the odd expectation
In Great Lent, we are in a season when the faithful seek the Holy Mystery of Confession, and it is this time of year when a special problem emerges. And that is the issue of Penance. What I mean here is not the positive problem of a spiritual father helping the penitent with a penance that will aid him in his theosis -- that is really the subject of another presentation.
No: what I am concerned with is the strange expectation of penance by the penitent. Sometimes, the penitent might even ask for a more severe penance if he thinks the therapy suggested by the priest is too lenient.
Of course, such an expectation and demand for hard penance is completely contrary to Orthodox Tradition, let alone the fact that it indicates a spiritual problem the Latins like to call “over-scrupulosity.”
But we are left with the nagging impression, here, that this is a sign of an even larger problem. In this odd expectation of punishment, there seems to be the trace of a deeper expectation that sin is something that should be paid for and balanced out … that there is Someone Who needs to be appeased, or “propitiated” … that Someone or something needs “satisfied” … that some sort of “payment” needs paid, in order to stave off some sort of impending doom or disorder, or disaster -- in a word, inescapable Wrath.
Today, I would like to talk about about this persistent idea that the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was such a “satisfaction.”
In Orthodoxy, we have generally blamed Anselm as the one most responsible for this doctrine of “satisfaction” -- namely, the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement.” In his work Cur Deus Homo, this eleventh century Benedictine writing in Canterbury asserted that every single sin is an infinite violation of God’s honor. This violation puts the sinner in infinite debt to God. The debt is too much for a sinner to pay, obviously. The only way that this infinite debt could be paid is by the coming of a Redeemer, Whose absolute purity could discharge the debt of humanity.
Hence, the title of Anselm’s work -- Cur Deus Homo, which means “Why the God-Man?” It could only be the God-Man Who could Redeem and satisfy the debt of human sin.
The Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky, singles out Anselm as the locus where Western theology massively moves away from the patristic understanding of the atonement, and turns toward a more legalistic, juridical view of salvation. It is interesting that David Bentley Hart, in his difficult book The Beauty of the Infinite, takes Lossky to task for taking Anselm out of context, and for failing to acknowledge the fact that Anselm is completely Trinitarian in his argument.
Hart is right, to a degree. Anselm is clear that the sacrifice of the Cross is a gift that exceeds every debt. Nothing remains “unpaid for.” Hart tries too hard, I think, to renovate Anselm’s theory of substitutionary atonement. His attempt to re-read Anselm’s argument is more of a re-interpretation than an explanation.
metaphor mistaken for substance
Contrary to Hart’s best efforts, Anselm’s argument is made in language that is strange to the ears of Eastern theology and remains so. His words are not so much juridical as they are commercial. The terms of “debt” and “redemption” are terms of the marketplace. And one rightly wonders whether these words were used in Scripture mainly as secondary terms, where the Apostles and the Lord Himself were using figures of speech to describe a reality that was, after all, un-describable.
This, I think, was Lossky’s main problem with Anselm. In general, the Eastern Orthodox critique of all western theories of the Cross and Redemption have to do with language. Theologians like Lossky, Staniloae, Romanides -- in his inimitably strident manner -- and even Hart himself have noticed a repeated problem in western theology. What may have been meant as a descriptive term in Scripture is frequently taken, in western discourse, as a reality itself. Thus, when a courtroom setting is used by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans, western theology envisions God as Judge, Jesus as Defense Attorney, and the Devil as the DA (in Perry Mason), the prosecuting attorney who is arguing for the State.
To take an even more telling, and historic, example: when the lake of fire is used to describe perdition in eternity, western theology concludes that this fire is a creation made by God. This error in interpretation became a momentous point of discussion in the tragic Council of Florence in the fifteenth century.
Clearly, Anselm’s argument suffers from not a few difficulties. Chief among them is this error of interpretation. But just as problematic is the simple question: just who is the debt to be paid to? And why does God simply not forgive the debt, just like he did in the Parable of the Unjust Servant? After all, isn’t this parable the source of all these commercial terms in the first place -- terms that were so appealing to Anselm?
Of course, this leads us back to the question which should afflict us all -- even after today’s presentation, you should always wonder about this. I don’t mind in the least that you should be skeptical about my argument: I, for one, think that it is a good exercise to hold answers in abeyance, and allow deep theological questions to lurk in the mental corners.
The particular question at hand is this: “Why couldn’t God just forget about sin and let it go?”
the violence of penal substitution
This is the central question that compelled the attention of not only Anselm, but certainly all the Fathers who thought about Redemption. It also become the critical occasion in which western theology displayed some of its most egregious moments, in which it revealed a closer affinity to the violent narratives of this world rather than to the infinitely peaceful narrative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am thinking here, primarily, of the doctrine that Lossky was really complaining about, as opposed to his beating up on poor Anselm. Instead of the commercial doctrine of substitutionary atonement -- that one can lay at the feet of Augustine just as readily as that of Anselm -- Lossky and the Orthodox critique are really complaining about the Reformed Doctrine of Penal Substitution.
This is the theory that Christ was punished (or penalized) in the place of sinners. He was “substituted” in their place, thus “satisfying” the demands of justice so that God can justly forgive their sins.
Let us be fair to Anselm here and not blame him for this argument. To be sure, this doctrine is a derivative of “substitutionary atonement,” but it is really the work of the Protestant Reformation, especially from the lawyerly pen of John Calvin.
It is not hard to understand. It emerges quite readily out of the common human experience of a hard, darksome world. One example ought to confirm the ubiquitous expectation of “penal substitution.” One need look no further, surprisingly, than the pen of Mark Twain.
In his engaging tale of “The Prince and the Pauper,” there is a minor character who assists the hero, Tom, in his task of posing as Prince Edward. The character is a “whipping boy.” The job of the “whipping boy” was to take the place of the Prince whenever corporal punishment was doled out by the tutor.
In effect, the “whipping boy” was an innocent substitute who took the penalty instead of the one who deserved it. Hence, “penal substitution.”
In this theory there is a suggested answer to the question “Why couldn’t God just forget about it?” The answer would be, intriguingly, that God cannot neglect the demands of justice, without contravening His nature of perfect justice.
It is not difficult to critique this view, and one certainly must do so if he is faithful to the apostolic and Orthodox tradition. While later on, in the more positive second half of this presentation, we will meditate upon the narrative of the Sacrifice of Christ in Holy Tradition, permit me to briefly note a few of the problems that emerge from this theory of Penal Substitution.
Let us consider, right off the bat, that this doctrine is the default belief of heterodox American Christianity. Just a few weeks ago, in the Western observance of Easter, it is this argument that lay as the basis for almost every sermon about what happened on Good Friday.
First: there is the notion that Divine Wrath is a passion that is provoked by human sin, and that “necessitates” a response by God. Human sin makes “necessary” God’s anger, and that anger must be completely expressed.
This notion obviously puts God under necessity of provocation -- a thing that cannot be done if God is God: the divine nature is always, completely free. This notion also imposes a very human -- indeed, a fallen human -- character of anger upon divine nature.
Second: there is the notion that punishment actually is able to satisfy the demands of justice. Who said, after all, that the punishment of a criminal can adequately repair the damage of the crime? This, I know, resonates with the very contemporary discussion of the penal system in jurisprudence -- but that is precisely my point. If there remains some skepticism about the effectiveness of the penitentiary in secular law, how much more should we question the place of penal punishment in the realm of theology?
Third: there is the notion that somehow, the Son puts Himself in opposition to the Father, as the One who “becomes sin” as a substitute, and thus places Himself at the locus of punishment that must come. On the other hand, the Father directs His “just” wrath against His Son. He unleashes a tempest of infinite pain upon the crucified victim, who falls under the aggregate weight of all the penalty of all the sin of the ages.
And finally, at the extremity of His dereliction, Jesus cries out “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
And in this theory of penal substitution, the interpretation is that, indeed, God the Father had forsaken His Son.
St Athanasios is quick to lay this notion to rest. In his work, the Discourse Against the Arians, Athanasios asserts the divinity of the Son to his opponents and emphasizes the unity between the Father and the Son.
Here is what he said about those terrible, heartbreaking words of Jesus on the Cross:
“Neither can the Lord be forsaken by the Father, [the Lord] Who is ever in the Father.”
It is interesting that Athanasios wrote this in the context of an argument against the Arians. I say it is interesting because it seems to me that there is at least a latent Arianism running through this notion of the Father and the Son being placed on opposite sides of a penal exchange of justice.
In Orthodox Holy Tradition, the peaceful, beautiful fellowship of the Holy Trinity remains unbounded, unchecked and uninterrupted -- even at the extremity of the Cross.
And, I might add, especially at the extremity of the Cross.
Knowledge of the Trinity as peace and beauty is established at that horrible singularity of sin and death -- at the Cross, and all the way down to the extreme dereliction of Hades, where Jesus in His human soul proclaims the lightning, dawning truth in the darkness that He has completed assumed and transfigured sin and death.
When Scripture says, as it does, that Jesus became sin for us, it did not do so in the sense that Jesus became the criminal and the sufferer of penalty. In 2 Corinthians 5.21, a favorite reference of John Calvin and Charles Hodge, St Paul writes "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." In this sense, Jesus did not become sin essentially. Instead, the sense here is that he completely assumed the full measure of the aggregate consequence of sin -- the terrible, horrifying aspect of all the cost, all the pain of all sin for all time.
And Jesus did not do so so that He might become the single “convict,” Who alone would go to the gallows.
Jesus assumed the burden of sin for all time so that, by His death, it would be loosed for all time.
In the western narratives, Jesus was envisioned as the substitute “whipping boy” for humanity.
But in Orthodox Holy Tradition, there is no doubt that there was a whipping and a hanging tree.
But it wasn’t God doing the whipping.
It was sin.
Sin carries its own grief, suffering, pain and degeneration. Every sin is a cloud of hell that accumulates into an entire atmosphere of darkness.
It was sin.
the persistent myth of propitiation
St Gregory the Theologian thought deeply about the Sacrifice of the Cross, and about how, even in his day, opinions fractured and devolved about the Cross and gravitated toward violence, and away from the primordial peace of the Holy Trinity.
Here are his famous words that anticipate, rather spookily, the likes of Anselm and even Calvin:
We must now examine the question and the dogma so often passed over in silence, but which (I think) demands no less deep study. To whom was that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and glorious blood of God, the blood of the High Priest and of the Sacrifice. We were in bondage to the devil and sold under sin, having become corrupt through our concupiscence. Now, since a ransom is paid to him who holds us in his power, I ask to whom such a price was offered and why? If to the devil it is outrageous! The robber receives the ransom, not only from God, but a ransom consisting of God Himself. He demands so exorbitant a payment for his tyranny that it would have been right for him to have freed us altogether. But if the price is offered to the Father, I ask first of all, how? For it was not the Father who held us captive. Why then should the blood of His only begotten Son please the Father, who would not even receive Isaac when he was offered as a whole burnt offering by Abraham, but replaced the human sacrifice with a ram? It is not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice not because He demanded it or because He felt any need for it, but on account of economy: because man must be sanctified by the humanity of God, and God Himself must deliver us by overcoming the tyrant through His own power, and drawing us to Himself by the mediation of the Son who effects this all for the honour of God, to whom He was obedient in everything … What remains to be said shall be covered with reverent silence …
-- St Gregory of Nazianzen, Holy Pascha, oration XLV, cited in Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p153; also cited in Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p204
the persistence of violent exchange
Unfortunately, these words could not hold back the tide of opinion that sought, all too eager, the ancient ways of violent sacrifice as opposed to the self-sacrifice that brought forth sanctification.
Let us look more deeply at this persistent belief in this mythical necessity to appease. Let us see if we can discern its genealogy, to see if we can figure out from when it comes.
Just a while ago, I mentioned that this theory seems to emerge out of the common human experience in a dark, hardened world. Usually, when we think of ideas that are the stuff of “common sense” and common experience, we usually confer validity just for that reason.
If everyone thinks it, because everyone has felt it, then it must be true, right?
Everyone has experienced the world in such a way that there seems to be an inescapable, necessary sequence of events. First you do something bad. Then, if you don’t do something to ward off the bad karma, then something equally bad will happen to you.
Every action provokes an equal (or more than equal) reaction.
Your bad act has introduced an imbalance into the cosmos, and if you don’t perform some act of appeasing propitiation, then you are going to get paid back.
So depending on what culture you hail from, there are a lot of various ways to accomplish this. If you are an Aztec ruler and wish to keep your city safe from plague and fire, then you need to offer up a certain number of human sacrifices. If you are the Theban King Creon, then the cost of your hubris is the death of your noble daughter Antigone: this is the price of the gods for balance to be restored. If you are an average Christian, then each sin has a bill to be paid -- a penalty, or “penance,” to be determined by the relative severity of the sin.
This is all predicated on a deep, deep bedrock myth that lies at the foundation of western culture -- and that is the myth that the city, the center of human culture, must be founded upon the cult of sacrificial violence.
And that, in turn, is because -- according to the narratives of the world in general, not just in the West -- literally all narratives are based on violence, upon the succession of one domineering power waging violence upon the less powerful.
A fragile balance must be sustained, warily, between the human city and the dark, chaotic environs outside the city. Culture has its price. The weak are the common, everyday sacrifice to appease the angry gods -- whether these gods are believed in or not, whether or not they have religious names or, as they are nowadays, given scientific and political names.
But once in a while, when the imbalance demands it, a princess like Antigone, or a celebrity, or a politician, is demanded. And occasionally, even entire populations, indeed, millions of people, are offered up in holocaust on the altar of sheer domination and violent pride.
the violent city of totality
You should be skeptical about this line of thinking, because it is not self-evident. Nevertheless, according to Nietzsche and many of the post-moderns, this theme of the violent interplay between Apollo, the god of order, and Dionysios, the god of disorder and the ecstatic darkness is inescapable. It is the “meta-narrative.” It is the single story of the world in its totality.
Sacrifice exists, they say, and so, indeed, does Attic tragedy in classical Greece and the whole world’s pre-Christian heroic literature: sacrifice exists because power must be appeased, and it must be appeased violently.
I think we might be able to detect this sort of sacrifice in the Bible itself. Not at the Cross, nor at the offering of Isaac by Abraham, nor even in any of Israel’s long history of cultic sacrifice, especially at Yom Kippur.
No, I’m thinking of the very first recorded sacrifice in Genesis. I’m thinking of Cain, of course, the elder brother. We read, in the Septuagint, that “on Cain and on his offerings God was not intent” (Genesis 4.5 LXX). His sacrifice was not accepted. It remained a meaningless offering. It was a sacrifice that was of the order of “vain repetition,” as Someone would say centuries later.
What was wrong with the sacrifice of Cain? What was wrong with his religion? He had the right God, after all -- or did he? Is it not the case that your religion is determinative of your belief, and your belief directs your prayer either to the true God, or an idol?
In any case, God did not accept the sacrifice of Cain, St Cyprian of Carthage suggests, simply because Cain did not offer it in peace and innocence. Even though the sacrifice was agricultural, which was viewed later on in Israel as secondary, still, the main problem was that the sacrifice was not offered as a gift. It was offered as commerce, ultimately as an appeasement, or propitiation.
It was offered as the first of a long, tragic tradition of violent sacrifices, offered to a God of omnipotence, perhaps, but a God whose nature was not good, whose beauty was not wedded to peace. A terrifying, majestic God to be sure, replete with themes of power and violence, fates and furies, determinisms and deterministic pre-destinations and a complete effacement of human liberty and responsibility. It would be an aristocratic theology that would be at the beck and call of the movers and shakers of all the world’s kingdoms. It would provide the necessary myth and narrative to rationalize power and wealth, privilege and libertinism for the fortunate few who lived in the suburbs of Olympus.
Later on, we’re told, Cain moved to the land east of Eden, where he built a city -- a tragic consequence of fratricide, the murder of his brother Abel. It is always interesting to call to mind the haunting fact that Rome, too, was built not in a day, but on the blood of violent sacrifice. Romulus slew his brother Remus, simply because the latter had the bad sense to step over a border, a line written in the sand.
History has not changed this simple, tragic and ironic script. And it won’t in the future, either. “There will be wars and rumors of wars,” Someone said, centuries later, “These things must come to pass.”
And that, in a hard, simplistic generalization, is the very “unOrthodox” history of the world.
the One Story
Orthodoxy is opposed to this terrible meta-narrative. This hard generalization, this meta-narrative is the cosmology of the “totality,” as our post-modern friends might say.
Our job in Traditional Orthodoxy is to remember and speak clearly the one Story that can bring the gates of totality crashing down.
And that One Story is obviously the Gospel.
“Totality,” if you remember, is the city that is built on violent sacrifice -- a city that Cain first established.
Remember, too, the fact that along with Cain’s sacrifice, there was another.
Abel offered a lamb, the firstfruit of his flock. Yes, indeed, this lamb anticipated, like all the other sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament religion, the one perfect sacrifice of the Cross.
And like the Cross, Abel’s sacrifice became the symbol of the gift of himself. It was not a mere representation of himself, but a symbolic sacrifice that became an offering of his ego, the limitations and the boundaries that could possibly demarcate himself from the divine energies of grace.
And as the lamb anticipated the ultimate lamb that takes away the sin of the world, so also did Abel’s sacrifice of self as a free gift anticipate the free gift of the Son of God.
Fr Dumitru Staniloae is emphatic here: for theosis, or communion with God, to occur, the entrance is by way of the free surrender of self.
… the Father, too, needed our sacrifice for the restoration of our communion with Him; this sacrifice was not to satisfy His honor [cv Anselm, Cur Deus Homo], but to open us to the communion with Him by denying ourselves and seeing Him in all His glory. That is why He offered His Son as sacrifice, because we were not able to bring this sacrifice.
-- Fr Dumitru Staniloae, The Person of Jesus Christ as God and Savior, p110
This is not at all violence, but the establishment of peace -- even though that peace had to be looked for far beyond the contemporary horizons, and far into the prophetic promise of the Messiah.
Every sacrifice in Israel was an expectation not of appeasement, but of eschatological promise. Every sacrifice reached out across the distance of Time to the one moment, at the Cross, when the glory of God would be revealed more brightly than it was ever revealed in the Ark of the Covenant, or in the shekinah glory of the Temple -- so writes St Isaac of Syria.
The glory of the Cross was the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God Who was also the Son of Man. At the Cross, He is the Second Adam Who repaired and retold the human story according to its original, natural beauty.
His entire Gospel, incarnate life was a self-sacrifice that we are fond of calling “kenosis,” the “pouring out of self.”
It is interesting -- and supremely important -- to remember that this kenosis is the same design and movement as the “perichoresis” of each Person of the Trinity.
At the Cross, the prophetic sacrifice of Abel is completely and overwhelmingly fulfilled. At the Cross, the sacrifice of Christ is of a nature that is completely different from the man-made traditions of violent sacrifice: this One Sacrifice is the new history -- really a new creation -- of peace and beauty. At the Cross the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is a free, victorious gift of peace and theosis: it is the Trinitarian gift of the Body and Blood of Christ, and the beautiful, heartbreaking call of the Shepherd to His sheep, to walk the paths of righteousness.
Please permit me to read a particularly rhapsodic passage of David Bentley Hart. He writes so well of the continual, indivisible work of the Trinity in the particularities of history -- and at no time does history become more particular than at the horrible singularity of the Crucifixion -- a singularity that the infinite beauty of the Trinity, in its inimitable mystery of grace, completely overwhelms and turns the Cross from an ugly imperial symbol of torture into the only sign that unites power with grace, meekness with majesty, sovereignty with servanthood.
All this is united in the Gospel inversion of the Cross. And here is David Bentley Hart on how the Cross is the inauguration of the “peace that passes understanding”:
And this is our salvation: for when the infinite outpouring of the Father in the Son, in the joy of the Spirit, enters our reality, the apatheia of God's eternally dynamic and replete life of love consumes every pathos in its ardor; even the ultimate extreme of the kenosis of the Son in time -- crucifixion -- is embraced within and overcome by the everlasting kenosis of the divine life. Because divine apatheia is the infinite interval of the going forth of the Son from the Father in the light of the Spirit, every interval of estrangement we fabricate between ourselves and God -- sin, ignorance, death itself -- is always already exceeded in him: God has always gone infinitely further in his own being as the God of self-outpouring charity than we can venture in our attempts to escape him, and our most abysmal sin is as nothing to the abyss of divine love. And as the Word possesses this trinitarian impassibility in his eternal nature, and so as God cannot change or suffer, as a man he can suffer all things, bear any wound -- indeed, bear it more fully than any other could, in absolute depth -- not as wrath or defeat but as an act of saving love: as Easter.
-- David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p359
whipping boy or sin-eater
There is another story, too, that anticipates the Cross. It is more than a little different from the Whipping Boy of The Prince and the Pauper. This one comes from 18th century England, in some of the out-of-the-way rural districts. It is a quite horrible superstitious tradition: at the death of a loved one, the family would prepare the body and lay the departed upon the table in the house. They would cut a piece of bread and lay the bread upon the chest of the departed. They would then leave the house and put this superstitious tradition into action.
There would be an individual in the village who lived on the “outskirts” -- literally, and more importantly, figuratively. (It is interesting that in uncivilized districts, the literal and figurative are usually a lot closer together in meaning than the more ironic speech of the “one city” of modernity.) Figuratively -- because this individual was “exiled” because of his disorderly behavior, or because of his criminality or disease or all of these reasons combined.
This individual is the one who would be called for to come into the house of the recently dead. He would enter the house, possibly say a few prayers, then eat the piece of bread that was left on the chest of the departed.
That is why this individual was called the “sin-eater” -- it was believed that he would assume and take away the sins of the departed, through the bread.
I suggest to you that the two understandings of the Cross that I have laid out to you today can be summarized by the two stories I have told: of the whipping-boy, and of the sin-eater.
I suggest to you, also, that the latter story is the one much more akin to the Orthodox narrative of the Cross as the Trinity’s rhetoric of divine peace triumphing over violence.
But the analogy between the sin-eater and Christ only goes so far. It stops at two places. First, when Christ “eats” or assumes all the sin of humanity, only He is able to completely eradicate the sin by the infinity of His divinity -- the tidal wave of divine kenosis, even at the lowest point of hell.
And second: the bread of the sin-eater is an obvious symbol of evil death. Bread, in the Gospel narration of Christ, is life-giving and is the sacrament of eternal fellowship with the Holy Trinity. Instead of the sin-eater becoming sin by eating the bread, the bread of the Gospel becomes Christ Himself.
* * * * * * *
In a simple way, if one were to ask you why Jesus died on the Cross, you could say that it wasn't to calm down the mad Father, or to pay off the Devil.
Rather, you could say that He died to pour out His life in infinite kenosis, so that His theosis would be infinitely available. The grain of wheat falls into the soil, dies, so that it might rise into the sunlight in infinite harvest. The Cross is transmuted into Eucharist. The Holy Trinity, in peace, meets the violence of the devilish world untroubled, and overwhelms hell with Resurrection.
Where you and I belong.
But that's another story, next week.