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Commentary: Looking at the Death of Christ from East and West

Commentary: Looking at the Death of Christ from East and West

Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker

In his first letter to the church in Corinth the apostle Paul recorded the message of the gospel which he had received.  It is assumed that he received this message from Peter and James, the Lord’s brother, when he first visited Jerusalem following his conversion, which would have been approximately 6 years following Jesus’ death (cf. Galatians 1:18-19).  The gospel is the message that Jesus was the Messiah who died and was buried and was raised from the dead.  The meaning of the death of the Messiah (Christ) is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

The critical scholar Hans-Ruedi Weber states that the Greek hyper translated as “for” could also be translated as “in favor of,” “instead of,” “in view of,” as well as “for,” and he understands it as meaning “for the redemption/eradication of sins” (The Cross: Tradition and  Interpretation, Eerdmans, 1979, p. 61).  The evidence suggests that the message about the cross as a redemption for our sins arose spontaneously in the life of the earliest church.  It was considered to be a datum of divine revelation to which the original apostles were the chosen witnesses.
“That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” is a given for the church.  Its origin is not from human beings, but from God.  We can assume that there was a process of reflection by the apostles which enabled them to grasp the revelation that they had received. They had to take into account sayings of Jesus himself about his coming death, especially his words at the Last Supper on the night before he died.  They had to consider why the Messiah must die since his resurrection from the dead was God’s sign that he was indeed the Messiah of Israel (cf. Acts 2:36).  And, they would have searched the Hebrew scriptures, where they found remarkable foreshadowings of the death of God’s righteous one which would accomplish God’s purpose of salvation,such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12.  Through a process such as this, in which they had the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the apostles received the revelation of God, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.”  This message has been proclaimed as God’s good news to the world from the very beginning of the church.
From the gospel itself the church has developed its doctrine of atonement.  Atonement is a concept from the sacrificial system of ancient Israel, which was still in existence at the time of Jesus and the early church.  The Hebrew word which lies behind “atonement” means “covering” or “wiping out.”  The sacrificial system of the Jews was understood to be what Christians might term “a means of grace” by which God provided for them a way of receiving divine forgiveness and reconciliation.  Christians considered the death of the Messiah as supplanting the old Jewish sacrificial system.  No longer did one have to go to Jerusalem to make a sacrifice.  Now anyone – Gentile or Jew – could receive forgiveness anywhere by believing in Jesus the Messiah (cf. Acts 2:38 and Luke 24: 46-47).  In the New Testament the Greek word used to correspond to the Hebrew “atonement” simply means “reconciliation” (cf. Romans 5:11, which is the only place in the New Testament where the King James Version translated “reconciliation“ as “atonement”).

Is it really accurate to say that the church has a doctrine of atonement when the truth is that over the centuries various Christian teachers have expounded different versions of the meaning of the atonement?  It is certainly true that the church has never issued a dogma about the atonement as it has in the case of the doctrine of the Trinity and the one person of Jesus Christ in two natures, human and divine.  A dogma is a decree of an ecumenical council which sets limits on what should be taught. However, it may be possible to discern from the whole tradition of the church, including it scriptures, liturgies, theologies, and spiritual writings, some guidelines for understanding the meaning of the atonement.  We might think of these guidelines as constituting the sensum fidelium, “the sense of the faithful,” about what should be included in right understanding of the atonement of Christ.

Foremost there is the guideline of faithfulness to the apostolic tradition.  However it is understood, the doctrine of the atonement should teach that Christ died for (hyper) our sins.  In effect, this amounts to understanding the death of Christ as being vicarious.  This means that Christ is our representative on the cross, and his death was not only something which happened to him but which he suffered for our sakes.  Without this idea of the vicariousness of his death there is no good news, which is that in Christ God did for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Moreover, Christ’s death should be understood as having eternal significance.  It has a meaning for the past, present, and future.  His vicarious death in the past “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10) has an existential meaning for us now who believe in him and is the ground of our hope for the final judgment of our lives.  In the New Testament, the eternal significance of Christ’s death is emphasized by affirming that it was God’s plan “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).  Indeed, this plan is grounded in the Son’s eternal self-offering to the Father.
Furthermore, the salvific significance of Christ’s death must entail implications for our ethical life.  Paul understood Christ’s death as the foundation of a community of mutual reconciliation among people (1 Corinthians 11:17 ff.), and Peter understood it as an example of non-retaliation (1 Peter 2:18-25).  Yet to say that the cross has ethical implications is really not to say enough.  The consistent message of the New Testament is that our response to the cross requires nothing less than “repentance,” an existential re-orientation of our whole lives toward communion with God and one another.
At least one other idea is essential for a right understanding of the cross.  The biblical portrayal of the story and significance of the cross in both the gospels and the epistles does not make sense except in the context of a Trinitarian understanding of God.  The cross is the mission of the Son who is sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit.
So then, even though the church has issued no dogma about the atonement of Christ, and there have been a variety of ways of interpreting it in history, all teaching about the cross in the history of the church has had to take into account the above considerations in some way or the other in order to be acceptable to the community of the faithful.  In this general sense it might be said that there is a doctrine of the atonement in the church.  The cross is the will of the triune God which has a vicarious significance for all people in all times and has profound personal and social implications.

It is at this point in most discussions of the doctrine of the atonement that mention is made of the so-called “theories of the atonement.”  These theories are theological interpretations of the atonement of Christ which have been presented by various teachers over the centuries.  Today anyone can survey these interpretations simply by doing a search on the worldwide web for “theories of the atonement.”  Clergy study these theories in theological manuals in seminary, and laity study them in church school literature.  While this study is necessary to gain knowledge of the history of theological interpretation of the atonement, often it is not helpful because of the ways we use this knowledge.  Such study becomes the occasion for theological polemics which distorts a reverent reflection on the gospel into an argument against one or more of them.  It may also lead to a false notion that the real purpose of studying these theories is to “vote” for which one is the best.  Truth is not discerned by a democratic process by which people vote their preferences.

What might be helpful is to pull back from these theories to acknowledge a fact which is rarely observed in our usual study of the atonement.  This fact is that most of the theories of atonement arose in the Western tradition of the church.  There is an Eastern tradition of the church which has never accepted most of these theories. What is really astonishing to most Western Christians, whether we are Protestant or Catholic, is that the Eastern churches (Orthodox, Monophysite, Nestorian, etc.) do not really have a doctrine of the atonement at all in the Western sense. 
Rather than having a separate doctrine of the atonement, the East includes Christ’s death for us within the doctrine of the incarnation.  Christ’s death for us is understood as an integral part of the whole movement of the incarnation by which the Father sends the Son into our human predicament of sin and death in order to heal us by restoring us as persons created in the image of God for communion with God and one another.  The focus of the story of the incarnation is more on the person of Christ than on his work.  That is, what Christ does for us is understood according to who he is.  It is as if the accent is on Christ in “Christ died for our sins.”  He is the eternal Son of God who assumes our human nature and comes into the world as the one whose being is the union of God and humankind, the uncreated and the created.  In order to be fully united with human nature, the Son had to identify with us in our predicament of sin and death.  Having completely identified with us finally in his death on the cross, but without sinning and without being overcome by death in his resurrection from the dead, Christ has planted, as it were, a new humanity in the midst of the old humanity.  Christ’s victory is that, by being faithful to the Father whose Son he is, and by assuming our whole nature without failing to be faithful to the Father, he has laid the foundation for a new humanity.  Upon this foundation the Spirit is at work to transform us into new persons and to transform the whole creation until it radiates the glory of God.

In the Eastern perspective the atonement of Christ is virtually submerged into the larger drama of the incarnation.  His death on the cross is the depth of the descent of the eternal Son into our fallen human nature.  Our sins are forgiven by his death for us because our forgiveness is part of our restoration which Christ accomplished by assuming our fallen nature to the point of death and transforming it in the entire drama of the incarnation.  The purpose of divine reconciliation is not merely our forgiveness, but our transformation.

Consider how one Eastern theologian interprets the death of Christ. The 20th century Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov wrote, “How did the Redeemer accomplish this taking the sin of the world upon himself?  It has a passive aspect, the force of fact…, and an active aspect, the force of act…. The Lord suffers the sorrows and sins of the world, which remain foreign to Him.  He suffers from sinners and experiences their hostility as His personal fate.  But at the appointed time… He takes the cross upon Himself.  That is, He no longer suffers only from the sins of the world that besiege Him from the outside; He now inwardly assimilates these sins by a “compassionate love” (to use Metropolitan Antonii’s expression) and by making them His own, as it were, He identifies His sinless essence with the sinful essence of the Old Adam.  He, the Light of the world, submerges Himself in the darkness of sin, the Gethsemane night of sorrow for sin.” (The Lamb of God, Eerdmanns, 2008, p.354).
Bulgakov’s understanding of the atonement is that in his death on the cross Christ identifies with sinful humanity because of his compassionate love and the love of the Father who sent him.  This identification with us is necessary if the incarnation of the Son of God is to be complete for the purpose of the restoration of human nature.  Yet Christ’s taking our sins upon himself cannot be isolated only to the moment he is dying on the cross, although his dying on the cross is the crucial moment, but it is integral to his whole life as the Son of God who assumes our human nature to restore it according to his own nature as the union of God and humankind.
This Eastern approach of understanding the meaning of Christ’s death within the whole drama of the incarnation is the general approach of the Fathers of the Church in the first five centuries of church history.  The classical expression of it is Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word from the 4th century.  According to the Fathers, what Christ accomplished was the admirabile commercium, “the wondrous exchange,” of his nature for ours so that we may become like God.
So then, in the patristic, and therefore, Eastern interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death, there are several features.  One characteristic of the Eastern approach is that the meaning of Christ’s death is subsumed under the meaning of the larger story of the incarnation. Another characteristic of it is that it is a “physical” understanding of salvation in the sense that salvation consists of the change in human nature which is effected by the incarnation of the Son of God. Christ has introduced a new human nature into the world in which all may participate by faith according to the power of the Holy Spirit. (Eastern theologians do not characterize this change in human nature as “physical”, but as ontological; the characterization of it as “physical” is made by Westerners such as the church historian Adolph Harnack.) Moreover, the salvation Christ has brought is therapeutic.  Salvation is what the word literally means in its Latin origin--healing.  It is the healing of our human nature fallen into the sorrowful plight of sin and death.  Finally, the vicariousness of Christ’s whole life as the incarnate Son of God, including his death, consists of his assumption of our fallen nature to heal it.  As the 4th century Father, Gregory of Nazianzus said, “that which is not assumed is not healed. “  In the context of this understanding of the vicarious ministry of Christ, his death in particular is understood as Christ’s identification with us in our fallen predicament of sin and death and sorrow.
The Western tradition of interpreting the meaning of Christ’s death occurred after the period of the Church Fathers.  The various theories of the atonement arose as the Western church lived through the Middle Ages, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment.  Moreover, the Western church had a different culture from the Eastern church from the beginning.  The Roman culture was one in which justice is a dominant theme.  Therefore, for Western Christian thinkers, the meaning of divine justice in understanding the death of Christ emerged as a critical matter.
The divergence of the West from the East occurred primarily in the teaching of the great 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm.  Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), marked a shift in the Western interpretation of the death of Christ.  For the first time, the atonement was treated as a distinctive doctrine.  While the title makes clear that Anselm was still treating the meaning of Christ’s death in the context of the incarnation, the fact that he focused his attention on the question of why the incarnate Son had to die generated a whole new Western tradition of treating the atonement of Christ as a distinctive doctrine, a move which has not been made in the East.  Moreover, Anselm’s method also profoundly affected the Western approach to the atonement.  Rather than reflect on Scripture, Anselm sought a reason for the atonement, even though he believed his reason was grounded in scripture and consistent with it.  This does not necessarily mean that Western interpretations of the atonement are rationalistic per se. It does mean that Western interpretations have sought to offer intelligible explanations which satisfy reason; hence, the emergence of “theories of the atonement.” 
It is generally perceived that the reason Anselm offered for the atonement marked the parting of the ways between East and West.  His thought is complex and is often caricatured. Yet a brief summary of what is perceived to be his thought is necessary to mention.  The primary concern for Anselm was the satisfaction of divine justice.  Anselm said that humankind’s sin results in our becoming debtors to God because we do not offer the perfect obedience God is owed.  Indeed, we need to offer even more than we owe because we have incurred the penalty of condemnation for all our sins.  Thus we have offended God’s “honor.”  God’s honor requires that we restore what we have taken away by making satisfaction of our debt.  But God cannot merely remit the penalty we have incurred, as it would contradict God’s justice by allowing sin to pass without impunity.  Yet humankind possesses no ability to satisfy the honor and justice of God.  Only God can do this.  The divine solution is the coming of Christ, the God-man.  Christ as a man offers to God his perfect obedience, but as a sinless man he does not owe God his death.  Christ sacrifices his life for God’s honor and for our sakes.  Thus by his death God’s honor is satisfied, our debt is remitted, and we receive the gift of salvation by faith.  Christ made satisfaction for our sin because he was both God and man: as man, he did what man needed to do; as God he did what only God can do. Our salvation is obtained by the substitution of the God-man for us
This is the interpretation of Anselm’s theory as it is generally understood.  Some close readers of Anselm’s Why God Became Man claim that Anselm’s thought is distorted by this interpretation. [For a sympathetic and new way of reading Anselm, see Orthodox Theologian David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, Eerdman’s, 2003, Pp.360-372.] Yet it must be said that the reception of Anselm’s thought has been according to the interpretation above, and it is this interpretation which has established the dominant understanding of the atonement in the West. Anselm’s thought did bring into the Western church’s understanding of the death of Christ certain themes which are in the New Testament, and which are not in the forefront of patristic and Eastern thought – the gravity of human sinfulness, the wrath of God against sin, and the satisfaction of divine justice.  Often, subsequent theories of the atonement obscured how the divine motive of the atonement is God’s love, which Anselm himself did not forget.  Also, divine justice has been seen as opposed to divine love, a bifurcation Anselm did not assume.  It might be said, however, that Anselm’s influence led to the dominant motif in subsequent Western thought about the death of Christ that on the cross Christ was our substitute.  Hence there is the distinction in Western and Eastern approaches in that the death of Christ is understood as a substitution in the West and as identification in the East.
This theme of substitution was highlighted by the Reformers.  Protestant doctrines of the atonement tend to be the most substitutionary.  In the Protestant tradition hyper is understood as “instead of” more than merely “for.”  Examples of this theme are too numerous and complex to mention. For illustration, consider just two.  In his Church Dogmatics, the 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth interpreted Christ’s death as “the Judge judged in our place.”  Then there is the memorable aphorism of John R.W. Stott, the evangelical Anglican, who wrote, “For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself only where man deserves to be” (The Cross of Christ, IVP, 1986, p.160).
There is one variant of the substitutionary theory of the atonement which is rejected except by some fundamentalists, which is the notion that Christ’s death is an appeasement of the wrath of God.  This is such a distortion of the apostolic message that it hardly needs rebuttal, for the apostolic message is that it is the love of God which is the basis of Christ’s mission,  e.g. John  3:16 and Romans 8:31-39.
Yet it must be admitted that in virtually all substitutionary theories of the atonement the theme of Christ’s taking on the consequences of our sin, i.e. its penalty, is present although it is not the main focus.  The focus remains upon Christ’s loving offering of himself in obedience to the loving and holy Father as the representative of all humankind fallen into sin and his taking our sin upon himself by substituting himself for us so that through him we may be reconciled.

John Wesley preaching.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, stood within the Western tradition of the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement.  Wesley viewed the death of Christ as a compensation paid for the satisfaction of God’s justice.  This satisfaction made by Christ in our stead is the expression of divine grace [cf. Harald Lindström, Wesley and Sanctification, 1946, reprint in 1980 by Francis Asbury Publishing, Pp. 55-75].
Protests in the West abound against this dominant theme of substitution.  The protest began in Anselm’s own time when Abelard articulated what is called the “moral influence” theory of the atonement.  In this view, Christ’s death on the cross is the revelation of God’s love which draws us to him and wins us for God.  Many who exclude the theme of God’s justice in their formulation continue to espouse some version of this approach.  It became popular in Protestant liberalism after the Enlightenment, but it is also the subject of theological criticism by those who consider it to be a superficial interpretation of the complexity of the apostolic witness of the whole New Testament.  The “moral influence” theory tends to present God’s love as a timeless, abstract idea rather than as an event in the drama of salvation [cf. Hans Urs von Balthazar, Theo-Drama IV (Ignatius, 1980, p.362)].
So then, here we are with two great traditions of looking at the cross from East and West.  The value of considering both traditions rather than merely the Western “theories of the atonement” is that it enables us to have the whole Christian tradition before us in contemplating the meaning “that Christ died for us in accordance with the scriptures.”
Perhaps we are attracted to the East or West because of our personal temperaments.  The Eastern approach is more metaphysical, mystical, and communal. The Western approach is more moral, juridical, and individual.  Moreover, the historical time in which we live may cause us to move toward one approach than the other.  It is no accident that the neo-Reformation doctrines of the atonement espoused by theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner emerged during the crises of two world wars in the 20th century, thus creating an environment in which the tragedy of history, the sinfulness of humankind, and the reality of evil sent theologians toward an understanding of Christ’s death which seemed more fitting for the times, and that was an attraction to the tone of the Western tradition which hears the note of human sinfulness and divine justice in the symphony of the gospel.
In the end, a main direction for our understanding may be ventured.  The worst legacy of the Western Anselmian heritage is a preoccupation with “theories” as explanations of why Christ died.  A return to the biblical “method” is necessary.  The Bible does not present the meaning of Christ’s death as a system of ideas.  The Bible does not offer theories which satisfy reason.  It tells a story.  The story is the story of a relationship.  It is the story of God’s relationship with the world.  Since this story had to start somewhere, God elected one people, Israel, through whom to be known by the whole world.  The story eventually came to a climax.  This climax was presaged by the prophets, such as in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, but it happened in the life of the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel, Jesus Christ.  Intrinsic to the climax is a vicarious offering -- “But he was wounded for our transgressions.”  Here is the mystery.  It is the mystery of love which confounds all of our thoughts.  Even though it is a mystery, it is not strange to our experience.  We experience it even in our relationships with each other on a human level.  D.M. Baillie said that vicarious suffering is always present whenever a friend forgives me for a grave wrong I commit against him.  In order to forgive, he has to bear the wrong I have done and the shame of what I have done.  If these things are true of our relationships with each other, how much more are they true of God’s relationship with us (God Was in Christ, Scribners, 1948. Pp. 173-174)!
It is this biblical story of God’s relationship with us centered on Jesus Christ which both East and West attempt to tell.  One tradition tells it as a story of Christ’s identification with us in the incarnation.  The other tells it as a story of Christ’s substitution for us in the atonement.  Whatever one may think of either tradition, or of other less dominant approaches, one thing is certain.  The death of Christ on the cross for us is a mystery too inexhaustible and incomprehensible for any of us to adequately explain because it is the act of love of the triune God for us.

Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker
FL Area of The United Methodist Church
(October 11, 2011)