Thursday, January 26, 2006

Wading into controversy?

Over at the Occidentalis blog, there is an interesting discussion going on about the issue of the atonement from an Orthodox Christian perspective, with a passage from St.Athanasios' On the Incarnation serving as a focal point for discussion.

While I'm inclined to agree that it probably happens that some ill informed neophyte Orthodox Christians may overstate the Church's problems with later (heterodox) western Christian ideas/theories about this subject, I think on the whole more serious discussions of this topic (such as you'll find amongst the likes of St.Justin of Serbia or the late Fr.John Romanides, or even more "controversially" the critique articulated by Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky - a view which I have to admit I greatly misunderstood until relatively recently) are pretty spot on and necessary.

It's my observation that those coming from a heterodox-western background (like myself), or even who were not raised religiously but come out of a secular western background, have a very hard time reading the New Testament and a great many of the Fathers when they speak on this topic, without projecting mistaken ideas upon the text. This is probably why so many Orthodox are hyper-sensitive over this issue; they have reason to be.

While it is true that the more refined, academic definitions flowing from Anselm of Caterbury's soteriology are not quite this "whacked out", I believe it's fair to say that on a popular level western soteriology is implicitly Arian; with "God the Father" Who at best would like to forgive men, but cannot without having the offence done to His honour repaired, and a "God the Son" Who repairs His Father's honour by taking the good thrashing we all so richly deserve. This all seems to forget that the Son is "God too", and presumably would be just as "injured" by our sinfulness as His Father is (as would the Holy Spirit.) One only need to read popular (and "ecclessiastically approved") prayer/devotional collections like the Roman Catholic Raccolta or listen to the typical evangelical Protestant explanation of the basis of our salvation to see this in all of it's hideous glory.

As for the passage cited at Occidentalis from St.Athanasios, I have to say either that it's import is being somewhat misrepresented (though I would not say through any malice, but probably due to precisely the ailment so many of us convert-types suffer from that I mentioned before), or I am totally misunderstanding the point that the author of the entry was trying to make.

"But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case." (On the Incarnation 2:7, emphasis mine)

IOW, the extent of the "legal aspect" of St.Athanasios' soteriology is God's truthfulness - that He remain consistent (after all, it was He Who told the first man that sin would result in death - Genesis 2:16-17). However even this consistancy has an ontological basis for St.Athanasios - for when God said this to Adam, it was simply an accurate statement reflecting man's nature and what happens to that nature when it departs from God (it moves toward oblivion - On the Incarnation 1:4).

What is particularly interesting is that in On the Incarnation 2:7 (with the relevent passage quoted above) St.Athanasios says pretty clearly that had it only been an issue of trespass, repentence would have been sufficient However, the sad fact is that our repentence would not have been sufficient to undo the damage done to human nature when Adam fell from grace. And this is where we move into the central theme of St.Athanasios' treatise - that Christ came to heal human nature, restoring divinizing grace to it. The central part of fixing this damage of course, was to destroy the power of death; and Christ did this by submitting to the "law of death" and being the Light which overcomes darkness, transforming the grave into the womb of our ressurection.

Foreign to all of this is any notion of God needing His honour repaired. That would seem pretty clear given St.Athanasios' words on the would-be sufficiency of repentence (were it not for the corruption and death which flow from it). He could not have said such words had he entertained the later teachings of heterodoxy on this topic.

Beyond this particular document of St.Athanasios though, there are all sorts of terms which many westerners (myself included) seem to have difficulty seeing on the page without misunderstanding them. For example...

Atonement - Hebrew Kippur/Kapher which means to "cover over" with the implied understanding of this resulting in reconcilliation. This does not at all require a belief that one is somehow buying off an upset God. The Greek word used for atonement in the New Testament is katallage which simply means to reconcile via an exchange/transformation (you can check this yourself by following the etymological references provided in a New Testament Greek concordance like Strong's).

Sacrifice/Offering - Hebrew Qarav, which means "to draw near". The purpose of the sacrifices of old was to (insofar as they were able) bring a man close to God. In fact the same root word is used elsewhere in the Old Testament in the context of sexual relations (and hence may be part of the reason why the relationship between God and His people is portrayed as being that between a husband and his bride.) Again, none of this relates to the later (heterodox) teachings on Christ's feat of salvation.

Justified - Greek Dikaioo, which means to render one has he ought to be, and/or to declare/demonstrate that one is as he ought to be. The closest aspect of this to the later-day western conception of this subject, is the idea that God is making a statement about someone. Whatever way you slice it, it has nothing to do with pacifying a grievous offence given to God.

Ransom - Greek Lutron, which means the price paid to liberate someone, such as a captive or a slave, with the distinct sense that the "ransom" dissolves whatever it is that was binding that which is being liberated (from it's root luo). Now, unless one believes that it was "God the Father" who was our jailor and from whose oppression we needed liberation, then it is quite clear that the Anselmian theory (and it's bastard children) are not at all called for.

Come to think of it, it is probably a merciful condescension to those who struggle with misshapen notions of the economy of salvation that these terms are not employed without heavily qualification. I also think it's readily apparent that properly understood, the legal analogies one will find in the New Testament that describe the saving work of Christ, mean exactly the same thing as the language of "Christus Victor".

So, either I'm missing the point of some of the folks over at the Occidentalis weblog, or they are fretting over nothing, or they are charging Biblical/Patristic writings and terminology with an understanding foreign to the Orthodox Church.

Post Script - I also think one of the obsticals to the conversion of the Jews to Christ, is precisely the heterodox interpretation of the redemption, which they rightly understand to be erroneous and not part of the message the God their fathers met at Mt.Sinai conveyed to them in His Torah and via His Prophets.


Blogger Benjamin Andersen said...

Rambler – 

Thanks for this response. Your descriptions of the OT and NT language are well done and helpful.

I'm not sure that you entirely understand my position. Please note that I am not defending Anselm's particular theories about the Atonement. Even proponents of his ideas admit that Anselm departs profoundly from the patristic (eastern and western) understanding of the Atonement.

And I'm certainly not attempting to enlist Athanasius as a supporter of Anselm (obviously, that would be anachronistic; so, I'm not arguing that Athanasius is a proto-Anselm, either).

I'm simply reacting (perhaps over-reacting) against the over-reaction of some Orthodox converts against the monolithic, caricatured straw-man called the "West" – as illustrated clearly in Frederica's whining about Mel Gibson.

2:54 p.m.  
Blogger Wayne said...

So, either I'm missing the point of some of the folks over at the Occidentalis weblog, or they are fretting over nothing,..

I really think the whole FM-G dustup is more about personalities than about errors of fact.


3:58 p.m.  
Blogger Wayne said...

Also, from a non-Orthodox perspective:

4:40 p.m.  
Blogger Timotheus said...

I have written a response, here.

7:48 p.m.  
Blogger Justin said...

Such overreaction is probably more common among Orthodox than one would first things. It is IMO the result of the exaggerated apologetics we have been exposed to for the last half-century or so, as we've tried to tell others and our own people in what ways the Orthodox are different from others. If you'll notice on, it is not just neophytes/converts who fall into this trap, but even converts who have been Orthodox for many decades. What you say needs repeated; it is good that you said it.

10:39 p.m.  
Blogger Aristibule said...

Coming from a Jewish perspective, I'd find it hard not to miss that the Crucifixion and Resurrection follow the type of the offering up of Isaac... and thus the Temple worship (blood atonement by the offering of bulls and sheep.) I'm pretty sure all those offerings were towards God, as the 'smoke went up before the Lord'.

So - obviously that has something to do with it: and it is part of the (Eastern) Orthodox tradition being mentioned in the Liturgy more than once. It still seems that trying to entirely remove that side of theology (and a removal of the 'gore') is simply modern 'clique maintenance' and not a reliable guide to what is held by the Mind of the Church.

1:11 p.m.  
Blogger The Rambler said...


I think you may be missing my point. My point is not that the language of the Holy Scriptures is in any sense incorrect or unworthy. Rather, the problem resides in a great part of the readership of the Holy Writ here in the west, who have great difficulty separating the dominant "Christian culture" here and it's understandings, from what the Scriptures themselves say on this topic. I'd extend this difficulty to the reading of the Holy Fathers as well, since it is clear that many cannot help but read the "satisfaction" theory into them as well.

Obviously sacrifices are made "toward God". They are gifts brought before Him, with the hope that they will allow us to draw near.

And Christ Himself was such a gift, to the Father. But this is where the Orthodox position and later distortions have to part way. Our liberation is not freedom from an offended Father, but from the tyranny of the devil.

"So - obviously that has something to do with it: and it is part of the (Eastern) Orthodox tradition being mentioned in the Liturgy more than once. It still seems that trying to entirely remove that side of theology (and a removal of the 'gore') is simply modern 'clique maintenance' and not a reliable guide to what is held by the Mind of the Church."

Well, the "blood and guts" Christianity of post-schism Latin piety is a distortion. The significance of the devil, and of the need for man to be renewed almost moves entirely to the periphery, and is instead replaced by an understanding where God is essentially man's enemy (though that is our fault), and He is not so much our Father, but our problem. A problem which Christ resolves, but a problem. It shouldn't surprise anyone that popular atheism was born out of a civilization that thought this way about God. Even to this day, if you prod many atheists enough, it becomes clear that their real problem is not a philosophical one, or a result of objectively observing nature, but a deep seated disgust with the "character of God" as it has been presented to them. While this doesn't diminish their God-less-ness, it does lead to an interesting reality - that what many of them hate, is in fact an idol.

But as for the "blood and guts" in specific - it's worth noting that when the prototype of the Icon showing a basically naked (except for loin cloth) Christ crucified first appeared (in a then "still united" East-West Christendom), even this was considered somewhat controversial. While I'm definatly not saying it's an inappropriate image, I think this indicates the general thinking of ancient Christendom by default, and Orthodox Christianity to this day.

The reality is that the "gory" meditations/devotions of the seperated western Christians cannot be considered "authentically western" if by this we mean the "Orthodox West".

12:31 p.m.  
Blogger Aristibule said...

"The reality is that the "gory" meditations/devotions of the seperated western Christians cannot be considered "authentically western" if by this we mean the "Orthodox West".

They can be considered authentically Eastern - as we have plenty of iconographic examples of 'blood and gore' predating the so-called 'Western captivity'. The one I especially think of is from the iconostasis at the monastery of Balamand. A stream of blood pours from the side of Christ into a cup. The point being, those trying to see a difference are over-stating their case: comparing 20th/21st c. Orthodoxy with the history of the West without looking at what the East has done (also relevant.) Which, I think leads to the tendency to think that anything outside one's local typikon is errant.

2:03 p.m.  
Blogger Wayne said...

Something that always served to illustrate to me the difference in viewpoints is the hideous figure of Christ on the crosier that Pope JPII always carried. I would be shocked to ever see an Orthodox bishop with something like that.


3:00 p.m.  
Blogger Timotheus said...

I guess that's what separates us. You something ugly ("blood and guts") where we see something beautiful.

Sometimes when I see a crucifix, I am almost brought to tears. Meditating on the crucifix helps me avoid sin. It makes me appreciate God, and how He is not some distant God, but a loving and merciful God, Who died for our sins. What do you see in the crucifix, and what emotions does it provoke for you?

5:08 p.m.  
Blogger The Rambler said...


"I guess that's what separates us. You something ugly ("blood and guts") where we see something beautiful."

Well, your quarrel isn't with me, ultimatly, but with normative Orthodoxy and it's sensibilities (which were common to the pre-schism Western Churches as well.)

9:32 p.m.  
Blogger The Rambler said...


Well to be fair, even many traditionalist Roman Catholics thought the crucifix atop of JPII's croiser was ghoulish.

9:34 p.m.  
Blogger The Rambler said...


Ultimatly such imagery is a matter of degree and context. It isn't simply an Icon portraying Christ with wounds that is problematic, but the wedding of such things into maschostic devotions and concepts of "offended honour" which I think normative Orthodoxy takes issue with. That's not a personal opinion - many critiques have been written by far far more knowledgable/saintly men than myself on these topics, and I cannot believe you to be ignorant of them.

I sympathize with the desire of those like you to see a ressurection of Western Christendom - but if it's going to be called "Orthodox", it cannot be Tridentine Catholicism minus the Pope with an epiklesis stuck into the order of the Mass, but a real appreciation of those Western Fathers who, IMHO do not differ significantly in their ethos and to large extent, even praxis, from the Eastern Fathers. In fact, I'm inclined to go so far as saying the "East-West" division of them and their opinions is very overblown.

Sentimental devotionalism, and a "satisfaction" soteriology which implicitly shifts blame from the devil to God the Father (!!) are native to neither the Orthodox East or West.

9:46 p.m.  
Blogger Aristibule said...

" it cannot be Tridentine Catholicism minus the Pope with an epiklesis stuck into the order of the Mass, "

Which you could never say of myself - note: I'm Byzantine. The images I'm pointing out, and the artistic experience is that of the core of Byzantium: the ancient Patriarchates. The Balamand iconostasis is not simply a Christ with wounds - the blood shoots from his side in a flowing stream, his head bowed in an expression shared with the 'Extreme Humility' icon.

It is quite a leap, however, to 'satisfaction' soteriology and 'devotional sentimentalism' (neither of which I've ever been taught or held to in any form of Christianity I've ever been a part of) - the use of bloody imagery. Like it or not, the bloody imagery and the theology of sacrificial atonement are pre-schism East and West, and Orthodox. The danger at this point, rather, seems to be with some Western converts who want a 'kitschy' Orthodoxy - separated from the very real physicality of the Crucifixion, and much else.

11:25 p.m.  
Blogger The Rambler said...


Upon reflection, I realize I was over-generalizing and being unclear in my assessment of "blood and gore" Christianity. I'm well aware of the Iconographic types you're mentioning. What I was objecting to is not so much the imagery itself, but a piety which borders on transforming God the Father into a sadist, and the portrayal (even if only implied) of Christ as "divine whipping boy".

However, I now find myself a little more confused than when we started this discussion. I'm assuming from what you've written (correct me if I'm wrong) that we agree on what the Biblical terminology in context is actually saying. So I'm kind of left wondering just what it is you found problematic about Matushka Fredrica's article, since what she says is correct.

- Christ was not a "ransom" paid to God the Father, since that implies we were His prisoners.

- Christ does offer Himself to God the Father, but He is not a "payment to God the Father". In fact the Orthodox Church explicitly rejects this theory - in 1157 A.D., a local Synod of Constantinople says plainly that the renewed humanity of Christ was offered to the Holy Trinity. Since that includes "God the Son", obviously this offering cannot have the sense that the satisfaction/Anselm-esque theories would attribute to this. Rather this is a matter of reconciliation.

- She is absolutely correct in stating that God is in no way "constrained" or otherwise disallowed to forgive sinners freely and without payment. Indeed, such an idea would blasphemously suggest that God expects more of us than He is "capable" of (since Christ teaches that we are to be unmercenary, to the point of forgiving even our enemies; with the obvious implication that we forgive them even while they remain enemies, just as He forgave those who were nailing Him to the Cross.)

- We are not born guilty of Adam's sin, which sadly is the the Augustinian teaching. While the Roman Catholic Church has differentiated between "personal" and "original" sin, it still teaches quite plainly that the latter entails "guilt"; something that is unavoidable if one clings to the Anselmian error, which essentially transforms the redemption into being "saved from God."

- What she says about the emphasis being less upon particular sinful acts and more so upon disposition is correct, since the former are only symptoms of the latter; and it is the condition of our heart which will determine the nature of our repose in the hereafter and our place in the world to come.

Given this...I'm left wondering what's the big deal with what she wrote?

10:02 a.m.  
Blogger Wayne said...

Yes, the iconographic imagery that Aristibule notes is not uncommon to the Eastern Church. You can see such a stream from this crucifix in our modest mission.

" cannot be Tridentine Catholicism minus the Pope with an epiklesis stuck into the order of the Mass,.."

Yes, I think that ends up being in fact more kitschy than anything FMG wrote about.


5:36 p.m.  

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