Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.
Orthodox Christians do not suffer under the long, long shadow of Augustine. Now, Augustine was arguably the most brilliant theologian of all time, but that not only means that we get the benefits of where he was right. It also means that the parts he got wrong are particularly difficult to get out from under.
In Orthodoxy, for instance, there is no doctrine of Original Sin — at least not as we Westerners were taught it. And while most of us easily reject Augustine’s argument that sin is passed biologically through the sperm of the man (which is why Jesus was immune), we still generally hold to the doctrine. That’s because Original Sin is a compelling idea, it’s an ontological argument, and it’s the hinge on which our dominant view of the atonement swings.
Orthodox Christians also by a different metaphysic than the one that saddles the Western Church. They are less concerned with the substance-essence debates of the early church. Their starting and ending point is 1 John 4:8 — “God is love.”
Father James Bernstein, an Antiochian Orthodox priest in Washington, writes,
What Is God’s Love?
The original Christian understanding of love and salvation are shockingly different from what we are often presented with in non-Orthodox Christian churches.
First of all: God is love—even before He creates; His love is not just an expression of His will towards creation, or simply an attribute, but rather God loves by nature—because of who He is. Love is intrinsic to His Unknowable Essence.
These statements talk of God’s love as an attribute of God. But, for Eastern Christians, God’s very nature is love. It’s not an aspect of God’s being, it is God’s being.
Thus, the Trinity is central to the Orthodox view of the atonement, because the Trinity is an eternal, loving union of three divine persons. And it is into that union that God invites us.
Everything that God does is bent toward an invitation into that divine union. Everything. (See this YouTube video for another Orthodox priest’s take on it.)
The incarnation takes precedence in Orthodoxy — the incarnation of the Logos is the ultimate invitation into God’s love. The crucifixion is an extension of this invitational act. Again, Father Bernstein:
Orthodox incarnational theology, which is at the core of the original Gospel, teaches that God Himself, the second Person of the Trinity, became incarnate, not in order to pay a debt to the devil or to God the Father, nor to be a substitutionary offering to appease a just God, but in order to rescue us from our fallen condition and transform us, enabling us to become godlike.
So, as an alternative to the version of the atonement you were taught in your youth, consider this: The work of atonement that is accomplished on the cross is one of invitation into the eternal, loving relationship of the Trinity — ultimately, into union with God.