‘Let those who are listening hear and understand that when the Father saw that Adam and his children had fallen into sin and were being jostled about in it as if by waves and that through it destruction had overwhelmed them, he said to his Son, “I see that Adam, who is in our image and likeness, as well as his offspring, have come under sin’s dominion. The just claim of sin that stands against them has excluded them from the state of blessedness for which they were created. The law cannot be made void, however; it must receive its claims in full, from every single human being. Come, take a body. Through it, manifest yourself in the world and expose yourself to the punishments that human beings merit because of their sins. Let those punishments befall you, for when this happens there will be forgiveness of sins for those who, for their sins, offer to me your pains. For them there will be an escape from every punishment they merit because of my law. In this way, you will have nullified the just claims of sin and the devil its sponsor and fulfilled the claims of my law without its becoming null and void. At the same time, you will have opened the door for all of Adam’s offspring who wish deliverance for themselves, preparing for them a forgiveness that they will be able to obtain without trouble, by faith in you and by the offering of your pains… when you have suffered for their sakes just once the punishment merited by them an innumerable number of times, you will have caused the law to receive in full its claims on them and infinitely more as well.”
‘…Do you not see that forgiveness is through Christ’s blood and that those whom God purified from sin through this blood were justly purified, for, as we have said, this Son’s death fulfilled each of the law’s claims against us? If in the divine scriptures of the Old and New Testaments you hear of forgiveness or mercy or penance, know that it took place only through Christ’s cross and the shedding of his blood. If this were not so, the law would be void and God would be one who does things in vain. Far be this from him! The fulfillment of the law’s claims took place through this blood alone, which was shed for the living and for the dead.
‘…It is thus that his summons is called the “gospel,” that is, the “good news,” for it proclaims to humanity the good news about how Christ saved them from that from which they were unable to save themselves. We give praise to Christ for his immeasurable grace.’
Theodore Abū Qurrah, On Our Salvation
Theodore Abū Qurrah was the late eighth-century and early ninth century bishop of the town of Haran, outside of Edessa, overseeing a congregation of Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians. He lived in a diverse environment of cultural cross-currents and competing religions: from the newly ascendant Muslims to the various Christian groups to a handful of practitioners of a blend of paganism and neo-Platonism. His writings are heavily concerned with, as we might put it, the problem of living in a highly pluralistic world.
However, I selected the above passage for a different reason- while it does not deal with the problem of religious pluralism, it does contain an argument of considerable interest for contemporary Christians, both East and West. Upon reading it without knowledge of Theodore or his ecclesiastical and historical setting, one might assume it to have been written by a Western theologian, not terribly far from the line of thought used by St. Anselm in Cur Deus Homo. Yet the above selection was written- in Arabic no less!- by an early ninth century Eastern Christian, operating in a decidedly ‘Eastern’ theological continuum. In presenting an argument often labeled as ‘Substitutionary Atonement,’ he does not seem to expect his readers to react with shock or surprise: he is simply unfolding what his readers are expected to understand: Christ died for our sins; the shedding of his blood brings salvation, and this salvation is intrinsically tied into the Law, as contained in the Torah, but which is a manifestation of God’s will, is a divine Law.
Theodore’s concern is in carefully delineating why Christ’s death had to happen, as understood through a decidedly ‘legal’ perspective. Yes, he is concerned with issues of law, of merit (gasp!), even of justification. There is a Law to be satisfied, and God simply cannot override it by fiat. The Law is Law and must be dealt with. The punishment of the Law must be carried out; we have all of us broken the Law, and all our penance in the world cannot save us from that Law. Only the perfect Son of God can take upon Himself the punishment we merit and in so doing fulfill the Law and bring us under the mercy and forgiveness of God, without ignoring the Law of God.
All of this is, of course, fairly common discourse in the West. Yet how often is it stated that such a view is unknown in the East- the abode of an allegedly more ‘spiritual’ (read: less concerned with ‘law and order’) Christianity? Whether advanced by detractors of the East or its defenders, it is very common to suppose that a view anywhere near that of St. Anselm or other Western theologians is either unknown or flatly rejected east of the Bosporus, and simply has no currency in Eastern Orthodoxy. This is interpreted sometimes to mean that the Eastern Church is incomplete in its theological understanding, or dreadfully ignorant of Scripture; on the other hand it is taken to mean the Eastern Church is spiritually wise in its supposed rejection of Substitutionary Atonement, accepting in its stead a Christus Victor model or something else (or simply focusing on the Resurrection to the near exclusion of the Crucifixion). All of these arguments draw upon a sort of Christian ‘Orientalism’ in which the mystical, spiritual, rather anarchic Eastern Church is the antithesis of the orderly, law-based, rational West. In reality, while the Substitutionary Atonement (a term I am using here as broadly as possible to embrace the more ‘judicial’ or ‘legal’ interpretations of Christ’s death) is not nearly as common an idea in the East as in the West, it is by no means foreign to the East, nor is it somehow repugnant to Eastern Orthodox thought or doctrine (nor is the neat antithesis of East and West quite so neat and orderly- but that is another issue). Theodore is a fine example: he is about as far removed from the Western world as any Chalcedonian Orthodox of his time could be, living in a Muslim-ruled state and writing primarily in Arabic, working in an environment about as thoroughly ‘Eastern’ as one could ask for.
Another example for this sort of thinking on the crucifixion comes from the considerably later St. Symeon the New Theologian- another writer who could hardly be accused of extensive intercourse with Western thought. In one his homilies he offers an understanding of the Atonement virtually the same as Theodore’s- and very resonant with Western interpretations. I would offer some excerpts here, except that I accidentally left my copy of the homily on a flight between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and have yet to purchase a new copy. It is contained in this selection of St. Symeon’s homilies: The First Created Man.
Now, as I mentioned above, the sort of argument Theodore here employs is not common in Eastern Orthodoxy when compared to certain other perspectives on the Atonement: but it is not unknown, and it is entirely compatible with the general scope of Eastern thought and theology- which itself is not monolithic at all, anyway (nor could it or should it be). It does not conflict with other understandings of the Atonement, for the simple fact that an act so complex and deep as the Atonement admits numerous interpretations that are non-exclusive. Think of it as viewing many different facets of the same jewel: each facet reveals something different, yet related, connected to the previous facet. The strength of this particular ‘facet’ is its taking into account the very important reality of the Torah and its focus upon law and sacrifice. A cogent Christianity must deal directly with the entire corpus of Scripture, on its proper terms. This includes such things as law and sacrifice, and all the ‘legal mechanisms’ entailed therein. Further, the New Testament uses decidedly legal language- alongside all sorts of linguistic forms and metaphors. By incorporating all of these metaphors and interpretations, we- East and West- deepen our understanding of the mystery of the Gospel, giving us yet more cause to ‘give praise to Christ for his immeasurable grace.’