Friday, June 1, 2007

Father Stephen on Atonement and the Trinity


As readers of my blog know, I am fascinated by atonement, and my early posts on this blog were the results of my struggles with this concept. Just in time for Trinity Sunday, Father Stephen (a former Episcopal priest now Orthodox priest) has a very rich essay about atonement and the implications of the Trinity for what occurred at the Crucifixion:

I listened the other evening to a portion (it’s all I could take in) of a radio preacher - the subject was the death of Christ, and, I suppose, the atonement. The great concentration of this message was on the silence (he said stretched from noon until three). I’m not sure about the details or whether I should argue for less time, but it does not matter. I will quickly grant the point of silence on the cross, and darkness. The preacher’s point was that God the Father did not want the world to see or hear the Son’s suffering for sin. It was a homiletic moment, and I forgive almost any preacher who, caught up in the momentum of his preaching may stretch something a bit. But this was not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of thought. The general precis is that God (the Father) could not bear to look on sin (I’ve been looking for the Scripture verse in vain - but I know it must be there). Thus, when the Son bore our sins, He also bore the disapproval and punishment of His Father.

All of this is part of the Substitutionary Punishment (note the punishment added here) Theory of the Atonement. There are ways in which we can accurately speak of Christ as a substitute. But there are problems (for me) in speaking of a substitutionary punishment. Does God the Father need someone to be punished for our sins? In what way would He need such punishment to occur? Why punishment? This is not a strong theme at all in the Eastern Church. That Christ suffered for us, yes. That His suffering was a punishment from the Father - this is hard to find any support for.

One of the questions raised in my mind was the Father’s need to turn His back on the Son. First, I thought of the doctrine of the perienchoresis. Not familiar with the word? It’s the doctrine that generally means that each member of the Trinity shares in the life of each member of the Trinity. There is, after all, only One God. Thus when the Son suffers, we must say, though it is a paradox, that God suffers. The Divinity of the Son is not absent from the Humanity of the Son in His suffering. If He were He would be absent from us in our salvation. If the Divinity of the Son is not absent, then we cannot posit that the Divinity of the Father is absent, either.

Now, I am not a theologian. I’ve read a little and studied some, and prayed even less. Thus I am subject to correction from those who have studied and read more and prayed more, and are Orthodox. Thus I ask, “How is it that some say the Father turned away from the Son?” Is this Orthodox? I do not read it in the prayers of the Anaphora (the Liturgy). Is this not a late invention?

I do not mean this for argument - but if someone knows the answer and can inform me better along Orthodox lines (or even a good Scriptural argument) I would be glad to read it. But as it stands, I cannot agree with the preacher on the radio. It seems to me that this popular treatment of the Atonement is off base. But I’ll wait to be corrected.

I readily agree that He became sin that we might become the righteousness of God (as noted in the title). But He became sin - thus He looked on it. There is no separation between the Father and the Son. What God has become, God has become.


Read it all.

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