Satisfaction’s Guarantee

fb8789a1759b8ab8768cdffc2b2644ebClassical Anglicanism is all about the atonement. The liturgies of the prayer book are saturated with the blood of the cross. This is a scandal to the world and an embarrassment to many modern Christians. As Fr. Gavin Dunbar has pointed out in an article in the most recent issue of The Anglican Way, many liberal Christians in the last hundred years have eschewed the doctrine of satisfaction which teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross not only forgives us our sins but also satisfies God’s holy and just wrath against us for our sin. According to Fr. Dunbar, liberals see this understanding of the atonement as “primitive, violent, vengeful, and sadistic,” and even as “a kind of ‘divine child abuse’ deeply implicated in social and psychological structures of oppression.” I experienced the very sentiment that Fr. Dunbar describes firsthand in seminary. I was taught in my systematic theology class that Saint Anselm, often thought of as the great medieval articulator of the satisfaction theory of the atonement, was a close-minded neanderthal who tried to impose the barbaric class warfare of his culture onto the Gospel.

The Orthodox Itch

Theological liberals, however, are not the only ones who find the doctrine of satisfaction to be revolting. The Eastern Orthodox blogger Fr. Stephen Freeman has written a series of posts recently that are critical of what he calls “forensic models” of the atonement. In his view, the doctrine of satisfaction produces a version of Christianity in which the whole action of salvation becomes extrinsic to the human person. All the action takes place in the court room, so to speak, in which Jesus offers His sacrifice to the Father, changing the nature of our relationship with God without actually changing us. “If God simply declares us to be ‘just,’ ‘forgiven,’ or ‘made whole,’” says Freeman, “then the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection become something of an abstraction. Their ‘necessity,’ would only exist within God Himself, who might otherwise have ‘declared’ us to be righteous without all the bother.”

He contrasts the doctrine of satisfaction with what he refers to as an “ontological model” of the atonement. In this model, sin is treated primarily as a disease. The cure is not to be found in some sort of legal transaction but in true union with Christ:

Christ unites Himself with man (the Incarnation) and in so doing takes upon Himself, and into Himself the fullness of our humanity (excepting sin – which is foreign to our nature). Importantly, however, just as Christ takes upon Himself our humanity, so He also unites Himself to us, we take on His divinity.

Here Freeman echoes Saint Athanasius’ famous maxim, “God became man so that man might become God.”

A Straw Man Argument for an Irrational God

There would be something to Freeman’s criticism if satisfaction were the only thing happening in the atonement. Indeed, many liberals have said just what Freeman purports to say, that the doctrine of satisfaction creates a legal fiction in which God looks upon us as holy without actually making us holy, something which God certainly could have accomplished without the cross. All that’s left then is an irrational God acting out a sick drama for his own benefit, the Father taking out His anger at us on His Son when He could just as easily let the whole thing go.

Perhaps there are strains of Protestantism that have been so rigidly cold, but Anglicanism has never taught the doctrine of satisfaction in isolation from a robust doctrine of sanctification. The same eucharistic liturgy that proclaims that the death of Christ on the cross was “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world,” also includes these words: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” This sentiment is carried forth in the writings of the reformers and the divines. Lancelot Andrewes also echoes Athanasius when he wrote, “Christ fitted our body to him, that he might fit his Spirit to us.” Similar statements can be found in Taylor, Hooker, Laud, etc. There is no legal fiction here. A real change is taking place in which we are being made one with God through Christ. Such an understanding does not negate the doctrine of satisfaction at all. If anything, it flows from it.

atonement6

The Real Issue is Emotional, Not Theological

Freeman has written elsewhere that “Intricate theories of the atonement which involve the assuaging of the wrath of God are not worthy of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” And herein lies the real difficulty, both for theological liberals and for many Eastern Orthodox. The issue here is not some sort of false dichotomy between “forensic” and “ontological” models, but a genuine inability on the part of many people to stomach the fact that God’s wrath plays a key part in our salvation. It is an uncomfortable thought, particularly if we assume God is overreacting to our sin. It is easy to picture a tyrannical God who does what all tyrants do and takes out his irrational anger on someone too weak or ignorant to fight back. It is much more difficult to comprehend that God is incapable of tyranny and that His righteous anger against sin is entirely free from selfishness or self-centeredness. We might even say that it is dispassionate, not in the sense of being uncaring but in the sense that it is fueled not by emotion but by the perfect attributes that make up God’s very being: holiness, righteousness, and love.

God is a Big Meanie

Freeman rightly points out that a sacramentally devoid understanding of salvation can make no sense of biblical passages like Romans 6 which focus us not on Christ as a replacement for us but on Christ uniting us to Himself in both His death and resurrection. But the theory of salvation that Freeman champions has no room in it for the great swaths of Scripture that proclaim God’s wrath as an agent of salvation. For instance:

God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:8-9)

Why do we need saving from the wrath of God? Could the Father simply choose not to have wrath against us? Certainly, but to do so would be to assume that sin is not really all that big of a deal, that justice is an expendable quality. And frankly, none of us want a God like that. A God who creates a world in which justice does not matter is a God who does not ever make things right, a God who allows holocausts and child abuse without the least bit of outrage or sympathy for the victims. In those extreme examples, it is easy to see the necessity and even the beauty of God’s wrath against sin. Yet we cringe when that same absolute intolerance of evil on God’s part is applied to us, despite the fact that it is in and through this attribute of God that we really are made holy. Hence, Peter writes:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)

Here we see the convergence of all the models into one. In the days of Noah, the wrath of God was exercised against sin, resulting in the obliteration of both the sin and the sinner by the waters of the flood for the sake of setting the world right again. But Peter says that this same water found in Baptism is much better. It drowns sin just like the flood did, but unlike the flood it leaves sinners like you and me still standing, not because we have become better people since the days of Noah, but because Christ’s sacrifice has accounted for our sin. Christ exchanges His righteousness for our sin in the waters of Baptism, giving us by grace what is His by nature. In Baptism, the work of cross, bloody as all get out, is stamped onto us with an indelible mark. The Son does not save us by asking the Father to be a little more understanding about sin because boys will be boys and what does it really matter anyway? Rather, the Son voluntarily receives our sin into Himself and receives the wrath of the Father into Himself so that sin can be destroyed without destroying us.

The Hidden Sin

This picture of salvation may not be one that many people find appealing. Surely, we think, there must be a less bloody, less barbaric way. But hidden beneath the folds of such a noble and enlightened thought is a self-justification project. We rail against the implications of the doctrine of satisfaction because we rail against the very idea that God has a right to be intolerant of our sin. Indeed, we would much prefer to think about Christ as the great moral example or as the victor over death and the devil than as the priest who places His own sacrifice of Himself between God’s judgment and our souls on a daily basis. Of course, there is just enough truth in the lie to be dangerous. Christ is our great moral example and He is the victor over death and the devil. But He is none of those things if He is not first and foremost the one who sacrifices Himself to save us “miserable offenders.” And we hate that, because if it is true, then we have no business doing anything other than dropping dead and allowing Christ to pour new life into us. If it is true, then He really is the savior, and we, in fact, are not.

About these ads

About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
This entry was posted in General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

80 Responses to Satisfaction’s Guarantee

  1. MichaelA says:

    Very good point. Also, many among the evangelical churches today seem to be relaxing their teaching on the atonement. Very surprising, when one looks at the teaching of evangelicals through history like the baptist C. H. Spurgeon or the anglican J. C. Ryle.

    Going back to the Church Fathers, St Athanasius saw a robust doctrine of the atonement as part of the bulwark against Arianism:

    “and on hearing, ‘Christ hath become a curse for us,’ and ‘He hath made Him sin for us who knew no sin,’ we do not simply conceive this, that whole Christ has become curse and sin, but that He has taken on Him the curse which lay against us (as the Apostle has said, ‘Has redeemed us from the curse,’ and ‘has carried,’ as Isaiah has said, ‘our sins,’ and as Peter has written, ‘has borne them in the body on the wood’)” [Athanasius Contra Arianos IV, Disc II, xix, 47]

    In his earlier work on the incarnation, Athanasius reminds his readers that God could not simply “freely forgive” sin, without violating his own laws:

    “But just as this consequence must needs hold, so, too, on the other side the just claims of God lie against it: that God should appear true to the law He had laid down concerning death. For it were monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation”
    [Athanasaius, "Of the Word Incarnate" 7.1]

    Therefore, the only solution was for Christ the perfect one to take our penalty on himself:

    “Seeing, further, the exceeding wickedness of men, and how by little and little they had increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves: and seeing, lastly, how all men were under penalty of death: He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption … And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire. [Athanasius, "Of the Word Incarnate" 8.2]

    “But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.” [Athanasius, "Of the Word Incarnate" 20.5-6]

  2. Andrew Nixon says:

    And the people of God said “Amen” and shouted “Hallelujah.” What a Savior!

  3. Wesley says:

    This is one of the finest articles I have read on this blog! Fr. Jonathan, this was so good!

  4. Robert F says:

    Eastern Orthodox understanding of tradition does not allow the Scriptures the authority to discipline and reform the church’s theology and tradition; that is the only explanation for how they can hold to a Scriptural hermeneutic that neutralizes the strong Biblical language throughout the Old and New Testaments about the seriousness of the wrath of God.

  5. Dcn. Brench says:

    Thank you very much for this article. It seems my corner of the internet, lately, has contracted Eastern Fever, and I’ve read article after article putting down the Satisfaction and Substitutionary models of Atonement, including one of the articles by Fr. Freeman you mentioned. So it was refreshing to read a thoughtful defense of Western theology again. God bless!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Thanks, Dcn. Brench. I’ve also noticed the Eastern bug floating around, which tends to irritate me not so much because I believe Orthodoxy is some big bad monster – I actually think there’s a lot to be learned there. But so much of the case being made for Orthodoxy by converts today is based on an intellectual vision that caricatures western Christianity in the worst kind of way.

  6. Fr. Jonathan,
    Not surprisingly, I disagree with some of your conclusions. My objections to the use of “wrath” imagery, particularly as the primary language of the atonement, has nothing to do with emotion. It has to do with the fact that it does not in fact constitute “great swaths” of Scripture, particularly the NT. More in a moment on that. Second, it is simply not the dominant image or language used in the Fathers (certainly in the East) in the great classical liturgical expressions, such as the anaphoras (St. Basil, St. John), that are the easily the most important statements on the atonement in the first 1000 years of the Church.

    Back to the NT. The wrath imagery has the tail wagging the dog. It cannot, as you noted I’ve said, provide a framework for understanding passages such as those on Baptism in Romans 6, again, an essential passage for understanding atonement and the work of salvation. On the other hand, the language of wrath and its imagery, can be subsumed by the language of union and communion (by far the most dominant and controlling language of the NT). Yes, it will “demythologize” the language of wrath to a degree – but it needs to be. Christ corrects his disciples in their desire to call down fire.

    And now on to Anglican liturgy. Cranmer is second on to Shakespeare in the English language, but he was no theologian. His doctrine of the Eucharist has always been famously unclear, therefore well-suited to the vagaries of the Elizabethan Settlement – but long ago having proven itself unequal to the task of guarding the faith against the onslaughts of diversity. He has wonderful passages with profound language of union “so to eat the flesh…” etc. But also combative language (clearly a Reformation polemic) on the atonement in the anaphora. But even though the language of satisfaction is there, the imagery of wrath is not particularly dominant.

    It is simply a mistake to latch on to the very late development of satisfaction theory (Anselm), and its place within Calvinism, and ride the horse as though some point of orthodoxy depended on it. The Orthodox East has the language and imagery of wrath within its liturgical tradition, but never in the dominant position as the controlling and interpreting metaphor of dogma. It is “relativized” by the dominant, controlling and interpreting language of union and participation, which, indeed is the dogmatic language of the Church, being the language of Christology and Trinity as well as soteriology, ecclesiology, etc.

    Just from a theological point-of-view, this is a huge weakness in Classical Protestantism. It is never one thing, but many, never unified but always seeking a systematic. It cannot even describe salvation without breaking it into many parts (justification, sanctification, etc.), which is simple eisogesis. The structure of Classical protestantism is not unlike Ptolemy’s view of the universe, filled with little epicycles to explain things that don’t fit, trying to make sense of the Scriptures, because it has married itself to the minor things because it failed to grasp the major ones. It is one of the great differences between East and West. Orthodoxy, classically, is really only one thing – union with God. Everything – everything – is understood from within that.

    Glad of the conversation!

    • Wesley says:

      This is another case of the East reading the West with eyes wide shut.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Father Stephen,

      Thanks for responding. And let me just say, for the record, that I genuinely enjoy your blog and find your writing both challenging and moving. I’ve been especially blessed by your writing on the mystical nature of the Church and on beauty.

      You said:

      My objections to the use of “wrath” imagery, particularly as the primary language of the atonement, has nothing to do with emotion. It has to do with the fact that it does not in fact constitute “great swaths” of Scripture, particularly the NT…

      I’m somewhat baffled as to why you would say that, given that I cite two fairly influential examples from the New Testament. In fact, examples of God’s wrath abound in Scripture, from the wrath of God discussed with Moses in Exodus 32, to the wrath that is invoked repeatedly by the prophets, to the very words of Jesus (“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” – John 3:36 – to take just one example.)

      You said:

      The wrath imagery has the tail wagging the dog. It cannot, as you noted I’ve said, provide a framework for understanding passages such as those on Baptism in Romans 6, again, an essential passage for understanding atonement and the work of salvation.

      Again, the problem I have with your analysis is largely that it assumes the need to pick between the biblical images instead of recognizing that all of them are true. Thus, Romans 6 cannot be understood apart from an appeal to salvation through communion with God in Christ, but it also cannot be understood apart from a proper understanding of God’s wrath. Much like in 1 Peter 3, what Romans 6 reveals is the way in which our union with Christ transforms God’s wrath from something which completely annihilates us into something that kills our sin while setting us free. The wrath of God against sin is settled on the cross, and because we are united with Christ in Baptism, our sin is daily crucified even as we are joined to Christ in His resurrection and new life. Romans 6 fits in with the entire context of Romans which addresses all of the above. For Paul, there was no need to separate these things out and oppose them to one another.

      You said:

      it is simply not the dominant image or language used in the Fathers (certainly in the East) in the great classical liturgical expressions, such as the anaphoras (St. Basil, St. John), that are the easily the most important statements on the atonement in the first 1000 years of the Church.

      I suppose that we can quibble about what is and is not the most important theological statements on the atonement during the first millennium, but if we do not arbitrarily throw out the western Fathers, there is plenty of rich theology to be found there which teaches exactly what classical Anglicanism teaches about the wrath of God and satisfaction. One does not need to go west though. See, for example, the quotes in MichaelA’s comment above from Saint Athanasius. And if we expand the topic out to cover not just satisfaction but the entirety of salvation, the eastern Fathers also have some pretty monergistic sounding things to say. Saint Basil, for instance, said, “Indeed, this is the perfect and complete glorification of God, when one does not exult in his own righteousness, but recognizing oneself as lacking true righteousness to be justified by faith alone in Christ.”

      You said:

      Cranmer is second on to Shakespeare in the English language, but he was no theologian. His doctrine of the Eucharist has always been famously unclear, therefore well-suited to the vagaries of the Elizabethan Settlement – but long ago having proven itself unequal to the task of guarding the faith against the onslaughts of diversity.

      I lament the lack of charity in this comment. Cranmer was certainly a theologian and he had a far better grasp of the early Church Fathers than he is often credited as having. I would invite you to read not only some of Cranmer’s own theological works, valuable in and of themselves, but also some of the work done by Ashley Null, a Cranmer scholar, on Cranmer’s use of the Fathers.

      Cranmer’s understanding of the Eucharist certainly evolved during his lifetime. I do not think that makes it unclear. By the end he had moved from a more Lutheran to a more receptionist position. His position, however, is not synonymous with classical Anglicanism, as the Elizabethan Settlement itself further refined the point, making it possible for the Church to teach a high view of the Sacrament and an understanding of the Real Presence that denies neither the physicality of it nor the fact that it is a spiritual reality received through faith. In the Resurrection, there is not the kind of dualistic, gnostic separation between spiritual and physical reality that so many people have in their heads. There is plenty about the Eucharist in Anglican teaching that remains mysterious and unquantifiable, but isn’t that the nature of a Holy Mystery? Does the Christian East have some sort of definitive statement on the inner workings of the Holy Eucharist that I’m not aware of? I thought only Rome had succumbed to that particular temptation to insist on defining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

      You said:

      It is simply a mistake to latch on to the very late development of satisfaction theory (Anselm), and its place within Calvinism, and ride the horse as though some point of orthodoxy depended on it… The structure of Classical protestantism is not unlike Ptolemy’s view of the universe, filled with little epicycles to explain things that don’t fit, trying to make sense of the Scriptures, because it has married itself to the minor things because it failed to grasp the major ones…

      Anselm articulated the doctrine of satisfaction. He did not invent it. One could say something similar about the Eastern doctrine of God’s essence and His energies being invented by Gregory Palamas (and be equally wrong, by the way). Furthermore, who said anything about Calvinism? One of the grand problems with both Orthodox and Roman Catholic apologetics is the assumption that all of Protestantism is exactly the same. The great Reformation traditions certainly share many things in common, just as the great sacramental traditions do, but Anglicanism is not Calvinism or Lutheranism or Zwinglianism or any other ism. Anglicanism has its own distinct understanding of the Catholic faith. If the goal in your article was to criticize Calvinism specifically, you should have said so. Although, to be fair to the Calvinists, I know of very few of them who would see themselves or Calvin in the picture you’ve painted.

      Moreover, I fail to see how you can accuse Anglicanism of a kind of incoherence while celebrating the lack of precision in Eastern Orthodoxy. It may well be that western Christianity has been at times overly rationalistic, but Orthodoxy is at times quite slippery indeed. The fact of the matter is, while modern Orthodox theologians like Losky and Schmemman have tried to articulate an Orthodox theology of salvation, there is comparatively little to go on. What American converts call Orthodoxy rarely matches with what the monks on Mount Athos call it. Ask a room full of Orthodox about what the Church teaches about justification and you’ll get a hundred different answers. This is true amongst western Christians as well, mostly out of ignorance, but there’s an easy way to verify the claims. If I want to know what Rome actually teaches, I can look at her canons, documents, decrees, and catechism. If I want to know what confessional Protestants teach, I can look at their confessions. If I want to know what Anglicans teach, I can go first to the formularies and then, to a lesser degree, to the agreed statements of the bishops of the Communion (admittedly, in the latter, the Communion today is in crisis, but the former is where the genuine seat of authority has always rested). If I want to know what Orthodoxy teaches, I can’t actually go anywhere, except to the Ecumenical Councils, but even there the buck doesn’t actually stop given that there is a great vagueness about just what gives the Councils their Ecumenical status in the first place.

      At any rate, I think this is more than enough to chew on. I am also glad of the conversation and I hope that I have not caused any unnecessary offense. Despite all of this, I think there is a great deal that our traditions can share and learn from one another, and I continue to see great value in projects like the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius which seek to do just that.

  7. Pingback: Atonement: A Brief Meditation | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  8. Rob Scot says:

    Great post, as always. Thanks, Fr. Jonathan. I’m currently reading Gustaf Aulen’s ‘Christus Victor’, so I find this particularly interesting.
    It seems to me that the views of the atonement being presented here by you and Fr. Stephen Freeman are not actually that far apart. As you demonstrate, satisfaction is not “the only thing happening in the atonement”. Love your exegesis of the I Peter passage, by the way. And as Fr. Stephen points out in his comment, “the Orthodox East has the language and imagery of wrath within its liturgical tradition”, but it is not the dominant theme, as you assert it must be: “(Christ) is none of those things if He is not first and foremost the one who sacrifices Himself to save us ‘miserable offenders’”. So the difference is one of emphasis, or maybe more correctly, of perspective. As Fr. Stephen points out, we in the West are wont to systematize things rationally, while the East is ever reluctant to do so.
    Rather than have this become a very long comment, I think I’ll have to organize some of these thoughts over at my blog soon. Thanks again for the insights!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Rob,

      I was pleased that Fr. Stephen mentioned the use of “wrath imagery” in Orthodox liturgical settings. My use of the phrase “first and foremost” may leave you with the wrong impression, however. I did not mean that satisfaction has to be the controlling image for how we understand the atonement, but rather that sacrifice must be front and center. In other words, the starting place must be what Christ has done for us (satisfaction, justification), rather than how he gives it to us (union, sanctification), or else we dissolve quickly into thinking that we can build a latter of synergy that will take us to heaven on the laurels of our own good works. But that is not to minimize sanctification or to promote one image (courtroom, for instance) above another (healing from illness).

  9. In their desire to avoid the excesses of fundamentalist misuse of substitutionary atonement, some end up with no atonement at all. On the wrath of God — De ira Dei — by Lactantius remains I think the most cogent statement on the topic: God’s wrath is an expression of the love of God for us.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Thanks, Bishop Whalon. I haven’t read De ira Dei, but I agree with the sentiment you summarize from it. We misunderstand God’s wrath if we can’t see it as an expression of His love. Indeed, we misunderstand love itself.

    • I would agree that Lactantius is an important witness to the existence of at least a rudimentary “satisfaction” theory in the early (Western) church.

  10. Fr. Jonathan,
    Perhaps I should apologize at the outset for not writing more carefully and clearly in response.
    Obviously the language of wrath can be found within Scripture, and has a place within the Tradition. My concern should be stated: “What role should the wrath of God play in our understanding of the atonement?”
    My succinct answer would be: a metaphorical role.
    My reasoning: in the atonement, nothing changes in God. To hold that the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ changes God in any way (assuages His wrath, etc.) is, and can only be, metaphorical in meaning. For God is changeless. His love is not dependent upon human behavior, sin, etc. He is not willing that any should perish.
    Neither is it correct to reason (beyond a metaphorical manner) that there is any necessity in God (“God cannot bear sin” – and the various ways this idea is stated). Thus it is wrong (to follow in the reasoning of Anselm) that there is something that must be satisfied – justice, honor, etc. There can be no such need in God.
    It is precisely on this point that Orthodox writers and teachers have problems with satisfaction theory. Unless I greatly misunderstand things (always possible) satisfaction theory posits such a requirement in God (or His justice, etc.). The atonement, for example, in the thought of St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus), so understood, would be “abhorrent.” We do not have a problem with God. We have a problem with death, and the corruption that is death. This is the nature and character of sin – not a legal or “moral” problem.
    Now, there is a language of wrath in Scripture. There are also stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, various slaughters and the inhabitants of the Promised Land, the death of the Egyptians, etc. These play a vital and essential role in the faith. But they always presented something of a problem for the early Church – which is why, even then, there were issues surrounding the reading of the Old Testament. Christ corrects His own disciples failure to understand Luke 9 ( 55 But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of “For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”). This is more than a proof-text, it is one of many indications of the radical re-reading of the Scriptures that Christ taught. Christ Himself claims to be the key to reading the OT. All of the OT is about Him (Jn. 5:39). The use of the OT by the NT is largely Christological, often using allegory and other means to make its point.
    The later theories (quite common nowadays) and approaches that take a purely historical-developmental approach to all of this (the most egregious being Dispensationalism), creates all kinds of problems.
    To take the OT sacrificial system, and the thought that might support it, and transpose it to the Cross is simply backwards – but very common among the non-Orthodox. The Cross reinterprets everything – every lamb, bull and pigeon, etc. Did men ever think they were assuaging God’s wrath? Sure. And He said He hated their sacrifices. “The sacrifice of God is a humble spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
    But Christ is the revelation of the mystery – not the fulfillment of OT distortions. He is the correction of the OT – the event that allows us to read the OT and understand. There is a veil on the OT apart from Christ – but many not only seek to read it as though there were no veil, but try to draw the veil over the NT as well.
    Wrath, at the most, is a metaphor, a way of speaking, not about God, but about the state we draw ourselves in to by our rebellion against the Lord and Giver of Life. It does not describe anything about God. It can be a useful metaphor – but in the hands of many – it has been badly handled, diminishing the revelation of God in Christ to something that easily becomes an object of ridicule – grant you – plenty of Christians will rush to defend the angry God and speak of His holiness, His justice, etc. But they have no understanding.
    The doctrine of the atonement (which typically is not articulated as such in Orthodoxy) – is the primary place in which we proclaim the gospel. It is where we answer the question: “Why did God become man?” So, though there are a variety of ways to talk about it, not all of them should be seen as the “kerygma.”
    For example, how does St. Irenaeus, writing in the 2nd century, one “who knew Polycarp who knew St. John”, speak of what we would describe as atonement? In his On the Apostolic Preaching, he gives something of an expanded version of the Apostles’ Creed. It centers on our rupture with God and the restoration, through Christ, of a “community of union.” He does not summarize the gospel with forensic imagery and the appeasement of an angry God.
    And on we go, through the great fathers (who largely happened to be in the East), the Cyril’s, the Cappadocians, St. Athanasius, etc. It’s not to belittle the West. But Lactanctius is simply obscure and of little importance by comparison.
    I’ll grant that a propensity towards the forensic creeps in (I describe it as creeping in, you might not) early in the West. You can see it in Caesarius of Arles, who popularizes some of St. Augustine’s thought. But these are not the “touchstone” figures of the Councils and doctrines of the faith.
    The Orthodox complaint about the language of wrath, and the version of the atonement that surrounds it, is that, when used as the dominant imagery for presenting the gospel, and went not surrounded by caveats concerning its metaphorical nature, simply distorts the gospel and tells the Christian story in a manner that is, largely, sub-Christian.
    So, when I say that it is not the dominant imagery of the NT, it is saying something serious. I suggest that someone read the Anaphora of St. Basil the Great and the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom, and understand that what they have read is the essential kerygma of the Church, the classical manner in which the Church learned to relate the gospel to the world, as handed down by the Apostles.
    The dominance of the wrath imagery is something that lies outside what St. Irenaeus called the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It’s not that the imagery cannot be found (gosh, you even found a verse where Christ said “wrath”) – it’s that it is found and then used to erect a scaffold upon which a different gospel is constructed. For when wrath and its assuagement becomes the primary scaffold, and things like “sanctification” become ancillary, the sacraments secondary (because they have no place in the wrath scheme – they become diminished – whereas they are essential in the Orthodox proclamation of union with God in Christ).
    I can’t say to someone, “the satisfaction theory of the atonement is heretical.” But in the hands of many, it has been used to proclaim an alien gospel. We should take care to major in what is major and hold in a lighter manner lighter things.
    Orthodox tend to “attack” the satisfaction theory precisely because it has been raised to a central and dominant position, taking what is metaphorical and making it literal, and imagining a gospel that has alienated the world.
    I am more than willing to speak the hard things, but “God hates you,” isn’t one of them. I think we would probably agree about much of this. When I was an Anglican, I did not find myself compelled by Prayer Book to preach the satisfaction theory. Admittedly, I treated such language in the same metaphorical manner that I do when it occurs in Scripture. I don’t know why it has to be defended as more than that.
    To be “under wrath,” as St. Paul describes it, is not a light thing. It is to dwell under the dominion and power of death, enduring the consequences of all of that. But I do not understand those consequences to be the result of God’s anger (as if God could just cheer up and things would get better). At the most, I see such wrath as the love of God, cleansing, purifying, even saving us. His will is not otherwise. St. Isaac of Syria is among those who have written in such a manner concerning God’s wrath. But the mystery of this is hard for many to understand. It’s not made easier by attributing it to God as His own anger.
    Forgive me for writing at such length – but I thought it worth sharing in greater depth how I think about this and why. Arguments about it are useless when what the world needs is a common proclamation of the faith, once and for all delivered.
    Christ is risen!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Father Stephen,

      Thank you for writing again. I appreciate your clarifications. And please, no worries about the length. Some things simply take more space to say than others, and I relish the opportunity to listen and hopefully to learn.

      I am glad to hear that you do see a role for the wrath of God in salvation. Perhaps it is just my own thick-headedness, but I did not get that from any of what you have said previously. You say that it should not be dominant or subservient to an understanding of salvation as union with Christ, and on that I am happy to agree. My point is not so much that satisfaction needs to be dominant as that it needs to be there in the mix, both because Scripture attests to it and because without it we very easily misunderstand other important concepts, such as the nature of sin, the justice of God, and even the love of God. This is not the result of some kind of superimposed systematic but the natural consequence of reading with an unfiltered lens, or more aptly, reading without the kind of prejudice that insists that one piece or more of the revelation must be removed because it is inconvenient to my own preferred narrative.

      Your concern about the doctrine of satisfaction attesting to some kind of need or change in God is understandable but built upon a false premise, at least as far as Anglicanism is concerned. The Anglican reformers and divines would be quite horrified by such an idea, as I think would Saint Anselm himself who made the point in Cur Deus Homo of insisting that all which God does is done freely, not out of any compulsion, to Himself or to anyone else. There is, of course, a strong element of justice that lies at the center of the doctrine, particularly when one moves into “penal” language (which is perfectly legitimate to use but easily misunderstood). But this is not laid upon God as a fetter. Nor is the point of the cross to buy God off or to make Him change His mind. Rather, to come back again to the language of Romans 6, it is in and through our union with Christ established in Baptism that Christ is able to receive God’s wrath against our sin while we receive the fruit of His crucifixion and resurrection. Anselm uses a variety of metaphors to explain this, one of the better ones being a pearl that has been caked with mud suddenly being washed clean. A more modern metaphor that I’ve employed in the past is the old westerns in which someone gets bitten by a snake and someone else has to suck the poison out for the first person to live. Of course, none of these metaphors are quite complete. The real point is that God does something for us in Christ that we have no ability to do ourselves, or even to realize that we need. God’s wrath opposes and destroys sin, which is something that lives at the heart of us, that is implanted within us, that is a part of our very being since the fall and makes us rotten to the core. Outside of Christ, that wrath destroys us because there is no differentiating between us and our sin, but in Christ that wrath liberates us by daily drowning the old man in us in the waters of Baptism and daily replacing him with Christ’s own holiness, humility, and love.

      Again, for classical Anglicanism, this is not about pitting one theory of the atonement against another. Indeed, an understanding of union with God in Christ is necessary for satisfaction to make sense at all. And the sacraments are essential to that, as is the proclamation of the Word of God. While we are able to talk about different aspects of salvation in distinct ways – justification, sanctification, satisfaction, union – these are not actually independent events but mysterious parts of a whole that Scripture does not separate out but reveals to us as a package. Indeed, Saint Anselm speaks of justification and sanctification in the same breath. Which is why it is so alarming to me when I hear what sounds to me like Orthodox glibly tossing things like justification and satisfaction aside, as if we can get on without them, as if these things are just “western” ideas and not the Gospel itself. Moreover, the language that Orthodox use to criticize these so-called “western” ideas is identical to the language used by the liberal elites to try to undermine the entire Christian project. One cannot speak of justification without sanctification, but neither can one do the opposite.

      More could be said about all of this, of course, but perhaps I’ll leave it here for the moment. Let me simply echo your sentiment that what the world truly needs is a common proclamation of the Gospel. May it come to pass. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

      • Death Bredon says:

        When we compare the Anglican Easter Canticle with the Eastern Pashcal Troporion, we see similarities and differences. Both emphasize Christ’s triumph over death, but the Anglican Canticle also emphasizes triumph over sin. Hence, using Fr. Freeman’s vocabulary, we might say that the Anglican tradition attempts to embrace both an ontological and a moral theory of salvation. But, I remain skeptical whether this dual approach expressed in classical Anglican liturgics necessarily implies a satisfactionary theory to achieve a real and positive role for moral salvation.

        I call to mind the Prayer Book’s (1928 US) proper preface for Easter. To my mind, the Easter Preface makes the most sense when read as an affirmation of onotological atonement, which in turn allows for eternal victory over sin. The fact that the preface affirms that Christ’s passion is a sacrifice that “takes away” sin, does not seem to require that Christ’s sacrifice or death be understood as a quid-pro-quo transaction of his life in exchange for any sort of forensic or juridical acquittal before God’s Justice, thereby assuaging divine wrath. To the contrary, the moral aspect of atonement in both the Easter Canticle and Easter Preface can be understood as logically subsequent to and logically contingent upon ontological atonement–the poetic trampling down of death by death. That is to say that, because Christ’s sacrifice led to the defeat of death through his resurrection, his sacrifice necessarily takes away sin without any exchange having occurred, save in a metaphorical sense.

        Of course, one need not parse the Canticle and Preface in the manner I suggest, but I am unconvinced that they, or the Anglican Formularies more generally, require satisfactionary atonement theories as a article Anglican belief, which is to say that I don’t think satisfactionary atonement is the teaching of the Church. Now, I am aware that many Anglican Divines, particularly of an Evangelical bent, have spoken in such dogmatic terms, often to the (indefensible) exclusion of the classical, ontological theory of atonement. But, I also consider that many of the Caroline Divines wrote in such a manner as to give the firm impression that the Christus Victor model of atonement is not only necessary to a correct understanding of atonement but is a wholly sufficient one as well.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        I would be curious to know how you understand the language about satisfaction that appears in the eucharistic prayer, but even more curious how you understand the confession of sin. In the confession during the Eucharist, we say that “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.” Similarly, in the confession in the offices, we say, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.” Or, at least, we did until the 1979 BCP saw fit to scrub out that last part. But it seems to me that this last part is crucial to this conversation, because it homes in on the fact that sin is more than just a set of bad choices but a state of spiritual deadness. We have nothing to offer, and were it not for Christ we would have nothing to gain. God’s wrath is rightly set against us in our sin, not merely against the sin itself, because there is no actual separation between sin and sinner apart from Christ. That is the miracle of Baptism, that the flood which God sends now drowns only the sinner while the saint remains.

  11. Eugene says:

    I have an idea. Since this seems to be such a thorny topic, we should defer to our bishops — as that’s what bishops, I think, are for. So Fr. Jonathan, you bring Bishop Schori in to talk about Christ’s saving work, and Fr. Stephen, you bring in Metropolitan Tikhon. Let each of them talk about how necessary they believe Christ’s sacrifice to be, and how they view it. And then we’ll have a good understanding of what Anglicans and Orthodox, respectively, believe. Right?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I would be happy to oblige, provided that I get Justin Welby as the appropriate counterpart to Tikhon.

    • Brandon Fang says:

      If Bp. Schiori came in to talk about Christ’s saving work, hell might just freeze over before that occurred (at least based on the sermons of hers that I’ve read on the interweb). If you’re going to ask an Anglican bishop to discuss with Metropolitan Tikhon, I’d take Abp. Welby or Abp. Sentamu instead.

  12. Eugene says:

    A further thought… although being Orthodox, I’m much more aligned with Fr. Stephen’s outlook, it may not matter much. At least in my circle of acquaintances and colleagues, the Buddhists are kicking our a**es in terms of converting people’s thoughts. I think it might be that I’m not doing a very good job as a Christian. I spend a lot of time worrying about what an objectified god is or is not, or is or is not doing. The Buddhists seem to be very good at helping people deal with what is immediately on the table: the concrete difficulties around them such as stress, anger, how to relate to money and making a living, relationships and so forth. Can the Person of Jesus Christ help make sense out of the random river of life’s circumstances? “Nobody loves me but my mother/and she could be jivin’ too”. Are we loved? And if we are, so what?

  13. MichaelA says:

    Some very good posts and responses above. I just want to comment on one point by Fr Stephen:

    “But I do not understand those consequences to be the result of God’s anger (as if God could just cheer up and things would get better).”

    The words in parentheses are contrary to what the great theologians of the atonement have taught, i.e. this is really a “straw man”. Whether its Athanasius or Augustine in patristic times, or Bernard of Clairvaux or Thomas Bradwardine in the Middle Ages or the Anglican reformers in the Articles of Religion, you won’t find them suggesting that God can “just cheer up” and everything is fine – rather the opposite! God’s wrath against sin is holy and unchanging.

    I am a particular fan of Athanasius, and I do recommend his teaching on this point – profound yet direct (see the quote above).

    • Michael, of course I don’t think that God could just “cheer up” and everything would be fine! However, your suggestion that God’s wrath is holy and unchanging raises questions. For the heart of my theological objections is any contention that the atonement changes God in any way.

      Thus my questions: are you saying that in God’s wrath not changing, that it has always existed? I suppose not since it is a response to sin. But are you saying that before sin there was no wrath and that when sin came God changed? God’s wrath comes as a response to sin, and thus sin is the cause of God’s wrath?

      A number of the Fathers, St. Isaac of Syria the best known among them, contend that God’s wrath is nothing other than God’s love. It is the love of the Father for His children, not to punish them for the sake of punishment, but to heal them for the sake of love. We have in Exodus 14:19-20, the pillar of fire standing between Israel and the Egyptians: “And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night.”

      It is a favorite verse in this regard. It was darkness to one and light to the other. Interestingly, it was not actually a cloud and darkness, for it was a pillar of fire. The problem was in the Egyptians.

      But there are serious theological problems (properly – problems in the doctrine of God), when people assert wrath to God as a response to sin. We can assert love to God, for God is love. He has always been love and will always be love. This is what is changeless. But if you posit wrath as a response to sin, then you posit something as a cause outside of God and that is just theological nonsense. The Lord does not change.

      Everything that has to do with God is holy, for God is Holy. But I don’t understand all of these things about a wrath as a response that is holy, unless the wrath is, as St. Isaac says, the love of God. If so, then we have no disagreement.

      • MichaelA says:

        “Michael, of course I don’t think that God could just “cheer up” and everything would be fine!”

        Okay, but as I read your post, you weren’t stating what you believed, but rather attributing a particular belief to those with whom you disagree. And I was pointing out that this is a distortion of the view held by these theologians. My apologies if I mistook a light-hearted comment for a serious one – unfortunately nuance and tone don’t always come through on the internet!

        “I suppose not since it is a response to sin. But are you saying that before sin there was no wrath and that when sin came God changed? God’s wrath comes as a response to sin, and thus sin is the cause of God’s wrath?”

        Of course. That is what Christ and his Apostles taught – its not my idea!

        “It is a favorite verse in this regard. It was darkness to one and light to the other.”

        Of course. The darkness fell onto the Egyptians because of their sin, and the light fell on the Israelites because of their obedience. The problem comes when we try to concentrate on that verse to the exclusion of others, in particular those where God’s wrath broke out on his own people because of their sin.

        “But if you posit wrath as a response to sin, then you posit something as a cause outside of God and that is just theological nonsense. The Lord does not change.”

        I don’t see it as nonsense at all. You are using “change” in a different sense to that of God’s immutability, but in that sense God changes all the time. When he exerts his mighty power to rescue his afflicted people – that is “change” (in the way that you use it). When condescends to be born in human flesh in order to save mankind, that is also “change”. But of course in another sense these things are not change at all – they are what we would expect as a result of God’s immutable character of love and holiness.

        In the same way, God “changed” when Adam and Eve sinned. They were now under sentence of death, which they were not before. But this is consistent with God’s character, in particular his holiness.

        As for there being a “cause” outside of God, why shouldn’t there be? It is only a cause that he allows, but there is still no particular reason why it can’t happen.

        “We can assert love to God, for God is love. He has always been love and will always be love.”

        Precisely. But the way in which that love is expressed depends on the circumstances and changes with them. Just as God’s holiness is unchanging, but the way in which it is expressed (e.g. wrath towards sin) depends on the circumstances.

        “But I don’t understand all of these things about a wrath as a response that is holy, unless the wrath is, as St. Isaac says, the love of God”

        Bit of a mix-up here – yes wrath is a response that is holy. And I see no particular problem with the example you gave above, that God’s pillar of fire was a blessing to the Israelites yet an expression of wrath to the Egyptians, at the same time. In those particular circumstances, it was the Egyptians who had sinned, and on whom the wrath of God fell.

        Re St Isaac, I will reserve judgment. Its always advisable to read Church Fathers in full context. But in any case, I am sure that St Isaac would never have considered teaching anything contrary to the teaching of Christ and his Apostles, so we may as well refer to their teaching as the ultimate source.

  14. MichaelA,
    I wrote a rather longish reply but it has become lost – doubtless in the wormholes of the internet. Frankly, I hardly know how to post a response to you. There seems to be a great gulf between how you speak of God and how I understand Him (within traditional Orthodox teaching). What you describe as taught by Christ and the Apostles is, to me, nothing of the sort. But I think our grounds for conversation are simply too small.

  15. Fr. Jonathan Trebilco says:

    What a refreshing read. I cannot understand how this whole concept of satisfaction can be so difficult for people. Your assessment of the modern malaise and the EO confusion was spot on. Thank you.

    Fr. Jonathan Trebilco

  16. Fr. Jonathan,
    I should at least note that your assessment of Eastern Orthodoxy is off the mark. It is the errors of what satisfaction theory imputes to God (a human version of wrath – in the hands of many), as well as the error of suggesting that the atonement represents a change in God. The wrath of God, as most often understood in Orthodoxy is quite real, but is the unrelenting reality of His love. And yes, the love of God can wreak havoc in an unrepentant life (and it’s not too easy on the repentant either). When you say of God’s wrath that it is “difficult to comprehend that God is incapable of tyranny and that His righteous anger against sin is entirely free from selfishness or self-centeredness. We might even say that it is dispassionate, not in the sense of being uncaring but in the sense that it is fueled not by emotion but by the perfect attributes that make up God’s very being: holiness, righteousness, and love,” you have said something that is quite close to what I myself have said.
    But then you impugn motives (always a dangerous thing) and assume that the problem with God’s wrath is that the Orthodox cannot imagine a God who abhors sin. And Anglican says this to an Orthodox Christian? I understand that you do not belong to the Anglicans who have sold themselves to the devil, but Orthodoxy is almost standing alone in many places against sin that the world is now legislating as the new norm.
    Orthodoxy is not and never has been soft on sin and to suggest that this is the cause of many Orthodox thinkers objections to the satisfaction theory is to assume that all those who oppose you in this matter are just liberals, or liberal sympathizers. That’s just nonsense.
    But I think you misunderstand sin and wrath. I would urge you to push your thoughts on a dispassionate wrath, free of self-centeredness and selfishness – free from retribution and necessity. There is no necessity in God. If Trinitarian theology is rightly understand (Orthodoxy would say) then we do not even posit that God is subject to His nature (cf. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion).
    But refrain from imputing motives. It is presuming to understand a place where you’ve never been.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Fr. Stephen,

      I’m honestly a little bit baffled by your last comment even after reading it several times. Where did I say that Orthodoxy is soft on sin? I certainly do not think that this is the case. It is true, however, that western liberals and contemporary Eastern Orthodox apologists use almost identical arguments to criticize the doctrine of satisfaction. I say this not to impugn any motives to the Orthodox, or to western liberals for that matter, but simply to point out a rather curious convergence. I have no idea why this is the case.

      You think I misunderstand sin and wrath. Why? How? I think that’s a rather bullish charge to libel at someone without further explanation, particularly given that you just quoted and agreed with what I said on the matter.

      Moreover, while I recognize that you have been an Anglican and that this gives you a particular insight that not all Orthodox have, I don’t think that it is quite fair to expect me to become Orthodox before I am allowed to have an opinion about what Orthodoxy teaches (or, more aptly, an opinion about what some Orthodox teach since, as I noted above, it is often quite difficult to discover just what it is that Orthodoxy teaches definitively when it comes to salvation). If I have mischaracterized either your position or the teaching of the Orthodox Church, I am happy to receive correction. I would certainly hope, in the spirit of Christian brotherhood, you would be open to the same.

      May Christ’s name be praised and to Him be the glory.

      • Fr. Jonathan, the “soft on sin”, is how I interpreted the inability to “stomach” the wrath of God towards sin, and the comparison to liberals. However, to be more to the point on the problems of wrath you say:
        “A God who creates a world in which justice does not matter is a God who does not ever make things right, a God who allows holocausts and child abuse without the least bit of outrage or sympathy for the victims. In those extreme examples, it is easy to see the necessity and even the beauty of God’s wrath against sin. Yet we cringe when that same absolute intolerance of evil on God’s part is applied to us, despite the fact that it is in and through this attribute of God that we really are made holy.”

        It is your the psychologizing of God, on the one hand, that is problematic. “Outrage” and “sympathy” for the victims – are, frankly, sort of weak if you happen to be the victim. Our culture is filled with outraged people – we exhibit wonderfully moral feelings. But within a theodicy, this is extremely weak. I think of Ivan Karamazov’s speech in the chapter “Rebellion,” a searing indictment of weak accounts of God’s redemption. There can be no “beauty” of God’s wrath against sin – there is no beauty in the torments of hell. “God takes no delight in the death of a sinner,” and yet many Christians seem to find delight in God’s wrath being poured out on various sinners. Something should seem terribly amiss in this – and that this sense is lacking in many is disturbing. Abraham, a man after God’s own heart, interceded for the unrighteous of Sodom and Gomorrah – yet many Christians seem to be cheering for the brimstone to fall even sooner. Something is deeply wrong.

        As I’ve stated, it is the misreading of wrath that is objectionable in Orthodoxy. A primary example is its psychologization. Of course we use certain anthropomorphisms to think about God – we are anthropos. But the satisfaction theory takes an anthropomorphism and makes it the controlling image, the linchpin of salvation. The result is a caricature of God, a cartoon salvation. It is this that I describe as “unworthy” of worship. It has also been so abused in the preaching of the faith as to be the source of much unbelief in the modern world – not because people are perverse (though we are) – but because the imagery is not worthy of belief. Fr. Thomas Hopko has said, “Sometimes atheism can be a result of grace,” meaning the rejection of a false God requires grace as much as the acceptance of the true and living God.

        The writings of the fathers, particularly those who were the primary expositors of the great central doctrines of the faith understood well the problems with anthropomorphizing. The early Church wrestled with the problematic images of the OT accounts of God and found resolution – but a very different resolution than what I see in the modern proponents of wrath-based redemption.

        Wrath is a metaphor, an image, a word that describes the state of our relationship with God when we are out of relationship with God. But to take all of the psychological content of the word and turn it into a theology is simply bad theology.

        Sin, death, decay, corruption, wrath, etc. are all words for the same thing (and there are more words for this). This is the place that I suggest that contemplation begins – not in the psychology of a single word – but in the reality that it is meant to describe.

        The imagery of wrath – in JB Phillips language – makes your God too small.

    • seraphim says:

      Wonderful post, Father.

  17. Aaron says:

    It’s a mischaracterization to think all “liberal” Episcopalians have a low view of sin. They just don’t necessarily see a violent response by God based on retributive justice as the way that God deals with sin, or in keeping with the character of God.

    In my experience conservative Episcopalians have a selective view of sin- some sins are much worse than others to an inordinate, unbiblical degree. Social justice is written throughout the Prophets, and yet it is something that conservative Anglicans tend to downplay because it’s easier to focus on social issues that don’t threaten their own lifestyles.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Aaron,

      There is always something of a danger in referring to “liberals” or “conservatives” in a theological context since what we are describing at that point is not so much a tradition as a continuum of responses to that tradition. There’s no such thing as a “liberal” or “conservative” doctrine. Nevertheless, we can point to trends and draw some conclusions from them. I certainly don’t think that all liberal Episcopalians have a low view of sin, though many do. But that is not the primary problem with liberalism as such. The primary problem is that liberalism is essentially destructive in nature. It is a way of looking at a tradition or an institution that says, “What is wrong with this? What needs to be knocked down? What needs to be stripped away?” That is not always a bad thing, particularly when it results in preservation of what really matters by dumping what does not, a kind of refinement that cracks the coal and leaves a diamond in its place. But when such a view becomes dominant, without the balance of conservative voices that are attempting to preserve and protect that which has been passed down, eventually the only remaining impulse is to destroy. Everything is sacrificed and nothing is sacred. Or, as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

      Thus, the doctrine of satisfaction is dismissed with sweeping efficiency by many liberals because it doesn’t fit with a particular idea of God. When this is counter balanced against the scriptural and patristic witness, liberals tend to either pick and choose, expounding one passage to the exclusion of others, or else to dismiss the entire enterprise of returning to biblical authority as being an antiquated notion of a bygone era. At that point, it becomes very difficult to hold a conversation anymore because the first principles that make conversation possible have become so distorted.

      In terms of your experience with conservative Episcopalians, well, it’s all but impossible to argue with an experiential claim. I will say that in my experience, the range of understanding amongst those who would use the term “conservative” is a lot broader than it is amongst “liberals,” in part because the whole enterprise of conservatism is about reacting against attempts to destroy that which we have received. There is no need to conserve that which is not threatened. And given that different people and different groups have become alarmed at different points in the process, there is a lot of diversity amongst conservatives. I daresay, there are precious few pure liberals. Everyone is conservative about something.

      For my part, I have no problem with the idea of social justice or with denouncing the kinds of sins that are commonly associated with it, such as ecological destruction, over consumption, oppression, inequality and abuse of women, etc. It does trouble me when those who would call themselves conservatives dismiss or downplay these things. What often puzzles me though is why the issues of sin that are commonly associated with “conservatives” are dismissed as cultural issues rather than issues of social justice as well. Abortion is one of the great social justice issues of our time. It deserves to be fought every bit as much as poverty and global warming.

      Finally, though, I think it’s important to note that when we are discussing sin in the context of the atonement, we are not so much talking about individual wrong acts as we are the poison that lies at the center of our being. Since the fall, humanity has not been right. We live under a condition of sin, not just in terms of our actions but in terms of our hearts. This is why Jesus says that what defiles a man is what comes out of his heart and not what goes into his belly (Matthew 15:13-23). It is the condition of our hearts that the cross heals, and once the heart is healed the bad fruit that comes from it withers and is replaced by the good fruit of righteousness.

      • Aaron says:

        Fr. Jonathan, you make some good points and in the future I’ll try to avoid the labels “conservative” or “liberal” when not necessary, but I wanted to try to avoid opening the can of worms over debating the real issue that’s largely dividing Anglicans in North America- human sexuality and the diversity of the church’s hermeneutics towards Scripture in this area. But I concede this does show the problem that we often talk too much in code words and symbols instead of talking about the real issues.

        I consider myself more aligned with the label “Emergent” and I value irenicism and dialogue over strict orthodoxies or ideologies, liberal or conservative. I’m more influenced by the thinking of Christians like Brian McLaren or Andrew Marin on this matter than garden-variety liberal Protestantism, which can be very uncompromising and open to mischaracterizing those with which they disagree (I’m thinking of someone like Diane Butler-Bass here, who often buys into the worst rhetoric of modernity and American exceptionalism), as well as having their own naivite.

  18. Aaron says:

    Based on my reading of Luther, I don’t see his views as fitting within “penal substitution”. He sees God’s wrath as present, but he also understands that God’s nature is ultimately loving but is often perceived as wrath due to the bondage to sin- he sees the cross relationally rather than forensically. Penal substitution on the other hand is shaped by Calvinism, that is ambiguous as to whether God’s nature is or is not particularly loving but it insists that our salvation has to be bound up in a humanistic understanding of justice based on retribution. Later Lutherans like Melcanthon emphasized a more forensic view but Luther’s view of the cross is much more mystical and less forensic.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I don’t think Luther’s view is antithetical to the doctrine of satisfaction at all. If anything, it reinforces that God’s wrath is an agent of our salvation. Many people have tried to pit Luther against Anselm or even against Melanchthon and Chemnitz on this, but frankly I just don’t see it. Satisfaction assumes and rests upon a multiplicity of models. Christus victor does not exclude penal substitution, nor does penal substitution exclude Christus victor.

      • Aaron says:

        I don’t even see Luther as understanding the Cross in terms of “Christus Victor” primarily. I do think Luther sees the Cross as dealing with God’s wrath: the the Cross is where any wrath God could have against sinners is exhausted in Jesus Christ’s sacrificial identification with a sinners just death. At times Luther also seems to understand our perception of God’s wrath as a misperception of his love due to our sinful nature. This fits with the experience of many doctors and mystics of the Church through the centuries as well. Melcanchthon or Clavin, on the other hand, start from a completely different place with different presuppositions about what the human problem is in relation to God . For Luther it was how he could know a gracious God, firstly… for Calvin its how to explain why some people have faith and others do not- a less pragmatic question, frankly. Luther’s view of the atonemnet is that the Cross shows God’s love and forgiveness despite the rebellion of sinners against God, Calvin is that it shows God’s justice despite his grace towards the elect.

  19. Aaron says:

    I have both experience in Orthodoxy (as a catechumen- I left because I had questions and concerns… about “traditional” attitudes to homosexuality and sexuality in general, and also how the Church interacts with western culture), Continuing Anglicanism (I moved on after realizing it is often overly romantic and sectarian),, and conservative and moderate expressions of Episcopalianism, and also contacts in the Church of England. Your characterization of Orthodox understanding of sin and atonement is off the mark. Orthodox do not at all have a weak view of sin, they just see a different response to sin as appropriate. Fr. Stephen’s words in particular are illuminating of the differences in the mindset.

    In my experiences of Orthodoxy, the Orthodox do not view sin lightly.. A godly heart mourns their own sins and the sins of the world without condemning sinners or the world in outrage, and always mindful that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead works in us today to reconcile the world back to God. Sadness and sorrow rather than outrage, condemnation, or disgust are the hallmarkrs of Orthodox awareness of our sinfulness before God.

    Needless to say, I have actually thought about returning to Orthodoxy even despite my differences with it, because I have found the Anglican world divided needlessly over issues of sexuality, with conservatives gravitating towards this false sense of unity-in-outrage and ignoring the real spiritual needs of people in the modern world. The Evangelical faction continuing to rely upon a naive biblical hermeneutic and anti-Catholicism, when they could be working to bring spiritual renewal to he culture instead of circling the wagons (I consider myself more Emergent than Liberal in my orientation). In short, that the dominant thing that young people in NA now think about Christians is that they are “anti-Gay”: what a terrible distortion of the Gospel and a scandal for the name of Christ! At least Orthodoxy may have the tools to deal with these challenges constructively- I’ve certainly met Orthodox clergy who are open to listening compassionately to the experiences of gay and lesbian Christians while also keeping themselves shaped within Holy Tradition. I am not convinced this is true of the Anglican world, most of the people that are critical of gays participating more in the life of the Church there are suspicious of tradition in general (or rather naive of their own traditions) and gravitate towards Biblicism.

  20. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    “… the doctrine of satisfaction which teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross not only forgives us our sins but also satisfies God’s holy and just wrath against us for our sin.”

    If I may, I’d like to join the conversation. Like Fr Stephen, I am a former Episcopal priest and now a priest in the Orthodox Church (Western Rite).

    I believe folks jump much too quickly from the wrath of God language in the New Testament to a doctrine of penal-substitutionary atonement. The language wrath can be interpreted in several different ways; and penal substitution, which presupposes a retributive, punitive understanding of justice, is only one way—and, I suggest, the least plausible way.

    What’s wrong with the penal substitutionary theory of atonement? It makes God the problem! It makes him our enemy! Before God can be merciful to us, he has to somehow reconcile his justice with his mercy, which he allegedly does on the cross. And this, I submit, is profoundly unbiblical. I realize, of course, that proponents of a penal-substitutionary view of atonement believe that they are being faithful to the Scriptures (and they can provide numerous scholarly studies to support their position); but opponents of the penal view can also cite their biblical scholars (most recently, Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution, and Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel), as well as numerous Church Fathers.

    As noted by Fr Stephen the Orthodox Church emphatically opposes penal construals of the atonement. This does not mean the Orthodox Church is somehow weak on sin and judgment; but it does mean that she understands the atonement, culminating in the bloody crucifixion of the divine Son and his glorious resurrection on Easter morning, as a divine work whose purpose was to heal sin, destroy death, defeat Satan, transfigure human nature, and incorporate humanity into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the New Testament God is never our enemy. Death is our enemy. Sin is our enemy. Satan is our enemy. But God is never our enemy. He is our Father who sent his only begotten Son into the world to bear our sin and darkness unto everlasting life.

    Regarding the suggestion that divine wrath should be interpreted as an expression of divine love, I’m happy to entertain this; but this is not how the Reformers and their successors understood divine justice. For them divine justice is retributive and punitive; but for the Eastern Fathers (and I’m going to bracket, for the moment, the question of the eternal “punishment” of Gehenna), divine justice is restorative, rehabilitative, medicinal, pedagogical, transformative (see. e.g. Derek Flood’s
    Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers
    ), as well as his response to his critics, The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers). As St Isaac the Syrian memorably expressed the Orthodox understanding:

    “Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to Him is so very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?’ How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change.”

    I

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Fr. Aidan,

      It’s quite wonderful to have your comment. I’m a great admirer of your blog and have been enjoying the way that you have been walking carefully through the Fathers, trying to understand them with fresh eyes. I am also eager to see where your recent post on justification leads as I think you point out a great theological deficiency in contemporary Orthodoxy that need not be so and that bears further reflection and study. You may not remember me, but we actually had some correspondence once upon a time back when you were a newly converted Roman Catholic and I was a much younger and much more liberal seminarian. It is remarkable how time changes us. I’m grateful to have the chance to interact again.

      As to what you’ve said, I don’t know that there’s much to say that hasn’t already been hashed out in my discussion with Fr. Stephen. The more this conversation continues, the more I am coming to realize that both sides seem eager to claim to have everything the other does and more. My point has been that the western teaching on satisfaction, particularly in its Anglican form, does not diminish in any way the broader picture of salvation through union with Christ but actually brightens it with a much larger, much brighter biblical palette. In other words, we have union with Christ AND we see how God’s wrath and God’s justice fit into the picture as Scripture paints it. But the response from the Orthodox who have posted, as I am understanding it, seems to be that Orthodoxy has a place for God’s wrath and His justice but that the east understands these things in a metaphorical sense because everything is funneled through a much larger picture of theosis that is lacking in most western traditions. In other words, the Orthodox say, we have union with Christ AND we reserve a place for wrath and justice properly understood. Thus, both sides are claiming a catholic whole that they believe the other is lacking. In large measure, we’re saying a lot of the same things, but as I tease out the differences, it seems to me that a tremendous amount of this comes down to where you start. I’m working on a post right now that will hopefully explore some of that further. Suffice it to say, I think that it is dangerous and somewhat unnecessary to try to protect God from our misunderstandings of His ways, and my worry is that this is exactly what this turn to the metaphorical when it comes to God’s wrath actually does.

  21. Pingback: A Debate on Penal-substitutionary Atonement | Eclectic Orthodoxy

  22. Fr Hermogen Holste says:

    It seems to me that the real question is not the existence of the divine wrath – one can hardly deny that this is a prominent motif in both the Scriptures and Church tradition. Surely every Christian would recognise the reality of God’s wrath towards sin, violence, oppression and cruelty, would they not? Even the most ‘liberal’ Christians would accept the concept of a holy wrath against sexism, racism, economic injustice and homophobia.

    The real question is in regards to the object of the divine wrath. Against whom or what is God angry? The answer one often receives is that God is angry at sinners, but this does not seem to do justice to the Biblical narrative. In general, one finds in Scripture that God’s wrath is directed against the engine of oppression: Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, Nineveh, Jerusalem. Justice demands that the oppressor be overthrown and utterly destroyed. The prophetic word summons all those who live under the oppressor to abandon his rule. Those who refuse – those for whom the fall of Babylon the Great is woe, rather than triumph – are caught up in the onslaught. Those who heed the word of God are delivered.

    On Calvary the wrath of God is unleashed against the kingdom of sin and death and against its prince – the noetic Pharaoh, so to speak. The question that confronts each of us is whether to continue short-sightedly to collaborate with this lame-duck regime or else to leave the city behind and meet Christ outside the city gates. Do we long for the cooking-pots of Egypt, or do we follow Moses, even if that entails eating nothing but manna, suffering chastisement for our faults and wandering for forty years in the wilderness?

    Remember, the governing symbol for our redemption in Scripture and Tradition is the Exodus. ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.’ But some presentations of the Gospel make it sound as though God’s wrath were directed against the enslaved Israelites, rather than Pharaoh.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I love this comment (esp. “some presentations of the Gospel make it sound as though God’s wrath were directed against the enslaved Israelites, rather than Pharaoh”), and I was hoping that others might perhaps respond.

      This read reminded me of something that I learned from Robert Jenson a couple of decades ago: the gospel is good news! Whatever, our fears may be, whatever our plight may be, the gospel is good news. It is precisely the task of the preacher to interpret the good news of Christ’s resurrection to the evils, sufferings, and tragedies of our lives.

      The penal substitution of atonement does not do any of this. It creates a false dilemma regarding the divine wrath and then proposes a true solution in the Cross. But all of this is disconnected from the existential realities of life. Yes, it is true that we experience life as judgment and condemnation. Yes, it is true that we experience our condition as lived under wrath. If we are honest, we know this to be true. But Christ Jesus does not solve anything of this by a theoretical reconciliation of divine mercy and divine justice. He solves it by confronting us, in Calvary, in unconditional love and forgiveness. No one cares about theory. The only thing that matters is the gospel and the deliverance and liberation that it brings.

      For all of this, I recommend the writings of the Lutheran theologian, Gerhard Forde, especially in his discussions of atonement and justification in Christian Dogmatics, volume 2.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Hi Fr. Aidan,

        I’ll have to read Forde at some point. Sounds interesting.

        You’re right that the Gospel is good news! Seems sort of obvious, but it is so often lost. A lot of what I hear in churches sounds like bad news, especially the kind of moralistic self help nonsense that so often passes for Christian preaching. But the true Gospel, it gives me goosebumps and makes me cry and laugh all at the same time.

        I can’t say I quite understand what you mean about penal substitution creating a problem and a false solution. Again, I think penal substitution is only one part of the picture. There’s a lot going on in the atonement, more than Scripture reveals directly and certainly more than we can comprehend. But to me, the teaching that God’s wrath against sin is satisfied on the cross is joyous. How could it be otherwise? I don’t think it’s quite rich enough just to say that this is about reconciling God’s mercy with His justice, as if balancing a ledger. It’s much more apt to say that on the cross God’s justice, mercy, love, all come together and do their work to set us free from sin and death. What the cross actually does is transformative. The enemy of all light, all goodness, all hope, is sin, but sin is more than just the inclination towards evil. Sin is the very state of our blackened hearts. We are sin, and yet on the cross we are transformed so that we need not be sin anymore. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

        By the way, any update on Fr. Stephen? I hope that he’s recovering well.

  23. Elijahmaria says:

    To me as a Catholic [sitting here with an English translation of Anselm's Proslogium, Monologium, and Cur Deus Homo next to my keyboard], the most important issue in a Catholic understanding of redemption is the Catholic understanding of Justice which comes from the holy fathers of the east through Augustine, and then is synthesized in Anselm, who cannot be rightly understood without consulting all three titles list above.

    What I am about to say has been called ideology but it is what I learned as a child and what my spiritual father learned as a child and what my father’s father learned as a child.

    ~God’s justice is the good of creation. Redemption is the restoration of that good. Often the restoration of the good order of creation is painful.~

    This is not new teaching. It is not alien to Catholics such as myself. It is not Mary Lanser’s ideology. Before you slay the messenger, then, read all of Anselm who presents God’s justice and mercy as a loving restoration of the good of creation. In fact, as a child, I was taught that the sacrament of penance was not a punishment. The key elements in penance were and remain genuine compunction and restitution. My participation in Christ’s act of redemption. It’s called theosis in the east and divinization in the west. You cannot be a participant with sin in your mouth, heart, mind and hands.

    The fulfillment of the law, Jesus the Christ, came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first.

    As far as I am concerned as a Catholic, one cannot grasp atonement without a clear understanding of Justice as restitution, restoration, transfiguration. The spiritual masters of east and west, the monastic saints and founders, teach a path to holiness that supports this view in very active and real ways of being in this world.

    I don’t know if there’s anyone here to support what I write here. I don’t plan on coming back to find out who tells me I am full of hooey and that the Catholic Church has changed her position since Anslem. I don’t really care what any of you believe. If I sound a bit sour on the subject, I am, but I keep pressing hoping against hope that at some point somebody comes into the conversation and says “Yes. She is not making this up.”…. I am not “of the west” or “western” in my thinking and believing. I am Catholic. And if I had to land on any square in this discussion, it would be with Father Stephen. Thus far, He comes closest of all to what I believe and what I have learned. Enjoy your discussion.

    In the Risen Christ!

    M.

  24. elijahmaria says:

    To me as a Catholic [sitting here with an English translation of Anselm's Proslogium, Monologium, and Cur Deus Homo next to my keyboard], the most important issue in a Catholic understanding of redemption is the Catholic understanding of Justice which comes from the holy fathers of the east through Augustine, and then is synthesized in Anselm, who cannot be rightly understood without consulting all three titles list above.

    What I am about to say has been called ideology but it is what I learned as a child and what my spiritual father learned as a child and what my father’s father learned as a child.

    ~God’s justice is the good of creation. Redemption is the restoration of that good. Often the restoration of the good order of creation is painful.~

    This is not new teaching. It is not alien to Catholics such as myself. It is not Mary Lanser’s ideology. Before you slay the messenger, then, read all of Anselm who presents God’s justice and mercy as a loving restoration of the good of creation. In fact, as a child, I was taught that the sacrament of penance was not a punishment. The key elements in penance were and remain genuine compunction and restitution. My participation in Christ’s act of redemption. It’s called theosis in the east and divinization in the west. You cannot be a participant with sin in your mouth, heart, mind and hands.

    The fulfillment of the law, Jesus the Christ, came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first.

    As far as I am concerned as a Catholic, one cannot grasp atonement without a clear understanding of Justice as restitution, restoration, transfiguration. The spiritual masters of east and west, the monastic saints and founders, teach a path to holiness that supports this view in very active and real ways of being in this world.

    I don’t know if there’s anyone here to support what I write here. I don’t plan on coming back to find out who tells me I am full of hooey and that the Catholic Church has changed her position since Anslem. I don’t really care what any of you believe. If I sound a bit sour on the subject, I am, but I keep pressing hoping against hope that at some point somebody comes into the conversation and says “Yes. She is not making this up.”…. I am not “of the west” or “western” in my thinking and believing. I am Catholic. And if I had to land on any square in this discussion, it would be with Father Stephen. Thus far, He comes closest of all to what I believe and what I have learned. Enjoy your discussion.

    In the Risen Christ!

    M.

  25. mary benton says:

    We cannot understand God. We cannot even get close. Hence, any human writer or teacher is going to fall short in choosing words. (Including me.)

    To speak of God’s “wrath”, suggests that God gets mad. To speak of a penalty being paid sounds like God will only stop being mad when the proper price is paid. To speak of atonement in this way and the bloody death of Jesus as the “price”, makes God sound brutal and savage. He will only be satisfied with a killing. (I doubt that this is the view of anyone here, but we do hear it from some who speak in Christianity’s name.)

    Since all we have are words, I would state it differently. (Forgive me; I do not have all of the scholarly knowledge that others here do.) I believe that our sin and evil “breaks God’s heart”. He wants us to know His love and share it among ourselves – but instead WE get angry and want to penalize and kill those who do wrong. He is love and we are wrathful; in our sin, we call God what we are.

    For us to be saved, God does not need to change – but we do. God enables our transformation as He gives Himself completely in love, becoming human and accepting death at our hands. Ultimately, in His resurrection, He demonstrates that our wrath cannot kill His love. In resurrection, He invites us to abandon wrath as the solution and join the great Love (i.e. become one with Him).

    Let us join the great Love.

  26. philjames says:

    I’m about to demonstrate one of the amazing new possibilities of a world with the internet: an unqualified, uninvited and unknown person may actually intrude into a conversation of his betters. Of course the ability doesn’t alter the inappropriateness. I’m afraid my lack of shame is indicative of the slight flaw in my character. :-)

    In my experience as an evangelical, I heard (perhaps wrongly) that law/justice was the ultimate reality. It tied even God’s hands, and that was what the atonement was about. This is wrong headed. Love is the deeper magic.

    I believe Fr. Holste’s comment is helpful. In Christ our God judged Sin- not sinners; nor even Christ.

    On the cross he demonstrated his attitude towards sin. He hates all dehumanizing behavior because he loves those it afflicts. This doesn’t seem difficult to me. I have six children, and I suspect every parent worthy of the name understands how this works in regards to the cancer, or bullying, or addiction or pedophilia or psychological struggles that threaten the ones we love.

    These things are not insignificant (not that anyone would suggest that they are). They deserve and require condemnation- hatred even, but a hatred that flows from love.

    This condemnation was worked out as ‘historically’ as any other in scripture (or other history for that matter.) This seems key to me; and often ignored. There is no need for ‘heavenly transactions’ or ‘spiritual books of accounts.’ The mechanics are as ‘mundane’ as was Jezebel’s fall from the window. It mattered that Jesus was Jewish. It mattered that Jesus was Israel’s king.

    His people lay under a historical covenantal curse, which they freely entered into- as recorded in Duet. The sanctions of that curse were just. Israel acknowledged it. Upon breaking that covenant, she would get what the rebellion deserved. It was that curse- that freely entered into arrangement of just deserts- that Israel languished under historically until the arrival of Christ. As her Messiah, he exhausted the curse on himself.

    What does the king’s death mean? From the side of God, it declares what God thinks of sin- his negative judgment and wrath. From the side of perfected man (through the faithful submission of Jesus)- an ‘Amen’ to God’s judgment on sin.

    His death was revelatory- a judgment- in that its historical context made its meaning clear. The king died outside the walls of his capital city at the hands of those who were the just curse, which the sins of his people brought upon themselves- and by a cursed method of execution as stipulated by covenant. All of this ‘in history.

    Of course this was also a waypoint on the mission to invade the stronghold of the enemy- death; and it was to the end of Easter morning in which God vindicated the faithfulness of the Christ and brought about a new creation; and of the Ascension in which a human being took his place on the throne of the universe, etc

    I know this looks presumptive, but just out of fear of being misunderstood I’m linking this: http://dappledthoughts.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/christ-died-for-our-sins/

    Oh… Anglican, here.

    Christ’s peace,
    Phil

    • The Law was never considered a curse, not even by St. Paul a Pharisee of Pharisees. It was the school teacher for God’s children to teach them right from wrong. On the contrary it was considered the Grace of God that He should form them into a community, His people. The Law showed them how to live in loving accord with their fellow community members as well as God. They too knew that the spirit of the Law was love. Before I became Orthodox, I took a 2-yr hiatus as a Jewish proselyte. I thank God that He did not allow me to follow my own will to finish my conversion. But one thing I learned from the Jewish people is that the Law was/is good & bestowed from a loving God. Only certain Protestants view it as legalistic & punitive.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Saint Paul would beg to differ with you on the question of whether or not the law is a curse:

        10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for “He who through faith is righteous shall live”; 12 but the law does not rest on faith, for “He who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree” — 14 that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:10-14)

        This does not mean, of course, that the law is somehow evil or unfair. The law is good. It is God’s law and it is therefore righteous and holy. But it cannot free us. It can only condemn us. And it is for this reason that Paul calls it a curse, one which is only broken through Christ, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

      • Fr Hermogen Holste says:

        Fr Jonathan,
        I fear you’ve misunderstood St Paul here – as do so many. The Apostle is not calling the law itself a curse, but saying that Christ has delivered us from the law’s curse, that is, from the curse that is contained within the law: ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’

  27. Cal says:

    It must be said that God’s wrath is His love, but His wrath is a real self-motivated thing. What is it? It is God’s rejection. Yes God is not mankind’s enemy, but he surely is an enemy to those who’ve aligned themselves to sin and death. All throughout the Scriptures you hear bellows against the wicked. This is too easily twisted and contorted to look like the sick image of Westboro baptists holding up their signs. No.

    God loves the wicked, even as they are his enemies. Yet God reconciles his enemies. I’m not terribly on board with Anselm but I do believe penal substitution is a part of the image we find of atonement. When Adam was cast out, he was handed over to death. He no longer had the tree of life, there was only death. That’s the penalty that must be absolved. God in flesh becomes that curse, that penalty, so we are justified. The legal framework is a part of Paul’s description, though one of many.

    It must also be said that the wrath of the Father is the same wrath of the Son. Who can stand before the wrath of the Lamb (Rev 6:16)? Union to Christ is the very center of the Gospel, but it is made up of many images. Destroying the power of Sin, satisfying the wrath, is one of them.

    2 cents,
    Cal

  28. This discussion makes me want to look more into Eastern Orthodoxy.

  29. Cal says:

    Should also add: I’m completely onboard with fatherstephen in blasting so-called evangelicals who are all about getting the brimstone ready. Satisfaction is about God’s Israel (Jesus) taking Sin and destroying it in God’s wrath on the cross. It’s not about the Father beating up the Son because he wants to smash little people or God seeking to destroy the wicked. No, wickedness is the target. In other words, unjust people are not the targets, injustice is. Sadly, we humans become so wed to our idols of death, which is any god outside of Jesus Christ, that we die with them. Thankfully the Spirit is at work.

    Cal

  30. Cal says:

    Wow, Phil captured what I was getting at much better than I! I agree 100%. That’s not exhaustively the effects of atonement but you pretty well weaved penal substitution and christus victor together. Thanks for that.

  31. Alban says:

    Dear Father Jonathon:
    I hope you don’t mind me adding a few random thoughts by way of response to your blog piece on the issue of God’s wrath as it is understood and expounded within Western theories of the Atonement or Satisfaction.
    I am an Orthodox Christian, but I do not claim to speak for the Orthodox Church. My comments below are merely personal reflections on the issues discussed in the blog here.
    1. When the dominant Biblical language we use to describe God and His relationship with humankind centres around wrath, anger, retribution, satisfaction, punishment – we run a grave risk of creating a very distorted picture of God that may be no more than an anthropomorphic idol: God created in the image of man, and the worst qualities of man at that! How does one relate to such a god? If not with fear and resentment, then usually not at all. This is a god who may emerge more from the dark recesses of our fallen imagination than from the pages of the Bible, or from the living experience of the Church.

    2. How we talk about God and describe Him will determine not only how we relate to God, but how we relate to our fellow human beings. It does not take a great leap of the imagination to see that those who follow a God of wrath, anger and hatred, might themselves feel justified in expressing those same sentiments to sinners, those who have ‘offended God’. ‘God hates fags.’ Let us remember that this despicable slogan was carried on banners of people who claimed to be Christian.

    3. From a Scriptural perspective, fear of God and shame before Him appear only after the Fall of Adam and Eve and before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. As soon as humankind, as represented by Adam and Eve, have separated themselves from communion with God through the sin of choosing themselves over Him, their view of Him changes. It would appear that because of sin, they struggled to see God as He revealed Himself. Sin did not change God – how could it? But it changed how Adam and Eve perceived and related to Him. Might sin and/or our fallen nature be responsible for our need to focus on God’s wrath and anger as fallen Adam and Eve did?

    4. It is true that Scripture uses various metaphors, including legal and forensic ones, to reveal the mystery of WHAT God is accomplishing (salvation) for humanity and all of creation through His Son and His Spirit. But these Biblical metaphors are simply that: metaphors, whose main purpose is not to render the mystery of salvation intelligible to the intellect, but rather to make it available to be experienced by Christians as the transformative power of communion with God.

    5. Orthodox Christians are less concerned with atonement or satisfaction, and more concerned with salvation; and they are less concerned with understanding salvation than they are with experiencing it! For Orthodox Christians, salvation is a mystery revealed in metaphor and experienced in worship. Not mystery in the sense of ‘we have no idea what it is about’, but rather mystery in the Biblical sense of being a partial revelation of something beyond our capacity to grasp or understand, but are invited to experience. Sadly, Western theology, Catholic and Protestant, appears to be highly intolerant of mysteries. In its quest to acquire certainty (intellectual or emotional) Western Christian theology has often taken Biblical metaphors as FACTS, and used them as the basis to develop highly speculative theories to explain Divinely revealed mysteries, often trying to provide explanations where no explanation is either possible or necessary. This is true, I believe, as much of the theories of atonement which purport to explain the mystery of salvation in terms of HOW it is wrought, just as much as it is of the theory of transubstantiation, which purports to explain exactly HOW the Eucharistic elements are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.

    Alban

  32. Fr. Jonathan,

    Thank you for your kind & thorough answer.
    “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse…”
    I did not propose such a reliance of the Law & I whole-heartedly agree with what you wrote regards St. Paul. Yes, we are to rely on Christ (the fulfillment of the Law). The “curse” of the law is that it makes plain & clear our standing before God as fallen & sinful in stark contrast to God’s holiness. Ironically, this is the same “standing” that had been evident since the Fall in the Garden by Adam & Eve.

    I was specifically addressing the comment:
    “His people lay under a historical covenantal curse, which they freely entered into-”
    This is simply not a true statement. The people freely entered into a covenant (not a curse) with God who gave them instructions (laws/Law) as to how to live with each other as well as true worship of Himself. The whole point of the Law was to teach the people to love God & to love each other as well. The example of God’s people was to shine forth to all nations of the earth & thus to reveal God to all, again through the Law. This however, the people failed to do as they devised man-made “laws” to circumvent the Law. This also showed that they failed to deduce the purpose of the Law–to bring them to holiness.

    Remember St. Paul’s words to them, “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” The Galatians to whom St. Paul wrote were in conflict between Judaizers who claimed Gentiles had to be circumcised into Judaism (of which Christianity at the time was considered just another Jewish sect) & follow the Mosaic dietary laws in order to follow Christ vs. those who rejected the idea of circumcision & dietary laws such as St. Paul. A loose modern equivalent would be to insist that a 16-yr. old learn how to drive a car & then put them in the cockpit of an airplane. Apparently many of the Galatians were being convinced by the Judaizers to return to the Mosaic Law which was now impossible as Christ not only fulfilled the Law, but more importantly He transcended the Law as well. This was St. Paul’s point, not that the Law was “a historical covenantal curse”.

    “This does not mean, of course, that the law is somehow evil or unfair. The law is good. It is God’s law and it is therefore righteous and holy. But it cannot free us.”
    Thank you for agreeing with & validating my original point. I did not say or imply in any way that it could “free us” however. That would amount to heresy.

    • philjames says:

      I’m sorry for the confusion. That was sloppy of me. Obviously, it’s not just my character that is flawed. :-) You’re right. The people didn’t freely enter into a curse. Rather they freely entered into a covenant that included sanctions. It’s all there in Deut 27. “Cursed be, cursed be, cursed be….

      As for the ‘freely’ bit- in the account Moses declares curses over and over, and all the people respond with “Amen” each time.

      It is this passage that St. Paul quotes in Galatians.

      During the same assembly God tells them (Deut 28:15-68) what form the curse will take. They will be invaded, cities destroyed, scattered, etc, etc. According to Holy Scripture, that is the curse of the law; or so it seems clear to me.

      The rest of the OT is the working out of that curse in invasion, exile etc. In fact a little further on in Deut, God tells them that they were going to fail and get the whammy, but that he would eventually restore them. Since that is the actual curse of scripture, I believe it was that curse that Israel’s king exhausted outside of the walls of his capital city.

      By the way, I also think that “(Making) plain & clear our standing before God as fallen & sinful in stark contrast to God’s holiness” is grace, not cursing.

      I agree completely that Israel was called to be a city on the hill, but…

      … she failed; and her failure brought God’s faithfulness into question. Israel was his program for the salvation of the world, and the rescue squad had careened off a cliff before reaching those they were sent to help. It wasn’t a matter of taking a curve too fast- driving aggressively to arrive at the scene of the accident more quickly. They were texting, DUI… street racing the other nations. Who’s in charge of this outfit? It looked bad for God.

      Romans is St. Paul’s vindication of God’s faithfulness. It turns out that Israel’s failure and (temporary) rejection was a part of God’s plan to rescue the world all along, but counter intuitively being one of the elect means being used up for the sake of the world- as was The Elect one on the cross (This too is in St. Paul’s account of Israel in Romans)

      Israel failure allowed God to judge sin unequivocally in her king. The law turned ‘sin’ into transgression and intensified it- focused it; so that it could be dealt with. To borrow an image from Wright- the law turned Israel into the little trailer in which bomb squads safely detonate destructive devices. In Israel God detonated the sins of the world.

      God judged sin in the execution of her king, and then moved on to overcome Sin and Death by bursting them open from the inside in Christ’s subsequent resurrection/justification/glorification three days later.

  33. mary benton says:

    I just read on Father Stephen’s blog that he is the hospital. (He wrote the message himself which is a good sign.) Passing on the message here to ask your prayers for him.

  34. I’m sorry to hear that Father Stephen is in the hospital. I will pray for him.
    I have been reading all these various comments a long with Father Jonathan’s original article with interest. I’m afraid I’m getting a bit confused and lost. The thing I keep thinking of is “is this helping anyone who is lost and without faith come to faith in the Jesus Christ?” I’m really not sure that it is to be honest. Most of the people I work with are secular people who are either against the notion of God, or who have a really weak idea of who God is and see Jesus as a “nice guy” or something. I guess that is the fault of the various churches here in southern Ontario? Perhaps if they had all been Classical Anglicans or Orthodox everything would be better? Maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that these folks would have no time for this discussion and would only reinforce their reasons for not listening to the Good News. I agree with Eugene who wrote earlier that the Buddhists are beating us actually helping people with their lives day to day.
    I really feel that the Church has got to start over. I’m not sure who has sold out to the devil (I hope I haven’t). People are so unbelieving that a bishop dressed in fancy clothes is going to make no impression on them. Perhaps if he took off his vestments and spent time working alongside them and experiencing their lives and feeling the wrath of unkind employers or uncompassionate bankers or something they might start listening.
    Thank you
    Ian

    • Father Thorpus says:

      One Eastern Orthodox theologian has said, in commentary on the feeding of the 5,000, that people may eat and eat and drink and drink and still go to Hell. So the Buddhists are helping more people – we Christians aren’t called to be the best at that; we’re called to be the best at Christ, being like Him, worshiping Him, proclaiming Him, loving God and humanity as He loved (which very seldom worked itself out in feeding the hungry, for instance).

      as to whether theology of the atonement is helping anyone come to faith in Christ, I offer this testimony. My church has recently begun a door-to-door evangelism program, and with the first 156 doors we knocked on, we did not talk about the cross and the atonement and sin getting taken care of and peace being made between us and God. We talked about God’s love and the free benefits you can get from being a Christian. And we had exactly zero people come to faith. Then we switched to talking directly about the atonement, and we’ve had at least 2 people come to faith every single outing since then. Practically, the atonement works in Evangelism in a way that a generic “God loves you and wants to bless you” simply doesn’t. Paul’s strategy to know only Christ and Him crucified was a practical adaptation that worked on the ground with real people, not a theological principle from the ivory tower.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        I would love to hear more about this change in strategy some time.

      • I’m glad you had so much success with your evangelism programme. I’m not surprised, actually, that you had more success when mentioning atonement. It is certainly probably the most important thing to mention! I didn’t mean to say that it wasn’t, I’m sorry that it came across that way.
        If God loves us so much that he would come and die in a horrible way in the person of Jesus Christ, that is a message we should share! But what is our understanding of this sacrifice or the depth of our faith in it? I mean, I could say “Yes I agree with you, I see what you are saying and I’m coming to your church” but still crucify others in various ways. I can’t understand, for example, why the church doesn’t speak out more strongly against various forms of loan sharking (in Canada there are these legal “pay day loan” businesses that charge exorbitant interest). How do we know Christ crucified in a situation like that?
        I agree that the “God loves you” method doesn’t really work. How can I talk about the atonement with the people I work with when they are complaining about being emotionally abused by a spouse or ex spouse, having trouble with their children or struggling with addictions, or having careless sexual encounters or compulsively lying? I am sincerely asking because I don’t know what to say to them and they are not reading any blogs.

  35. sgstorey says:

    Hi Father Jonathan :)
    So from my hardly close reading of your article, am I to understand that you don’t hold both Chirstus Victor and Satisfaction as true at the same time? That is what I’ve been taught at my own church in the Diocese of Dallas. Sorry if I misunderstand you.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Quite the opposite. I agree with what you’ve been taught. There are multiple images of the atonement taught in Scripture and they’re all true. What parish are you at in Dallas? The more I interact with people there, the more impressed I am with that diocese.

  36. Pingback: Where We Start and Where We Finish | The Conciliar Anglican

  37. Father Thorpus says:

    I love this article, but at this point there are so many responses that I don’t have the time to follow the discussion: so please forgive me if this is covered somewhere along this thread already. When we think if the wrath or majesty of God needing to be appeased (often labeled “propitiation” in contrast to “expiation” although this is not a biblical distinction), we often do get upset at that, in Fr. Jonathan’s brilliant words, a veiled self-justification project. Americans aren’t used to majesty, so that explanation which worked so well for Europeans for hundreds of years gets lost on us. And for us the only folks whose anger needs to be appeased are manipulators and abusers, and we want at all costs to avoid painting God this way, quite understandably.

    But we should look at propitiatory atonement in terms of relationship. Suppose you send a meme to all your online friends that makes fun of your BFF that shows her sitting on the toilet – a compromising position but not with any wrongdoing on her part. Now, you could get arrested for cyber-bullying, charged, and punished — in this analogy, Jesus takes the punishment in substitution for us and that’s the substitutionary atonement, often labeled “expiation.” BUT there’s still the issue of restoring the relationship between you and your former BFF because, after all, that was a pretty horrible and very personal offense. Relationship restoration requires sincere repentance and apology; public re-avowal of the BFF’s honor to a degree that erases, as much as possible, all the public memory of the meme; digital deletion of the offensive meme itself; detective work to find out exactly who got ahold of that meme and spread it, to both stop its spread and destroy the capability of further and later spread; and probably years of hard work to earn back your BFF’s trust and care after being so deeply and personally betrayed. In this analogy, then, all that hard relationship work is what is meant by the propitiatory aspect of the atonement, and the point of the Gospel is not that we have to do all that in relation to God on our own, but rather that even all that hard relationship work has been done for us in Christ by His sacrifice. Through Christ, we have peace with God, though we have betrayed Him and do betray Him over and over again. And through Christ we love God, such that we want to avoid such betrayals in the future; and that’s where OUR hard work of relationship with God comes in – not to create peace and reconciliation with God, but to avoid future betrayals. What was described well in the 16th and 17th centuries as Majesty needing to be appeased; and in the other times as Wrath needing to be appeased; is today better expressed in terms of relationship restoration.

    again, sorry if this is ground already covered on this thread.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Thanks for this, Fr. Thorpe. That has to be the weirdest analogy for the atonement I’ve ever heard, but strangely enough I think it works. We had not gotten into the distinction between propitiation and expiation, but it’s a helpful one to make.

  38. JayGee says:

    “Christ exchanges His righteousness for our sin in the waters of Baptism, giving us by grace what is His by nature. In Baptism, the work of cross, bloody as all get out, is stamped onto us with an indelible mark. The Son does not save us by asking the Father to be a little more understanding about sin because boys will be boys and what does it really matter anyway? Rather, the Son voluntarily receives our sin into Himself and receives the wrath of the Father into Himself so that sin can be destroyed without destroying us.”

    Your phrasing here served to remind me of the profound truth of it all.

    Thank you for that, Fr. Jonathan

    Peace

  39. jan814 says:

    I have not read all the comments, so there may be exceptions. But those I read are astonishingly abstract and forms of verbal play unrelated to what Christians actually believed before the Council of Trent.

    I recently spent a month on pilgrimage in France, where I visited numerous cathedrals and abbeys. There simply are no crucifixes before 1100, and they remain rare before 1500. The cross is always presented as empty. This point is made, for example, in the tympanum and other carvings above and around the portals. Two images are especially frequent in the tympanum–Christ triumphant and The Last Judgement (in which Christ returns in triumph). In both of these, an angel is beside Christ, holding an empty cross.

    The meaning was obvious when the imaged was carved, and it obvious today to viewers. We enter into salvation by entering–both metaphorically and literally–into the church, the body of believers. That church exists because Jesus rose from the dead. Not because he was crucified. It exists because the cross and tomb are empty.

    It really is true that the idea of satisfaction was invented by Anselm and only gradually became accepted. Before the late middle ages, for educated Christian leaders–i.e. the cathedral canons, bishop, abbots, counts, and kings that paid for (and approved the decoration of) the great cathedrals and Abbeys–the meaning of Christianity is found in the Resurection and Ascension into Eternal Glory. The crucifixion was and is significant only as one of many steps along the road to Christ’s triumph.

    My point is this. We cannot know what ordinary folk thought. We cannot know whether anyone read the obscure theologians you all mention. But we do know that the educated leaders of the Christian world either never heard of or deliberately ignored the crucifixion, satisfaction, judgment, etc.

    When you ignore the universal beliefs of Christians living before 1100, how can your theories be accurate?

  40. Thank God for this article and Fr Jonathan’s balanced responses. I spent many years in the Eastern Orthodox communion and it is this attitude (denying the Western Tradition) of disgruntled ex-anglicans like Fr Stephen Freeman and other “convert orthodox” who really drove me out. The bottom line or summary of everything they preach is “The God of the West is the Mean Wrathful God, but the God of the East is the Nice Loving God – come worship the Nice God.” These folks have nothing cordial to say about the Western Tradition and spend all their time defining themselves in terms of not being like us. We are all heterodox/heretics without grace to them anyway. As someone once told me,

    “efforts of contemporary Eastern Orthodox Christians to elevate themselves by falsely derogating, disparaging, or otherwise detracting from Catholic (or Protestant) tradition in this fashion simply exhibits the degree to which Eastern Orthodoxy has fallen from its claim to embody the universal Church and succumbed to a negativism that is most aptly described as Anti-Western Orthodoxy”

    Now Fr Jonathan is obviously more patient and kind than I am toward these folks, but I am thankful for his article that takes all the scriptural evidence at face value. As for Fr Freeman and his neo-orthodox views here and elsewhere on his blog, all I can say is that Marcus Borg would be proud.

  41. Joseph says:

    Well,,
    I have recently started going to an Anglican church and all I can say is wow!!
    Having been Eastern Orthodox for about 7 years I can say is that they dismiss any and most of the western catholic tradition simply by saying its in error and how great the Eastern God is. The Eastern Orthodox cant even agree with the Copts, Ethiopians, etc. The Eastern Orthodox don’t even represent the whole Eastern tradition. So much for Orthodoxy being the one true church. Also why is there this interesting need to maintain ethnic titles before churches, Russian, Greek? The Eastern Orthodox sound better on paper then reality. Take it from someone who put up with it and all their old world nonsense.

Comments are closed.