How Does Christ Save Us?

From Father Thomas Hopko’s podcast, Speaking the Truth in Love:

What seems to be the teaching — and here we each have to read the Scriptures and follow the Church teachings and the councils and the Fathers to try to understand this properly — what seems to be the teachings is that he loves perfectly, he fulfills all righteousness, he fulfills all aspects of how we ought to relate to God properly. When we are fallen into sin — and God gives us the Law of Moses that is a pedagogos, a teacher to the coming of Christ — he fulfills all of the teachings of the Torah of Israel. He’s born into the world, he’s offered in the temple, he’s circumcised on the eighth day, he keeps the Law perfectly. It’s his perfect keeping of the Law, which is ultimately perfect love for God and neighbor, that is what redeems us. That is what is going to remove the wrath of God from us, because, if you have an Adam, a real Adam, a real human being, who really is God’s Son and lives like God’s Son, which we were all created to do — Adam and Eve, they were created to be children of God. Adam is called Son of God in Scripture. He was created to be really what God is by grace, and he failed through sin. But when he fails through sin, the way he gets forgiven and redeemed is not by offering sufficient punishment and pain according to the sins he has committed, it’s, rather, that he is saved by one who keeps the Law, who does the commandments. And it’s interesting, that in Orthodox Church Holy Week, over the tomb of Jesus, when he lies dead in the tomb, is the 118th/119th Psalm, the real long one about the commandments, the ordinances, the statutes, the words, the laws of God that are kept by Jesus that then save us and redeem us from the curse of the Law.

Because the curse is lifted for what reason? Not because sufficient punishment was made, but the curse is lifted because righteousness has been effected. You have a sinless life. You have a sinless messiah, taking on himself the sin and curse of the world, so that God’s wrath would not directed against us again, if we offer it to God, and he offers himself on our behalf to God, and we say to God, “Lord, we’re sinners. We’ve broken all the commandments, but our messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the commandments. He has done this for us and for our salvation.” That’s why he came into the world.

So, Jesus on the Cross is the perfect lover. He’s the perfect human being. He’s the absolutely sinless man and therefore he is that one man, that new Adam, who comes from heaven to fulfill the Law of God in our place, so that in and through him and by faith in him God will consider us righteous before himself, because we do finally have a human being, an Adam, that we can live according to him and therefore be delivered from the curse of the Law and the wrath of God.

I’ll be mulling this over for the foreseeable future, but this view of the atonement–which I hear primarily coming from the Orthodox quarters of Christianity–makes a lot of sense to me. Punishment in and of itself is arbitrary. The idea that Christ is someone who came to earth in order to take our place for the corporate punishment God had been inflicting on humanity does not fit well with the nature and effects of sin.

As I understand it, sin is a fundamental disordering and deteriorating force within the human person. (I’m getting this idea from Dante and  Athanasius…among others). Death is the natural consequence of sin, not an imposed punishment from God. God doesn’t place people in hell the way parents will place their kids in timeout for breaking a rule. Sin goes to the heart of the individual, making them disposed to self-destruction.

If, as I believe it is, this is an accurate way of describing sin and its effects, then no amount of substitutionary punishment will resolve the problem of sin. I can imagine, for example, my brother willingly receiving the timeout punishment in my place, even though he didn’t break the rule about eating ice cream right before dinner. But what does it matter? My appetite is already ruined and my parents remain disappointed in what they perceive to be my brother’s behavior. No redemption of any kind has taken place. Sin continues to reign in my own heart even though I’ve escaped the punishment.

So what’s the alternative? Something like Hopko’s description of the atonement. In Christ, humanity itself is revitalized. We are shown a way forward, secure in the knowledge that salvation is possible thanks to the trail blazed by Christ and his ongoing intercessory work on our behalf.

Maybe I’m overstating the significance of this difference and/or maybe I’m wrong–Lord knows I’m not a professional theologian by any stretch of the imagination. But given the condition of human nature and the effects of sin, any understanding of the atonement–specifically how it works–requires a careful explanation that complicates and supplements the idea of Christ-as-substitute.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

I’m just over half way through the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan’s History of Christian Doctrine. Fingers crossed, I’ll finish it before the end of January.

One of Pelikan’s main observations throughout the book is that Christian doctrine developed in (at least) three distinct ways: as a response to Judaism and Greek philosophy, as a response to heresy, and as an articulation of the life of the church–i.e., its liturgical forms of worship and common practices among Christian believers. Having grown up in a non-denominational church I regularly heard about how early Christian writers were responding to heresy and contemporary religious belief systems. But I can’t recall anyone making the claim that liturgy preceded doctrine. Even now, as a member of an Anglo-Catholic parish with strong sympathies for the Orthodox church, I’m struck by how strange it is that early orthodox Christians were worshiping the Trinity before they had any clear idea of how the theological conception of the Trinity is distinct and separate from the worship of any other deity.

By the first century, Christians were already meeting regularly, praying together, baptizing their infants, and celebrating the Eucharist. It wasn’t until teachers began articulating the specifics of Christian belief that controversy arose. The baptizing of infants, for example, inspired discussions about original sin–what is it? how did we acquire it? how does baptism affect it? The Eucharist raised questions about Christology, of the relationship between Christ’s divine and human nature, and whether Christ was present in the Eucharist itself.

I don’t know if Pelikan makes this point later in his series, but from this lay-observer’s point of view, it seems that the relationship between liturgy and doctrine has been inverted in most Protestant churches. When I talk with my low-church evangelical Image result for thomas aquinas strawfriends about the Anglican liturgy, I’m often met with questions about whether prayer to the saints, infant baptism, or belief that Christ is present in the bread and wine is biblical. The answer to both questions is an emphatic “Yes!” But this would have been a strange question in the second century of the church. They were worshiping and believing based on the teaching and revelation that had been passed down to them from the apostles, not based on careful biblical exegesis (…though of course early Christian writers were also busy analyzing the Old Testament and outlining its continuity with the revelation of Christ).

Like poetry, the life and prayer of the church says more in its form and ritual than any single doctrine could express in any number of volumes. It’s no wonder that Thomas Aquinas, after experiencing a beatific vision toward the end of his life, considered all of his writings to be nothing but straw. The power of liturgy cannot be fully harnessed by the rational mind. It always transcends and encompasses rational thought.