Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Atonement | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I’ve worked through my thoughts on this blog across a variety of topics from original sin to justification to hell in separate multiple post series on this blog. I have not written such a series on the fairly common Protestant teaching of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA from this point on) because I don’t have anything to work through on the topic and I don’t really have much to say about it. However, this teaching seems to surface in many of the discussions I follow and I’ve become increasingly convinced that I should try to write something on the topic for those who from time to time browse my blog. I don’t really expect there to be more than this one post on this subject unless others raise questions that seem to me to warrant another post.

I will say up front that I’m pretty familiar with this teaching. I’ve read many of the primary sources. I’m familiar with the common prooftexts. I’ve listened to it expounded and taught countless times in countless ways over the years. I understand many of the different ways it is nuanced — both in theory and in practice. But I do think the essence of this teaching is pretty simply stated. In fact, the following statement I recently saw in Sunday School distills it pretty accurately, if not to any great depth.

Jesus died on the Cross to pay God the Father the debt of our sin.

I beg to differ.

St. Gregory the Theologian provides the best summary I’ve found of my reaction to that idea.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

I don’t have much to add to what St. Gregory says. As far as I’m concerned, PSA teaches a different God and a different faith than the one I believe. It’s as different to my eyes as the faith taught and the God described by the docetists and the arians.

The problems with PSA are legion. It teaches that God has a problem with forgiveness. Even as he commands us to forgive, he is unable to forgive himself. Rather the infinite debt must be paid in full by someone and since we are finite beings, the debt can only be paid by the divine Son. But PSA fundamentally denies God mercy and forgiveness. Instead, God becomes the unrelenting debt holder. In the mechanics of paying that debt PSA violates everything Christianity says about the nature of the Trinity. It has members of the Trinity acting almost in opposition to each other rather than in concert as one. The Son is paying the debt the Father can’t forgive. The Father is exhausting his divine wrath on the Son. The Spirit almost vanishes from the picture. And even with the debt paid, we are not actually healed and we do not truly commune with God. Instead, we move into a sort of legal fiction. When God looks at us, he doesn’t actually see us. He sees his Son. The list of problems goes on ad nauseum.

Now, that is not to say that the Spirit has not been at work in the groups of Christians who hold some variation of this belief. I would not deny the work of the Spirit anywhere in humanity. And the Spirit certainly has more tools with which to work among those who proclaim that Jesus — the image of the invisible God — is Lord, however distorted their vision of him might be, than among adherents of entirely different world religions.

However, it is also true that there are many people who correctly understand the sort of God postulated by PSA and have rejected that God in revulsion. I empathize with them. If I thought the God described by the PSA theory was really the Christian God, I would absolutely reject Christianity myself. No, our God is the good God who loves mankind. He is the God who has never had a problem forgiving us. He has not required satisfaction. He has not had to have his wrath assuaged by pouring it onto the Son. All three persons of the Trinity were always acting in concert to save us, even in the worst moments on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is indeed the instrument of our salvation, but we never needed to be saved from God. Instead we were rescued by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in and through the Cross by the power of the Resurrection. We were ransomed from sin and death, the powers which enslaved us — not from our good God and not ultimately from the Evil One (though he certainly used the power of sin and death against us).

And, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

I’ve posted it before, but I’ll post again this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Cross. It says much of what I would say better than I could say it.

Understanding the Cross

I would also recommend the much shorter reflection (5 minutes) by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

The Tree Heals the Tree


Four Hundred Texts on Love 19

Posted: May 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

70. You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person.

We can always find a reason to hate. In fact, hatred is probably the easiest place for us to rest our heart. It’s sad that Christians in the US today are generally better known for who they hate than for who they love. It doesn’t really matter what justification we use — and we have little difficulty justifying hatred — when we hate instead of love, we are not ‘Christian‘ in any discernible way.

There is nothing ‘Christian’ about loving those who are like us or who do good to us and hating our enemies and those unlike us. We are only ‘Christian’ when we love our enemies, when we do good to those who want to hurt us, when we care for the least of these, and when we pray for those who wrong us.


For the Life of the World 21

Posted: January 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 21

This post continues with section 6 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World, the last section of the chapter. Here is the link again to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter four.

This section shifts to look at the sacrament of penance or confession, which at first glance seemed odd to me in the chapter on baptism. However, I saw the connections Fr. Schmemann was drawing and they make a lot of sense.

It is only in the light of baptism that we can understand the sacramental character attached by the Orthodox Church to penance. In its juridical deviation, sacramental theology explained this sacrament in terms of sheer “juridical” power to absolve sins, a power “delegated” by Christ to the priest.

I think it’s my familiarity with that perspective (shared by both Roman Catholics and Protestants), which Fr. Schmemann calls the “juridical deviation,” that led to my original confusion. For whether you are confessing to a priest or directly to God, within the juridical perspective you are primarily seeking absolution. And that’s not quite the same as forgiveness. Curiously, though played for its comedic value and somewhat caricatured, a recent episode of Desperate Housewives captures this idea and its effects pretty well. Bree is convinced to do penance for her affair by taking care of Orson and through that penance, she seeks to find absolution and a removal of guilt.

But this explanation has nothing to do with the original meaning of penance in the Church, and with its sacramental nature. The sacrament of forgiveness is baptism, not because it operates a juridical removal of guilt, but because it is baptism into Jesus Christ, who is the Forgiveness. The sin of all sins — the truly “original sin” — is not a transgression of rules, but, first of all, the deviation of man’s love and his alienation from God. That man prefers something — the world, himself — to God, this is the only real sin, and in it all sins become natural, inevitable. This sin destroys the true life of man. It deviates life’s course from its only meaning and direction. And in Christ this sin is forgiven, not in the sense that God now has “forgotten” it and pays no attention to it, but because in Christ man has returned to God, and has returned to God because he has loved Him and found in Him the only true object of love and life. And God has accepted man and — in Christ — reconciled him with Himself. Repentance is thus the return of our love, of our life, to God, and this return is possible in Christ because He reveals to us the true Life and makes us aware of our exile and condemnation. To believe in Christ is to repent — to change radically the very “mind” of our life, to see it as sin and death. And to believe in Him is to accept the joyful revelation that in Him forgiveness and reconciliation have been given. In baptism both repentance and forgiveness find their fulfillment. In baptism man wants to die as a sinful man and he is given that death, and in baptism man wants the newness of life as forgiveness, and he is given it.

The above is pretty dense, but read it several times. Baptism is joining Christ in his death because we want to die as the man we were and then also joining him in his Resurrection, receiving life and forgiveness from the one who is The Life and The Forgiveness.

Baptism is forgiveness of sins, not their removal. … It is indeed after baptism and because of it, that the reality of sin can be recognized in all its sadness, and true repentance becomes possible.  … The feast is impossible without the fast, and the fast is precisely repentance and return, the saving experience of sadness and exile.

That is, of course, one of the key flaws in the more juridical perspectives of the West, especially the overarching framework of justification theory. It requires that anyone be able to recognize their sin as sin against a particular God (and thus also discern that God) simply from the nature of the creation and recognize that they are helpless in the face of it. And that’s simply not true. I’ve only begun to be able to grasp the ways in which I am a sinner since I’ve begun to understand reality through the lens that Jesus provides. It is not self-evident that the path of enlightenment of Buddhism or the Wiccan Rede or the animism of Shinto or the various perspectives of the karmic cycle within Hinduism do not accurately describe the natural order of reality.

This also has profound implications for what passes for evangelism in so much of the West. Under the juridical perspective, you basically have to find a way to make someone feel bad about themselves so that you can then pitch the absolution you’re selling. Love and healing are much better things to offer. Repentance, the sort of repentance that arises from a deepening recognition of yourself as sinner, comes as the light of Christ shines in every corner of your soul. Not before.

The sacrament of penance is not, therefore, a sacred and juridical “power” given by God to men. It is the power of baptism as it lives in the Church. From baptism it receives its sacramental character. In Christ all sins are forgiven once and for all, for He is Himself the forgiveness of sins, and there is no need for any “new” absolution. But there is indeed the need for us who constantly leave Christ and excommunicate ourselves from His life, to return to Him, to receive again and again the gift which in Him has been given once and for all. And the absolution is the sign that this return has taken place and has been fulfilled. Just as each Eucharist is not a “repetition” of Christ’s supper but our ascension, our acceptance into the same and eternal banquet, so also the sacrament of penance is not a repetition of baptism, but our return to the “newness of life” which God gave to us once and for all.

It’s not about absolving us of the guilt of our sins. Christ reconciled all creation to God in his Incarnation, descent into death, and Resurrection. God entered into all the brokenness and even took on himself the utterly forsaken death on the Cross. Even at our most broken. Even when we are most forsaken and most turned from God, he is there in that place with us.

Repentance is about healing us. It’s about making us truly alive. In confession, we enter again and again the forgiveness of our baptism. Time, especially redeemed and recreated time, does not always operate in the way we normally expect. Thus we participate again and again in the one Eucharist of Christ. And we enter, time and again, the forgiveness of our one baptism. And that’s true no matter how many times we turn from that forgiveness.


Beyond Justification 6 – What about assurance?

Posted: May 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 6 – What about assurance?

This will likely be the last post in this series. In it I want to explore something that is not actually a question or concern of mine, but which is a concern I’ve heard repeatedly expressed by a wide variety of people in various settings throughout my last decade and a half associated with Christianity. The question sometimes goes under the label “assurance of salvation”. At its core, it seems to be a question about how one knows with certainty that you are “saved”. And it seems to carry with it a great deal of stress for what seems to me to be many people if anything said about salvation threatens the basis for that certainty. The attentive will have noticed quite a few “seems” and similar qualifiers in this paragraph. That’s because the entire mindset that seems to be required to raise this as an issue is foreign to me. As such, it’s certainly very possible that some of the things I say will be off-base to one degree or another. Feel free to correct me where you believe I’ve misunderstood the concern.

By any measure, this is a pretty modern concern in any faith, not just Christianity. By and large, the idea that one could somehow manage any god so as to be absolutely certain of a given outcome seems strange. My guess is that as people came to believe they could take certain things discovered by modern science with absolute certainty (an idea I would question in all but relatively simple matters) they looked for the same thing from their faith. Also, given that Western Christianity largely reduced salvation to a juridical declaration, a verdict if you will, of guilty or not guilty, it may have seemed possible to know the verdict of the judge in advance. I will note that it strikes me as a little presumptuous, even under this reduced vision of salvation, to say that you know with certainty the verdict a judge will pronounce before the judge has actually made that pronouncement. But I’m sure those are my postmodern sensibilities intruding. 😉

However, given that salvation is truly defined in terms of relationship and orientation, there is little in the way of this forensic certainty while you are on the journey. I do not know my future. I do know that in the past I have moved both toward worshiping the God made known in Jesus and away from him, often deliberately following other spiritual paths. Since it is clear from our scriptures that, while our bodies will be made new and there will be an act of new creation that renews our identity, we will still be continuous with the person we have shaped ourselves to be in this life. If I turned from Christianity today and embraced a path worshiping Brahman (or perhaps a Deva such as Vishnu) in what sense would I ultimately necessarily still be shaped as a human being able to stand in the uncreated light of the love of the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth? I don’t anticipate making such a turn again, but then twenty years ago I never expected to be Christian. For good or ill, my ongoing life as my body sleeps for a time will be in some sense continuous with my life now. I cannot be one person now and some entirely different person then.

Does that mean that we, as Christians, have no assurance? Nonsense! We have the greatest assurance possible. We have God himself making his life a part of our lives, a part of who we are. He is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. And he is constantly working to relate to us. We have the God who loves us. Intimately.

But that is not some forensic certainty tied to some particular mental assent we may or may not have made to some set of ideas at some particular point in space and time. It’s the sort of certainty we develop in relationship. Here is the analogy in the terms in which I approach this question.

I know my wife loves me. I can’t prove that my wife loves me in the sort of way that some want to pin down God’s judgment of their lives. Heck, I can’t prove my wife’s love in any objective terms at all. But I have great assurance about her love. How?

Time together.

We have spent two decades now together with many more hopefully on the horizon. We have raised children. We’ve endured legal battles and extreme financial difficulties. We’ve had children doing great and we’ve had children struggling. We’ve been with each through all sorts of health issues. We share so much and are tied in so many ways that I have no doubt she loves me.

That’s the same sort of assurance I have that God loves me. Ours has not always been an easy path. We haven’t necessarily seen eye to eye (usually because I haven’t really understood him). But I look back and see all the love and care he has lavished on my life. I see in hindsight where he was at work to bring good even out of great evil over the course of my life. I trust him. How could I not? Can I prove it? No. Could I be mistaken? I suppose. But I don’t believe I am. I’m confident that he loves me.

And that’s the best answer I can give to the question of assurance. If you aren’t certain about God, practice a rule of life that helps you spend time with him, get to know him, relate to him. He’s a good God overflowing with love, kindness, and mercy.

Love God. Love others.

I wager you’ll find by living those two things out all the assurance you need.


Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

Posted: May 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

First, I think there is one sentence from the article, Beyond Justification, that highlights the proper place within our understanding for this discussion.

Theosis is not just the “goal” of salvation; it is salvation in its essence and fulfillment.

In other words, if we are not united with God, if we do not come to live and share and move – to dance – in the communal life of the triune God that I tried to outline in my earlier post, then in what sense have we been saved at all?

This is where the largely juridical categories most often used in the Christian West tend to break down. While the details will vary, most in the Christian West tie salvation to some legal declaration by God that one is not guilty. This declaration tends to be labeled justification and thus salvation is largely equated with being justified. Once salvation itself is linked to whether or not you have attained a certain legal or forensic status, the preeminent question becomes how one attains that status. Thus, the Western categories of thought about God’s work with humanity through Christ tend to be as follows (with salvation predominantly tied to the first category):

Justification ==> Sanctification ==> Glorification

However, with only a few exceptions among primarily the early Latin Christian writers, this sort of perspective on salvation and these categories in particular did not come into being until the rise of Western scholasticism, marked most notably by Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. The Protestant Reformation (and later Radical Reformation) disputed the mechanics for achieving these categories but largely accepted the categories themselves. This is a central reason why the Orthodox will often comment that in their eyes Roman Catholicism and Protestantism seem more like two sides to the same coin. Justification, understood as a legal status, is associated with salvation itself. Sanctification is seen as a process of moral improvement over time, as the development of personal righteousness in reality, a progressive development in our condition. Glorification is then seen as the final state freed from the influence and presence of personal sin. The specific category names may vary, but that is generally the perspective today of the Christian West.

This perspective is not even vaguely similar to that of the Christian East. Justification is not much discussed at all and when it is, it is typically discussed in an existential rather than a juridical sense.

God’s initiative and action in the creation of humanity according to his image, and in the incarnation, Cross, and resurrection are of universal significance to humanity and cosmic significance to creation as a whole. Orthodoxy understands justification in Christ as restoring to all humanity the potential for immortality and communion with God lost in the Fall. This is because all human beings share the human nature of Jesus Christ, which was restored in the resurrection. … Salvation does not consist in an extrinsic “justification” – although this “legal” dimension is fully legitimate whenever one approaches salvation within the Old Testament category of the fulfillment of the law (as Paul does in Romans and Galatians) – but in a renewed communion with God, making human life fully human again.

Salvation is not the declaration of a legal change in our status. Rather, drawing deeply on John 14-17, the letters of John, Hebrews, and much of Paul that is underemphasized in the West (especially Ephesians and Colossians), salvation is seen as union with God. God desires us to join and participate in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity in total union with God and with each other. This is the telos of humanity. The Fathers of the church explicate this beautifully. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writes (Against Heresies):

So, then, since the Lord redeemed us by his own blood, and gave his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our bodies, and poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God and man—bringing God down to men by [the working of] the Spirit, and again raising man to God by his incarnation—and by his coming firmly and truly giving us incorruption, by our communion with God, all the teachings of the heretics are destroyed.

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? As the blessed Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of his body, of his flesh and his bones. He does not say this about a [merely] spiritual and invisible man, for the spirit has neither bones nor flesh, but about [God’s] dispensation for the real man, [a dispensation] consisting of flesh and nerves and bones, which is nourished by his cup, which is his blood, and grows by the bread which is his body.

And, of course, we have the words of St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation):

Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man. The Savior’s own inspired disciples assure us of this. We read in one place: “For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge that, if One died on behalf of all, then all died, and He died for all that we should no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him who died and rose again from the dead, even our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again another says: “But we behold Him Who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He should taste of death on behalf of every man.”

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped.

The Word, the eternal Son, assumed humanity that we might become God. Or, in the more commonly heard English translation of the statement. God became man that we might become God. This is salvation in the Eastern Christian mind. Yes, we are freed from the penalty of our sins. We are forgiven. But that is merely the starting point. That frees us to receive grace, that is to receive the life and energies of God, so that we can grow in communion with God and with each other. We are not saved until we fully participate in the life of the Trinity and in the life of every other true human being.

Salvation is thus utterly synergistic, but not in the merit-based sense that the term typically has in the West. Rather, since salvation is at its core relational in nature, it is synergistic by nature. A relationship, by definition, is two way. A monergistic relationship is an oxymoron. Our participation is empowered by God through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, through the gift of the presence of God within us in the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the intertwined physical and spiritual mystical communion with God and with each other in many forms, but exemplified and rooted in the Eucharist. When you understand this, you understand why the Orthodox say things like, “The only thing you can do alone is go to hell.

But what a glorious vision of salvation this is! At it’s best in the Western sense, salvation still leaves us outside God, at most observing God. We are closer, of course. We can observe something of the dance of the Trinity. But we do not participate within it. We do not become one with God and with each other in the sense that Jesus taught. Sadly, as N.T. Wright has noted, the West has become so dualistic that often what is presented as the ultimate condition of salvation looks a whole lot more like Plato’s happy philosophers than anything recognizably Christian. We’ve reduced it to something small and ultimately boring. And that is truly sad, for the Christian story of what it means to be human and of our ultimate salvation is the best one you will ever find. I’ve explored many such stories and they pale in comparison.

In truth, as in my post on the Trinity in this series, my words here barely scratch the surface of this topic. It is just that deep and that rich. I’m at best an infant in my understanding. But hopefully I’ve exposed some of the beauty. I think there are a few more things I want to say in this series. We’ll see how many more posts that will entail.


Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

Posted: May 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

I was struggling to frame my thoughts for the next post in this series when I realized I needed to pause for a moment and explore the Christian concept of the Trinity, that is of a triune God. I will say up front that anything and everything we can express about the essence and nature of God will always be in some sense inadequate. We are finite and God is not. This is, in fact, so true that as soon as we say something about God, we almost have to say that insofar as we’ve encountered or experienced or understood that thing, God is not like that to which are comparing him.

For instance, we can positively say, as the Holy Scriptures affirm, that God is love. But when we say that, we need to also say that the love I have or which I have experienced from others falls so short of the love that is God that in terms of the love I have known God is not love at all. God transcends my understanding of love. Nevertheless, even though it is limited and finite, my understanding and experience of love do help me begin to understand God.

If we do not maintain that tension in our thoughts, especially when discussing the Trinity, it becomes far to easy to attempt to rationalize the Trinity, to make the essence of God make sense to us. This has been true throughout Christian history. When people have fallen into this trap, they have tended to overemphasize either the oneness or the threeness of God. In so doing they have on the one hand reduced God to a single person who adopts different roles or masks. And on the other hand, they have subtly shifted to three persons who can somehow act separately, stand apart from one another, or even act in opposition to each other. Tritheism tends to be subtle rather than overt.

So it is with fear and trepidation that I venture into this arena of words, praying that I will not misspeak or be misunderstood. This discussion is risky, but it is essential. For if we do not have some understanding of the nature of the Trinity, it is not possible to understand what salvation means in the Christian sense of the word.

Before I delve into the heart of what I want to discuss, I did want to mention one principle I very recently picked up from Orthodox theology that I have found surprisingly helpful. My first reaction was “so what?”, but as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve found that it sounds simple, but runs very deep indeed. Here it is:

Everything that can be said about God is either unique to a single member of the Trinity or is common to all of the persons of the Trinity.

Here’s how it works. Most things are common to all. All are uncreated. All are love. All together fulfilled certain roles. All are creator (we see that in both Genesis and more explicitly in the NT). All are our redeemer. Redemption of creation was a wholly triune act. However, only one person is Father, one is Son, and one is Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate. Only the Son is begotten. Only the Spirit proceeds. Most importantly, no two persons of the Trinity ever share an attribute or quality or role or action that the third does not. Unique to one or common to all. Think about it. As it sinks in, I think the value of this dogma in keeping our way of thinking about God on track becomes clear.

The best metaphor for the Trinity I’ve yet encountered is that of the dance, a dance which lies at the center of reality. The greek word for this dance is perichoresis. The word is used to capture a reality of three persons who are so mutually indwelling, interpenetrating, and united that they can be said to share a single nature, a single essence, to be one with each other even as each retains their own unique personhood. This perichoretic nature is described as a dance, each person constantly twirling with, around, and through the other two. It’s a dance where, as soon as one person finds themselves in the center of the dance, they immediately yield that place to the other two. It’s a perfectly spinning, eternal, communal dance of self-sufficient love. It is perfect relationship in eternal motion.

This is the God made known to us through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the God inviting us to join the dance.


Beyond Justification 3 – What is the goal of the human being?

Posted: May 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

We are not only being saved from something, we are being saved toward something. What is the goal of our salvation?

When you immerse yourself in the ecumenical councils and the writings surrounding them, you quickly find that you cannot discuss salvation without discussing Christ. You cannot even begin to understand what it means to be saved until you understand who Christ is. As St. Gregory the Theologian famously proclaimed:

What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united with his divinity that is saved.

This is the reason that Jesus had to assume our fallen nature, die, and be resurrected. We first had to be freed from death. But that was never the ultimate goal for humanity. That was the work of redemption, restoration, and healing. But the goal? I don’t think so. For what were we created? In order to begin to answer that question, consider another one first. If mankind had never fallen would the Incarnation still have been needed? Referencing St. Maximos the Confessor and others, from the Beyond Justification article:

However, the Fall is not the primary reason for the incarnation itself since, as Maximos and others point out, the incarnation was always part of God’s plan since it was the means by which humanity could truly achieve salvation, understood as theosis or union with God, an approach which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Absolutely. In the Resurrection Jesus emptied Hades, that is to say he defeated death universally for every human being. This is the gift of God we were powerless to achieve on our own. But that act alone only brings us back to something like the starting point. By joining his nature to ours, Jesus makes it possible for us to unite ourselves to God. In the story of man in the garden, man had the potential for immortality or for mortality. That much was in our nature. But we were still created either way and the uncreated God was beyond our ken and ultimately unknowable. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God united human nature to his nature, changing what it means to be human and providing us the means to unite, to become one with, God. To be truly human is to be the one standing in creation such that when creation beholds us, it beholds God. This is what it means to be an eikon living fully in the likeness of God. We are meant to reflect God into creation as we participate in the communal life of God.

Thus, as many theologians have noted, the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s crucifixion, derived from soteriological christology, is diametrically opposed to the Anselmian theory of satisfaction which underpins both Catholic and Lutheran notions of justification. God is not a judge in a courtroom, and Christ did not pay the legal penalty or “fine” for our sins. His redemptive work was not completed on the Cross, with the Resurrection as a nice afterword. The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality. Jesus Christ died so that he might be resurrected. Just as Christ is homoousios with the Father in his divinity, we are homoousios with him in his humanity; it is through our sharing of his crucified and resurrected human nature that our own human nature is transformed from mortality to immortality. John Meyendorff summarizes the significance of the Cross for the Christian East as follows:

…In the East, the Cross is envisaged not so much as the punishment of the just one, which “satisfies” a transcendent Justice requiring a retribution for one’s sins. As George Florovsky rightly puts it: “the death on the Cross was effective, not as a death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord.” The point was not to satisfy a legal requirement, but to vanquish the frightful cosmic reality of death, which held humanity under its usurped control and pushed it into the vicious circle of sin and corruption.

Exactly. We need forgiveness. We have done wrong. But in deed and parable and voice we see in Scripture a God overflowing with mercy and forgiveness. Heck, that was Jonah’s complaint about God and he was proven right! The Cross was not necessary for God to forgive us. If all we had needed was forgiveness, God had (and has) an inexhaustible overabundance. God has never had a forgiveness problem and we do him wrong when we attribute such a problem to him. But don’t worry, I’m sure he forgives us for the poor way we portray his lovingkindness and mercy. 😉

Tomorrow I’ll explore more fully the goal which is variously called theosis or deification, becoming one with God in Christ.


Beyond Justification 2 – What does it mean to be human?

Posted: May 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The article that spurred this series, Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective, immediately caught my attention in its opening paragraph with the sentence:

Orthodox in general have never quite understood what all the fuss was about to begin with.

That precisely captures my state of confusion ever since my conversion to Christianity. It has seemed like the foremost question that most have had has been something along the lines of: Am I (or insert person of concern) in with God or am I out? The entire thing seems to revolve around the question of what happens to you when you die. Some might think that’s an overstatement or caricature, but the Southern Baptist Convention’s primary “evangelistic” program is predicated entirely on that idea. Hardly anyone on the ‘inside’ even seems to find it bizarre. Given that my pre-conversion belief about the afterlife tended toward a belief in the transmigration of souls (reincarnation), concern about some “christian” idea of heaven and hell had absolutely nothing to do with my ultimate conversion to the Christian faith. So I never understood the huge fuss over any of the various ideas about what Paul meant by the term “righteousness” or “justification” (same Greek word, I gather).

To the Orthodox, the Western Church’s convulsions over the nature of justification, and particularly the relationship between faith and works, are largely incomprehensible because the presuppositions underlying the debates are often alien to the Eastern Christian mind. The Christian East espouses a different theological anthropology from most of Western Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant – especially with respect to two elements of fallen human nature: original guilt and free will. The differences in these two anthropological concepts, in turn, contribute to differing soteriological understandings of, respectively, how Jesus Christ saves us (that is, what salvation means) and how we appropriate the salvation offered in Christ.

The article above starts in the right place. The Latin and later Western Church’s obsession with justification does seem to flow from its idea of inherited guilt, which was probably drawn from its early neo-platonic influences along with a mistranslation of the Greek text into Latin. I suppose if you believe you were born ‘guilty’ and powerless to do anything at all about it, you might be concerned with exactly how you get to be ‘not guilty’. Even though I did not realize for more than a decade that my belief was the normative Eastern Christian belief, I never for one moment accepted the idea that guilt could somehow be inherited unless one also accepted the idea of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true then I could accept that a soul’s accumulated karma stays with it. But that is not the Christian story. Our soul in Christian parlance consists of our body and our spirit together and intertwined. There is no such thing as the eternality of the soul. We are created beings and did not exist before we were created. Our being is tied to these bodies. We have no natural existence separated from our body. And within that framework, only a capricious God would create a human being guilty.

I’m not entirely sure why it was that pretty much from the time of my conversion onward, I developed something more akin to what the article calls “the Eastern Christian mind” rather than the Western one. Other than my patristic readings, all things Christian which I encountered directly were distinctly Western. I do, for instance, deeply appreciate the way St. John Chrysostom describes baptism, but his teaching conflicts with almost all things Western..

Although many men think that the only gift [baptism] confers is the remission of sins, we have counted its honors to the number of ten. It is on this account that we baptize even infants, although they are sinless, that they may be given the further gifts of sanctification, justice, filial adoption, and inheritance, that they may be brothers and members of Christ, and become dwelling places of the Spirit.

Of course, modern Baptists (and really virtually all evangelicals) don’t believe that baptism actually confers anything whatsoever. I am probably foolish and even a fool in many ways, but that always seemed like a particularly foolish belief to me. Zwingli strongly influences much of the branch of Christianity that tends to call itself evangelical today even if they don’t even realize that’s who they follow. But I always understood that the things we do with our bodies and in the physical or material realm matter spiritually even when I wasn’t Christian. If anything, Christianity has deepened and strengthened that understanding. Zwingli believed what he did at least in part because he did not believe the material creation could house things of spiritual value. In his eyes the bread and wine could be nothing more. Water was just water. This belief approaches in some ways a denial of the Incarnation. It is certainly a denial that God is everywhere present and filling all things and that he can and does particularly infuse the material creation at times for our spiritual benefit and healing.

In addition to and connected with the idea of inherited guilt, the West simultaneously developed the idea that we had lost the ability to freely choose God. Even in the Roman Catholic understanding, Lutheran understanding, or Arminian Reformed understanding, which allow for and even require some activity of our will, our will is only able to choose God because of this odd thing often called prevenient grace. Those who lean more toward Calvin on the Reformed side tend to deny the existence of any will on our part at all. Whatever free will humans may have been created with was obliterated in the Fall. I know that Protestants don’t tend to actually study the ecumenical councils of the first millenium, but such statements are actually a denial of the sixth council. Since that has long been one of the councils that has meant the most to me, I appreciate the way the article brings that out. I will also point out that I’ve always understood grace as it’s described on the Christian text as describing the action of God. To say that we receive grace is to say that we receive God.

Thus, Orthodoxy understands human sin primarily not as deliberate and willful opposition to God, but rather as an inability to know ourselves and God clearly. It is as though God were calling out to us and coming after us in a storm, but we thought we heard his voice in another direction and kept moving away from him, either directly or obliquely. It is illuminating that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “to miss the mark”. Despite our orientation toward God, we “miss the mark” because, not only does the clouded spiritual vision of our fallen condition make it difficult for us to see God clearly, but we fail to understand even ourselves truly; thus, we constantly do things which make us feel only incompletely and unsatisfactorily good or happy because we don’t recognize that God is himself the fulfillment of our innate desire and natural movement.

That is not to say that people cannot come to set their will in direct opposition to God. They can and sometimes do. But that is not the primary manifestation of sin. That certainly better captures both my personal experience in my lengthy journey to Christianity and what I perceive with many of the people around me.

So we are guilty only for what we have personally done and it is an integral part of the image we bear that we have the will to choose what we do and what we worship. Our will has been damaged and is too often subject to our passions just as the image we bear is tarnished. But it is that damaged will which Christ assumed in order to redeem it in the same way that he assumed our mortal nature in order to free us from death. It seems to me that if you get these wrong, you badly miss the mark about what it means to be human.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue my reflections on this article.


Beyond Justification 1 or How did I come up with a new series already?

Posted: May 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 1 or How did I come up with a new series already?

Earlier this week I was discussing with a friend the difficulty of actual communicating anything meaningful about sex or sexuality in our cultural context without first exploring the question of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. I think a lot of American cultural Christians, especially those often labeled ‘evangelicals’, seem to assume they already know, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. Having been thoroughly formed and shaped by what has effectively become the predominant American culture, I do know that its answer to that question is very different from what we find in the Christian story. However, the mainstream American Christian perspective has become so dualistic that I’m not sure it places the human being or even the creation within which we live in the proper context in the story anymore. (Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent series on that topic he has consolidated into a single post for those interested in exploring that aspect: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.)

Scot McKnight has been running a series on N. T. Wright’s book which was itself spurred by a need to respond to Piper’s critique of what is called in academic circles the “New Perspective on Paul”. (I’m not sure I’m convinced that it’s actually new, per se, but it is different than the Protestant Reformation perspective.) I was reading and trying to respond to a  recent post in that Justification and New Perspective series when I realized that much of what I’ve been struggling with in that whole series revolves not so much about the specific term “justification” but rather why it’s so important to some people. It seems that the entire subject is reduced to a question of whether you as an individual are in or out while begging the question of what it actually is that you perceive yourself to be within or without.

After framing my brief and rather confused comment on the post, I thought I would look to see if I could find something anywhere that would give me better language for what I wanted to articulate. During that process, I stumbled across the article Beyond Justification. It wasn’t really what I was looking for, but in many ways it’s probably what I needed to read right now. The following posts in this series will be explore my thoughts and reactions to that article. I’m not sure where this series is going to go, but it should be an interesting journey.