Friday, May 06, 2005

Orthodox Models of Atonement

I posted these as a response on Erica's website to how Orthodoxy answers Protestant views of atonement. Rather than go overly much into critiquing Augustinian-derived views (since I'm not sure whether or not Augustine meant them the way they're used), I simply posted various models of atonement that are acceptable. Keep in mind that no one theory is sufficient to explain the variety of reasons for "Why the Cross?" and "How does it work?". We've spent 2000 years trying to figure out exactly what happened, and that's the bottom line.


I agree with Bishop Kallistos. There is more than a smidge of theologoumena involved in any answer to "why" the cross.

I would offer these points as my two cents in the discussion:

1. Jesus died voluntarily, since being sinless he didn't have to die, but since he was sinless then the power of death could not hold him as it does sinful human beings. Thus his death threw a monkey wrench in the whole birth-->sin-->death cycle. Hence why he "trampled down death by death".

2. The Jewish backdrop is necessary for explaining blood sacrifice. Although not all Jewish sacrifices were bloody, blood was necessary for certain acts of contrition. Blood is consistently seen as offering a penance to God (think Passover). Jesus' blood somehow mystically took the place of all of these sacrifices, thus extenting the potential for grace to those who accept the offering on their behalf.

3. The pure horror of that form of death would ensure that people understood how serious was the call of God on their life. Doing the will of the Father, as the Son did, is the call in spite of the bloodiest and most terrible death imaginable. Hence why Jesus says, before his own death or method is revealed, that to follow him one must "take up your cross and bear it." The cross is the ultimate "thy will be done."

4. So why the cross and not any random instrument of death? Well St. Paul believes that the cross, being a cursed way to die under the law (Deut 21:22-23). It defiles the land to have a body hung overnight. Thus, the Jews were guaranteed to reject Jesus as the messiah. Therefore, the offer could be extended to the gentiles (since according to scriptures the Jews had to be given the first offer as God's people). This is why the crucifixion is a "stumbling block for JEws". When the gentiles received the same covenant, then it would make the Jews jealous and they would also desire to accept Christ and the New Covenant. This is born out in several epistle passages that I'll look up if anyone wants a synthesized and biblically referenced answer.

5. As for the Ransom, the ransom is paid to death, not Satan and not the Father. Death is the consequence of sin. "Ransom" in our minds leads to the inevitable question of "who receives it", but apparently that wasn't the biblical prerogative. The Ransom is paid to a condition, not to a hypostatic being. Bishop Kallistos stated this much more incisively that I can replicate.

I'm certain this isn't an all-encompassing answer to why the death and why the cross, but I hope it lends some insight.


(Some Questions and comments were posed in the ongoing posts, here they were)

Ray, your explanation is really good; thank you! I still don't really get the ransom not being paid to someone/thing, though.Thanks for the references, Basil...I'll look around for them. Oh, and my experience with Bajis' book is that it fulfills its purpose well (you just need to have the same purpose). And Lossky's book just confuses me. A lot.

Not to be anti-intellectual...but, one of the things I love abou the Orthodox Faith is that I don't have to understand this. I just have to believe it. And if I have trouble believeing it, there is a whole Church beleiving it for me. When I was chrismated and recited the creed, the whole Church recited it with me, supporting me. They didn't ask me how I understood what happened on the cross.When I was a Calvinist (most of my life) I was constantly having to ignore more and more of the Bible in order to keep my theolgical system from falling. But in Orthodoxy, it is assumed that we will not understand because God is inconcevieable and ineffable. Even the Theotokos stood by in amazment as her Son died. Even the angels were terrified. Who am I to understand?

Ray, I appreciate your response too. But I have a question about one thing. In addition to your post here, Schmemann -in Of Water and the Spirit- also wrote (or at least seemed to say) that Christ’s death was voluntary precisely because He was sinless and hence didn’t have to die. But is it really His sinlessness that reveals His death as voluntary? If sinlessness were the prerequisite for deathlessness, then what do we mean when we say that the Theotokos was sinless but that she died (the Dormition) before being raised and taken up by her Son?Is it proper to tie the voluntary nature of Christ’s death to His sinlessness, or is it more proper to tie it to the hypostatic union of His human nature with His divine nature? Isn’t it more correctly the latter that reveals Christ’s death as voluntary?


I would argue no. His Divine nature is certainly WHY he was sinless, but sinlessness is the prerequisite for immortality... theologically speaking (always remember that's a theological proposition, not a forensic fact).As for the Mother of God, keep in mind that dogma in this area is really sticky. There is no formal dogmatic pronouncement that Mary was sinless. Liturgical piety sometimes has a habit of obscuring or overchanneling the formal teachings of the church.


the idea behind the blood payment to death is metaphorical - the blood was the price to be paid in order to prevent the finality of death. Think of the blood stopping death short in the same way the blood of the passover lamb did. Sorry... as seminarian as this sounds I'd need to look back over some documents before I carried through with a really logical explanation of how this works.


Sometimes it's intellectually very astute to be anti-intellectual, and I Agree with you that it's not as if Orthodoxy subsists on a 900 page catechism that the reader must authorize. It's more something understood and lived. "Taste and See", not "taste and understand."

Ray,“Liturgical piety sometimes has a habit of obscuring or overchanneling the formal teachings of the church.” A fascinating admission, one that few Orthodox would utter, I think. But in this connection, I recall that some of the greatest of the Fathers, including St John Chrysostom, did not hold or propose that the Theotokos was sinless, but in fact presume personal sin in her. I can’t recall the citation, but I know I’ve read it in St John.



Let me see if I can tackle your question more fully.

We would agree there is a reparation to be made, but the difference is in the nature of the payment and who demands the payment. God sends His Son to do what we cannot do--not satisfying God's majesty or honor or to assuage divine wrath, but rather that which we were created to do: to love properly.

We can't do this because we are caught by sin, evil, and death (the condition of our mortality).We can be forgiven by God (which is essential), but the mess is still there.

Christ works to clean up the mess precisely by loving unconditionally, which, in this world means persecution, suffering, and death.Love and forgiveness destroys/undoes evil and breaks the cycle of enmity.

Jesus says, in effect, that "You want your sin to destroy me and you. I don't accept that. I love you."The question here is, who is holding us hostage, and who is getting paid?

Not Satan. If the Evil One gets paid then the blackmailer gets his payment. That means Satan wins. Such isn’t really an acceptable answer.

Not the Father, because that would mean that the Father delights in the blood of his Son. We can say that the Father accepts the sacrifice of his Son, but he doesn’t demand it. The sacrifice isn’t per say pleasing to God, but the sacrifice does right the wrong by overcoming evil and death through a sinless life. It’s the humanity of the Son “getting it right” that rights our position (deathlessness). It only takes one perfect person to set the train back on the rails.

The debt paid was the debt of Love. To love is to follow God’s commandments (as in one is synonymous with the other, hence why the opposite is what originally lead to mortality and expulsion from Paradise, theologically speaking). St. Basil’s anaphora even says “He gave Himself as a ransom to death”, freeing us from the hold that the condition of mortality has on us. So, the “debt” is what had to be paid in order to right man’s condition. By doing things God’s way 100% of the time, which is what it took to get rid of death, Jesus “paid” for it.

Let me use an analogy from Dr. Peter Bouteneff (dunno if it’s “his”, but I got it from him):If soil is corrupted, you need to restore the soil to the condition where it can do what you want it to do (grow things). This may take a lot of money and personal sacrifice to do, so you can say at the end that "I paid a price", and the price has been paid, in effect, to the situation.



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