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.

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