Atonement

The atonement is such a great mystery that the Bible and the Church Fathers have used many metaphors to help us to grasp it. We may find it helpful to speak about the eight “Rs” of our atonement— Redemption, Reparation, Representation, Righteousness, Rescue, Recapitulation, Reconciliation, and Re-creation. Typically, our Eastern theologians and our hymnody stress the rescue and reconciliation accomplished by God the Son, who won as Victor over the enemy of death for our sake and reunited us with his Father. Even Western theologians have begun to celebrate our Orthodox emphasis upon Christ the Victor, and some have declared that, over against Western “justification” and the sacrificial death of Jesus, the East shows a more helpful model to understand the work of Christ.

We should be happy that our Western friends are rediscovering the fullness of the mystery of Jesus’ death. On the other hand, it seems that they have not grasped the many-faceted ways in which Eastern Christians have understood this mystery. Certainly, Western theology has, from our perspective, overemphasized the judicial metaphor of “justification,” sometimes making it appear that Christ entered into a kind of contractual relation with his Father so that we would be acquitted. At times the relationship between Father and Son has even been pictured in the West as adversarial, with the Father wreaking vengeance upon the Son, who stands in for fallen humanity as a kind of “whipping boy.” Pagan ideas concerning the need to propitiate an unwilling god are not helpful when we remember the Father “who did not withhold his only-beloved Son” (Rom 8:32), and the Son who always acts in concert with the Father. Still less helpful in our day is the medieval idea, made popular by Anselm, of a heavenly King whose honor requires “satisfaction” by Jesus, who dies for this purpose: our God is holy, and can never be “shamed” in such a fashion as to need his honor recovered. However, it is helpful for us to remember that God’s justice (or righteousness) is indeed a biblical and patristic theme, and that the metaphor of justification (that is, our acquittal) stands alongside others for atonement, both in the Bible and in many ancient fathers. For example, we hear from the mouth of St. John Chrysostom,

The sentence of the judge was going to be passed …. A letter from the King came down from heaven. Rather, the King himself came. Without examination, without exacting an account, he set all free from the chains of their sins. All, then, who run to Christ are saved by His grace and profit from His gift. But those who wish to be justified by the Law will also fall from grace…. And if any were to cast in prison a person who owed… and another were to come and… to pay down the [debt], and to lead the prisoner into the king’s courts, and to the throne of the highest power, and make him partaker of the highest honor…, the creditor would not be able to remember the [debt]; this is our situation. For Christ has paid down far more than we owe, indeed, like a drop compared with the limitless ocean.1


Footnotes

  1. St. John Chrysostom, Discourses Against Judaizing Christians: Discourse I:9; Epistle to the Romans, Homily X, Rom 5:17, author’s translation.