The Seat of Mercy and the End of the Legal View


Among the more problematic words in the New Testament is the Greek hilasterion. It is translated as “propitiation” in some of the older English Bibles, and “expiation,” in newer ones. It’s actual meaning is neither. The word literally means “the place of mercy,” and is the Greek word used in the Old Testament (LXX) to describe the “Mercy Seat” on the Ark of the Covenant.

In Leviticus, the ritual for atonement is described, as an anointing of the mercy seat with the blood of a bull. The details are not terribly important for this article. But the question to consider is simply, what is going on in such an act of atonement? Many contemporary Christians have a long habit of describing such primitive actions with abstract concepts of symbolism. “This represents that…” is the typical run of things. Or, everything that happens is seen as taking place in the mind of God such that “and God considered this suitable for the forgiveness of their sins…” Despite all of the claims of “literalism,” very few ever seem to take texts at their face value, particularly if it forces them to abandon their own worldview.

The best way to understand such things as the Mercy Seat and the rituals of the atonement that surround it, is to see it for what it actually is. The sins of the people are placed there on the Mercy Seat and the priest destroys their sin by anointing the Seat with blood. Think of this passage in Leviticus:

And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel. And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Lev 16:18-22)

The passage describes a very concrete, almost magical, scenario. The “uncleanness” of the people is cleansed through the sprinkling of blood, and then their sins are spoken over a goat thus “putting them on the head of the goat,” and the goat is sent away – taking their sins with him.

First, I suggest that readers note that there is not a hint of contractual/legal imagery here at all. Sins are not abstract infractions of the law in the modern legal sense but are quite concrete. They cause people to be unclean; they can be cleansed by blood; they are put on the head of a goat and sent away.

Such imagery, particularly if treated in a literal manner, simply baffles the modern mind. As I have noted repeatedly, the modern mind has somehow made abstractions its reality, while treating its true concrete existence as a metaphor, something that, at best, only gives rise to abstraction.

Hebrew is a decidedly concrete language – abstractions are fairly rare. This is difficult for modern readers to grasp, since we frequently take very concrete words and assume their meaning to be an abstraction. Among the greatest injustices done to Hebrew thought has been the modern Christian idealization of its concrete realities. The modern world prefers abstractions, whether psychological, legal, contractual or the like. Reading those concepts into the words of the Old Testament, however, is simply anachronistic.

The Law is itself a primary example. Here is a primary question: Is a law true because there is something inherent within it, or is it simply a law because someone says it is? The modern world has come down firmly on the side of voluntarism – a law simply expresses a will. As such, a law is nothing more than the guarantee of force and violence. It is a statement of the principles by which and on account of which force and violence will be exercised against someone.

In the Old Testament, however, the Law of God seems to have something quite substantive about it within itself:

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover by them Your servant is warned, And in keeping them there is great reward. (Psa 19:7-11 NKJ)

In the modern mind, such a passage only means that God did a good job in willing His law, and those laws reflect the goodness of His will. But the laws remain abstractions, simply the expression of His will. And, true to voluntarism, they only gain their power through the force and violence with which God backs them up.

“…by them is Your servant warned…and there is great reward.”

Up until the Middle Ages, the notion of law, whether Hebrew, Greek, etc., was generally grounded in a notion of realism, that is, the truth of a law was inherent in how things are and how they are made. The law can be discerned because it is not simply the product of a will. God’s will is expressed in how He created the world, but not by arbitrary rules enforced through sheer acts of force or violence.1

However, in the Middle Ages, in the rise of nominalism (cf. William of Ockham), a new theory of law came into the discussion, one in which law is simply the arbitrary act of a will. Modernity has seen the steady erosion of realism (as well as the notion of natural law) and its replacement with a radical nominalism. The most extreme statement of this latter view can be seen in Anthony Kennedy’s famous dictum in a Supreme Court decision regarding abortion:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

This extreme expression of voluntarism reveals the element of absurdity in pure voluntarism. Some might argue that the flaw in Kennedy’s statement lies in his attribution of this possibility to human beings, when it belongs to God alone. But it is the nominalists of modernity, including the Christian nominalists, who taught modernity how to reason in such a manner.

The Old Testament speaks of the Law in very substantive terms, much the same way that later Old Testament writings speak of Wisdom. The Law is far more than a commandment. The commandment describes something very concrete, something that reveals how the world actually is as well as how human beings and all creation works. It is no more arbitrary than DNA is arbitrary. It is, if you will, the DNA of the universe.

Sin is thus not primarily a willful breaking of Another’s will. It is not a transgression of something external to us, enforced only through the threat of violence or force. It is a violation of the very constitution of our being and of the world around us. In the language of Pavel Florensky, it is “disintegration.” St. Athanasius and a number of other fathers described it as a movement towards non-being. Sin is substantial. It can be healed and washed, excised and destroyed.

Sin is not a “legal” construct in the modern sense of legal nominalism.

And this brings us back to the Mercy Seat. Christ is indeed the “Mercy Seat” for our sins. It is incorrectly translated as propitiation or as expiation. Both terms tend to abstract what is actually taking place as if the Cross changes something somewhere else, something external. Our sins are literally placed on Christ. And as our Mercy Seat, He destroys them, cleanses them, remits them, carries them away, etc. It would be a frightful death were it meant to accomplish something in the abstract. But sin is not an abstraction. Christ’s bearing of our sin is the bearing of our disintegration, our drive towards non-being. It is the recreation of His creation.

Those who grasp at words that have root “legal” meaning, must be careful to consider their full meaning. Forensic applications, such as the modern Penal Substsitution theory of the atonement ignore the nature of law within the Biblical time period. The realist/organic nature of the law should probably not be described as having a “legal” meaning in order to distinguish it from the modern nominalist concept. My own writing has been directed by an effort to make this distinction. The Divine Solidarity, described so eloquently by St. Athanasius and many of the fathers requires remembering that nominalism has no place in their worldview. For my money, it has no place in ours either.


Footnotes for this article

  1. The older view, which is more especially that of the Realists, explained the Lex Naturalis as an intellectual act independent of will-as a mere lex indicativa, in which God was not lawgiver but a teacher working by means of Reason -in short, as the dictate of Reason as to what is right, grounded in the Being of God but unalterable even by Him…. The opposite proposition, proceeding from pure Nominalism, saw in the Law of Nature a mere divine command, which was right and binding merely because God was the lawgiver. From Medieval Theories of Natural Law: William of Ockham and the Significance of the Voluntarist TraditionFrancis Oakley (Notre Dame Law School NDLScholarship, 1961)

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.


222 responses to “The Seat of Mercy and the End of the Legal View”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless,
    This is a great exposition of the difference between modernity and the thinking of Nominalism and the way that the Hebrews and Early Christians understood their world and what they meant when they wrote. However, I think something happened to the end of your piece. It seems that some paragraphs went missing.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nothing was left out…it was just badly written. I’ve gone back and given it a second effort…

  3. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Great piece.

    I perused all the translations of Romans 3:25. Most of the well known translations use “propitiation.” Looks like Tyndale and the Common English translation and a couple obscure ones stick with “Seat of Mercy.”

    NIV and New Revised Standard use “sacrifice of atonement.” Can’t decide if that is literal or an abstraction. What do you think?

  4. Michelle Avatar

    I used to be Lutheran, which has a Sacramental Tradition that grants somewhat of an ontological view of the atonement. If I were still a Lutheran this is how I would have responded to this particular blog post:

    I accept your assertion of the ontological nature of sin. We can almost imagine sin as a thing, like a little animal that bites and thrashes -an ugly little beast.

    God’s ontological Presence is perceived by created beings as being beautiful; a beauty which effects our created senses, causing adoration, joy, praise, and thanksgiving. It sparks ecstasy within us, and this ecstasy inflames our will to act with praises and thanksgiving.

    This thing, this little beast that bears the name, Sin, is devoid of God’s Presence, and, thus, devoid of beauty. This little beast IS ugliness itself. And just as God’s beauty produced a natural state of ecstasy within us, this ugliness also naturally effects a state of disgust within us. And just as this ecstasy naturally inflamed our will, so does this disgust naturally inflame our will to scorn the ugly little beast, treating it with contempt, and expelling it away from us with kicks and blows.

    Now, this little beast is not a created being. It is okay to scorn and disdain it, even serve it painful blows, because it is not a thing created by God. God’s Image, in which we glory, is not present in the little thing. In fact, paradoxically this little “thing” is nothingness itself! And there is no shame in spitting and beating your fist upon nothingness! God has no part in this little beast of empty darkness, so there is no shame in treating it harshly. It is natural to do so, just as it is natural for the body to expel harmful waste. So, as long as this ugly beast, Sin, persists, so, too, will its expulsion. And should it persist by another name, Eternal Hell, then so, too, will it’s eternal expulsion. Can the Orthodox really disagree?!

    But, as a Lutheran, I also would have entertained the notion of absolute depravity. This means that when the little beast, Sin, lunged upon Adam and sunk his teeth in him, much like a vampire, Adam likewise turned into this same empty darkness. Now, Adam’s very nature is that of an ugly beast, of which elicits a natural, blameless disdain, and contemptuous blows from others. But, of course, all others have likewise become ugly beasts themselves, through Adam’s fatherhood to all of humanity, so there is no one left to express this natural disgust, and the blows that follow -that is, no one except God Himself! And this is where Christ comes in as an exchange; as pure gift, He trades places with Adam and all humanity, taking our ontological ugliness for Himself, and handing over to us His ontological beauty. This is the penal substitution expressed in ontological terms.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    When I see all of the comments on the inadequacy of English translations I am confused. If the English translations are so bad, how can we learn the true faith.

    I don’t speak or read any other language but English and I never will. My brain is too inflexible at this point.

    Even simply reading the Scriptures seems fraught with booby traps.

    If the translations are so bad, someone needs to do a better one. I know of a lawyer in Chicago who works on one in his spare time but wow. Seems as if it ought to get higher priority. Unless it really doesn’t matter that much.

  6. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  7. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    What do we do with passages such as Hebrews 10:1-4 in lieu of what you wrote here? I’ll only quote vs.4 but the entire passage seems relevant. “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.” Please offer a clarifying comment.

  8. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Even though I learned Biblical Greek in Seminary and can translate, it is slow and laborious for me. One of the aids I use in reading Scripture is called the Ancient Christian Commentary Series. It is published in hard copy and will set you back well over $3000 if you get the whole set. They do have it on CD and you can obtain the whole set for under $300. What the editors have done is extract all commentary material from the Fathers that apply to each verse and list them underneath the verse in question. Not every verse was commented on but many were and it is a handy guide to reading Scripture through the eyes of the Fathers.
    It saves plowing through the volumes to find a homily, commentary or other source for the guidance of the Fathers. I also have the translation, as wooden as it is from the Holy Apostles Convent as well as The Eastern-Greek Orthodox New Testament based on the Patriarchal Text, translated by a teem of Greek and English speaking scholars who are Orthodox and published by Lulu. You can look it up on and get it in soft copy as well.
    If you are adventurous and lie a challenge, you can go to and peruse the Greek text. Clicking on a world opens a box that parses or declines the word and opens the lexicon to define the word in English for you. Once you learn how to operate the system, you will see how different some of the English translations really are. Consider Matthew 28:19 that is always translated as: “Go, therefore, and make disciples……” You will discover that “go” is not a verb and is certainly not an Imperative Mood (commanding) verb. It is an Aorist Passive Participle Nominative Masculine Plural. As a participle, it should be translated as Going not as a command. The command verb is the verb to make disciples which is an Aorist Active Imperative 2nd Person Plural verb. The force of that verse in translation is not on us going but on making disciples. The going is assumed in that we move about in our lives and come in contact with others. Our Protestant brethren translate this verse with the force on Go to back up their idea of mission. Mission work is not bad, but the Lord told us to make disciples. A disciple is not just a believer but someone who seeks to emulate their Master who is Christ.

  9. Erik Avatar

    Thanks for the Article,
    I imagine that one reason it is difficult to have a more realist/intrinsic/organic view of the law has to do with the fact that people would say many parts of mosaic law don’t apply today (I.e. kosher eating mixed fibers, circumcision etc.)
    The logic would go; “if these used to apply and now they don’t how could these laws correspond integrally to our nature as humans?”
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this Fr. Stephen.

  10. Ken Nichols Avatar
    Ken Nichols

    Michael, such are the problems that arise when we attempt to base our ideas of truth, and even our very faith, on a book.

    Jesus did not promise us a book, but His Spirit to “lead us into all truth”. When we substitute ANYTHING for the Spirit, we will run into trouble.

    The Bible is “useful” for many things, but it was never meant to be our authority, or the foundation of our faith. It simply is not up to that task, especially as we have it today in English, and to try and make it so, is, at best, rather foolish, and at worst, idolatrous.

  11. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    disregard what I said about the end of this article. Apparent, my brain went missing. I just realized that it was a footnote at the bottom. Great posting though. I love to share these with my Protestant friends.

  12. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    A most informative article.

    I like the way you used different areas of study.


  13. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    Michael Bauman, I think all translations are limited by the reader’s understanding of what the terms mean. One might read “mercy seat” as a quaint Hebrew expression, or one might read “propitiation” and know what it is actually referring to in this text. So the key might be education about the text.

  14. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Thanks for the post. I could ask lots of questions, but let me settle for a request.

    Please explain ‘education about the text’


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

    Meg can speak for herself regarding the Bible. I am an infant in the faith.

    I’m also a former professor in chemistry. If a first year student opens a chemistry text they might get certain concepts superficially or worse. ‘Worse’ means that they put into the text an understanding that isn’t there but that without hearing other voices than their own while reading, have made sense of what they read without appropriate guidance. It was my general practice as their instructor to make sure they understood that simply reading their textbook will not help them pass the test. My tests required that they understood and practiced Chemistry as it is understood and practiced within the discipline of Chemistry. That is how I understood Meg’s words, “education about the text”.

    While I use my experience to understand the words printed in this blog, I will not assume that my PhD in Chemistry is sufficient for understanding what my soul needs to understand. Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  16. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    I know three monks tucked away from the world who are translating the scriptures into English, from a deep Orthodox mind.
    Pray for the monks (who wish to remain anonymous)! If God deems fitting we may receive this gift informed not just through study but deep prayer and communion with the Spirit of Truth, away from the vanity of the contemporary world.


  17. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Please explain translating with ‘a deep orthodox mind”.


  18. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Father, perhaps soon you will tell me to stop the frequent requests for explanations.

    The difference between my questions and my request for explanations is that the requests apply directly to the article or posts in that thread.

    Again, they are sincere, and the article and the posts are appreciated.


  19. Byron Avatar

    If the English translations are so bad, how can we learn the true faith.

    The guidance of Tradition and our Spiritual Father?

    Sadly, I found this Orthodox translation online and it uses “atoning sacrifice” and then lists “propitiation” as an option in the footnotes. I think I actually have this in book form at home.

    I think this is it:

  20. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Many thanks, Father.
    I realized long ago that I was mistaken in seeing the Laws of God as merely compelling laws; they are in fact descriptive laws; they describe real dangers. I concluded that the Ten Commandments might rightly be understood as the ten warnings–warning us not to go down this path or that path as to do so would be a missing-of-the-mark (sin) which would lead to failure, and worse, death. What parent who loved his children would not warn them accordingly?

  21. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    While I wasn’t Lutheran, I think I understand and agree that ‘it is penal substitution expressed in ontological terms”.

    However, would you explain that further.

    Please and thanks.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The answer is somewhat straightforward. Those laws do not apply because they were not a complete and proper description of the underlying reality. They were “shadows” of that reality (to use the phrase of the fathers). In Christ the Law is fulfilled and now we can perceive their meaning. Christ does not abolish the Law but fulfills it.

    And example: The Law of the Sabbath. The hidden meaning of the Sabbath was not revealed until Christ “rested” in the sleep of death in the Tomb. The centuries of Sabbath-keeping through not working was looking towards that true and final completion of Christ’ work in the tomb. Christ seems to go out of His way to heal people on the Sabbath, ultimately to reveal its true meaning which was about to dawn on the world.

    This is true of all the Law. But it also tells us that the mystery in Christ is woven into the very fabric of creation.

  23. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Pardon me – Dean’s is there, at 10:02am.

    Father Stephen, any thoughts on sin (“transgression of the law” – St John) being both forensic as well as ontological?

  24. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    The wages of sin is death (eternal torment, according to our Lord, Mt 25:41, 46) how is this not a legal dilemma?

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but did you read the article on the Mercy Seat? If by “forensic” you mean a nominalist legal view, then no it is not forensic. If legal is understood in its proper, NT manner, then sin is certainly the transgression of the law. But you seem unable or unwilling to grasp that this means something different than “if you do that I’m going to roast you in hell for punishment.” Frankly, you keep trying to find a way that the camel’s nose of that false narrative can get into the tent. And once the nose is in, then you’ll run all the way with the PSA and the whole Reform load of nonsense.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The “wages” of sin – the “outcome” of sin. You are assuming that wages means the “pay off” and the it is God who does the paying. That’s your legal nonsense. It says nothing of the sort. It is the warning that broken communion with God is a severed communion with the Lord and Giver of Life and its outcome is death. This is true not because God kills us, but because we have cut ourselves off from Life.

  27. GretchenJoanna Avatar

    This helps me understand what I am praying when I ask the Theotokos to “propitiate on my behalf him who was born of you…” Am I asking her to lay my sins on Him as my Mercy Seat?

  28. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    I, too, studied Koine Greek and I tried early on to translate the NT. It became too arduous and time communing.

    I speak Spanish and tried translating the Greek into Spanish. That did not last too long.

    My experience with translating and studying translation showed me how difficult it is to translate without showing one’s ‘prejudices and theological baggage’.

    I don’t think an Orthodox priest or monk with a ‘deep Orthodox mind’ could translate without his prejudices and theological baggage showing. That is simply my opinion, with is worth little.

    A Church of Christ scholar translated the Greek NT into English, but as I read carefully selected passages he revealed his baggage or simply that he didn’t translate properly, according to many other ‘Greek scholars’.

    However, I think the Bible can be translated properly or it is of little use to us. By properly I mean faithfully and true to the original.

    C S Lewis was mentioned on this blog as being true and accurate in some areas dealing with Orthodoxy.

    That means it is possible.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Translation will always fall short. Just knowing the language is not really adequate. An example is this article itself. Most modern translators, unless they’ve really bothered to study a point, might see many words, attribute them to a worldview that is inappropriate and come up with a misleading translation.

    It says that the Scriptures need to be studied! It is a constant learning process. We use everything at hand.

    Truth is, even those whose language is Greek could read the NT and infer meanings that are incorrect. It is work. It is a work of the heart as much as anything. We should read Scripture daily and meditate on it day and night. But it’s good to chew on small bits at a time. I should add that though I majored in Greek in college, I’m still studying it. 🙂

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very well put. Yes.

  31. Fr. Mark Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for your post. (For all your posts, really; I find them very helpful and well written. I’ve been reading them for years and these last few on atonement and justification I find particularly engaging, as you might guess.)

    I am a Lutheran and (like Michelle above who gives a great description of sin), can completely agree with your description of the Mercy Seat and sin. Sin is not simply a legal situation -as none but a few rather shallow Lutherans would argue – but a corruption and (as you point out with the Fathers) a movement toward non-being.

    However, there is St. Paul in Colossians 2:13ff who says, “you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

    It seems to me that there is a legal dimension to it. Adam trangressed the law that was (concretely, not abstractly) given. That is a legal thing. It is not an arbitrary thing or a thing that is not germane to the essence of God and creation (in other words, not just an expression of a will but an ontological extension of a Being). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t legal, that is, of the Law.

    The holy authors use legal terms extensively to speak of sin and absolution, though certainly not exclusively. And I would agree with you (I think I’m assuming right about your position) that the legal language is subject to a greater reality of being corrupt. The legal language is not short hand, per se, but neither is it complete by itself.

    We are born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and so we are born corrupt, without true knowledge or fear of God; not abstractly but actually. True fear and love of God must come by the Holy Spirit who lights upon us and enters us through the Word (which is to say all the sacraments of Christ). That’s not to say we are guilty of Adam’s sin, we aren’t, as St. Paul says in Romans 5:12ff, but he also says in the same passage that it’s not just death that came but condemnation. We don’t need only to be saved from death but from being condemned. Why? Because we are sinful and unclean.

    Hence the Mercy Seat that makes us clean and cleanses us from our unrighteousness.

    I would really like your take on this as I am loving your continued conversation on this topic.

  32. Fr. Mark Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I would also agree with your emphasis of “wages” as being the natural or expected or necessary result of something. I think the genius of your presentation is showing that the law is not an arbitrary, external thing to God who just decided to do it this way and make these laws, but is ontological to Him.

    The problem with taking “wages” as a modern understanding of earned wages is that the employer could simply decide not to pay. But sin can’t decide not to end in death, which is why the necessity of the Cross. Sin must bring death because sin is that which is without God, without life.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Something just occurred to me in regard to the law. My father was a pioneer in that his family homesteaded in New Mexico in 1906 and lived in a sod dwelling when they first arrived on their 160 acre parcel of land when he was 5.

    He learned first hand the nature of the law and it’s intrinsic reality imbuing all of creation. Survival dictated it.

    He taught of the particular nature and inter-relationship of all things given life by the adivine presence in all things (panentheistic). I heard about it everyday of my childhood. It was the foundation of his work in community health–trying to bring wholeness and good order to the people of our community. Few understood what he was doing.

    Despite my frustration with the translation problem, I am readily familiar with the fact that the truth of the Bible is in all that we do as Orthodox because Jesus is in all of us and is the Tradition. His Incarnation changed everything making everything more real.

    Many times over the years I have either read or heard a reading often in the context of a divine service and the truth, not before considered by me or only partially is revealed and I say, ahhhh. That is what it means. Indeed one of my first experiences as a catechumen was that for the first time Scripture made sense. I no longer had to come up with my own ideas. Just listen. That is largely what I have done.

    I intuitively understand and instantly accept Father’s description and explanation of the Mercy Seat because of the way my father shaped my understanding and having lived 30 years in the Church. Sometimes attentively. It is a bit like the jade story I posted awhile back.

    Those whose mind and heart have been shaped differently have a different struggle, but the essence is the same I think: “Let your mind (nous) be transformed by the hearing of the word”.

    It has always been instructive to me that hearing has a root connection to obeying. They interact and compliment each other on many levels that appear to me to be supra-rational.

    I deeply appreciate all of the wonderful responses to my dilemma. All of them are helpful. Each of them will help me take the next step into the Bible..

  34. deacon john vaporis Avatar
    deacon john vaporis

    “Sprinkle it on the east side of the mercy seat seven times” Lev 16:15 . Though not perfect the Orthodox Study Bible seems to get it right often.
    Thank you Father for another wonderful post.

  35. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Fr Stephen,

    How are “wages” of sin essentially different from the “outcome” of sin?

    How about the result, the inevitable consequences, or repercussions?

    Is not God in charge of the outcome?

    I entirely agree that It is the warning that broken communion with God is a severed communion with the Lord and Giver of Life and its outcome is death.

    Yet the second death is indeed “because God ‘kills’ us.” He kills and he makes alive.

    Jesus said that all judgment was given him from the Father, which judgment he highlights in Matthew 25.

    Indeed, have cut ourselves off from Life. True, we are responsible!

    Yet too, He Who is life will one day disown those who do not love & follow him in sincerity (Matthew 7, for instance). The inevitable result will be their judgment/ condemnation/ damnation at His hand.

  36. Byron Avatar

    <i.I don’t think an Orthodox priest or monk with a ‘deep Orthodox mind’ could translate without his prejudices and theological baggage showing. That is simply my opinion, with is worth little.

    Your are correct, Terry. But expecting perfection out of imperfect beings is a dangerous thing (although I know you did not say that directly, so please understand I don’t mean to overstate your point; forgive me if you think I do). I think we do better to simply seek wisdom, which can come from the efforts of Saints and Monks (among others), and trust God to make something good out of our seeking. Just my thoughts. God bless!

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You see, you don’t believe the Scriptures. You think St Paul said, “The wages of sin is eternal punishment in hell.” That’s all you really think it means. And you’re bound and determined to read it that way. If that’s what he meant, then why didn’t he say that. Why all the other language? “Damnation at His hand.” That’s what you actually believe. You allow no other possible meaning to that. God’s love ultimately is revealed in torturing people. No. That’s not the true God. That’s the God of the imagination. Sorry. No sale.

    Calvinism starts with the assumption that God is going to torture some people in hell – forever. Then it spends all of its time trying to explain why this is a good thing and that we should glorify Him because He’s doing this good thing. The only anchor Reform knows is eternal punishment in hell. Everything else can only be understood in light of it. It is the single non-changing thing. Love must conform to hell. Salvation must conform to hell. Sanctification must conform to hell. Healing must conform to hell. Hell is its God.

  38. Janine Avatar

    It strikes me that a key difference in a worldview of “realism” from that of nominalism is experience. The experience of faith/God affects more of who we are than the intellect and intellectual assent.

    I actually think that what you describe here as “abstraction” is a problematic worldview that we see all around us, in which tone has become more important than substance. I would use the term “political correctness” but that itself has become political. We can have horror all around us and terrible violence, but so long as it is couched in the right terms it is somehow acceptable or to be ignored in favor of the abstraction.

  39. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Now you’ll just being mean again. 🙁 Of course I believe the Bible.

    No, it’s God’s justice and holiness (no less real than his love – nor trumped by it) that are served in his executing justice against the rebellious ones.

    God’s just & holy wrath is ultimately is revealed in “torturing people,” as you caricature it. Eternal conscious torment is God’s fitting punishment for mankind’s sin.

    Is not the lake of fire real and eternal torment for unrepentant sinners?!

  40. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    I have to ask a question. Forgive me.

    “You don’t believe the Scriptures”.

    Isn’t that a little strong, padre.

  41. Michelle Avatar

    Terry, I will try,

    The phrase “penal substitution” traditionally refers to the forensic understanding that Fr Stephen’s refers to in the article, which, in my opinion, he rightly rejects. The forensic notion is explained as completely external to our being (and God’s being), and, thus, completely arbitrary. But I can speculatively evaluate both ours, and God’s ontological being in a more traditionally Orthodox way, and still end up with a theory of substitution that is consonant to our ontological reality, and could, in a sense, be referred to as a “penal.” And I believe that many Protestants with more Sacramental traditions intuitively relate penal theory to our ontological reality. However, these Protestants still end up with false conclusions due to their dogma of total depravity.

    Like Fr. Stephen says, when you view sin more as a thing that needs to be washed off, then maybe sin is the sort of thing that elicits a natural reaction of the will from us. I think of people as Christ shaped vessels, and when the Holy Spirit is poured into our vessel, like water into a cup, then our Christ-like vessel is at its most natural state. And this natural state emits natural reactions of the will; we emit joy, praise, and thanksgiving, much like a bottle of perfume emits wafts of flowering scent. Likewise, it may be that even if the vessel is not filled with the Spirit, per se, it may still exhibit natural reactions to the Presence of its Creator; reactions of the will such as awe, and wonder at His beauty. So, what I am suggesting is that maybe we also exhibit an ontologically natural reaction when in contact with the “thing” that needs washing off, i.e. sin. Maybe we naturally, as Christ shaped vessels, emit wafts of disgust and vehement contempt towards this “thing” called sin. Maybe the natural reaction of the will is to reject this “thing” with violent acts of expulsion, like a stomach that violently expels norovirus (the common stomach flu). It is this violent expulsion that I am suggesting is the “penalty due” to sin.

    But notice that in this explanation the penalty acts upon the “thing” that is sin, not persons. However, Protestants believe in total depravity, which confuse our human nature with a sin nature. Maybe it’s perfectly Orthodox to consider sin as something we naturally abhor in a violently expulsive way, rightly likened to a penalty, but can this be said about persons? We may ontologically move toward non-being, or we could say “sin-being”, but we never actually achieve it because we are forever Christ-shaped vessels. The Image of God that is our true nature always remains, and we never change into “sin-shaped” things.

    In the Bible healthy people expel lepers from the cities, maybe sometimes even violently. But the leprous person never becomes leprosy. And, thus, when Christ encounters the leper he expels the disease, and embraces the person.

    Not sure if this helps, hope it does.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Mark,
    Again, the point is a non-nominalist understanding of “legal.” And when legal is understood in a realist way, then it actually isn’t what the modern word means at all. Yes there was a “debt” a “handwriting against us” – but – do note the word “legal” is not in the Greek at all. It is “dogmasin” from dogma (teachings,). Note, by the way, that St. Paul doesn’t use the imagery of paying the debts here. Instead, he nails them to the Cross. And he follows this with the image of the disarming of the demonic powers and making a public spectacle of them. This is not the imagery of a legal exchange, but of Christus Victor. This is the righteous judge destroying those things that were against us. God is not a debt-keeper. He hates debt. The imagery of the Old Testament is consistently His willingly destroying debt.

    Again, the legal terms used, are not the terms of a nominalism inspired legal understanding – they are, if you will, far more sacramental in character – nothing at all like our violence based legal understanding.

    If modern readers could rid themselves of the false mind of nominalism, I would cede ground on the use of the term “legal.” But, in fact, they always only ever understand the term in its nominalist meaning. It is anachronistic and incorrect. Torah is nothing at all like the modern laws of our land. In that sense, it is not “legal.” It is, again, more like sacraments, and the like.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your response makes my point. You believe in hell more than anything else.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, it’s a little strong. It’s the result of having this same tortured conversation with Hugh for many months. Same thing. Same points. Again and again. My reason for saying, “You don’t believe the Scriptures,” is because “the wages of sin is death” means nothing to him. He dismisses the text and leaps to “eternal torment in hell.” The text doesn’t say that…but it does in his mind. He believes in hell, not the text. The only thing he seems unwilling to question is the notion of eternal torment in hell as God’s justice. He is seeing it even when the text doesn’t say it. That’s what I mean by not believing the Scriptures.

    Traditionally, Orthodox fathers come face to face with passages like Matthew 25 or others dealing with judgment/hell, and they wrestle with them. They parse the meaning. Other things are given equal or greater weight. Hell is nuanced in many ways. Generally it is not seen as retributive – as punishment. God’s justice does not require that anyone be tormented in hell. That exact sentiment (particularly the justice part) is found nowhere in Scripture.

    I find the Reform take on all of this to be repulsive and odious. It creates more atheists than not.

  45. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    I don’t know the the person who posted.


    ‘You believe in hell more than anything else’.

    That must be true of all us ‘legalists’.

    I don’t accept that at all. With all due respect.

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

    Strong words you refer to are strong medicinal balm to my heart badly mangled by Protestants as a child with Seminole heritage at the hands of unwitting teachers of Protestant Christianity.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think a Christian in good conscience should wrestle with hell – should wrestle with God about hell. There is this readily accepted caricature, worthy of a cartoon, notion of eternal torment in hell simply as this huge punishment hanging out there – with no questions other than how do we avoid it. This is not the way of the Fathers. Read some of St. Isaac of Syria if you want to see a serious treatment of the topic.

    But, yes, legalists must believe in hell above all else because the modern notion of “legal” only has meaning if someone is willing to do violence to make it true. God is not willing that any should perish. That is the Scripture. So, if God is not willing them to perish, how can anyone say that He is torturing them in hell?

    There are many, many contradictions surrounding the topic. But some ignore all the contradictions and fight tooth and nail to keep a cartoon hell as the foremost doctrine of the Christian faith. They will fudge on the Trinity, but not on hell. That legal world doesn’t exist. It never has. God is a good God who loves mankind.

    Whatever is meant by the verses referring to hell and its imagery, it is not the cartoon. It is ultimately God’s love – and not God’s justice. There is a deep mystery there – but instead we’re treated to cartoons. I believe in the long run that it darkens the heart of a believer and obscures God. In the worst cases it creates a false God.

    As for “legalists,” read the article again. Is the so-called legal point of view that you hold (if you do) actually based on a modern meaning of legal (nominalism). If not, then how do you understand it. If it is based on nominalism, whether intentional or not, then it is not Biblical, nor the faith of the Fathers.

  48. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Clearly, the ‘legal view’ is not adequately shared here, and I’m not going to try it.

    To make rational statements about irrational Protestant beliefs is funny to me.

    One thing I have learned here is that I am no stronger or further along on accepting the hospital/cleansing view than when I started.

    To ask questions without faith is the only way I know to ask questions. If I had that faith, I wouldn’t need to ask that question.

    When I became a catechumen, I considered myself an Orthodox. My power is up.

  49. Michelle Avatar

    Terry, I wrote,

    “In the Bible healthy people expel lepers from the cities, maybe sometimes even violently. But the leprous person never becomes leprosy. And, thus, when Christ encounters the leper he expels the disease, and embraces the person.”

    A Protestant’s “ontological penal substitution theory” would say that the leper does, indeed, become leprosy (because with total depravity the person does become a “sin-shaped” thing by nature) and thus the leper should, indeed, be expelled. In their atonement theory Christ saves them from expulsion by trading places with them, and He in turn is “expelled” (takes the full penalty), and by grace they gain His cleanness and get to remain. In the Orthodox version, though, the leper does not become leprosy, so they are not under threat of expulsion. Only the disease is ever subject to expulsion.

  50. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Lordy! For many of the past 20 plus years that I’ve been Orthodox I always considered it an embarrassment to have come from an Episcopalian background. Knowledge of Scripture: 0. Able to locate the Bible in my family home: 0. Knowledge of Doctrine: 0. Knowledge of theology: 0. The priest who was my catechist seemed delighted because he considered me to be pretty much a clean slate. We never argued. What did help, oddly enough, were serendipitous readings in Buddhism/Confucianism with a light dressing of Christian mysticism. When I came to Orthodoxy I simply had to stop every now and then to mute whatever strains of western rationalism and linear thinking intruded into my thoughts. For me, the revelations of Orthodoxy are like those giant puzzles that take up the surface of a card table. I stop every now and then and see if I can find a home for each piece which don’t look like they belong anywhere and everywhere. In the mean time, I wait for Fr. Stephen to post something new and “Bingo!”– another piece of the puzzle now has a home and the overall picture becomes clearer. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Father! Keep it up! I suppose I should be grateful that the only “baggage” I brought with me was an empty head and a poor spirit. And thank you Episcopal church for not teaching me anything!

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Briefly, the “hospital/cleansing” view is not the alternative to the legal view. Properly, the larger term is the ontological view and it has a great deal of Scripture and Tradition supporting it. The hospital can be a useful metaphor, but it’s not the larger view.

  52. Janine Avatar

    I am wading in here where I’m not part of the earlier conversation. Please pardon me if what I write is unhelpful.

    Mark 9:47 “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire— 48 where ‘Their worm does not die/And the fire is not quenched.’” (Quoting from Isaiah 66:24)

    So the imagery here is one of fire. But looking throughout the Scripture, Old and New, “fire” is the image of the Spirit of God, and it’s in the burning bush, and it’s all over the place. Eventually it has to be cleat that this is the fire of God’s love, but our experience of it is all in what we choose to discard or not (“pluck it out”) . This fire is going to purify and refine and do all sorts of things — but it’s how we can stand in it with what is compatible or not as far as I can see.

    Not the “eye” imagery: how we “see,” are we envious, lusting, how are we desiring, etc

    Anyway I hope to chip in something… forgive me if it is unhelpful please

  53. Janine Avatar

    please forgive the typos
    cleat = clear
    not = note

  54. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    I am to be baptized this Sunday, but I now think I should postpone it.

    This is important.

    I also have a real problem with the Orthodox view of cremation. I don’t want a discussion on cremation at all. Father would really not like that.

    But I do think these two are enough to postpone my baptism.

    Thanks for sharing. I’d like to hang around here, if that is ok.

  55. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    You can’t come with an empty head. That is impossible.

    With all due respect.

  56. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    If the ontological view is the correct view and the hospital/cleansing view is a metaphor, then why have all this discussion .

    Why are you all so strongly supporting the hospital view.

    That does not register with me

    You last post was a real surprise to me.

    Thanks, father.

  57. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hi Terry, my priest this week said there is one thing you have to believe: the resurrection of Christ.

    Christ is risen.

    Christ is risen.

    Christ is risen.

  58. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks Nicole,

    That’s not what I’ve read in Orthodox literature, nor what my priest shares with me.

    In fact a catchment must answer ‘yes’ to the questions: ” do you forsake all your former protestant beliefs and do you believe the Orthodox faith”?

    Truth is I can’t say yes to either of them.

    Thanks, Nicole.

  59. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    My head was essentially empty of Scripture, doctrine, and theology. Growing up as an Episcopalian as I did, “sin” was something like eating your entre with a salad fork. No one thundered at us from the pulpit. Had he done so he would have been out of a job. The thrust of Christian living was to lead a decent, pleasant life with lovely thoughts. Even mentioning Jesus outside of church and the obligatory prayers before each meal was considered very bad form. If you have any “religious” sentiments you keep them to your self. Just reading the theological stuff that other Protestants bring to the comments section makes my head ache. The bulk of what is in my head is essentially Orthodox because there wasn’t all that much “church” stuff in there to begin with because I never encountered anyone in the Episcopal church to put it in there. We simply would not have tolerated such a person. It simply was not who we were. If you wanted that kind of stuff you should be a Baptist or something. Like I said, I used to be embarrassed by my near total ignorance of Protestant doctrine and theology. I now see that I dodged a bullet. What a lot of clutter to carry around in one’s head!

  60. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    a catechumen is what I meant. I blame it on the keyboard.

  61. Dean Avatar

    Even as a teen growing up pentecostal, the idea that a good God would punish someone eternally in hell because of a misspent 70-80 years cut deeply into my young sense of justice. In the Air Force I became agnostic. However, through the prayers of a faithful wife and mother, I eventually received Christ into my life, the best I knew how. But even as a then middle of the road evangelical, God was still a good God to me. An over-arching picture of the Father was the one framed in the parable of the prodigal son. The father there scanned the horizon daily, waiting for his beloved son’s return (he had always remained his son). And one hot Palestinian day, in the distant horizon, he sees his younger son bedraggled, but slowly heading homeward. The father can’t contain himself by staying on the porch, but runs in his joy to receive his son home! This was the God who I knew as a Protestant and later as Orthodox, the lover of mankind.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I pray God give you grace in all of this. Sometimes the blog here is like jumping off the deep end. The conversation, to a degree, has been going on for nearly 10 years. There are almost 2000 articles. It’s good to go back to earlier thinks sometimes.

    Here’s one on the notion of hell, torment, etc. It’s not my writing.

    Another one, on the ontological model:

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I agree. My path had some similarities. Whatever hell is, it is not the willful torment of a human being by God for the purpose of satisfying His justice. The purpose of hell is not torment. God has no need to torment. If there is torment, God is not its cause. God is its cure.

  64. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    There you go, Terry. You wrote to Nicole that you were unable to answer “yes” to the question about forsaking all your former beliefs. That was easy for me to answer “yes” to because I didn’t have any to forsake. Of course forsaking my sinful life was not so easy but, God being my helper, everyday I try.

  65. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Unless you totally erase your memory, you can not empty your head of prior thoughts and baggage.

    Everybody has it tucked away somewhere in their mind

    Thanks, Gregory.

  66. Janine Avatar


    I’m cradle Orthodox. And yet I feel that every day God asks me to give up my thoughts and former beliefs — every day my mind and heart have to be open to change, transformation, metanoia. Somehow God opens up new doors where I had closed ones, and that requires some kind of change of mind on my part, as stubborn as I might be. Happens in all kinds of surprising ways. I think you are right about the open mind

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, may God guide you. I will just say this. Being received into the Orthodox Church is not at all like making a rational decision based upon answered questions (although that is a part). The rational decision based upon questions can go on forever. I have seen it.

    Coming into the Church is because you want to unite with Christ and you know that He is inviting you.

    That is it. Many real questions simply cannot be answered until you have received the heavenly spirit, have Him sealed within you and partaken humbly of the Body and Blood.

    Then you enter into the mind of the Church and can begin to learn.

    It can be scary. Only you can answer, Is Jesus asking you to follow Him in the Church, now.

    The only reason to be in the Orthodox Church is because you encounter Him here and want to follow Him here..

  68. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Last time, my friend, Gregory.

    Impossible. The fact that you think you brought no baggage is baggage in and of itself. I think it has and will cause you problems. That is only my opinion. Which is worth nothing.

    It is physiologically and psychologically impossible.

    Memory is one of the best and one of the worst ‘graces’ God has given us.

    I know I have baggage, and everybody I know knows they have baggage.

    I don’t think you’re an exception.

    With all due respect.

  69. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Thanks. I have two days to think and pray about this.


  70. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    It seems to me that, in large measure, you have to give them up because they won’t work. You can’t plug them into Orthodoxy and expect it to all work. Things are just going to short out, so to speak. The only thing to do is take a deep breath, calm down and start over–simply. The one thing that the Orthodox Church has which none of the others have is wisdom–volumes and volumes of wisdom. Knowledge is good but wisdom is better. The Church, in her wisdom, collected and saved all that wisdom because, well, She is wise. The answers you seek are right in front of you but our minds are so cluttered we can’t see them. As Otche once said to me, “The biggest obstacle in your path is not Satan–it’s you. You want to save your soul get out of the way. You think too much!” But we have a hard time with this because we have literally become “hard-wired” into believing that our “success”, our spiritual progress, is something which we must make happen by using our brains. Alas, the harder we try the less we “succeed”. Exasperation sets in and we go crazy. Relax. Go back to the beginning and try again. It’s there, and when you begin to see it you’ll be amazed.

  71. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Thank you for your observations, Terry. God speed.

  72. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Thanks for the encouragement.

    Another problem I see surfacing is the attitude of the Orthodox that they are the only ones who are ‘right’.

    I grew up under that attitude, and it caused all kinds of trouble.

    Still, using Scripture and the writings of the Church of Christ fathers (preachers and teachers of the past). I can ‘prove’ the Church of Christ is right and the others are wrong.

    I bring this up because the idea is in everything written here. It is certainly in this thread.

    I’ve been at this study of Orthodoxy for over two years. Before I am baptized I’ll like to handle a few things, especially the closer my baptism is.

    This may not be the right place.

    As I said earlier, my priests and have discussed these in detail.

  73. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Gregory, sorry for the seeming harshness.

  74. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Not to worry, Terry. I’m not in the least put out. Really.

  75. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    My priest and some of you say I won’t understand until I actually become Orthodox.

    That sounds to me like Gnosticism: we know something you don’t know. And you won’t know it until and unless you join the select few. Then we will share it with it.

    I agree experience is a great teacher.

    Again this post is directly related to comments made here.

    I would like to know what (Orthodoxy) is and also what it isn’t.

  76. Michelle Avatar

    “Another problem I see surfacing is the attitude of the Orthodox that they are the only ones who are ‘right’.”

    That may have more to do with most of us here being American, rather than Orthodoxy. The only thing Americans love more than their politics is being right about their politics. For me, personally, this love of being right often spills over into almost all other aspects of my life as well.

  77. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, Michelle.

    You are funny. And you seem so enlightened.

    Please, explain how one can be wrong and still please God. I know one can ‘play around’ with the word ‘wrong’.

    If we already discussed this, I apologize.

  78. Fr. John Whiteford Avatar

    I am curious as to how you would translate this line from the Akathist hymn:

    χαῖρε, παντὸς τοῦ κόσμου ἐξίλασμα.

    This is translated by Met. Kallistos and Mother Mary in the standard English Triodion as:

    “Hail, propitiation for the whole world!”

  79. tess Avatar

    Father, I just wanted to thank you for writing about the mercy seat. It’s been a phrase that feels mysterious and important to me, but I haven’t known what to do with it other than sit quietly with it. Your thoughts are both enlightening and keep well with the quiet. 🙂

    And your observations about language have convinced me that Barfield should be my next buy. 🙂 So many books, so little time!

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. John,
    These are very difficult questions. The verb is related to hilaskomai – itself built on the root for “mercy.” Almost every way its rendered someone is making a theological decision. I prefer staying somewhere closer to mercy seat. I might even render that line “Hail, mercy seat of the whole world.” I’ve also seen it translated as “ransom.” Propitiation can carry a certain meaning, i.e., a very Latin understanding of the atonement that has a lot of baggage. Many translators have chosen to render that word as “expiation” elsewhere to avoid the baggage of “propitiation.” Do you have any thoughts yourself on it? I would be most interested.

  81. Fr. John Whiteford Avatar

    The problem with that translation is that “Mercy-seat” is itself a mistranslation. The word in Hebrew neither means “mercy” nor “seat”. A better translation would be “Place of Reconciliation” or “Atonement”. The word in Hebrew is closely related to the word for “payment” or “ransom”.

    We also have other hymns in which we ask saints to propitiate God on our behalf.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. It is actually related to mercy – the verb form. “Hilasterion” “mercy seat” – place of reconciliation is quite good. Atonement is good, too, particularly in its root meaning.

    Theological translations in English are tricky because the history of our language is largely Protestant, and certain very Western. Thus, every theological word we have in common sometimes comes with baggage that may or may not be useful. I think it played a role in many jurisdictions choosing to render “theotokos” as “theotokos” rather than “birth-giver of God” or “mother of God,” etc. England uses Mother of God, I think. Most of the liturgical translations in England were done by the late Fr. Ephrem Lash. He was an interesting character.

    I once attended a symposium on Orthodox liturgical translations. Lash was on a panel with Kallistos Ware, Archbp Dmitri of Dallas, Fr. Paul Lazar and Fr. Paul Tarazi. The discussion was full of fireworks – of a beautiful sort!

    I would assume that when we ask the saints to propitiate God on our behalf we are asking their prayers for our reconciliation and union with Christ, and the forgiveness of our sins. It’s much the same thing in the Church’s normal litanies, in which, for the living, we conclude the petition, “and for the forgiveness of their sins.”

    Have you read Fr. Patrick Reardon’s new book on Atonement (it’s only the first of 3 volumes)?

  83. Fr. John Whiteford Avatar

    The Hebrew word actually is not related to the Hebrew word for mercy. It is, however, related to the Hebrew word for payment, and ransom.

    We we pray that the saints would propitiate God, we are clearly not praying that they expiate God. This does mean we are asking for their prayers that we be reconciled to God, but “propitiate” is the way that would normally be translated.

    No, I have not read Fr. Patrick Reardon’s book on the Atonement. It is one of those books that I will try to get to.

  84. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Nice exchange of thoughts. Thanks.

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. John,
    The Hebrew word indeed for mercy seat is not related to mercy. However, I’m willing to take the LXX as well when thinking of doctrine. The NT writers were apparently reading the LXX rather than the Hebrew.

    Your original question was about translating a word in the Akathist. I’m hesitant to look for the Hebrew underneath the Greek. For one, the Greek writers themselves used a form of the word mercy in rendering the Hebrew term – I don’t second guess that decision. The consciousness of the NT and the early Fathers seem to me far more dependent on the LXX than the Hebrew.

  86. TC Avatar


    I’m sorry that your experience with your Episcopal church was poor, yet your singular background should not be a judgement of ALL Episcopal churches. We have have found that scripture, liturgy and wrestling with all matters of faith and life are encouraged in our Episcopal church. Our faith is strengthened as we partake in the sacraments, learn, love and try to follow Christ in all areas of our lives.

    (Nota Bene: I still love Orthodoxy; we were Orthodox for decades, and unfortunately, had to leave due to a very personal reason. I’m grateful for the priest and people of our former parish, and try to never speak against those good people. 🙂

  87. Fr. John Whiteford Avatar

    The LXX is of course in Greek, but it is still a translation of the Hebrew (except for some deuterocanonical books), and so if you want to talk about what the words used to translate the Hebrew actually mean, you need to start with the Hebrew.

    But if we focus on the Greek word, you can argue for expiation in some cases, but it is either expiation or propitiate. But the Greek word does not mean “place of mercy”.

    We are stuck to some extent with the word “mercy seat” when speaking of the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, but we should always clarify what that word actually means.

  88. Michelle Avatar

    Fr. John Whiteford,

    After reading your comments and your blog post I wish to ask, which do you find to be the proper way to view this payment, or ransom, in an ontological or forensic way? Or maybe both?

    Forgive me

  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr John,
    I think we might differ a bit on the Greek. The suffix “terion” generally carries the meaning “place of.” Hilasterion is “the place of mercy.” The place of mercy is the place where the atoning mercy takes place, etc. But place of mercy would, indeed, be correct, and is fairly normal as a rendering of hilasterion.

    I agree that the Hebrew should be considered. I am among those who treat the LXX as an inspired translation, certainly hallowed in its usage in the NT and the Church. My Greek is on fairly solid ground. It’s my primary training.

    One of the problems with both expiation and propitiation is that neither word carries much meaning in and of themselves. They both entail some sort of theory to explain what is meant by the word. The nice thing about “atonement” (since it is an English neologism made up for the very purpose) is its simplicity “at – one – ment” which is the best way, I think, to understand what takes place in our reconciliation with God, i.e. “Do you unite yourself to Christ?”

    It also renders the Hebrew fairly well, as I think you noted. “Place of atonement” would thus be a good rendering for “hilasterion.” Or so it seems to me. Gotta go. I’m on Eastern time here.

  90. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Fr Stephen,

    Are your beliefs in the next paragraph shared by all (the majority of?) the Orthodox faithful, or merely opinions allowed by Orthodoxy?

    Whatever hell is, it is not the willful torment of a human being by God for the purpose of satisfying His justice. The purpose of hell is not torment. God has no need to torment. If there is torment, God is not its cause. God is its cure.

    Thank you!

    I will go read Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology & Seraphim Rose’s The Soul After Death. Are they representative of the true Orthodox faith?

  91. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Terry, on your vital journey let me encourage you to calm your thoughts and practice parking your mind down in your heart- your personal center. Only there will Christ and the Holy Spirit meet and illumine you. If thoughts are allowed too much freedom to roam under the power of their own nervous energy we’ll find it almost impossible to find peace in God’s presence — that is, unless we are overtaken by grace like Saul on the road to Damascus. We’re not Saul but we can be illumined if we will be silent and wait for Him. In such prayer many questions may be answered or put to rest by revealed realities (mostly about us!) that our minds of themselves are incapable of grasping.

  92. Fr. John Whiteford Avatar

    The word in question is most directly related to the Greek word “ἱλασμός”, which is in fact the exact word used in 1 John 2:2, and if you look at the history of the use of that word in Greek, it means either “propitiation” or “expiation” — see the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 3, 310ff. The NRSV translates it there as “the atoning sacrifice” which works too. In Romans 3:25, the NRSV also translates it as “sacrifice of atonement”, which also works. The key idea is not simply that God is merciful, but that God is somehow made to be merciful… specifically by a sacrifice.

  93. Fr. John Whiteford Avatar

    Michelle, I view the payment / ransom to be a verbal image that points to a facet of the the whole truth of our salvation. I think emphasizing some images, and disregarding others distorts the whole picture we find in Scripture and Tradition.

    I’ll let St. Gregory Palamas do the talking here:

    “Man was led into his captivity when he experienced God’s wrath, this wrath being the good God’s just abandonment of man. God had to be reconciled with the human race, for otherwise mankind could not be set free from the servitude. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified and sinless priest” (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 124).

    “Christ overturned the devil through suffering and His flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim — how great is His gift! — and reconciled God to our human race” (p.125).

    “For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil’s tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)”( p. 128f).”

  94. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Thanks for your response, TC.
    My experience was long ago and is more of a reflection of the Episcopal church frequently encountered in those days–the church of the upper classes and those wanting to be identified as such. I gather that the church has attempted a lot to counter that old reputation and your witness here affirms that. But, as I write this, I am house/pet sitting for one of my brothers who, along with his wife, are life-long Episcopalians and are attending a “Benedictine” styled retreat for the week. He showed me the daily schedule they would be experiencing and one daily activity caught my eye: Scripture reading followed by “imaginative reflection” on those same readings. I thought “How very Episcopalian”. When at home, that same brother attends a weekly “Bible study” at his church. The priest attends the study but does not participate or moderate except to affirm that whatever anybody “feels” Scripture is saying to them is the right way to understand Scripture. It’s easy to mock this approach but one positive outcome is (as it was for me) that your head is not packed with rigid doctrinal/theological beliefs. Flimsy, personal feelings are easy to displace. For many former Protestants I know who are trying to grasp Orthodoxy it’s like a massive log jam in their heads. So when I express thanks that I didn’t learn anything as an Episcopalian I’m not being facetious. Reading the back and forth between Fr. Stephen and some of the commentators trying to understand what he’s saying wears me out. I’m really and truly grateful I’m not burdened with all that clutter. What a lot of work having to break up that log jam in your head just so you can actually begin to live the journey awaiting you on the other side. Having said all that I have to admit that I’m truly envious of friends who can locate something in scripture by the simple expedient of slipping their finger into the Bible at just the right place and doing so with amazing accuracy. Of course it’s a lot easier to do if you’ve spent your life reading Scripture. So there is that.

  95. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Dear Fathers, respectfully, from someone who knows no Greek:

    The saving sacrifice is of God Himself toward us.

    He does not change. He changes us by slaying death and uniting Himself to our corrupted nature. In this act He invites us to follow Him in sacrificing ourselves toward others He loves, even toward our enemies.

    God wants sacrifices because that’s how the living gift life to the dying and dead. We too are broken and distributed.

    He does not want sacrifices for appeasement or satisfaction. That is the god of Marcion or Muhammad.

  96. Fr. John Whiteford Avatar

    Michael, we are talking about what the words mean. There are all kinds of statements about God in Scripture that St. John Chrysostom would say fall into the category of condescension… namely, that God condescends to speak to us in terms that we can understand, but which are not to be taken in overly literal ways.

    Christ gave Himself as a ransom for many. That means something. It does not mean a ransom was paid to the devil, nor does it mean that God’s wrath had to be satisfied. But it does mean that his sacrifice was not without cost, and it also suggests that that sacrifice was necessary. It is also clear that he, in some sense, died in our place.

    Again, St. Gregory Palamas makes it clear:

    “For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil’s tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)”( p. 128f).”

    If we think we understand Orthodoxy better than St. Gregory Palamas, chances are good we are wrong.

  97. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    I have my thoughts under control. I regularly ‘practice’ the Jesus Prayer. And I have been at this Orthodox study for two years.

    Thanks for your concern for me. It is greatly appreciated.

    If I weren’t in my ‘right’ mind, I would not have exposed so much of myself personally.

    Thanks for your concern.

  98. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is very important to see what St. Gregory says and what he does not say. He does not describe wrath as a righteous justice that must be satisfied. Instead it is a wrath that was “God’s abandonment of man.” This echoes Romans 1 where God “gives the idolaters over to their own lusts.” And then St. Gregory describes us as in bondage to the devil. The sacrifice cleanses us and frees us, but it is not done to satisfy the wrath of God. I see this passage as an extended use of the ransom theory of the atonement, certainly not the PSA. The sacrifice is Christ’s own entrance into death to free us from servitude to the devil and death.

  99. Michelle Avatar

    Hi Terry!

    How can one be wrong and still please God? I think there may be an array of ways to answer this depending on how you take the question.

    But I will answer it this way (this is actually a modified comment I made a few weeks back concerning a different topic, but I think it works for our topic too):

    The Saints of the 3rd century, who championed the articulation of the Trinity, and the Nature of Christ, did so due to their illumined hearts. They were the few who almost all would agree were truly right, of whom God is well pleased. But possessing correct knowledge is not enough to be pleasing. These men did not please God by possessing and proclaiming true facts alone.

    I can imagine myself as an Orthodox Christian who mentally assents to the truth of the Trinity, Nature of Christ, and Nicene Creed, as well as all other truths concerning God, and yet, all the while,harboring a darkened heart of self-love and pride, refusing to truly live a life of sacrificial love.

    Simultaneously, I can imagine a young mother in Venezuela, lost to some heretical version of Christianity, or maybe even a pagan delusion, and yet living the ultimate ascetical life of sacrificial love -helplessly watching her children starve to death in the hands of a oppressive government, and yet never failing to lift them up in constant prayer, with a humble spirit, while always giving heartfelt thanks to her Creator. 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 true knowledge.

    We both know that the young women was wrong about many important Orthodox truths; while myself, the arrogant Orthodox Christian, was quite right about great many things. And, yet, we both know it is not I who will be the one joining Christ at His table with His Saints, being found to be well pleasing.

    It’s not that true dogmatic knowledge is unimportant. The 3rd century Saints thought it was quite important for the salvation of our souls. And it is. But God is working towards the salvation of all people, at all times, in all places. And in my illustration His grace was wondrously effectual in saving a poor Venezuela mother, making her to be well pleasing in His eyes.

  100. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    I really like the discussion going on between the two priests.

    Please, carry on.

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