Atonement: Wright and Florovsky

I had thought that NT Wright’s views on atonement were moving toward traditional Orthodox thinking (see my previous post on Wright’s book), but I was never sure I had found a full Orthodox exposition on the subject until a dear friend (and better theologian) pointed me toward the review of Fr George Florovsky titled On the Tree of the Cross.

Some Orthodox want to make an absolute opposition between Western and Eastern theology, seeing one as legal and the other as organic; is the problem sin or is the problem death?  There are priests I have met who will deny that Orthodox believe in atonement (of almost any form, let alone Anselm’s substitutionary atonement).  I have fought this either/or thinking, and tried to see it as a both/and position, with different emphasis.

This collection of essays is causing me to rethink my position.  I have been Orthodox for over 30 years, but it seems I still do not have ‘the mind of the Church’.  This book is an affirmation of my both/and thinking, though it pushes the affirmation of all sides stronger than I have.  What I find challenging is how the theology is done; the starting point is neither scripture nor systematic theology, but liturgy.

While the Church Fathers are frequently cited in the articles, there is an acknowledgement that different ones have different emphasis (and omissions).  The ‘mind of the Church’ cannot be found in one Father or another because there is a diversity of thinking, and it is too easy to selectively pick through them to justify one’s own position.  It is liturgy that has a slower development in which the faith and practice (lex orandi lex credendi) comes together.  It is here that atonement is not addressed (only) in Pauline theology but more in priestly actions and the words of Hebrews.

While I appreciate the careful scriptural work of Wright (and many Orthodox could use more of it), it is this liturgical theology that always takes my breath away.  The final result of theology is not admiration of my thinking, but worship; worship of the redeeming and atoning God.  The other beauty of liturgical theology is that while systematic theology wants to rationally divide and categorize (did the ransom get paid to Satan or to the Father?), liturgical theology is more poetic, allowing ideas to be jumbled together and thrown against each other, and left in a confusion of mystery.  Jesus was a baited hook that deceived the fish of Death (ie. allusions to Jonah), and after being swallowed makes Death vomit up all those who had been held captive until then.

Maybe a better scholar could find some differences between Wright and this book on Florovsky, but I found them very complimentary: scriptural exegesis in light of first century Judaism combined with patristic writings and liturgy, a wonderful combination; Glory be to God.

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