Eastern Orthodox Tradition and Atonement

I want to promote some comments so that more people see them.

Mark Olson (Pseudo-Polymath) commented on an earlier post:

If you have the time, could you relate this statement

First, no matter what stream of Christianity one belongs to, the atonement comes out somewhere near the center.

With this:

On the subject of the atonement, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has some quite different ideas to the Protestant tradition, and the whole paradigm of salvation tends to be very different. Many of the essential protestant concepts such as original sin, penal substitutionary atonement, and salvation by faith are not present, and instead other very different ideas tend to be utilized. The Eastern Orthodox church traces its tradition and teachings very strongly to the writings of the church fathers of the first millennia.

Thanks, whether or not you choose to take me up on my question. 🙂

Not take the question on? This is the sort of topic I live for, especially because it takes me well out of my normal lines of study. The link above is to a category, but the quote comes from a most interesting post, Guest Post: The Doctrine of the Atonement in the Early Greek Fathers.

As I commented later in that thread, I read straight over the link, and thus asked Mark for more links.

Here is my original response:

I may need some clarification on the question. My argument for several weeks has been that the atonement is not defined by penal substitution, but rather that PSA is one metaphor among many and not the central metaphor.

When I say atonement is near the center, I do not mean PSA. I see the incarnation as absolutely the center, expressed liturgically through the Eucharist and ethically through the two laws (love for God and love for neighbor) which get their Christian meaning from the incarnation. Atonement follows immediately from the incarnation, and can be described in various ways. Penal substitution isn’t even the only version of substitution.

As an aside, were I asked to explain why Jesus had to die as Brian McLaren was, I would say that the incarnation would be incomplete if Jesus didn’t share all characteristics of his brethren, and experiencing death is an integral part of that.

Thus I am rather happy to hear that the Eastern Orthodox tradition does not use penal substitution. I would love to read some of what they do. Could you recommend some eastern church fathers I should read and particular references? I’m more acquainted with the western fathers, though friends often tease me that I don’t know anything that happened after 100 AD. They’re not entirely wrong, either.

This is a subject I’m always happy to discuss.

As noted, I withdraw the request for links, though additional material would be helpful. I would like to quote a section from that same blog post as follows:

The basic paradigm of salvation universally held by these writers [Greek fathers of the period 100-400 AD] is as follows:

1. Humans have free will to engage in either vice or virtue, and the ability to become more or less virtuous over time.
2. God is virtuous and desires humans to be also. He is pleased with virtue and displeased by vice.
3. Christ taught virtue to mankind.
4. By following Christ’s teachings, and by the help of the Spirit, we can progress and improve in virtue if we make the effort.
5. All men have the ability to achieve a standard of virtue acceptable to God.
6. The Final Judgment will be decided based on our level of virtue.

OK, this sounds a great deal like Pelagianism, another view for which I have expressed some sympathy, though not total sympathy. I’ll have to try to get more precise on the comparison. It looks to me like I would differ from this formulation on a number of points, though not nearly by as much as most evangelicals would differ. This formulation leaves substantially less room for acceptance of PSA even as one metaphor for atonement.

I don’t think it changes the basic notion of having atonement, derived from the incarnation, somewhere at the center of Christianity. It simply uses different metaphors, both of which I recognize and accept, to describe how atonement takes place.

I hope by promoting these comments to a new post I will generate discussion. I’m really terribly weak on my acquaintance with eastern church fathers, though I’m working on remedying that.

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  1. You might try Gustaf Aulen’s classic work on Christus Victor. While his over all thesis that Luther taught a form of CV isn’t plausible, there is a fair treatment of the biblical data from a CV view point.

    As for Pelagianism, it is the thesis that nature and grace are identical so that nothing is lost in the fall. The CV view doesn’t turn on or advocate such a view.

    But you are right to note that subsitution is wider than the penal model. Basically on the CV view Christ preserves the ingetrity of human nature in his death and the union between humanity and divinity in the hypostatic union despite the devil’s attempt to break the union. Christ then raises victorious vindicating or justifying human nature from annihilation brought on by sin. (Rom 5:18) Thus all men receive immortality (1 Cor 15:19ff), the question is how they are going to spend it.

  2. I’ll try to give you more to work on tomorrow. For now, I think several things are at work. First, the Eastern view of Adam’s sin and its consequence is different, therefore the view of the consequence and reason for Jesus action on the cross is different.

    This flows apparently from two different threads of thought of the early fathers. One is Clement, Augustine, Anselm and on wards. The second is Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, Maximus, Symeon, Gregory Palamas and so on. The break is not absolute of course, but the idea is that these are two different threads of theological emphasis which affect the two parts of the church differently. Meyendorff’s book Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality is short and a good overview.

  3. My question on Pelagianism would be as to the practical effects. Is it true that, as noted in point #1 above, that the Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that “free will to engage in either vice or virtue, and the ability to become more or less virtuous over time.” Or, on the other hand, is that a view taken from the fathers from 100-400 AD, but which would not fully reflect Eastern Orthodox doctrine?

    In practical terms, it seems that the practical effect of Pelagian teaching was that one could, in fact, choose to do right. It’s the non-theologian in my that focuses on the impact, rather than the theory; I know that frustrates the theologically trained mind, for which I apologize.

  4. I’ll certainly put the Meyendorff book on request. I think I will have to use interlibrary loan.

    I’m still trying to see the inconsistency between the quote you provided, and my own view of the atonement as central. Is it possible you believe that I think some form of penal substitution is central? That is not my position. My position is that atonement is reconciliation to God, and that we describe this atonement in various ways. I hold a “weak” view of original sin, which, after reading a few web pages this morning, I think may be very similar to the Eastern Orthodox view. I am accused of heresy on the point form time to time, but it looks like if I switched traditions, I’d suddenly be orthodox (no pun intended).

  5. You may be right on our larger agreement. I’ll confess I didn’t read enough or carefully on the initial post (I hadn’t been following the whole exchange). I’ll admit I was trying to follow on to my recent “reconciliation” post and was trying to explore some beliefs which we might hold different and see if discussion between us would be fruitful (or not). I’d thought atonement was a point of difference between East and West so I “jumped” on it.

    I did also find this post.

    Also, in every Orthodox parish on Pascha morning (or in the West Easter Sunday) the same homily is preached every year everywhere. It was first preached by St. John Chrysostom and it was judged that it couldn’t be improved on. That can be found in a number of places, here is one.

  6. Free will of the libertarian variety is taken by the Orthodox to be an essential constituent of the image of God and so it is never lost. That said, the issue is not so much the freedom to choose otherwise, but the freedom to do otherwise. (Rom 7:19) Post fall we retain the image but lack the likeness or power to perform divine acts, which is why the divine energies are required to do that which pleases God. So the potential for virtue is always there, but apart from Christ it cannot be done.

    As for sin, for the Orthodox, sin is personal and so cannot be inherited. (Natures don’t sin.) But corruption, decay, and a loss of power as the consequences of sin can be. So on the Orthodox view we inherit the former but no guilt. None of that is Pelagian nor even semi-Pelagian.

  7. Thanks. I’m beginning to see that clearly by reading some other posts. I was applying categories created in the western tradition to the eastern orthodox thinking, and it was not working well. Over time I’ll get a little more comfortable with this.

  8. Thanks for the links, Mark. I think the greatest difficulty with a reconciliation type conversation on this is that I am much too attracted to the eastern view. There are several elements in my own view that seem to fit better with some eastern theological concepts I had simply never thought of. I’ll be doing reading on this for some time.

  9. Mr. Neufeld,

    I am a (somewhat) recent convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. I, too, understand the difficulty regarding understanding Eastern Orthodoxy using Western categories and theological structures. Though I understood much of what I read in the Fathers and commentators, to *truly* understand the Faith is taking time and, of course (for the Orthodox) actual life IN the Church itself (that is, the Body of Christ – as the Orthodox do NOT see the Church as an institution).

    I would strongly recommend “The Mind of the Orthodox Church” by Metropolitan Hierotheos. There are other general introductions (such as Father Kallistos (Timothy) Ware’s “The Orthodox Church” and “The Orthodox Way,” with the latter focusing on beliefs) but I find that “The Mind” approaches the Faith from a solidly Orthodox perspective but with a style that makes it very accessible to those of us still “stuck” in a Western mindset.

    That said, I think Mr. Robinson’s fine summation is a great starting point and does, in a very brief manner, provide wonderful information regarding Orthodoxy’s perspective on this subject. However, I must say this word of warning: I have thousands upon thousands of pages of reading that I’ve done over the nearly 2 year life I’ve had in Orthodoxy. I have noticed that the more I read, and the more I know (imperfect knowledge, as Metropolitan Hieratheos would say) and the more I live the faith (perfect faith, as the Metropolitan would say) the harder it is for me to explain in simple methods. Why?

    Not because of confusion or lack of clarity. In fact, the more of the Fathers I read, supplemented by great books like those of the Metropolitan as well as the late Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky’s “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology,” the clearer things become. The difficulty arises from the fact that, as you, yourself, have noticed, Orthodoxy does not lend itself to Western modes of theological compartmentalization. This is primarily due to the lack of scholasticism in Orthodoxy. Thus, when discussing some of even the most “elemental” aspects of Orthodox theology, one finds oneself delving into several areas of the Faith in order to more fully (and accurately) describing the Orthodox position on the question.

    Regarding Pelagius, I feel that I should include the Orthodox position on his teachings. This is taken from the history of Saint John Cassian the Confessor:

    “The last of his writings was On the Incarnation of the Lord, Against Nestorius, written in 430 at the request of Leo, the Archdeacon of Pope Celestine. In this work he was the first to show the spiritual kinship between Pelagianism, which taught that Christ was a mere man who without the help of God had avoided sin, and that it was possible for man to overcome sin by his own efforts; and Nestorianism, which taught that Christ was a mere man used as an instrument by the Son of God, but was not God become man; and indeed, when Nestorius first became Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, he made much show of persecuting the heretics, with the exception only of the Pelagians, whom he received into communion and interceded for them to the Emperor and to Pope Celestine.

    The error opposed to Pelagianism but equally ruinous was Augustine’s teaching that after the fall, man was so corrupt that he could do nothing for his own salvation, and that God simply predestined some men to salvation and others to damnation. Saint John Cassian refuted this blasphemy in the thirteenth of his Conferences, with Abbot Chairemon, which eloquently sets forth, at length and with many citations from the Holy Scriptures, the Orthodox teaching of the balance between the grace of God on one hand, and man’s efforts on the other, necessary for our salvation.”

    I hope this helps.

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