Through This Blood Alone

‘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.’

The Foundation and Beginning of All That Is Good and Beautiful

Blessed is the person who knows his own weakness, because awareness of this becomes for him the foundation and beginning of all that is good and beautiful.

For whenever someone realizes and percieves that he is truly and indeed weak, then he draws in his soul from the diffuseness which dissipates knowledge, and he becomes all the more watchful of his soul.

But no one can percieve his own weakness unless he has been remiss a little, has neglected some small thing, has been surrounded by trials, either in the matter of things which cause the body suffering, or in that of ways in which the soul is subject to the passions. Only then, by comparing his own weakness, will he realize how great is the assistance which comes from God.

When someone is aware that he is in need of divine help, he makes many prayers. And once he has made much supplication, his heart is humbled, for there is no one who is in need and asks who is not humbled. ‘A broken and humbled heart, God will not despise.’

As long as the heart is not humbled it cannot cease from wandering; for humility concentrates the heart.

St. Isaac of Nineveh

Eight Random Things About Me

I was tagged by Steve at Khanya

Here are the rules…

1. Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
2. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
3. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Here are eight things about me:

1. I was born in Meridian, Mississippi, but my parents were living at the time in Shuqulak, thirty miles up the road in beautiful (no really!) Noxubee County.

2. A few months ago I was bitten on the nose by a random dog in a park. He ran away before I could properly admonish him.

3. The dog’s hostility was perhaps not unwarranted, as I once ate dog stew at a restaurant in Southwest China. It wasn’t that great really. I’ve never really liked dogs.

4. I was the very first undergraduate graduate from William Carey University, as the school changed its title from ‘College’ to ‘University’ last year. My last name being Allen I was the first in the alphabetically aranged line of graduates.

5. My one and only case of altitude sickness was on a mountainside soccer field in the central Andes of Peru. It was pretty bad.

6. As a child I would get into trouble with the neighbors for digging replica Civil War trenches in their woods.

7. I am sometimes asked if I am a Mennonite (mainly because of my hair and beard style, I think). I’m not, though I almost volunteered for a Mennonite-run teaching program in China.

8. I almost never eat the part of the french fry touched by my fingers whilst eating it, a habit I picked up from being a busboy at a catfish house and having pereptually dirty, grease and general-filth caked hands as a result- especially at dinner time at the end of the night.

Now, since pretty much everyone else has been tagged for this meme, I’m going to excuse myself for being lazy and not tagging anyone else.

Independence Day

Throughout American history there have been those who have taken patriotism and defense of one’s home to be excuses for war, agression, corruption, and imperialism: but just as it would be wrong to pretend that America is spotless and God’s gift to the world, it would also be wrong to ignore the many people who have stood up for genuine patriotism, for honest love of their homes and families, people who never sought to rule the world or hoard massive amounts political or economic power. People who really did sacrifice everything for freedom and defence of their homes and families and neighbors. People who exemplified what is best in America’s political and cultural traditions. Here are brief descriptions of two of them, both Mississippians.

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For years my great-grandmother Stanley worked the red-dirt hills of Central Mississippi: the land of others as a sharecropper, and eventually her own land. She loved the land and she loved to work it. Years past the usual age of retirement she was still keeping massive vegetable gardens: one beside the house and another across the road down a dirt track. She would till and plant and hoe and harvest, and then cook and can and store. Not because she had to, not because anyone made her, but because she loved to do it, because she cherished her independence, she cherished the good earth and its fruits. Hers was- and is, even though she can no longer work in her gardens- the true spirit of American independence, an agrarian sense of place and identity, that does not require empire or military might to sustain itself, but only the soil and hard work. She has always been thrifty and self-reliant in the best sense.

Besides keeping vegetable gardens she has always kept flower gardens; her yard won best yard in the county for years (I suspect I get both my love of natural beauty and my tendency to OCD-like neatness from her side of the family….). From the time she was a little girl she loved animals and would nurse strays to health- a manifestation of a gentleness that has gone alongside an incredibly resiliant toughness. I have never heard express racist thoughts- not a small thing for older generation Southerners; instead she has always manifested love and kindness towards everyone, even people who could hardly be thought to deserve it. She was born into a poor family, and has never been wealthy by any measure. Her wealth has been a wealth of independence, care for the land, love of family, love of God, gentleness, toughness, kindness: the sorts of things that make for true patriotism, rooted in place, rooted in virtue.

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On January 10th, 1966 Vernon Dahmer’s house was firebombed by the KKK. Mr Dahmer was an African-American farmer, Sunday School teacher, store owner, and sawmill owner in the northern part of Forrest County, Mississippi. He had earned the ire of the Klan by his dogged work at encouraging democratic participation amongst his African-American neighbors, including the use of his store as a polling station, and his paying of poll taxes. Because of his efforts, three carloads of Klansmen arrived at his house one January night and rolled a drum of gasoline onto the porch and set it ablaze. They then retreated back from the house and took up positions to fire on anyone coming out. Upon being awakened, Mr Dahmer sent his family out the back. He stayed at the house, picked up his rifle, and fought back, firing on the Klansmen, who soon fled. While his family survived safe and sound, Mr Dahmer died from burns and smoke inhalation the next day.

Vernon Dahmer gave his life for freedom: not merely in the abstract sense that his fight was one for full democracy and human rights- all terribly important things- but in the very concrete sense that he was fighting for his family, for his home, for his land, for his neighbors. He did not go looking for a fight; he did not act in defense of his own life, but that of his family. Almost as soon as he began working for voting rights he recieved threats on his life, but he was not cowed by them. In his life he exemplified love of a particular place, working the land, supporting his community.  No one told him to do any of what he did; he was not drafted or coerced into his fight for freedom. Instead he willingly chose to stand up, in the face of threats of death, for freedom. He lived as a free man, and he died as a free man.