The purpose of this article is to explore in greater depth the Orthodox view of Christ’s atoning work. As a convert from Protestantism I find this topic vital for a proper understanding of the primary differences between the Orthodox faith and its Western counterparts, i.e., Roman Catholicism and the various Protestant faiths. Due to the immensity of this topic I will do my best to condense it down to some primary features. My hope is that a deeper discussion will ensue as contributors to this blog chime in with their added questions and comments.
Here are some thoughts on the issue:
The Eastern Church has always understood Christ’s atoning work as that which accomplished true healing of the entire person; a reconstitution of human nature from that of death to that of life; a cleansing of sin rather than a substitution for the punishment of sin. The differing views between the East and West concerning the atonement are animated in large part by how the two sides understand a very important word in the Greek text of Scripture: “hilasterion” (ιλαστηριον).
It is from hilasterion that our English Bibles usually derive the term “atonement” and more specifically “propitiation,” as in Romans 3:25 (“Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” NKJV).
The discussion over the proper translation of hilasterion has been en vogue for quite some time in theological circles, and for good reason. If one chooses to interpret hilasterion as propitiation (literally: “to make favorable,” with the implication of placating or appeasing the deity) then the entire Western notion of substitutionary atonement fits well. However, if one chooses to interpret it as “expiation” (literally: “to make pious,” with the implication of removal or cleansing of sin), one can conceivably force a substitutionary view, but with much difficulty. Instead, expiation leads one to understand the atonement of Christ as a cleansing act of mercy and love rather than an act of pacifying God’s anger and punishment.
The Orthodox Church understands Christ’s atonement in light of expiation, and has not changed this stance in over 20 centuries. Historically, one finds that hilasterion took on the translation of propitiation in the Latin Church after the rediscovery of Greek literature during the Renaissance. Propitiation was the usual Hellenistic rendition of hilasterion and reflected the ancient pagan Greek and Roman idea of placating the gods. For the Jews during the same period, hilasterion was understood as expiation. In a very real sense, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint), the Jews adopted a different understanding of hilasterion which complied with their Hebrew notion of atonement (often the term “kaphar,” literally meaning: “to wipe out,” and not merely “to cover up,” as found in many Latin commentators). One will find this translation trend in Rabbinic literature and in the English version of Hebrew Tanakh. The Apostles and early Church Fathers carried on this understanding and it became the paradigm for which they understood Christ’s atonement, hence its dominance in Orthodox theology; and hence why the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement doesn’t make its way into the Roman Catholic conscience until Anselm – over 1000 years into the story, and the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement does not make its way into the Western Church conscience until the Reformation – over 1500 years into the story.
For the Orthodox, Christ’s work on the cross was necessary, not to satisfy an angry God, but to effect a reconstitution of human nature—to bring about a literal change in human ontology. Christ’s death and resurrection joined human nature with God’s nature. I recently came across an ancient Orthodox hymn of praise which beautifully captures this reality:
“The Lord united two natures; He does not separate them anymore: human and divine. He does not separate them anymore: God and man—One Person. In both respects undiminished, the God-man and Savior” (Prologue of Ohrid, Feb 28th reading).
For me, the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ clarifies Christ’s atoning work better than any other interpretive method. The purpose of God taking on human flesh was to join human nature with the divine nature, a union that was lost by Adam and Eve in the primordial garden. Mankind needed not only forgiveness of sin but also salvation from an ontological constitution of death in their very beings; according to Romans 5:12, it was death, and not sin-guilt, which spread to all mankind due to Adam’s sin. By reconstituting human nature with the life of God mankind once again had the potential to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4). This understanding of salvation—as a living and dynamic reality—allows the Orthodox mind to conceive of ‘working out one’s salvation’ without falling into the trap of ‘works righteousness’ (a phrase that has become a doctrinal boogieman for many Protestants); the general Reformed Protestant view of salvation as a static event in which the believer is “once saved, always saved,” forces the false dichotomy of grace vs. works into the believer’s theology of salvation, but I digress.
Under the view of expiation a person is called to become truly united with God—he or she is called to participate in the great and heavenly re-union. Conversely, under the view of propitiation a person is called to merely accept Jesus and to have righteousness ‘imputed’ or ‘declared’ over him or her. Thus salvation is seen as a passive, one-time event in which, after confession and/or baptism into Christ is accomplished, the person plays no effective role in the relationship.
The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology summarizes well the differing approaches of propitiation and expiation:
“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).
I know that much has been left unsaid in this brief article, but in closing I’d like to offer an illustration that aided me significantly when I was first attempting to adjust my theological paradigm to this new found understanding of Christ’s atonement. One can think of Christ’s blood as expiation similar to a healing antibiotic when applied to an infection (in this case, that of death and sin). When the blood of Christ is applied to a repentant believer it acts not as a covering that conceals the Father’s view of the believer, as is often taught in the West, but rather it acts to heal, to remove, to expunge the illness of death and sin from the believer—conforming the believer to the image of Christ. This is why the Scriptures continually refer to Christ’s blood as that which “cleanses sin” (1Jn 1:7), as the “washing of sin” (Rev 3:25), as that which “cleanses conscience” (Heb 9:14), and the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:15). The object of concern for Christ’s blood was not to change the mind of the Father but to change the condition of fallen man. God sent His Son to die for mankind not so that He could love us, but rather because He already loved us (John 3:16, Rom 5:8).
Thanks for reading. And please offer any comments and/or corrections you may have. I would especially like to hear from fellow Orthodox Christians who have more ‘time on the clock,’so-to-speak, in the faith than myself and who may have helpful corrections, as well as those from the various Western traditions who either agree or are at variance with what has been said.
May the Lord bless you and keep you, cheers!