As we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord, it is good to remember that He came to die for us and pay the penalty for our sins in our stead. There are neo-Pelagians in Orthodox circles who claim that Orthodoxy does not teach the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross, which is not only untrue but also a scandal to many sincere Catholics and Protestants who are considering becoming Orthodox and are shocked by such a fundamental heresy that strikes at a core teaching of the Scriptures and the Fathers. A young graduate student at – of all places! – St. Vladimir Seminary has written an excellent essay that confutes these neo-Pelagian “patristic theologians” by referring us to an unimpeachable authority, St. John of Damascus, whose holy feast we shall keep next week. Here is the text of the article:
The matter of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is so often in dispute in these degenerate times by some, for their apparent shame at our Lord’s Cross, that it is necessary to defend this basic Biblical and Patristic truth against its calumniators. In order to show the Patristic mind on this issue, St. John of Damascus discusses the same concept under the term appropriation. Regarding what is in Scriptural terms understood as logízomai or imputation, reckoning, accounting, etc., we will show that, utilizing different terms, St. John speaks of a mode or kind of appropriation (οίκειώσεις) that is understood as apparent (προσωπική) and in appearance (πρόσωπον), that is personal in a way that gives voice to the reality of imputation. He writes in Chapter 25 of Book 3 of his systematic theology on the Orthodox faith:
One should, moreover, know that there are two kinds of appropriation (οίκειώσεις), the one being natural (φυσική) and substantial (ούσιώδης) and the other being apparent (προσωπική) and relative (σχετικί). Now, the natural and substantial is that by which the Lord out of His love for man assumed both our nature and all that was natural to it, and in nature and in truth became man and experienced the things that are natural to man. It is apparent and relative, however, when one assumes the appearance (πρόσωπον) of another relatively (το έτέρου ύποδύεται πρόσωπον διά σχέσιν), as out of pity or love, and in this other’s stead speaks words in his behalf which in no way concern himself. It was by this last kind of appropriation that He appropriated our curse and dereliction and such things as are not according to nature, not because He was or had been such, but because He took on our appearance and was reckoned as one of us. And such is the sense of the words, “being made a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
At least two things become apparent in looking at this short chapter, that there are two distinct kinds of appropriation: one natural (φυσική) and substantial or essential (ούσιώδης), and one apparent (προσωπική) and relative (σχετικί). I referred to this conceptual distinction using different terms in a previous study where it was acknowledged that in Christ there is a distinction being made between the metaphysical (ούσιώδης) and imputed (logízomai) dimensions of His economic appropriation. These two modes of appropriation highlight a distinction between who the Incarnate Christ is, in Himself, and how He relates in His Person (πρόσωπον) to sinners as their Personal (προσωπική) substitute.
On the one hand, in becoming man, Christ appropriated our nature and substance, becoming really and truly human. This can be understood as an ontological or metaphysical appropriation of human nature. On the other hand, in order to atone for sin Christ had to be “made a curse for us,” as St. John of Damascus quotes from St. Paul above. This kind of appropriation is not metaphysical, for otherwise Christ would actually become a sinner and sinful and so Himself need saving, which is absurd. The second kind of appropriation, then, is personally (προσωπική) representative or imputational, for “He took on our appearance (πρόσωπον) and was reckoned as one of us.”
This distinction is vital for understanding what is happening in the atonement, for Christ, being sinless, takes an additional step in order to savingly appropriate the curse. Of course, the Biblical idea of curse is a divinely legal term, as the same section of St. Paul’s teaching to the Galatians makes clear: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’” (Galatians 3:10; quoting Deuteronomy 27:26). Therefore, as St. John Damascene alludes to this connection, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13; quoting Deuteronomy 21:23). In this light it is clear that the tree of the Cross was the divine mechanism, so to speak, for Christ’s being made to carry the curse via appropriation (πρόσωπον) in His Person while remaining sinless. In other words, the curse was forensically imputed to Christ, which is to say personally and representationally appropriated by Christ, through the Cross.
Moreover, it is worthwhile to note that πρόσωπον is also a term that can be translated as person, or face. It can in this sense be said that Christ faces up to, personalizes, or appropriates sin to Himself via a relative (σχετικί), representational mode. This is the essence of imputation or reckoning (logízomai). He represents in His person the sinful man, as “when one assumes the appearance (πρόσωπον) of another relatively, as out of pity or love, and in this other’s stead speaks words in his behalf which in no way concern himself.” Although Christ had no sin, He assumes the person or face (πρόσωπον) of the sinner on the Cross, carrying it as an imputed legal reality. It is forensic, not metaphysical, lest it be charged that Christ is Himself a transgressor rather than merely reckoned (logízomai) among them.
As Christ assumes the sinner’s position “as if” He were that sinner, that sinner’s status is imputed legally to Him as the representative, thus Christ is “made a curse for us.” In Himself, He discharges the consequence of sin, then, so that His righteousness is imputed to the sinner, by faith, thus providing the needed righteousness and the needed life to the man of living faith who previously was lost in sin and death. St. John obviously calls to mind the legal representative, the one who stands legally in the place of the other, and although St. John does not explicitly reason according to the bounds of Scripture’s legal terminology, the reality of a forensic imputation or reckoning of sin to the sinless Christ is being communicated by St. John, showing that his position is that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement and forensic imputation. According to St. John, it is in this way that Christ discharges sin in His very Person (πρόσωπον) by appropriating (οίκειώσεις) the divine consequence or curse (κατάρα) for human sin, which is death.
The fact that it is not a metaphysical appropriation of sin but a representational or imputational mode (and in order to maintain this distinction between the metaphysical and the representational), it is entirely orthodox to understand this kind of appropriation (οίκειώσεις) as “forensic,” as the curse of the Law being applied to or appropriated by Christ to His Person (πρόσωπον) in a personal (προσωπική), relative (σχετικί), and not merely fictitious, way.
By way of conclusion, it is in this same section of Galatians where the concept of imputation (logízomai) is explicitly mentioned: “just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted (logízomai) to him for righteousness’” (Galatians 3:6; quoting Genesis 15:6). It is not accidental that St. John of Damascus, when explicating the doctrine of the distinct kinds of appropriation, should quote the same section in Galatians wherein the concept of imputation is laid down, for his concepts clearly overlap in significant ways, as we have demonstrated. This ought to show that, despite the fact that the Fathers may not extensively reason in terms of Scriptural legal language, the legal Scriptural concepts are well-founded and maintained by the Church Fathers.
-Fr. Joshua Schooping
Bravo, Fr. Joshua! Dear Brothers and Sisters, this is NOT “Latinism.” This is Christianity 101.