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.

The Day the Revolution Began

There is a scene in the movie The Magic Christian where an original Rembrandt is purchased at a Southby’s auction for three times its value.  The buyer then cuts the nose out of the painting, walks out with the nose in his pocket and leaves the rest of the painting in the trash; saying: “I like the nose”.  This is somewhat how N.T. Wright sees recent theology of Christian salvation, focusing on one part and ignoring (throwing away) the larger context, and leaving everyone around in shock and confusion.

The answer to salvation has to be found in scripture, but I am not going to try and work through Wright’s exegesis.  If scripture is the the grand play, N.T. Wright’s works is an in-depth exegetical analysis; I am trying to be the Cliff Notes (at best).  Much of this will be a stringing together of quotes from the book, with a few comments to tie it together and summarize.

Wright contends that the late western church got caught up in Middle-Ages problems: purgatory (when and how does God punish people) and the Mass (when was Christ sacrificed).  These questions framed the shape of their answers, because they did not ‘question the question’.  Epicurean influences of the Enlightenment further eroded theology, bring in the notion that god was distant and

The gospel is summarized as “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible”, but what this means can be taken in different directions.  Most Western Christian traditions have Platonized and paganized it to mean: “We sinned; God punished Jesus: we have been forgiven (and can go to heaven)”.

The longer “Roman Road” expresses it as:

  • All humans sinned, causing God to be angry and to want to kill them, to burn them forever in “hell”.
  • Jesus somehow got in the way and took the punishment instead (it helped, it seems, that he was innocent-oh, and that he was God’s own son too).
  • We are in the clear after all, heading for “heaven” instead (provided, of course, we believe it).

This solution is Platonized, “eschatology” or “The Last Four Things” consist of “death, judgment, heaven, and hell”; not the new creation; a resurrection of our bodies and a new earth.  It is paganized in that it having an angry, wrathful god who exhausts his vendetta of offense by punishing and killing his son.

In order to understand what I Cor. 15:3 means when it says “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible“, Wright takes us back to the first century Jewish context of Paul, where the stories of Exodus and Exile, covenant and Temple are never far away.  The gospels, and the passages in Romans must be understood as the working out of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham that “all nations will be blessed through you”, and that Israel will be his people through whom all nations will come to the knowledge of God.  In spite of the failings of Israel, God remains faithful.  Jesus as the Messiah (the representative of and from Israel) brings about the exodus from the captivity of sin, and is the glory of God present with his people.  And the motive for all of this is always the “covenantal faithfulness” or love of God (Gal. 2:20, John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Romans 8:38-39).

This reframing of things requires a redefinition of sin.  “We have all to often imagined ‘sin’ as the breaking of arbitrary commandments and ‘death’ as the severe penalty inflicted by an unblinking divine Justice on all who fail to toe the line.” (p. 103)  Instead, “‘sin’ becomes the refusal of humans to play their part in God’s purposes for creation as a whole.  It is a vocational failure as much as what we call a moral failure.”

Ultimately Wright sees sin as rooted in idolatry (cf Romans 1). “When humans turn from worshiping the one God to worshiping anything else instead, anything within the created order, the problem is not just that they ‘do the wrong things,’ distorting their human minds, bodies, hearts, and everything else, though of course that is true as well.  In addition – and this is vital for grasping the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion – they give to whatever idol they are worshiping the power and authority that they, the humans, were supposed to be exercising in the first place.  Worshiping things other than the one true God and distorting our human behavior in consequence is the very essence of ‘sin’…” (p. 100)


“The goal, over against the Platonizing distortions, is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to give the worldwide inheritance (see Rom. 4:13) to his entire single family.  The problem is not the general problem of human sin or indeed of the death that it incurs.  The problem is that God made promises not only to Abraham but through Abraham to the world, and if the promises-bearing people fall under the Deuteronomic curse, as Deuteronomy itself insists they will, the promises cannot get out to the wider world.  The means is then that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, bears Israel’s curse in order to undo the consequences of sin and ‘exile’ and so to break the power of the ‘present evil age’ once and for all.  When sins are forgiven, the ‘powers’ are robbed of their power.” (p. 241)

This solution is possible only by the faithfulness of God fulfilling his covenant promise.  “The Israel-shaped purpose, to which Israel itself has been faithless, has been fulfilled in the Messiah himself…The point about the Messiah’s death, the, is that it demonstrates in action the faithfulness of God to his covenant plan-the plan to rescue the world through Israel, to renew the whole world by giving Abraham a vast, uncountable sin-forgiven family.  It was not a matter of Jesus’s persuading God to do something he might not otherwise have done.  The Messiah’s death accomplishes what God himself planned to do and said he would do.  Somehow, the Messiah’s faithful death constitutes the fulfillment of the Israel-shaped plan.  Or to put it another way (since Paul, like all the early Christians, had thought everything through again in the light of the resurrection), when God called Abraham, he had the Messiah’s cross in mind all along… God is faithful to the covenant; and, since the covenant focused on the purpose and promise to rescue the world through Israel, this is what has happened in and through the Messiah, who has offered to God the Israel-shaped obedience, the “faithfulness,” that was previously lacking.” (p. 320-321)

The goal is the concept of vocation, that God works through human agency. We are not called to escape the world, but to wisely govern it, and lead all nations into the correct worship of God.  Being the image bearers of God means “reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.”(p. 357)

Our intended purpose is worship, carried out through our role as priests and kings (Rev. 1:5-6, 20:6). “…humans were made to be ‘viceregents.’ That is, they were to act on God’s behalf within his world.  But that is only possible and can only escape serious and dangerous distortion when worship precedes action.  Only those who are worshiping the Creator will be humble enough to be entrusted with his stewardship.  That is the ‘covenant of vocation.'” (p. 102)

Wright brings this outline to life by careful exegesis, particularly of key passages in Romans; not seeing these as isolated proof-texts, but as a complex and nuanced single (but multi-threaded) argument.  His interpretation is sure to be controversial, but it is something he has been working at through many books before this and represents some of his best scholarship.


Being myself Eastern Orthodox, I find it tantalizing that in almost every book, N.T. Wright quotes or references the eastern church to counterpoint issues, but never pursues the tease.  He rightly sees that the East never ‘had an Anselm’ and never tried to work out the accounting of a substitutionary atonement (in fact Gregory of Nyssa strongly warned against it); and hence don’t have the problem he is trying articulate. Along this line is Wright’s quote of a Greek Orthodox bishop who rather vexingly refused to answer his question on the Orthodox teaching about the cross, only to say that it is the “prelude to the resurrection”.  I don’t know if Wright has met very few Orthodox clergy, or is generous and only quotes the best examples (I suspect the latter, and Fr Thomas Hopko has quite a bit to say on the subject of the cross). Such statements and quotes are thrown out as if they were nuggets of solutions, but then left alone as he dismantles a Western problem and builds his solution on a new (or older?) foundation.

Being Orthodox, I find Wright incredible, but also frustrating; in that he doesn’t pursue such Orthodox comments.  Orthodox do focus more on the resurrection than the crucifixion, but see them as working together as a complete solution.  I believe there is a sense in which sin and death are intertwined (as he states: p. 103), and cannot be separated as ‘the problem’ (something Wright himself suggests in other writings).  This is not an ‘either or’ problem, but a case of ‘both and’ (again the type of solution Wright typically presents).  My criticism is one of omission, not of contradiction; though I need to be careful in this criticism.  The book focuses on the western problem of substitutionary atonement, and particularly focuses on passages in Romans.  In addressing the problem of sin, I think he gives the correct and complete answer.  It is the flip side of the coin: death and resurrection; that I would like to have seen paired with this, but technically he may be restricting himself to a more narrow question.  Orthodox have been addressing the problem of Anselm for some time (ie the article The River of Fire [a bit polemic, but good content], and Frederica Matthew-Green’s article on atonement), but the approach always seemed to be one of giving an alternative paradigm to the doctrine of salvation, not directly addressing the passages in Romans.  Wright steps in and provides the scriptural support that I have felt was missing.

I am not sure that Wright’s solution fully works without also addressing death, as the problem of an ‘angry god’ penal approach is not just Anselm, but also goes back to Augustine and his interpretation of Genesis: “on the day that you eat of the fruit, I will kill you”.  This interpretation places death as a punishment from God, and sets up the need of a death to satisfy the offense.  This doctrine is is embedded in western theology.

If any man does not confess that the first man, Adam…through his transgression suffered the wrath and indignation of God and, because of this, death, let him be anathema. Council of Trent (1546, First Canon, Fifth Session)

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward, as blindness of mind, a reprobate sense, strong delusions, hardness of heart, horror of conscience, and vile affections; or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes, and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments; together with death itself. Westminster Confession, answer to question 29

To focus solely on sin could leave us in a position where Christ’s death is all that is needed for the answer (ie. the resurrection is only an apologetic showing that the Father accepted the Son’s sacrifice of death).  Again, it is not that Wright denies the importance of the resurrection, but that he does not address it in the context of this book; and I think the full solution requires looking at sin and death as a single conjoined problem, with the solution being both crucifixion and resurrection as one action.

I am sure that this book will be controversial, as he is making a head-on challenge to traditional substitutionary atonement theology, and will likely find that many feel justified to bring the ‘wrath of God’ down upon him; but I think he is on the right track.  Because of the position he takes, it also serves as a bridge between Eastern and Western Christianity, and may open up more dialogues of common ground in this area.

May our loving God be with us all.