Atonement Theory and Sacrifice


Peter Leithart, in his recently released theological magnum opus, Delivered from the Elements of the World, says at the beginning of his book that any theology of the cross must make sense or be connected to the Levitical cultic sacrifices (among other things of course. Leithart mentions 5 criteria for a proper theology of atonement: evangelical, Levitical, Pauline, inevitable or necessary, and fruitful).

Leithart says this about Levitical atonement theology: “a successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events” (p 20).

The connection of the cross to sacrifice is of course apparent in NT letters such as Hebrews and the gospel narratives. But how exactly does the death of Christ “work” as a sacrifice? Peter Leithart takes up much of this book to bring to clarity the sacrificial death of Christ. First, he explains the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices:

[The] sacrificial system was designed to bring Israel near so that divine Husband and human Bride could feast together at the house of Yahweh. Yahweh accommodated himself to the post-Edenic, fleshly situation of Israel. Israelites themselves did not approach Yahweh but drew near through animal mediators, animals whose flesh was destroyed so that they could be transfigured and ascend, as the worshipper could not, in Yahweh’s presence. Israelite priests ate in the holy place but only under controlled conditions; Israelites could eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord, but only at a distance from his fiery presence. Israelites could not go past the cherubic swords and live. Israelites could not become fire to join themselves to Yahweh’s fire. But they could send animals past the cherubic swords, and Yahweh accepted the animals in place of the worshipers and Yahweh’s fire “consumed” the flesh of animals so that their flesh was turned to smoke and fire, “divinized” into union with Yahweh (p 138)

To make this explanation simple: the sacrifices were a sacramental means to accomplishing union with God. Israel offered these sacrifices, because they themselves were unable to ascend to God; they killed and burned the offerings as an act of repentance and vicarious self-giving, hoping the smoke could ascend to God and be accepted in their stead. This sacramental union was finalized when the priests ate the sacrifice “in the presence of the Lord”, which symbolized table fellowship with Yahweh.

Peter Leithart’s explanation of OT sacrificial theology represents a Thomistic sentiment. Sacrifices were seen by Aquinas as vicarious offerings of the self through the animal offerings for the purpose of creating union of God and man. The point of the sacrifices were “giving up” part of yourself to God; something valuable, something representative. This is why Israel offered animals, because they were comparable to income during those times. Even more, they gave the first born without spot and blemish. This was the most valuable animal. To give an animal like that was to give up part of your own income and wealth, and thus it was seen as a vicarious act of self-giving.

Moving on the cross, Leithart points out that the cross is seen by NT writers as fulfilling and finalizing OT sacrifices because while the OT sacrifices were vicarious, Christ’s was personal and actual. He didn’t offer to God a goat or bull, hoping that God would accept those in their place; rather, Christ offered himself in totality to God. Leithart says this:

[Christ] fulfilled the sacrificial system because he did what all sacrifices signified…  Jesus did this in fact when he offered himself, passing through death into union with God like an animal sacrifice. (p 159)

So he fulfilled what all other sacrifices wished to fulfill: the offering of the total self to God. In fact, this is the point of the resurrection: it was simply smoke that rose to God; rather, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and rose him up and seated him at his right hand. Sacramental union has been definitively accomplished in the person of Jesus.

But Leithar acknowledges: Jesus ” was not the first martyr to give his life to the God of Israel” (p 159). So what made his sacrifice different from all the other martyrs of the faith of Israel? Leithart answers:

The answer is, his identity and life. Jesus was the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense: he was Israel’s King, Israel embodied in a single person, and so his death, like the death of every king of Israel, was on behalf of his people. When he passed through death toward transfiguration, Israel went with him. More, Jesus was Israel’s king and Israel High King in one person, both David’s Son and David’s Lord. He poured out his blood, the life of his flesh, as Yahweh incarnate, and so his passage through death was Yahweh’s own passion, God’s own passage through human. Besides, Jesus’ entire life made his martyrdom unique. Heroic as they were, no other martyrs had lived a life of complete obedience to Torah. None had fully realized all that Torah required. Like every sacrificial animal, Jesus offered himself “without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14) (pp 159-160)

Jesus’ sacrifice was unique because Jesus was representative of Israel; and, borrowing from Saint Anselm, Jesus was man and God, which made his death utterly and infinitely more valuable than any other death of a human being. But even more than that, Jesus’ sacrifice was pure and without blemish. Because Jesus obeyed the Torah in full, he offered himself a pure oblation, innocent one, perfectly loving and just. God took delight in that and raised him up, and consequently, all Israel in him.

Aquinas said in his Summa Theologia that the value in Christ’s self-offering was not so much his suffering (although this doesn’t discount the need for vicarious suffering), but rather in the infinite perfect love with which he suffered. The entire point of the sacrifices was the give the self to God entirely: this is just what Christ did in the cross by dying in perfect love. And that infinite love was sufficient for the remission of all the world’s sin!


Man’s Final End


Icon of the Transfiguration. Most theologians understand this to be a retroactive-revelation of Christ’s resurrection glory, and a vision of man’s final end: participation in God’s glory

In this post, I want to consider what the early church fathers called theosis or divinization. They were convinced that this was man’s original calling, and it is principally man’s final end through salvation in Christ. But what does it mean? And how do we partake in it? This is what I want to answer through this post.

The outline of this post will take three steps. First, I need to define, primarily from the fathers and biblical metaphors, what divinization/theosis actually means. Second, I will look at the nature of sin as deprivation from the help of Augustine. Finally, I will look at what salvation in Christ means through the lens of the first two steps.

First, what does divinization mean? I realize that the word divinization or theosis sounds very foreign and strange. But these were words that the Fathers often used, and they are ultimately a biblical idea; so we must explore what they mean. Frederica Mathewes-Greens defines theosis by breaking down the word:

The goal of [mankind] is union with God. This is called theosis, which is usually translated “deification” or “divinization”. Those terms are misleading, if not alarming, since it could sound like we expect to become junior gods, each an independent owner-operator of a personal divinity franchise. Fortunately for everyone, that is not the case. We can dismantle the Greek word and see it is composed of theos, which means “God”, and the suffix -osis, which indicates a process. As red dye saturates a white clothe by the process of osmosis, so humans can be saturated with God’s presence by the process of theosis.

This was God’s plan from the beginning; we were created… to be increasingly filled with his glory (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 68-69)

Theosis, then, means that human beings were created to be increasingly filled with God’s glory. Or, put another way, mankind was made to participate and find its life within God’s divine life.

Aiden Nichols, in his book Chalice of God, tells us that the world was created to be a “beautiful receptacle”; that the “being of the world is so constituted as to receive” (p 12-13) and not to exist on its own. Rather it was created to receive the breath of God and to live in his own life. God, out of love then, created the world to participate or to be permeated with the divine indwelling.

But why is this so? Why was man created for this end? It is because only God has the infinite and unlimited resources that permit him to live independently. Aidan Nichols explains “anything whose nature does not demand its existence must have its being from another — meaning, ultimately, from the First Cause” (Chalice of God, p 14). God’s being, or his essence, is infinite, endless, and demands its own cause and existence. Created things on the other hand demand the cause of the other.

Frank Sheed explains:

[T]he infinite Being, having all perfections is utterly changeless. Nothing else is. Every created being, however glorious, contains a certain negative element, lacks something, from the fact that it is made of nothing.

So St. Augustine writes (De Natura Boni): All the things that God has made are mutable because made of nothing. And the Council of Florence tells us that creatures are good, of course, because they are made by the Supreme Good, but mutable because they are made of nothing. (Theology and Sanity, p 124-125)

All the created order is necessarily good (because God created it!), but is also necessarily changeable or even possibly corruptible because it is created and not eternal. Thus all of creation is made dependent, open, in need of receiving a life outside of itself. Left to its own resources, creation would change, degenerate, morph; because something created doesn’t have the capacity for eternal life in and of itself. For this reason, when God created the cosmos, he intended to dwell in it, to energize it with his life and to sustain it as his eternal temple. Nichols tells us the cosmos was made to “mediate the infinite” (p 21).

This is especially true of man: mankind was created commune with the triune community and life of God. Or, if I may put it biblically: man was created to be sanctified and finally glorified by participation in the triune God by the Spirit (Rom 8:28-30). When God created Adam, it is said that He “breathed” into him, and Adam “became a living being”. The fathers understood this breath to be the Holy Spirit, energizing Adam’s human nature with the divine life such that he was rendered immortal. Adam did not contain or own this life, rather it was a divine gift of grace.

The fathers illustrated this divine participation in several ways. Frederica Mathewes Green explains one way:

How can poor human clay take on the overwhelming presence of God? St. Cyril of Alexandria gives an analogy to the way fire acts upon metal. He wrote, “when the iron is brought into contact with the fire, it becomes full of its activity — that is, it takes on the properties, the heat and the light, of fire. “While it is by nature iron, it exerts the power of fire” (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 70)

Another good example, which I’ve mentioned before, is the temple. Many of the fathers understood Adam to be the priest within the temple of Eden. God thus made the world to be his dwelling place, his earth-temple. And Adam was tasked as the primordial priest to consecrate and offer the cosmos to God in thanksgiving, and for God to receive and fill the world with his life. Alexander Schmemman explains it this way:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (For the Life of the World, Kindle Locations 152-155)

Schmemman calls the entire cosmos the “matter”, and the man the “priest”. Man was created so that he could offer the “matter” of the world as a eucharist (thanksgiving sacrifice) to the Father in order that He may accept and transpose it with his glory.

I want to secondly move on to the nature of sin. Saint Augustine dealt with the heresy of Manichaeism, which held to a type of dualism akin to the gnostic heretics of the early church. The Manichaeans understood evil to be a substance, a thing that is part of the world that is in opposition to the good. Augustine’s insight against this impulse was to reason that if evil is a thing, a substance, then it means it was created. If it was created, it must have come from God, making God the originator of evil, or worse, evil in and of himself. This is obviously unbearable. God did not create or ordain evil.

From whence comes evil then? Augustine’s solution was to explain evil in negative terms. Evil is not a thing, something to be seen or grasped. Rather, evil is deprivation of the good. It is a corruption of the good. Evil is the very absence of what should be there. Evil is like rot in a tree, or darkness as the absence of light, or cold as the absence of heat. It is not a thing per se, but rather a reality of privation and incompleteness. Thomas Aquinas built on concept by furthering explaining that because evil is not a thing, or a substance, we may also affirm that evil is meaningless. Evil has no logical end or purpose. And actually, evil is the derailing of the purpose of a thing. Nichols says that “sin falls outside the divine understanding since it is objectively unintelligible, a falling away from being” (Chalice of God, 22). Sin is a falling away from being; meaning, it is a deprivation of that which should be. It is not properly something, rather it is a state of nothingness (this is the paradox of hell: it is simultaneously and eternally existence and non-existence. It is utter turmoil because man lives forever in this state of nothingness). Kallistos Ware expounds on this:

Against all forms of dualism, Christianity affirms that there is a summum bonum, a “supreme good” — namely God himself — but there is and can be no summun malum. Evil is not coeternal with God…

What then are we to say about evil? Since all created things are intrinsically good, sin or evil as such is not a “thing”, not existent being or substance… “Sin is naught”, says Augustine… And St. Gregory of Nyssa states, “Sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right”… Evil is always parasitic. It is the twisting and misappropriation of what is in itself good. (The Orthodox Way, 46-47)

Now, what does this have to do with theosis? The logical connection becomes evident when we ask: if evil is a privation, what is missing from the world that creates the evil of death and suffering? What is missing within man that makes him corrupt and die?

The answer is simply: God’s own life. If we tease out the metaphor of Adam as priest and the earth as God’s temple, when Adam sinned — when he seized the divine prerogative for himself — God’s presence was removed from his earth-temple. Adam’s sin was a turning-away from God’s very sustaining presence. And in turning away from the glory of God’s energizing presence, Adam turned into corruption, death, sickness, disease; or put another way, when Adam sinned, he forfeited the Spirit and was left to live autonomously and by his own resources; and having no eternal resources in himself, Adam become mortal, corrupt; he returned to the dust from which he was created.

Many people understand the punishment of Adam’s original sin to be an imposition of God’s hand on the nature of man: God struck the man dead. But death is not part of God’s nature. Instead, we must understand Adam’s sin as a punishment in and of itself. By this I mean that when Adam sinned, he turned away from God’s very life and forfeited the eternal, energizing presence of God. In other words, Adam dislodged mankind, even the entire cosmos, from the life of the triune God by his own sin. The communion he was meant to share in with the triune community was  broken through his disobedience. As Karl Adams says, mankind, “called to share by grace in the divine life… [became] detached from its original supernatural goal,…like some planet detached from its sun, [and] revolved only in crazy gyration round itself”. Aidan Nichols explains original sin in terms of a “failure to attain a telos” (Chalice of God, 22). This impulse, I believe is correct.

Original sin is therefore a reversal of man’s final end from eternal life in God to finitude and death in the self; and this death is not just physical, but spiritual as well. The body is not only bound toward corruption, but the soul with its moral and reasoning capacity is corrupted and in a state of death. Man’s moral compass and ability is thus askew, and his calling to be an image bearer is thwarted: instead of imaging God, he becomes animalistic and brutish. Man is stuck in this state of death — his will is bound as Augustine would say; he cannot rescue himself — and thus he needs deliverance.

This takes us to our last point: salvation. The question of salvation becomes: if man’s final end is union with God, theosis, divinization etc, and if sin is a derailment of that final end such that all mankind is constituted in death and corruption, how then does the human project realize it’s final purpose once more?

The answer is that mankind is saved through union with Christ who was obedient where Adam was not, and who was filled with new life through his resurrection from the dead. And by this I mean that salvation entails a rejoining with the divine life of God in the Spirit through mystical union with the resurrected Christ.

But what does this mean? And how does it happen? I will give two answers:

First, the patristic view. The patristic church was fond of saying that God became man that man might become God. And by this they meant that God did something through Christ such that man can be reconstituted in union with God’s life once more.

But what did God do in Christ? Very simply, God came down to where we are — into our sinful, dead situation — to raise mankind back to him in the fellowship of the Triune life.

Kallistos Ware explains:

The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification… Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.

St Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it”. Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (Phil 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinity limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”…

Christ who is the Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son. (The Orthodox Way, p 73-74)

In the incarnation, Christ took a share in our situation in order to reunite humanity with the life of God. This share in our situation was completed when Christ willingly partook in our death to reverse it with his life. Christ willingly experienced the enemy of death, so that through dying, he might touch it with the divine life and defeat it once and for all.
Second, I want to look at the reunion of God and man in Christ through the lens of his death as a sacrifice. I said above that God created mankind in order that mankind might give himself and the world back in love to God. Adam was created as a primordial priest tasked to give or sacrifice the entire cosmos to God in love and consequently be filled with his glory. Instead, Adam grasped the divine prerogative for himself and fell into sin and death.
What Christ did by coming into our situation was precisely to take up Adam’s failed vocation and offer himself and the entire world to God in a sacrifice of love. All of Christ’s life was a holy offering of himself, indeed of the entire world, to God. Christ was the true righteous priest who offered to God his entire life in obedience and love. This sacrifice was supremely fulfilled in the cross: the cross, we are told by Paul, was a “fragrant offering” (Eph 5:2) of the entire self to God. It was perfect obedience, an obedience which Adam failed to give up to God, and for which he experienced the fall. Christ came to reverse that disobedience by obediently offering himself in love to the Father. Here is what Thomas Aquinas says of Christ’s sacrifice:
[B]y suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured… And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (ST, 3.48.2)
Aquinas explains that what Christ offered to the Father was a superabundant sacrifice which, in its offering, reversed and replaced the failure on Adam’s part. Christ, as Irenaeus says, replaced Adam and re-headed the world through his sacrificial love for the Father.
The resurrection means principally that God saw this sacrificial obedience, received it, took joy in it, and received Him in glory. This means that the glory forfeited in Adam is thus returned in Christ! What joy!

God’s Wrath as Loving Consent


This post is part of a series of articles in which I “show my cards” on my theological positions. In this post I want to consider the biblical concept of wrath; what wrath means, how it can be said that God is a God of wrath, and the implications therein.

What I want to argue here is that when the Bible uses the term wrath, it uses it as an anthropomorphism to describe the divine consent to man’s determination to continue in his own sin. Put more simply, wrath is not a passion of God, (like a man who bursts into fits of anger) but is rather God’s sorrowful “yes” to man’s final “no” to him. It is a subset of love, because love allows man to say “yes” or “no” to the divine love. Should man set his face toward sin, even upon the greatest of persuasion by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God will release him and allow sin to destroy him. He does this in great sorrow, because God loves all mankind and desires that they be saved. But he refuses to force or coerce love, for the very nature of love is to allow freedom of choice.

I want to argue this in three steps: First, I want to establish a biblical definition of wrath from foundational theological principles and from Romans 1. Second, I’ll provide examples of wrath from famous biblical stories that support my view of wrath. Lastly, I want to consider the cross in connection to this definition of wrath.

First, defining wrath. As I said above, I take wrath to mean God’s consent to sin and self-destruction. God is decisive but passive and passionless in this process. The reason for this is because, theologically speaking, God is impassible, unchangeable, simple. Put another way, God does not experience change. He does not get impassioned. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus God cannot become angry in the human sense. Wrath must thus an anthropomorphism, something we attribute to God to understand him from our human experience.

Another important theological principle to consider is the fact that God is love, as 1 John 4:8 tells us. He is not wrath. He is not anger. He isn’t even mercy. God is love. Augustine tells us rightly that the Trinity informs our view of God as love. God is a community of Lover, Beloved, and Love. Within God there is a life of perfect love and self-sacrifice. God the Father begets the Son, and the Son responds with eucharistia to God the Father, and the Spirit binds the two together. God’s essence is thus love. Thus, when we talk about wrath, it must be placed within the context of Trinitarian love; any action he takes on behalf of the world must be subsumed under that love.

OK, now to Romans 1, a key text on wrath. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Ungodly men know that God exists, Paul tells us, and yet they replace him by worshipping created things rather than Creator (v. 23). For this reason, God reveals his wrath to them. But, the question is: what does his wrath look like? We are told by Paul that God’s wrath looks like a divine-giving-up. Paul tells us three times that “God gave them up” (v. 24, 26, 28) to their passions and sins. And this giving up is the “due penalty for their error” (v. 27).

Thus for Paul, wrath is not passionate, angry venting. It is not violent. It is rather a divine-giving-up. Or, put another way, it is a divine consent to sin. Brad Jersak explains:

[I]n the Bible, where we see or hear of God’s wrath, we are usually, actually seeing God’s nonviolent consent to the natural and supernatural forces of the world and of human freedom. God’s wrath is consent to allowing, and not sparing, the powerful consequences of these forces to take their course

[I]n Romans 1 (picking up from Isa. 64:5–7), Paul clarifies: what had been described in the narrative metaphorically as a seemingly active wrath is in fact the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of rebellious people to their own self-destructive trajectories—even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on innocents! When in Romans 5 we read that God in Christ was saving us from ‘the wrath,’ we are not to believe that Jesus is saving us from God, but from the consequences of sin (death, according to Rom. 6:23) imbedded in the very order of the universe. (source)

Wrath is thus “God’s nonviolent consent” to man’s willful sinful choices. In consenting to man’s sin, he is also permitting the consequences of sin to destroy us. Wrath is not the “retribution of a willful God, but [is rather] a metaphor for the consequences of God’s consent to our self-will and non-consent” to him (ibid, above). Thus all the consequences of sin in the Bible are not coerced by God. Rather, they are consented to.

But why does he do this? Because God is love. Love, if it is to be love, must be freely given and freely received. God recklessly creates man free so that man may freely return love to him. Hans Urs von Balthasar calls this gift of freedom a kenosis (self-denial) of the Godhead; a giving up of his own autonomous freedom to dependent beings so that they may respond in free love to Him:

It is possible to call this creation, together with the covenant associated with it—in Noah, and more patently in Abraham and Moses—a new “kenosis” on God’s part, since he is thereby restricted, implicitly by creaturely freedom and explicitly by the covenant with its stated terms. …[H]uman freedom [thus] participates in the divine autonomy, both when it says Yes and when it says No. (von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action. Kindle Locations 4925-4930)

Balthasar concludes, “man’s refusal is possible because of the trinitarian ‘recklessness’ of divine love, which, in its self-giving, observed no limits and had no regard for itself” (ibid, kindle 4941-4942).

Moving on to my second point, I want to consider a few OT stories. Because at this point we must still ask: what about the places in the Bible where it seems like God “pours out” his wrath? What about the stories where God seems very angry?

Brad Jersak again explains:

What of God’s active wrath? Did God not slaughter Egypt’s firstborn (Exod. 12)? Did God not massacre the Jewish grumblers in the wilderness (Num. 26)? Did God not incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) or repeatedly reduce Jerusalem to smoking rubble (Jer. 52)? Did God not strike down Ananias and Sapphira at Peter’s feet (Acts 5) or eat Herod alive with worms (Acts 12:23)?

No. And Yes.

First, no. Were these acts of violent intervention by an angry and punitive God who was reacting to sin? No. The causes of death are ascribed to ‘the Destroyer,’ to angelic or human agents of violence, or to Satan (Exod. 12:23; Gen. 19:13; Jer. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:9–10; Acts 5:3). God protects or ceases to harbour potential victims, depending on someone’s consent (or not) through repentance, surrender, or intercession (cf. Abraham in Gen. 18, or Moses in Exod. 33).

Second, yes. These were acts of God’s wrath in that God consented to allow natural and supernatural destruction to take its course through events set in motion by human decisions. In that sense, we read that God is seen to have ‘sent’ the destroyer and ‘sent’ the destruction—God is perceived as commissioning the destruction or even as the destroyer (Exod. 12:29; Gen. 19:14; Num. 21:6). (ibid, source above)

A first picturesque example of Jersak’s definition of wrath and divine consent is the story of Israel’s exile. Ezekiel connects the exile with the glory of the Lord leaving the temple (Ezekiel 10-11). The Shekinah cloud which had guided Israel out of bondage to Egypt, which had brought them to the Promised Land, which had overshadowed the mercy seat, which had been Israel’s crowning glory, had departed. And why did God’s glory leave the temple? It is because Israel had committed gross idolatry and mingled with the nations such that God could no longer dwell there. They had made themselves unclean. Thus, the covering left; and it was this divine-leaving that signaled Israel’s militaristic defeat and dispersion into the nations. God, in other words, was Israel’s protector. His presence and glory kept them in tact. But now that the glory had left, Israel’s protection was gone, and she was subsequently defeated and captured.

A second example is the story of the fall. The early church fathers understood Israel’s exile to be a micro-story of the entire cosmos. The earth was created to be filled with the glory of God as the temple was filled by the cloud. When God created Adam and Eve, he breathed his Spirit into them, and filled them with the divine-life; or put another way, he filled them with the Shekinah cloud and sustained them by his power. Adam was tasked as priest and king with spreading the glory of God over the world, offering to God the entire creation in eucharistia. Thus all of creation was created to participate in the Trinitarian life, created to be YHWH’s earth-temple. When Adam sinned, God’s glory left his earth-temple, and the entire world was left desolate and corrupt, left to die and descend into nothingness apart from the energizing glory of God. Mankind, even the entire cosmos, “fell” from the divine life and was left alone in its finitude.

One last example is the flood. The flood was obviously a judgment of God. God saw that the world was unclean with sin, and could not bare it any longer. However, the normal way people envision the flood story is that God forced the clouds to rain for days upon end. It is my contention that the flood story is better understood as God’s removal of his divine hand of protection from the world, and allowing the world to collapse into itself. Often overlooked, Genesis 7:11 tells us, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Genesis 8:2 says that in order to stop the flood, he “closed” the gates of the deep and the windows of the heaven. What does this mean?

We can understand by looking at the creation narrative in Genesis 1:6ff. Within the biblical account of creation, it is said on day two that God separated the waters from the sky and the earth, and placed a “firmament” between the two. Ancient near Eastern peoples understood there to be a solid dome-like structure holding the waters in heaven from destroying the earth, and the solid ground to be holding the waters from gushing upwards (source); and the flood was understood to be a removal of those guards, allowing the earth to collapse in on itself. The point here is not to critique Ancient near Eastern world views, and even more importantly, to fit our modern view of science into this story. The point rather is to say that the flood story is about God removing his hand of protection from the earth, allowing his creation to become formless and void again, allowing it to become what it was before he shaped and ordered the universe. The cosmos, without God’s help, will collapse into nothingness. And had not God preserved Noah and his family, there would be nothing left!

So then, these stories demonstrate wrath as divine consent; as God removing his hand and allowing sin to do what sin does: corrupt, destroy, kill, envelop in on itself. He does this reluctantly and with sorrow, but it must be done. He allows the “no” of man’s sin to have its effect. Hell then must be understood as the final “no” to God. It is life without God. It is the eternal sorrow of having at last outrun God. It is living autonomously, without the divine life and love, collapsing in on the self forever and ever.

Now, as we end, on to the atonement. To continue from my last post, given this biblical definition of wrath, we may say in a qualified sense that Jesus experienced wrath. Christ lovingly, voluntarily, entered into our fallen state and into the effects of death by the incarnation, and was consequently cut off from life at the cross. The Father is said to have given up “his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to the powers of this age; and he did not intervene to save him (as he did when Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son). He removed his hand of protection and allowed his Son to be enveloped by the deluge of sin and evil; he allowed his Son to experience Israel’s exile; he allowed his Son experience the full corruption and death of the adamic state of affairs. He became a curse for us and with us; he completely united himself to our sufferings. And, if you wish to call that penal substitution, well, then OK.

But — and this must be emphasized — even though we may say that Jesus experienced wrath, we may not say that the Father was ever against the Son, or that the Father vented his anger on the Son. In fact, even while the Son experienced this divine-giving-up by the Father, the Father was with him by the Holy Spirit; and pleased with him, rejoicing in the cross-event. And why? Because in the cross, Christ gave himself in an act of selfless love; of love for man and for God, and in so doing, fulfilled the whole of the law. This made the Father exceedingly glad because in giving himself in love, Christ was embodying, fulfilling, completing the Torah. His self-sacrifice of love was what the Torah demanded, and subsequently what merited our salvation! It was the obedience and love that the Father always wanted!

In fact — and this is important — while the world was against Christ, murdering him, hating him, finding him guilty, the Father saw in him justice and goodness and perfect agape love because of his solidarity with our death. And because of that very justice and righteousness and innocence, the Father is said to have pronounced him innocent and just, and thus vindicated and raised him up in glory. The resurrection means principally that the Father pronounced a verdict of innocent, and in pronouncing this innocence, the Father delivered him from death. Taken a level deeper, by our union with Christ, we are said to participate in Christ’s vindication and resurrection. This is how Christ is said to have merited our salvation.

In this paradoxical way, the cross is both a place of divine-giving-up and a divine-filling-up. In the cross Christ at once united himself with our death and filled our death with his love. In my next post I will consider the doctrine of theosis from the fathers.


Thomas Aquinas: His Life and Contribution

I am studying the life and works of Thomas Aquinas for a history class I’m taking. So I figured I would do a few posts on Aquinas’ life and works. In this post I want to consider Thomas Aquinas’ life and contribution to the church.

First, who was Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was born in the 13th century, in 1225, near the town of Aquino — hence he was named Thomas of Aquino, or Aquinas. Aquinas was born into a wealthy royal family. Taylor Marshall tells us,

His father was the Count of Aquino and his mother was the Countess of Theate. This noble bloodline related Thomas to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire — a dynasty that includes the infamous Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. (Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages, 3)

We also know that one of Aquinas’ relatives was the Roman Emperor. Because of his noble birth, his parents had planned to make him Abbot over the monastery in Monte Cassino. Marshall tells us that this monastic house was considered “the motherhouse of medieval monasticism…To be the Abbot of Monte Cassino was to reign as a prince” (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 3).

In 1230, Aquinas’ parents sent him to the same monastery for education; however, during his teenage years, his parents were forced to relocate him due to war in the surrounding region. His parents sent him away to the University of Naples. It was during this time that Aquinas came under the influence of men who would change his direction in life forever. Taylor Marshall explains:

As a student in Naples, the young Thomas fell under the influence of an inspired preacher by the name of John of Saint Julian. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new order of religious that did not identify themselves as “monks”, but rather as “brothers” or “friars”. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new movement, considered fanatical by some, known as the Order of the Preachers or “Dominicans”…This Order of Preachers was simply…a brotherhood of itinerant preachers who went from town to town, often barefoot and begging for food. They slept in fields, barns, or wherever they were allowed. Unlike Benedict Abbot of Monte Cassino, who rode stately horses and wre jewels and silk, the Dominicans lived a radical life of poverty and preaching. This life of penance appealed to the young Thomas, to the shock of his parents (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 4)

It was this influence that led Thomas to denounce his calling to be Abbot. Instead, Thomas would live in poverty, a beggar and traveling preacher — he would be a Dominican Friar! To be a Dominican, one would swear himself to poverty, to literally be a “dog for the Lord”, which is what Dominican means in Latin (Domini canes). At age 19, in 1244, he joined the order, and journeyed north to Rome to start his studies.

His family, however, would not have it. During his trip, his own brothers (at the request of his mother) kidnapped him and locked him in their castle in Monte San Giovanni Campano. This “house arrest” lasted for one year; and during this time, his mother and brothers attempted to dissuade him from joining the friars.

Feser comments on this time:

In hope of getting him to change his mind, his brothers abducted him and put him under house arrest at the family castle… for about a year, though he spent time committing to memory the entire Bible and four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Notoriously, they even went to the extent of sending a prostitute into his room on one occasion, but he chased her away with a flaming stick pulled from the fireplace, which he used afterward to make a sign of the cross on the wall. As the story has it, he then kneeled before the cross and prayed for the gift of perpetual chastity, which he received at the hands of two angels who girded his loins with a miraculous cord. Eventually his brothers relented and he was allowed to return to the Dominicans (Aquinas, 3-4)

After being released in 1245, Thomas’ order assigned him to the university in Paris where he would study theology under Albert the Great. It was during this time that Thomas Aquinas was given the name “Dumb Ox” by his classmates because of his large, yet quiet stature. GK Chesterton tells us this of Thomas Aquinas:

Thomas was a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable; shy, even apart from the humility of holiness… [He] was so stolid that the scholars, in the schools in which he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce (Dumb Ox, 4)

Understandably, it was because of this trait that Thomas struggled to integrate with his fellow students. Feser tells us that during those years, Albert the Great, seeing Aquinas’ great intellect, warned his class that “the Ox’s ‘bellowing’ would someday be heard throughout the world” (ibid, 4). How right he was!

It was also during this time under Albert, that Aquinas was greatly influenced by Aristotle. And while Thomas loved Aristotle, the university was quite apprehensive to philosophy. In fact, in order to study him, Aquinas had to take an extra “track” at the university, because philosophy was considered a “secular” subject rather than theological.

After graduating with a masters, Thomas Aquinas went on to teach in the university in Paris and in other Dominican houses for the next 13 years (1259-72). We are told by Ralph McInerny, that it was customary for Dominican masters to teach for a three year segment in the formal university, and then move on to teach in houses of the Dominican Orders. However, because of Thomas’ great intellect, he was invited to teach a second three-year stint (McInerny, Aquinas, 16-23).

During Aquinas’ second stint teaching in the university of Paris, a controversy arose over the place of Aristotle and pagan philosophy in the church: a group of Aristotelians called the Averroists espoused a theory called the “two truth” theory, which argued that something could be true philosophically that is not true theologically — hence, two types of “truth”. Aquinas argued against this position, seeing the inherent danger. He ultimately argued that all truth is God’s truth, whether it be philosophical, theological, or scientific. I will take up this topic in another post.

Thomas Aquinas was an avid writer. In fact, McInerny tells us that “Thomas’ output during…[his] years in Paris seems scarcely credible” (ibid, 23). To write faster, McInerny tells us that Thomas would write in shorthand. McInery explains:

A feature of Thomas’ manuscripts is the obvious haste with which they were written, in shorthand Latin, in a scrawl which led to calling a text of Thomas litera inintellgibilis, unreadable writing. Eventually he would be assigned secretaries, among them Reginald of Piperno, who took down Thomas dictation, a process which doubtless increased his productivity. (ibid, 18)

Thomas wrote many works under this method, with his most important being the unfinished Summa Theologica, which he began in 1265.

After his time in Paris was finished, in 1272, he returned to Naples and lived in the Dominican house there. McInerny tells us that it was during this time that Thomas did something strange: he stopped writing altogether. McInerny explains:

On December 6, 1273, Thomas decided to stop writing. Some biographers conjecture that he had a kind of mental breakdown. But it was a mystical experience that silenced Thomas. After what he had seen, he told Reginald (his secretary), everything he had written seemed mere straw. He could not bring himself to complete the Summa (ibid, 25).

Apparently a heavenly vision halted Thomas’ writing. Thomas never spoke of the details of what he saw, but the magnificence of it made his writings seem inadequate. Fortunately, some of Thomas’ disciples supplemented his incomplete Summa with other commentaries of his after his death. Toward the end of his life, Thomas was summoned to a council in Lyons in 1274. While on his way to that council, he hit his head on a branch, and died soon after from complications on March 7, 1274. He was only 49 years old when he died.

What was Aquinas’ greatest contribution to the church? GK Chesterton is helpful with this question: he says simply that Thomas “reconciled Aristotle with Christ” (Dumb Ox, 8). What he means is that Thomas Aquinas synthesized philosophy with Christianity. Many Christians then (and today) did not believe that reason and philosophy could be trusted or reconciled with the Christian worldview. However, Thomas argued that this was not the case.

Chesterton goes on to explain:

Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it toward experimental science, who insisted that the senses were windows to the soul and that reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies…It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted (ibid, 11)

Faith and reason, in other words, were what Thomas labored to reconcile. We will go on in later posts to examine just what that means.