, something got my attention on this article (i.e. the relation between the Sacraments and cleansing from sin).
    What I mean is that, we all know that we are cleansed from sin in the Sacrament of Holy Confession, but maybe (and this is just my guessing) not many people think of cleansing from “all sin and impurity” while partaking of the Holy Eucharist………or during Holy Unction…….
    Would you please have the possibility of elaborating more in detail the real consequences of “sin cleansing” of the Sacraments and as well as prayer?
    Can we affirm that while I’m praying (not necessarily a prayer about forgiveness of sins) but even a doxology or a thanksgiving or any other kind of prayer, so while I’m in the presence of God in prayer, I’m being cleansed at that very moment from sin and defilement?
    And of course I’m aware that the action of the Holy Spirit in us, in our souls and in our whole being, mostly remains hidden from us. It’s not like we do see (with our physical eyes) the “process” of cleansing and healing………

    I would really appreciate your thoughts and advice on this.

    And I’m also grateful that I learned that “missing the mark”, the “mark” refers to a Person and not to some rule. I’ve always thought that the “mark” were the Commandments of God, the Canon of Truth………but apparently I was mistaken……

    Thank you and God bless,


  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll indeed write about it. But, yes. Every action that draws us into the grace of God cleanses us from sin. Grace, the Divine Energies of God, cleanse in every encounter.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You have the mistaken notion that you can just leap past everything and “get to St. Paul.” But you can only get to St. Paul through language. And if you read St. Paul, giving modern meanings (that are ultimately drawn from nominalism) to his words, then you’ll continue to get the same distorted meanings for what he is saying. Paul is not Reformed. He wrote his letters to Orthodox Churches, some of which are still standing. His bones are still among us. You haven’t read the article, apparently, or addressed any point that it made. You haven’t thought through the fact that you are a nominalist and have nominalist meanings for words and concepts. And it’s a philosophy that didn’t even exist at the time of St. Paul. In short, he can’t mean what you mean.

  19. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    This makes a lot of sense to me in many ways. I am a catechumen and have really been blessed to learn about the Orthodox view of the atonement and the problem of sin.
    This really fits well with Romans 1 and St Paul’s description of God giving the nations up to greater sins (such as homosexuality) as a punishment, or natural consequence, of lesser, more common sins like ingratitude and idolatry.
    But I’m curious, what do we do with passages where God specifically brings judgment or takes vengeance on an individual or a group of people because of their sin?
    For example, Sodom, or Annanias and Saphyra? Or God “uprooting the wicked” in Ps 36? My Protestant mindset before very much saw this as God deliberately sending judgement in response to a rebellious life.
    Thx much!


  20. Dino Avatar

    I have a question, to which you can certainly offer a most clued-up, insightful answer, (perhaps you have an article in the works on this) whyexactly, is there such a staunch defence of juridical language in Protestant believers? It can’t just be that they are in denial of being “in the Matrix” all along? Thank you.

  21. Mihai Avatar

    If I may throw in my 2 cents here: I would say that the contractual- legalistic understanding is a hallmark of bourgeois mentality which has been infesting our worldview from the time of the so-called “renaissance”.

    Since the bourgeois mentality fears whatever is outside its narrow circle of “normal, common sense” mercantile life-style it wants to bring this said simplistic, mercantile and “democratic” mentality into the spiritual life too.
    Thus you end up with an easy to understand list of legalistic and concepts: reward/ punishment, contractual rights / obligations, debt / payment etc.

    The type of Christianity imbibed with this moralistic, forensic mentality can produce, at maximum, good, respectable citizens; it could never produce saints.

    Since most branches of Protestantism developed within such a mentality, it is easy to see why they discarded most of the Christian tradition. Protestantism has developed a type of Christianity which is compatible and does not interfere with the “normal” and “common-sense” life.

    What I say here is not without historical precedent. Read the first book of Plato’s “Republic”. When Socrates asks Cephalus- a representative of the wealthy, merchant class of Athens- what is justice (or righteousness), what does he (Cephalus) answer? – It is the fulfillment of contractual obligations to both gods and men, the paying of debts.
    There you have it. It is precisely this sort of worldview that has become common place in modern Christianity.

  22. Michelle Avatar

    Dino asks, “why exactly, is there such a staunch defense of juridical language in Protestant believers?”

    Because they don’t want Hitler to only just need healing. Rather, they also want him to be punished in a purely vengeful way.

    That and also because if you take away the juridical language, and thus this vengeful punishment aspect, then you don’t need a Penal Substitution theory to explain what Christ did for them on the Cross. And all their lives this is the personal relationship they had with their Savior. If they lose Penal Substitution then they feel like they lose the Christ they’ve always known. It means maybe this whole time they didn’t know Christ at all.

  23. Dino Avatar

    There must be a different personal relationship with God in the simpler souls though! Even if they are brought up in the more noxious extremes of PSA ‘theology’…. I remember some old peasant grannies in Greece being suspicious of the influx of western protestant ideas creeping into some sermons throughout the 20th century… How lucidly those guileless souls of traditional Orthodox believers, even if altogether unlettered, saw right through the misunderstandings of an overplayed and overemphasised juridical language [which is put on this pedestal of the notion of ‘Justice’ in the West] in their direct experience of God as Mercy! No wonder the Parable of the Prodigal, is often claimed to be more than adequate to substitute all of Scripture…
    The Greek Fathers are extremely clear that God became man to sanctify (in His humanity) all of humanity, to put a stop creation’s corruption, to come and fill and transform everything – even death – with His Life. How can anyone build a juridical construct on that? How can Anselm’s ideas of Christ’s ‘punishment on the Cross’ ever relate to that authentic theology?

  24. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    The reason that Protestants and Western Christianity in general is so tied into judicial language and understanding of salvation is that the West has, for well over 1,000 years relied on Neo-Platonic Philosophy and Aristotelian Logic to discern theological matters. This is the product of the Scholastic Movement. Both Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian Logic in their origins are pagan thought processes that start with certain assumptions about the Divine that are totally pagan in origin and are utterly different than the Revealed God of our Faith.
    One of the pagan characteristics that Neo-Platonism attributes to a god is a sense of honor and justice. Another is the need for humanity to placate said god to appease the god’s anger. When these assumptions are used as a basis for understanding our God, one gets a distorted view and with this distorted view sees Scripture in a different light than we do.
    It takes a great deal of effort for a person of the Western Culture to “swim the Bosporus” and learn to think in the way that a person of Eastern Culture sees Scripture. Arguing over the judicial interpretation of passages is futile with a person who does not want to challenge their base assumptions of faith that they have absorbed in their culture.
    A perfect example of how deeply this affects the Western understanding is the Lord’s Prayer. I have never seen or heard it recited in English outside Orthodoxy with other than the typical last line: “and deliver us from evil.” The most common translation of that line by someone who has an Eastern understanding is the familiar: “and deliver us from the evil one,” which in my understanding of Greek is closer to the correct reading. For the want of a word there is a huge difference. In the common English translation, evil is given a status of a force. I have heard many a sermon preached about God struggling to overcome Evil and that “The Apocalypse” is the final battle between Good and Evil (these are cast as forces in the Universe) in which Good finally prevails.
    I have asked many people throughout my life and the most prevalent response of anybody that was ever exposed to Christianity (other than Orthodox) was that they believed this to be true or felt it was true. The person who sins has therefore done Evil and is infected with this Evil and is to be cast out. The judicial mind seizes this as the reason and need for punishment. They cannot conceive of Sin as “missing the mark,” it is the manifestation of the Force of Evil…or in Star Wars, the Dark Side of the Force. The idea of this Dark Side springs from what we are taught in the West about Good and Evil being forces locked in eternal combat. It is a thoroughly pagan concept that has crept into Western thought and faith, through Neo-Platonic thought.
    Simply said, unless a Westerner is willing to chuck their entire mode of belief that they have been taught deliberately and through culture (such as Star Wars movies) and “swim the Bosporus” they will remain in their cycle of thinking and see everything through the lens of Justice.

  25. Margaret Avatar

    I look forward to Fr. Stephen’s response to Dino’s question about the juridical language of Protestant Christians Churches of many different titles. Thanks!

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a good question. I have two thoughts. First, without it, they would have nothing. It is the primary linchpin of their entire theological view. Reform theology, of which we have been given an excellent example, is extremely cogent, with a very long pedigree of its own scholarship. It is a word to itself. Many Protestants have indeed jettisoned PSA (some for things just as error-ridden). I spoke at a retreat for a group of Lutheran clergy last month. They were conservatives, knowledgeable of Orthodox writing and the Fathers, but just as critical of PSA as anyone I know. So, it’s really not a Protestant thing, so much as a Reform thing. Reform (John Calvin’s tradition), is, for better or worse, the intellectual wing of popular Evangelicalism and thus has more influence than its actual small numbers warrant.

    Second, if you are a nominalist, and you want to believe the Bible is true, PSA is about as good as you can do to make sense of things. In nominalism, there are only ideas and abstractions to connect the distinct individuals of our atomized universe. Something can only be true because someone makes it true. It is thus as mechanistic and violent as nature itself is seen to be. There is no mystery, no coinherence. It is Newton’s universe. It’s the theology of billiard balls. There can, of course, only be contractual (“covenant”) understandings of the sacrament. They are Baptized into an agreement. They eat and drink a contract. Their marriages are contracts and obligations.

    It is secularism reading the Bible.

  27. Mule Avatar

    When I was a reformed Christian, trying to convince myself that God created individual incarnated human souls, and then graciously maintained them in families and communities with the sole purpose of tormenting them endlessly to reveal his “glory”, it dawned on me that this god was a monster, and Lucifer’s rebellion was the correct place to be.

    Even if he punished Christ in my stead, that just made it worse, tormenting the best man who ever drew breath because he demanded “payment” and “satisfaction”. Maybe I am drawing a straw man, but that is how it seemed to me. Realizing that I didn’t feel particularly wretched, and only weakly and intermittently grateful to Christ, I probably couldn’t be saved under the Reformed rubrics.

    This is not the faith that established the Universe.

  28. Karen Avatar

    Dino asks, “. . .why exactly, is there such a staunch defence of juridical language in Protestant believers?”

    I think there is a more simple answer than some that have yet been given. What I see (and have experienced) are two main reasons: 1) the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” devolved as it always must be eventually into “Solo Scriptura”, the myth the Bible can be its own interpretive authority–conflation of the Person of the Word and the Person of the Holy Spirit, for all practical purposes, with the letter (usually only in translation) of the biblical texts, and 2) the nominalism that pervades modern thinking as Father describes it. We modern people are the proverbial fish in the water of nominalism–it is not real, but it just feels like home. It’s the air we breathe and we are just not conscious of it at all. It is a powerful delusion because it is so invisible to us (yes, just like the “Matrix”).

  29. Sophia Avatar

    Father bless,

    Thank you so much! I’m looking forward to your article…..

  30. Dino Avatar

    I thought as much! 🙂

  31. Dino Avatar

    I thought as much!

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino from an outsiders perspective it appears to me that they are still under the law never having actually recognized the Incarnation of the person of Jesus Christ. That allows for both the idolatry of the Bible snd the pervasive nominalism that Karen refers to.

    I have always felt it significant that the geographic area where Protestantism began was originally evangelized by Arian missionaries.

  33. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    The mark is a person. Yes!

    I think that’s why we have language of bride and bridegroom. We are God’s delight and he is ours. What was so moving to King David when he entered the temple each morning to offer? He offered himself and received Christ.

    Genesis 3:9: Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”

  34. MichaelPatrick Avatar


    The ubiquity of juridical notions in societies and christian sects may be simply because accounting is easier than surrender. We have to keep accounts on everything we can’t surrender. And perhaps the ground-eye view we have of others tells us, rightly, that no one is worthy of complete devotion of our all.

    Some monks are filled with inexpressible joy just living in daily obedience to a holy elder or abbot because they’ve surrendered their life in this world to Love. This is rare and precious, and not well understood by many.

    Only Christ is holy, powerful and loving enough to end all human accounting.

  35. Dino Avatar

    Michael Bauman,
    Some slightly rushed and convoluted thoughts on all this:
    I think it is quite a foreign thing to Western thought to ask “why” [what is the true purpose, the logos] of many things, and the clumsy substitution of rational juridicalism instead of first-hand experience of God ended up becoming the answer to the “why”? of Christ’s ministry. This is most likely due to the reliance of the west on stochastic theology (rather than genuine illumination and deification being the prerequisites to be a true theologian…) Also, the fact that the mind of the West has developed different proclivities might be a little significant: The first question that traditionally tends to come to the Western thinker about anything is the utilitarian one: “what use is this to me?”, whether speaking of a watch, a person or of God. “What can this offer me?” [a question that seems quite close to nominalist ‘living’] The ‘Jewish thought’ on the other hand (not very dissimilar to the far-eastern one) would ask first: “what is the ancestry of this? Who made it, who has taught my teacher’s teacher about this etc…?” [only a little more removed from the self-preoccupied nominalism of the utilitarian view]
    The first question of the ‘Greek mind’ however, would tend to be “what is the meaning, the raison d’etre, the logos”, of the watch or the person or of God? It’s naturally straight off towards a search in existential ontology… [and in the more Orthodox philosophical thought, things are not even considered in relation to my ego but in and of themselves, meaning I eventually relate to these ‘Others’ rightly] But when God reveals Himself through His Uncreated energies to a person, utilitarianism, history and even existential questions are left behind in wonder and wonderful union. However upon returning to the discursive reasoning capacity from one’s wonder, existential ontological questions are inevitably the first to find themselves answered. Everything else is a few ‘layers’ further removed and more complex and this certainly goes for all juridical constructs and nominalist notions. But the point I am getting to in my thought trail is that the genuine truth of all truths that the Holy Theologians who encountered God first-hand experienced is a wonderful unification of everything into one. Christ’s ministry and the reasons for it then become answered in a very non-discursive, yet perfect way.
    Christ suming everything into one, exalted on the Cross according to the ontological Orthodox understanding of God’s hanging on the tree, unites the temporal with the eternal, death to life, the created to the uncreated. Man’s experience of God is always a Pascha which naturally answers the “why” of the Creation, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost and the Eschata.

  36. SW Avatar

    Dino, at one time I believed the PSA. I believed it because that is how the atonement was explained to me as a young adult, using Scripture, by Christians (non-Reformed) whose lives I respected. They went to church (often), prayed and read their bibles daily (at least goal-wise), and took repentance of sin seriously in their lives and in their brothers’ and sisters’ lives. It was very disconcerting for me to hear that penal substitution was incorrect after having that be an integral part of my Christian life for 25 years or so, even though it never fully resonated with me. It always felt like something was missing. There were nagging questions. Something didn’t sit right. Over a long period of time (for me — 7 years), I began to investigate the Eastern Orthodox Church, reading about it, talking with a priest and others, attending various liturgical services when possible, especially Sunday mornings. What drew me like a magnet Sunday mornings was the congregation’s continually repeated, “Lord, have mercy,” throughout the service. And there was a sense that He did indeed have mercy, as a loving and kind God, which I already believed Him to be, even as I believed at that time in penal substitution. However, I can’t say that it was the penal substitution theory of the atonement that was the entire core of my belief in God’s love. It was part of the formula, the crux of the formula even, for God’s love, but other Scriptures brought the reality of God’s love from the mental construct (which I believed with all my heart) to a deeper place of belief. Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus, His beckoning the weary to come to Him (Matt 11), and Peter calling us to cast all our anxieties on Him because He cares for us are a few examples (come to think of it, none in a situation that could be construed as legal).

    But, getting back to more directly answering your question, I felt bound to that theory because that is how I saw the scripture; it became engraved in my mind as taught by godly people. And it was reinforced by not only Reformed friends but by other Evangelical friends. It was just the norm of my Christian world. For years, until Orthodoxy, the only people contradicting it were those who also didn’t believe the Bible was the word of God or that Jesus was God, things like that. Not believing it was highly suspect. One was already predisposed against it. Well, I got carried away with this answer. I am grateful for many things I learned before my reception into the Orthodox Church and for being in the church now. I cannot encourage people enough to attend the Sunday morning worship service of the Orthodox Church (called the Divine Liturgy) or other services if they want to have a fuller understanding of her teachings.

  37. Another George Avatar
    Another George

    I’m an Evangelical Christian who has been exploring Orthodoxy for a while now and I have to thank you for this and your previous post. They really have been food for thought. I hadn’t heard of you before yesterday, but I’m sure that I’ll be reading what you have to write in the future. I’m having difficulty though understanding how these two posts relate.

    If I understood you correctly, sin is something more like a medical problem that results in death rather than a legal problem that results in execution. Furthermore, the juridical language in the Bible and the Fathers is something more like diagnostic language in a medical setting than like what we would recognize as legal language today. To try and put it another way, the law exposes sins that have the consequence of death, the way a blood test might expose that somebody has a deadly condition. It’s not like when a person gets a speeding ticket where the only connection between going 72 in a 55 and, say a $200 fine, is the fact that your state says there is.

    So my question is, once I realize that something really does change about a person when they sin, that is, “sinner” isn’t a statement about how God looks at somebody, but a statement about what that person has really become, then how do I interpret Jesus’ statement to the paralytic when he said, “Your sins are forgiven?” What follows is my best attempt to apply what I think you are saying.

    I have a hard time not seeing an act of forgiveness as a change in how one person views another. Then again, if somebody makes an ill advised lane change and clips my car this afternoon and I say that I forgive him, I suppose those words are pretty empty if they don’t materially change our interaction. So, if I don’t take at least some of the financial burden that has resulted from his mistake, I’m not really forgiving him. Now if I go back to Jesus and the paralytic, Jesus first forgives the paralytic’s sins because human infirmity is the consequence of sin. This isn’t to say the man is paralyzed because of something he did (although that might be the case) but because these are his sins in the same sense that I could call being clipped by another person’s lane change my accident. I mean the accident that impacted my life, not the accident that I caused. In this passage, the man’s sins are the sins that impacted his life, not necessarily the sins that he’s committed (though he could have). Jesus then heals his paralysis because to forgive is to restore his creation even though He isn’t the one who broke it. Am I on the right track with this?

    Sorry for the long post, but to also riff on your brief exchange with Hugh, he believes those five terms he highlighted in Romans point to a juridical notion of sin. I have to admit that Hugh’s reading of that passage seems very natural to me, so natural that I can’t get myself to understand the passage in another way. Let me copy that same passage, but add what I take those words to mean. Maybe you can help me see how setting aside nominalism changes your understanding of the passage?

    ROMANS 5:6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly (those who have rejected God and his commands).
    7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
    8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners (people who sin), Christ died for us. [Not righteous or good.]
    9 Much more then, being now justified (pardoned) by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
    10 For if, when we were enemies (people who resisted God), we were reconciled (brought to terms of peace) to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled (at peace with), we shall be saved by his life.
    11 And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement (Christ’s payment of our debt).

    Hugh, if you read this, please understand that I’m not trying to put words in your mouth. It may be that we understand this passage differently.

  38. Thomas Avatar

    Nicholas Stephen Griswold’s explanation as to why Western Christianity is so reliant on juridical language and a legal understanding of salvation is, IMO, good — as far as it goes. The one thing I have not seen mentioned is how much Anselm’s theory is a result of European feudalism’s concept of vassalage, especially the idea that the greater a person’s status, the more grevious an offence. This mentality was still in force when The Roman Catechism of 1565 (the first official catechism of the Latins, the result of their Council of Trent) included this (whole paragraph lest someone think the quote is out of context) [Part Two (The Sacraments), Chapter 4 (Penance), ¶ 47.]:

    Confession deserves at least as much attention and accuracy as we would give to our most important concerns, for its purpose is to heal the wounds of our soul and root out the traces of sin. It therefore demands more than the mere enumeration of our mortal sins; that is to say, we must also confess those particular circumstances which definitely affect the sin by either increasing or decreasing its gravity. In fact, there are some circumstances. without which a certain act would cease to be a mortal sin. Such circumstances must therefore always be included in one’s confession. For example, if one has killed a man, he would have to say whether his victim was a layman or an ecclesiastic. Or again, if one has had illicit intercourse with a woman, it makes some difference whether she was single or married, whether a relative or a religious. These four circumstances alter the species of the sin: in the first case the sin is called fornication; in the second, adultery; in the third, incest; and in the fourth, sacrilege. For a final example, consider the sin of stealing. If a person has stolen one [guinea], his sin is certainly less than if he had stolen one or two hundred [guineas] or some other considerable sum. Again, had the money had been stolen from the Church, the sin would be greater than if it had not. Differences in time and place clearly affect the gravity of a sin; in fact, this is so clear, and has been treated so often in various manuals, that further explanation is unnecessary. We can conclude by saying that circumstances such as the examples mentioned must certainly be confessed, but that those which do not certainly increase the gravity of a sin need not be confessed.

  39. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames


    all the commenters answering your question give some of the many facets that are part of the juridical view. Here’s one or two more:

    You noted above “the clumsy substitution of rational juridicalism instead of first-hand experience of God”. “First-hand experience of God” in Protestantism is mental and psychological; it is attained through reading and thinking about Scripture, sharing int he good feeling that comes with prayer and worship, thinking about Jesus and what he has done for us, etc. They have no knowledge or understanding of the nous. God is gracious and meets many of them noetically anyhow, because of his love for them and their love for him, but they have very limited vocabulary to describe this.

    Another thing is related to what SW wrote above. Before I was interested in investigating Orthodoxy, I had come to the understanding that nobody approaches any text without a set of glasses, so to speak – interpretive lenses given to us by our church culture (if we have one), family, general culture, studies, our own reasonings, and so forth – and I had to take mine off and set them aside in order to try to find a theology that posited a God who is truly good. Once I was able to do that, doors began to open for me. It was still a few years before I found Orthodoxy, but I had to take off those juridical lenses first so I could get over the headache (and heartache) they were causing.

    I am in a book group with some dear Protestant friends; one of them is a thoughtful, sincere, loving person who with his wife spent many years as Baptist missionaries serving people in Uganda, including AIDS patients. I once was trying to explain that his view of Scripture (PSA and all related) is an interpretive lens that was given to him by his church culture and upbringing, just as much as any other interpretive lens, but he could not grasp that. The non-sacramental Protestant church view is that the only thing one needs to understand Scripture is Scripture itself, Scripture being so “clear”. Allegorial/typological readings are frowned upon, because they can’t deal with the contradictions implied. Certainly the input of the Fathers carries little, if any, weight with them. Some will welcome the views of modern academic theologians, but only if those views comport with the “solo scriptura” understanding. They believe they come to the text of Scripture with an objective view, and that the Holy Spirit at work in them will lead them to the proper interpretation using only the biblical text. They don’t believe they’re interpreting it through any sort of lenses or grid.


  40. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I had to leave room for others to add to my thoughts and, of course, I haven’t got the corner of the market on all the causes of it. Good example BTW of an application of the judicial mindset.

  41. Thomas Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    You often refer to Nominalism (it doesn’t seem to be one of the keyword topics used for searching), but could you explain it a bit more, particularly how it affects Christianity? (I know you have lots of requests for topics; you certainly don’t have time to respond to all requests.)

    Some of what you have written about seems more like (to this non-philospher) Idealism than Nominalism and the principal alternative of Realism seems to have its own set of problems. I believe it is Christos Yannaras who insists there is no ‘naked essence’, only the manifestation of essences in hypostases. Isn’t that a rejection of Realism?

    As you can see, I could really benefit from an explanation.

  42. Karen Avatar

    SW, change a few details and your experience mirrors mine quite well–especially the part about aspects of PSA never sitting quite right, etc.

    Dino, I believe it is an insatiable God-given human instinct to ask for the “Why?” of things that many Christians in the West have perhaps been pressured by the philosophical, political and spiritual developments of their history to squelch. I am one of those people who has never been able to rest for long without a coherent framework for understanding the world, especially in its spiritual aspect. New data absolutely must fit or I must find a new paradigm in which it and everything else I have discovered to date fits together properly. I have always had an insatiable drive to uncover the unifying spiritual “Theory of Everything” that actually allows my heart to rest fully in God. When I was a very young child, it simply took the form of a question–one filled with wonder, “Why did God make me, me?!” Following the Western world’s scholastic methods and modern assumptions, especially the juridical emphases, Protestant theologies (and even much of what little Roman Catholic theology I knew) always came across as a bit too arbitrary and disjointed to satisfy my drive to find that coherence. “Because God says so” doesn’t really work as a long-term strategy for me, especially where one thing He said appears to contradict another thing He said! Even where these contradictions have been given plausible logical resolutions in someone’s theological system, I have never been able to embrace those “resolutions” where they did not follow the logic of Grace I could fully embrace with my heart. I want to understand why God says so and what He really means by what He says. Christ and His Pascha understood through a fully Orthodox lens was the only answer to that struggle that has proved to be a long-term solution, though I am only scratching the surface and will never be able to fully sound the depths of Him “in [Whom] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

    Dana, very good observations there in response to Dino’s question that totally resonate with my experience with Evangelicals as well.

  43. Jeremias Avatar


    Fr. Stephen will do a much better job, but I’ve dabbled enough in philosophy to offer something that will probably be unhelpful.

    Not all Realisms are the same. To put it minimally, the Orthodox (I think) can be a realist in the sense that our essences are truly real things albeit intrinsically embodied (or “instantiated”)–distinct, perhaps, but not separable (as Yannaras notes). Nominalism (a term also subject to some highly technical variations) is roughly the idea that we only speak about immaterial objects and properties (souls, goodness, redness, etc.) as if they real, but in actuality they are only nominally (“in name only”) distinct from, and ultimately reducible to, the physical, material realities described by our empirical lives and the scientific fields. Some platonist-style metaphysicians like to call themselves realists, but they usually separate (and thereby alienate) the metaphysical from the physical. It is this idea, I think, that Yannaras is rejecting: Dualism–the dividing of the spiritual from the material, rather than emphasizing their unity. Neither Dualism not Nominalism have a place in proper Christian ontology.

    I leave it to Fr. Stephen to correct or deny what I’ve said. He knows better.

  44. Michelle Avatar

    “There must be a different personal relationship with God in the simpler souls though!”

    I think under the surface many of these Protestants feel the tugs and gentles pulls of God trying to guide them away from these falsehoods. Namely, in times of pain. Like, perhaps a close atheist friend or family member passes away. Or, for example, in unfortunate cases where maybe a parent’s child goes terribly south as they grow older, becoming an alcoholic, or abuser, or even possibly a rapist or murderer.
    Then the idea of endless vengeance upon sinners hits to close to home. They can’t figure out why God will eventually halt the flowing river of mercy, when they themselves would be willing to grant never ending mercy upon their loved one if they could, even if they knew repentance never would transpire.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. My hair hurts when I begin to read all the variations in Nominalism and Realism that modern philosophy describes. What generally interests me is the larger worldview. You said it well. And example is Pontius Pilate. He washes his hands. We read him as symbolically washing his hands as a sort of public statement. But, it would be more accurate to understand that he actually things he is washing something from his hands, in that case, the injustice of the death of an innocent man.

    Moderns would think Romans and Greeks were unbelievably superstitious. That’s a modern word that we use for anyone doing something that somehow defies the rules of a nominalistic world view. But Pontius Pilate’s perception was common, and would have been shared by Jews as well, including Christ and the Apostles.

    I say “Christ,” because I contend that this earlier, classically realist view is, in fact true. If it is not true, then everything we think about sacraments and icons is not true. But they are indeed true.

    This is absolutely what I mean by a “One-Storey Universe.” Struggling to find good language to describe these things, to illustrate them, is something of a “passion” for me. I particularly wish to think of better ways to describe the popular nominalism of the modern, secular world. It is mechanistic, materialistic, psychologized. I’ve not found a good single term that does the trick. And, I rather hate having to say “nominalism” because everyone trained in philosophy easily pounces and the terms dies the death of a thousand qualifications.

    I’m getting ready to read a treatise of Balthasar on the topic of nominalism and modernity and how it supplies some clues.

    In short, though, a nominalist cannot say, “Abel’s blood cries out from the ground,” and actually mean anything other than a colorful metaphor. The author of Genesis, and the whole of the bibilical world actually meant that quite literally. And that’s when I ask the question, “How must they have seen the world for that statement to be taken utterly at face value?”

    That’s why the PSA cannot be true, because it requires a nominalist view of the law and justice. It is an anchronistic interpretation of Scripture. It’s not only not true, but cannot be true. William of Ockham did not write the New Testament.

  46. Onesimus Avatar

    An interesting analysis from a layman/ philosophy major who lays out the basic underlying philosophical foundations that paved the path for nominalism. Understanding the foundations from which nominalism was birthed is helpful…and this podcast really spells out well how ideas and how “orthodox” one is in thought became the supreme reality for Western theology, rather than a mode of being which is Orthodox.

    Got an hour to kill?

    He also does a follow up interview with Fr. Chris Moody speaking about some of the same ideas.

  47. Jeremias Avatar

    “William of Ockham did not write the New Testament.”

    Beautiful! Thank you!

    I worry that best word to capture the “mechanistic, materialistic, psychologized” worldview is “protestant.” Even atheists might be looked upon as another denomination resorting to the same logic of Reformed theology. Perhaps that is unfair, perhaps not.

    Incidentally, have you ever looked at Pitirim Sorokin’s The Crisis of Our Age? Seems almost prophetic, and perhaps some of his conclusions and terminology would suit you.

  48. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    I often think of the chariot of fire that appeared to St. Anthony the Great late in his life while he was stading on a high place. He did the Sign of the Cross in humility and the chariot disappeared. It was a trick sent by the enemy of mankind to tempt St. Anthony towards pride and distruction.

    I think the same thing is happening to all Christians. We are being tempted towards pride, towards compiling a portfolio of our Christian accomplishments. The minute we are satisfied we step towards a chariot that is a mirage, towards our destruction.

    Judicial language may be attractive because it allows most of us to pat ourselves on the back for not committing certain sins. We can let ourselves think ‘I am only breaking the little laws.’ We could then use a PSA style model with comfort thinking I am not why Jesus is on the Cross, the other sinners are why. It makes us lost: accepting a Savior while believing we don’t really need one.

    Somewhere I read the phrase ‘we are not punished for sin we are punished by sin.’

    Julian of Norwich’s writings come to mind: ‘the only hell is sin.’

  49. Maria Avatar

    Fr. Stephen Freeman comment on
    July 13, 2016 at 11:59 am

    Fr. Freeman is absolutely correct,

    even your neighbor who you may hate bears God’s image, perhaps not visibly to us thru their actions, or Satan, who God also created, and found home in some to act out his purpose. (destruction)
    Fr. Freeman is right, he hates himself for having lost his rightful place and he can do nothing else but reproduce his hate. So LOVING is the way to our salvation thru Christ….he gave us this commandment. If you love me, then I am in you, and you are in me, and love (agape) one another as I have loved you. Where two or more are gathered together in my name etc. (in this all the commandments are filled)
    Do we always succeed, NO, but I keep on working and trying, and if we fail, he is faithful to forgive us. And I have failed many times.

  50. Jane Avatar

    “I particularly wish to think of better ways to describe the popular nominalism of the modern, secular world. It is mechanistic, materialistic, psychologized. I’ve not found a good single term that does the trick. And, I rather hate having to say “nominalism” because everyone trained in philosophy easily pounces and the terms dies the death of a thousand qualifications.”

    Perhaps it is a world of empty symbolism, or superficial symbolism. “Symbols” abound, but they lack substance and content.

  51. Dino Avatar

    A sinister side-effect that is key in this ‘nominalism’ is that it’s also often a “self-preoccupied interpretation of all that exists”, a psychologised ‘ego view of everything’.

  52. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    You are correct. It is nothing less than the exultation of Self over all other things and people and the ultimate expression of Ancestral Sin in full flower.

  53. Maria Avatar

    To Lena’s comment

    July 13, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you Lena for this beautiful explanation you have for your children regarding sin. I think it is said somewhere that the Gospel is so simple a child can understand it. Let the children come to me….simple faith, they are often closer to the truth then we as adults are. Blessings.

  54. Adamantios Avatar

    I like when people send you messages and call you out on stuff because your follow-up articles are very good. Usually you end up putting a few extra lights to help me understand this ancient faith.

    As always, thanks for all your insight! You have such a refreshing tone. Refreshingly clear, committed, and well-thought.

    You’re helping me so much!

  55. Martin Avatar

    In _The Incarnation_ , volume 1 of Patrick Henry Reardon’s new book series, _Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption_, he takes up this topic of Anselm and his atonement theory in the early chapters with some interesting insights I’d like to share.

    Starting at the bottom of page 66,

    “According to St. Anselm’s own logic, the concept of sin required not a scintilla of faith or special revelation. Anselm reasoned thus: On the hypothesis that God really exists…, God deserves the full loyalty and devotion of men. Hence, disobedience to God’s will is an affront to His honor, and this affront requires adequate satisfaction.”

    “Anselm placed this very thin, non-theological understanding of sin at the base of his “satisfaction theory,” which became widespread–sometimes dominant–in Western soteriology.”

    “Now, not for a minute do I challenge Anselm’s reasoning here. Much less do I consider his argument heretical [footnote: Indeed, Anselm’s theory was not repugnant to classical Eastern theologians. For instance, I challenge anyone to read The Life in Christ 4.4 of St. Nicholas Cabasilas…except as an undisguised Greek translation of Anselm’s argument in _Cur Deus Homo_.] My problem with Anselm’s theory is not his reasoning but his starting point, his resolve to begin the study of salvation, as he said, “without Christ,” remoto Christo, quasi numquam aliquid fuerat de Illo–“apart from Christ, as through there had been nothing of him.” This quasi–“as though”–is bothersome, because it does not embrace a truly theological assessment of sin.”

    “Unbelievers, however, can hardly begin to understand what is meant by sin. We should insist that one does not comprehend the nature of sin except by being set free from it. Apart from Christ–remoto Christo, says Anselm–how is there an adequate assessment of sin? After all, even in the full light of divine revelation, sin is deeply mysterious. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “It remains a mystery of darkness, of night.”

    “Anselm’s “satisfaction theory,” then, though thoroughly comprehensible, is scarcely comprehensive; “anemic,” I think, is closer to the mark. Indeed, is Anselm’s theory really theological at all?”

    “In Christian theology prior to Anselm, however, approaching soteriology from an apologetic perspective was not common, nor has it ever been so in the East. The more traditional approach begins, not with fallen man, but with man in his Christian fulfillment: union with God.”

    In an earlier footnote he also states,

    “For a long time I have suspected that Anselm’s argument had Islam in mind, that rival religion which believed in neither the Incarnation nor the death of Christ on the Cross. Indeed, the highly intellectual Muslim presence in Spain was a major catalyst in the development of scholastic theology. Whatever the Latin scholars knew of Aristotle, they knew in translations from Arabic.”

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. I’ve been enjoying Fr. Patrick’s book. He is very generous in his treatment of Anselm. I think it is extremely important to consider the conversation with Islam that was dominating Western European thought. Many people ignore it (or are completely unaware) and fail to consider how it might have skewed the entire trajectory of Christianity in Europe.

  57. JMD Avatar

    As someone who used to be Reformed, and as someone who still has many loved ones who are still Reformed, I think there is something missing in this discussion’s attempt to figure out why people stick so staunchly to a PSA framework: its effect on one’s “assurance of salvation.” A transactional model frees one up–regardless of how the current day’s fight against sin is going–to know that God still views him/her as beloved and righteous. In my loved one’s lives, this is not used as an excuse to sin or as an excuse to believe in a salvation that is not transformational, but rather as a starting point of confidence in God’s love for them. I think this aspect of Reformed soteriology is missing in this thread of the discussion. Now, obviously, I agree with many of the critiques everyone here as leveled against PSA and some people’s reasons for holding to it so staunchly, and I myself have found great relief and increased love for God (especially for the Person of God the Father) as I have departed from the PSA framework, but I would love to know how others have dealt with this issue of assurance of salvation among their Reformed friends and family when talking about Orthodox soteriology.

  58. Eric Avatar

    Father Stephen
    Thank you once more for your writing which I increasingly find illuminating, and share with others on a regular basis

    Forgive me if this point has already been addressed- I have been reading a hard copy of this blog which lacks the lengthy comment thread – it occurs to me that Sin is quite literally the destruction of the Creation?

    I would be most grateful for your comments regarding this. I have for some time been exploring the link between Sin and the created order and this blog crystallised my thoughts.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. It is correct to say that the “destruction” of the creation would be, if you will, an “icon of sin.” Sin, on its most fundamental level, viz. St. Athanasius and St. Maximus, et al, is a movement towards non-being. I like a term that Pavel Florensky used, “disintegration.”

    That is ontological. When we “destroy” something in creation, we obviously don’t actually destroy it. We disassemble it, or rearrange it, etc. We cannot make it not be. But those actions “rhyme” with true disintegration, i.e. they are icons.

    Iconoclasm is a very deep, even primordial sin. Anyone can destroy an image. Creating one, especially a true image, is a god-like act, in the best sense. The devil comes only to “kill, steal and destroy.” Sounds too frightfully familiar.

  60. Eric Avatar

    Thank you
    That is most illuminating, particularly the connection with iconoclasm.
    And yes, it is too familiar
    Lord have mercy

  61. Eric Avatar

    BTW I wonder if it was the conversation with Islam per se which had the influence on Western Christian thought. I have tended more to the view that it was the Aristotelian philosophy which was fundamental to the Islamic understanding of reality, and so was an unspoken partner in the conversation, which had the effects of which we’ve been speaking.

    I’m no expert in these matters, but my understanding is that nominalism is the product of an essentially Aristotelian perspective.

    I’ve also thought it highly suggestive that Anselm and PSA, allied with a juridical turn in the western church, nominalism and its necessary move to a doctrine of transubstantiation, all occur after the Great Schism.

    Hans Boersma in his illuminating work, Heavenly Participation, outlines these shifts in thinking as foundational to the loss of the sacramental perception in the West. Sadly, apart from a quote from Fr Schmemann, he makes no reference to Orthodoxy, nor does he note the historical co-incidence (lit.) of these events.

    I tend to the view that they are not unrelated.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Thomas Hopko held that sola scriptura was ultimately sourced in the conversation with Islam. I agree. Indeed, I think the single most important and lasting thing that so profoundly changed the West (Latin Christianity), was not its separation from the East, per se, but its encounter with Islam and the conversations that ensued. And those changes were not intentional – but the conversation that turned around Aristotelianism, that came to be utterly dominant in a way that was never, ever true in the East, created a different form of “Hellenism” in the West than the East. The Hellenism of the East is, and always was, inherently Platonic, though with many caveats and modifications.

    The most massive shift that has ever occurred in Christian thought was the abandonment of that early Hellenism and the embracing of a new, in the form of Aristotelianism. In that Islamic philosophy had done the same, it gave Western Christianity and Islam a commonality that the Orthodox East has with neither one.

    This is sadly neglected by many.

  63. Karen Avatar


    I appreciate your observations about the reason for the hold of PSA on so many Western Christians and agree wholeheartedly.

    I have observed, as a former Evangelical, that I went from finding an “assurance” of “salvation” (as God’s sustained good will toward me–something nothing in Orthodoxy should properly lead one to question) in a theory/doctrine (PSA transactional ideas) to finally beginning to truly rest in God’s unadulterated good will and eternally-poured-out grace demonstrated through Christ, who is the image of the Father. I went from trusting a theory to trusting what God has revealed of Himself in Christ in the gospel and in its unadulterated proclamation in the Orthodox Church (its Saints and Liturgy). The first was a false hope of salvation (as real union with Christ and transformation into His likeness); the latter is the only hope of salvation any of us has. The “assurance” I was offered from the theories of the conditions on which God would extend His good will to “save” us in PSA proved rather tenuous and empty/unsatisfying. I would characterize it not as a state of heart rooted in spiritual reality (because that was not accurately described by PSA theory), but more of a mental attitude I “copped” by a sheer act of the will.

    Orthodox faith gives me true peace (a heart at rest) with God and His eternal working for my salvation that I never had as an Evangelical Protestant, but I’m not tempted, as I frequently was as an Evangelical, to be comfortably complacent with my manifest lack of sanctity. It is not insignificant, I believe, that the longer I was Evangelical the more I found certain aspects of PSA theory suspect in light of the teachings in the Gospels, and these suspect aspects of its details actually undermined any assurance of salvation I might have had based in a true understanding of the nature of God in His love. The more I came to care about the salvation of all and to concern myself less with saving my own skin, the more obvious that became to me.

    Such are some of my observations from my own experience. I hope that was helpful in some way.

  64. Richard Avatar

    Good point on the difference between Christian’s usage of language to describe invisible realities vs nominalism’s interpretation to mean it’s purely psychological and in someone’s mind.

    However, I don’t think the usage of legal language to describe sin necessarily mean we are referring to just a concept in the mind, I think (mainly Protestant Christians) just happen to focus more on the aspect of sin that is transgression of the law of God.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a way to think about transgressing the Law of the Lord in which the consequences are not legal, but substantial and real, and by that I do not mean externally imposed punishment. That is actually the Scriptural understanding. Protestantism does not generally have any grasp of consequence other than legal. And it is a problem.

  66. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Fr Stephen,

    Will Orthodoxy admit that there is a way to think about transgressing the Law of the Lord in which the consequences ARE legal, AS WELL AS “substantial and real”?*

    Can you admit that sin’s penalty includes “externally imposed punishment”?

    Even conceding your contention that, “Protestantism does not generally have any grasp of consequence other than legal,” does Orthodoxy refuse to admit of there is ANY “legal consequence?

    Otherwise, we submit, you could have a problem.

    * Don’t know why legal transgression isn’t substantial & real… **shrug**

    St John says that sin is transgression of the law.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What you do not understand is that your understanding of “law” is what is wrong. “Legal” is an intellectual fiction. Law is real.

  68. Eric Avatar

    I wonder, Father Stephen, might we rather speak of “law” in the sense of ‘the “law” of gravity’? That it is part and parcel of our human existence, more perhaps existence itself? That recognising it places constraints upon that which is and which is not Wise action in the world?

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, anyone wanting to think carefully about what “legal” means, should do some research on the evolution of law itself. What we have today is a notion rooted in Nominalism. There are a number of scholarly articles out there on Nominalism vs Realism in the Law there are worth scanning.

    My observation to Hugh about anachronistic thinking is grounded in this. The modern concept of “legal” simply didn’t exist at the time of the New Testament. It’s even stronger than law of gravity. It’s closer to the notion of “stain,” the “mark of Cain,” etc. It’s quite substantial (as is sin). The completely idealized, externalized notion of law, in which it is only operative if God enforces it, is simply not Biblical.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Read about Nominalism. Your use of the term “legal,” what it means, external imposed punishment, is based on that philosophy. It is very late as a legal theory and is anachronistic if applied to the Scriptures.

  71. Byron Avatar

    >the single most important and lasting thing that so profoundly changed the West (Latin Christianity), was not its separation from the East, per se, but its encounter with Islam and the conversations that ensued.

    >The modern concept of “legal” simply didn’t exist at the time of the New Testament. It’s even stronger than law of gravity. It’s closer to the notion of “stain,” the “mark of Cain,” etc. It’s quite substantial (as is sin). The completely idealized, externalized notion of law, in which it is only operative if God enforces it, is simply not Biblical.

    Father, would you recommend any good books on these developments?

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll keep my eyes out for something. But I haven’t seen any single book that does anything with this. You have to pick it up from this place and that.

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