An Orthodox View of the Atonement

Craig Adams called my attention to this post by Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman on Athanasius and the atonement.  Freeman writes,

Sin is not a legal problem because God is not a lawyer (and neither is a priest if he knows his business). Sin is a death problem. It’s far more like a disease than anything else. … That process of death and corruption is not a punishment – it is a consequence. God does not say, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” He warns, “You will surely die.”  … This is the true atonement. Being made one (at-one-ment) with the Living God, we have life, not according to reward, nor according to the law, but according to the God/Man who took our dying nature upon Himself and endured death. Trampling down death, He rose again that all who are united to Him might trample down death and rise as well.

This is a somewhat different approach than the legal or forensic view of the atonement more prevalent in Catholic and Protestant thought. I find it impossible to abandon the legal language that the scriptural writers themselves used to describe God’s actions in the world, but I want to explore the Orthodox point of view a bit more. The “moral influence” and “political martyr”  views of Christ’s death so prevalent in progressive Christianity are wholly inadequate to the witness of the scriptures. Forensic theories have their own issues. For me, the bottom line is that that Christ’s death and resurrection had an ontological effect – a saving effect –  both for the cosmos, and for those who unite themselves to him in faith at the font and at the table. The Orthodox way of looking at the atonement appears to capture that facet of the gospel.

Read the whole thing and digest the Athanasius quotes for yourself.

Update: Freeman posted a follow-up here, which addresses the legal language in the scripture and the liturgy.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Like the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) is a commentary on the two-fold great commandment: love God with every fiber of your being and love of your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:25-29). The parable of the Good Samaritan focuses on the latter while the story of Mary and Martha centers on the former.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan we find a very active hero. The Samaritan went to the beaten, half-dead Jew, bandaged his wounds, and poured oil and wine on them. He put him on his animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of the wounded man. He paid the innkeeper and promised to return. That’s what the love of one’s neighbor looks like.

The hero of the story of the Mary and Martha, however, sits still. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet as one of the master’s disciples while her sister Martha busily serves the household. In the previous section (the sending of the seventy in Luke 10:1-24), Jesus said that the people he and his disciples engaged in their ministry were actually encountering the one who sent him. (Luke 10:16). The verb “to listen” links Luke 10:16 with Mary’s encounter with Jesus in Luke 10:39. That’s why Mary’s action is “the one thing necessary.” Sitting at Jesus’ feet – that’s what the love of God looks like.

Luke put these two stories side-by-side for a reason. Love of God and love of neighbor. Active service and attentive adoration. These are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.

Be as You wish to Seem

Earlier this summer I had my portrait made. I’m told I need a civilian head shot for my LinkedIn profile when I retire from the Army next year. When I looked at the photograph, though, I wasn’t very happy. I wondered, “How did this picture of my father get in here? Who is that old guy? Do I really look like that?” I didn’t want people to see me that way, so I ran the photo through my portrait retouching software. Presto chango, there was a younger me. The eyes were lifted. The bags and wrinkles disappeared. The skin was smoothed and toned. The face was slimmed. The features were reshaped. Even the unruly hair disappeared. Now that’s what I think I look like! Unfortunately, those who know me are stuck with looking at the unretouched version of me.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an app that fixed what people saw when they looked at us? And now I’m not just talking about wrinkles and bags under the eyes. I’m talking about character, virtue and a spiritual beauty that transcends the standards of People, Vogue or GQ. All of us, I think, have an image of ourselves that we want others to see. Unfortunately, our real lives don’t always measure up to our idealized self-image. Some might call that “hypocrisy” and find it discouraging, but I don’t. I call it aspiration. The 19th century American writer Amos Bronson Alcott said it best: “Our ideals are our better selves.”

Continue reading “Be as You wish to Seem”

The Good Samaritan and the Gospel of the Kingdom

Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 invites all manner of reflection and comment. If we are to hear it as part of Luke’s proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom, we should probably listen to it in relation to Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Plain, especially Luke 6:27-36.

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan who cares for a half-dead Jew does exactly what Jesus says. He loves his enemy and does good to one who hates him. He gives to his enemy expecting nothing in return. He is merciful as the Father is merciful.

Both the parable of the Good Samaritan and this part of the Sermon on the Plain begin with love and end with mercy  (although the word for “mercy” is not the same in Luke 10:37 as it is in Luke 6:26).

The parable of the Good Samaritan, then, makes the same connection between neighbor-love and enemy-love that the the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew makes explicit.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

Jesus proclaimed, “the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” The signs of the kingdom present in Jesus’ miracles are also signs of God’s unparalleled and extravagant of mercy in Jesus. God loves his enemies (that’s us sinners) and he does good to them even though they don’t deserve it. In his abounding mercy, God invites sinners to salvation in Jesus. Those who welcome God’s boundless mercy in turn offer the same extravagant love to their own enemies. True repentance and saving faith show themselves in Christ-like love, even to those who hate us.

In Jesus’ parable, the despised and theologically-suspect Samaritan models the kind of love that the Father has poured out on us in Jesus, and that the Father looks for among those who know his grace.

John Wesley on The Good Samaritan

Go and do thou in like manner – Let us go and do likewise, regarding every man as our neighbour who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between man and man, and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other.

John Wesley’s Note on Luke 10:37 in Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan

Which of these three, in thy opinion, was neighbour to him that fell among the robbers? But he said: He that shewed mercy to him. And Jesus said to him: Go, and do thou in like manner. (Luke 10:36-37 Douay-Rheims Version)

Does anyone know why Wesley was quoting from the Catholic Douay-Rheims version of the Bible? I can find no other translation available in the 18th century that renders Luke 10:37 as “Go and do thou in like manner.”