“’God Became Human that We Might Be Made God’:
The Orthodox Understanding of Atonement as
I. Orthodox versus Roman Catholic and Protestant notions of atonement: The strangeness of juridical thought in Orthodox theology
· While the Orthodox regard Christ’s passion and death as central to his role as our savior, they do not embrace the notion that this is to be understood primarily or adequately as the satisfaction of a verdict of condemnation
· The latter idea has historically enjoyed currency in both Roman Catholic and Protestant thought, though it has recently come under critique by some theologians within both traditions. It has origins in certain ideas of St. Augustine, who developed a notion of the “seminal” transmission of the guilt and defect of original sin, rendering humanity into a “lump of sin” (“massa peccati”) justly condemned to death and damnation by God, and incapable of salvation without the intervention of God’s prevenient Grace. According to Augustine, Christ’s death offered God a vicarious satisfaction of the sentence placed upon humankind. Augustine argued that, as a result of the Fall, the Image of God had been obliterated from humanity. While the Image was restored in Christ, Augustine seems to have understood this especially in vicarious terms: We are “covered” by Christ’s sacrifice (“washed in the blood of the lamb” as some Protestants like to put it).
· Augustine developed these ideas in opposition to his understanding of Pelagius, who had little influence in Eastern Christendom. Augustine understood Pelagius to be arguing that humans, operating from free will, take the initiative toward their salvation, and may be capable of salvation without Divine Grace, though assisted by it. In reaction, Augustine asserted a rigorous understanding of divine predestination.
· Augustine, though considered one of the Fathers of the Church by the Orthodox, has had much less influence on the development of doctrine and theological thought in the East than in Western Christendom.
· St. Anselm of Canterbury later developed these ideas in legalistic terms: Humanity had “transgressed” God’s law, thereby earning from God a condemnation of death, which death sentence was paid on our behalf by Christ. This conception of Christ’s salvific work was taken up by the later Reformers, among whom it became the predominant way of understanding Christ’s saving us.
· Calvin, Luther, and their followers developed Augustine’s notions of original sin and predestination in the direction of a denial of human free will.
· Many Western Christians are unaware that this way of thinking about sin and salvation has never enjoyed much currency in the Eastern half of Christendom (the half that produced most of the Patristic writings), and thus has dubious claim to the status of truly catholic doctrine.
II. Adam (and Eve?) as priest(s): The Orthodox doctrine of Creation
A. Humanity as the Image of God: “In the image of God He created him, male and female created He them.”
III. Salvation from What? The Orthodox Understanding of “the Fall” and of “Damnation”
A. The Orthodox/Catholic understanding of human freewill as a reflection of the Divine image
B. Orthodox understanding of “the Fall”
1. The sin of Adam and Eve
· Not the desire to be like God, . . .
· . . . but the assumption that the means thereto implies a self-sufficiency which makes one independent of God—a misunderstanding of the nature of God and of freedom
C. “The Flaming Bush.” The Orthodox understanding of the identity of God’s love and judgment: God’s presence is no different, in-and-of-itself, in relation to the saved and the damned; but, it is experienced differently, according to one’s orientation: what appears as illumination to the receptive, is experienced as torment for those who resent God’s presence.
1. Fr. Vladimir Lossky: “The Love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.”
2. As Fr. Thomas Hopko points out in volume 7 of his series, The Orthodox Faith:
According to the saints, the "fire" that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same "fire" that will shine with splendor in the saints. It is the "fire" of God's love; the "fire" of God Himself who is Love. "For our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29), who "dwells in unapproachable light" (I Timothy 6:16). For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the "consuming fire" of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same “consuming fire" will be the cause of their "weeping" and their "gnashing of teeth." Thus it is the Church's spiritual teaching that God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment. God simply reveals Himself in the risen Lord Jesus in such a glorious way that no man can fail to behold His glory. It is the presence of God's splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light.
. . . those who find themselves in hell will be chastised by the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love, undergo no greater suffering than those produced by the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart, which has sinned against love, is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God ... But love acts in two ways, as suffering of the reproved, and as joy in the blessed! (St. Isaac of Syria, Mystic Treatises)
This teaching is found in many spiritual writers and saints: St. Maximus the Confessor, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. At the end of the ages God's glorious love is revealed for all to behold in the Face of Christ. Man's eternal destiny - heaven or hell, salvation or damnation - depends solely on his response to this love.
IV. Jesus as Savior, Salvation as Restoration to Full Communion
A. The Trinitarian Nature of Orthodox Theology: God as a Communion of Free Persons.
1. St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity/the “Three Angels”
2. Fr. John Zizioulas: “God is Communion”
3. Eastern Patrisitic emphasis on the “interpenetration” (perichoresis) of the three Persons of the Godhead
B. The Image distorted, but not destroyed: Divine grace presumes human free will--like responds to like
· But, God’s grace enjoys priority
C. Orthodox Christology in a Trinitarian light
1. Jaraslav Pelikan (The Spirit of Eastern Christendom) argues that the development of Patristic Christology—especially the development of ideas about the dual consubstantiality of God the Creator with Christ, and of Christ with humankind—must be understood as an extension of the trinitarian emphasis on the loving interpenetration and selflessness of the three Persons of the Godhead. The nature of the selfless love that exists among the three Persons of the Godhead, and which is God’s essence, is revealed in God’s “self-emptying” in the Incarnation, and in God’s selfless gift of self on the cross and in the Sacrament of Communion.
2. True freedom (divine and human) is most fully realized in love, and thus, in Communion: Divine Grace does not “overpower” human freedom, but seduces it, offering its fulfillment in the fullness of Communion.
3. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis (deification): To be in the fullness of Communion is to be united (through Christ) with God . . .
· not in God’s essence, but in God’s energies (thus avoiding the error of pantheism, preserving the distinction between Creator and creatures).
· Whereas Protestants (and to a lesser extent, Roman Catholics) have often placed an emphasis on the vicarious nature of Christ’s atoning work on our behalf, the Orthodox emphasize the participation of Christ in human nature as opening the way for our transfiguration in Christ, leading toward our recovery of the Divine Image as participants in and with Christ, and not in a limited, vicarious sense.
· The importance of the Transfiguration in Eastern Orthodox spirituality
· The Eastern Orthodox insist upon the ability of matter to participate in, and communicate, the “energies” of God.
· St. John of Damascus’s defense of icons (Orations on the Images)
· “The Triumph of Orthodoxy”—the First Sunday of Lent, celebrating the definition of iconoclasm (“icon bashing;” i.e., the denigration of the use of icons in prayer) as a heresy
· The Orthodox see iconolatry (the use of icons in prayer) as a safeguarding of the full meaning and extent of Christ’s Incarnation
· St. Gregory Palamas’ (13th-14th centuries) defense of “the uncreated light”
· Whereas some Protestants sing “washed in the blood of the lamb,” Orthodox proclaim, in the words of St. Irenaeus, that “He was made what we are, that He might make us to be what He is,” and in the words of St. Athanasius, that in Christ, “[God] became man that we might be made God.”
D. Orthodox Soteriology: The Orthodox Understanding of Christ as Savior
1. Christ’s role in the Gospels as “teacher” (rabbi) is to be understood in light of his fulfillment of the prophetic tradition, and of his role as the “second Adam” who “corrects” the errors of Adam and Eve
2. Christ’s role as teacher is most fully realized on the cross
B. Physician: Healer of our souls and bodies
C. Victor: “Destroying death by death”
· The “Easter Troparion,” sung joyfully and repeatedly in the Great Vigil of Pascha: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
D. Sacrifice: A primary aspect of Christ’s role as savior, but not to be contemplated independently of the other aspects; it “recapitulates” (summarizes and embodies) all other ways of symbolizing Christ’s role as savior
· Orthodox discomfort with Gibson’s movie, The Passion, and generally, with Roman Catholic and Protestant spiritual practices which tend toward focusing on the Passion and Death in a manner which abstracts from Christ’s roles as teacher, physican and victor
E. Ransom/Substitution: Christ as our antipsychon, the One who gives his life for our life
1. To be understood in term’s of a “participation soteriology,” which emphasizes God’s (through Christ) conferring upon us the gift(s) of God’s nature, where we, in our freedom, have misunderstood and turned away from that nature (though, paradoxically, it is our truest nature, too)
2. Not adequately or accurately expressed in terms such as “imputation” and/or “satisfaction”
F. Thus, from an Orthodox perspective, questions such as “Have you been saved?” or “When were you saved?” make little sense. A better question is, “How is Christ reaching out to save me right now, and how should I react?”
· The classical Orthodox image of salvation is the Icon of the Harrowing of Hell, so beautifully evoked in our Presiding Bishop’s recent Easter message, and in Fr. Stephen’s sermon during the Great Vigil.
Past and future incidents and images of salvation (including the Passover from Egypt [the Greek term for “Passover” is the word Orthodox use for Easter: “Pascha”] and Christ’s Incarnation, Ministry, Passion, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, Sending Forth of the Spirit, and eventual Second Coming and Sitting in Judgment) are templates for present experience intended to guide our current choices and acts. In this, Orthodox spirituality develops a trend in the Jewish tradition, which asks in the Passover feast, “How have we been brought out of Egypt?” (not, “How were our ancestors . . . ?”)
Salvation, then, is a process, not to be isolated in reference to some past event or events.
Unlike in historical expressions of Protestantism, Orthodoxy is reluctant to “divide” the reality of salvation into categories such as “justification” vs. “sanctification,” fearing that, as in Protestantism, priority might come to be afforded more to one of these terms (the former term, in the case at hand) than the other.
Specifically, salvation is a process of transformation. Thus, Orthodox spirituality places great emphasis on the spiritual formation of Christians. But, in conformity with the Orthodox emphasis on the perfectibility of “matter,” of its potential suitability as a vehicle of Divine Grace, this formation is not seen as mere “intellectual instruction.” (The Orthodox definition of a “theologian,” as used in the titles of certain saints, few of whom were anything like academic theologians in the Western sense, is “one who truly prays.”)
This understanding of salvation as a process of formation/transformation is experienced in the lengthy, repetitive, highly physical nature of Orthodox Liturgical forms and practices—the repetition of prayers, the frequency of crossing oneself, of making low bows and prostrations, of kissing icons and other materials vehicles of Grace, as well as in the tradition of hesychastic prayer. The intended effect has been likened to “water dripping on stone,” bringing about a gradual transformation which is physical as much as intellectual.
G. In harmony with the Orthodox emphasis on freedom of the will, there can be no absolute assurance of salvation. “Blessed assurance” could not be sung by the Orthodox. The Orthodox see in such a doctrine the danger of fostering spiritual and moral laxity. One always retains the freedom to say “no” to God’s proffered Grace, to reject Christ’s extended hand.
However, this is not generally the cause of unusual anxiety among the Orthodox (Luther’s agony as a monk over whether he was adequately “earning” salvation strikes many Orthodox as strange). The repudiation of the Calvinist understanding of “irresistible grace” does not mean that every Christian is “hovering over a pit,” liable at any moment to completely repudiate Christ. One’s character is transformed over a long process by Christ, and one would not expect this to be undone in an instant.
Thus, for the Orthodox, salvation involves both Divine action (which has priority) and a free, human response. The Orthodox describe this through use of the Pauline term, synergeia, “cooperation.”
However, this should not be confused with Pelagianism. As Bishop Kallistos Ware points out,
Any right exercise of our free will presupposes from the start the presence of divine grace . . . . Our cooperation with God is genuinely free, but there is nothing in our good actions that is exclusively our own. At every point, our human cooperation is itself the work of the Holy Spirit.
In choosing to cooperate with God’s will, we are participating in the fruition and perfecting of a gift God gives us, a gift intrinsic to the image of God in which we were created: our freedom, which is itself intrinsic to the gift of love.
How does Christ save us? I think the following fairly represents a response most Orthodox would not reject: We are made in the image of God, but that image is distorted through our misuse of the divine gift of freedom. In order to save us from this distorted state, God has entered into human experience. In human experience, the life of God is most fully revealed in Christ’s loving act of giving himself (God’s own self) up for us on the Cross. In the course of day-to-day experience, Christ is continually offering himself to us, offering us his hand to pull us into wider Communion with himself and with each other. This begins especially with our baptism, though even that is foreshadowed by God’s love experienced outside the formal boundaries of the Church. We are to seize his hand, availing ourselves of Christ’s example and influence as communicated in all God’s instruments—Scripture, Tradition, the Sacraments, each other—so that we may be restored and re-fashioned in the Divine Image. That is how Christ saves us.