Orthodoxy, Systematic Theology, and Music

I have heard it said, numerous times, that Orthodox Christianity “does not do” systematic theology. Having done my graduate studies in systematic theology, I occasionally bristle at the comment, particularly when those making it have never actually studied the subject. It is true that Orthodoxy does not do “systematic” theology, as such, but the statement can be quite misleading, implying that there’s no place for systematics in Orthodoxy and that studying it is a waste of time (and un-Orthodox). So, here is a small tutorial in the topic.

The assumption behind systematic theology is that the universe is actually a “uni-verse” – that is, it has a unity throughout. The laws of physics that apply in this corner of the universe are the same laws that apply everywhere else. This also means that if you find laws elsewhere that contradict the laws you understand to apply where you are, then you need to re-examine your understanding. You do not have the complete story on your present circumstance.

In science, if you come across a new species of tree, you can study it to see what makes it unique. However, you will also assume that, since it is a tree, it will share most of the characteristics of other trees. If it doesn’t, either it isn’t a tree, or our understanding of trees needs to be revised.

This consistency and stability across creation is what is meant by “system” in “systematic theology.” If, for example, I say that “God is good,” and then something comes along that would seem to contradict that, then something about the statement “God is good” needs to be revised. Or, perhaps, I am misunderstanding the contradiction. What is “systematic” in such an approach is a reasonable expectation that a statement made in one place will not be contradicted in another. So, when reading a “systematic theology,” consistency and cogency are important measurements.

When I was studying systematics, one of our seminars required us to read about a dozen different, so-called, systematic theologies, from across a very broad spectrum. I recall someone presenting a paper on the doctrine of God in the writings of the radical feminist Catholic, Rosemary Radford Ruether. When the student finished reading the paper, there was a dead, stunned silence in the room. Finally, a sheepish voice piped up, “Isn’t that the Force in Star Wars?” We broke out in laughter because it was precisely what she had articulated. It might make for interesting reading, but it certainly could not be called “Christian.”

Orthodox theology is not studied or written in the manner of Protestant systematics. Orthodox thought is largely what has been traditioned and is drawn from the Fathers and our liturgical life. Protestant theology is often more ideologically driven, departing from and dismissing major portions of tradition. They are simply not the same thing. But, having said that, Orthodox thought is not devoid of system. Thinking carefully about that is, I think, worthwhile.

The first eight centuries in the life of the Church were a time when doctrine and theology were being expressed and argued in a manner that has not been repeated since. I do not think it is correct to describe the process as a “development of doctrine.” However, there was a very careful development of vocabulary. And, in that vocabulary, we can see something of a “system” being articulated.

When the First Council of Nicaea met, the greater debate centered on the use of the word “homoousios” (“one essence” or “one being”). The word did not meet with instant acceptance because it had once been a term favored by the heretic Paul of Samosata who used it to teach a form of “modalism.” The debate raged through the remainder of the century with councils and counter-councils and imperial interference and endless rangling. The work of the Cappadocians (St. Basil the Great, his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, St. Gregory the Theologian) succeeded in defining and refining terminology such that a consensus prevailed in the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I). It gave us the Creed in its present form. What they gave us, more importantly, was a growing consensus on vocabulary.

Slowly, as the centuries moved along, the common vocabulary of dogma found expression in the public teaching of the Church. This meant that words such as, “being,” “person,” “nature,” “energy,” “will,” etc., meant the same thing whenever they were used. Thus, when speaking of “person,” or “hypostasis,” the word came to mean the same thing whether it was referring to the persons of the Holy Trinity or human persons. All of that might seem easy now, or even obvious, but it was not so when all of those conversations began.

It is surprising for some to realize that St. Athanasius, who first introduced the term “homoousios,” might have had a slightly different understanding of the term than it came to have later in the century when it was reaffirmed at the Second Council. To see that requires a much deeper and more careful study of Patristic thought than is commonly done. The development of vocabulary, for example, is the reason why St. Cyril of Alexandria is given a pass for using the term “nature” (“physis”) in a manner that would later be described by the term “person” (“hypostasis”). The refusal to accept a developing and changing vocabulary in this instance resulted in the schism with the so-called “Monophysites,” who probably would be more accurately described as “Cyril-ites.” The “system” that was found in working out common meaning for technical terms required an agreement that clearly failed in the case of that early schism. Language matters.

All of this came to my mind recently during a social media conversation regarding atonement theory. The doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (that Jesus was punished for our sins to appease the wrath of the Father) was the topic. I have been quite critical of the theory and was being taken to task with examples of the use of “punishment” and “substitution” found, on occasion, in the writings of the Fathers. Perhaps I overstate the case when I say that I do not find it to be “Orthodox.” I will clarify.

What I find is that it is a theory expressed in terms, images, and language that seem to fall outside the vocabulary that I have generally seen to be normative in Orthodox writings (including those of the Fathers). When reading St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, it is quite common to hear the problem of sin described in terms of “being” and “non-being,” rendered as “life” and “death.” Something of the same can be seen in St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione. This pattern and vocabulary can be found throughout the Cappadocians, perhaps because they seem to be particularly attentive to language and consistency.

I have found a consistent vocabulary and use of imagery in the theme of life/death, being/non-being, communion/disintegration, etc., in thinking about how it is and what it means when we sin, and how it is and what it means that we are saved. It is possible to describe and think about these things in a consistent manner, such that when we speak of Christ’s incarnation, of our bondage in sin and death, His death on the Cross and His resurrection, as well as the sacraments of Baptism into His death and resurrection, and the Eucharist as communion in His Body and Blood, and so forth, a common vocabulary and understanding unite them all. For myself, this consistency has been common to my treatment of the atonement across the board.

Though it is possible to find isolated uses of penal imagery in the early Fathers, it nowhere seems to rise to the level of a common vocabulary extending throughout their work, much less becoming the basis for how we speak about asceticism, spirituality, or, the doctrine of God. Thus, when I describe it as being “not Orthodox,” I mean that it sounds “out of tune.”

The imagery of music, of a symphony, is quite apt when thinking about the whole of theology. There are many instruments in a symphony, each with varying shades of tonality and range of pitch. First, all instruments have to be “in tune,” so that what is “A-440” for one is the same for all. Second, comes the music itself. It is written in a single key (I’m sure that somebody has written a modern symphony with instruments playing in different keys – though, if it is taken far enough, we pass from music to pure noise). If you’re playing Beethoven’s 5th (which is written in C minor), and, fifteen measures into the performance the brass sections begin to play in E flat major, the result could be quite interesting, but less pleasant, and perhaps disastrous.

This, for me, is something of the effect of hearing an Orthodox priest teaching the atonement in the key of penal substitution. I feel as though Calvinists have stormed the auditorium and taken over some section of the orchestra. It can be defended by citing some place or other where such imagery was used on occasion. But the overall result is quite jarring, often creates confusion, and risks becoming a disaster. It can be done – but should you want to?

Orthodoxy has a two-thousand year history. It’s history does not begin in the mind of a systematic theologian. As such, we cannot describe it as “systematic theology.” But, if you listen carefully to the music of theology over those many centuries, certain themes sound clearly, while others seem to appear, and, just as suddenly, disappear. Music is not engineering. For me, it makes music a better analogy for theology.

I suspect that among my failings (if it be such) is a love for a symphony in a single key (with proper modulations and relative key changes). If it is possible to write and teach theology with a consistency that allows the whole thing to be seen for its unity, then I think it produces a better result. This same tendency, I think, was present in the Cappadocians, and has recurred in other major figures such as St. Maximus. It is why they sound so much alike, in general, and while none of them sound like Calvin.

But this is music, and I well appreciate that others might see this (hear this) in a different manner.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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133 responses to “Orthodoxy, Systematic Theology, and Music”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Father, how much of this consistency is still being taught throughout Orthodoxy? Especially in the schools? I think of the RCC, whose theology has been distorted over a long period of time and wonder how much of what you say is truly understood throughout Orthodoxy. Do we run the risk of completely losing (or perhaps “replacing” or “redefining” would be a better word?) the grammar of our faith in the age of modernity?

  2. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Love the analogy. My Lutheran seminary days taught me all about engineering theology (I think it no coincidence Germans are famed for their engineering prowess)…but true theology, like music that has a nearly mathematical precision to it, must be ‘felt’ (noetically) much more so than ‘thought’ if that makes sense.

  3. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless,
    When I was in a Protestant Seminary (a very conservative one) we studied the root of doctrines prevalent in Protestant theology. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is based mostly on the work of Anselm’s work “Cur Deos Homo” in which Anselm argues the necessity of a penal sacrifice to atone for the egregious sins of man. I noticed something odd about his work. All of his concepts of the nature of the Divine were pagan concepts of how a god operates. Universally, his list of attributes that demand the sacrifice are utterly contrary to the nature of God reveal in His Son, Jesus Christ. Ergo, Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a pagan doctrine not a Christian one.

  4. Greg Avatar

    This was quite thought provoking and insightful – thank you. Some things may fail the philosophical test, but that is after all mostly a process of ex post facto rationalizations in theology for what someone already believes. The music analogy makes more sense in a way – it certainly provides a great deal of insight into what seems so jarring to me about the medieval doctrine of hell (not looking for a debate on that topic, just really jumped out at me reading your essay).

  5. Joseph Galiano Avatar
    Joseph Galiano

    Thank you Father! Very insightful. Is this why Orthodoxy more so focuses on apophatic theology?

  6. Gregory Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, this was a beautiful analogy. I think there is a lot we can draw from the world of music and art to describe much of our interaction with the thinking on this matter and often do so myself, as it is more easily relatable than purely abstract concepts.

    We are liturgical beings and, as such, “symphony” makes more sense than a set of numbered prepositions that must be defended using other prepositions.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Apophatic theology always reminds us that we speak about things that are beyond speech – being sure you have enough “roominess” in what you say.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nyssa says that “man is a musical composition.”

  9. Erice Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen. I loved the musical analogy.

    With respect to the ‘use’ of the Fathers to suggest penal substitution as Christian, what this suggests to me is something like the obverse of ‘the fly in the ointment’, or ‘the mote in the eye’. ‘Look! Here it is!’ as if a small instantiation of something means it must be ‘The Truth’. It seems to be a profoundly dead way of looking at things, that takes a disconnected element and makes it that which flavours the whole. I am reminded of Iain McGlichrists work on neurology and the making of the Modern World. The Modern world he suggests is the product of this ‘seeing things’, but not in relation. That is the world as seen only with the perspective of the Left hemisphere of the brain. This only ‘sees’ scattered fragments which we seek to put together to make sense of things, but lacks a Cohering framework, a musical key to use your helpful analogy.
    So the lack of relating is un-important if ‘evidence’ can be produced. He suggests that we have as it were been trained into seeing the world in non relatedness, and thus we might say a myriad of ‘truths’ shout angrily at one another (Penal Substitution of course is about Anger, which is a distinctly left hemisphere emotion). A fundamentalism of texts sets itself against Scripture, which is a Whole. So ‘bible texts’ are in isolation used to ‘prove’ something. So too it seems with the use of the patristic texts?

    Grace and Peace

  10. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Your blessing, Father! I am writing a paper on St. Maximus’ view of Christ’s atonement, asking whether he teaches PSA, at least in some sense. I believe he does. Did Christ suffer our penalty for sin in our place to accomplish our at-one-ment with God? Surely He did, for Maximus, in some sense. But as you write, he “sounds” nothing like Calvin. Christ suffered the consequence of our sinful passions and bore our penalty—death—in order to transform death, through His Passion, into a portal of Life.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, it’s like find an accident A-flat note in Beethoven’s 5th and declaring that perhaps it’s really written in A-flat.

    But – on a stronger note (no pun intended) – in my conversation earlier this week – the Council in Jerusalem (1672) – which was convened to refute certain errors of Calvinism that had found their way into the teachings of a Patriarch of Constantinople – incidentally affirmed the language of penal substitution. Thus, I was told, “It’s Orthodox dogma.”

    That entire council reads nothing like any Orthodox council that ever met. It’s written in a Protestant key. Indeed, it’s authority could be questioned. But, for me, it would still need to be translated (“transposed”?) into more common Orthodox language and imagery in order to be of much use. It’s most an historical oddity that points to the state of theological education in the 17th century under the Turkish Yoke. If you wanted to study anywhere, you went to Western Europe and studied with either Catholics or Protestants (which is how the Calvinist stuff came in – in the first place). For me, it simply cannot serve as a “touchstone” of Orthodoxy.

    But, this article was my effort to think through what it is that I find so problematic in all of this – and why.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here’s the rub. “Penalty of death” becomes, for many, the door through which “penal” imagery is inserted. If, instead of “penalty of death,” you read, “consequence of death,” then you find your way more clearly, I think. Why is the consequence (penalty) death? Is it arbitrary?

    It is not arbitrary – because God is Himself our life. When we break communion with God, then we move towards death. That is the imagery of St. Athanasius, and, I think, consistent in the writings of the Eastern Fathers for the most part. It is not juridical imagery – but ontological imagery. When you read Maximus on this point – read and think broadly – since almost everything he says is in an “ontological” key. See if that is helpful.

    Christ transforms death, because He Himself is life. There’s nothing juridical about that. It’s a matter of who He is.

    If you introduce the PSA – then you’ve made sin to be extrinsic – an action for which we are punished – and you need a punisher, etc. If you move all of that “within” us – and think in ontological terms – then you see that sin is “death at work in us.” It is not the work of an external punisher (God is not killing us) – it is our own broken communion that brings death to work in us. Death is not a “thing” – it’s a “not-a-thing” it is a movement towards non-existence – which is “me ontos” (relative non-existence) in Maximus.

    My caution is not to read PSA into something when it’s not there. Just the word “penalty” is not enough. Be cautious and wise. Good luck!

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If everything in St. Maximus sounds nothing like John Calvin, but, instead, sounds like Dionysius the Areopagite (to name but one example), why should we expect to suddenly hear him (and be correct) speaking like Calvin on the atonement? Look for the component elements. How does he speak of sin, over a wide range of his writing? What imagery does he use? Such thoughts are looking for the “theme” within the music of his writing.

    It was once widely acknowledged, even by Protestants (JI Packer for one) that you don’t find the PSA much to speak of until after the Reformation. Packer extols this as a virtue of Protestantism. But, things being what they are, today people imagine they can find it where no one else ever has. Listen to the whole of it.

    For what it’s worth – I do not even think it can be found in the Scriptures.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Well, neither of my parents were Christian, yet in a manner of speaking my brother and I were raised on and in an orthodox theological environment. My Dad was a local public health officer who achieved national recognition for his vision of caring for the health of his community. My mother was a contemporary dancer who trained and danced under Martha Graham.
    Boiling it down: my Dad taught an ecology of community as the interconnectedness of all live and the immediate environment and every other environment. Heal one part of that environment and that healing eventually manifested throughout.
    My mother taught rhythm, movement in space (interconnected to the other dancers), choreography and that all movement began in one’s “center” a physical/spiritual place in our bodies just below and behind one’s heart.
    All movement began there went out and returned there as each dancer responded to the choreography, rhythm, space, the audience and the other dancers in space and time.

    Once I met Jesus, I was not far from the Church. Neither was my brother.

    I have always felt Orthodoxy was highly systematic just not limited to rationalistic systems. It allows for actual life and the on going activity of God Incarnate, the music of the spheres and mystery most high and deep.

    It is both too complex to encompass with our finite minds and so simple as to confound “the wise”.

    It is revealed in love and humilty more than taught. Practiced and celebrated more than learned.
    Everytime any of us celebrates Divine Liturgy, we all do to some extent–each orgsanically connected in a living way with the very first one with the Apostles on the night in which our Lord was betrayed.
    God is with us!

  15. Chad Whitacre Avatar

    Father, bless.

    I think one of your main points here, that “there was a very careful development of /vocabulary/ [in the first eight centuries, and], in that vocabulary, we can see something of a ‘system’ being articulated”—I think this point can be made directly from the Fathers. St. John of Damascus, in what Chase introduces as “the first great /Summa/ to appear in either the East or the West” (v)—that is, /The Fount of Knowledge/ (c. 750)—states explicitly at the outset that his theology is founded on a philosophical vocabulary. Indeed, “[s]ince it is our purpose to discuss every simple philosophical term [φωνή], we must first of all know with what sort of terms it is that philosophy is concerned. So, we begin our discussion with /sound/ itself” (15). He is teaching us how to speak of God after the pattern of the Fathers. You can almost see him waving his hands in exasperation by the time he gets around to telling us that “[t]he Holy Fathers paid no attention to the many inane controversies” (56) surrounding the terms οὐσία and φύσις. He is much more concerned to expound to us the hypostatic union (103 ff.), through which the Son of God “redeem[ed] us from the tyranny of the Devil and by patience and humility teach[es] us to overthrow the tyrant. […] Well done, O Christ[!]” (338, 339). Well done, indeed! Glory to God!

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Would that I could remember everything I’ve ever read! Great quote.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If we think of “systematic” in terms of music – or “organic” like growing things – then we come closer to what “systematic” would mean when applied to Orthodoxy. But, having a deep sense of that “system” is, I think, essential in the acquisition of an Orthodox mind.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr Stephen, that has been my experience with the legacy of my parents. Both thought and acted in the context of “system” but were not limited by it.

  19. Eric Avatar

    Of course to weave the two together an organic system is a Life system. If we are accustomed to thinking in straight lines, then Life appears messy, but in the Life System, Beauty is manifested.

  20. Erice Avatar

    Arguably, Penal substitution is Ugly?

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It has certainly been used in an abusive manner from time to time.

  22. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I was going to bring up St John of Damascus who I believe helps to explicate the intended meanings of the Fathers, but Chad beat me to it.

    On Maximus, I’ve read a couple of papers (perhaps there are more) on Fr Aidan’s Eclectic Orthodoxy site, that make the argument that St Maximus was oriented toward (musically) a form of ‘Apocatastasis’ (I’m intending to indicate an interpretation) which one might argue would be difficult to construe to be leaning toward PSA. I haven’t seen PSA in his writing, myself, but haven’t tried to read him with that lens either.

    With the readings I have done, I’ve come across more writings that accompany melodically your tune, Father, than do not. As you say, they seem to be more consonant with a loving God.

    the Council in Jerusalem (1672) – which was convened to refute certain errors of Calvinism that had found their way into the teachings of a Patriarch of Constantinople – incidentally affirmed the language of penal substitution. Thus, I was told, “It’s Orthodox dogma.”

    That entire council reads nothing like any Orthodox council that ever met. It’s written in a Protestant key. Indeed, it’s authority could be questioned. But, for me, it would still need to be translated (“transposed”?) into more common Orthodox language and imagery in order to be of much use. It’s most an historical oddity that points to the state of theological education in the 17th century under the Turkish Yoke. If you wanted to study anywhere, you went to Western Europe and studied with either Catholics or Protestants (which is how the Calvinist stuff came in – in the first place). For me, it simply cannot serve as a “touchstone” of Orthodoxy

    I’m grateful for the heads up about this. I haven’t had conversations that hit on this key, yet. WOW!! But hopefully, I might be prepared should I encounter it in my conversations with other Orthodox Christians.

    It’s true I do encounter the occasional conversation with someone within the Orthodox Church who wishes to push PSA. (I’m not referring to a respected theologian here) But they tend to be converts who for reasons personal to themselves appear to be holding on to their former theology, as far as I am able to understand. As I’ve mentioned before, I think this is an example of a weak catechism.

    Nicholas Griswold, thank you for your contribution to this topic. I have read Anselm a very long time ago and have forgotten most of it. But appreciate your perspective on his writings.

  23. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    BTW, Father, you have enlightened me about the application on the usage of “systematic theology” in Orthodox contexts. This is an important lesson for me.

  24. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Sorry the last one for this evening. I’m guessing this image above is a picture of Byzantine chant or mode? Is it a part of the Divine Liturgy service? It’s beautiful to look at even if I don’t know what I’m looking at! I wonder how it sounds?

  25. Fr James Ellison Avatar
    Fr James Ellison

    Development of vocabulary vs. Development of Doctrine… on point I think

  26. Anonymo Avatar

    Thankyou Father for sharing your expertise in this wonderful post. It was a joy to read!

  27. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for your generous remarks regarding St. Maximus and penal substitution. I agree about death being the (un)natural consequence of sin, as we voluntarily or involuntarily put ourselves at a remove from Life. This is the fundamental ontological frame: an organic connection exists between sin and death.

    I would also suggest that death is the punishment for sin in Scripture and in Maximus. Death is the “wages” paid by God to the disobedient. The way God punishes sin, I think, is that God has woven such a consequence into creation itself. This doesn’t make sin-unto-death an impersonal cause-and-effect process, i.e. apart from Personal divine activity. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven…” It seems God Himself is wrathful against sinners, evinced by the fact that men indeed die. (Btw, I’m not arguing for a divine emotional fury but rather a foreknown response of Holiness to impurity.) Death is both an ontological consequence of sin and a Personal divine activity of the holy God.

    All men sin so all men die. Because death just is the wrath of God against sin, Christ, by voluntarily assuming our death, Himself bore the wrath of God. I realize this vocab cuts against the grain of much contemporary Orthodox language. But I find this teaching both biblical and patristic. I’ve seen the evidence from some (though not all) heavy-hitting fathers and saints. Indeed, Maximus uses the terms punishment, justice, and other juridical imagery frequently. My focus for the paper is Ad Thal 61, as a lens to understand the whole of his thought about the cross. In that text, Maximus holds out a form of PSA (quite distinct from the purely-forensic Protestant form) and even deems it “the gospel.” (!)

    I sincerely want to be honest with the evidence. I have no desire to bring theology from my years as a Protestant into my thinking as an Orthodox Christian, nor to find PSA where it doesn’t belong. When I became Orthodox, I was “all in”—perhaps swinging the pendulum too far at times. So, I am also wary of overreaction. My primary concern here is to understand, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” I believe a certain form of PSA, utterly overhauled with the ontological frame you mentioned, fits “systematically” with the paschal troparion. This is a much deeper version of PSA, thus revealing the shallowness and heterodoxy of the Protestant kind, and beckoning our Protestant friends to accept the fullness of the faith.

    Thank you again for your kind words, Father. I seek not to argue but merely to think out loud with you. Thank you for affording that opportunity!

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I am careful not to give too much weight to the language of punishment and wrath. There is, I think, a very mature theme in Maximus, Dionysius, Isaac of Syria, etc., in which death-as-punishment is also death-as-healing. It is not punishment in a penal sense – retribution – but an application of medicine whose sole aim is our healing and salvation. The problem with misunderstanding punishment (as the PSA does, I think) is to suggest a situation in which Christ is saving us from the Father’s wrath. God is not our problem. Even death, to a certain extent, is not our problem. It is death-as-broken-communion-with-God that is the problem. God made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of Christ. Christ does not take my punishment away – but He enters into the punishment – our sin and death – that even in our sin and death – we might be united with Him. And, thus united with Him, we also become united in that which is His – His righteousness.

    Frankly, this is not the punishment language or metaphor of the PSA. I wrote an article back in 2013 suggesting thinking about this as “therapeutic substitutionary atonement.” I think it fits much better than a “penal” model.

    For myself, I do not see the PSA in the Scriptures. I think it depends too much on later Germano-Roman notions of the nature of punishment that is not part of the NT world. As far as I know – there were no Jewish prisons. In certain places within Jewish writing during the 2nd Temple period, Gehenna is purely therapeutic, for example. There are some hints of this in the gospels.

    What I find interesting in exploring the PSA in Patristic material – is that this seems to be a rather modern thing – looking for something that had been distinctly Western and not a common theme in Orthodoxy. Any number of major Orthodox thinkers have, for quite some time, taught and held that it is, for the most part, absent in the Eastern Fathers. Again, good luck.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen, note that in Ad Thalass 61, pain is added to pleasure providentially – which is not at all the same thing as punishment. I haven’t got the full text in front of me, but this small point seems to accord with what I commented above.

  30. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen, I appreciate the responses. The fact that, for Maximus, “pain is added to pleasure providentially,” is what I meant above when I wrote that God has woven such a consequence into creation itself. It’s a cause-and-effect schema that is integral to Maximus’ Orthodox perspective. And yet, I still think he understands this as punishment from God on sin. Thus, when we suffer pain and death because of sin, we experience God’s wrath. This kind of death is the type you mentioned: death-as-broken-communion-with-God. But when we suffer pain and death voluntarily—not because of sin per se but willing suffering and dying with Christ—death becomes our salvation, because Christ has led the way with *voluntary* suffering. He did not have to die because He did not sin. By dying voluntarily, he transformed our punishment for sin into a saving self-offering to God in which we can participate. We suffer and die *involuntarily* as sinners, because pain naturally follows pleasure….until through baptism and the pursuit of virtue we *voluntarily* share in Christ’s death. As you know, the will plays a major role in Maximus’ Christology. This is how I see it working out concerning his view of atonement.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen, I understand. However, it is the fact that this consequence is intrinsic rather than extrinsic that I prefer speaking of it as consequence rather than punishment. A hallmark of much of Protestant thought is its tendency towards extrensic treatments. The “mystical” nature of Orthodoxy always tends towards the intrinsic character of things. This, I think, is a good reason to write and think in a way that makes a clear distinction. I do not think it is possible to speak of Maximos holding a Penal Sustitutionary view of the Atonement, and, at the same time to say that Calvin hold one. They do not hold the same thing. I think it distorts Orthodoxy not to be clear about this.

    The will plays a major role in M’s Christology – but not necessarily a major role in our salvation. Christ does not have a gnomic will, whereas, almost everything we experience of the will is the gnomic will – a result of the fall and the disintegration of the soul.

    Do you have any way to access Fr. Maximos Constas? If you ran your thoughts past him I suspect it would be a great benefit. He is probably the best living scholar on Maximos. I know a number of people who have studied with him. He’s at Holy Cross seminary in Boston and I’m sure he’s quite approachable.

  32. Jo Lynne Avatar
    Jo Lynne

    Love your symphony imagery — I have that same reaction when our priest inserts Roman Catholic theology into his homilies. It clashes, and I cringe. …

  33. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thanks again, Father. A wonderful reminder about the “mystical” nature of Orthodoxy and it’s bent to the intrinsic. I certainly agree. And I definitely agree there’s no univocal reading of PSA in Maximus and Calvin. “They do not hold the same thing.” Absolutely concur.

    I would respectfully disagree concerning the role of the will in salvation for St. Maximus. Maybe just to clarify my last comment, the voluntary disposition of the human agent makes all the difference. For Maximus, pain, suffering, and death are the natural consequences of sinful pleasure. For people who resist God, these realities are experienced as punishment in an involuntary way, i.e., these people don’t freely embrace pain and death; rather, pain and death are forced upon them, involuntarily.

    But to those who undertake them voluntarily, as did Jesus, pain and death become medicine. They are not a healing cure for all, but only for those who freely participate in Christ’s voluntary suffering and death. Voluntary participation in His Passion (suffering) is what activates the saving efficacy of pain and suffering. Pain, suffering, and death are not automatically sanative, but must be embraced freely, voluntarily, in union with Christ. And not everyone does this. To some, death remains punishment without purgation, for they refuse to follow the Savior and embrace it willingly. This is the doctrine of the Second Death.

    I have read several works and translations by the hand of Fr. Maximos Constas, but I’ve never contacted him personally. He seems to be a tremendous scholar and a faithful interpreter of the saint. Thank you for the recommendation. Regarding current scholarship, I’ve just started reading Deification through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation, the latest by Khaled Anatolios. I am still in the introduction, but already he has highlighted a certain “penal” aspect of Nicholas Cabasilas’s atonement theology. His point, thus far, is that all the “models” can teach us something. Maximus makes a showing later in the work, but I haven’t read it yet.

    I really appreciate the conversation, Father. I pray you have a blessed evening.

  34. Nikolaos Avatar

    Fr Stephen

    Fr John Romanides emphasised that there is no similarity whatsoever between “the uncreated and the created”. In fact it is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive him.

    Our theology uses created words and symbols to describe the divine reality. Was it St Maximos who said apophatically that God is neither a Father, nor a Son, nor Love, nor Light …but all these are true statements of our Saints’ experience of God, which nevertheless cannot really describe Him ? They are our created reality symbols to describe His revelation, but He remains incomprehensible.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are questions I would have put to Fr. Romanides. For example, icons, or the iconic relatioship between creation, which is sustained, and to some extent, is an expression of the Divine Energies (which are uncreated). I just have never found Fr. John to be all that helpful for me – nor have I always found him trustworthy theologically. I read him, but with some hesitancies. And that’s ok.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    One of my reasons for a “soft-reading” of the voluntary aspect of salvation is because of the distortion of the will in people – certainly everyone I’ve ever met. Again, modern Protestantism has a very simplistic take on the will, often creating a very false voluntarism. Our modern culture imagines that “we can be anything we want to be,” and, concomitantly, blames people for their failures in life. It’s a great philosophy for the worst forms of capitalism – it’s darker side.

    Much of this is extremely pastoral for me. I’ve seen more damage done to people through the abuse of a false voluntarism. It creates and nurtures shame and fails to dig into the depths and core of a darkened soul. Much of the take that I have on things – including how I work at reading them – is rooted in both my personal experience of the spiritual life (meager though it is), and especially seeing what works and doesn’t work in real people.

    The monastic life, to a certain extent, is a living laboratory. To read something in a “churchly manner” means to read it with a constant eye to the salvation of all. So, if I seem to put a thumb on the scale from time to time, it’s because I’ve seen so much damage done. Academic work often takes place in a bit of a vacuum – or it can. One of the reasons I left the academy and returned to the parish was because, in the long run, a parish is what theology looks like.

  37. Michelle Garrison Avatar
    Michelle Garrison

    Really great thoughts here…more than I have the abiluty to fully take in. My first knowledge of Orthodoxy actually occurred during my Master’s degree in Education while questioning the nature of the child which lead me to questions on original sin and total depravity…terms I’d learned from my Protestant background. One reason why I lean towards Orthodoxy now has to do with my many years of experience disciplining real children (20 years) as a parent and teacher. With my early Protestant theology, I seemed to create results less desirable in behavior management because of how I dealt with sin in children. As I have become what I feel is more Orthodox in my thinking, my methods of discipline and instruction appeared to better “jive” with the reality of each child’s human nature. God has taught me so much theology through my profession as an educator and role as a mother in a large family. The poster’s comment about growing up in a family that was not Orthodox but was Orthodox in their thinking made me think of these things and how Orthodox Christian thinking appears to be something you cannot just “learn,” but you have to experience it or “breathe it in,” so to speak.

  38. Andrew in BG Avatar
    Andrew in BG

    Dear Father,

    What are your opinions, concerns or critiques of Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s writings on the atonement? Volume 2 is soon to come.

  39. Dino Avatar

    I remember I had a long conversation, perhaps even an ‘argument’, yet in love, and fondly-recollected, elated empathy, with Fr Maximos –late into the night in Simonopetra–, years ago. We started by, one (I don’t even recall who anymore) saying ‘you can’t love one you do not know’ and the other saying, ‘you can’t know one you do not love’, and half way through, sort of convinced each other and swapped positions to go on to argue the exact reverse(!). It is, of course, a strange (and perhaps philosophically/semantically loaded) issue, however, key is exactly what you say, the extrinsic/intrinsic approach towards it all, and the role of whatever freedom/will is apportioned to man.

  40. Anonymo Avatar

    Thankyou Michelle, for your insightful comment. It makes me feel better for the time I have spent understanding both ‘non Christian’ philosophy and psychology at the expense of theology. Now I can unite a lot of those insights with the deeper backbone of Orthodox truth. Aren’t we able to truly know God in all aspects of creation by the aid of his Spirit?

  41. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    For people who resist God, these realities are experienced as punishment in an involuntary way, i.e., these people don’t freely embrace pain and death; rather, pain and death are forced upon them, involuntarily.

    Owen, it seems to me this statement conveys PSA and adding modifiers as you attempt to do, doesn’t assuage the impact of the meaning of the words you’ve chosen: “force”, “pain” and “death” as an extrinsic imposition upon a person by God.

    Maximus describes the state (using Blowers and Wilkens translation) as a question: “.. how will he exist if he does not have God as his location itself, the only sure foundation of well being, which is in God?” Ad Thalassium 61.

    Fr Maximos Constas writes regarding the Transfiguration: Maximos Ambigua 10.77 who states that the Transfigured Christ became “a type and symbol of himself, presenting himself symbolically by means of his own self, and through the manifestation of himself leads all creation to himself, though he is hidden and totally beyond all manifestation” [the italicization is my emphasis]

    This is a note referring to the question, ‘why the Transfiguration’, and what its import is to creation.

    Fr Maximos writes,

    Christ’s death on the cross, was neither an isolated event nor a tragic derailment of his mission, but rather the revelation of the very form of his being. In this way, the self-emptying described by St. Paul is the realization in time of Christ’s eternal, self sacrificing love, for he is the “Lamb of God” who was “slain before the foundation of the world” and who “will continue to suffer, until the end of time”. [Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogy 24] The mystery through all time and space, of God’s presence and participation in the suffering of all living things makes the sign of the cross an affirmation of all that is, ever was, or shall ever be. In this way, the divine self-emptying becomes a foundational, indeed universal, principle, so that “whoever has understood the mystery of the cross has understood the essential content of all things”. [Maximos the Confessor, First Century on Theology 66]

    These passages make it difficult for me to read a God-exacted, extrinsically applied, punishment. To the best of my understanding it’s not there. And I can’t help but hear your interpretation as an over layer on St Maximus’ words.

    Nevertheless, I sincerely thank you, Owen, for your graciousness in your questions to Father Stephen. Not only have I benefited from Fr Stephen’s answers to your questions, but your questions encouraged me to go back to the texts I have on hand to review what I have read. My sources are: “On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: St Maximus the Confessor, Blowers and Wilken trans. And “The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography, by Fr Maximos Constas.

    I sincerely hope you might contact Fr Maximos, as Fr Stephen suggests. I believe it would be a fruitful conversation.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Indeed the gentle shared tussle with theology is a demonstration of our common quest for communion with God. In that same Spirit, I pray, I must say that the theology I prefer is the experiential type. Certainly the written theology is part safety net that allows for that exploration in safety but at the same time the best guide is apophaticism: being shown what God is not.
    It reminds me of the old story of the young man in ancient China who wanted to become a jade master. A renown master accepted him as an apprentice. On the appointed day, the young man went and presented himself to the master expecting to be taught about jade. Instead the master handed the young man a piece of jade, telling the young man only that was a piece of the finest jade and instructed his student to hold it in his hand. Then they talked about everything but jade. This went on for months. Finally the young man grew impatient and asked when the master would teach him about jade. The master told the young man to return the next day and dismissed him.
    The young man did return the next day, eager to finally begin. The master handed the young man a stone that looked like jade but as soon as the young man touched it, he cried out: That is not jade!

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think it’s an excellent book. The footnotes have many treasures in them especially. I keep it quite handy in my library. Glad to hear about volume 2! I was with him in Mississippi several years back, where he was giving a retreat for the clergy of my diocese. His knowledge of the Psalms – in at least three languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin) was amazing. There was one conversation in particular between Fr. Patrick and Archbishop Alexander (Golitsin) that was simply transcendent. Both great scholars and men of the Church – as they bounced off each other they took us higher and higher. Such joy.

  44. Gregory of Saint Spyridon's Avatar

    Just my humble, layman’s opinion, but I think Fr. Patrick Reardon is one of the brightest minds in The Church today and I wish he had a more recognized voice when it came to inter-faith dialogue. If I want someone who is Reformed to read something Orthodox, I point them to him or to Fr. Stephen de Young, both of whom understand the differences therein at a higher level than most, I’d argue.

    When I want to point people to something poetic that represents the beauty of Orthodoxy (and is still steeped in solid scholarship) and hits you in the heart and not just the mind, I bring them here. Just my two cents, of course.

  45. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I don’t know how familiar you are with N.T. Wright, but his book, The Day the Revolution Began is an excellent book attacking PSA in many ways and showing Christus Victor to be true. The atonement was was one of the most confusing topics coming into Orthodoxy because of my Calvinistic bent. The description of God requiring His wrath to be exhausted on sinners, and that Christ absorbing that wrath, seemed continuous with pagan thought when I started studying the pagan landscape of the NT because, the god was really pacified/satisfied temporarily when it was fed the sacrifice offered to it. I assume that the there was an apologetic use of this theme applied to Christ to show the superiority of Christ’s pacifying Divine anger for the sake of the elect. It’s easy to imagine an apologist working in that world and using the resources available describes Christ in a similar but superior way to the pagan sacrifice. My assumption has been, and now it is a conviction, that Orthodoxy kept the Jewish mind regarding atonement which was thoroughly anti-pagan.

    The Eucharist in many ways is a complete reversal of the pagan logic, “You don’t feed me, I feed you.”

    But I want to throw this out and see what you think. In the OT there are no sacrifices for actual moral sins, only punishments. But even here the punishment is not that wrath is filling a dam about to explode but justice is required. Now there are times in which the land is defiled and there is some anxiety about getting things back to normal, but you never pick up on that there is – a need – in God to release steam.

    It seems to me in the work of Christ that death’s reversal is the fulfillment of the ritual purity laws in the OT (which makes me wonder why we keep some of them but that doesn’t concern me much – no comment needed), the real baiting of Satan so that Death/Hades would be spoiled and more, but still left is how moral crimes are dealt with. I don’t mean to reduce Christ’s work to 3 things, just for space here. See, the penalty for most moral crimes was death, exile (type of death), not eternal damnation. You couldn’t give a sacrifice for your moral transgression. No animal ever suffered for you in the sense of being punished instead of you, took the beating you deserve. I don’t know if you have thought about it but PSA would never exist without OS/OG, not rationally anyway.

    I think this leaves open the real possibility that Christ did take our death penalty. In that sense, if you called it a punishment, it would be correct. I think the greater difficulty is defining punishment. If punishment is defined/conceptually thought of as a need in God, problem. If God can be bought, if God’s justice can be satisfied, with anything, even the precious blood of Christ, I think this is a problem because it implies that His righteousness is not stable. When does God’s anger towards sin ever go away? It doesn’t. It’s always mercy that we need as a remedy for sin but mercy doesn’t change God or take away His anger for sin. Mercy is a choice in God that He willingly exercises out of the goodness of His heart toward us. Punishment doesn’t secure this mercy only after the dam explodes and God can settle down. But, my point is, it may be very fair to say, when we define punishment correctly, that Christ died our death penalty. In this sense it is penal, but not vengeful. Reversing our death/unclean problem is completely monergistic, all are raised whether they want to be or not, here we can identify with the Calvinist’s concern for Christ alone and correct it. But reversing our moral sin problem, and our Satan problem, and our need for life, these operate with synergy.

    Such a key verse to me, “The times of ignorance God overlooked.” This always shocked me as a Calvinist. One year it was a memory verse for the kids in VBS and I thought, some secret Arminian must have smuggled this in. But, following Babel, the nations were engaged in rampant sin and idolatry and when it comes time to invite them in, as Babel is the reversal of Pentecost, overlooked. How is that just? Because mercy is greater than judgment. Repentance is the only thing that turns God’s face from our sins. The rest of the verse… “but now God commands that all men repent because He has fixed a day…” Really this passage from 22-32 outlines exactly what I just said. 24 and 25 is the reversal of pagan conceptions of God, God feeds us. 26 is Adam and the fallout of Babel, the allotment. 27 shows the intentionality of God for the Gentiles all along. 28 ignorance is now, as the movement of the Gospel goes out, over, and repentance is required. But also, there is nothing standing in the way of reception into the family of God. It’s grace filled. To me, these verses quickly condense our soteriology, a Biblical OT theology, into Christus Victor. All the blocks are out of the way, the Babel block, implied is Satan and heresy and idolatry, the death/unclean block (this is why the Gentiles were ‘dogs’, aliens, they were practically dead having no access to sacred space, etc.,), the only block left was to repent.

    I just say all of this because often we do not respond to the heresy of PSA in a convincing manner as our reliance on the Fathers makes it seem like we bypass Scripture. But I have full assurance that the Fathers were reading Scripture this way.

    I think the “out of tune” note is the one of not defining penal as death penalty. Christ doesn’t take the experience of eternal hell on himself. Christ doesn’t take the full weight of the wrath of God onto Himself. There is no connection to Leviticus in this way. There is no animal punished for sins in the OT. There is the curse motif though of the animal sent away and that is picked up in Hebrews where “outside the camp” we are to meet Jesus. But, where the NT supersedes, is that their is moral forgiveness. I hope you see what I mean, that once you put OS/OG back, punishment language will mean eternal hell/wrath, and Christ is the wrath absorber for the elect now. Take out the OS/OG and Christ suffers the penalty, which is death, for sin. There was no penalty for being unclean, this kept you out of sacred space, but there was provision. But no provision was made for moral sin. In the NT there is, Glory to God. Those who uphold the eternal wrath PSA must think of sin as always moral, and that our moral nature in Adam having been fully corrupted, leaves us deserving only wrath and from here imputation is needed, etc. They have ignored death as a problem, Satan as a problem, as death and Satan would add almost nothing to the fact that we would be in the same situation following Adam regardless. This is why I say to Reformed friends, take out Satan and death and how much would your soteriology change. Probably none. Why? OG makes you deserving of eternal wrath from the get-go following the fall from perfection. You have to assume perfection in Adam to get PSA also. Only a perfect creature, not one on a spectrum, can fully corrupt itself. A creature on a spectrum, on the way to theosis, is never fully corrupted. It’s the nature of perfection or non-perfection.

    I’m sorry for being so long but I feel that this apologetic against PSA is very hard to argue against and I typically don’t see it elaborated by very many Orthodox. Since my desire is for Reformed/Evangelical brother/sisters to come in, we must be able to answer the question of the atonement well and this was one question I had a very hard time answering. Again though, plug in non-perfect Adam, theosis, Satan, death, Babel —> Jesus, reversals, and atonement will not include PSA. Language about Christ suffering under the Divine will not be a need met in God but our need being met by God.

    I get worked up over this stuff.

    God bless you Father,

  46. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Meant to say, Pentecost is the reversal of Babel

  47. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee, thanks for the response. So glad the conversation encouraged your return to deeper reading. As I mentioned, my current focus is Ad Thalassium 61, which is included in the Blowers and Wilken volume. The primary translation I’m using is by Fr. Maximos Constas, in On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios (Fathers of the Church). His notes are superb. The Saint is quite clear that pain and death are imposed upon sinners against their will (involuntarily). Thus God does punish sinners. It seems HOW God punishes sinners is the interesting question here. There are intrinsic and extrinsic aspects to this. To completely deny the latter seems to deny the transcendence of God.

    I actually think St. Maximus teaches a River of Fire understanding of God’s judgement on creation, in which the divine Presence burns some while enlightening others, depending on their voluntary disposition (this is also endemic to Orthodox eucharistic theology). But this is just the point: the voluntary embrace of pain, suffering, and death (i.e. Fire) purges and purifies the repentant, while the involuntary experience of the same Fire punishes and destroys the unrepentant. For example, Maximus explains:

    “God is the sun of justice, as it is written, who shines rays of goodness on simply everyone. The soul develops according to its free will into either wax because of its love for God or into mud because of its love of matter. Thus just as by nature the mud is dried out by the sun and the wax is automatically softened, so also every soul which loves matter and the world and has fixed its mind far from God is hardened as mud according to its free will and by itself advances to its perdition, as did Pharaoh. However, every soul which loves God is softened as wax, and receiving divine impressions and characters it becomes “the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (1.12 Chapters on Knowledge)

    The same good God is experienced in two different ways. This is an account of how God punishes (and saves) sinners, and there are intrinsic and extrinsic aspects. Again, to deny the latter risks denying God’s transcendence—the Sun of justice who shines His rays on the just and the unjust. God eternally knows how His “rays” will be accepted (or not), and He still shines anyway; thus, we don’t just punish ourselves. Moreover, God acts in the world to save all, but the disposition of the human will finally determines the outcome. I hope that helps to clarify the issues a bit.

  48. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    I believe in St. Maximus the reason why he can call some passions blameless and others not, is that he understands the difference between being unclean and being sinful. Unclean and sinful are both liabilities for coming into sacred space, so they are referred to as sin, but there is a difference. If death motivates us toward survival, which is anti-faith, and we do not act upon it, we do not sin. Our uncleanness is still an issue but not following the Resurrection. When we act on our survival instinct and lose faith our passion is now blamable. There is no one now who is unclean, separated from sacred space, from being sacred space as temples of the Holy Spirit following the Resurrection. But the moral/heart issue is still there to be dealt with, and Christ taking our death, suffering it, defeating it, means Christ died our death, but also, transforming death, we die His death in Holy Baptism. Christ is our substitute, but not our eternal wrath bearing substitute, our death substitute, our moral crimes no longer requiring our own death provided we put to death the flesh by the Spirit. He is our uncleanness death, and our moral crime death, and our Satan-defeating death, and Life in His Resurrection, cleanness, forgiveness and conscience cleansing, our source for victory over Satan as He will be soon crushing Satan under our feet. What made the temple holy in the OT? God’s presence. But death in us kept us, imagining ourselves to have been in the OT, from our destiny of continual life in/as sacred space. This is over. Yet, death still motivates fear, and fear motivates survival strategy, and survival strategy at it’s peak is the consumption of pleasure. Death’s motivation is not sinful, it is blameless unless we entertain it. Once we do, it is blamable. So, St. Maximus, I believe, understands this and if he does, would not entertain anything like PSA in the West. God bless you.

  49. BeakerN Avatar

    Michelle – can you articulate what the difference was in your Orthodox beliefs about children that made the difference? I work with teenagers professionally & the whole original sin thing makes little sense of what I see, which contains a lot of goodness too, & no sense of what it means to be immature neurologically/physically/emotionally & thus imperfect, & to grow as part of a process which will involve a lot of moral immaturity & imperfection. I’m struggling to put into terms something about our humanity which is innately in-process which doesn’t sit well with black & white notions of sin.

    father Stephen I came across an old thread on one of your posts in which several people spoke of their experiences of scrupulosity & religious OCD, & I of course recognised myself.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that’s quite fair. I don’t mind being on the beautiful side of things. 🙂

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My problem with the death-penalty language – besides many obvious aspects of penal language – is that Christ does not die instead of us. We still die. He gets “inside” death, and explodes it from inside. In that sense, Christus Victor language is far more adequate and accurate.

    Interestingly, Fr. Patrick Reardon is quite clear that the PSA, as articulated in Anselm, was part of an attempt at apologetics with regard to Islam. Fascinating.

    I think view any of the OT sacrifices as something that “remove” sin misses the point. If anything, they are an effort to re-unite us to God, to establish a union that had been broken. All of the guilt/punishment language has a psychological tendency to really fail and, as often as not, make matters worse. But – fascinating topic.

  52. EPG Avatar

    Fr. Stephen: “(I’m sure that somebody has written a modern symphony with instruments playing in different keys – though, if it is taken far enough, we pass from music to pure noise)”

    Charles Ives did just that. Not only symphonic works, but also smaller scale works (both instrumental and choral). As to whether his work passed from music to pure noise, I will leave that to others . . .

    Ives’ music can be, at a minimum, disconcerting. However, I can say that I remember one choral piece I sang in high school (the text was that of an old New England hymn) that had a certain strange beauty.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Someone pointed out Ives to me in a Facebook conversation. Of course, Ives uses a different “key” but the key is a “relative” of the primary key in the music. That helps tremendously. I recall, as a child, the choir in my Baptist Church had a woman who sang alto, and was always “about” a half-note flat. Ives would have cringed – as did the whole congregation each Sunday.

  54. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    I appreciate your response. You state, “Christ is our substitute, but not our eternal wrath bearing substitute…” I might add that if Jesus assumed the consequence of our sin, our death, then that is enough. Eternal hell is just the perpetuation of what God told Adam would happen if he ate the fruit. St. John calls hell the Second Death for this reason. Several Protestant friends of mine have argued that if Christ truly took on the penalty for our sins, He would have taken on the divine wrath of eternal hell. But it’s enough that He died on the cross as Theanthropos, for the wages of sin is death, even in the eternal state.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but much of this just sounds like Calvin imposed on Maximus – or Maximus read in a Protestant key. It’s hard to argue about it – there’s this word and that word, and this thing over here. Something, however, is missing. That, I think, is about as vague a critique as I’ve ever uttered. But, it is what it is, and is probably very unhelpful.

    For one, your account of St. Maximus is very “clean.” You could put it on a postcard. The “mystery of the Cross” which he speaks of as the key to everything – just seems flat. I’m not going to argue for a universalism here – but the Orthodox instinct toward that position (and I think that instinct is present and has been since the beginning) seems missing. Traditionally, in most cases, that instinct is stopped short of its consummation, but, to my own sensibility, if things do not “border” on that consummation, then they have not been rightly stated.

    The voluntarism you describe – are we really supposed to read so much into the use of a broken, gnomic will? What does God do towards the healing of the will? There’s just more to say. This seems too facile to me and falls flat.

    Is there anything, in reading all of Maximos, that adds any depth to this work of the will, that throws in a wrinkle or complication, or any such thing? Why do some find a universalism in Maximos? Have you really said all that there is to be said on this?

  56. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    My question would be, do we really die except in baptism? Doesn’t Christ die our death, so that we could die His death in Baptism, and live in His life in Resurrection sound right? We died with Christ, that is plain over and over, and we are in union with His death and Resurrection through Baptism, and benefit ultimately through fidelity. I’m not sure if you should re-read my OT comments, my point is, the OT sacrifices, all they could do is temporarily deal with your death, death the obstacle to the presence of God in the Temple. Gentiles are dead in this way because they lack the Covenant and are unclean, they are excluded though that is not God’s intention as we know. The Jews failed in this respect to be the light of the world. This is why Jesus angers them most when He speaks of the love of God for Gentiles. Jews were dead, but then had life, then death, then life, over and over. But sins, real moral offense, was never atoned for, only judged by exclusion, debt-repayment/restitution, or death (by and large). So, to uphold Christ as High Priest and to uphold PSA makes no sense if there is no precedent in the Sacrificial System. The motif of curse, yes, or maybe another, but not PSA if we mean punishment as vengeance. This is where the Calvinist scheme necessarily goes wrong, and Anselm, etc. Because for them, since God is infinitely holy, any offense against Him is infinitely injurious. For us to suffer the infinite wrath due to an infinite offense, it would destroy us or keep us in hell forever. So, Christ must absorb, being the only Being capable of enduring such wrath, the wrath for us. From here, and woven throughout, is predestination. It’s a cycle of ideas. One question that just came to mind is why do they not believe Christ is still suffering the wrath of God forever. Logically it could follow that Christ is still suffering and yet content with their framework.

    And second, say the woman with the issue of blood, or a leper, or a man and wife after intimacy – are any of them sinful morally? No. But they are unclean. Atonement would be for them cleanness, whether by sacrifice or cleansing. Is the woman who waits the 40 days to come to be churched in a moral state of liability after child-bearing? No. And I suggest we shouldn’t have this practice because Christ reversed all ritual impurity but I suppose an argument could be made from bleeding though it would be a stretch. There are some Orthodox who want women during their cycle to remain at home because they have not appreciated it seem to me, the fact that ritual impurity is gone.

    Is Christ’s sacrifice to undo death the same thing as His sacrifice to forgive sins or the same thing as His sacrifice to undo Hades? It is one event with a multitude of motives. Do we now die because we are sinful, the soul that sins shall die? Or is death really a translation into life? If you put to death the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit, you shall not die, but live?

    I suppose it could be argued, and maybe I’m changing my “tune”, that cleansing, whether from uncleanness or from sins, is brought about by the sacrifice of Christ without any reference to penalty. The “temple” made clean by God would be clean by the blood of Christ, for death, and for sin, and that this is what the blood of bulls and goats could not do. The blood of bulls and goats could not take away death, but it could temporarily open the space God resided in, where you are meant to dwell. The theme of sacred space is tied to theosis as becoming temples of the Holy Spirit, individual worship centers in which God indwells among the corporate Church, is synonymous with theosis I would think. Another link is here that is blocked by the imagination of PSA.

    So, that’s where I’ll camp, but I find it much more feasible, more within the bounds of Orthodoxy if someone is to hold to PSA of some sort, that Christ bearing our death-penalty – without vengeance, eternal wrath bearing of the anger of the Omnipotent God – being about as far as they go. I could sympathize with the possibility of Christ suffering our death in our place, not as punishment, but as our death destroyer versus the Anselm/Calvinistic conceptions. I still have the question though, of, since the bull/goat/whatever was a temporary provision for non-moral sins – this seems to be part of why they blood of bulls and goats can’t take away sins – then the person who received death for their sins was in a sense sacrificed, not to God, but the penalty for sin could not have been exercised without the person dying. If the blood of bulls.. makes someone clean but not forgiven and if there is no blood to forgive moral crime in the OT, even temporarily, I think that’s a key point, then removing the person from the equation who is to receive the penalty of death, seems to remove a correlation. I don’t know, and I’m not saying there has to be one, but as Fr. Reardon talks of repenting on behalf of humanity, and I’m persuaded (I’ve read his book and listened to his sermons), I think it may be possible to speak of death-penalty. I’m not dying on this hill, but I don’t think we can fully exclude it.

    Thanks for your comments,

  57. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen,
    I sincerely appreciate the reproof. I will take it to heart as I continue to study.

    Yours in Christ,

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suppose that I think about all the OT sacrifices as “participating in” the sacrifice of Christ – which gives them whatever efficacy they might have. I’m not sure that I think about “moral” sin and any other sin as different in any way. It’s not really a particular distinction that I find helpful. For me, it’s all just death displayed in its many sad forms.

    I do appreciate the notion of being Baptized into Christ’s death – so that I no longer die my death. That has excellent thoughts within it.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your meekness puts me to shame…God be with you.

  60. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    If I wasn’t clear, I don’t know, what I’m saying is…
    the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins, moral sins, but they could open Sacred Space up for the loyal to Yahweh Israelite, but only temporarily, because it’s very easy to be unclean. There are tons of provisions for accidental sins/bumps into death. Touching a dead body makes you unclean, bleeding makes you unclean, releasing any life-force makes you unclean because – everything that makes you unclean is death. Loss of life whether in intimacy, blood loss, puss, whatever, it’s death. The only place where Sacred Space was available was Israel, everyone outside was excluded, they’re under death and cannot worship God. It’s all a big death mess with the grace of the Sacrificial System.

    But, as it relates to moral crime, there is only penalty in the law. David’s cry for God to turn His face away is the best example, as we know, of what God does when we repent (or the Prodigal), but the law called for his death. The woman caught in adultery did not get Jesus saying, “The death penalty is wrong,” but whoever is without sin. The only resolution for sin is repentance, for moral sin, but in the law repentance is not the cure as the demands of the law are not fulfilled by repentance. In the same way, though moral sins can be forgiven, they may still come with a stiff penalty though the grace of forgiveness is there. I don’t think I’m anthropomorphizing too much to say that. We either have to see the New Covenant as superior in the sense that the Law was wrong, that the Law it totally null, that the death penalty should have never existed, or that it is fulfilled, otherwise God does not stay the same. If it is truly fulfilled, then our problem of death would only be solved with death. From here I could think that Christ dies so that we might die in His with no reference to law, but this too, would be substitutionary in a sense. The intention on Christ’s part that we not suffer the just consequences of the law, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” It seems that the requirement here is death as 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I assume a Calvinist would read condemnation as eternal hell, but the condemnation seems to speak of the penalty of death because two verses earlier he says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The condemnation of the law would be that of death, not eternal damnation, which is another reason PSA makes no sense but that verse 3, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” What is it the law could not do? It could not provide for moral failure (more than that of course). Only death “provided” for it. And even if the Law is null, how was it made null, through the death of Christ. For me, it is not something I will entertain that the Law was wrong. If the Law is void after Christ suffers death, it seems the requirement of the Law not met in us (besides all the rest) was met in Christ.

    This is getting complicated I know.

  61. Lou Weissing Avatar
    Lou Weissing

    Father Stephen:

    To change keys, a dozen or more years ago you entered the PSA lists with a Presbyterian churchman. I cringed. The noetic tone turned to anger, grew livid and intensified. It was easy to see your pastoral hatred of a hurtful error, but it was impossible not to feel some deep and personal rage as well.

    I considered writing to you at the time, but what could one such as I say to you? I prayed for you instead.

    It is a bright mercy to see your words in this post and to read your responses to others here. Not that you entertain error, but that you have gentled your soul. G-d bless.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks. I’m a work in progress.

  63. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m adding a link about Christ’s decent into Hell and what that this might (ought?) mean for Orthodox Christians:

  64. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father if this isn’t a helpful link (it goes into a lot of detail and uses language that might obfuscate your point here), please remove! : )

  65. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    Fr… not to disagree at all with your overall point of things needing to be ‘in tune’… but coming from a Reformed background, I think I understand the danger of systematic theology (at least as practiced in the West). It tends to make theology a thing of ‘thinking the right thoughts’, based on the Aristotelian/Aquinian assumption that while man’s will is fallen, his intellect is (largely) not.
    So theologizing became a thing of the mind, practiced in the European universities (critical reason applied to the Fathers and the Scriptures to build the ‘right’ worldview), which eventually led to the secular worldview that excludes anything that ‘doesn’t make sense’, or the common modern view of ‘me and my Bible’ as the source of doctrine. It’s a very Western (especially Protestant) thing. Seems very much in contrast to theology as prayer (St. Gregory)… and the practice of theologizing only in a prayerful, mystical relationship with God, combined with ascetical struggle.
    One of my priests once gave a warning related to this: “You cannot understand the Philokalia… until you have suffered.”

  66. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    More scholarly Western theologians, however, try to build a logical framework based primarily on their reading of the Scriptures (and various reformers)… and harmonize everything in the Scriptures based on that framework. No expectation that the purification of the ‘nous’ is required to gain any light from the Scriptures.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are on point. I think some of the abuses in the West have given systematic theology a bad name – undeserved if it is done well. Once we get to St. John of Damascus, for example, Orthodoxy is beginning to do something different – it is refining, even “systematizing,” what has gone before. It has been observed that what begins at that point in the Byz. Empire, is an Orthodox scholasticism, without all that the term would come to mean in the West.

    St. Gregory Palamas, though, presses the point in the 14th century that all theology must be grounded in experience. I very much like the statement that you cannot understand the Philokalia without suffering. Some of my long-held antipathy towards the PSA has been the suffering and damage I’ve seen it do.

    There are things that happen in human history that change the “availability” of a word. For example, the use of the term “punishment” on the lips of St. Maximos the Confessor is a very different thing than it is on the lips of later Protestants – who are standing on a history of distortions erected on that edifice. It’s like St. John Chrysostom and the Jews – what he said at the time was bad enough. But if it were being repeated today – it would be intolerable. History matters.

  68. Byron Avatar

    This is an account of how God punishes (and saves) sinners, and there are intrinsic and extrinsic aspects. Again, to deny the latter risks denying God’s transcendence—the Sun of justice who shines His rays on the just and the unjust. God eternally knows how His “rays” will be accepted (or not), and He still shines anyway; thus, we don’t just punish ourselves. Moreover, God acts in the world to save all, but the disposition of the human will finally determines the outcome. I hope that helps to clarify the issues a bit.

    Owen, I am not knowledgeable enough to offer a rebuke so please forgive me if this is taken as one. But it has been mentioned on this blog many times–and I believe it to be true–that God does not impose Himself upon us. Your insistence that He is punishing us, even in part, does ring well for me.

    I would offer that our existence is in Him, where we “live and breathe and have our being”. If this is our natural state then it is not God who punishes us for pursuing an unnatural state (of being). It is our pursuit of ourselves that does so. It may be that you are putting too much emphasis on God acting (although He does act) and not enough on God existing, and us existing with and within Him. It seems to me that there is a bigger picture to consider. Just my thoughts. Forgive me if they are not useful.

  69. Byron Avatar

    Woops! That should read, “Your insistence that He is punishing us, even in part, does not ring well for me.

    I am my own worst editor….

  70. Michelle Garrison Avatar
    Michelle Garrison

    Anonymo, yes, I too believe God can use any learning from our earthly studies when seen through the eyes of His Spirit. As a teacher, I often use object lessons, and the Lord, the Great Teacher, uses them regularly with me. The Sciences, when in their proper place, reveal the Lord I believe. Humility, strongly stressed in Orthodox Christianity, is key. Conversely, science when practiced with a spirit of pride, is dangerous to the soul.
    In response to your question on my mindset concerning the nature of sin in youngsters, please know I speak from my experience alone and particular background, and my experience of Orthodoxy is limited. I am married to a non-Orthodox believer, and out of respect for his leadership in our family, remain where I am in my Baptist church. However, my faith has been greatly nurtured by Orthodox beliefs and believers here and elsewhere. As a young mother and teacher I was working on my master’s degree in education studying the Philosophy and History of Education and educational movements. As I studied a particular approach to education that was less focused on behavior management and more trusting of the child’s innate instincts, I noticed that outcomes for children nurtured in those conditions seemed to be better than more controlled environments with behavior modification techniques. This seemed to go against my Protestant idea of total depravity and my understanding of original sin. Back then, my Baptist church was of a more fundamentalist nature than my current church (which is not). I felt that “sin” had to be punished to show the child their utter hopelessness without God and to control their innately sinful behavior. Any disobedience or failure to conform automatically put me in a state where I felt I had to act. After my research, I was in a state where my Christian beliefs were not matching with what appeared to be reality. My faith in Christ was too real for me to dismiss, so I started searching other Christian faiths whose understanding of original sin made room for my new knowledge. That’s when I first came to really know about Orthodoxy. As I read into it, I felt like my understanding of Scripture and education on human nature up to that point finally coalesced into a whole unified picture. Humans could be born good in God’s image but marred through the sin already at work in the society they were raised in. (Again, I may not be explaining Orthodoxy’s view here properly…this is my explanation of my understanding of it). Through the loving work of Christ in me over time, I began to guide and train children with an attitude of trust that God is already at work redeeming the world to Himself. I no longer felt the need to punish, control, and shame children for some sin nature so as to lead them to repentance, but rested in my God given authority to rule with gentleness, wisdom, trust, and grace knowing that many times their sinful behavior is often not rebellion but merely an expression of habits engendered by the fall of mankind from its place of communion with God. These changes in my mindset were not solely born from my understanding of Orthodoxy alone but influenced by it as a part of God’s work in me through many years. Over time, I have seen my children and students’ growth and compared the outcomes from both mindsets I have held, and the difference in outcomes is remarkable. I currently work with low income children from sometimes traumatic or difficult backgrounds and I have witnessed a defiant student change completely based merely on the nature of the teacher and their vision of the child and sin and how to deal with it. I regret much from how I first disciplined children, especially my oldest daughter (for whom I request prayer) as she now struggles with mental illness as an adult not seen in my other children. I often put partial blame on myself for my wrong mindset towards sinfulness in children I held in those early years. It just goes to show how important a right understanding of doctrine can be. May God ever shine His light of Truth on us.

  71. Anonymo Avatar

    Thankyou Michelle for sharing that story. To me it points to the necessity of us exercising our God given nature of explorers; the answers to life are found in direct experience with it. I love that Orthodoxy emphasises that humility is the gateway to all the other virtues. I do agree of the importance of humility for scientists, just listened to Fr. Andrew Damick explain how man in the postmodern age fails to bring that humility and earnestness for truth to religious and theological questions. I initially fell into that trap myself; now thanks to blogs like this and other information I am beginning to understand how much the secular mindset makes it mark on me and others.

    When I was in a real dark place, I questioned why there was no manual for how to live life. Now I realise God’s design is for us to grow in the loving community of his Church.

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m working on a book on shame at present – which I find to be hard work. But yesterday, in particular, I was reading and writing on the subject of children. They receive, first and foremost, from their nursing mother (if that’s possible) their first non-judging acceptance in that embrace and eye-to-eye contact. They see themselves, if you will, reflected in the love of their mother, and receive with it, the first foundations of a steadiness and inner confidence that becomes the platform for later development. Shame is essentially the breaking of this bond – the “interpersonal bridge” or communion with another human being. It is also experienced as a severing of communion with the self. It’s devastating.

    You have given a wonderfully honest account of the wrong-headedness of one strain of Protestant thought viz. nurturing children with an eye to their depravity. It is little wonder that secularism rebelled against this and moved towards atheism, or re-inventing God. In God’s mercy, you looked elsewhere and found Orthodoxy. Many look elsewhere and find psychology, or a secularized God and creative theology – just trying to figure out a way to live.

    May God shelter and pastor us all towards the truth in such a confusing world. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  73. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michelle, et al
    I want to make an addition observation. Your forthright account of teaching children in the context of a bad doctrine (depravity), underlines for me the importance of our ministry and mission in this day and time. Bad theology makes for bad practice – even in what might seem as non-religious situations. It reminds us that we do not live in a setting that is a blank slate. We are surrounded by ill-informed theology and the practices that go with it.

    Thus, when thinking about St. Maximos, or other Fathers, and things like the nature of the atonement, we are not speaking into space. We are speaking into a damaged world. I must seem like a crazy man sometimes in my constant resistance to the language of punishment and condemnation so common in every presentation of penal substitutionary atonement theory. Those theories essentially suggest that punishment and condemnation underly the meaning of the entire universe. Such a thought has terrible and lasting consequences.

    Thus, even when I see those words in the writings of one of the Fathers, I am pressed to understand it in a manner that is not supportive of that false worldview. In a post-Calvinist world, those words must be carefully re-interpreted, because our ears and minds are awash in the language of the vengeful God. Our context requires that we take care. I cannot begin to recount how many hours over the years I have spent with tormented souls who simply do not and almost cannot believe that God loves them.

    On the blog, I will always seek to maintain a witness to the uncompromising love of God for each and all. Please forgive me if my zeal for this ever carries me beyond the bounds of what should be said. God forbid that we should cause any of his little children to stumble.

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, the difficulty with writing and reading is that the activities are some what disembodied. I have had the opportunity of meeting you in person and hearing you, interacting with you. Thank you for making the effort to come all the way to Kansas to be with a small number of people.
    There is one moment I remember deeply when you last visited Wichita. It was after one of your presentations in a break. I was standing next to you and my wife was too. I do not remember anything we said, but the gentle, kind intimacy of that moment in the midst of a few hundred other people I will always remember.

    Even as I re-experience that moment now it fills my heart with joy and sustenance, by God’s mercy. Indeed it is a moment that could not happen in a creation with a punishing God. Three challenged, sinful people (one a priest) brought together in an iconic moment of simple love in the presence of God.

    Whatever excess your zeal may cause, it is moments like that which more than make up for it and would not occur without your zeal. Neither could those moments occur without the Grace of a loving, Incarnate God who gives Himself to us that we might know life and know it abundantly.

    Thank you for your labors.

    PS, Orthodox system seems to me the charting and description of millions of moments of the type we had. Ordering those moments (notes) into a harmonious symphony to amplify the fundamental reality of this creation: God knows us and loves us beyond anything imaginable. See, it is evidenced here, and here and here and all these points of evidence can be brought together into a picture, a story, a treatise, a family, a parish.

    The reality is so overwhelming that it cannot be contained. Real theology is a love poem from a lover to his beloved. There can be no punishment in love.

    That small, simple moment in Wichita, Ks in the middle of a noisy gathering proves that. It could even be considered a type of the icon of the Nativity.

  75. Byron Avatar

    Michelle, thank you for your story. I too worked with children for a large portion of my life (although I no longer do so) and I can see much of what you’re talking about in my own experience.

    From another angle, when I came to the Orthodox Church I noted that there is not nearly as much discipline (as I understood it) in the parenting in our parish. That doesn’t mean that parents here do not discipline, rather that they do so with such a soft, loving hand that I at first thought it ineffective. But I’ve come to see how the love and guidance they give is so incredibly beneficial to not only the children but also themselves.

    So much of this conversation (or these conversations), to me, is revolving around what is truly natural and what is not. I see a reflection of Dee’s experience with the Higgs field in Michelle’s experience with children. God is everywhere and in all things!

    Michelle, I also pray that God blesses you and that, perhaps, you may begin attending Vespers at a local parish some evenings.

  76. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    I am so grateful for these testimonies and comments… that I give thanks to God for them.

  77. Beth MacFarlane Avatar
    Beth MacFarlane

    Please never stop witnessing to the uncompromising love of God for each and all. Our poor old world and country desperately need that witness.

  78. Margaret Avatar

    I thank God for you, Fr. Stephen, and thank you for your writing concerning God as Love; Our Lord as the Lover of Mankind and the Holy Spirit as Loving Comforter. I also very much appreciate your exploration of the subject of shame and the impact on the human person made in the image of God. God bless you in all ways. We’ve been Orthodox Christian for 15 plus years and have children who came willingly into the church and are now adults living in other places, so we pray that they will continue to attend church, and more often pray that they know God loves them always, wherever they are. I have found much of God’s love and peace in praying the Akathist to the Mother of God Nurturer of Children.

  79. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Since PSA is so infused into this culture, especially in the US where it underlies the perceived ‘manifest destiny’ of a particular social group of people, I believe it can be quite difficult to read scripture or the Fathers’ writings without that filter in engaged in our interpretations. Again this is why catechism of adult converts in Orthodoxy is so crucial, and should not be taken casually, especially for those who have come from other theological backgrounds.

    I’m grateful for this ministry, Father.

    BTW Michael I really enjoyed the parable of the Jade!

    And Byron it’s funny and interesting, I read your comment to Owen and had unknowingly inserted the *not* where you had intended it. Indeed the mind has filters that come into play in our reading of materials. Again this experience underscores for me that all of us need to be thoughtful and careful with our interpretations. And all of us have been influenced by this culture who live and have been brought up here, and have to one degree or the other been hurt by the damaging theology (the secular and the claimed ‘Christian’) endemic within it.

  80. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, you are correct about the catechism but that does assume that those in charge really know how to do it. Some do, some do not and catechism alone is not enough.
    That is where the parable of the jade comes in.

    I learned that originally back in my “New Age” days. Over the years it has gently changed nuance as I have lived in the Church. Indeed I have come to understand that it is a parable for life in the Church.

    I am pretty much a doofus when it comes to formal written theology so I marvel at the conversation here. All I really KNOW is that Jesus Christ is real, alive and He is met in the Church…and He is Risen, trampling down death by death.

    Oh, and that we all sin and fall short of His glory–me most of all..

    He has been amazingly merciful and kind to me even though I have squander so much that he has given me.

    Even so, He has never left me. Always there when I get beaten up enough turn back to Him.

    He is good.
    Now, I am going to go eat a bananas with my wife.

  81. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed that’s true Michael, catechism and reading isn’t enough. My catechist priest insisted on the importance of truly being present and a participant in the Divine Liturgy and as many other services in the Church that I could manage. And I’ve heard the same from other priests as well, Fr Stephen Freeman, Fr Thomas Hopko of blessed memory, and Fr Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory, to name just a few.

    There is no substitute for this experience and for participating in our worship of God with others. As Fr Stephen as mentioned many times, no one is saved alone. We need each other. We need the Church and our parish. Then there is the “little Church” at home. We all need a prayer rule at home, again with the guidance of our parish priest/confessor, if possible.

    I suppose all of this might approximate ‘holding the Jade’ in our hands (hearts).

  82. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    When we have absorbed the Truth sufficiently that we instantly recognize it in whatever grab and form He reveals Himself I suspect we will be fine. But that also means we are not swayed by counterfeits. I do not read much theology because it is really easy for me to go off the reservation. I am fascinated by this conversation because it is full of people who really want to know the truth. Not one false note in any of the questions or the responses.
    I have learned a great deal. Thank all of you.

  83. Anonymous Avatar

    I might be unusual, but I often find the off key notes in the conversations often help clarify what is truly in key, which Fr. Stephen, Dino, and others have aptly done over the years. I appreciate the various comments throughout the years, and I often find that even if one might seem a little off key, there is no way to truly measure one’s heart or intentions like Christ from a written note.

  84. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly


    Thank you for the thoughtful words. I did not receive them as a rebuke but as a charitable offering. I need to hear those things. I agree our natural state is to abide in God. This state of being “in God” is true for all people ontologically, while morally it is not true for all. Some are “outside,” in an unnatural state, a state of death. I think this is a point you made well, a point concerning ontology—namely, that the organic repercussion of moving away from God is to abide outside of Him, morally, in a state of death. This is a truth about the kind of beings we are; we need God to live, and we die without Him.

    I think your question about God activity is an important one. I noted above that God has intertwined into the creation a sequence of cause-and-effect such that those who sin, die. It’s the warp and woof of things. The question is, then: Is this also an action of God? In some sense, yes, at least indirectly, because in creating the world, God Himself enmeshed into the creation the sequence of cause-and-effect such that those who sin, die. For St Maximus, this divine action is also associated with man’s primal transgression. He explains that man was created to desire and enjoy God, but man sought pleasure in physical sensation instead. But…

    “God, however, in His providential concern for our salvation, attached pain to this pleasure, as a kind of power of chastisement, whereby the law of death was wisely planted in the nature of our bodies in order to limit the madness of the intellect in its desire to incline unnaturally toward sensory objects.” (Ad Thalassium 61.2)

    I believe this statement upholds what you affirm. However, note that “God…attached pain…” It is God Himself who organically planted the law of death in our bodies. He certainly did this out of Love, to turn us back to Himself, but it is nevertheless His activity in view, as a (foreknown) response to our sinful activity. To go further, in the same text, Maximus explains this divine activity as a matter of Justice:

    “In order to bring about the abolition of this most unrighteous pleasure and the truly just sufferings that follow from it…, it was necessary that an unjust and likewise uncaused suffering and death be devised: a death “unjust” in the sense that it by no means followed a life given to the passions, and “uncaused” in the sense that it was in no way preceded by pleasure.” (61.4)

    For Maximus, our sufferings and death are “just” because they are preceded by irrational pleasure, but Christ’s sufferings and death are unjust because of His innocence. At least for Maximus, God does impose the just punishment of death upon us. Moreover, Christ assumed our nature and our death, but not because He deserved it: “Our Lord, having become man…accepted the death through suffering that was justly imposed on Adam, but which in Him was completely unjust” (61.7).

    For me, the question of PSA boils down to this: Did our Lord vicariously assume our punishment in order to reconcile us to God? What I’m finding in St. Maximus is that a venerable saint can answer this question in the affirmative while remaining in tune with the symphony of Orthodox tradition: “When the Word of God appeared to us through the flesh and became perfect man but without sin, and in the flesh of Adam willing bore only the punishment of Adam’s nature…[He] converted the use of death, reworking it into the condemnation of sin but not of nature…” (61.8).

    A magnificent passage. Christ assumes “only” our punishment, without becoming sinful Himself. He bears the justly imposed consequences of our sin, in order to transfigure them, making death a means of eternal life. Glorious! He “became sin” and “became a curse” by bearing our punishment of death, the consequence of our sin, so that through our death with Him we are raised into the heavenlies, divinized. This Maximian form of PSA inhabits a different universe than Calvinism. But perhaps the saint was wrong. The Church has sometimes come to a different mind regarding the specific teachings of even great saints. However, my sense is that his view of the atonement holds profound explanatory power within an Orthodox systematics.

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In thinking about the “law of death” we must be careful to note that “God did not create death.”

    Do not invite death by the error of your life,
    nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands;
    13 because God did not make death,
    and he does not delight in the death of the living.

    Instead, following Athanasius, et al, the Tradition holds that death is “non-being.” Non-being isn’t created – it’s simply what happens if we move away from being. It’s like evil. Evil is not anything. It is a movement away from what has true being.

    This seems to be missing in your reasoning. Thus, we move away from life by refusing communion with God. God does not then create death as a punishment. Rather, He upholds all things in their being. But if refuse that upholding, then we move towards death. This is a very important distinction and undermines the way you’re reasoning about cause and effect.

  86. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your comments help me. This reading of the words from Wisdom do make we wonder if I’ve missed something in the broader Tradition. Namely, how do we distinguish between moral and ontological privation? Morally speaking, if I sin, I move away from God into the privation of evil, into death. Ontologically speaking, when God created the world, He brought about a privative state-of-affairs, i.e., less than the fullness of Being. So does this make creation evil in some sense? I assume not. How then can we apply the principle of privation identically to each domain, moral and ontological?

    Connected to this, I believe, is the modern binary, introduced by liberal Protestants like Ritschl and Harnack, between a supposed moral/ethical approach to salvation in the West and a purely ontological approach in the East. This view starkly casts the atonement either in “physical”/mystical terms of deification or in juridical terms of sin, justice, and forgiveness. Somehow I think this purported binary belongs together in a systematic whole. Maybe Maximus brings these supposedly disparate elements into an harmonious system.

    For Maximus, men have their being “in God.” They have no say in the matter; God sustains them in being. That’s an ontological statement. But Maximus brings ontology together with the moral/ethical: through “free choice,” men attain either well-being, that is, a life in Christ, or ill-being, a life apart from God. I believe the point of the passage from WoS may be that God never intended or desired death for any of His creatures. But because of our free will, and because God created the world in a certain way, death was always possible as an organic outcome of sin. Life was always God’s intent, but men sought a different path. True, God didn’t make death. But it seems He made it a possibility in His world because He created us to have free choice. And when we sinned, He acted, “wisely planting the law of death in the nature of our bodies.” I’m not sure how else to read the Saint on this point. Again, maybe he’s wrong. And/or maybe I am.

    Thanks again, Father, for the patient dialogue. I pray you enjoy a Glorious Feast!

  87. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good questions. I’ve never personally made a distinction between moral/ethical and ontological. It’s all ontological. Again, I think you’re being thrown by St. Maximus’ saying “planting the law of death in the nature of our bodies,” and reading it in a fairly literal rather than metaphorical manner. I think he is purely ontological, though occasionally using such language. When pressed, you’ll see that what he sees as “good” is always the same as “being, well-being, eternal-being.” The “law” is simply the principle or way that things work – not an additive element or moral punishment.

    The role of the will.

    The will, I do not think, should be viewed outside of this ontological understanding, as though it was some sort of unrooted, ungrounded freedom. The only will that chooses against God is the gnomic will. The natural will, that which is truly our nature, always desires the good. If our nature did not desire the good, it would be impossible to desire it. The freedom of the will (gnomic) is simply our capacity to move in the wrong direction – to move towards non-being. It is always “me-ontic” – that is – a “relative thing” (“me”) is a relative particle rather than an absolute (“ouk”). We do not have the capacity to actually make ourselves “not be” (ouk ontos). Being is God’s gift to us and He does not take it away.

    It is within this scheme that some see a “natural” tendency towards universalism, not just in St. Maximos, but in Nyssa, and possibly others as well. I would say that it is most certain that there is a “natural” tendency towards this, because there is no such thing as an evil nature. All natures are good, by definition. The open question is about the capacity of our movement (gnomic will) away from God. How are we to think of that in eternity? My own position is that the door is closed to us on that information. I hold, along with a number of men whom I regard highly, that we may “hope” for the salvation of all. That hope, I think, is given some fuel by the fact of the “nature” of things. But, that is only one factor. The rest of it is shut to us. What I think is deeply flawed is any kind of reasoning that insists that this hope is impossible. For if that hope is impossible, then it is by necessity that some are lost, and that would be heresy. I think it is always a problem if we assume the eternality of hell as a First Principle (which many seem to do). I do not teach universalism because it has not been given to me as something I should teach. But I was cautioned by my first confessor in the Church (who was a beloved theologian) that it would be harmful for my heart were I not to hope for it.

    I think that this short summary is faithful to an ontological understanding. The will is not a “moral” thing. It’s as ontological as everything else. Basically, I treat moral language as “preaching,” a matter of exhortation. But I ground it in ontology – because ontology is about what everything actually is.

  88. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen,
    I will continue to think about reading St. Maximus in a thoroughly ontological key. The use of metaphor is a tricky business. You make a strong case. And, I will continue to pray for all mankind.

    Thank you for the direction.

    Yours in Christ,

  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not having been trained in Western philosophy – I had not known about Ritschl and Harnack’s treatment. But, I stumbled into the ontological understanding rather by accident – no one was pointing it out to me. I had found it “on my own” from reading the Fathers and didn’t even know there was a proper name for it. Finally, I think it was in reading Vigen Guroian that I first saw what I was seeing – and the pieces fell into place. That is in about 1987 or so. It’s been a long time living and thinking with this. Essentially, thinking about “moral” as a way of discussing what is actually ontological makes ever so much more sense. The moral approach always necessitates that God be an external punisher – and I think that fails. God bless your work. I’m glad to be of any help that I can. I do highly recommend dropping Fr. Maximos a note. Particularly if you’re working and studying in an academic setting.

  90. Dino Avatar

    I can envisage how your above comment’s demotion of the element of the ‘gnomic will’ could produce certain complications… (although, to be clear, that key component of the image-of-God, called “free self-determination” [as in, “non-necessitated” self-determination] towards being, towards God, towards nature, [or not], is not very well expressed through the element of the [supposedly post-lapsarian], ‘gnomic will’).
    Nature (the natural will) cannot necessitate/compel that element (of self-determination/freedom) in man, without simultaneously removing man’s God-likeness.
    So, there is “no evil nature”, but there is also eternal free will in (certain) beings, allowing them an ‘evil’ self-determination towards nature and their Creator, predicated upon the wrong use of the key element of the image of God in them called eternal freedom. This does not remove the hope of universal salvation, but removes its necessity.

  91. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand the point. I don’t know where it fits in St. Maximos’ anthropology. It’s a head scratcher for me. Perhaps I should drop a note to Fr. Maximos Constas myself! Need a bit more education.

  92. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Owen, I have found it helpful to think of death, not as a penalty imposed on me by a stern God but rather as the natural and logical consequences of my willfulness disobedience. God allows it and offers Himself as the way back because of His unfathomable love and mercy.
    How could the Creator of all will death? Especially when death is looked at as tending toward non-existence?

    A loving, infinite, creator God willing or imposing death is illogical.

    He allows us to stray so that we can more fully enter into communion with Him when we return by His mercy. “I will have mercy, not sacrifice” It is the only way for us to really learn mercy so that we, too, may be merciful.

    When we acknowledge and accept mercy , there is joy, peace, abundance beyond imagining.

    Christ is Risen! Trampling down death by death.

    To say God wills our death is to change the nature of God and condemn ourselves to nothingness.

  93. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen, Dino, et al
    It is perhaps helpful to think about the “gnomic will” in slightly different terms. The gnomic will is a “tropos,” a “manner” of living out the nature. It’s a function of the person – the hypostasis. In that sense, it is the freedom of the person – which is unique in how it instantiates human nature. That freedom, if it turns from the “logos” of our nature (the natural will) moves away from God. In a manner of speaking, it’s not “free will” so much as it is “freedom.”

    There are obviously an infinite number of “right” ways to instantiate human nature – each of us is a separate example. But only in Christ do we see it truly and fully for what it looks like in its wholeness.

    I think that our heritage has made us tend to look at the misuse of human freedom in a very dark and evil way. I’m not sure that this is entirely consonant with the Orthodox take on things. We use our freedom for “perceived” goods – even if that good is distorted through misguided desire for pleasure, etc. It makes for trouble. But this is not the same as a love for non-being – a drive towards non-existence. That kind of demonic thing is, I think, rather rare in human experience, on the whole.

    But it is to this freedom that we preach and teach – enlightening, wooing, persuading, pleading, urging, etc, “if by any means I might save some.”

  94. Dino Avatar

    your expression regarding “personal instantiation of human nature”, is actually one of the precisest ways to describe this “freedom”.
    It is of course, always a tricky subject, most especially when considering its misuse – a path towards bitter enslavement (in the name of “freedom”).
    And it’s funny how, in life, man slowly matures (through many experiences and sufferings through the Providence of the Lord) to hopefully come to yearn, not the self-absorbed misuse of it, but his freedom from this “freedom” – being in Christ.

  95. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is easy during trying times to allow my mind to drift toward the darkness. But, Jesus calls us back to joy. Even in contrition and hardship. This is the day the Lord jas made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

    I have spent too many years in doubt, anguish and angst thinking it was necessary. It has ultimately been beneficial because all things work together for good in those who love God.

    So, does PSA come from a heart who loved God? Really?

    Its fruit over the years would suggest that it does not– at least to me.
    The theology of St. Gregory on the other hand shows forth His love.

    Maybe I am being unsophisticated but that is what I see.

  96. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Should have read “times of hatdship”

  97. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    .. or “hardship”

  98. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen,
    Forgive my late reply as my wife and two small children normally demand my entire weekend, especially when a Feast day is involved. Not a bad thing. What a joy is was!

    Yes—the “ontological view” is that sensibility I too found in the Fathers before I knew what it was. I sensed it, knew I wanted it, and knew I didn’t have it in my low-church Protestant experience. As I reflect back, this may be the main reason I converted to Orthodoxy. It was intuitive. There were plenty of surface-level apologetics to make the case, but the ontological ethos drew me in, like a sticky web holding together theology, liturgy and life.

    I believe I understand your reticence toward God as external punisher. If I understand rightly, I share it. However, I do want to uphold a sense of God as external Creator. There’s a bright line between the created and Uncreated. All that is not God, although existing “in Him,” still exists (in some sense) external to Him, for it is not Him. I’m not meaning to split hairs, just to point out that when God created the world other than Himself, He designed the world such that those who sin, die. In this sense alone do I understand God willing someone’s death.

    God never desires death for any creature, but only determines that if any creature should depart from Him, they will die. Sinners die because they have departed from life, yes: the very movement of departure is the descent. But God Himself made the world this way. It’s both a natural, organic, ontological law of being and a law established and ingrained into the universe by God. This is the sense that I understand, “God punishes sinners.” Would you still find this view untenable? I don’t mean to harp on the dark and negative. Punishment is never a pleasant topic.

    I believe the Church prays for all mankind with good reason. Above, Dino gave a precise explanation from St Maximus, I think, why we can never posit that “all shall be saved.” I’ve argued the same thing, but I hadn’t seen it put so succinctly. (Thanks Dino!) That capacity of self-determination, endemic to God’s image, precludes the necessity of universalism. God made men with both the desire for Him and the potential to deny Him. To me, it seems a certain “hope for all” is the doctrinal limit, while holding a consistent patristic anthropology. Although many (most?) Saints did not explicitly share such a hope.

  99. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Owen, what a blessing your family must be.

    If I may, I do not think you need to hold on to the word or actuality of punishment. The natural and logical even ontological consequence of sin, i.e. death is not a punishment. At least not in my understanding of punishment. It is a corrective because there is a remedy. Before the Incarnation the remedy was repent and follow the Law.
    With rhe Incarnation even though “no man lives and sins not” when we repent we enter into Life itself. He raises us up even allows us to participate in His Ressurection. Sometimes solely by mercy and the prayers of others.
    Owen, I have seen such things with my own eyes–people being prayed into heaven as they die even when they have committed grievous sins or were even unbelievers.

    Sin is death but He tramples it down and raises us. That is at the heart of creation. Where is there room for punishment? I do not see any myself.

    May you and your family be crowned with the Glory of the Risen Christ and know His Ressurection.

  100. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What I could not see was the cooperation of the dying person’s will and heart although it must have been there. Personally the “Quality of Mercy” speech from Merchant of Venice has been a life long meditation for me. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_quality_of_mercy_(Shakespeare_quote)
    Our Lord is so full of mercy there is no room for punishment. Only the hardness of my heart keeps it from me. So I cry out for myself and all Lord have mercy!

    And He does.
    My dear Bishop gave a homily Saturday on the Entrance of Mary into the Temple–the new Tabernacle entering into the old. That too is redolent with His mercy and condescension.

    Forgive me for going on so long.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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