Posts Tagged patristic fathers
What it Means to be Human: Christian Anthropology, East and West
Before the 5th century, there was a general consensus amongst all five Patriarchates of the united Christian Church (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and Jerusalem) on what it means to be human (anthropology). So, before AD 400 there was no significant variation in Christian Anthropology.
I will present a brief summary of that common doctrine as a baseline to explain and contrast the alternative anthropology developed mainly by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, of the Roman Patriarchate, around the beginning of the 5th century. Augustine’s unique views on anthropology became dogma in the Roman Patriarchate and later Roman Catholic Church after the Great Schism divided the united Christian Church in 1054. Augustine’s doctrines continue to dominate Roman Catholic and Protestant theology to this day.
For simplicity, I will refer to the original anthropology of the Christian Church as the Eastern Greek doctrine and the 5th century Roman alternative anthropology as the Western Latin doctrine.
In the next post in this series, we will discuss Eastern Greek Anthropology.
Eastern Greek Anthropology
Human beings are dignified creatures created by God. This very positive view of humanity was the position of all early Christian authorities and remained the conviction of the unified Church for nearly five centuries. The doctrine included the following points from Genesis 1:26:
- God created humankind intentionally. Humans are not an accident of evolution.
- God created humans in his image and likeness.
This means that humanity is theomorphic, having the form, image, or likeness of God. This is a very optimistic and positive view of anthropology.
Some of the Greek Fathers made a distinction between image (Heb. צֶ֫לֶם – tselem; Grk. εικονα –eikona) and likeness (Heb. דְּמוּת – demuth; Grk. ομοιωσιν – homoiosin) in Gen 1:26. They argued that image and likeness were not synonymous or rhetorical equivalents. They pointed out that in Hebrew, image (tselem) always indicates a “physical” or structural image of some kind. This distinguishes it from likeness (demuth), which usually refers to some kind of “functional” image, to be like, or resemble. I bring this up to point out that later Western Latin theologians would attempt to refute the distinction between image and likeness, calling it a simple example of rhetorical Hebrew parallelism or hendiadys.
To illustrate the Eastern Greek understanding, I quote St. Basil the Great (c. 330-c. 379), who said this about God’s image and likeness:
“Let us make the human being [he quotes God] according to our image and according to our likeness”. [Then he continues] By our creation, we have the first, and by our free choice we build the second. In our initial structure co-originates and exists our coming into being according to the image of God. By free choice, we are conformed to that which is according to the likeness of God.
Note also in this quote, Basil also alludes to two other very important early doctrines; “free choice” (free will) and “conformed… to the likeness” (synergy). We will encounter both of these doctrines further on.
This made human beings inherently valuable and dignified. This was the theological position of the early Church Fathers such as Sts. Basil and Ephraim in the East and St. Ambrose in the West.
For many Fathers, the metaphor of the Tree of Life served as a symbol and expression of humankind’s communion with God, participating in the very life of God in paradise.
But humankind was expelled from paradise when it freely chose to live without God, when it chose death over life in God. This is the “Fall”, the primordial sin.
So, expelled from paradise and stripped of his dignity, humankind suffered what St. Athanasius (c. 298— 373) described as an anthropological catastrophe. It disrupted and disfigured the intention of God for the human race. Athanasius wrote, “Because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in the process of destruction.” He termed this the “De-humanization of man”. Humanity suffered and waited for God to act.
God did respond and he responded positively through the Incarnation of his Son, the Logos, the Christ, to defeat sin and clearly teach humanity the path of salvation, to a restoration of a life in God. John the theologian describes it in John 1:14, “the Logos became flesh and tabernacles among us”. Through Christ man is re-created. In a famous passage from his book, “On the Incarnation”, Athanasius echoes the words of St. Irenaeus and other Fathers before (and after) him:
“God became man that man might become god.”
In other words, the early church Fathers declared that the deification of humanity was possible. This is a very, very positive affirmation of the dignity, value, and potential of every human being.
The Fathers of the Eastern Greek Church described salvation in many different ways. There was more than just one image of salvation, but one of the most common, compelling, and powerful was that of the forementioned deification (Grk, theosis), or union with God.
The role of baptism was vitally important to the early church in the process of salvation of man through deification. It was not just for the forgiveness of sins that baptism imparted, but also for the impartation of deification and the experience of paradise, bringing a person into the light of God himself. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386) explains:
Great indeed is the baptism which is offered you. It is a ransom to captives, the remission of offenses, the death of sin, the regeneration of the soul, the garment of light, the holy seal indissoluable, the chariot to heaven, the luxury of paradise, a procuring of the kingdom, and the gift of adoption.
St, Cyril also talks about the rite of chrismation, the impartation of the gift of the Holy Spirit. That distinct rite always followed baptism immediately. Effectively there was no separation of the two rites in terms of time. This is a further indication that baptism is not just for the remission of sins but also a gift of life in the kingdom of heaven; the opportunity for deification.
Again, we are presented with a very positive view of the human person.
There is another doctrine critical to an understanding of salvation as the deification of humanity: the understanding of the essence and energies of God. Appropriated from Aristotelian metaphysics by the early Greek Fathers, this doctrine states that God in his essence is simply unknowable to humanity, so great and so far beyond human comprehension that he will never be knowable. However, God, through his actions and activity in creation, shares his energies with human beings made in his image and likeness to know him and participate in his life.
Basil tells us:
While we affirm that we know our God in his energies, we scarcely promise that he may be approached in his very essence. For although his energies descend to us, his essence remains inaccessible.
As a result of this doctrine of divine essence and energies the Greek Fathers described how humans could experience the immanent presence and life of an otherwise transcendent and unknowable God: deification.
Yet again, a very positive, optimistic view of humanity.
There are two more doctrines which complete the Eastern Greek understanding of anthropology; Free will and Synergy. Humans possess free will (not to be confused with autonomy) and can exercise it in a way as synergy, or cooperation, with the energies God. So, human beings are assigned a great dignity as they participate with God in their own salvation, even if in an asymmetrical way (God initiates everything!). Part of this synergy requires a deep desire on the part of the believer for a purification (katharsis) that leads to an experience of God (theoria), and ultimately union with God (theosis).
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c.395), brother of St. Basil, sums it up beautifully:
The Lord does not say that it is blessed to know something theoretically about God, but to possess God in oneself.
This demonstrates that the Greek East maintained a very positive view of the inherent dignity and value of humanity, a very optimistic anthropology.
Again, I must emphasize that this positive, optimistic anthropology was the prevailing position of the united universal Christian Church for the first 400 years of its existence. In fact, it remains the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day, including all five of the original Patriarchates of the united Church, with the notable exception of Rome.
We will deal with the anthropology of the Latin West, next.
Western Latin Anthropology
We now examine the Latin West and the foundation of an alternative anthropology, which became increasingly pessimistic about the human condition. This pessimism would grow to have a profound impact upon the Middle Ages and lead to the large-scale abandonment of traditional Christianity during the Renaissance.
The foundation of this pessimistic anthropology is based on the early 5th century thought of St. Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius, in the Roman Province of Numidia on the North African coast (modern north-east Algeria).
Augustine outweighs, by far, the collective influence of all the other Latin Fathers (e.g., St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, Gregory the Great) and dominates the theological thinking and tradition of Western Latin Christianity from the 5th century all the way up to the present. By Western Latin Christianity I include the Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of the 35,000+ denominations contained within Protestantism. As we shall see, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin will make much use of Augustine’s thought.
Augustine’s own life experiences, detailed in his book Confessions, and his disputes with British-born heretic Pelagius (c. 354- c.418) and his disciples did much to influence his thinking on the human will and grace.
Pelagius believed that humans are self-willed and autonomous in relationship to God. He even had a slogan for this belief: A deo emancipatus homo est. Man is emancipated from God.
How different this is from the Greek patristic understanding of human free will in synergy with God and totally dependent on God, finding fulfillment only in divine life.
But Augustine engaged Pelagius very differently. He took the opposite view of the human will from Pelagius, developing a doctrine of heteronomy; being ruled by another than oneself. Augustine believed that humans possess a free will, but that it has been vitiated, that is weakened and undermined and functionally powerless. Based on that conclusion, Augustine came up with his own slogan: non posse non peccare. [Man is] not able not to sin.
Not a very optimistic or positive view of humanity.
Therefore, to Augustine, salvation comes to depend on divine intervention in the form of a grace from God that precedes any action from a human being toward good; it came to be known as prevenient grace. It is prevenient grace that causes the human will to do good. Augustine saw this grace as created, and not God himself. How different this is from the Greek patristic doctrine of grace as the uncreated energies that really are God and penetrate and deify the believer and bring them ever more fully within the life of God himself.
To Augustine, if the human will is good, then it is through God and his prevenient grace activating the will. Of course, according to Augustine’s doctrine of heteronomy, there is the other (hetero) that could activate the human will as well. That would be the will of the devil. But in either case, it’s not the human will, but the will of another that leads the human in the direction he takes in life.
As a corollary, Augustine also developed the doctrine of “predestination”, which declares that, given that the human will as vitiated and powerless, God predestines those whom he has chosen as elect to save.
Again, not a very optimistic or positive assessment of the human will.
Augustine’s doctrine of predestination goes further than anything discussed to this point in undermining a belief that humans possess a free will and that they can work out their salvation in cooperation, or synergy, with God.
More than 1,100 years later, Protestant Reformer John Calvin would double-down and fully develop Augustine’s doctrine of predestination. If you believe that Augustine’s influence was limited to the Roman Catholic church and did not effect Protestant theology, I invite you to consider Calvin’s T.U.L.I.P., a summary of his principle doctrines; Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Calvin drew directly from Augustine and is perhaps the most consistent theologian under his influence during the 16th century Protestant Reformation in the West. The Protestant Reformation bought Augustinian theology, pretty much in whole or at least in part.
Augustine, while rightly defending Orthodoxy against the anthropological heresy of Pelagius, had unfortunately taken positions that put him at odds with the consensus of the early unified church, East and West, concerning the condition of humanity, its inherent value and dignity, its place in this age, and the possibility of experiencing the divine, paradise itself, even in this world.
The last of Augustine’s unique doctrines we will discuss is arguably his most controversial; original sin. This doctrine goes well beyond the conception of the Fall and primordial sin of Adam and Eve that had been developed by Eastern Greek Fathers and even by Western Latin Fathers before the 5th century. For Augustine, the Fall resulted in humankind’s actual participation in the guilt of Adam’s original sin. This is a fundamental difference between the Eastern Greek patristic understanding of the Fall and the subsequent Western Latin Augustinian understanding.
This gets a little tedious but stay with me.
Augustine was led to this interpretation of the Fall by the translation of the Bible that was now being used in the West in his time. In the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (the Latin Vulgate bible), and in a very important passage from the epistle of Paul to the Romans 5:12, the original Greek was mistranslated by Jerome. Scholar David Bentley Hart, author of the recent The New Testament, a Translation, remarks that this “notoriously defective rendering in the Latin Vulgate (in quo omnes peccaverunt) constitutes one of the most consequential mistranslations in Christian history.” Below is the original Greek of Romans 5:12 (underline mine):
Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ δι’ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον
The key here is that in the original Greek, above, the word “ἐφ’ ᾧ” (transliterated as “ef ho”), underlined near the end of the passage, is usually translated as “because” in English, as you can clearly see, underlined in the New King James Version (NKJ) translation, below:
Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned…
So, “Death and sin entered the world and spread to all human beings because all sinned.”
But in the Latin Vulgate, Jerome mistranslated “ef ho” and entirely changed the meaning of Romans 5:12. Jerome’s Latin translation of “ef ho” was “in quo”, which means “in whom”, and relates, in this passage, to Adam himself. This would mean that entire human race itself participated in Adam’s sin, in a willful act of transgression.
Augustine’s poor skills in Greek would not allow him to read the original Greek New Testament, so he was forced to rely solely on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.
So, with this flawed translation of Romans 5:12 in hand, Augustine was able to assert that in Adam, in the person of Adam and in his very act of willful rebellion against God in the Fall, in the original sin, all human beings have sinned; all human beings have willfully participated, as descendants of Adam, in Adam’s personal sin.
Adam’s sin, for Augustine, was grounded in his concept of concupiscence, or evil desire. As a result, all of Adam’s descendants (all of humanity) participated in that act of will and are personally guilty for the transgression. His inclination toward this interpretation of the Fall came from his doctrine of grace and free will, that he had worked out early in his life in response to his personal experiences with lustful desires (cf. Confessions) and from his response to the earlier Pelagian controversy (both earlier in this summary).
It goes without saying that this reflects a negative, pessimistic view of humanity.
Augustine’s doctrine of original sin had important corollaries that were worked out in the Western Latin church over time. Some of these corollaries were worked out by Augustine himself. For example:
1. One corollary states that: if all human beings have sinned in Adam through original sin and been conceived in sin and have therefore come into the world personally guilty of original sin, then all human beings are deserving of punishment by God. The human condition is understood as one deserving of punishment, universal punishment.
2. Another corollary that grew out of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin was that unbaptized infants who died before they could be baptized were destined for hell because they were born with the guilt of Adam and, not having that guilt washed away by baptism, were destined to be punished in hell for it.
3. Yet another corollary to the doctrine of original sin is that baptism increasingly becomes understood as a sacrament exclusively of washing away, of remission of sins. Baptism lost its earlier traditional aspect of also imparting deification, the gift of the Holy Spirit deifying the believer.
4. Finally, a corollary to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is that humanity became characterized by the condition of depravity: a moral bankruptcy. Augustine used the term massa damnata, a damned mass, for the entire human race awaiting punishment were it not for the life-creating sacraments of the Church.
Augustine’s anthropological pessimism saw the human condition in the world as one of misery, almost unmitigated misery. Salvation was seen as a release from punishment in the afterlife.
As Augustine reflected on these miseries, which result from the reality of original sin, he also discussed the role of punishment and the value of punishment, arguing that punishment can, and often does, play a valuable role in bringing the saints who have been predestined for paradise to that experience which awaits them after their death.
So, paradise, from which humanity was expelled, has no place in this world. It is something predestined saints will experience after death in this world. This life is penal, a place of punishment. But that punishment is good, purificatory, for the numbered elect saints being prepared for paradise.
For everybody else, it’s just punishment.
A very negative and pessimistic anthropology, indeed.
“Thus, St. Thomas will say, ‘Concerning God, one cannot say what God is, but only what God is not.’ In this manner the apophatic way recalls the transcendence of God, that divine otherness which neither the mind, nor the senses of anything can grasp. […] Apophasis is the direct apprehension of the Real just as it is, without the projections of the discursive mind that distort the Real. It is to see without eyes, to comprehend without the mind.”
“Proceeding directly from this apophatic tradition, hesychasm will be profoundly Christocentric. Without Christ, in fact, divinization is not possible. Christ’s incarnation establishes the full communion between God and humanity. God became human so that humans might become God. ‘God became the bearer of flesh so that humanity might become the bearer of the Spirit’, said Athanasius of Alexandria. […] This paradoxical union, which is realized in the Spirit, recreates us in the image and likeness of the Son of God. Humanity rediscovers the beauty for which it was created.”
“This union also leads the hesychasts to affirm with Gregory of Palamas the reality of the experience of God, while continuing to affirm His transcendence. […] Two affirmations characterize hesychastic experience: the affirmation of divine transcendence, of God’s inaccessible essence, and the nearness of God, God’s immanence and presence in each of us, the divinization of humanity through the energies of the Word and the Spirit.” From, Being Still, pp. 56, 59, 61, 62, 64
Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) – (1945- ) is a Greek Orthodox metropolitan and theologian. He graduated from the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki and is one of the finest Patristic scholars living.
“Man has two cognitive centers. One is the nous, the organ suited for receiving God’s revelation which is then formulated by our reason, while the other is reason, which knows the tangible world around us. With our nous we acquire knowledge of God, while with our reason we acquire knowledge of the world and the learning offered by the science of sensory things.” From The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, trans by Esther Williams, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1998. p. 28
John Romanides (1927 – 2001) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian theologian, priest, and writer. He was Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, MA and later Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
“The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul. The Church has always considered the soul as the part of the human being that needs healing because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning. They used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know when this change in meaning took place, because we know that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions in the region of the heart.
So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.
We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the Apostle Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit,” he means what the Fathers mean when they say, “I will pray with the nous.” And when he says, “I will pray with the nous,” he means “I will pray with the intellect (dianoia).” When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word “spirit.” When he says “I will pray with the nous, I will pray with the spirit” or when he says “I will chant with the nous, I will chant with the spirit,” and when he says “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” he uses the word “spirit” to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason.
In his phrase, “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” St. Paul speaks about two spirits: the Spirit of God and the human spirit. By some strange turn of events, what St. Paul meant by the human spirit later reappeared during the time of St. Makarios the Egyptian with the name nous, and only the words logos and dianoia continued to refer to man”s rational ability. This is how the nous came to be identified with spirit, that is, with the heart, since according to St. Paul, the heart is the place of man’s spirit.
Thus, for the Apostle Paul reasonable or logical worship takes place by means of the nous (i.e., the reason or the intellect) while noetic prayer occurs through the spirit and is spiritual prayer or prayer of the heart. So when the Apostle Paul says, “I prefer to say five words with my nous in order to instruct others rather than a thousand with my tongue,” he means that he prefers to say five words, in other words to speak a bit, for the instruction of others rather than pray noetically. Some monks interpret what St. Paul says here as a reference to the Prayer of Jesus, which consists of five words, but at this point the Apostle is speaking here about the words he used in instructing others. For how can catechism take place with noetic prayer, since noetic prayer is a person”s inward prayer, and others around him do not hear anything? Catechism, however, takes place with teaching and worship that are cogent and reasonable. We teach and speak by using the reason, which is the usual way that people communicate with each other.
Those who have noetic prayer in their hearts do, however, communicate with one another. In other words, they have the ability to sit together, and communicate with each other noetically, without speaking. That is, they are able to communicate spiritually. Of course, this also occurs even when such people are far apart. They also have the gifts of clairvoyance and foreknowledge. Through clairvoyance, they can sense both other people’s sins and thoughts (logismoi), while foreknowledge enables them to see and talk about subjects, deeds, and events in the future. Such charismatic people really do exist. If you go to them for confession, they know everything that you have done in your life before you open your mouth to tell them.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:5.
- Romans 8:16.
- This means that the Spirit of God speaks to our spirit. In other words, God speaks within our heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory Palamas in his second discourse from “In Behalf of the Sacred Hesychasts” notes that “the heart rules over the whole human organism”. For the nous and all the thoughts (logismoi) of the soul are located there.” From the context of grace-filled prayer, it is clear that the term “heart” does not refer to the physical heart, but to the deep heart, while the term nous does not refer to the intellect (dianoia), but to the energy/activity of the heart, the noetic activity which wells forth from the essence of the nous (i.e., the heart). For this reason, St. Gregory adds that it is necessary for the hesychasts “to bring their nous back and enclose it within their body and particularly within that innermost body, within the body that we call the heart.” The term “spirit” is also identical with the terms nous and “heart.” Philokalia, vol. IV (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p, 334.
- Cf. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, who notes: “Man has two centers of knowing: the nous which is the appropriate organ for receiving the revelation of God that is later put into words through the reason and the reason which knows the sensible world around us.” The Person in Orthodox Tradition, trans. Effie Mavromichali (Levadia: Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 1994), p. 24.
- 1 Corinthians 14:19.
- In Greek, the Prayer of Jesus consists of exactly five words in its simplest form, which in English is translated as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” “TRANS.
- “Thus as Saint John of Damascus puts it, we are led as though up a ladder to the thinking of good thoughts”. Saint Paul also indicates this when he says: “I had rather speak five words with my nous”.” St. Peter of Damascus, “The Third Stage of Contemplation,” in Philokalia, 3, page 42 [my translation: cf. also English Philokalia, vol. XXX, p. 120] and St. Nikitas Stithatos, as cited below.
- With respect to this, Venerable Nikitas Stithatos writes, “If when you pray and psalmodize you speak in a tongue to God in private you edify yourself, as Saint Paul says. ” If it is not in order to edify his flock that the shepherd seeks to be richly endowed with the grace of teaching and the knowledge of the Spirit, he lacks fervor in his quest for God”s gifts. By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue, that is, by praying in the soul ” you edify yourself, but your nous is unproductive [cf. I Corinthians 14:14], for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God”s Church. If Paul, who of all men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have rather spoken from his fertile nous five words in the church for the instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private with a tongue [cf., I Corinthians 14:19], surely those who have responsibility for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd”s ministry solely to psalmody and reading.” St. Nikitas Stithatos, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” in The Philokalia, vol. 4, pp. 169-170.
From “Patristic Theology – The University Lectures of Father John Romanides”, (Thessaloniki, Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008), pp. 19-23.
From “The Writings of Maximus the Confessor” by Saint Maximus –
“Perfect silence alone proclaims Him, and total and transcendent unknowing brings us into His presence.”
The Greek word ἱλαστήριον, transliterated as hilastérion (hil-as-tay’-ree-on) is translated into English as both “propitiation” and “expiation”. Hilastérion and it variants are found in the New Testament rarely, but there are three citings that are particularly important to the topic of atonement: Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10:
(1) Rom 3:25: “…whom God displayed publicly as a/an _____________ in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed”
(2) 1 John 2:2: “…and He Himself is the ______________ for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
(3) 1 Jn 4:10: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an ______________ for our sins.
So what’s the difference between “propitiation” or “expiation”, the English translations of the Greek word hilastérion? A short passage from “Reconciliation,” in Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. III, p. 151 (hereafter referred to as DNTT) summarizes:
“In discussing reconciliation and atonement it has become customary to draw a distinction between propitiation and expiation. In propitiation the action is directed towards God, or some other offended person. The underlying purpose is to change God’s attitude from one of wrath to one of good will and favor. In the case of expiation, on the other hand, the action is directed towards that which has caused the breakdown in the relationship… In short, propitiation is directed towards the offended person, whereas expiation is concerned with nullifying the offensive act” (DNTT, Vol. III, p. 151).
Given the above, “propitiate,” would indicate that God is changed; whereas “expiate” would indicate that the repentant sinner is changed. But, this raises another serious theological question: Does God change? On this question, we will take the traditional classical Christian position that “God does not change”.
Having introduced the question of change, we can now return to the original question at hand: In the New Testament, is the meaning of hilastérion more closely approximated by “propitiation” or “expiation”?
Summarizing the first 1,000 years of Christian patristic theology, Orthodox theologian and Bishop Kallistos Ware insists that Christ did not become incarnate to heal God the Father: He became incarnate to heal us. According to the Orthodox, the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Christ represent the “mercy seat” (Gk. hilastérion/ Heb. kippur) upon which our sins are “wiped away”/”expiated” by God, restoring us to His covenant love. This “expiation”, or removal of sin as an obstacle between man and God, transforms repentant sinners into His divine likeness and nature (2 Cor 3:18; 2 Pet 1:4 etc.). So, it is we who change rather than God. Orthodoxy emphatically supports the divine attribute of constancy of God (Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17).
If we concede the classical Christian position that God never changes and remains ever constant, then we must conclude that divine “propitiation” – a change in attitude from one of wrath to one of good will and favor- cannot be attributed to God; for He is, by definition, changeless. God cannot have been “propitiated” ontologically by having “a change of attitude” unless God Himself changed ontologically.
There is one final point to be made from the perspective of New Testament exegesis. In the case of “expiation”, “the action is directed towards that which has caused the breakdown in the relationship… In short, “propitiation” is directed towards the offended person, whereas “expiation” is concerned with nullifying the offensive act” (DNTT III, 173).
So, to what do the three New Testament passages using hilastérion and variants, cited above, refer to? Do they refer to God (as in God’s wrath being “propitiated”) or to the sins of man being wiped away and removed as an obstacle to union with God (“expiation”)? Clearly, in all three of the passages in question, hilastérion is used directly in reference to humankind’s sins as an obstacle to our union with God. They do not refer to God as an object of “propitiation”. This is not a “propitiation” for the Father,” but rather “expiation” “for our sins.”
In referring to the patristic theology of the first Christian millennium we should emphasize this is not an exclusively patristic or Orthodox view. Some leading academic scholars and some major Protestant scholars have held hilastérion is best understood as “expiation” – a change in man, wiping away his sin; rather than “propitiation” – a change of God, changing His disposition from anger to affection. God is constant and changeless. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is humankind who must be transfigured by the changeless grace and mercy of God.
The Latin Western tradition, by contrast, has insisted since the Middle Ages on defining hilastérion in the sense of “propitiation”, including the traditional Calvinist interpretation. Historically the emphasis upon a change in God’s attitude rather than man’s condition arose from St. Augustine in the 5th century, but reached its zenith in the 11th century with Anselm of Canterbury. According to Anselm, man had broken honor with his liege Lord (God). And because his honor was slighted, “satisfaction” had to be made; in this case, by the death of his own son, (Jesus Christ).
The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition bypassed this particular Western interpretation entirely. They never adopted a soteriology of merit/satisfaction (ala Anselm). To the Orthodox, the atonement is purely grace/gifting from God rather than a merit/earning system imposed on humankind.
Genesis 1:26: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
Every human being is created in the image of God and it is the purpose of each of us to attain to His likeness, that we may be “partakers of the divine nature” (cf. 2 Peter 1:4).
Bishop Kallistos (Ware), in his classic book “The Orthodox Church”, tells us, “According to most of the Greek Fathers, the terms image and likeness do not mean exactly the same thing. ‘The expression according to the image,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue’ (On the Orthodox Faith, 2, 12 (P.G. 94, 920B)). The image, or to use the Greek term the icon, of God signifies man’s free will, his reason, his sense of moral responsibility — everything, in short, which marks man out from the animal creation and makes him a person. But the image means more than that. It means that we are God’s ‘offspring’ (Acts 27:28), His kin; it means that between us and Him there is a point of contact, an essential similarity. The gulf between creature and Creator is not impassable, for because we are in God’s image we can know God and have communion with Him. And if a man makes proper use of this faculty for communion with God, then he will become ‘like’ God, he will acquire the divine likeness; in the words of John Damascene, he will be ‘assimilated to God through virtue.’”
This “optimistic anthropology” of the Eastern Orthodox with its “original blessing” in the creation of Adam and, by extension, of all humankind, differs markedly from the “pessimistic anthropology” of the Western church with its emphasis on “Original Sin” and its logical extensions. Bishop Kallistos observes, “This picture of Adam before the fall is somewhat different from that presented by Saint Augustine and generally accepted in the west since his time.”
It is not surprising, then, that many Western theologians consider the Hebrew words for image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) to be synonyms; and their use in Gen. 1:26 to be a simple example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism. Eastern Orthodox theologians disagree, citing a distinction in meaning between tselem and demuth.
To the Orthodox, the words, “image and likeness” are used to indicate two different aspects of the “image” of God.
- Image is the Hebrew word tselem, צֶ֫לֶם, and always indicates a “physical” or structural image of some kind.
- Likeness is the Hebrew word demuth, דְּמוּת, and usually refers to some kind of “functional” image, likeness or expression.
There seems to be a clear distinction between the two words tselem and demuth as used in the Hebrew Bible.
- tselem indicates a “physical” image or structure and would refer to the “structural” image of the Godhead
- demuth indicates a “functional” likeness, similitude – the idea of “acts like.”
What do the Greek translations of tselem and demuth in the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible (ca. 300 BC) tell us about image and likeness in the light of the use of these Greek words later in the New Testament?
In the Septuagint, at Genesis 1:26, the LXX translates tselem as εἰκόνα, eikona
In the 23 New Testament occurrences of eikōna and its derivatives, it appears that there is no clear distinction in what eikōna references regarding the two aspects of God’s image.
At Gen. 1:26, the LXX translates demuth as ὁμοίωσιν, homoiōsin.
Used one time in the New Testament at James 3:9, “men, who have been made in the likeness (homoiōsin) of God.” Indicates the present status of mankind. They were created originally and all men are presently “in” the image of God.
Since homoiōsis is only used one time, we should probably interpret James as focusing on the fact that men have all been created in the “functional” image of God, that is with the purpose of bringing glory to Him.
The English words “justice” and “righteousness” are translations of a single Greek word, δικαιοσύνη, transliterated as dikaiosúne (dik-ah-yos-oo’-nay). I always thought this strange, as the concept of legal justice and righteousness seemed so different to me than the idea of spiritual justice and righteousness. Well, guess what? They are!
It appears that the word dikaiosúne can convey both a sense of forensic human justice/righteousness (as a legal declaration) and divine justice/righteousness, depending on context.
The basis for understanding justice/righteousness from a legal, forensic standpoint rests on the concept of justice as understood in the pagan Greek culture of the time – dikaiosis. The ancient, pagan Greeks, Thucydides for one, adhered to a juridical understanding of this concept as punishment.
So, the translation of the Greek word dikaiosúne, as a word of the pagan, humanistic, Greek civilization, carried with it human notions of equal distribution. This is why Justice is represented by a balance scale. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished by human society in a fair way. But, this is human justice.
Does this human concept of justice/righteousness correlate to the divine justice/righteousness that God revealed to us in Holy Scripture? Do they have the same meaning in the Old and New Testaments?
Let’s look at the question from the context of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros, in The River of Fire, proposes that the traditional Eastern Christian and patristic view of justification is more compatible with the nature of the Christian God in both the Old and New Testaments. He explains:
“The word dikaiosúne, ‘justice,’ is a translation [in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible, ca. 300 BC] of the Hebraic word tsedaka. This Hebrew word means ‘the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation.’ It is often translated as ‘charity’. It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, hesed, which means ‘mercy,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘love,’ and to the word emeth which means ‘fidelity,’ ‘truth.’ This gives a completely different dimension to what we usually conceive as justice. This is how the [early] Church understood God’s justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it – God is not just, with the human meaning of this word, but we see that His justice means His goodness and love, which are given in an unjust manner, that is, God always gives without taking anything in return, and He gives to persons like us who are not worthy of receiving. “How can you call God just”, writes Saint Isaac the Syrian [7th century Bishop and Theologian], “when you read the passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong; I will give unto this last even as unto thee who worked for me from the first hour. Is thine eye evil, because I am good?'” “How can a man call God just”, continues Saint Isaac, “when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son, who wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him lest we doubt it, and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for “whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us!”
The approach employed by many Western Roman Catholic/Protestant scholars (inherited from the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Calvin) uses the human interpretation of dikaiosúne as justice in a form resembling Imperial Roman juridical “Iustitia”, or Roman Law. This is at odds with Eastern Christian interpretation of dikaiosúne as the divine justice of Old Testament tsedaka and as God’s justice exemplified in the New Testament parables of the Workers in the Vineyard and the Prodigal Son. The traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades particularly of the Western Latin forensic notion of justice/righteousness, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works.