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Liturgy and Interchangeable Sexes, Peter J. Leithart

Male-Only Ordination is Natural: Why the Church is a Model of Reality, Steven Wedgeworth

Ordaining Women as Deacons: A Reappraisal of the Anglican Mission in America's Policy, John Rodgers

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Reasons for Questioning Women’s Ordination in the Light of Scripture, Rodney Whitacre

Streams of the River: Articles Outlining the Arguments Against the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood ,

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Wednesday
Sep022015

Do Orthodox Christians Believe in the Atonement?

Yes they do, argues Fr. John Whiteford.  Nevertheless,

There are many contemporary Orthodox writers who wish to deny or downplay a number of concepts that relate to our redemption. They will argue we don't believe Christ had to die in our place, or that His blood needed to be shed to pay the penalty for our sins. They will deny the legitimacy of legal terms, in favor of the idea that the Church is a spiritual hospital.  The problem is not that the Church is not a spiritual hospital, but rather that in emphasizing one set of images used to explain our salvation, they deny a whole set of equally valid images that are clearly Biblical. It is true that in the west there was an over emphasis on legal imagery, but the solution to such an imbalance is not a new imbalance in the opposite direction. We can and should speak of sin as an illness, but when we die, we do not go before the final medical exam -- we face the final judgment, which is a legal image if ever there was one. And so we can also speak of sin as a transgression of the Law of God, and of our need to be justified by God, even as we speak of sin in terms of an illness that we need to be healed of.

Fr. Whiteford goes on to argue that there is support in Orthodox divinity for something that at least resembles a penal, substitutionary view of the atonement:

St. Gregory Palamas, in his Sixteenth Homily (delivered on Holy Saturday: "About the Dispensation According to the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Gifts of Grace Granted to Those Who Truly Believe in Him"), speaks quite a bit about the need for Christ to die in our place. The entire homily is well worth reading, but here are some excerpts:

"Man was led into his captivity when he experienced God's wrath, this wrath being the good God's just abandonment of man. God had to be reconciled with the human race, for otherwise mankind could not be set free from the servitude. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified and sinless priest" (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 124).

"Christ overturned the devil through suffering and His flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim -- how great is His gift! -- and reconciled God to our human race" (p.125).

"For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil's tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)"( p. 128f)."

Fr. Whiteford concludes his article, essentially, with a call for "balance" between juridical and incorporationist views of salvation.  Harmony between East and West, in other words.

Sound of wild applause.

We find an example of what Fr. Whiteford is criticizing in a recent article from Orthodox blogger Tim Holcombe entitled How We Are Saved.

To properly understand salvation, what it is, and how it is obtained, we must first address proper context. Any Christian should quickly agree that Christ our Savior provides the ultimate context, thus, it is beneficial for us to see what He taught to His followers.

A casual look at the Gospels show clearly that Christ founded His Church. His Church was built upon His commandments. Christ promised us that the gates of hell would never prevail against His Church.  The Church is an ontological reality. It is the very Body of the living Christ, and the two cannot be separated, as Christ is the Head. This is why we say “find the Church, and you will find Christ.” This is why Saint Cyprian of Carthage wrote “outside the Church there is no salvation,” for Christ and the Church are eternally united. . . .

What most protestants believe is rooted in the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin.  Salvation is more of a judicial act, ostensibly taking one’s case before a judge, pleading for mercy, and awaiting the verdict.  They even use legal terms, such as “acquittal” and “justification.” . . . .

All these notions are a very far cry of the teaching of Christ on the matter of salvation.

To revisit the foundations, we must go to the beginning of our salvation. . . .

The event of the glorious Incarnation of Christ fulfilled the prophecies of Old Testament prophets, as Christ, the God-man came to the Earth, born of the Virgin Mary.   He existed (and exists) both as God and man, a living example of what God had always intended.  Protestants rarely speak of the Incarnation, because the act of salvation for them has been ultimately reduced to a mere formula, a one-time, quick judicial act.   But the Incarnation was the coming in the flesh of Christ our God, the union of human and divine nature, which Adam enjoyed prior to the Fall.  The Incarnation was the living, breathing example of what God intended, and intends for us.  Christ serves as our example, the uniting of humanity with Divinity.  The Church calls this process theosis,  which is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía (“missing the mark”), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in bodily resurrection.. For Orthodox Christians, theosis is salvation. Theosis assumes that humans from the beginning are made to share in the Life or Nature of the all-Holy Trinity.   As Saint Peter writes:

Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2 Peter 1:4)

For the Christian, the crucifixion served not as Christ “paying the penalty for our sins,” rather, for the destruction of death, which was the consequence of the Fall.  Christ conquered death by death.  And after His death, he descended into Hades to restore our Father and Mother, Adam and Eve, and all peoples who dwelt there, as death had been conquered, thus restoring them to unity with God. . . .

Salvation is union with Christ.  It is the saving and restoration of the whole man.  It is not a mere past act, grossly minimized by the recitation of a simple prayer.   Salvation is both past, present and future.   It is a living, ongoing reality.   For the Christian, Christ has saved us, is saving us, and will save us.

Salvation begins for us in the waters of holy Baptism, where our sins are washed away, and we are united to Christ.   We reject all former delusions, and begin a lifetime process of repentance, turning from our fallen natures, and growing in Christ through obedience to Him.   We participate in His very life, His Body in the Holy Mysteries which He has given to His Church.   We partake of His Body and Blood at each Divine Liturgy when we receive Holy Communion. We repent of our sins through confession, and receive forgiveness and absolution.   We pray, and fast, give alms, do good works which are profitable for our salvation, and receive encouragement by dutifully studying the lives of the Saints, observing how they obtained salvation by their exemplary lives of holiness. . . .

The Church (which maintains the promises and commandments given by Christ Himself, Who is the Head) properly sees sin as a disease of the soul, a disease which leads to eternal death.   The disease is cured by full participation in the Church, the Body of Christ, and the partaking of the life-giving Mysteries contained therein.

So what we have here in Holcombe's presentation on salvation is exactly what Fr. Whiteford argues is, from what he believes is a true Orthodox perspective, an unbalanced view of the matter, which is to say merely the incorporationist (or "therapeutic") side of biblical soteriology to the exclusion of the juridical side.  I notice as well how much Holcombe's view mirrors this one

I've argued previously that this same lack of balance is manifested in much of Anglo-Catholicism, and that the cure for this is to fully embrace the Augustinian legacy.  In my thinking, that includes the theology of Anselm of Canterbury on the nature of the atonement and all of its juridical implications, as well as that of Bernard of Clairvaux on grace and justification.  Despite what Holcombe seems to be saying, those implications -- acquittal and justification -- are things that have clear support in the New Testament.

See A Reader Sends This Article.

(One more incidental point about Holcombe.  While I obviously take issue with his argument here, he is one of my favorite political and cultural bloggers.  He's a traditional Southron, and his stuff on the flap over the Confederate flag is priceless.)

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Reader Comments (4)

Astounding that these people deny substitutionary atonement. How do they explain the remission of sins? Are sins "healed"? My experience of evangelicalism is that they do not preach it either, but they confined it to theological papers and text books. The BCP Communion service sets it out on plain English, so we hear it all the time.

September 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

It all sort of reminds me of when St. Innocent of Alaska, a missionary saint who knew the realities of the mission field, wrote this in a moment of rare "Calvinistic" theological candor:

"Brethren, you have heard that the goal of our Society is to advance the conversion of those who do not yet believe in Christ our Savior. That is, we accept, each according to his abilities and the measure of his zeal, to further the conversion to the Orthodox Faith and the Truth of those among our fellow countrymen who still wander in the darkness of unbelief. As you can see, the work we hope to advance is great and holy and truly apostolic.

In order to obtain the success one desires, even in ordinary tasks and undertakings, it is necessary to muster (independently of financial means) intelligence, knowledge, experience, ability, activity and energy. When with all of this the circumstances are just right, one has reason to hope for success.

Now, in the work we wish to advance, this does not in the main apply. To be sure, we too will need (in addition to financial means) intelligence, knowledge, experience, ability and so on, but we cannot - and must not, even under the best of circumstances - count on these factors as a sure means of attaining our goal. And why not? Because man's conversion to the path of faith and truth depends entirely upon God. "No one can come to me", said the Savior, "unless the Father who sent Me draws him to Me" [Jn 6:44]. Therefore if, according to his inscrutable judgments, the Lord does not wish for a given person or nation to be converted to Jesus Christ, even the most capable, most gifted, most zealous of workers will not succeed in his task. (Address of Metropolitan Innocent Veniaminov to the Organizational Meeting of the Orthodox Missionary Society, 1868. Quoted in Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, ed. Michael Oleksa, p. 141)"

Likewise, the quotation that Fr. John Whiteford provides from St. Gregory Palalmas shows a moment of candor about what the Scriptures really do indicate, which is that some sort of legal transaction occurred on the Cross which indeed made it possible for God to remit sins - and, in the Orthodox context, for the priest to pronounce absolution.

Unfortunately, what we see most of the time from modern Orthodox apologists on the question of salvation is reflected in the material from Molly Sabourin and Tim Holcombe, posted and linked here. The attempts of Orthodox theologians such as D.B Hart and Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon to get the Orthodox to stop reacting so viscerally and mindlessly against "the West" largely falls on deaf ears.

September 6, 2015 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

Thanks for that. It tells me that the EO truly need to read Luther on justification. I cannot see how the EO can have any assurance of the forgiveness of their sins without a sound grasp of a purely forensic justification. I am sure that they do not.

September 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoger du Barry

The issue is their rampant anti-Westernism. It's not just that they need to read Luther, they need to re-engage the West generally with a view toward acknowledging the possibility that the West in fact did get at least some things right. Right now, unfortunately, their Eastern chauvinism prevents them from even considering this.

September 8, 2015 | Registered CommenterEmbryo Parson

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