by Tom Belt
It’s always an honor to join in the conversation here at Fr Aidan’s place. It’s good of him to invite me in to share my thoughts on Fr Patrick Henry Reardon’s enlightening book Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption. Father Patrick is pastor of All Saints’ Orthodox Church in Chicago. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in his Saints, The Trial of Job, The Jesus We Missed, as well as numerous articles, editorials, and reviews published in Books and Culture, Touchstone, The Scottish Journal of Theology, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Pro Ecclesia, and St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly.
I happened upon Fr Patrick’s book on the heels of having just finished Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, which also deals with the doctrine of the atonement (see my review). If you’ve read Rutledge’s book you’ll understand what I mean when I say she was in my rear-view mirror the entire time I was reading Fr Patrick. Rutledge’s work is a dense, challenging uphill climb that would be diminished were any part of it removed or misplaced or not read carefully from start to finish. Fr Patrick’s book is equally rewarding but in a very different way. It sketches in much broader strokes an overall vision of salvation that could not be missed were you to approach it from the start, the middle, or read it backwards from end to beginning. Each part of it is virtually an explicit feature of every other part. Moreover, where Rutledge pulls you up close to focus on the sufferings of the Cross and how the Cross atones for and redeems us, Fr Patrick steps back to explore a wider vision of atonement as the consummate saving effect of the whole Incarnate career of Christ’s life. It seemed to me that these reflect more than a difference in focus or interest. They end up describing different understandings of just what it is about Jesus that saves us.
It didn’t always pay much attention to introductions. I preferred jumping straightway into the substance of a book. But while some introductions can be bypassed without consequence, and while Fr Patrick’s book is on the whole introductory (there’s no pretense in it to any systematic fullness), the Introduction itself is a rehearsal of the rest of the book. So I’ll begin, if I may, with few reflections on the Introduction.
To begin with, Fr Patrick talks about the advantage of having written The Jesus We Missed before writing this work “for the simple reason that soteriology must be rooted in Christology. That is to say, we cannot seriously reflect on salvation without prior answers to the questions, ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘What accounts does He give of Himself?’” This struck me as possibly getting things backwards. It’s been my understanding that, historically speaking at least, the Church approached things from the opposite direction. That is, it was soteriological considerations (more specifically, the Church’s shared experience of the gospel’s transforming effects) that guided the Fathers in answering the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ Presented with the challenge of understanding both the ‘work’ and ‘person’ of Christ, the Church answered the latter in light of the former, that is, ‘Who must Jesus be to save us as he does?’ There are of course certain concrete historical facts that define who Jesus was which precede soteriological questions, e.g., Jesus was a first-century Jew who lived under Roman occupation and preached the arrival in his person of God’s Kingdom; he was crucified by Rome at the instigation of Judaism’s religious leaders, etc.—but beyond these basic facts it is the concrete, historical experience of transformed life that produced the New Testament itself and which primarily informed the Church’s answer to ‘Who is Jesus?’ I’d be happy to better understand what Fr Patrick means by arguing for the opposite order.
A second important point Fr Patrick makes about his journey that shapes the book as a whole is the change he came to make over time in how he viewed the Incarnation and Resurrection relative to the Cross. Before he “began reading far beyond scholasticism,” he viewed the Incarnation as essential to our redemption “not so much as an act [but] as a condition.” The Incarnation “was not, in itself, redemptive; it made redemption possible.” In the Fathers, Fr Patrick discovered “another perspective,” namely, that the goal of redemption is our union with God, and he came to see in light of this that “the Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation,” it was “the effective model and exemplar of salvation.” Salvation is “rooted in the Incarnation.” This perspective shapes our understanding of salvation and, in turn, how we answer the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ Salvation is achieved not in any moment or state achieved on the Cross when Jesus experienced just the right amount and intensity of godforsakenness, but rather in the consummate plenitude of his life, a life that redeems all it embraces, and because it embraces the whole scope of the human journey, it heals and unites that journey in its entirety to God.
I’ll say more about Fr Patrick’s chapter on Anselm in a moment, but I want to mention here, thirdly, an interesting confession he makes in the Introduction about Anselm. While describing his move out of scholastic readings of the Cross to more Patristic appreciations, he comments:
Somehow, nonetheless, this patristic perspective on the Incarnation still left room in my mind for Saint Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” of redemption: the “final cause,” or purpose, of redemption was the satisfaction of God’s offended honor, and its “effective cause” was the sacrificial death of Christ. What was missing in my understanding at that time was a proper grasp of the redemptive quality of the Lord’s Resurrection.
I was surprised by this. David Hart’s positive summary of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? left me with the impression that there was little legitimate criticism of St. Anselm’s work to be generated within Orthodoxy, but Fr Patrick seems to have a legitimate critique of Anselm to make. I’ll get to that in a moment.
A final item to mention from the Introduction that shapes the book as a whole is the place of sacrifice in the atoning work of Christ. Attention has to be paid to what role so violent a death plays in God’s redemptive embrace of human life. The Cross is not an incidental bump in the road for a redemption already full secured by Incarnation. Fr Patrick’s second volume in this series will specifically address the sufferings of Christ and a third volume is planned that will deal with the Resurrection.
I recall a conversation I had about this question after finishing Fr Patrick’s book in which a friend asked, “What if Jesus grew old and died peacefully in bed?” My own thought was that his violent death was required, but not by God. Rather, our pathway to union with God required the defeat of all the violent narratives that have shaped and enslaved the world. That violence had to exposed for what it was, and its exhausting itself upon the peaceful economy of creation that is Christ is where that happens. My sense is that this is where Fr Patrick is going with respect to the violent mode of Jesus’ death.
Moving on then to the substance of the book. Where you might expect the book to jump right into one of key themes mentioned in the Introduction, Fr Patrick’s first chapter surprises. It wouldn’t surprise an Orthodox believer, but it would surprise your average Evangelical. Ch. 1 is entitled “Life in the Church,” and as one can guess, Fr Patrick wants first to define the context in which human beings come to experience salvation and where they do their theological reflection on that experience. Not only is “life in the worshiping Church the proper and indispensable context for doing theology,” but that theology “is properly formed from within the ecclesial experience and process of being saved.” He makes it clear from the outset that the experience of and theological reflection upon redemption require not simply individual faith in Christ’s death and resurrection, but also participation in the Church’s shared confession, worship and celebration of these realities via the Eucharistic experience. I started this chapter thinking it would be a delay leading up to the main meal which was a discussion of the atonement. I finished the chapter agreeing I was already into the main meal. We are saved together.
Ch. 2 (“Anselm, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture”), I thought, presented the essential heart of Fr Patrick’s reflections. The chapter summarizes and critiques Anselm (as I said, a bit of a surprise for me after Hart’s piece) and also outlines key points the rest of the book treats, namely, salvation (or atonement, these are identical for Fr Patrick) understood as union with God in terms of St. Maximus’ Triad and its further development by St. Nicholas Cabasilas (14th century Byzantine mystic). Everything in the book from Ch. 3 onward follows these three steps: the Incarnation of the Word, the Passion and death of the Savior, and the Glorification of the risen Christ.
Fr Patrick understands Anselm to begin his answer to the question ‘Why did God become man?’ by addressing the question ‘What is sin?’ Anselm understood sin to “consist in its affront to the honor of God, an affront that can only be removed by someone equal to God in honor, someone able to render to God the honor which human beings owe God.” The ordo rerum (order of things) was upset by sin which constitutes a debitum honoris, the “debt of honor” we owe God. Fr Patrick suspects that Anselm’s inspiration for this notion was a 5th century encomium (the Praeconium Paschale) annually chanted in the western celebration of Pascha. It speaks of Christ “who for us remitted to the eternal Father the debt of Adam.” In the East also there is a hymn composed by the (monothelite) Sergius of Constantinople (5th century) which celebrates Christ as “He that remits the debt of all men.”
Fr Patrick contrasts these with Anselm. Where talk of debt is portrayed in Christ’s parables to refer not to the work of Christ but to God’s mercy and to our calling to imitate that mercy by not extracting payment of debt, Fr Patrick argues that Anselm becomes the first to think of our burden of sin as a debt we owe God. Anselm grounds this in divine justice, a natural entailment in the order of things which obligates human beings to God. There is “nothing less tolerable in the order of things,” argues Anselm, “than that the creature should deprive the Creator of the honor he owes Him, or fail to restore what he deprives Him of.” As Fr Patrick understands Anselm, the necessity of salvation derives from justice as defined by this order.
I’m not qualified to say whether Fr Patrick is right in his claim that Anselm was the first Christian to think of sin as indebting us infinitely to God, but in any event he is critical of Anselm on points. He doubles down, as it were, on Anselm’s “order of things”: “What is missing in Anselm,” Fr Patrick recommends, “is a full and properly theological understanding of the order of things.” For Orthodox believers a correct order of things includes a great deal more than the satisfaction of God’s offended honor. It must also take into account the very purpose for which God created humankind.
I don’t get the sense from reading Cur Deus Homo? that Anselm is entirely ignorant of final ends, but nevertheless for Fr Patrick, Anselm’s lack of perspective is seen in the fact that he starts by asking the wrong question, namely, ‘What is sin?’ The better question with which to start, and the point of departure to which we must regularly return, argues Fr Patrick, is ‘For what was man created?’ This question properly structures our understanding of the order of things, and this end, of course, is union with God, or theosis. Fr Patrick explains:
Theosis, then, is the true and proper ordo rerum. Because man could not share in the divine nature unless the Word shared in human nature, man’s participation in the divine nature required the Incarnation. This … understanding of the order of things required that the Word should become flesh and dwell among us…
This is what is missing in Saint Anselm. He does not begin by asking “For what was man created?” or “What is the final goal of redemption?” He begins, rather, with man’s fallen state, not with his final goal.
And this is my point of critique: Prior to any consideration of Christ Himself and what God reveals in Christ, Anselm defines sin as a debt of honor; he then inquires what was necessary for the remission of that debt. In short, Anselm begins his inquiry, not with Christ and man’s ultimate transformation in Christ, but with a philosophical consideration of sin. Indeed …Anselm explicitly begins his inquiry by removing Christ from consideration—remoto Christo.
Fr Patrick points out that Anselm is prompted to adopt this starting point by apologetic interests. Anselm wanted to establish for unbelievers the a priori nature of the Christian faith. “When the starting point is apologetics,” Fr Patrick notes, “soteriology is compelled to commence outside the full context of salvation; it must start, as Anselm did, with the state of not-being-saved.” Fr Patrick complains that this reduces salvation negatively to sin and its effects considered philosophically. “This is a serious theological problem,” he argues, “because sin itself is a mystery—albeit a negative mystery—and mysteries cannot be measured except within the full light of Divine revelation. Apart from Christ—remoto Christo—there is no adequate theological understanding of sin.” Fr Patrick’s problems with Anselm are so central to his own articulation of atonement it’d be worth quoting Fr Patrick at length:
According to St. Anselm’s own logic, the concept of sin required not a scintilla of faith or special revelation. Anselm reasoned thus: On the hypothesis that God really exists … God deserves the full loyalty and devotion of men. Hence, disobedience to God’s will is an affront to His honor, and this affront requires adequate satisfaction.
Anselm placed this very thin, non-theological understanding of sin at the base of his ‘satisfaction theory’, which became widespread …
Now, not for a minute do I challenge Anselm’s reasoning here. Much less do I consider his argument heretical. My problem with Anselm’s theory is not his reasoning but his starting point, his revolve to begin the study of salvation, as he said, “without Christ,” remoto Christo, quasi numquam aliquid fuerat de Illo—”apart from Christ, as though there had been nothing of him.” This quasi—“as though”—is bothersome, because it does not embrace a truly theological assessment of sin.
In contrast to Anselm, Fr Patrick recommends a patristic model he finds expressed in Maximus’ Triad. St. Maximus contemplates human being from the conviction that its end is deification, participation in the divine life. Achieving this end includes three stages or modes: being (einai), well-being (eu einai), and everlasting being (aei einai). I won’t review the details, but the point Fr Patrick makes here is that because human beings are finite and derive being from God, they are “incomplete” even in creation. They must progress in terms of this ascent. But there is no inherent violence to this progress. The debt, one might better say, begins here, not with sin, and for Fr Patrick this constitutes the proper starting point for an understanding of salvation the locates our infinite need and dependence upon divine grace antecedent to the fall and sees God’s “satisfaction” (provision) in incarnational terms also antecedent to the fall. This situates deification fundamentally within a prior peaceful economy of grace and finitude and restructures our understanding of atonement. Rather than viewing Christ’s redeeming work as the satisfaction of a debt incurred through sin’s infinitely offending God’s honor, it is viewed primarily through the peaceful obedience of the Son satisfying creation’s original, God-given need.
Through the rest of the book Fr Patrick traces this Triadic/Patristic structure of atonement (at-one-ment) as our deification with Christ. It’s worth noting that at one point he anticipates a mistake that he supposes some have made, namely, assuming that our redemption requires nothing more than the Incarnation, which accomplishes the atonement as a physical fact. Fr Patrick offers three reasons for not reducing the conferring of immortality and deification to the simple fact of the Incarnation. First, it eviscerates the apostolic “word of the Cross” and makes Christ’s sufferings secondary and peripheral to salvation. Second, Jesus himself anticipated his sufferings as something necessary and not optional (cf. Mk 8.31’s “the Son of Man ‘must’ suffer…”). Third, the Tradition “proclaims that the Incarnation was required on account of what God’s Son would do in His humanity.” More was required, argues Fr Patrick, “than the inaugural moment of the Incarnation.” But as I’ve already mentioned above, it’s not clear to me that Fr Patrick addresses the question of the sense in which the Cross is required. Who or what requires it? I’m unsure what Fr Patrick’s answer is.
The concern to locate the saving work of Christ within the entire life of Christ comes up again in Ch. 5’s “Christ and Adam.” Fr Patrick:
Here is the nub of a problem: The moment of the Incarnation was not static … A human being—any human being—is a work in progress. The sequence of personal consciousness is an essential component of human nature. Historicity pertains to man’s essence … If God’s eternal Word truly became a human being—Logos sarkothentos—He assumed a personal historicity and reflective sense of sequence in the processes of His thought … Strictly speaking, therefore, the doctrine of the Incarnation does not refer simply to a human state, but to a full human life.
The Word’s oneness with us, “the oneness with the human race [which] was regarded as the condition of His ability to redeem the human race,” is a historically achieved oneness. I liked what Fr Patrick had to say here, a lot. The idea that ‘what saves’ is the indivisible whole of Christ’s life no part of which does the saving work for which all the other parts are just preparation is one of Fr Patrick’s best thoughts.
That said, however, in the following Ch. 6 (“Becoming Flesh”) which explores the historical nature of the Incarnation, Fr Patrick (in my view) comes close to taking back what he beautifully defended in Ch. 5. After having showed why the Incarnation is not static and the Word “assumed a personal historicity and reflective sense of sequence in the process of His thought,” Fr Patrick then criticizes theologians who “attempt to understand Jesus by recourse to the same sorts of internal information that are used to interpret other individuals in history.” The experience of identity formation though stages of developing self-awareness, an experience which is our commonality and shared humanity, cannot, it seems, be attributed to Jesus for the simple reason that the subject of Jesus’ experience is none other than the eternal Logos. “There is no human human person in Jesus that is distinct from the divine person the soul of Jesus, His psyche that these historians want to analyze an interpret, is the human soul of the divine Son. The ‘self’ of Jesus’ humanity is not someone distinct from the ‘who’ of His divinity.” Fr Patrick considers all attempts to psychoanalyze Jesus or “get inside his head” to be “Nestorian at best but often enough only a species of Arianism.”
For my part at least, Fr Patrick’s concern here, whatever it is, could have been better expressed. Are there thinkers who psychoanalyze Jesus under the assumption that the stages of human development and identify formation make it impossible to account for the eternal Logos being the sole subject of Christ’s life? I suppose there are. Jesus’ humanity is certainly unique in that it belongs personally to the Logos. But there is no fear of denying this by suggesting that the embodied, historical, developmental growth and identity formation within Jesus are not merely analogous to ours but are in fact one and the same, for the very reason that what is not assumed is not healed. Jesus took the human journey. I’ve no doubt Fr Patrick believes this, which is why I’m baffled by his concern that we not analyze Jesus’ humanity in the terms that define that humanity. He seems to think that if we analyze Jesus in along the lines of an ‘analogy of subjectivity’, we run the risk of denying his unique identity as the eternal Logos. But the ‘analogy of subjectivity’ that Fr Patrick criticizes is in Hebrews precisely the condition that qualifies Jesus to be our High Priest—one and the same humanity. I’m probably misunderstanding Fr Patrick here. Perhaps he could have explained more the sort of bad analysis he had in mind.
There is a great deal more insight in Reclaiming the Atonement than I can canvass here. I hope you’ll take time to read it. It helped shaped in me a growing love for Orthodoxy—its voice, its diversity, its theological values, but chiefly its radically incarnational view of creation. As Fr Patrick argues, if we start with the end in mind (theosis), then how we understand God’s act in Christ (his whole life, not just a part of it) will have increasingly less to do with satisfying a debt incurred by sin and everything to do with satisfying our natural need, albeit under the conditions of a fallen world. One could say that our sin is more a ‘misrelation to our debt’, not a true debt at all. Evil tries to insert itself into the ‘account’ of God’s peaceful economy, but the Cross is where God denies (as opposed to allowing) it entrance. I understand this to be Fr Patrick’s fundamental challenge: Relocate human indebtedness and Christ’s satisfaction within the original peaceful economy of creation, an economy that endures the world’s violence without requiring it.
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Tom Belt Tom received his MTh in theology from the University of Wales and served as a missionary in the Middle East for more than twenty years. He blogs regularly at An Open Orthodoxy.