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…Continued from Part 5

The Dogma of Redemption (Part 6 of 7)

by St. Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky


Metropolitan AnthonyWe must now resolve the perplexities which remain after our exegesis which, we are convinced, is strictly in accord with the Church, even though it has been forgotten by our schools.

The perplexities are:

1. For what purpose, then, were the crucifixion of the Lord on the Cross and His death?

2. Why is He called a sacrifice for our sins and a propitiation of the Heavenly Father for us? And what is the meaning of the Apostolic words that His Blood cleanses us from sins?

3. Why is it said that we have become sinful and condemned through Adam’s disobedience, if we must explain the whole ekonomy of salvation only in terms of moral values and make even metaphysical concepts, such as “nature,” dependent upon them?

Russian readers will receive very sympathetically this transition of all theology into moral monism, and will add, perhaps, that it is the best refutation of the criticism of Tolstoy, who found such monism in the teaching of Jesus Christ, but completely denied its presence in the epistles of the apostles and the Symbol of Faith, asserting that both were complete distortions of Christ’s teaching.

“This is all quite true,” Russian readers will say. “But how will you circumvent or surmount the three obstacles which you yourself have just set forth? It is by no means only the influence of feudal justice which is professed in them, but the statements of the apostles, especially in the Epistle to the Hebrews.”

We said that the action of redemption consists only in the rebirth of a person, while rebirth consists in his transformation [or, corrective transformation]. Does this imply that if a fallen person could correct himself through only repentance and a struggle with himself under the guidance of God’s commandments, and the good examples of righteous envoys of God, then redemption would not have been necessary? I read this same question, with a direct, positive answer in St John Chrysostom’s works. He stated the matter approximately thus: if the repentance of men could raise them to victory over vice, then the incarnation would not have been necessary.

Let us now ask: upon Whom did it depend to fashion man’s nature in such a way that a good desire and repentance are, nevertheless, powerless to regenerate a person in actuality, and in such a manner that he impotently falls under the burden of his passions, if he does not have the succour of grace? God the Creator, of course. Further, why could not the Creator forcibly make people good? Because of His perfect justice, according to which only the free decision of free creatures is considered good. Why, then, did the Creator not arrange man’s nature in such a way that repentance would immediately make him sinless again, as was Adam before the fall? The answer: because of that same Divine Justice, for which evil is so antithetic that freely returning from it to good is punctuated by a long path of spiritual struggle and suffering. Moreover, once human nature had fallen, it was deprived of the patience and strength necessary to struggle victoriously with sin, and only in isolated cases does it triumph over it. In order to obtain a decisive victory, human nature needs help from without, help which is from someone Who is both holy, and Who co-suffers with it, that is, from a sufferer Who is, moreover, a Divine sufferer, as we explained above.

And so, who is responsible for the fact that it is impossible to find any other means for the rebirth and salvation of man except the incarnation of the Son of God and the grievous agony of His co-suffering love toward us? The Creator, Who gave such laws to our nature that, when it apostatized its obedience to the Creator, it became so enfeebled.

It is in this sense that one can and should affirm that Jesus Christ was a sacrifice for our sinful life, for the sin of Adam, as the first man and ancestor of sinners. If you wish, in this sense, one could even allow the expression “satisfaction of God’s justice,” for if the Lord had been merciful without righteousness, piteous, but not just, He might have reformed human nature without the co-suffering, tormenting love of His incarnate Son, so that every repentant sinner who strove toward perfection would be able of himself to attain spiritual perfection, and with it, also eternal salvation. The Lord told John: “It is fitting to us to fulfil all righteousness” (Mt.3:15). Thus, the act of redemption — a struggle of co-suffering love, which pours the holy will of Christ into the souls of the faithful — being an act of love, would not violate the other laws of life, such as justice. And so it was often considered from this secondary, non-essential and peripheral point of view, but for the sons of Roman legal culture and for the Jews, it is considered as something extremely important. Such a consideration of the peripheral aspect of the event in no way obscures its actual meaning as an act of co-suffering love. For example, even the struggles of the righteous ones and of martyrs, though they were unmercenary deeds, when examined from the point of judicial or even commercial law, appear as quite expedient acts. “How excellent is your tradesmanship, O saints,” exclaims the Church. “For having traded corruptible things, you have purchased for yourselves things eternal. You gave your blood and acquired paradise!” (cp. the parable of the merchant who bought a field with a treasure hidden in it). If we were to examine Christ’s sacrifice from the point of view of criminal, military or commercial law, it would also receive a definite sense of meaning from each, even though it was not at all accomplished in the sphere of these relationships. Criminal law demands an execution for a crime: our Saviour took this punishment on Himself, by which we understand not only His physical death, about which we shall speak later, but the torments of co-suffering love. Consequently, He was a sacrifice of justice, which certain theologians understand as an abstract concept ( fiat justitia) whereas others have in mind a bearer of justice, that is, God the Father. From the standpoint of laws of war or, if you prefer, international law, sinners became the property of God’s enemy, that is, the devil to whom Eve and her descendants subjected themselves. The devil did not want to surrender to God those who were being saved, without a sacrifice [compensation], and therefore, a sacrifice had to be offered to the devil. Further, from the standpoint of commercial law, a slave who has been sold is returned to his former master only for a payment, and in this sense Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “You were bought at an expensive price…” (1Cor.6:20). None of these explanations contradicts one another in any way, nor do they contradict the explanation of the actuality of the matter, which comprises the content of this present work. They have, however, very little in common with the interpretations of Anselm, Aquinas and the later scholastic dogmatics which introduce the idea of a duel here.

In particular, the comparison of Christ’s sufferings with the Old Testament sacrifices, and the interpretation of those sacrifices (and even of pagan ones) generally accepted among Protestants and Latins, are completely without foundation. Specifically, these theologians assert that, supposedly, the Jews (as also the pagans) viewed the killing of a sacrificial animal as the execution of an innocent being in place of [vicariously for] a sinful person or nation. I dare say that it is impossible to support this view of the sacrifice with a single verse or with reference to a single event in the Old Testament, even though the ordinances concerning sacrifices fill, as is well known, almost half the books of Moses, especially the books of Leviticus and Numbers. The animal being killed was not at all thought of as being executed, but as the offering of a meal, which is why flour, oil and salt were added to it. There were sacrifices for sin, but the conditions for the killing of the animal in this case were identical to those accompanying all priestly acts, as also in a peace offering, and there were also some completely bloodless sacrifices of various baked goods, etc. In the eyes of the Old Testament people, therefore, a sacrifice signified a contribution [or, offering], just as Christians contribute [or, offer] candles, kolyva and eggs in church; the first are for the adornment of the church, whereas the others are to be eaten by the faithful. And just as Christians know that God does not need the light of candles and the sweet kolyva, but that the worshipper’s contribution to the church is a pious sacrifice on his part, contributing to the spiritual comfort of his fellow worshippers and to the sustenance of the church and its clergy, so also the children of the Old Testament knew that God does not eat the flesh of oxen or drink the blood of goats (Ps.49), and does not even need temples made by man’s hand when, as Solomon said in his prayer, Heaven itself cannot contain Him (3Ki.8:27). But the Jews brought the sacrifice with the idea that, in their pastoral way of life, there was no other way they could honour their Exalted Visitor with their whole heart than by killing the very best of their cattle in His honour and offering Him the best feast they were able to. Thus did Abraham offer unto the Lord Who had appeared to him in three persons (i.e., Christ and two angels); Gideon to the angel, who burned up the meal he was offered by touching it with his staff (Judges 6:21), and Manoah, the father of Samson, who also tried to feed an angel (Judges 13:15-20).

But nowhere will one encounter the idea that the animal being sacrificed was thought of as taking upon itself a punishment in behalf of people. Even in the ordinance about the three-year-old red heifer, it is impossible to find this thought (despite Protestant interpretations); and the Church does not connect this ordinance with punishment for sin, but with the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, that is, a reverent gift to God.

I doubt that sacrifices even in pagan cults had the meaning of a punishment. If there is any place in the Old Testament where one can find an idea (and doubtfully at that) of an animal as an expression of people’s sins, it would have to be the scapegoat. The scapegoat however, was not killed but only driven from the camp into the wilderness ( azazel — a Hebrew expression which has never been fully explained).

The analogy between Christ’s sufferings and death and the Old Testament sacrifice is, of course, repeated many times in the New Testament, but those sacrifices are not given any other interpretation here either. This analogy is expounded in the most detail in the Epistle to the Hebrews. What is the aim of these analogies? In order to understand this, we must first of all put away from ourselves the Lutheran reinterpretation of the events of the Gospel, which was connected with Luther’s reforms. Lutherans desperately desire to represent the relationship between Christ and Christianity and the Mosaic law and Old Testament, and the relationship between Luther and Latinism as identical. “The Jewish people were suffocating under the despotic yoke of the ritual law, but Christ, and later the apostles, freed them from this yoke.”

In fact, just the opposite occurred. Only with great difficulty were Christians reconciled to the loss of the Old Testament religious order which was so dear to them, and many of them did not want to be reconciled to this loss (even Apostle Paul continued to fulfil it — Acts 21:24) of something they loved as dearly as, for example, the Russian peasants love the customs of Holy Pascha, the birches on Trinity Day, the apples on the Transfiguration Feast, etc. It was difficult for them to endure being deprived of the beautiful temple, the Sabbaths, the majestic high priest, solemn sacrifices and, in general, all the objects of enthusiastic public worship: the ark, the veil, etc.

The main aim of Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews was to comfort them in the loss of these externals and to explain that the spiritual comfort given by that service is doubly preserved for Christians, but is not attached to a material temple and a sinful high priest, but to the eternal High Priest (4:15; 5:10; 7:22; 8:16), to an everlasting joyous Sabbath (3:11; 4:11), to a better law than that of Moses (7:12; 8:7-8), to a better Divine sacrifice, to an access into the heavenly sanctuary not made by hands, through a washing not of the body only, but through a mystical washing away of the stains of the soul in baptism (9:11-12; 10:22), and in place of the curtain, His most pure Flesh (10:22). The apostle expounds these same thoughts more briefly in the second chapter of the Epistle to the Colossians, written for the same purpose (the sorrow of the Christians over the loss of the Mosaic religious observances). Here, too, he speaks of a spiritual circumcision, of the handwriting of our sins, of Sabbaths and other festivals and of various prohibitions of the law, which preserved the Jews from defilement.

What is notable in these epistles is that, in speaking about Christ’s sacrifice, even about His sacrificial Blood, the apostle does not view it as a punishment [or, punitive execution] (even a voluntary one), but as a gift to God the Father, that is, in accord with the Old Testament (Hb.8:3-9, 9-10), so that Christ’s blood shed on the Cross is an offering to God the Father, as was the blood of the Old Testament sacrifices. This concept of Christ’s sacrifice as a gift to God is expressed with special clarity in the following words of the apostle (Hb.8:3): “Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; wherefore, it was necessary that this One have something to offer also.” Of course, Apostle Paul does not exhaust the significance of Christ’s sacrifice by an explanation of the idea that it replaces, for the faithful, the Old Testament order of services, the loss of which had so grieved them. He says that the Lord brought Himself undefiled to God and that His Blood cleanses our conscience from dead works (9:14); and Apostle John says the same thing in his first epistle (1:7). All these expressions, however, as well as the words of these same apostles about the saving power of the Lord’s Cross, designate in these images (Blood, Cross) the same idea of redemption which is expressed by us above (the concept of moral regeneration), for immediately after, they indicate purely moral consequences of these concepts (to cleanse the conscience from dead works; I am crucified to the world by Christ’s cross, etc.).

…to be continued

Sts Dionysios_Hierotheos