The “When” of Atonement

It looks like Atonement is entering the orbit of the blogosphere again. Here is another post from Tony Jones and a response from Chris Rosebrough. Scott Paeth continues with a different set of interesting questions.

Usually what happens is a misunderstanding of the teaching of the Church Fathers in order to support a view that is simply not there. usually this is in order to support the notion of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. The Orthodox Church does not teach this and neither did the Church Fathers. Here is another way to look at the issue that might help.

The primary issue is over when the punishment for sin will actually take place. For the classic “Western” view the punishment is an event that occurs after we die. Whether this is based on solely God’s initiative as we read in various forms of predestination or based on works, the problem is when the punishment happens and what that punishment means. In short, if we don’t accept Jesus and his punishment in our place, we are in deep trouble after we die; Satan can have his feast on us.

That’s not how the Church Fathers even viewed reality. Death itself is the punishment of our fallen nature. Death is simply not our natural state. The act of Jesus dying and rising from death restores human nature to its proper condition.

Even more than this, Jesus by raising from the dead destroys Satan’s power over us. Satan’s tool to hold us in fear is the prospect of death and becoming his own. Satan’s power has been eradicated and it is up to us and how we use our free will to live in the fact that he has no real power over us unless we choose it.

The Incarnation and ministry of Jesus fulfill Adam’s failure to steward the earth with Eve his partner; he chose Satan and death instead. Jesus’ death and resurrection defeat the consequence of Adam’s failure which was choosing to bring death into the world.

Death is the result of the spiritual sickness humanity and all of nature are born into. It is through spiritual discipline and participation in the sacraments that we all have the opportunity to be restored. This is the true act of renouncing the world and sin which is an ascetic struggle. All of this is to prepare us to meet God which all of humanity will do not out of their own choosing. This will be glorious for some and terrible for others who are not prepared.

This is the teaching of the saints which is clearly written in the context of the Philokalia. This set of works contains the writings that inform the theology of the Eastern Church. At Pascha (Easter) we sing this simple verse in the Divine Liturgy that sums up the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs restoring life.

I think the West continues to need the teaching of the East to set the record straight.

  • isaaccrabtree

    Glad to have found you, Drew. Your posts about understanding God and specifically the Mystery of the Crucifixion of the Son of God, our Salvation, are insightful. I just want to caution you and encourage you in this way: 1) “Read the sources themselves.” What I mean is that quite often, in my 9 years as Orthodox, I have said, “The fathers say…” but what I’m really doing is quoting some secondary or tertiary source who is making conclusions for me, having done all the thinking and arguing in a particular way.

    Another corollary piece of advice: “Stick with the winners.” That is, trust the tried and true sources over the ones less so. Orthodoxy’s fount of theology is Her experiential knowledge of God through askesis– the struggle to obey God’s commandments. That being said, holy monks are much better sources than university professors, even when the university professors are smarter, better read, etc. Ascetic strugglers of piety have been taught directly by Christ, and have lived out the Tradition, holding in proper balance all the truths of Scripture.

    Such “winners” are the saints, both ancient and modern. Schmemann, Hopko, Meyendorff, Lossky, Florovsky, Zizioulas, Romanides– all of these people have some important things to say, but they may also be mistaken. Ok, I’ll level with you– some of them you may not even be able to endure once you’ve gotten a taste for the real savor of the holy fathers. We have to look to the more trustworthy guides like St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, St. Seraphim of Sarov, and even more recent like Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, Fr. John Krestiankin of the Kiev Caves, or Elder Porphyrios, or farther back to Ss. Symeon the New Theologian, and Basil the Great, and perhaps most prolific and most accessible: St. John Chrysostom.

    I’ll give you one practical example: Kalomiros’ River of Fire. There are some very good and true statements in it, but it is imbalanced and has been misused. No saint of the Church has ever said that we should not fear God. No saint has ever refused to call Hell a “just punishment.” In fact, one modern Orthodox patristics master has privately corresponded with me on this particular writing saying that he believes Chrysostom would disapprove of it, especially because it appears to remove fear of God and fear of offending God through sin.

    This is just one of many examples, but most of all I hope you’ll go to the sources. Want to understand Scripture better? Pick up Blessed Theophylact’s commentaries– they are line by line a systematic presentation of Chrysostom’s sermons organized verse by verse in the New Testament.

    Stay away from neo-Anglican types who reduce Orthodoxy to speaker conferences and book deals. All that talk and no real spiritual life will give you a false impression of Orthodoxy. Elder Porphyrios was conversing with a Latin monk who had come to see him. The holy elder told the Latin monk all about the Latin monk’s own monastery in Europe, who was there, what they did all day, and all sorts of profound details. The Latin monk said that he’d never known anyone with such an ability and the Elder said, of course not– such spiritual gifts are only given to those in the true Church– the Orthodox Church. Those ecumenists who sign agreed statements and wish to compromise and capitulate do so because they don’t know the spiritual heights and depths of Orthodoxy, having no spiritual life or experience of their own and having no grounding in the writings of those who did.

    God bless you, my friend!


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