Posts Tagged Roman Catholic Theology

Rohr: “Where the material and spirit coincide, there is the Christ”

Fr. Richard Rohr – is a Franciscan priest, Christian mystic, and teacher of Ancient Christian Contemplative Prayer. He is the founding Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.

“If you had been present at the moment of the Resurrection, what would you have seen? If there had been a video camera outside the tomb, what would it have recorded? Perhaps there would have been a huge flash of light or a subtle glimmer of a dimension beyond our usual perception. At the Resurrection, we believe the historical body of Jesus moved beyond any confinement of space and time. The presence which was captured in finite form was revealed to be an infinite omnipresence. He moved from Jesus to Christ, which now includes in its sweep all of creation and even you and me. The texts all agree that this movement had a physical dimension to it, but it is a new kind of embodiment that is both of this world and yet not limited by it. Thanks to Einstein, we now know that matter and energy are convertible forces.

Whenever the material and the spiritual coincide, there is the Christ. Jesus accepted that full identity and walked it into history. He was fully human and fully divine at the same time. So now we can begin to imagine how they could coexist. The material and the spiritual are one, the human and the divine are forever, the physical plumbed to its depth finds transcendence! The hiding place of God is also the place of revelation—here and now and everywhere. This is an utterly new notion of religiosity, so much so that most of Christian history (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Pentecostal) missed this major point and lived in a split universe.

The mystery of Christ is revealed, and the Christ “comes again,” whenever you are able to see the spiritual and the material coexisting, in any moment, in any event, and in any person. God’s hope for history seems to be that humanity will one day be able to recognize its dignity as the divine dwelling place, which it shares with the rest of creation. I don’t know when it will happen or what it will look like to reach the tipping point, for the Christ Mystery to come to fullness. All I know is that this meaning, planted in the middle of things, was meant to give humanity both direction and immense confidence. I suspect “the Second Coming of Christ” happens whenever and wherever we allow this to be utterly true for us. We’re still living in the in-between right now, slowly edging forward, with much resistance. As it says in Romans 8:22-23, creation is “groaning in anticipation,” or as one translation states, “We are standing on tiptoe waiting for the revelation of the sons and daughters of God.” I hope such implanted hope gets your whole life up on its toes!”

Meditation – Monday, March 23, 2015

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What it Means to be Human – East and West – 2

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. דְּמוּתdemuth; 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.

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What it Means to be Human – East and West – 3

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.

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Romanides: “The schism between Eastern and Western Christianity was not between East and West Romans.”

Father 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.  His books include: The Ecclesiology of St Ignatius of Antioch (1956); Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine: An Interplay Between Theology and Society (1982);  Ancestral Sin (2002);  An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics (2004); and The Life in Christ (2010).

Romanides traced the 1054 split between the Eastern and Western Christian churches to a long political, military, and ethnic struggle between the Roman East and the Germanic conquerors of the Roman West.  These German tribes started with the Visigoths in AD 410, culminating with Charlemagne and the Franks in AD 800.  The Great Schism of 1054 had more to do with a Frankish – Eastern Roman power struggle than it did with religious doctrine.  In the West, the church was simply used as a tool in that imperial struggle.


“The schism between Eastern and Western Christianity was not between East and West Romans. In actuality, it was a split between East Romans and the conquerors of the West Romans.”


Romanides John

Fr. John Romanides

“In the background of dialogue and the Ecumenical Movement for the reunion of Christendom lies the generally recognized fact that there is an interplay between theology and society, which may lead to a dogmatic formulation and become the cause of doctrinal differences.

Within the Roman Empire doctrinal conflicts took place usually among Roman citizens in a atmosphere of religious and philosophical pluralism. With the official recognition of Orthodox Christianity, we witness the beginning of the use of doctrinal differences in support of nationalistic movements of separate identity and secession from Roman rule, both political and ecclesiastical. Both Nestorianism and so-called Monophysitism, although initially promoted by Roman nationals, were finally supported by separatist tendencies among such ethnic groups as Syrians, Copts, and Armenians. Indeed, both Persians and Arabs took care to keep Christians separated.

By the eighth century, we meet for the first time the beginning of a split in Christianity which, from the start, took on ethnic names instead of names designating the heresy itself or its leader. Thus in West European sources we find a separation between a Greek East and a Latin West. In Roman sources this same separation constitutes a schism between Franks and Romans.

One detects in both terminologies an ethnic or racial basis for the schism which may be more profound and important for descriptive analysis than the doctrinal claims of either side. Doctrine here may very well be part of a political, military, and ethnic struggle and, therefore, intelligible only when put in proper perspective. The interplay between doctrine and ethnic or racial struggle may be such that the two can be distinguished, but not separated.

The schism between Eastern and Western Christianity was not between East and West Romans. In actuality, it was a split between East Romans and the conquerors of the West Romans.

The Roman Empire was conquered in three stages: 1st by Germanic tribes who became known as Latin Christianity, 2nd by Muslim Arabs, and finally, by Muslim Turks. In contrast to this, the ecclesiastical administration of the Roman Empire disappeared in stages from West European Romania (the Western part of the Roman nation), but has survived up to modern times in the Roman Orthodox Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

The reason for this is that the conquerors of the West Romans used the Church to suppress the Roman nation, whereas under Islam the Roman nation survived by means of the Church. In each instance of conquest, the bishops became the ethnarchs of the conquered Romans and administered Roman law on behalf of the emperor in Constantinople. As long as the bishops were Roman, the unity of the Roman Church was preserved, in spite of theological conflicts. The same was true when Romanized Franks became bishops during Merovingian times and shared with Roman bishops church administration. 

During the seventh century, however, the seeds of schism appear. The Visigoths in Spain had abandoned their Arian heresy and had become nominally Orthodox. But they preserved their Arian customs of church administration, which became that of the Carolingian Franks, and finally, of the Normans. The Visigoths began subjugating the Spanish Romans by replacing Roman bishops with Goths and by 654, had abolished Roman law.

During this same century, especially after 683, the Franks also had appointed Frankish bishops en masse and had rid their government administration of Roman officials.

Earlier, during the sixth and early seventh century, rebellions of leaders in Francia were joint conspiracies of Franks and Romans. By 673, however, the rebellions had become purely Frankish. “   ~From the Introduction to “Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine; An Interplay Between Theology and Society

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hilastérion (ἱλαστήριον): Propitiation or Expiation?

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.

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T.S.Eliot: “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality”

Dover Beach

Thomas_Stearns_Eliot_by_Lady_Ottoline_Morrell_(1934)

“The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.”

– T.S.Eliot

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Atonement Theory 1

 

“We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear.”

 

Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins (cf., 1 Cor. 15:3). In this way he fulfilled the old covenant sacrificial system, reconciled us to God, and changed our lives forever.

That is the doctrine of the Atonement.  Its reality is not in dispute. However, many Christians struggle to understand this doctrine. We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear. Over the centuries many different theories have been suggested to explain how the Atonement works.

Many contemporary Western Latin Christians (Roman Catholics and Protestants) are unaware that there are other theories of the nature of Jesus Christ’s atonement.  Most are only familiar with their own Roman Catholic Satisfaction Theory of atonement or the related Protestant Penal Substitution Theory.  My guess is that few Catholics or Protestants are aware that both of their respective atonement theories are relatively new innovations theologically and neither reflects the theology of the ancient Christian church.  Consequently, even fewer Western Christians are likely familiar with the predominant atonement view held by those in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is commonly called The Recapitulation Theory, which does reflect ancient Christian tradition dating back to the late 2nd century.

First, a very general chronological overview of the four major Christian atonement theories

  • Moral Influence Theory (2nd century)
  • “Christus Victor”/Ransom/Recapitulation Theory (late 2nd century)
    • These are different, but generally considered together as the “Patristic” or “Classical” understandings of the early Church Fathers
  • Satisfaction Theory (11th century)
    • Developed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).
  • Penal Substitution Theory (16th century)
    • A variation of Anselm’s satisfaction theory developed by the Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin (1509-1564), and is often treated together with the satisfaction theory

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Atonement Theory 2

“…the classical or patristic view, … can be variously interpreted as the Ransom or Recapitulation view, under the general heading of ‘Christus Victor’.”

Throughout the centuries, Christians have used different metaphors and given differing explanations of Christ’s atonement to express how the atonement might work. The four most well-known theories are briefly described below:

The earliest explanation for how the atonement works is often called by contemporary scholarship the Moral Influence Theory.  According to this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this through a combination of his teachings, personal example, his founding of the ekklesia (Church), and the inspiring power of his crucifixion and resurrection. This view was taught by the Church Fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD along with what is called the classical or patristic view, which can be variously interpreted as the Ransom or Recapitulation view, under the general heading of “Christus Victor”.  Peter Abelard (1079-1142) re-popularized The Moral Influence Theory in the Medieval period partially in reaction against Anselm’s Satisfaction theory (below).  It remains the most popular view of atonement among theologically liberal Protestant Christians.

Chronologically, the second theory, the “Christus Victor”/Ransom/RecapitulationTheory, was first clearly articulated by Irenaeus (early 2nd century – c. AD 202), Bishop of modern-day Lyon, France.  Gustav Aulén, in his 1931 book Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, gives us a description of “Christus Victor” as, “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”

“Christus Victor” and “Ransom” differ slightly from each other: in the Ransom metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to sin and Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom sacrifice (cf., Matthew 20:28).  Victory over Satan consists of exchanging the life of the perfect man (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind).  The “Christus Victor” theory, on the other hand, does not see Jesus as a ransom, but rather as defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor (Satan).

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Atonement Theory 3

 “Anselm used the analogy of Medieval Feudal society to illustrate his theory.”

The Recapitulation Theory is another variation of the “Christus Victor” model and also dates to the very early Church.  In the recapitulation view of the atonement, Christ is seen as the new Adam who succeeds where Adam failed.  Christ undoes the wrong that Adam did and, because of his union with humanity, leads humankind on to union with God and eternal life.  This theory is found throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers.   Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373), the hero of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, wrote the classic treatise On The Incarnation of the Logos in AD 318 which explains the overall Recapitulation view very well.

The “Christus Victor” Theory and its variants dominated Christian theology for a thousand years until Anselm of Canterbury moved the Latin West toward the “Satisfaction” theory in the 11th century.

The third atonement theory, the Satisfaction Theory, was developed by the 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).  According to this theory, mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to the sovereign God himself.  Anselm used the analogy of Medieval Feudal society to illustrate his theory.  A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign, he cannot if the state has been dishonored. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy, and that Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Therefore, the doctrine would be that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for many”, to God the Father himself.

The next atonement theory, which was a development by the Reformers (including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Melanchthon) is based on Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory.  It is the widely held Protestant Penal Substitution Theory which, instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honor, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (‘the wages of sin is death’), Penal Substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (cf., Galatians 3:13).

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Atonement Theory 4

“The Penal Substitution Theory sees Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin.”

 

The Penal Substitution Theory sees Christ’s suffering and death as the price for man’s sin.  In many ways, the model for Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a courtroom.  Due to his sin, man needed to be made right with a perfect and just God.  Therefore, Christ came to suffer and pay the price in our place, i.e., He substituted Himself for us.  Now, in the courtroom of God, those who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior are judged innocent.  They have a forensic righteousness imputed upon them.

Clearly, Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Latin Christianity have significantly different theories of atonement as part of their respective soteriologies (doctrines of salvation).  The contemporary Orthodox Recapitulation Theory agrees with Western Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories in so far as God needed to deal with man’s sin.  Man was separated from God as a result of the fall and, left to his own devices, was incapable of returning to God.  However, the Orthodox see God’s model of dealing with man’s sin as a hospital rather than a courtroom.  This stands in sharp contrast to the forensic, legalistic models of Roman Catholic Satisfaction and Protestant Penal Substitution.

Instead of viewing the atonement as Christ paying the price for sin in order to satisfy a wrathful God, Recapitulation teaches that Christ became human to heal mankind by perfectly uniting the human nature to the Divine Nature in His person.  Through the Incarnation, Christ took on human nature, becoming the Second Adam, and entered into every stage of humanity, from infancy to adulthood, uniting it to God.  He then suffered death to enter Hades and destroy it.  After three days, He resurrected and completed His task by destroying death.

By entering each of these stages and remaining perfectly obedient to the Father, Christ recapitulated every aspect of human nature.  He said “Yes” where Adam said “No” and healed what Adam’s actions had damaged.  This enables all of those who are willing to say yes to God to be perfectly united with the Holy Trinity through Christ’s person, the Logos, the Son.  In addition, by destroying death, Christ reversed the consequence of the fall.  Now, all can be resurrected.  Those who choose to live their life in Christ can be perfectly united to the Holy Trinity, receiving the full love of God’s grace.  However, those who reject Christ and choose to live their lives chasing after their passions will perceive the love of God as torment, as hell.

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