Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church

Inevitably Orthodox believers in the West are approached about their faith by curious Westerners. The questioner usually expects an answer that relates closely to other Western Christian answers widely in play today ... but usually finds the answer is more complicated than that. Perhaps one of the most distressing topics for a Western, non-Orthodox Christian to ask Orthodox Christians is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This question has definite and specific answers in the minds of many non-Orthodox Christians, and so the same caliber of answer is expected from our Orthodox neighbors and friends.

Our Orthodox answers, though, can be very confusing. For example, the following answers might be encountered:
  • I don't know.
  • His death was to prove His humanity.
  • It was NOT a sacrifice for sins.
  • It WAS a sacrifice for sins.
  • It was to bait Satan.
  • It was to trample down death by death.
  • It was so He could rise from the dead.
  • It was to be an example for us.
  • It was because He loved us.
  • It was to outweigh our sins with His righteousness.
  • ...and so on...
If you ask the question and receive all of the above answers from all sorts of different people, the sane conclusion would be that the Orthodox do not know what they believe. That may sometimes be true, but that is hardly much different than any other Christian group. What is troubling is not so much that some Orthodox people (including clergy) cannot answer well, but that they do not have a clear answer to a question that is so important to us. Why is it not important to them?

The short answer is that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is so hugely integrated into Orthodox spiritual life - that is, the life all Orthodox Christians live as Christians in the Church - that they do not see it in abstract terms. They see it instead as going to Church, as celebrating the Eucharist, as being baptized, as wrestling with the sinful passions, as going to confession, as showing love and forgiveness to one another. Orthodox Christians emphasize the cross as a way of life first and foremost. It is the life of Christ become our life.

The difficulty with answering the non-Orthodox question, "What do you believe about the crucifixion of Christ" with the answer I just gave is that for the non-Orthodox, Western Christian all those things I listed under "the cross" do not get at what the Western Christian needs to know about Orthodoxy and the crucifixion of Christ in order to make basic sense of the Orthodox Church.

No Penal Substitution

I speak a lot with traditional-minded Lutherans, and something important to Lutherans - even if they do not use this term - is this thing called Penal Substitution. They use it to mean that God enacted a great exchange on the cross between Christ and the rest of humanity. Christ took on the sins of everyone that ever lived and ever will, and he suffered the penal requirement for those sins, i.e. the punishment. In exchange Christ offers to the world His righteousness so that those who believe in Him can be excused from everlasting punishment and enter into eternal life with all its benefits. Luther went so far as to claim that Christ somehow suffered the punishment of everlasting hell on the cross, at God's ordaining. Well-taught Lutherans have a hard time conceiving of a cross that does not revolve around Christ suffering the agony of hell mystically on the cross in our place.

Penal Substitution boils the atonement down to merit, specifically to a transfusion of merit from Christ to the sinner. The premise is that we do not have our own righteousness, and that God will not accept us unless we are righteous. Penal Substitution teaches that it is enough to have the credit of righteousness transferred to us in order to be accepted by God, provided the punishment that our sins would have deserved is paid off also. Penal Substitution teaches that Christ suffered whatever punishment was due to us for our sins, thus clearing the ledger to fill with the credit of His righteousness, i.e. His merit. Christ will enact this great exchange and transfusion of merit to anyone who will believe in Him as their Lord from the heart (not just outwardly or carelessly so).

Orthodoxy does not know the first thing about Penal Substitution. It never has. Atonement has never been understood as a transfusion of merit in Orthodox Christianity. Nor has there ever been a teaching about Christ suffering the agony of hell mystically on the cross in our place.

Right here it is easy to see why many Lutherans might think Orthodoxy does not have a teaching on the atonement. Many do not know that their belief about the atonement is something unique to them - unique to Martin Luther and the Reformation age, and uniquely flowing from that time in Western history. Many do not realize that salvation by "faith alone" is actually a belief in the transfusion of merit/credit from Christ to the believer. "Faith alone" merely describes the condition by which that transfusion takes place.

Orthodoxy boils the atonement down to life, specifically to a transfusion of life from Christ to the sinner. The premise is that we do not have our own righteousness, and that God will not accept us unless we are righteous. Orthodoxy teaches that we must be reconstituted as righteous beings in order to be accepted by God. Orthodoxy teaches that Christ offered His pure, righteous life to God for the purpose of transfusing it to us, and thereby reconstituting sinners as righteous beings. Anyone who believes from the heart can receive this transfusion of life for free by entering the Church.


Given everything that has just been said, the essential purpose of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one thing for the Lutheran and another for the Orthodox. For the Lutheran it is transforming his status. For the Orthodox it is transforming his being.

There is a transformation of being in Lutheranism. There is a transformation of status in Orthodoxy. For the Lutheran no transformation of being can take place unless first the sinner gains a status that allows God to deal with him in love rather than wrath. Only on this condition can God begin to transform the sinner's being toward righteousness, a goal that is not reached until all the dead are raised to life again. For the Orthodox no transformation in status can occur unless the human being is first remade into that which can embody the status. This remaking - in its total process - begins at Baptism and is finished when all the dead are raised to life again.


Both Lutherans and the Orthodox believe that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. As has been said, Penal Substitution teaches that judgment fell on Christ on the cross. Orthodoxy does not teach this. If you hold to Penal Substitution, and you believe you have received Christ's merits to use as your own, then you expect Christ's merits to get you safely through the coming judgment. What is judged is faith clinging to Christ's merits as if they were your own.

On the other hand, Orthodoxy teaches that we will be held accountable for how we used the gift of transformation that was given us in Baptism. In that we have put this gift to good use, we will be rewarded. In that we have failed to exercise this gift we will suffer loss. If we have ignored or rejected this gift entirely, we will lose it altogether and be cast out among the unbelievers. What is judged is how your faith acted through love.

All that has been said so far only calls attention to some differences in approach that should be kept in mind when examining the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church. Those coming from a Lutheran tradition did not learn their perspective just by taking a class or reading a book. They soaked in it, maybe for a lifetime. The Orthodox Church is a different place altogether. Contrary to the opinion of some, it is a place where the cross is central. Due to expecting different results from Christ's crucifixion, though, what the centrality of the cross looks like in Orthodoxy will be different than how it appears in Lutheranism or other Protestant groups holding to similar ideas about the atonement.

The Centrality of the Cross

The Scriptures give us the account of Adam - his creation, his union with Eve, and their mutual fall from innocence. They are removed from Paradise, from that special place of abundant life and fellowship with God. They are exiled to extract what life they can from an earth cursed to reflect the power of sin and death at work in themselves. This is the divine explanation for the condition of our world, and for those who are born into it.  It is a world fallen from God.

It is not a world abandoned by God, though. The Scriptures of the Old Testament give ample witness to God's persistent desire for mankind to return to Him. He does not abandon Adam, even though He exiles him. He seeks out Noah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the judges, and the prophets. Exile is not abandonment.

The song of the unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5 and the parable of the wicket tenants in Matthew 21 describe God's persistence and disappointment. He plants, He builds, He nurtures, but mankind uses his freedom to render it all useless. So God tears down, destroys, and starts over. Mankind refuses to be rehabilitated, and God refuses to give up on us.

Jesus Christ is God's final solution to a recalcitrant humanity. In Jesus Christ mankind returns from exile. While the Incarnation is the foundation for that return, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the center of gravity that draws all creation into the resurrection of Christ. The cross remains the center of gravity for each and every human being who wishes to return from exile in Christ until the Second Coming. What is the significance of the crucifixion in Orthodoxy? To gather all mankind and all creation into Christ, so that in Christ all may be restored to God via the resurrection and remain with Him forever.

How can it be that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is central in the faith and life of the Orthodox Church, when most Orthodox (clergy included) do not seem to be able to talk about these things? Let's turn the question around: who has needed this kind of answer before? who has held a differing view of Christ's atoning sacrifice that it needed such an explanation?

The cross is every Orthodox Christian's closest companion. I will enumerate just some of the ways this is so:
  • Holy Baptism initiates a person into the likeness of Christ's death on the cross, causing him or her to die with Christ and be sundered from the dominion of the Evil One
  • Chrismation bestows the Holy Spirit and seals the senses of the baptized by application of chrism with the cross
  • Absolution of sins is given during confession with the sign of the cross
  • The Eucharist is consecrated with the descent of the Holy Spirit and the sign of the cross
  • The sign of the cross is made often (even profusely) in times of trouble, thanksgiving, prayer, meals, entering or leaving a church or holy place, etc.
  • Prayer ropes to aid in praying the Jesus Prayer are tied in cruciform knots
  • Priests bless the faithful with the sign of the cross by hand or with an actual cross; such blessings happen outside of services as well as during them
  • Marriages are blessed with the cross as lives of holy asceticism
  • Reposed faithful are absolved and buried under the sign of the cross
  • The entire ascetic life of fasting, alms, prayer, and repentant struggle against the old Adam is the personal application of the cross of Christ over every nook and cranny of the Christian's life until he or she breathes his last
In short the life of the Orthodox Christian is a life under the cross of Jesus. Christ did not just die by the cross, though. He also conquered by the cross. The victory of His resurrection and ascension is intimately connected to His cross. The Church is the outgrowth of that cross and victory. The Orthodox Church is marked by the cross with all its hardship and blessedness combined - from the impressive outlines of history (especially in the Early Church and 20th Century Russia) to the small homes of the most average Orthodox families. And She is buoyed by God's Grace more so through it all. 

Our focus is on the experience of the cross. Participation in the spiritual life of the Church teaches more about the cross than anything I have written here, because in the end it is not the intellect that must finally come to terms with the truth of the cross as much as it is the totality of the human heart and experience. It's okay that some people need the intellectual answer about the cross. That's part of being human. It's just not necessarily the same thing as carrying the cross and following Jesus with it. 

    Saturday, August 25, 2018

    Thoughts About the Church

    Before I became an Orthodox Christian I was taught the Church is properly invisible. I was taught that the Church is something you can only see here and there in the world, wherever God's Word was rightly taught and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's institution. But from where do right proclamation and Sacraments come? The Apostles mediated to us through the Scriptures alone. 

    Sola scriptura serves as a replacement for the authority of the institutional Church. It is the reduction of ecclesiology to a reference manual. Those who apply the manual in genuineness of heart by proclaiming its message and performing its rites expect to get the result described in the manual: forgiveness, rebirth, salvation, and inclusion in the Church ... the Church referenced in the first century manual. The first century Church is the only authoritative Church, according to this model, since she is the only Church described by the Scriptures. 

    So we see this leaves a gulf between the authoritative Church and us today who wish to join this Church. In the first century I could find the Church by finding one or more of the Apostles. Where do I go today? In lieu of an institutional Church that claims to be the unbroken continuation of that first century Church, the Protestant model I received accessed the "true" Church by applying the manual as mentioned above. In this way the Church would make an appearance as Word and Sacrament were rightly used. Outside those moments the Church could not be seen, and therefore its existence was taken on faith. She was present only secretly in the hearts of those who received the Word and Sacraments.

    The various Protestant groups seem to have their own ways of manifesting continuity with the New Testament Church in the here and now. For some it is in the moment of giving your heart to Jesus. For some it is where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name. For others it is establishing a formal congregation that calls a minister to proclaim and administer the Sacraments. However, because of sola scriptura the idea of continuity with the original Church remains among Protestants, expressed in various degrees of repristination. This is a good thing.

    When the article pertaining to the Church was added to the Nicene Creed at the Second Ecumenical Council, no one had any doubt the Church was visible, though. What was harder to maintain was that she is one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. By appearances she is rent by the Arian heresy, torn by the Meletian schism, profaned by the Pneumatomachians, and smeared by conflict. Yet the holy fathers asserted there is only one Church, which they were laboring to manage as good stewards. The institutional Church of the Second Ecumenical Council was as much the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church to these holy fathers as was the Church of the Apostles' day. The only difference is that care of this one Church had succeeded from the Apostles down to them in that time and place, just as they would be succeeded by others after them until Christ returns.

    Those living in the sola scriptura house and maintaining adherence to the Nicene Creed often carry the burden of compensating for the loss of their church's historical continuity with the fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council. It's a very difficult burden, made more burdensome in that it is an impossible task. No matter how much a pastor or layperson or congregation does to fill the gap - no matter how many fathers are quoted, no matter how liturgical the worship, no matter how authentic the vestments, no matter how sincerely devoted to the cause one is - it will never be enough. These are secret attempts to create the Church for yourself, perhaps even a perfect Church for yourself or for those you love. 

    What the fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council knew, though, is that the perfection of the Church is her communion - that is, a communion that brings the perfect (i.e. full and complete) life of the Holy Trinity to bear upon all the imperfect people gathered into Her. These fathers bore witness to the visible character of the Church's communion by laboring to demarcate and defend her visible boundaries together in council. The horizontal (earthly) elements are maintained so as to maintain the vertical (heavenly) elements, and vice-versa.To think that 1200 years later their work would be overturned out of desperation to escape the tyranny of an episcopal see that should have been their chief successor. What a terrible result that has been sown among us. 

    The real struggle for modern man, especially in the wake of the most recent abuse charges stemming from the Roman Church, is that any truly visible church could be the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, His very Body and Bride on earth in whom He abides and manifests Himself to the world. For those coming from the house of sola scriptura it requires a leap of faith, that the Lord Jesus really is in charge of His house.