Archive for September 21st, 2007

What’s At Stake in the Atonement

September 21, 2007

One of the more common topics both on this blog and on a number of other Orthodox sites are questions about the Atonement. In general the Atonement refers to how it is we understand that Christ reconciled us to God. When we say, “Christ died for our sins,” what does it mean?

The questions of the Orthodox tend to center around the doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement, which in conservative Evangelical circles is often made a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. It is referenced in many Christian schools’ statement of faith – required of teachers and students on a par with the Resurrection of Christ.

Questions of the Atonement seem significant from a Protestant direction (in classical terms) based on Reformation debates with Roman Catholics. In those debates Protestants tended to hear Catholics say that there was something that could be added to the “merits” of Christ’s death – something that made His death on the cross less than sufficient. This is an historical argument. Generally Catholics did not mean what Protestants accused them of saying and neither group was interested in finding common ground. The purpose of debate was to prove the other wrong.

The ground shifted on Atonement doctrine during the 20th century when liberal Protestants began to question Atonement theory, in some cases making reference to Christ’s “death” where traditional texts had read “blood.” This was famously the case in some verses of the RSV translation of the Scriptures which was a translation sponsored by the National Council of Churches, and thus dominated by liberal Bible scholarship. Though the intention on the part of the translators was probably not to deny anything about the blood of Christ, the hue and cry of conservative Protestants was, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” (The same translation rendered the Greek hilasterion as expiation rather than propitiation, again alarming conservative Protestants that Christ’s atoning death was being denied.) 

Orthodoxy comes late to this entire discussion, having been completely absent at the Reformation, and not a party to the debates between liberal and conservative Protestants in the 20th century. The understanding of Christ’s atoning death developed in a very different manner in the Eastern Church. Untouched by the debates of the Reformation, alien to the metaphors that came to dominate in the Latin-Germanic West in the Middle Ages, the atonement never became a matter of debate or conciliar doctrine in the East. The language used in the prayers of the Liturgy were probably the most eloquent statements of Christ’s atoning death, but generally made no mention of the ideas found in the Substitionary model.

Today, those ideas have occasionally come under sharp attack from some Eastern Orthodox (Kalomiros’ River of Fire is probably the most commonly cited screed), though elements of the Substitutionary model can be found in a number of Orthodox prayers or catechisms of the more modern period. It can be argued that these examples are largely borrowings from Protestant writings rather than developments from within Orthodox patristic thought.

The clearest Orthodox complaint about Substitionary imagery is the role played within it by the Justice of God and the Wrath of God. In classical Substitionary doctrine, God’s justice is understood to have been offended by the sin of man (in Anselm it is not so much justice as “God’s honor.”) Indeed, God’s justice or honor is “infinitely” offended in most classical treatments. Thus, man is infinitely deserving of infinite punishment. However, God’s love responds with infinite mercy and, in Christ’s death on the cross, He offers His only Son as a substitute for man, Christ Himself bearing the burden of the wrath of God on behalf of all humanity. In accepting His substitution on our behalf (by faith) man comes into a saving relationship with God.

There is no Orthodox complaint with the mercy of God, nor with Christ’s death as God’s saving act for mankind. The primary complaint is with the imagery of God’s wrath being raised to the point of dogma – that is to a place where the whole turn of a central doctrine of the faith depends upon this image. Equally problematic is the language about God’s justice, which is frequently described as “requiring satisfaction.”

The Orthodox problem with these images is that they are just that: images. Orthodoxy teaches that, through Christ, we can know God, though God in His essence is unknowable. The mystery which surrounds God and even our knowledge of Him is essential in Orthodox understanding. There is always a warning within Orthodox theology when we speak very plainly about God – that we know only what God has made known to us – and though we know Him, that knowledge is itself frequently a mystery – something that cannot be expressed sufficiently in words.

Thus to speak of God’s wrath (as the Scriptures certainly do) is not to say that God is angry in any way comparable to the anger of man. To speak of God’s wrath is a theological statement about the rupture in our relationship with Him and should not be confused with a statement about how God feels. Much use of the imagery of wrath in modern conservative Protestantism is often used in this literal manner, coming dangerously close (and in some cases crossing the line) of saying things about God that are simply untrue and deeply offensive. These literal uses give rise to caricature on the part of some (Monty Python comes quickly to mind) or rejection of God on the part of others (I have had conversations with many atheists and agnostics whose background was conservative Protestant and whose present rejection of God is primarily a rejection of the God of Wrath).

There are as well problems with speaking of God’s justice in terms that are all too human. St. Isaac of Syria famously remarks that “we know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” His argument is drawn from examples such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard – those who begin work late in the day are paid the same as those who work all day. There we see only God’s mercy, not His justice (the Saint says). That God is just is not a point of argument – what it means to say that God is just, however, remains largely a mystery. Anyone who claims to know what he means when he speaks of God’s justice is delusional.

Of course, raising such questions can sound like an echo of liberal Protestant attacks on Scripture and its reliability. Orthodox do not question the reliability of Scripture, only its misuse or misinterpretation. In general, Orthodoxy is uncomfortable with a dogma that seems new or foreign to its own continual usage. If it is central then why does it find no place in the Creeds or the Councils?

Of course, Orthodoxy did not face the same opponents as the West has had within its own internal life. Conservative Protestants, having been wearied by the constant shifts and changes and chimeric positions of liberal Protestants, are justifiably cautious when things that seem so certain for them are questioned by anyone.

A proper Orthodox answer is probably not to “come out fighting,” but to reassure that Orthodoxy has never wavered on the atoning death of Christ, nor questioned that His blood was shed for us, nor that He is the only way to the Father. The language of Orthodoxy has been shaped in the crucible of the great doctrinal debates surrounding the Trinity and the Doctrine of Christ – as well as within the spiritual world of apophatic theology, in which great care is taken not to assert of God what cannot be asserted. This language and this world have preserved a spiritual Tradition that has not wandered from the Truth nor lost its mooring in the reality of God. Conservative Protestants can be understood in their anxieties, but their anxieties cannot be justified in the face of Orthodox faithfulness.

Orthodox questions about Substitionary Atonement language and imagery are a worthy discussion for Protestants. It is the voice of Christian Tradition, rooted in the Fathers that calls for carefulness when speaking of God and circumspection when asserting something as dogma. Orthodoxy is no stranger to dogma and holds it in the highest regard (you can’t imagine), but just so, it questions a dogma when it cannot find it within its own two-thousand year history of councils and canons. Those questions should give pause to any Christian of good will.