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


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

  1. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    What a pretty name.

    My wife is not Orthodox, and it looks like I won’t be either, at least for quite awhile. My wife and I have been married 46 years. While she is anti-Orthodox, she is not at all anti-Terry.

    The width and the depth of Orthodoxy boggles the mind. When I think I understand something, I read/study more and realize I don’t really understand much at all.

    I suppose that is what attracts me, at least one of the things.

    Again, thanks

  2. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Understand, my friend, that becoming Orthodox is a process. It does not come all at once and one grows in depth of understanding the longer we seek His Face and are within the fold of the Faith. A few years ago, I would have said I knew it all. I knew why I converted and what I thought was the a fullness of the faith. I discovered I was in the shallow end of the pool. I discovered that there is far more to the faith than I first knew.

    I understand your reluctance as one of being unsure that you can accept all that you have seen in the last few days. The good news is that we all have the same doctrine,we are just wrestling over how to view things best. The actual mandatory doctrines of the Church are few. You already accept them or you would not have come this far.

    We each grow at different rates and we will continue to grow now and unto the ages as we grow closer to and more like our Lord. You have come a long ways already. I pray that you will continue your journey.

  3. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, Nicholas,

    I am realizing that more and more.


  4. Don Wiley Avatar

    I am most pleased to find this writing, Father, I am currently reading “Ideas Have Consequences” by Richard Weaver. “Cliff Notes” type of summary is at

    And from that….

    The triumph of nominalism in the medieval debate proved to be “the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.”

    Occam left man with no higher authority for moral judgment than himself; universal terms became mere names arbitrarily created to serve our convenience. As a result, Weaver tells us, reality as it was perceived by the intellect was rejected in favor of reality as perceived by the senses. With this event, Western society changed course.

    From the denial of universals eventually came the denial of truth beyond anything
    transcending experience itself. Once truth was out of the way, nature became regarded as containing the principles of its own constitution and behavior, and so a careful study of nature came to be called science. The Aristotelian doctrine of forms and abstract universal concepts of perfection was discarded. With forms out of the picture, the doctrine of original sin perished next.

    After all, if physical nature is the sum total of existence and if man is natural, we cannot think of him as suffering from some innate evil—indeed, evil is a word now lacking meaning. Thus, if man is naturally good, his defects must spring from either ignorance or environmental deprivation.


    Weaver can be a little hard to follow. I have a friend online who has read the book four times. He claims that it is second to the Holy Scripture for creating his worldview.

  5. Karen Avatar

    I don’t know if this is correct, but I generally consider the Scripture’s language about God’s direct and active retributive punishment of sin, “hardening of hearts”, etc., as an accommodation to human modes of thought in the same way that the Scriptural references to God “repenting” of an intention or changing His mind is an anthropomorphism not reflecting metaphysical reality, but rather describing the effects of sin, and God’s refusal in His goodness to underwrite sin, on human experience. I think of the Bible’s propitiatory language in much the same way. It seems to me that to treat these anthropomorphic passages literalistically like moderns do (whether modern liberals who think that’s simplistically what the text means and reject its teaching for that reason or modern Fundamentalists who embrace it) has some pretty serious problems and is a hindrance to the clear teaching and proclamation of Christ and the gospel in the modern era, not merely because of the modern heretical baggage attached to it, but also because of the heresies about the nature of God and of salvation this will tend to create in the modern mind.

  6. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    I recall hearing somewhere that the Scripture esp the NT is a verbal icon of Christ. I understand icons to be gateways or windows into a deeper reality, but not necessarily true in every single aspect – or at least not ‘literally’ true. For instance even icons of our blessed Lord show nail marks in His hands, when it is well known that the Romans crucified their victims through the wrist area (hands could not support the weight of a person). Does this make the icons false and the Church corrupt? Some might think so, but they’d be missing the deeper truth while insisting on some absolute literal presentation of ‘fact’.

    In the same way I believe parables about hell etc. need to be understood as not 100% literally true. The point Father makes is well taken in light of this understanding, I would venture to say. That there are, for example, those whom are parabolically told to depart does not necessarily entail that it is God condemning them – it may well be their own heart judging them. That and their desire to remain, as it were, may not be too sincere – they presume on God’s mercy rather than humbly ask for it.

    Love is the interpretive lens. Love does not punish other than to bring correction unto life. Any reading of Scripture which would suggest otherwise is a terrible misreading and misrepresentation of our Heavenly Father.

  7. Alan Avatar

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


    Have you ever heard of John Piper, John MacArthur, James MacDonald, Mark Driscoll. My rebuttal to your point is that every church I’ve ever been in (Orthodox, RC, and somehow even the Protestants) thinks they are the only ones who are right.

    The difference is, the O are old enough to recall when they were the only Church.

    Here’s my analogy. We see the color green. But a group comes along and slowly changes the shade. And each generation after them slightly changes the shade of green. After a few hundred years, they now have the color orange, but still call it green. Worse yet, when the original group that had the color green (and never changed the shade) comes around, they scream at them “how dare you call your color green and how dare you claim you alone have the color green!”

  8. Alan Avatar

    @ MichaelPatrick,

    Thank you for your comments in this thread. As a former Calvinist myself, your comments have been most helpful and encouraging to me.

    Thanks again!

  9. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    I sure like your example of the color green. It makes sense.


  10. Byron Avatar

    becoming Orthodox is a process

    I have found it very helpful to not overindulge in my reading selection. When I first was learning of Orthodoxy and first became Orthodox I read quite a few books. I now find it better to slow my reading down and read books with a “more Orthodox mind” instead of a slant towards apologetics and theology. I am currently reading Laurus and it is wonderful. My brain gets to relax and yet still be immersed in something that brings me into a right worldview. Just my thoughts.

  11. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    It seems to me a person’s reading grows as he grow.

  12. Reid Avatar

    Do the Fathers ever take the account of David and Goliath as a type of Christ’s victory over death? Goliath challenges Israel to send a champion to face him in single combat (like Peter and Miraz in Lewis’s “Prince Caspian”). The armies are then to take the outcome of that combat in place of the battle the armies would have fought. Thus David becomes a substitute for Israel, but as a champion, not an object of punishment.

  13. Mako A. Nagasawa Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! I wrote an exegetical piece on Leviticus 16 arguing that God was acting like a dialysis machine: taking Israel’s impurity and giving back purity. If you have the time, I’d value any thoughts:

  14. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Wow, Mako,

    What a website and what a blog.

    Thanks for sharing.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very interesting. I like how seriously you’re working with the concreteness of everything…including Temple furniture, etc. The juridical view just falls apart when it comes to furniture!

  16. Justin Avatar

    Temple Furniture:

    Interestingly, it was in doing a paper on this topic – the Temple furniture as types of Christ – that I was brought to the realization of Mary. I kept noticing that Christ kept referring to Himself as the things contained within the Temple furniture, and not the furniture itself. John’s Gospel especially presents this (not surprising, given who he was upon encountering Christ). He is the Lamb, but not the altar. The water of life, but not the laver. The Bread of life, but not the table of showbread. The Light of the world, but not the lampstand. The Breath of life, but not the altar of incense. The clay Tablets of God’s Word, the Manna from heaven, the Branch (Rod of Aaron) – but not the Ark containing them. The Glory of the Father, but not the cherub-ed Mercy Seat.

    I began to notice that the Temple Furniture was the concrete, physical containers for all the things Christ said Himself to be. Which left it rather obvious as to who the Temple furniture was!

  17. Karen Avatar

    Reid, I love your example of David and Goliath. It is exactly in this way, as our Champion, that I have thought of Christ as the first Adam’s “substitute.” This would be an Orthodox understanding of substitution, IMO. I believe this is also an important aspect of “recapitulation” in the Fathers.

  18. Karen Avatar

    Beautiful images, Justin! Thank you for that. There’s a whole article on the place (and holiness) of the Theotokos and, by extension, the whole Church as the Body of Christ in your comment it seems to me.

    Also, I’m reminded of Christ’s words to the Pharisees about swearing by the altar vs. swearing by what is on the altar in terms of which sanctifies which (Matt. 23:18-20), the implications of which in light of the observations in your paper ought to be a scandal to Protestants denying the holiness and power to sanctify of the Theotokos and the Church! The holiness of the Theotokos and the Church comes from the Presence of Christ within her, but we and our gifts to God are, in turn, sanctified by the Theotokos and the Church as channels of the very Presence of Christ upon which we are fed in her embrace.

  19. Karen Avatar

    Mako, your articles look like an excellent resource. Thanks for sharing that link. Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancy in their books, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made and In His Image? They look at the model of physical disease and health and its implications for what the Scriptures teach about the nature of sin and spiritual life and health and at the Scripture’s use of the parts of the body and its systems as analogies for spiritual realities such as the cleansing and vivifying properties of Christ’s Blood and Christ’s Headship of the Church. In Protestant fashion, it treats these Scriptural images as metaphorical only and doesn’t make the kind of link to the sacramental nature of the Church that an Orthodox would, but the material there is still rich for reflection and the books show how organic and medical analogies make much more coherent and richer sense of the gospel than that of the cosmic courtroom.

  20. Oscar Avatar

    Wonderful, thank you. Reminds me of the law being the shadow of Christ. Col 1:17.
    The deeper the grasp of the ontological the deeper the freedom in Christ I find. Thank you for liberating the word propitiation for me.

  21. Michelle Avatar

    Mako, and anyone else interested,
    I left a lengthy comment on your blog. Its awaiting moderation right now, I think. But I really enjoined your blog, thanks! It got my brain going!

  22. Mako Nagasawa Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I had reason to return to your blog and the comments. Thank you for your graciousness. If I might trouble you, I’d love your thoughts on this deepening of the previous interpretation of the sacrificial system. I believe we can see that the whole annual cycle, with the horizontal movement of the high priest into the holy of holies, is a “recapitulation” of Moses’ vertical movement up Mt. Sinai. I also found corroboration from Irenaeus, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and Pseudo-Macarius. I think this weighs even more heavily against those who try to read legal-forensic-penal meanings into the sacrificial system:
    Thank you kindly. A blessed Lent to you.

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