"The Cross: Peace over Violence" by Fr. Jonathan Tobias on the Second
the odd expectation
In Great Lent, we are in a season when the faithful seek the Holy
Mystery of Confession, and it is this time of year when a special
problem emerges. And that is the issue of Penance. What I mean here is
not the positive problem of a spiritual father helping the penitent
with a penance that will aid him in his theosis -- that is really the
subject of another presentation.
No: what I am concerned with is the strange expectation of penance by
the penitent. Sometimes, the penitent might even ask for a more severe
penance if he thinks the therapy suggested by the priest is too
Of course, such an expectation and demand for hard penance is
completely contrary to Orthodox Tradition, let alone the fact that it
indicates a spiritual problem the Latins like to call
But we are left with the nagging impression, here, that this is a sign
of an even larger problem. In this odd expectation of punishment,
there seems to be the trace of a deeper expectation that sin is
something that should be paid for and balanced out … that there is
Someone Who needs to be appeased, or “propitiated” … that Someone or
something needs “satisfied” … that some sort of “payment” needs paid,
in order to stave off some sort of impending doom or disorder, or
disaster -- in a word, inescapable Wrath.
Today, I would like to talk about about this persistent idea that the
sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was such a “satisfaction.”
In Orthodoxy, we have generally blamed Anselm as the one most
responsible for this doctrine of “satisfaction” -- namely, the
doctrine of “substitutionary atonement.” In his work Cur Deus Homo,
this eleventh century Benedictine writing in Canterbury asserted that
every single sin is an infinite violation of God’s honor. This
violation puts the sinner in infinite debt to God. The debt is too
much for a sinner to pay, obviously. The only way that this infinite
debt could be paid is by the coming of a Redeemer, Whose absolute
purity could discharge the debt of humanity.
Hence, the title of Anselm’s work -- Cur Deus Homo, which means “Why
the God-Man?” It could only be the God-Man Who could Redeem and
satisfy the debt of human sin.
The Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky, singles out Anselm as the
locus where Western theology massively moves away from the patristic
understanding of the atonement, and turns toward a more legalistic,
juridical view of salvation. It is interesting that David Bentley
Hart, in his difficult book The Beauty of the Infinite, takes Lossky
to task for taking Anselm out of context, and for failing to
acknowledge the fact that Anselm is completely Trinitarian in his
Hart is right, to a degree. Anselm is clear that the sacrifice of the
Cross is a gift that exceeds every debt. Nothing remains “unpaid for.”
Hart tries too hard, I think, to renovate Anselm’s theory of
substitutionary atonement. His attempt to re-read Anselm’s argument is
more of a re-interpretation than an explanation.
metaphor mistaken for substance
Contrary to Hart’s best efforts, Anselm’s argument is made in language
that is strange to the ears of Eastern theology and remains so. His
words are not so much juridical as they are commercial. The terms of
“debt” and “redemption” are terms of the marketplace. And one rightly
wonders whether these words were used in Scripture mainly as secondary
terms, where the Apostles and the Lord Himself were using figures of
speech to describe a reality that was, after all, un-describable.
This, I think, was Lossky’s main problem with Anselm. In general, the
Eastern Orthodox critique of all western theories of the Cross and
Redemption have to do with language. Theologians like Lossky,
Staniloae, Romanides -- in his inimitably strident manner -- and even
Hart himself have noticed a repeated problem in western theology. What
may have been meant as a descriptive term in Scripture is frequently
taken, in western discourse, as a reality itself. Thus, when a
courtroom setting is used by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans,
western theology envisions God as Judge, Jesus as Defense Attorney,
and the Devil as the DA (in Perry Mason), the prosecuting attorney who
is arguing for the State.
To take an even more telling, and historic, example: when the lake of
fire is used to describe perdition in eternity, western theology
concludes that this fire is a creation made by God. This error in
interpretation became a momentous point of discussion in the tragic
Council of Florence in the fifteenth century.
Clearly, Anselm’s argument suffers from not a few difficulties. Chief
among them is this error of interpretation. But just as problematic is
the simple question: just who is the debt to be paid to? And why does
God simply not forgive the debt, just like he did in the Parable of
the Unjust Servant? After all, isn’t this parable the source of all
these commercial terms in the first place -- terms that were so
appealing to Anselm?
Of course, this leads us back to the question which should afflict us
all -- even after today’s presentation, you should always wonder about
this. I don’t mind in the least that you should be skeptical about my
argument: I, for one, think that it is a good exercise to hold answers
in abeyance, and allow deep theological questions to lurk in the
The particular question at hand is this: “Why couldn’t God just forget
about sin and let it go?”
the violence of penal substitution
This is the central question that compelled the attention of not only
Anselm, but certainly all the Fathers who thought about Redemption. It
also become the critical occasion in which western theology displayed
some of its most egregious moments, in which it revealed a closer
affinity to the violent narratives of this world rather than to the
infinitely peaceful narrative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am thinking here, primarily, of the doctrine that Lossky was
reallycomplaining about, as opposed to his beating up on poor Anselm.
Instead of the commercial doctrine of substitutionary atonement --
that one can lay at the feet of Augustine just as readily as that of
Anselm -- Lossky and the Orthodox critique are really complaining
about the Reformed Doctrine of Penal Substitution.
This is the theory that Christ was punished (or penalized) in the
place of sinners. He was “substituted” in their place, thus
“satisfying” the demands of justice so that God can justly forgive
Let us be fair to Anselm here and not blame him for this argument. To
be sure, this doctrine is a derivative of “substitutionary atonement,”
but it is really the work of the Protestant Reformation, especially
from the lawyerly pen of John Calvin.
It is not hard to understand. It emerges quite readily out of the
common human experience of a hard, darksome world. One example ought
to confirm the ubiquitous expectation of “penal substitution.” One
need look no further, surprisingly, than the pen of Mark Twain.
In his engaging tale of “The Prince and the Pauper,” there is a minor
character who assists the hero, Tom, in his task of posing as Prince
Edward. The character is a “whipping boy.” The job of the “whipping
boy” was to take the place of the Prince whenever corporal punishment
was doled out by the tutor.
In effect, the “whipping boy” was an innocent substitute who took the
penalty instead of the one who deserved it. Hence, “penal
In this theory there is a suggested answer to the question “Why
couldn’t God just forget about it?” The answer would be, intriguingly,
that God cannot neglect the demands of justice, without contravening
His nature of perfect justice.
It is not difficult to critique this view, and one certainly must do
so if he is faithful to the apostolic and Orthodox tradition. While
later on, in the more positive second half of this presentation, we
will meditate upon the narrative of the Sacrifice of Christ in Holy
Tradition, permit me to briefly note a few of the problems that emerge
from this theory of Penal Substitution.
Let us consider, right off the bat, that this doctrine is the default
belief of heterodox American Christianity. Just a few weeks ago, in
the Western observance of Easter, it is this argument that lay as the
basis for almost every sermon about what happened on Good Friday.
First: there is the notion that Divine Wrath is a passion that is
provoked by human sin, and that “necessitates” a response by God.
Human sin makes “necessary” God’s anger, and that anger must be
This notion obviously puts God under necessity of provocation -- a
thing that cannot be done if God is God: the divine nature is always,
completelyfree. This notion also imposes a very human -- indeed, a
fallen human -- character of anger upon divine nature.
Second: there is the notion that punishment actually is able to
satisfy the demands of justice. Who said, after all, that the
punishment of a criminal can adequately repair the damage of the
crime? This, I know, resonates with the very contemporary discussion
of the penal system in jurisprudence -- but that is precisely my
point. If there remains some skepticism about the effectiveness of the
penitentiary in secular law, how much more should we question the
place of penal punishment in the realm of theology?
Third: there is the notion that somehow, the Son puts Himself in
opposition to the Father, as the One who “becomes sin” as a
substitute, and thus places Himself at the locus of punishment that
must come. On the other hand, the Father directs His “just” wrath
against His Son. He unleashes a tempest of infinite pain upon the
crucified victim, who falls under the aggregate weight of all the
penalty of all the sin of the ages.
And finally, at the extremity of His dereliction, Jesus cries out “My
God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
And in this theory of penal substitution, the interpretation is that,
indeed, God the Father had forsaken His Son.
St Athanasios is quick to lay this notion to rest. In his work, the
Discourse Against the Arians, Athanasios asserts the divinity of the
Son to his opponents and emphasizes the unity between the Father and
Here is what he said about those terrible, heartbreaking words of
Jesus on the Cross:
“Neither can the Lord be forsaken by the Father, [the Lord] Who is
ever in the Father.”
It is interesting that Athanasios wrote this in the context of an
argument against the Arians. I say it is interesting because it seems
to me that there is at least a latent Arianism running through this
notion of the Father and the Son being placed on opposite sides of a
penal exchange of justice.
In Orthodox Holy Tradition, the peaceful, beautiful fellowship of the
Holy Trinity remains unbounded, unchecked and uninterrupted -- even at
the extremity of the Cross.
And, I might add, especially at the extremity of the Cross.
Knowledge of the Trinity as peace and beauty is established at that
horrible singularity of sin and death -- at the Cross, and all the way
down to the extreme dereliction of Hades, where Jesus in His human
soul proclaims the lightning, dawning truth in the darkness that He
has completed assumed and transfigured sin and death.
When Scripture says, as it does, that Jesus became sin for us, it did
not do so in the sense that Jesus became the criminal and the sufferer
of penalty. In 2 Corinthians 5.21, a favorite reference of John Calvin
and Charles Hodge, St Paul writes "For our sake he made him to be sin
who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of
God." In this sense, Jesus did not become sin essentially. Instead,
the sense here is that he completely assumed the full measure of the
aggregate consequence of sin -- the terrible, horrifying aspect of all
the cost, all the pain of all sin for all time.
And Jesus did not do so so that He might become the single “convict,”
Who alone would go to the gallows.
Jesus assumed the burden of sin for all time so that, by His death, it
would be loosed for all time.
In the western narratives, Jesus was envisioned as the substitute
“whipping boy” for humanity.
But in Orthodox Holy Tradition, there is no doubt that there was a
whipping and a hanging tree.
But it wasn’t God doing the whipping.
It was sin.
Sin carries its own grief, suffering, pain and degeneration. Every sin
is a cloud of hell that accumulates into an entire atmosphere of
It was sin.
the persistent myth of propitiation
St Gregory the Theologian thought deeply about the Sacrifice of the
Cross, and about how, even in his day, opinions fractured and devolved
about the Cross and gravitated toward violence, and away from the
primordial peace of the Holy Trinity.
Here are his famous words that anticipate, rather spookily, the likes
of Anselm and even Calvin:
We must now examine the question and the dogma so often passed over in
silence, but which (I think) demands no less deep study. To whom was
that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean
the precious and glorious blood of God, the blood of the High Priest
and of the Sacrifice. We were in bondage to the devil and sold under
sin, having become corrupt through our concupiscence. Now, since a
ransom is paid to him who holds us in his power, I ask to whom such a
price was offered and why? If to the devil it is outrageous! The
robber receives the ransom, not only from God, but a ransom consisting
of God Himself. He demands so exorbitant a payment for his tyranny
that it would have been right for him to have freed us altogether. But
if the price is offered to the Father, I ask first of all, how? For it
was not the Father who held us captive. Why then should the blood of
His only begotten Son please the Father, who would not even receive
Isaac when he was offered as a whole burnt offering by Abraham, but
replaced the human sacrifice with a ram? It is not evident that the
Father accepts the sacrifice not because He demanded it or because He
felt any need for it, but on account of economy: because man must be
sanctified by the humanity of God, and God Himself must deliver us by
overcoming the tyrant through His own power, and drawing us to Himself
by the mediation of the Son who effects this all for the honour of
God, to whom He was obedient in everything … What remains to be said
shall be covered with reverent silence …
-- St Gregory of Nazianzen, Holy Pascha, oration XLV, cited in
Lossky,Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p153; also cited in
Pomazansky,Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p204
the persistence of violent exchange
Unfortunately, these words could not hold back the tide of opinion
that sought, all too eager, the ancient ways of violent sacrifice as
opposed to the self-sacrifice that brought forth sanctification.
Let us look more deeply at this persistent belief in this mythical
necessity to appease. Let us see if we can discern its genealogy, to
see if we can figure out from when it comes.
Just a while ago, I mentioned that this theory seems to emerge out of
the common human experience in a dark, hardened world. Usually, when
we think of ideas that are the stuff of “common sense” and common
experience, we usually confer validity just for that reason.
If everyone thinks it, because everyone has felt it, then it must be
Everyone has experienced the world in such a way that there seems to
be an inescapable, necessary sequence of events. First you do
something bad. Then, if you don’t do something to ward off the bad
karma, then something equally bad will happen to you.
Every action provokes an equal (or more than equal) reaction.
Your bad act has introduced an imbalance into the cosmos, and if you
don’t perform some act of appeasing propitiation, then you are going
to get paid back.
So depending on what culture you hail from, there are a lot of various
ways to accomplish this. If you are an Aztec ruler and wish to keep
your city safe from plague and fire, then you need to offer up a
certain number of human sacrifices. If you are the Theban King Creon,
then the cost of your hubris is the death of your noble daughter
Antigone: this is the price of the gods for balance to be restored. If
you are an average Christian, then each sin has a bill to be paid -- a
penalty, or “penance,” to be determined by the relative severity of
This is all predicated on a deep, deep bedrock myth that lies at the
foundation of western culture -- and that is the myth that the city,
the center of human culture, must be founded upon the cult of
And that, in turn, is because -- according to the narratives of the
world in general, not just in the West -- literally all narratives are
based on violence, upon the succession of one domineering power waging
violence upon the less powerful.
A fragile balance must be sustained, warily, between the human city
and the dark, chaotic environs outside the city. Culture has its
price. The weak are the common, everyday sacrifice to appease the
angry gods -- whether these gods are believed in or not, whether or
not they have religious names or, as they are nowadays, given
scientific and political names.
But once in a while, when the imbalance demands it, a princess like
Antigone, or a celebrity, or a politician, is demanded. And
occasionally, even entire populations, indeed, millions of people, are
offered up in holocaust on the altar of sheer domination and violent
the violent city of totality
You should be skeptical about this line of thinking, because it is not
self-evident. Nevertheless, according to Nietzsche and many of the
post-moderns, this theme of the violent interplay between Apollo, the
god of order, and Dionysios, the god of disorder and the ecstatic
darkness is inescapable. It is the “meta-narrative.” It is the single
story of the world in its totality.
Sacrifice exists, they say, and so, indeed, does Attic tragedy in
classical Greece and the whole world’s pre-Christian heroic
literature: sacrifice exists because power must be appeased, and it
must be appeased violently.
I think we might be able to detect this sort of sacrifice in the Bible
itself. Not at the Cross, nor at the offering of Isaac by Abraham, nor
even in any of Israel’s long history of cultic sacrifice, especially
at Yom Kippur.
No, I’m thinking of the very first recorded sacrifice in Genesis. I’m
thinking of Cain, of course, the elder brother. We read, in the
Septuagint, that “on Cain and on his offerings God was not intent”
(Genesis 4.5 LXX). His sacrifice was not accepted. It remained a
meaningless offering. It was a sacrifice that was of the order of
“vain repetition,” as Someone would say centuries later.
What was wrong with the sacrifice of Cain? What was wrong with his
religion? He had the right God, after all -- or did he? Is it not the
case that your religion is determinative of your belief, and your
belief directs your prayer either to the true God, or an idol?
In any case, God did not accept the sacrifice of Cain, St Cyprian of
Carthage suggests, simply because Cain did not offer it in peace and
innocence. Even though the sacrifice was agricultural, which was
viewed later on in Israel as secondary, still, the main problem was
that the sacrifice was not offered as agift. It was offered as
commerce, ultimately as an appeasement, or propitiation.
It was offered as the first of a long, tragic tradition of violent
sacrifices, offered to a God of omnipotence, perhaps, but a God whose
nature was not good, whose beauty was not wedded to peace. A
terrifying, majestic God to be sure, replete with themes of power and
violence, fates and furies, determinisms and deterministic
pre-destinations and a complete effacement of human liberty and
responsibility. It would be an aristocratic theology that would be at
the beck and call of the movers and shakers of all the world’s
kingdoms. It would provide the necessary myth and narrative to
rationalize power and wealth, privilege and libertinism for the
fortunate few who lived in the suburbs of Olympus.
Later on, we’re told, Cain moved to the land east of Eden, where he
built a city -- a tragic consequence of fratricide, the murder of his
brother Abel. It is always interesting to call to mind the haunting
fact that Rome, too, was built not in a day, but on the blood of
violent sacrifice. Romulus slew his brother Remus, simply because the
latter had the bad sense to step over a border, a line written in the
History has not changed this simple, tragic and ironic script. And it
won’t in the future, either. “There will be wars and rumors of wars,”
Someone said, centuries later, “These things must come to pass.”
And that, in a hard, simplistic generalization, is the very
“unOrthodox” history of the world.
the One Story
Orthodoxy is opposed to this terrible meta-narrative. This hard
generalization, this meta-narrative is the cosmology of the
“totality,” as our post-modern friends might say.
Our job in Traditional Orthodoxy is to remember and speak clearly the
one Story that can bring the gates of totality crashing down.
And that One Story is obviously the Gospel.
“Totality,” if you remember, is the city that is built on violent
sacrifice -- a city that Cain first established.
Remember, too, the fact that along with Cain’s sacrifice, there was another.
Abel offered a lamb, the firstfruit of his flock. Yes, indeed, this
lamb anticipated, like all the other sacrificial lambs of the Old
Testament religion, the one perfect sacrifice of the Cross.
And like the Cross, Abel’s sacrifice became the symbol of the gift of
himself. It was not a mere representation of himself, but a symbolic
sacrifice that became an offering of his ego, the limitations and the
boundaries that could possibly demarcate himself from the divine
energies of grace.
And as the lamb anticipated the ultimate lamb that takes away the sin
of the world, so also did Abel’s sacrifice of self as a free gift
anticipate the free gift of the Son of God.
Fr Dumitru Staniloae is emphatic here: for theosis, or communion with
God, to occur, the entrance is by way of the free surrender of self.
… the Father, too, needed our sacrifice for the restoration of our
communion with Him; this sacrifice was not to satisfy His honor [cv
Anselm, Cur Deus Homo], but to open us to the communion with Him by
denying ourselves and seeing Him in all His glory. That is why He
offered His Son as sacrifice, because we were not able to bring this
-- Fr Dumitru Staniloae, The Person of Jesus Christ as God and Savior, p110
This is not at all violence, but the establishment of peace -- even
though that peace had to be looked for far beyond the contemporary
horizons, and far into the prophetic promise of the Messiah.
Every sacrifice in Israel was an expectation not of appeasement, but
of eschatological promise. Every sacrifice reached out across the
distance of Time to the one moment, at the Cross, when the glory of
God would be revealed more brightly than it was ever revealed in the
Ark of the Covenant, or in the shekinah glory of the Temple -- so
writes St Isaac of Syria.
The glory of the Cross was the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son
of God Who was also the Son of Man. At the Cross, He is the Second
Adam Who repaired and retold the human story according to its
original, natural beauty.
His entire Gospel, incarnate life was a self-sacrifice that we are
fond of calling “kenosis,” the “pouring out of self.”
It is interesting -- and supremely important -- to remember that this
kenosis is the same design and movement as the “perichoresis” of each
Person of the Trinity.
At the Cross, the prophetic sacrifice of Abel is completely and
overwhelmingly fulfilled. At the Cross, the sacrifice of Christ is of
a nature that is completely different from the man-made traditions of
violent sacrifice: this One Sacrifice is the new history -- really a
new creation -- of peace and beauty. At the Cross the Sacrifice of
Jesus Christ is a free, victorious gift of peace and theosis: it is
the Trinitarian gift of the Body and Blood of Christ, and the
beautiful, heartbreaking call of the Shepherd to His sheep, to walk
the paths of righteousness.
Please permit me to read a particularly rhapsodic passage of David
Bentley Hart. He writes so well of the continual, indivisible work of
the Trinity in the particularities of history -- and at no time does
history become more particular than at the horrible singularity of the
Crucifixion -- a singularity that the infinite beauty of the Trinity,
in its inimitable mystery of grace, completely overwhelms and turns
the Cross from an ugly imperial symbol of torture into the only sign
that unites power with grace, meekness with majesty, sovereignty with
All this is united in the Gospel inversion of the Cross. And here is
David Bentley Hart on how the Cross is the inauguration of the “peace
that passes understanding”:
And this is our salvation: for when the infinite outpouring of the
Father in the Son, in the joy of the Spirit, enters our reality, the
apatheia of God's eternally dynamic and replete life of love consumes
every pathos in its ardor; even the ultimate extreme of the kenosis of
the Son in time -- crucifixion -- is embraced within and overcome by
the everlasting kenosis of the divine life. Because divine apatheia is
the infinite interval of the going forth of the Son from the Father in
the light of the Spirit, every interval of estrangement we fabricate
between ourselves and God -- sin, ignorance, death itself -- is always
already exceeded in him: God has always gone infinitely further in his
own being as the God of self-outpouring charity than we can venture in
our attempts to escape him, and our most abysmal sin is as nothing to
the abyss of divine love. And as the Word possesses this trinitarian
impassibility in his eternal nature, and so as God cannot change or
suffer, as a man he can suffer all things, bear any wound -- indeed,
bear it more fully than any other could, in absolute depth -- not as
wrath or defeat but as an act of saving love: as Easter.
-- David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p359
whipping boy or sin-eater
There is another story, too, that anticipates the Cross. It is more
than a little different from the Whipping Boy of The Prince and the
Pauper. This one comes from 18th century England, in some of the
out-of-the-way rural districts. It is a quite horrible superstitious
tradition: at the death of a loved one, the family would prepare the
body and lay the departed upon the table in the house. They would cut
a piece of bread and lay the bread upon the chest of the departed.
They would then leave the house and put this superstitious tradition
There would be an individual in the village who lived on the
“outskirts” -- literally, and more importantly, figuratively. (It is
interesting that in uncivilized districts, the literal and figurative
are usually a lot closer together in meaning than the more ironic
speech of the “one city” of modernity.) Figuratively -- because this
individual was “exiled” because of his disorderly behavior, or because
of his criminality or disease or all of these reasons combined.
This individual is the one who would be called for to come into the
house of the recently dead. He would enter the house, possibly say a
few prayers, then eat the piece of bread that was left on the chest of
That is why this individual was called the “sin-eater” -- it was
believed that he would assume and take away the sins of the departed,
through the bread.
I suggest to you that the two understandings of the Cross that I have
laid out to you today can be summarized by the two stories I have
told: of the whipping-boy, and of the sin-eater.
I suggest to you, also, that the latter story is the one much more
akin to the Orthodox narrative of the Cross as the Trinity’s rhetoric
of divine peace triumphing over violence.
But the analogy between the sin-eater and Christ only goes so far. It
stops at two places. First, when Christ “eats” or assumes all the sin
of humanity, only He is able to completely eradicate the sin by the
infinity of His divinity -- the tidal wave of divine kenosis, even at
the lowest point of hell.
And second: the bread of the sin-eater is an obvious symbol of evil
death. Bread, in the Gospel narration of Christ, is life-giving and is
the sacrament of eternal fellowship with the Holy Trinity. Instead of
the sin-eater becoming sin by eating the bread, the bread of the
Gospel becomes Christ Himself.
* * * * * * *
In a simple way, if one were to ask you why Jesus died on the Cross,
you could say that it wasn't to calm down the mad Father, or to pay
off the Devil.
Rather, you could say that He died to pour out His life in infinite
kenosis, so that His theosis would be infinitely available. The grain
of wheat falls into the soil, dies, so that it might rise into the
sunlight in infinite harvest. The Cross is transmuted into Eucharist.
The Holy Trinity, in peace, meets the violence of the devilish world
untroubled, and overwhelms hell with Resurrection.
Where you and I belong.
But that's another story, next week.