An Eastern Orthodox view of atonement?

Rachel Held Evans’s blog pointed me to this video by Steve Robinson, who hosts a podcast on Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Steve attempts to compare Protestant and Orthodox views of atonement—how it is that we sinners are reconciled to God. Atonement, at least in Western Christianity, is always centered on the cross. The central question that atonement answers is, “What does the cross mean?”

Robinson wants to say that the cross is far less important than the resurrection (and probably Christ’s descent into hell, as symbolized by his folding up the chairs, but I’m just guessing) in Eastern Christian thought. I have no idea if that’s a fair representation, but he knows much more about it than I do!

Be that as it may, if you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know that any attempt to speak about a “Protestant” view of atonement should set off an alarm. There is no one Protestant view of atonement. In fact, there’s no one Roman Catholic view, either. The Catholics have dogmatized so many peripheral ideas related to faith, I’m surprised that they haven’t dogmatized one view of atonement. But they haven’t. (To dogmatize something is to say that all Christians in good standing must believe this doctrine.)

Robinson isn’t nearly as obnoxious an Orthodox apologist as some of our Catholic apologist friends are. (Scott Hahn, I’m looking at you!) If he were, he would know that there are—how many, Scott?—something like 100,000 Protestant denominations, each of which has its own unique way of understanding every aspect of Christianity with no common ground between them whatsoever. Therefore, it’s preposterous to talk about a Protestant view of anything. For some reason, Robinson fails to appreciate this fact.

No, I like Robinson. He presents a reasonably accurate and non-judgmental view of penal substitution. The problem is that while most Protestants accept some version of substitutionary atonement (and, I hasten to add, how could they not, since it’s clearly a biblical motif?), why would they divorce it, as Robinson seems to do, from God’s amazing love?

By all means, our sin has offended a holy God. Our sin has separated us from God. Our sin deserves punishment. And on the cross, God in Christ bore the punishment our sin deserves. But what motivates God to accomplish this atoning work on the cross? Love, of course. It’s all because of love! I’m not aware of any major Protestant church or tradition that denies this.

Robinson implies that we Protestants believe that God’s wrath is somehow at odds with God’s love. That’s simply not true. Everything God does, God does out of love. (I know that many liberal Protestants believe that God’s wrath is at odds with God’s love—and they reject substitutionary atonement for that reason—but liberal Protestantism is a recent development. Give me that old-time religion, not the new stuff.)

As I watched Robinson’s illustration of the Orthodox view of atonement, I saw nothing in it that was incompatible with penal substitution. Not that his view of atonement was sufficient: Where is judgment for sin? Where is wrath? And what about all the substitutionary language in the New Testament?

But mostly I wanted to say to him, “It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.”

3 thoughts on “An Eastern Orthodox view of atonement?”

  1. Brent, I wanted to you to know that I agree 100% with this comment you made: “Robinson implies that we Protestants believe that God’s wrath is somehow at odds with God’s love. That’s simply not true. Everything God does, God does out of love. (I know that many liberal Protestants believe that God’s wrath is at odds with God’s love—and they reject substitutionary atonement for that reason—but liberal Protestantism is a recent development. Give me that old-time religion, not the new stuff.).” Interestingly, when I read this post I had just returned from lunch with a friend and we were debating whether God’s motivations for his behavior were always out of love as opposed to other things. My view is that “God is love,” 1 John somewhere, and therefore everything that God does vis-a-vis us has some relationship to or is characteristic of his love. Even hell.

    How can this be as to hell? Because God’s love is fundamentally “conditional.” God extends his love fully and freely to all, but it comes with the condition that it be “returned” on pain of being lost. Jesus said to his disciples, “If you enter a house, extend peace to it, but if they won’t accept you, let your peace return to you.” (Something like that, anyway.) In looking over Jerusalem, Jesus said he would have gathered its inhabitants under his wings like a hen does its chicks, “but you would not. Behold, your house is left to you desolate.” So, to the greater or lesser extend that we respond in love back to God when he first extends his love to him (as opposed to placing other things before him, including ourselves), to that greater or lesser extent we continue to receive his love. And, as C.S. Lewis said, “Hatred is what love bleeds when it is cut.” (Or he may have said “anger” or “wrath”; not positive.) It is still a manifestation of what love is.

    I have found what is to me a helpful analogy. Take temperature. It is measured by the presence or absence of heat. However, at a “normal” temperature, we feel neither heat nor cold. Above that we say we are “warm” or “hot.” Below that, we say we are “cool” or “cold.” But it is still on the “scale” of heat. God makes a “dividing line” (based on our acceptance of his love sacrifice through Christ in the prescribed fashion), above which we call his response “love,” and below which we call it “hatred,” but to varying “degrees” insofar as the extent of the loving or hating response. But it is all on the “scale” of love. As you say, “Everything God does, God does out of love,” including the “wrath.”




    The “top” is Christ, infinitely loved and infinitely loving in return. The “bottom” is Satan, at the close hated as much as can be (like 0 degrees Kelvin). Above the line are the saints, who are loved to a greater or lesser degree as they have loved back (or been “committed”), such as the difference between the “greatly beloved” Daniel and Samson, and below the kindly but lost neighbor down to, say, Hitler (then the demons). That’s my view, anyway, for whatever it is worth.

    1. The theory about the nature of God’s love in Tom’s comment makes mincemeat of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:43-48. Especially considering the Gospel of John teaches the incarnate Son is the “exegesis” of the Father in John 1:18, we ought to consider His teaching in light of that. I think there are some serious problems with many things that are taught to be the nature of the substitution going on at the Cross and the nature and implications of God’s “wrath” and “justice”.

      1. 407kwac, I certainly see your point from the passage you cite. However, though subject to your criticism, I don’t think I am “making mincemeat” of that passage by my view. I would refer, first of all, to Paul’s formulation that in doing good to those who hate us, we are “heaping coals of fire on their heads.” In other words, we are to “offer love” to everyone, but that is only “temporary,” depending on whether they “accept” it or not. See also where Jesus said for his disciples to offer “peace” to a town they visited to share the gospel and offer healing, but if not received, to “shake the dust off their feet, as a testimony against them.” So we do offer love, but love “becomes hatred” when rejected. (What other view is there of knowing what will happen if the offer is rejected, the recipient is sent to hell as a result?)

        It may seem somewhat problematic to consider hatred as “on the same scale” as “love,” but I think my comparison of “temperature” is still a valid one. We say it is “hot,” but at the same time recognize that ALL temperature is a more or less presence of “heat.” Therefore, we say that an “emotion” (not exactly just that, but for illustrative purposes I think this is close enough) may be “love,” but at the same time recognize that all “emotion” is the more or less presence of “love.” What we ultimately see is that “hatred” is the “lower level” of the “love scale,” depending on whether someone accepts or rejects Christ and his sacrifice–continuous “love” as “above” the “dividing line” is shown to all who accept that sacrifice, whereas ULTIMATELY the “love offer” and extension of love is “lost” upon that ultimate rejection. That is how I see things, in any event. IMHO.

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