I’ll be honest, I’ve been looking for an excuse to use this picture in a post here since I took it. It’s a stunning vertical panorama shot with my iPhone, which I admit is far from professional, but I love it. It was taken inside the Church of the Spilt Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia while I was there on a trip with the church plant I’m a part of here in Tallinn, Estonia. I found this church stunningly beautiful and awe inspiring. (Click on the photo for an enlarged version.)
Recently I’ve been intrigued by Eastern Orthodoxy, and not just their beautiful church buildings, but also their theology. I’ve found that many of the things I have come to learn in my own journey have an echo in much of the theology of the Eastern Orthodox church. For me, that’s encouraging. It means that I’m not just another “heretic” loosing his mind after reading a few books, but that faith is a 2,000 year old conversation that I get to be a part of. Theology is a fluid thing, not a stagnant study.
One of the biggest areas of theological change for me has been in rediscovering the Atonement (the death of Christ). In my denial of the classical theories of atonement that are common in the west, I have found myself working against the norm. But the more my intrigue led me to study Eastern Orthodoxy, the more I’ve begun to see how truly “unorthodox”, in a technical sense, the west really is, especially in regards to Atonement. Our (Protestant) theology is only 500 years old, give or take a few years. That may seem like a lot, but when you compare it to the 2,000 year old legacy of the Eastern Church (with the Roman Catholics) you get a sense that Protestantism is the new player in town. Which in my experience with discussing theology, this seems like the opposite attitude of Protestants. 1
As soon as I began to question the Western understanding of Atonement, I received backlash from Protestants who felt like I was questioning an age old belief that has existed since the early church. I myself thought I had stumbled upon something new, but as I’ve explored Eastern Orthodoxy I’ve realized this is not the case. I had not stumbled upon something new to theology, but something very old. I began to read the Patristic (church fathers) greats like Athanasius, Gregory, Irenaeus, Hilary, and others. 2 As I read their writings, some of which go back as early as the second century, I felt like I was reading my own thoughts back to myself. Someone else has already said what I have felt compelled to say.
That awful westernized doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement? It’s a new idea. Calvin and Luther turned it into what it is today in the west. The Eastern Orthodox won’t even touch that doctrine. PSA did exist in some ways before the reformation, but only subtly in the Catholic church. They adopted Thomas of Aquinas’ satisfaction model along with that of Anselm. Luther and Calvin took these theories and hyper-legalized them into what we know today in the West. But it’s worth noting that the Eastern Orthodox Church has never held to these beliefs. They have always been highly Incarnational and Christus Victor based in their model of Atonement. 3
The point here is that maybe this conversation we’re having about theology, the bible, and the gospel is really much more diverse and intricate than we make it out to be. Denying Penal Substitutionally Atonement is not heresy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that. But most days I just smile and think to myself: “I have 2,000 years of the most undivided church in our Christian history on my side.” Which isn’t to imply that that settles the issue, but it is to imply that it should change the way we approach atonement.
We’re all on a journey. History is a conversation. Theology is not a perfect science, it is an art. We must learn from one another and from our history as Christian brothers and sisters. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, I guess, is all I’m saying here. We should be able to have conversations about theology, the bible, and the Gospel with an open mind. Theology is not a stagnant thing, it is not about strict dogmatics. We’re having a conversation here, not a debate. Tell me what you think, not just what you’ve been told to think.
Of course it goes without saying that there are problems within Eastern Orthodoxy too, just as there are problems within Protestantism and Catholicism. But that is just all the more a reason for us to let down or name calling, closed-minded thinking and just have a conversation with one another. We can learn from each other, and I think we should.
(Oh and by the way: I’m planning on attending a Russian Orthodox church here in town for my last sunday in Estonia. Maybe I’ll write a follow up about my experience later.)
But enough about my thoughts, what are your thoughts? Let me know in a comment.
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- e.g. we have the right doctrines, the pope is the antichrist, etc. etc. Little of our theology is willing to humbly admit that the 2,000 year old church may be right in some areas where the 500 year old church is not. ↩
- Many of which I have made available for download here. (free) ↩
- Incarnational is in reference to Christ’s healing assumption of our fallen humanity. Christus Victor is in reference to Christ’s triumph over sin and death. ↩