Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My Journey, Part 13.2: A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)

This is part 13.2 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

We come to one of my most important shifts in thinking about the gospel, and one of my strongest reasons for choosing Orthodoxy over evangelicalism: atonement theology. That is, the branch of soteriology which asks, "Why did Christ [have to] die? What benefit or blessing does his death on the cross confer? How does the atonement work?" There is a real danger of hair-splitting in this inquiry, of allowing analysis of the atonement to take the place of obtaining its grace. But in my view, even more dangerous is simply concluding (perhaps because of denominational disagreements on the subject) that atonement theology doesn't matter, that Christ's death simply saves us and we don't have to know any more than that.

This is an example of the kind of relativism-bred-by-pluralism that I grew tired of within Protestantism. It is not immediately obvious how the Messiah's death is so vital to our salvation; the biblical authors devote attention (sometimes in significant amounts) to the atonement; therefore I believe it is important and worth studying, rather than simply glossing over. And, in the Orthodox understanding of atonement, it is especially important because western Christianity has almost entirely bought into a dangerous distortion of atonement theology.

I am speaking, of course, about satisfaction theology, and more specifically penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).

The purpose of this post is a thorough refutation of this doctrine (which was the #1 reason I had trouble sharing the gospel as an evangelical Christian) and a presentation of the atonement theology of the early church, which is still believed, sung, and prayed by the Orthodox Church today. The different between western and Orthodox understandings of the atonement can be summed up by the contrasting questions:

How can God mercifully forgive sinners while justly punishing sin?
How can God restore his justice by destroying sin and bringing dead sinners to life?

History of Penal Substitution

The prehistory of satisfaction

For context, I'll attempt to give a quick summary of the historical roots of PSA. Its precursor, the satisfaction theory of atonement, was primarily developed by medieval Latin theologians, but language of "satisfaction" (making reparations owed for harm done) began to be used in the early church. The second-century father Tertullian introduced the idea of repentance as "making satisfaction" to the Lord, within the context of the developing doctrine of penance. After Tertullian introduced satisfaction into the vocabulary of the church, the fourth-century theologian Hilary of Poitiers was the first to apply it to the death of Christ, interpreting the cross as an act of satisfaction made by Christ to God on behalf of sinners. At the time, relatively little was made of this idea of the crucifixion as satisfaction.

Anselm and the satisfaction theory of atonement

Satisfaction theology really took off during the transition from a patristic mindset to a scholastic one (which brought an increased focus on reason and systematization that has marked western theology ever since). One of the central questions addressed by theology of salvation (which was increasingly thought about in terms of a "plan" or "order" of salvation) around this time was the reconciliation of God's justice, understood as his wrath/severity toward sin, with his mercy (sound familiar?). The cross in particular was increasingly seen as the point at which these attributes came together and when salvation for humanity was decisively realized, even more so than the resurrection; atonement theology occupied a dominant place in soteriology. The atonement was thought of as an objective transaction of some kind between mankind God, mankind, and the devil, but there was much room for clarification within the old dogmas.

With this increased attention placed on it, the old patristic construal of the cross as some kind of a trap or fishhook for the devil was considered insufficient and gave way to Christ-crucified-as-victor-over-sin-and-death, but still more to Christ-crucified-as-victim, or even as a sacrificial victim in the Old Testament sense of the words "sacrifice" or "atonement". At the same time, a critical shift in the commonplace ransom theory of atonement was taking place. In the patristic understanding, Christ's death purchased our freedom from sin and death by acting as a ransom to the devil. But Latin theologians realized this approach had problems: how could God actually owe anything to the devil? What kind of legitimate claim could he possibly have over God, or us? And was it not idolatry to offer a sacrifice to a mere created being? Instead, insofar as the atonement was a sacrifice, it seemed it must be a sacrifice offered to God. But what could this mean? Enter Anselm.

Anselm was one of the theologians who helped initiate the Scholastic movement, which saw the development of reason as a distinct (but parallel) faculty to faith. Possibly alluding to Augustine, he wrote, "I believe that I may understand." Man's ability to reason was closely linked to the "image of God" and was believed to be intact even after the fall, unlike the moral likeness. So Anselm strongly believed that reason actively exercised could and should complement faith. To that end, in his book Cur Deus Homo? ("Why God Human?") he set out to explain the necessity of the Incarnation from reason alone, "without paying attention to Christ". In the process, he also explained how Christ's death could be a sacrifice offered to God without compromising the doctrine of divine immutability (as if the atonement fulfilled some need or satisfied some desire in God himself, or somehow changed him in his attitude toward us).

To do this, Anselm defined a concept that Jaroslav Pelikan refers to as "rightness", or maybe "uprightness". This is basically a quality of a creature in relation to its Creator which entails honoring him rightly, closely related to "truth" and "righteousness". In effect, Anselm said, we justly owe God a "debt of honor" (in other words, is its we, not God, who need to offer a sacrifice as payment). This concept of "rightness" applies to particular creatures but also more essentially to the creation itself; this cosmic debt of honor constitutes a sort of "moral order of the universe", the honor owed by creation at-large to God as Creator. The fall of man (and the fall of Satan and his angels before) constituted major disruptions or deficits of this moral order. Because of God's perfect justice, he could not simply ignore this breach in his honor or forgive sins by fiat, as this would violate the very moral order that God has to uphold to be consistent with his justice; the debt of honor had to be paid, either by punishment or some other means of satisfaction. (The concept of "satisfaction" already being known from the penitential system of the medieval church as "reparation or restoration of that which one had taken away by sinning", and simply being expanded to a cosmic scale)

So according to Anselm, the situation for humanity is something like this: we owe God a debt of honor/obedience, of which we defraud him because of our sins and because any good we do to make up for them was owed to God anyway, and so we owe God satisfaction for this dishonor. As Millard Erickson explains, "sin is basically failure to render God his due. By failing to give God his due, we take from God what is rightfully his and dishonor him." And even if we returned what we took, we owe him additional compensation for the injury we have done to his honor. How could God's justice be vindicated, the moral order of the universe be upheld, without his simply punishing humanity eternally for its sin?

So this is why God became man: no one but man owed God satisfaction for guilt, but only a being of infinite worth such as God could provide it. Anselm's reasoning for the logical necessity of the incarnation went like this: "Only man was liable for satisfaction, only God was capable of total satisfaction; therefore, 'it is necessary that a God-man render it.'" So the atonement of Christ was a sacrificial payment for satisfaction offered to God, by God in the flesh, on behalf of man. Because of their seemingly logically necessary nature, in the Christian west Anselm's conclusions were seen as a necessary implication of orthodox (Chalcedonian) Christology. Pelikan summarizes the Anselmian consensus: "Christ was what he was in order to do what he did."

The Reformation twist

Buoyed by the Scholastic movement and codified by Aquinas, the satisfaction theory of atonement remained the dominant one up until the Reformation (and beyond, in the Catholic Church), with some additions well-known among Protestants that pertain to the communication of Christ's satisfaction to the faithful, like the idea of man making satisfaction for his own sins through penance and of a "Treasury of Merit" filled by Christ and the saints from which we can draw. Of course the reformers rejected any implication that the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross was insufficient for salvation. But how was it sufficient?  They tended to answer this question in a way that differed subtly from Anselm.

In my analysis, much of this shift was due to the increased focus of early Protestant theology on the seriousness of sin, against Catholic teachings which were seen as neo-Pelagian. So sin replaced Anselm's concepts of honor or "rightness" as the focus of the atonement. The big problem of the human condition was still understood as God's wrath for sins resulting in death, but this was simply because sin was an affront to God's justice and had to be punished, not so much because it deprived him of the honor due him. In effect, the setting of the atonement moved from a civil to a criminal court. Because of this, justification, the forgiveness or non-reckoning of sins, was understood as the sine qua non of salvation. Man needed to recover the righteousness he had lost to sin to escape the wrath and judgment of God the judge.

In other words, the Reformation understanding of the cross differed from Anselm's in that Christ's death was no longer seen as producing honor which paid off the debt to God on humanity's behalf in order to avert punishment. Rather, it was seen as the actual punishment we deserved, underwent vicariously so that God's justice might be satisfied and we might be counted as righteous and forgiven rather than condemned and destroyed. Through his morally perfect life and innocent death, Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf, ending its accusatory role toward us as a divine demand which we could not fulfill, so that we could be justified and forgiven before God rather than condemned by his law. (One of the songs my old church sings has the lines "He has hushed the law's loud thunder/he has quenched Mount Sinai's flame" in reference to Christ's fulfilling the law on our behalf)

So the satisfaction theory of atonement was firmly enshrined in both Catholicism and Protestantism; it had effectively, if not officially, become a dogma. That Christ died to make satisfaction to God's justice for our guilt was not the subject of controversy in the Reformation, except with Protestant "heretics" like Socinus who questioned it (usually proffering an oversimplified explanation of the atonement in its place). The issue at hand was simply by whom the satisfaction was made, or rather whether any additional satisfaction (in the form of penance) was due from Christians after their justification. Other dimensions to the atonement were by no means out of the picture (Luther also articulated a form of Christus victor), but the satisfaction theory of atonement had become the primary explanation of why Christ suffered on the cross.

Tracing satisfaction

In short, the idea of Christ's death as "satisfaction" was introduced in the patristic era in an orthodox way, but morphed over time from one dimension of atonement theology into the overarching narrative of the cross, with drastic implications for God. Anselm's theology and the Reformation were decisive in developing satisfaction theology and giving western soteriology the distinctly juridical tinge that it still possesses today. Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor is quoted in his book A Secular Age describing the basic narrative of satisfaction theology and the roles played by Anselm and the Reformers:
God's honour and glory is paramount. But the honour of God is attacked by the sin of Adam. God owes it to his justice, and his glory to reject such creatures. But he is merciful. He gets satisfaction he must have for our sin through Christ; he works off the required punishment on him, and this allows us to be imputed just. 
I want to digress a comment to note here the fateful fact that Calvin, like the other Reformers, casts his doctrine of our incapacity and God's remedy for it in the juridicial-penal framework that he takes over from Augustine and later Anselm. There is one enigma which Christians (and perhaps realists of any persuasion) have to recognize, and that is the puzzle of evil; why, in spite of knowing that we are born for the highest, we sometimes not only inexplicably choose against it, but even feel that we cannot do otherwise. The symmetrical mystery (now for Christians alone) is that God can act to overcome this incapacity - the doctrine of grace. 
Anselm expressed this double mystery in terms of crime and punishment. The incapacity is explained as our just desert for our original falling away (which founding act remains shrouded in mystery, of course). Being inveterate sinners, we now deserve damnation. Not only is our punishment now permissible, but some has to be exacted as reparation for our fault, according to the juridical logical of this conception. God is nevertheless merciful, wants to save some of us. But in order to do this he has to have the reparation paid by his son, and then count it as satisfaction for our sins, in an act of gratuitous mercy. 
Needless to say, this wasn't the only way that the double mystery could be articulated. eastern fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa, put things differently. But Augustine and Anselm shaped the theology of Latin Christendom in this regard, and the Reformation, far from correcting this imbalance, aggravated it. The sense that this language, above all others, has got a lock on the mysteries, is an invitation to drive its logic through to the most counter-intuitive, not to say horrifying conclusions, like the doctrine of the damnation of the majority of humans, or double predestination. The confidence - not to say arrogance - with which these conclusions were drawn anticipates and offers a model for the later humanist hostility to mystery.

Statement of the Doctrine

Hopefully that historical tour was helpful, or at least accurate. As I have done in the past, I will now try to state the doctrine of PSA from a contemporary Reformed perspective as best I can, to avoid attacking a strawman. Evangelical descriptions of the doctrine tend to be closely tied in to (even indistinguishable from) statements of "the gospel" as a whole, taking the same basic shape if not having all the details. Among its supporters PSA is generally held to be the central or main theme of the atonement, and is merely filled in by other theories. Perhaps the Protestant sentiment about particular theories of atonement being secondary to the atonement itself is possible only the particular theory of PSA has become almost synonymous with the "mere atonement", making other theories seem optional.

The problem

A basic tenet of PSA is the Reformation doctrine of total depravity: the universal sinfulness of humanity, and the loss of the image and likeness of God with which man was created. This is made abundantly obvious in Romans 1-3, especially 3:9-20.  All our righteous acts are like filthy rags before God (Isa 64:6); "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick" (Jer 17:9). The natural person is conceived and born in sin (Psa 51:5), dead in transgressions (Eph 2:1-5), ignorant of the things of God (1 Cor 2:14), suppressing his truth (Rom 1:18), hostile to God and unable to submit to his law. (Rom 8:7) All of this is summed up in Reformed teaching in the concept of a "sinful nature", which Paul often refers to as "the flesh" (Rom 7:5,18, 8:3-13, 1 Cor 3:3, Gal 5:16) and which we all inherit from Adam (Rom 5:19). So Paul says in summary, "No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one," (Rom 3:10-13) and later, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom 3:23)

This creates a problem for God. Because he is just, he cannot tolerate sin or let anything sinful into his presence (Hab 1:13); he must punish sin as an offense to his justice. In fact, because the one against whom we sin is infinite, the punishment due our sins is also infinite: death and eternal punishment. Charles Hodge says of God's justice in his systematic theology, "Justice is a form of moral excellence. It belongs to the nature of God. It demands the punishment of sin." (3.7.3) For Hodge, God's justice is "the moral excellence with determines Him to punish sin and reward righteousness". (3.7.4) Because of this justice, "the Scriptures ... assume that if a man sins he must die." John Calvin similarly says of our dire situation,
For seeing no man can descend into himself, and seriously consider what he is, without feeling that God is angry and at enmity with him, and therefore anxiously longing for the means of regaining his favour (this cannot be without satisfaction), the certainty [of salvation] here required is of no ordinary description,—sinners, until freed from guilt, being always liable to the wrath and curse of God, who, as he is a just judge, cannot permit his law to be violated with impunity, but is armed for vengeance. (Institutes II.16.1)
But at the same time, because of his love for us (Eph 2:4-5), God desires for us to be saved and not perish. (1 Tim 2:4) As regards his intentions for us, God's justice and mercy are opposed to each other. Calvin says of God before our justification, "He loved even when he hated us." (II.16.4) Neither of these attributes can simply be set aside. He wants to be reconciled to us, but because of his righteousness this cannot happen when we are still in our sins; to simply forgive us by fiat would be a violation of his justice, of the cosmic moral economy he upholds. In order for God to forgive justly, his justice must be satisfied, but if by the destruction of sinners, there would be no one left to forgive. Hodge says, "That God cannot pardon sin without a satisfaction to justice, and that He cannot have fellowship with the unholy, are the two great truths which are revealed in the constitution of our nature as well as in the Scriptures, and which are recognized in all forms of religion, human or divine." (3.7.4)

So this is the human condition: because of our sins, we are condemned and cursed by the holy law of God because of our inability to obey it (Gal 3:10) and attain to life (Lev 18:5), dead in trespasses and sins and deserving of wrath and death (Eph 2:1-3), alienated from God and hostile to him (Col 1:21). We are in need of justification from God, of a righteousness that will make us acceptable to his justice so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to him in order to enjoy the blessing he has for us in his love. We owe God a debt not so much of honor, but of obedience, or righteousness, which we cannot give him because of our sin, so we justly pay with our lives.

The solution

This is the grim situation to which the cross is the solution. The atonement of Christ has its theological roots in the sacrificial system put in place through the Mosaic law, in which the blood of the sacrifices was used to make atonement for the people. (Lev 17:11) This "atonement", Hodge explains, means the covering or expiation of sin, or a ransom paid (as in Exo 30:12-16, where the two concepts are closely parallel). The phrase "make atonement for sin" or something similar comes up repeatedly in the law (as in Lev 16), and it refers to the vicarious satisfaction/punishment for sin through the sacrificial offering. For example, in Numbers 35:31 satisfaction for the sin of a murderer is posited as a direct alternative to putting the offender to death. Hodge further clarifies, "When, therefore, a sacrifice is said to cover sin it must mean that it expiates it, hides it from the eyes of justice by a satisfaction." (3.7.6) This satisfaction, this expiation of sins, was the purpose of the sacrificial system. Because of the strictness of God's justice, it is just as necessary for us as in Anselm's theology of satisfaction; "If sin be pardoned it can be pardoned in consistency with the divine justice only on the ground of a forensic penal satisfaction." (3.7.3)

In PSA, then, Christ's atoning death acts as the ultimate sacrifice for all of humanity. In doing so, he solves the three major human problems Scripture presents us with (condemnation under the law and liability to punishment, enmity with God, need for righteousness). Through Jesus forgiveness of sins is proclaimed, "and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses." (Acts 13:38-39) Through Jesus the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us (Rom 8:4) who are not justified by the law but by faith in Christ (Gal 2:21). Christ redeems us from the curse of the law by taking it on himself, becoming a curse for us. (Gal 3:10,13) God makes us alive with Christ, forgiving us of our trespasses "by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands." (Col 2:13-14) Elsewhere Scripture speaks of the atonement as a ransom or payment (Mat 20:28, 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23, 1 Tim 2:5-6, 1 Pet 1:18-19), an atoning or propitiating sacrifice (Eph 5:2, Heb 9:12-14,26, 10:12-14, 1 Jhn 2:2, 4:10). Christ is consistently described as the one who takes away our sins by taking their condemnation on himself (Jhn 1:29, Rom 4:25, 8:3, 2 Cor 5:21, Gal 1:4, 1 Pet 2:24).

Dealing with the second problem, by his atonement Christ reconciles us to God (Rom 5:8-11, 2 Cor 5:18-20, Eph 2:16) by satisfying his justice and calming his wrath for our sins. So in him we have a real (albeit alien) righteousness, by which we can be justly forgiven. (Rom 5:18-9, Col 1:14,19-22, 1 Jhn 1:7). I am presenting these as distinct benefits, but really they are all closely interconnected. The atonement is the ultimate exchange; by imputation, Jesus takes our sins and the penalty due them and we receive his perfect righteousness, by which the requirement of the law can be satisfied, by which we can be forgiven, enjoy fellowship with God. His justice is satisfied, his enmity with us ended, so he can lavish his utterly unmerited favor on us. Calvin describes all the blessings of the atonement through a lengthy rhetorical question:
But again, let him be told, as Scripture teaches, that he was estranged from God by sin, an heir of wrath, exposed to the curse of eternal death, excluded from all hope of salvation, a complete alien from the blessing of God, the slave of Satan, captive under the yoke of sin; in fine, doomed to horrible destruction, and already involved in it; that then Christ interposed, took the punishment upon himself and bore what by the just judgment of God was impending over sinners; with his own blood expiated the sins which rendered them hateful to God, by this expiation satisfied and duly propitiated God the Father, by this intercession appeased his anger, on this basis founded peace between God and men, and by this tie secured the Divine benevolence toward them; will not these considerations move him the more deeply, the more strikingly they represent the greatness of the calamity from which he was delivered? (II.16.2)
And elsewhere, on how Christ merited salvation when we could not:
That Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us with the Father, is accurately inferred from several passages of Scripture. I take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied for our sins, if he paid the penalty due by us, if he appeased God by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting. (II.17.3)
Two more passages will suffice to show the scriptural support commonly marshaled for PSA. The first is the "suffering servant" prophecy in Isaiah 52:13-53:12:
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. 14 As many were astonished at you-- his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind-- 15 so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand. 
1 Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
This passage has so many Christological overtones that Hodge says that in it "this doctrine [penal satisfaction] is presented with a clearness and copiousness which have extorted assent from the most unwilling minds." I will list the ones that jump out at me:
  • Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. A reference to the crucifixion, and likely also the resurrection and ascension.
  • his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind Describing the physical agony and mutilation Jesus underwent in his passion.
  • so shall he sprinkle many nations With his atoning blood, shed on the cross.
  • He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. The disgrace of the crucifixion—God in the flesh, condemned to die horribly.
  • Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. The imputation of our sin to the sinless savior, and his vicarious punishment on our behalf.
  • But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. Another clear statement of the atoning, vicariously justice-satisfying, sacrificial nature of Jesus' death.
  • All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Again, describing the imputation of our sins and iniquities to Jesus.
  • He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. Fulfilled by Jesus' silence and nonresistance in the hours leading up to his passion.
  • Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Clearly states that the atonement is the will of God in which his wrath is poured out on our substitute as an offering for our guilt; also presages Christ's subsequent glory as risen Lord and the firstborn from the dead. (Col 1:18, Rev 1:5)
  • by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Describes both sides of imputation: the accounting of our sin to Christ, and his righteousness to us.
  • he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. One last statement of the exchange that takes place on the cross: his bearing of our sin and the redemption of the transgressors.
But even more than Isaiah 52-53, the passage considered the clearest biblical statement of the doctrine is Romans 3:20-28.
20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
In my own words: In the gospel, the righteousness of God which we could not attain through the law (for because of our sin it only condemn us, and becomes our enemy) has been revealed apart from the law, through the law points to it: the righteousness of God which is imputed to us by faith in Jesus Christ. Though all sin and fall short of the perfection which divine justice requires of us, all are justified freely by grace through the redeeming, atoning work of Jesus Christ, who God presented as a propitiating sacrifice for our sins, allowing him to justly condemn sin and justify sinful people.

How, then, can a doctrine with such abundant scriptural support be wrong? Drastically.

Problems with Penal Substitution

A strong basis for PSA's interpretation of the atonement is its understanding of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament. Christ's atonement is seen as the fulfillment of this system, making "atonement" for sins in a similar (though magnified) way. Well, how sure are we that the purpose of the sacrifices commanded in the Mosaic law was to satisfy God's justice and take on his penalty for sins via the shedding of sacrificial blood? I will explain this more later, but I do not think this is the case; it is a reading into OT texts of what supporters of PSA believe it means. "Atonement" simply does not refer to what they think it does, to the vicarious punishment of a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice and make forgiveness possible, and there is no need to read it into the Pentateuch or anywhere else.

My reason for believing this takes me to my main critique of PSA: that it is based on a seriously distorted concept of God's "justice". Specifically, an understanding of divine justice that virtually equates it with the punishment of sin, that it needs to be "satisfied" in order to make possible grace and forgiveness. This notion of God's justice, which was inherited and solidified by Anselm and the Reformers, is what creates the perceived need for Christ's death as a "satisfaction" or offering to God's justice. And it is dangerously wrong.

First, this understanding of God's justice places a necessity on him. That is, it describes him as being bound by this part of his nature to respond in a certain way to sin, by punishment. Our sin appears to constrain God to act in a specific way, which I consider a violation of divine freedom. When else do we ever apply words like "need" or "must" to God? God doesn't seem similarly bound to love us in any specific way; in fact, in Reformed theology PSA is often held in parallel with an understanding of his sovereignty in which he "justly" predestines some to eternal damnation. It is hard to see how he is loving towards these in any meaningful sense, yet he is apparently constrained by his justice to condemn and penalize sin without exception. Anselm sought to explain how Christ's death is a sacrifice to God without ascribing any need to God himself, but through his ideas of "rightness" and the "moral order of the universe", I think he accomplished just the opposite.

Second, this understanding of God's justice as needing something (obedience/righteousness) from us and demanding "satisfaction" from us in some other fashion upon failing to get it is selfish, inward-oriented, and simply unworthy of God. As I have pointed out in what may be my most-referenced post, this is simply not the understanding of "justice" that we see throughout the Bible. We have every reason to believe that like the rest of his moral attributes, God's justice is not infinitely demanding but infinitely generous. As I said then, so I say now: God's justice is not in tension with his mercy, but closely aligned with it. It is not something negative or harmful we are spared from, but something positive we pray for and long to experience. It is his will to set the world right, the way he intended it to become from the start. It is his care for the wronged, the vulnerable, the weak, the needy, the oppressed, his will to show mercy and blessing to them. Yes, this can entail the punishment of those who set themselves in opposition to the agenda of justice, but this is not the essential purpose of justice any more than the ultimate purpose of our judicial system is to prosecute and sentence wrongdoers, but rather to foster a fair, safe, and peaceful society. Retribution is a part of how God's justice operates (perhaps more accurately, it is an instrument of justice), but I believe that vengeance simply for the sake of vengeance is no more becoming of God than it is of us.

An aside: especially within Calvinist theology, there exists an additional teaching on PSA based on combining this misconception of God's justice with divine simplicity (the philosophical idea that God's attributes are non-divisible and inseparable from himself; they are not things he "has" but things he eternally "is"). In this line of thinking, if God's glory is fully, eternally expressed (which it is), then all of his attributes must also be eternally expressed, since they are inseparable from who he is. This includes his "justice"; therefore, it is necessary that there be sin and its eternal punishment so that God's justice (as well as his mercy) may be eternally manifested. This article quotes several of the giants of Reformed theology (including Jonathan Edwards and Augustine) expressing this in their own words, and explores the implications. I hope that this doctrine is self-evidently repugnant to you; it is not drawn from the Bible, but from philosophy. In Augustine's case, suggesting that God requires an antithesis to fully manifest his glory reeks of Manichaean dualism. Again, it is unworthy of God to suggest that he is in any way dependent on sin or suffering, or still worse to suggest (as Calvin does) that he actually "arranged it" for his glory. Additionally, if God requires the punishment of evil to manifest his justice, then how was his justice displayed before the Fall, or even before creation?

Third, this understanding of God's justice subtly confuses the concepts of "consequence" and "penalty". There is hard-to-describe a difference in divine agency between these terms—God willing something in response to a human act vs. permitting the act and the effects it ordinarily has in his usual governance and upholding of the world. PSA is very clear that God's justice threatens us in the form of a penalty, by his treating us differently (and more negatively) than he otherwise would. The implication I tend to draw from this is that in PSA, the problem caused by our sin is primarily what God does to us for our sin, not simply what our sin does to us. This is clearest by far in the role of death. PSA is quite clear that death is a punishment from God—we sin (either individually or in Adam) and God curses us with suffering, toil, and death/mortality. But this makes God the author of death; we die not simply because we sin, but because God kills us for our sin. If this is the case, then what is the meaning of death as the last enemy to be destroyed by Christ (1 Cor 15:26)? God seems to be promising us that he will undo something that he himself did; how is this supposed to be the good news of the gospel? It is not good news; it is simply absurd. This confusion of consequence and penalty means that in PSA, the things God saves us from appear to be his own doing. As Richard Beck correctly emphasizes, it replaces the Devil with God the judge as the one from whom the atonement saves us. The God of PSA is simply too big, suffocatingly so: he has no one left to save us from but himself.

Fourth, this understanding of God's justice conflates sin with sinner. In my previous post on God's justice, I say, "Proponents of PSA easily slip from talking about God as angry at sin to God as angry at us." And I still think there is truth to this. The necessary punishment of sin according to divine justice is automatically equated with punishment of the sinner. Enmity and hostility toward sin become enmity and hostility toward the sinner. So Calvin says, "God, at the very time when he loved us, was hostile to us until reconciled in Christ," (II.17.2) or elsewhere, "in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us." (II.16.4) This is perhaps understandable within the Reformation doctrine of total depravity, according to which our nature is totally corrupted and dominated by sin, the image and likeness of God lost, so that sin and sinner become indistinguishable. But I believe God can see the difference. (An aside: I also consider rhetoric about God's holiness meaning that he is "allergic" to sin inadequate.)

Fifth, this understanding of God's justice makes him unable to actually forgive sins; he is only able to accept just satisfaction for them. As Hodge writes,
If sin be pardoned it can be pardoned in consistency with the divine justice only on the ground of a forensic penal satisfaction. ... That God cannot pardon sin without a satisfaction to justice, and that He cannot have fellowship with the unholy, are the two great truths which are revealed in the constitution of our nature as well as in the Scriptures, and which are recognized in all forms of religion, human or divine. (3.7.3,4)
Yet although we are commanded to forgive as God forgave us (Mat 6:14-15, Eph 4:32, Col 3:13), nowhere are we commanded to seek satisfaction or punishment for wrongs committed against us before forgiving; such a spirit is indeed contrary to authentic forgiveness. It is objected that God has a monopoly on retribution because he is uniquely God (Deu 32:35), but (a) this is still not equivalent to being unable to forgive unconditionally, and (b) which of God's other moral attributes operates differently than it does in us because he is God? Robin Phillips points out that even if we forgive others based on Christ's satisfaction for sins rather than some satisfaction of our own, how then can we forgive non-Christians/non-elect if Jesus didn't die for them? (After all, God apparently cannot) I suspect that this mistake is another consequence of total depravity; if sin is identified with sinner, unconditional forgiveness of the sinner and judgment of the sin appear to be incompatible; there is no difference between unconditionally forgiving a sinner and simply ignoring their sin (which is a leap I often see supporters of PSA make).

Sixth and finally, this understanding of God's justice introduces several other terms and concepts not present in Scripture which further confuse its soteriological conclusions. The characterization of divine justice as the governance of a "divine moral economy" or the need to preserve the "moral fiber of the universe" (to cite two examples from Millard Erickson) is a particularly puzzling imposition, one which I see nowhere in the Scriptures or the writings of the early Church. The whole idea of "merit" as a sort of moral currency which we need to procure in order for God to save us (as in Calvin: "Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us with the Father ... if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting") is unbiblical, a medieval innovation that views God as a sort of banker, as Morgan Guyton points out. N.T. Wright says of merit:
Part of the problem with seeing everything in terms of merit (as some medievals did, thereby conditioning the thought-world of the Reformation as well), whether it be the merit we should have and can't produce, the merit which God reckons to us, or whatever, is that even if we get the logic right we are still left with God as a distant bank manager, scrutinizing credit and debit sheets. (Justification, 163)
Additionally, the "biblical" logic of imputation is reliant on treating it like monetary debt through the lens of merit and is contrary to justice, common sense, and passages teaching that each is held responsible for his own sin like Deu 24:16 and Jer 31:30.

In a nutshell, PSA takes a metaphorical depiction of sin as a debt or something we need to be "ransomed" from and makes it into the central theme of the atonement, the way it "really works". It casts the whole atonement in a primarily forensic light and focuses on sin (and its penalty) as the basic problem from which the cross saves us, to the exclusion (or at least marginalization) of the other dimensions of atonement theology. it depicts salvation as a legal pardon or acquittal and a change in God's disposition toward us, in how he wills to act toward us. So Calvin: "And, therefore, if we would indulge the hope of having God placable and propitious to us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone, as it is to him alone it is owing that our sins, which necessarily provoked the wrath of God, are not imputed to us." (II.16.3) Again, I no longer deny that there is some kind of legal dimension to the gospel, but I am certain that PSA gets it wrong. The atonement does cleanse us of moral guilt, but this is the fulfillment of a necessity in us, not in God. In its telling, the crucial change in our salvation is not something in us or in the world, but in God and his intentions for us. God, it seems, is not unconditionally good to us; he has to be convinced (or rather, convince himself) to show love to us and forgive us. As I found, I could not share the God of PSA with others; now I can't worship him myself.

I ironically consider PSA a "legalistic" theology because of the place it gives to the law in the order of salvation. The law is what accuses and condemns us, revealing our lack of righteousness and the impending wrath of God; the righteousness imputed to us from Christ is acquired by his obeying the law perfectly and thus fulfilling it, freeing us from its curse. By depicting the law as effectively an extension of God's nature, PSA is able to equate condemnation by the law with the wrath of God. The problem with this teaching is that it ignores the fact that the law was given to one particular nation, not to the world at large. The curse of the law Paul mentions in Galatians 3:10 is particular to the Mosaic law, not the kind of universal law of conscience he talks about in Romans 2. The very fact that the creation-fall narrative is situated well before the giving of the law, even before the Abrahamic covenant, should alert us to the fact that the "curse of the law" is simply not sin, death, suffering, toil, the human condition, etc. And if the law is, as Millard Erickson says, "a transcript of the nature of God", then how have some of its provisions become nonbinding on Christians? It simply does not make sense to talk about the law in the way PSA does.

Another problem with casting salvation in a primarily forensic light is that it becomes a legal status or declaration, which doesn't actually do anything to you. If Luther's doctrine of simul iustus et peccator is true and we are still just as sinful (and therefore deserving of punishment) after justification as before, in what meaningful sense can we be "counted righteous"? The only way to make a legal declaration actually salvific is to connect it to a change in the divine disposition toward us, which brings about the problems I just described. There is room to speak of justification or salvation metaphorically as a pardon or verdict, but it cannot be how it "really works" at a foundational level. Salvation is deeper than that. As well, it excludes the very biblical (e.g. Rom 8:19-23) concept of cosmic redemption radiating outward from the atonement; forensic language simply doesn't apply to it.

Robin Phillips makes two other points based on the fact that in the system of PSA, our sins are apparently deserving of eternal punishment, and that this is what Jesus saves us from. First, how could Jesus vicariously suffer God's wrath for sins on our behalf without himself suffering eternally? It is strikingly arbitrary to claim that Jesus' relatively brief sufferings somehow "counted" infinitely because he is God. Where is this logic in Scripture? Second, if God's justice is satisfied by the eternal punishment of sinners, then because eternity is never finished, it seems God's justice is never actually fulfilled. This is a rather awkward implication.

But above all, I reject PSA (and its ancestor, satisfaction theology) simply because it is a theological innovation particular to the western churches and unknown to the first millennium of Christian theology. That Anselm was the first to promulgate the satisfaction theory of atonement is uncontroversial; his presentation of it as an implication of Chalcedonian Christology made this conveniently easy to ignore. But as I pointed out in a paper, the Scholastic method with its distinctive and distinct focus on reason (which Anselm was instrumental in establishing) was a distinct development in western theology that involved the abandonment of the earlier apophatic tradition of theology, which lived on in Catholic spiritualism but has been virtually banished from the actual formulation of doctrine; this is reason enough to be suspicious of his teaching. Remember that he was seeking to demonstrate the logical necessity of the incarnation without reference to Scripture or established church teaching; such a methodology does not seem terribly amenable to an orthodox theology of atonement. You can assemble all the proof texts for PSA you like, but without the right rule of faith you will simply misread them. I seek to read Scripture with the rule of the early church, of the apostles, councils, and church fathers, and you will not find PSA anywhere in them. I urge everyone who has accepted this novel and inadequate doctrine to see it for what it is and seek to believe only what has been accepted everywhere, always, and by all.

One final problem with PSA is that, inasmuch as it is made central to the gospel message, it elevates the crucifixion of Jesus over the resurrection and the incarnation at-large as the locus of our salvation. In the system of satisfaction in which the cross is said to partake, there is no distinctively salvific role for the resurrection; it simply confirms or vindicates the verdict delivered at Golgotha, or solves the problem created of God being dead. Why is an atonement theory that so distinctively focuses on the crucifixion allowed such a privileged position in atonement theology? I put this objection last because I am not convinced it is an essential feature of PSA. Calvin, while admittedly spending more time talking about the cross, does turn to the resurrection in his discussion of atonement, saying, "Our salvation may be thus divided between the death and the resurrection of Christ: by the former sin was abolished and death annihilated; by the latter righteousness was restored and life revived, the power and efficacy of the former being still bestowed upon us by means of the latter." (The role played by the incarnation itself is another story...) Nonetheless, this tendency of "crucicentrism" certainly seems to be an example of the theory vs. practice divide I mentioned at the end of a previous post, ubiquitous in modern evangelical expressions of the gospel I have heard.

A Better Atonement: The Orthodox Alternative

As you may have expected me to say, the Orthodox church has a rich theology of atonement, with no need or place for PSA. Again, as I'm not even officially Orthodox yet, my understanding of Orthodox soteriology is far from perfect. I will try to document my sources as best I can so you can turn to them for a better explanation.


Orthodoxy has a different understanding of the Old Testament sacrificial system than the one presupposed by PSA, as this article explains. The critical difference is this: the sacrifice is not understood as "appeasing" God's wrath or vicariously undergoing punishment  and condemnation for sin so that we can be spared and forgiven. In other words, sacrifices don't fulfill need of God's. The western assumption is that the shedding of the blood of the sacrifice constitutes the justly deserved penalty for our sins, inflicted on a substitute so that we can continue living. In other words, the death of the sacrifice makes satisfaction for sins in our place. But this is not the case.

In the Old Testament itself, blood is not described as a means of satisfaction. Instead, look at Genesis 9:4: "Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood." In the Old Testament understanding, blood is life; in a sacrificial context, the blood of the sacrificial animal is its life, poured out. So Leviticus 17:10-12:
10 "If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life. 12 Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.
Again we see the identification of blood with life; again we see the consequent prohibition against eating blood. In verse 11 the purpose of the blood (in a sacrificial context) is stated: "to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of its life." Again, in western Christianity "atonement" is thought of as being roughly synonymous with "satisfaction", the vicarious undergoing and appeasement of God's wrath so that the offerer may be justified. But again, where is this assumption in the text?

Additionally, look at the significance of blood in the first Passover (Exo 12:5-8, 12-14).
5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; 6 and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening. 7 Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them. 8 They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. ... 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. 14 "This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever.
Each family is to kill a lamb and eat its flesh, but spread its blood on their doorposts so that they will be spared from the final plague of death. In a very real sense, the life of the lamb's blood gives life to those under it, or counteracts death.

The point of this is that, in the Bible read through the strongly typological lens of patristic hermeneutics, Christ is our true sacrifice and passover lamb. Paul says as much in 1 Cor 5:7b: "For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed." The connection could not be clearer: the sacrificial system and Passover feast find their fulfillment and meaning in the death of Jesus Christ, to which they are revealed to point. The Greek word for Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is pascha, which is simply a translation of the Hebrew word for "Passover". Christ is our sacrifice and our Passover. But there is a big difference: far from prohibiting it, Jesus actually commands us to drink his blood in order to have life. (Jhn 6:53-56) This is because unlike the blood of the sacrifices (Heb 10:4) which God seems surprisingly indifferent about receiving sometimes (Psa 40:6, 51:16-17, Hos 6:6, Mat 9:13), Jesus' blood actually, truly conveys life to us.

By partaking in his flesh and blood through the Eucharist, we are freed from sin and death by union with the life of Christ. As it is written: "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage." (Heb 2:14-15) Just as Jesus shared in our humanity through the Incarnation, through the Eucharist we share in his life and divinity. Paul restates the link between partaking in Christ and the sacrificial system in 1 Cor 10:15-18:
15 I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?
At no point do we get any indication that sacrifices or the Passover lamb somehow "satisfy" God's offended justice and enable him to forgive us rather than punish us. The sacrifices, the Passover, the atonement are all for our sake, not God's. As St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, "God had no need of the sacrifices of the Hebrews. He asked for sacrifices simply for the sake of man himself, the offered." The dominant metaphor for understanding sacrificial blood seems to be life, not satisfaction or forgiveness. (This explains all the mentions of "sprinkling" the blood, which makes little sense if the point is shedding the blood to provide satisfaction but falls right into place if the blood has a cleansing/life-giving function) Why, then, does the liturgy state that Jesus' body and blood were broken and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins? This refers not to the divine act of forgiveness itself (for God is always willing and able to forgive all who repent), but to that forgiveness being made real or manifest in us. For forgiveness of sins, more than just a legal pardon, means cleansing or remission of the sin being forgiven ("forgiveness" and "remission" of sins are used almost interchangeably in the liturgy). This is why I have said that Orthodoxy does not distinguish between justification and sanctification as Protestants do; both are indispensable parts of true forgiveness.


Divine necessity

Through this reading of Jesus' death as atoning sacrifice, Orthodox theology holds a far better understanding of God's justice free from the shortcomings of PSA. For starters, it emphatically asserts that God is perfectly free; there is no necessity of any kind placed on him to respond in a certain way to man's sin. The Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras says of proponents of satisfaction theology:
But from what do they derive this "must" to which they subordinate even God? Does there exist, then, some necessity that limits the love of God, limits His freedom? If there is, then God is not God or at least He is not the God that the Church knows. A "just" God, a heavenly police constable who oversees the keeping of the laws of an obligatory - even for Him - justice is just a figment of the imagination of fallen humanity, a projection of its need for a supernatural individual security within the reciprocal treachery of collective coexistence...
To the Orthodox, it is inadmissible to claim that God "must" punish sin in order to be just; simply applying this word to God in any capacity diminishes his glory. It is similarly inappropriate to speak of God as being placed under any kind of obligation or need (e.g. a "debt of honor" on which he "must" collect) by the actions of men. God is far more secure than this in his greatness, as St. John Chrysostom says:
For neither by insulting Him can a man cause injury to God nor by praising Him make Him reveal Himself more brightly. He ever abides in His own glory, neither increasing because of praises nor diminishing because of blasphemy. But when people glorify Him worthily ... they reap the benefits of that glorification themselves. And those who blaspheme and malign Him destroy their own salvation. (Homilies on the Incomprehensibility of God 3.1)
John S. Romanides relates this to the Orthodox distinction between the unknowable (and totally free) essence and communicated energies of God. He says, basically, that in the Anselmian heritage love and justice are made into parts of God's essence (or "nature"), which results in God being placed under necessity to act in a certain way in accordance with his essence as we have defined it. But
Man cannot impute anthropomorphic qualities to the divine nature, and indeed qualities of the fallen psychological make up of man, such as are implicit in the heresy that the divine nature was offended and needed to be avenged. ... Even the term 'satisfaction' is itself alien to the Greek Fathers. The divine essence remains incomprehensible. The justice of God and His love, as well, are divine energies and properties encompassing God, but they are not the divine essence itself. (The Ancestral Sin, 96-97)
Origen and St. Gregory of Nazianzus also deny that Christ's sacrificial death was in any way demanded by the Father; I will quote both of them later.


Orthodox theology also differs on the aim of God's justice. The distinction here is simple but significant: whereas western Christianity sees God's justice manifested in the punishment of sin, Orthodoxy sees it in (but not quite defined as) the destruction of sin. The point is not to pronounce and enact the appropriately "just" sentence against sin; the point is to get rid of it. God's justice, if it makes sense at all for it to be "satisfied", is "satisfied" not by the juridical condemnation and penalization of sin through death, nor by being "paid back" for offenses committed against it, but by the destruction of sin and the enactment of justice in its positive sense, as the rescue of the oppressed, the end of evil, the restoration of creation to the way God intended it to be (or even better).

This is the understanding of the biblical term "expiation" (hilasterion) that Eric Jobe argues for by way of Isaiah 53 and Romans 3:25, in which he states very clearly: "The wrath of God is not directed towards punishment, but toward the destruction of sin. ... [it] is a part of the whole intention of God to purify his creation and redeem it back to himself. Wrath, if we may speak of it, is directed toward this aim and not toward the aim of “satisfying” passionate anger or some sense of God’s honor being offended by sin, which he must defend through tyrannical punishment." Jobe defines expiation not as the vicarious punishment of sin, but the cleansing or purging of sin, like wiping a countertop with Lysol. He does a great job of setting God's wrath in context within his justice (i.e. not portraying it as the main point of justice); since I don't think I can adequately summarize it, I recommend reading it and the second part. Romanides, again stating the Orthodox consensus, contradicts another doctrine of PSA in relation to the wrath of God:
It is important to note that in the Holy Scriptures and in the writers of the period under examination, divine wrath is never directed generally or indiscriminately against the whole of mankind, although this kind of wrath is clearly the premise of Augustine's theory of original sin. Rather, it is always manifested specifically to the unrepentant, impious, the impious, the unrighteous, and particularly to the devil. (98)
In summary, Orthodox soteriology stands as a corrective to the PSA's equation of God's justice with his wrath (punishment) of sin. Instead, it sets wrath in the larger context of God's justice, whose aim is not so much to punish sin as to remove it, and still more to restore and sanctify the created order in fulfillment of his purposes for it. Of course, if we cling to our sin and persist in hating God, we will experience this wrath against sin as destruction and agony, but this is not the "point" of the wrath.

Punishment vs. consequence

Orthodoxy rejects even more strongly any hint that death may have been created by God, whether as a punishment, curse, or whatever. God is not the author of death, suffering, disease, or any of the other problems that the gospel saves us from. Romanides wisely points out that "[Jesus' acts of healing and exorcism] would be completely irrational if it were assumed that, because of an inherited guilt of mankind, divine justice is the cause of the same evils that the Lord warred against." (98) Alexander Schmemann similarly states that death as a punishment is alien to Orthodox theology. (For the Life of the World, 97) It is much more accurate to say that we are in bondage to Satan than that we are under a divine curse. God does not need to save us from himself.

I think this distinction demonstrates the deeper distinction between penalty/punishment and consequence. In much of western theology, death is a punishment from God; in Orthodox theology, it is a consequence of Adam's ancestral sin. In his amazing work On the Incarnation, in which he sets out to answer exactly the same question Anselm did ("Why did God become man?"), St. Athanasius explains how this is so:
But if they [humans] went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. ... men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. (1.3-4)
In the Orthodox understanding, man was not created immortal only to lose his immortality and become subject to death as a punishment for sin. As a fleshly creature, man is mortal by nature, apt to return to the earth from which he was made. Alone among the earthly creatures, man was made in the image and likeness of God, blessed with the ability to know God and, ultimately, to share in his life and attain to immortality. This purpose is the "birthright of beauty" Athanasius mentions; by sinning, Adam threw this calling away and became subject to "the natural law of death". I will come back to Athanasius' theology later; the point for now is that Orthodoxy correctly describes death as a consequence of sin, not a punishment for sin, and thus avoids portraying God as saving us from his own actions.

Sin vs. sinner

As I mentioned last post, in the Orthodox understanding of the fall, human nature remains essentially good, though undeniably corrupted and dominated by sin. But this makes it possible (easy, even) for God to make a distinction between unconditionally forgiving sinners and condemning their sin. Contra Calvin, God unambiguously hates our sin without for a moment ceasing to unambiguously love us. Crucially and unlike in PSA, the love of God and the wrath of God are not directed at the same objects. We are under the wrath of God only insofar as we are identified with our sins. Thus, salvation from sin comes with salvation from wrath "thrown in". The "justice vs. mercy" tension, if it exists, corresponds to saving sinners while cleansing them from sin, not to punishing yet saving guilty sinners. Yet this is clearly not a real tension (certainly not one existing in the nature of God), but only an apparent one.


As I mentioned before, Orthodoxy affirms that God is able to unconditionally forgive sin without demanding satisfaction for it (in other words, in precisely the way he commands us to forgive). The only real "condition" for forgiveness is repentance, willingness and desire to be forgiven. This is the image of forgiveness we see throughout the Bible, and especially and crucially in the gospels. As well, concepts endemic to PSA like the "cosmic moral economy", merit as a sort of currency of salvation within this economy, and imputation of "alien righteousness" are all totally alien to Orthodox theology.


Through all of this, Orthodox soteriology gives a much better account of justification. Echoing the New Perspective on Paul, it does not see justification as virtually synonymous with salvation, but as one dimension of a much richer reality. The point of justification is not to make it possible for God to forgive us while maintaining his justice, but for us to be forgiven, to receive pardon and remission of sins from a God who is eager to grant it. Justification does not entail a change in the "divine disposition" by which God wills to bless rather than curse us; the enmity that the cross removes is on our part. As Romanides says, "Nowhere does the New Testament say that either Christ or the Father were at enmity with the world." (97) Additionally, justification is conceptualized not simply as a one-time event, but as something ongoing, maintenance of and growth within a right relationship with God and therefore the creation in us of actual righteousness. Eric Jobe concludes his second article by saying, "Justification is not a one-time event as many Protestant Christians are wont to believe, but it is instead a life of faith, a life begun at baptism, a life of confession, and a life of Eucharistic communion, as we live in a justified, righteous relationship with God in the covenant community of the faithful."

The result of all this is a distinctly less legalistic picture of the atonement than the one offered by PSA. Christ did not die simply so that we could be pardoned or so that God's verdict of condemnation against sin could be enacted; he died to cleanse us from sin and make us alive in him. Sin is not so much a legal problem as it is an ontological problem, separation from the source of being and consequent return to non-being; that is, death. As C.S. Lewis said (honestly, Lewis is a great gateway from western to eastern theology; he represents one of the closer points of contact between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy), salvation is not simply a matter of God treating us differently than he would otherwise, but of our becoming able to endure his image and, eventually, to bear it. There is no question of when the legal verdict of justification becomes "real" and starts having affecting us rather than simply our legal status. According to Orthodoxy, atonement theology is "real" from start to finish.


In the remainder of this post I will be impossibly attempting to summarize the ineffable richness of Orthodox soteriology. Anything I say can only be a fragment of the two-thousand-year thought of the Church on this crucial subject. But it should suffice to show why I have come to favor it.

Orthodox atonement theology is much more balanced with little to no tendency toward making the crucifixion the single point of salvation. There is instead more of a risk of doing this with the resurrection, but it is still comparatively slight. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says in his wonderful book The Orthodox Church, "The west, so it seems to [Orthodox], tends to think of the Crucifixion in isolation, separating it too sharply from the Resurrection." (228) And on the cross, where western Christianity tends to see Christ on the cross primarily as sufferer (on our behalf, to satisfy divine justice), Orthodoxy sees even the death of Christ as part of his victory over the powers of evil. "But," he wisely reminds us, "there contrasts must not be pressed too far."

Orthodoxy has, in my view, a much more balanced picture of how Jesus fits into and defines the gospel, one in which the crucifixion and resurrection are on level ground and often taken as a single victory. The incarnation itself, the mystery of God becoming man, is made much of and is considered salvific in its own right; God took on human nature in order to redeem it. As St. John of Damascus wrote in his treatise An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, "since He gave us to share in the better part [the divine nature], and we did not keep it secure, He shares in the inferior part, I mean our own nature, in order that through Himself and in Himself He might renew that which was made after His image and likeness". (4.4) The incarnation, passion, and resurrection are all considered essential to our salvation; nothing is stressed in isolation from the whole picture. Additionally, Orthodox soteriology is strongly Trinitarian, with no tendency to focus on Jesus to the exclusion of the Father and Holy Spirit. It is said that "no member of the Trinity ever acts alone", not because of weakness but because of the indivisibility of the three-person unity.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Orthodox Church has never dogmatized (authoritatively declared essential) a statement of atonement theology. Yes, it is enshrined in the creed that Christ was made man, suffered for us, and rose again, but there is no dogma about precisely how the cross saves us. Orthodox theologians are, however, perfectly willing to apply Christological dogma (about the person and natures of Christ and how they fit together) to shape atonement theology and debunk inadequate theories. Pelikan writes that Orthodoxy sees a "theological congruence" between the person of Christ and the work of Christ, between Christology and soteriology. Again, neither of these things exactly gets primacy over the other. Though not dogmatic, much rich atonement theology is enshrined in the liturgy of the church (I will give an example later).

Atonement theology is an example of the Orthodox Church's reluctance to make dogmatic statements relative to the Catholic Church (or to form de facto dogmas like conservative Protestant denominations). Ultimately, the atonement is a divine mystery; for this reason, no positive statement about it is totally precise (though some are closer to literally true than others), and we should not expect an account that precisely explains the necessity of the atonement by neatly fitting it into a logical scheme, as satisfaction theology and PSA purport to do. (Which I think is a large reason for their appeal) Historically and especially since Anselm and the rise of scholasticism, Orthodox theology has been relatively more tolerant of mystery and cautious about the powers of human reason in theology; its approach has been apophatic (describing divine mysteries negatively, by what they are not) as well as kataphatic (positively describing theology, of the kind familiar in the west). Vladimir Lossky relates the apophatic approach to Orthodox atonement theology:
The apophatic or negative outlook characteristic of Eastern theology is expressed in the great variety of images given us by the Greek Fathers so that our minds may be lifted up to contemplate the work of Christ, a work which, according to St. Paul, the angels do not understand. This work is more usually called the work of redemption, a term which implies the idea of a debt, or the payment of a ransom for the release of captives, and is borrowed from legal practice. All the Fathers use this figure of speech which originated from St. Paul. St. Paul also uses another legal term, that of the 'Mediator' who reconciles men to God by the cross on which He abolished enmity. Other figures have rather a warlike ring—such as struggle, victory, destruction of the opposing power. St. Gregory of Nyssa represents the economy of salvation as a divine ruse to baffle the evil spirit's cunning and so to free humanity. Figures of the physical order are also very frequent, such as fire destroying the impurity of nature, the incorruptibility which causes corruptibility to disappear, a medicine which cures weak nature, etc. ... the desire to use any one of these images as an adequate expression of the mystery of our salvation involves the risk of substituting purely human and inappropriate conceptions for 'the mystery hidden in God before all ages'. (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 151-152)
His last sentence wisely warns against making any of our images of salvation into (in my words) how it "really works", of reducing the divine mystery to human conceptions.

Images of Orthodox atonement theology

That said, theologians have articulated quite a few images to describe the atonement which, incomplete as they are, are still true and valuable.


I have already described much of the textual basis for this in the section on sacrifice above. Christ is viewed as the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover feast, which (meaningfully) celebrates God's delivery of his people from their oppressors and enemies, even death. Just as the lamb's blood saved the Israelites from death and delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, so the blood of Christ our lamb saves us from death and delivers us from all the enemies of humanity. Together with the next two images, the Passover image suffices to account for much of the biblical support claimed by PSA.


Again, as I described above, Christ fulfills the Jewish sacrificial system, whose purpose was not to appease divine wrath or divert punishment to a substitute, but to atone for (cleanse, expiate) the peoples' sins and allow them to continue living in right relationship to God. This understanding of the atonement probably grew organically from the place of the sacrifice in Jewish liturgy during the transition to distinctively Christian worship. The difference is, of course, that Jesus' sacrifice of himself once for all suffices for all people, not just the Jews, and it suffices eternally. This understanding of the atonement is abundantly supported not just in the early church, but also in Hebrews, among other places in the NT, which describes Jesus both as the sacrifice and the high priest offering it.
18 On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. 20 And it was not without an oath. 21 Those who formerly became priests took their office without an oath, but this one was addressed with an oath, "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, 'Thou art a priest for ever.'" 22 This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant. 23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues for ever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 28 Indeed, the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect for ever. (Heb 7:18-28)
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. 15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. (Heb 9:11-15)
24 For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb 9:24-28)
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (Heb 10:11-14)

"the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mat 20:28) That Christ's life serves as a ransom is uncontroversial. But what is the nature of this ransom, and to whom is it offered? Early theologians tended to assume that the ransom was offered to the devil. Origen, dismissing out of hand the possibility that it was offered to God, wrote: "To whom did he give his soul as a ransom for many? Certainly not to God! Then why not the devil? For he had possession of us until there should be given to him the ransom for us, the soul of Jesus." However, like Anselm and using similar reasoning, later eastern theologians began to question this possibility. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in the fourth century, wrote on the subject:
Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? 
If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. 
But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence. (Second Easter Oration, XXII)
The Orthodox consensus seems to be that insofar as it is a ransom, Jesus' death is a ransom to death itself, as the liturgy of St. Basil beautifully says (emphasis added):
For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from  the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things.
Obviously it doesn't make sense to speak of Christ paying a ransom to death in any kind of legal sense; as an impersonal force, the return of man to non-being, death cannot have any kind of legal claim on mankind. Yet we are undeniably under its power, in its dominion; it has a sort of "authority" over us, in a metaphorical sense. For Christ to give himself as a ransom to death is for him to do everything necessary, to "pay the price", to overthrow it and free us from its clutches. In this way, I think both Origen and Gregory have valid points. As Origen says, since the devil is the one who wields the power and fear of death against us (Heb 2:14-15), Christ's death can also be seen as a ransom of sorts to the devil, but as Gregory points out, this does not mean the devil had any sort of legal claim over us that God was obligated to honor. Athanasius writes of Christ's redemption from death in quasi-legal terminology:
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. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection. (4.20)

You may have been wondering when I would deal with the significance of Hilary of Poitiers introducing satisfaction language to atonement theology in the fourth century. You could just scroll up, but to recap, the second-century father Tertullian introduced the legal language of "satisfaction" (making reparations or amends for harm done) to Christian theology in discussing penance, and Hilary was the first to adapt it to the atonement, interpreting Christ's death on the cross as an act of satisfaction to God on our behalf. You may be asking: doesn't this seal the patristic case for satisfaction theology and PSA, albeit as one theme of the atonement among many? Sort of.

This orthodox understanding of the atonement as satisfaction differs from Anselm's in that it does not distort God's justice or place him under a logical necessity. Yes, Christ's death is an act of satisfaction to the Father, but this is yet a long way from claiming that God demands satisfaction for every violation of his justice, that he is sworn to avenge sin and must enact his wrath on a substitute if we are to be saved, or even that Christ's satisfying death was an act of divine punishment at all. It sets in sharp relief the mistakes of PSA by showing what satisfaction theology can look like without them.


This image of the atonement, closely linked to the next two, was largely the brainchild of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who arrived at it by expounding at length on the significance of the biblical image of Christ as our "head" (Eph 4:18, Col 1:18) and the second Adam (Rom 5:12-21). I am still learning more about it and it is hard for me to describe, so I will quote Pelikan's account at length:
For Irenaeus, the imitation of Christ by the Christian was part of God's cosmic plan of salvation which began with Christ's imitation of the Christian or, more precisely, with Christ's imitation of Adam. The Logos 'assimilated himself to man and man to himself' in his life and in his passion. After his incarnation he passed through every stage of human growth, hallowing each and redeeming each by 'being made for them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission.' The disobedience of the first Adam was undone through the disobedience of the second Adam, so that many should be justified and attain salvation. He summed up in himself the entire continuity of the human race and provided man with salvation in a concise summary. (The Christian Tradition, 1.144-145)
In Irenaeus' own words:
So then He united man with God, and established a community of union between God and man; since we could not in any other way participate in incorruption, save by His coming among us. For so long as incorruption was invisible and unrevealed, it helped us not at all therefore it became visible, that in all respects we might participate in the reception of incorruption. And, because in the original formation of Adam all of us were tied and bound up with death through his disobedience, it was right that through the obedience of Him who was made man for us we should be released from death: and because death reigned over the flesh, it was right that through the flesh it should lose its force and let man go free from its oppression. So the Word was made flesh, that, through that very flesh which sin had ruled and dominated, it should lose its force and be no longer in us. And therefore our Lord took that same original formation as (His) entry into flesh, so that He might draw near and contend on behalf of the fathers, and conquer by Adam that which by Adam had stricken us down. (Dem. 31)
The closest familiar analogue to recapitulation in the west is probably the idea of "substitutionary atonement", only here it is understood not as Christ undergoing something (the wrath of God for sins) so we don't have to, but Christ undergoing something we cannot of ourselves (freedom from death and corruption and ascension into a new order of life) as our head, representative, or summary, so that we can do the same through union with (assimilation to) him.

Moral influence

The image of Christ as example is closely tied into recapitulation. The imitation of Christ as example and obedience to Christ as teacher are closely tied into the overall gospel, for they are inseparable from being united to Christ. Pelikan interestingly writes about how "imitation" here was understood not simply as a masquerade but in a deeper Platonic sense that leads to actually becoming the thing imitated (much as C.S. Lewis wrote about in the last part of Mere Christianity). As is commonly pointed out, of course, the image of Christ as moral example (or maybe prototype) should not be understood as a complete atonement theology in isolation from the rest of what the church believes. But then, that is true of all these images.


We come close to the heart of Orthodox atonement theology with this image. If recapitulation is Jesus summing up the human race in himself, deification (or the Greek term theosis) is the inevitable result of this act as it applies to us. Orthodox understand salvation not simply as a rescue from sin, death, the devil, etc. (it is a tendency of street-level presentations of the evangelical gospel to overemphasize this), but also as having a definite telos, or goal, namely sharing in the uncreated, eternal life of the Trinity, of becoming oneself an expression of the divine life. As Peter writes (emphasis added), "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature." (1 Pet 1:3-4) Applying Christological dogma to the matter, our union with Christ is supposed to become as close and vital and mysterious as his union with the Father.

In other words, salvation is never simply about restoring what was lost in the fall; there has always been more to it. Our final goal is to become even more than Adam was in the garden. Salvation involves a new creation by the same Word who created all things in the beginning, as Athanasius writes:
He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. (1.1)
The purpose of the Church and of salvation is to lead people into, and to partake in, the eternal life of the divine. Theosis is where salvation theology extends off into the distance and becomes indistinguishable from mysticism. In describing this mystery, Athanasius is often quoted (and this must be understood in the right way): "God became man that man might become god."


If there can be said to be a primary image of the atonement in Orthodox theology, it is the one to which all the others refer back in some capacity, which in turn acts as a summary and combination of the other images. This image is that of Christ as victor. Especially in the development of Orthodox liturgy, this image was the most common and the most appropriate for speaking of the work of Christ. As Pelikan writes:
The thought of the liturgical theologians developed the themes of the liturgy. They did speak of the crucifixion as a sacrifice and describe Christ as simultaneously the priest of the sacrifice and the victim. But when they came to speak in more detail about the cross, it was the imagery of battle and victory that seemed to serve them best. ... Nothing was further from their minds than any disjunction between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ as means of atonement, but the language of the liturgy made the themes of battle and victory a natural way of describing the way of salvation. (2.138-139)
What is Christ the victor over? Death, mortality, sin, corruptibility, suffering, the devil—every enemy of man that has held him captive and opposed God's righteous intentions for the creation. As in the liturgy, Christ "trampled down death by dying"; death could not hold him who has life in himself, and so by tasting death he broke its bonds on us. Athanasius writes:
Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord's body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, (4.20)
Jesus assumed human nature and everything that comes with it, even death, in order to transform even death into the means of our salvation. Alexander Schmemann writes in his book For the Life of the World: "In Christ everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new life, its expectation and anticipation." (103) According to Origen, the atonement is how Christ overthrows the devil and his dominion over this world (Jhn 16:11). Irenaeus typologically applied Genesis 3:15 to Christ; he is the seed of the woman who who will strike the serpent's (Satan's) head (that is, triumph over him). He also understood the devil as the strong man of Matthew 12:29, and Christ as the one who binds him up and plunders his house (the world). Summarizing this, Pelikan writes:
He [Christ] fought and was victorious; for he was man doing battle for the fathers, and by his obedience utterly abolishing disobedience. For he bound the strong man, liberated the weak, and by destroying sin endowed his creation with salvation. (1.150)
Important as the passion is, the resurrection is equally indispensible in the victory of the Savior, for without it death would still be operative, even over the Lord. But instead the resurrection is the completion of death's defeat. Athanasius asks, rhetorically, "Death having been slain by Him, then, what other issue could there be than the resurrection of His body and its open demonstration as the monument of His victory? How could the destruction of death have been manifested at all, had not the Lord's body been raised?" (5.30) But instead, "Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him." (5.27) What is particularly interesting (and convicting) is that as evidence of the resurrection and the defeat of death, Athanasius cites the church itself and the Christians' scorn for death (possibly in the face of Arian persecution). How much does the church today witness to the resurrection in this way?

It bears repeating that this fundamental, central image of Jesus as victor over the enemies and oppressors of man is incompatible with PSA, which makes God himself (or his just wrath) into the enemy and oppressor of man from whom the atonement saves us. To PSA, the atonement is part of a legal proceeding to satisfy the demands of divine justice. In Orthodox theology, it is a cosmic and ontological victory over the forces of evil and a second act of creation, making manifest God's purposes for the world.

See the difference?

More Orthodox quotes

I'll conclude this extensive post with some more fantastic quotes showing Orthodoxy's vision of the gospel which I found during my readings but didn't work into my line of argument.
But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. (Anaphora of St. Basil)
This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption. (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 1.5)
His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father. (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 2.7)
For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew.  (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 2.10)
Both from the confession of the evil spirits and from the daily witness of His works, it is manifest, then, and let none presume to doubt it, that the Savior has raised His own body, and that He is very Son of God, having His being from God as from a Father, Whose Word and Wisdom and Whose Power He is. He it is Who in these latter days assumed a body for the salvation of us all, and taught the world concerning the Father. He it is Who has destroyed death and freely graced us all with incorruption through the promise of the resurrection, having raised His own body as its first-fruits, and displayed it by the sign of the cross as the monument to His victory over death and its corruption. (Athanasius, On the  Incarnation of the Word, 5.32)
What man ought to have achieved by raising himself up to God, God achieved by descending to man. (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 136)
The strong juridical character of Latin theology which led the West to the satisfaction theory of Anselm is absent from the Greek patristic tradition. In the East, the fall is understood to be a consequence of man's own withdrawal from divine life and the resulting weakness and disease of human nature. This, man himself is seen as the cause through his cooperation with the devil. In the West, all the evils in the world originate in the punitive divine will, and the devil himself is especially seen as God's instrument of punishment. The Greek Fathers look upon salvation from a biblical perspective and see it as redemption from death and corruptibility and as the healing of human nature which was assaulted by Satan. Therefore, they established the following principle as the touchstone of their christological teaching: 'That which is not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is also saved.' It is which the opposite in the West where salvation does not mean, first and foremost, salvation from death and corruptibility but from divine wrath. And the termination of the penalty of death and illnesses simply follows as a result of the satisfaction of divine justice. For the West, this is quite natural since, on the one hand, God is believed to punish all men with death while, on the other hand, it is man who provokes the punishment because he bears inherited guilt. Thus, according to the Western viewpoint, God did not become man in order 'to abolish him who has the power of death,' since it is God Who is death's causative power, but to satisfy Himself to such a degree that He could look upon men with a somewhat more benevolent attitude and, at the Second Coming, lift the old death sentence from them. (John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, 34-35)

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