A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Why I’m Becoming Orthodox (2 of 3)


Part 2 — Why I Deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement

by Matt Ferdelman

Matt Ferdelman

Matt Ferdelman and son


Today’s posting is by Matt Ferdelman.  Welcome Matt! 

Matt Ferdelman is a catechumen at St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio.

Matt was born into the Pentecostal church where he attended for the first 17 years of his life. In 2008 he began the process of becoming a five-point Calvinist at Apex Community Church in Kettering, OH, where he remained until his conversion to Orthodoxy in November 2014.

After marrying his wife Erin in 2011, he finished his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in Accountancy at Wright State University in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Matt now works as a CPA in a small accounting firm downtown, and spends his free time entering deeper into Orthodox theology and life, and playing with his two young boys, ages 2 and 3 months.

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. Please start with Part 1.


Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) is a theory of how God saves humanity. It seeks to explain (1) what problem God came to solve, (2) how the problem was solved, and (3) to what end goal God saves us. PSA explains that the primary issue facing humanity is the wrath and justice of God. God, being holy and righteous, will punish humanity at the last judgment for their sins by the eternal torments of hell. But God, in his love and mercy, sent Jesus to bear the penalty for our sins on the cross.

After a debate with an Orthodox friend of mine concerning Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I realized I needed to familiarize myself with its history and the arguments against it. My desire in doing so was to defend PSA and strengthen my faith in the doctrine. Surprisingly, my studies yielded the opposite result. In the space below I will outline some of the primary reasons for this change but, as with Part 1 of this series, I will leave out a good many details for the sake of brevity. There will be time for holistic debate later. For now I am just setting the stage.


Icon - Crucifixion

Icon – Crucifixion

A. The History of PSA

My studies began by researching the history of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. What I found was quite unexpected. Before, I had always operated under the assumption that PSA was the theory of the atonement — that it was what Paul and the other New Testament writers believed and preached and was universally believed by the church from its beginning until today. But as I looked into its history, I quickly came to realize my assumptions were completely unfounded.

Penal Substitution has its origin in Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm was a Roman Catholic archbishop during the 11th century. His seminal work, Cur Deus Homo, expressed for the first time in the history of the church the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. Anselm wrote that the problem Jesus came to solve was that mankind did not give God his due. Every time someone sinned, they incurred a divine debt, a debt in magnitude to the one to whom it was due. Because God is infinite, any sin against him requires an infinite payment. But man, being finite, has no way to pay. God does not forgive without payment, so man is without hope, lost until a savior should come. But God in his mercy sent his Son to make that payment for us. Only an infinite being could make an infinite payment, so he exacted that payment from himself. This is what Jesus accomplished at the cross.

Anselm was influenced in the development of this doctrine by many sources in his cultural context. Anselm lived within a medieval common law that had developed out of Germanic tribal law. The Germans assigned value to human life on the principle of weregild, the honor given by one’s standing in the tribal community. The higher one’s position, the higher the honor assigned. When a member’s honor was affronted, payment had to be made to restore that honor. In most circumstances, this payment was life. The exception to this rule was for slaves. If someone killed the slave of another, the offender had to make recompense by paying the value of the slave to the owner. Slave’s had no value in and of themselves because of their low position, but did have value to their master. If someone killed or offended the honor of a freeman, life had to be paid for life. Honor was life, so any damage to another’s honor required your very existence as recompense. To offend a king, by extension of the value placed on his position, demanded the highest payment of all. Anselm extended this model to God’s relationship with man, saying that, because God is of infinite honor, any sin against him requires an infinite payment, without which God will not forgive.

Five hundred years after Anselm, John Calvin took his ideas a step further, saying that the debt owed to God by mankind was one of punishment. God had to punish sin because he was just. And when man sinned, he incurred God’s wrath toward himself, since God hates sin. The only way to appease this wrath is to make payment. Because God is infinite, the payment made must be infinite. Man, being finite, could not provide such a sacrifice, so God in Christ provided it himself. For further details, check out the Wikipedia article “Penal Substitution.”

When I discovered Anselm was the true progenitor of the system of belief I had thought had existed from the beginning of the church, I was greatly distressed. If in 1,000 years no Christian had held to this model of the atonement, how could I believe it was the true gospel? How could so many great men and women, filled with the Holy Spirit, have never come to a true understanding of Christ’s salvific work? How could the apostles that walked with Jesus not understand the gospel after Pentecost? How could an entire millennium of Christians been so wrong?

But,” I hear the responding argument, “we know PSA is true from Scripture by the inspiration given by the Spirit. Besides, it takes a while for doctrine to develop. We couldn’t expect primitive Christianity to have developed a full understanding of everything in the Bible.” There are multiple problems with this line of thought.

First and foremost, the argument claims it is by the Holy Spirit that we know how to interpret Scripture. But the Christians of every time had the Spirit, not just those here and now. According to Protestant doctrine, the Spirit gives understanding of Scripture to each believer individually. If this is the case, what would stop us from believing the Spirit would give a full understanding of Scripture and of God to every Christian in every place at every point in history since Pentecost? If the Spirit automatically gives right understanding to each Christian on their own, then each Christian should fully understand how Christ saves us from the Apostles until today. Thus, the Christians of the first millennium, and all the Orthodox from the beginning until today should have known PSA to be the truth and should have believed it. But this is obviously not the case. During half the history of the Church no Christian held to such an understanding of the atonement, nor has the Orthodox Church ever held to that doctrine. Thus, using the Protestant understanding of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we must question the rigor of PSA.

Second, the argument implicitly claims that doctrine develops, and that in a non-conciliar manner. Anselm, in his development of the Satisfaction theory, did so largely on his own. In an attempt to explain how salvation works to his flock, he drew a parallel to the society in which they lived. The way he explained the atonement did not mesh with the explanations given by the Fathers of the Church over the centuries prior to him. Over the five-hundred years after Cur Deus Homo his ideas steadily gained precedence until they were accepted de facto as the correct understanding of the gospel. So when John Calvin came in the 16th century and expounded the Penal Substitutionary theory, no one questioned his assumption that God demanded payment from man, though they might have debated the minutia of what sort of payment had to be made.

The problem with this story is that Satisfaction theory was a new doctrine. But doctrine does not develop. As I discussed in part one of why I became Orthodox, right beliefs were handed down by the Apostles and have been maintained to this very day. The ideas expressed by Anselm and Calvin were new ideas and not congruent with what had been taught and believed since the inception of the Church. Moreover, Satisfaction and Penal Substitutionary atonement were both created outside the Orthodox Church. Anselm published Cur Deus Homo in 1099, fifty years after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches split.

Perhaps one could argue that Satisfaction theory was just an extrapolation of what previously believed. If the word Trinity was just an extrapolation on what Christians had believed prior to that, why couldn’t the Satisfaction theory just be a more concrete explanation of what Christians had believed since the beginning? The problem with this claim is that the arguments used in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo were very different from the expressions of the atonement found in the preceding church fathers. At times, explanations and further articulations on previously held beliefs are necessary. We can see this in the work of the ecumenical councils in defining with specific words how to understand Jesus’ relationship to the Father via the Nicene creed. The concept of Trinity was believed from the beginning of the Church, but it was not dogmatically given the name Trinity until the councils. But these councils were meetings of bishops and hierarchs in the Church to confront heresy and other widespread issues assaulting the Church. So, even if we say Anselm’s theory is just the solidification of what was previously believed – which is not the case – he did so in a non-conciliar manner. He did not do it in a manner which was inconsistent with Church practice, without the guiding work of the Spirit at work in the Church corporate.

As we discussed in our first post, rejection of conciliar doctrinal articulation ends in relativism. If doctrine develops outside this manner, how do we know which doctrine that developed is the right one? Do Seventh Day Adventists have all the right doctrine? Perhaps it is the Mormons? Maybe the Methodists? Which group has it right? Really, we have no way of telling. We are just blind men seeking for the light. “But,” I hear again, “the Spirit will help us know which doctrines are the right ones.” But again I must say “Which Spirit is the right one?” For these groups differ on more than just peripheral concepts. They at times hold to radically different foundational dogma, including doctrines on hell, election, the Trinity, etc. And I know of no one in the Protestant church who would say “Anyone in the Presbyterian or Lutheran or Baptist or any other Protestant church that disagrees with me is just not a Christian.” But if we believe the Spirit gives us right understanding individually, this would be the logical conclusion. If we believe the Spirit has given us right understanding from Scripture on doctrinal issues, we should deny the legitimacy of those who hold to different doctrines. We should believe they must be speaking from a different spirit, and not that of Christ Jesus. To not come to this conclusion is to say that

(1) Christians do not have the Spirit,

(2) the Spirit is divided against itself by providing different interpretations to different people, or

(3) that the Spirit does not give understanding of Scripture on an individual basis.

The lattermost of these explanations is the one to which I ascribe.


B. Love and Hate

In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, God is painted as being righteously angry at sin. Sin harms the glory of God, which is the greatest good, and must be dealt with. Therefore, because man sins, God punishes man, thereby justly condemning sin and upholding the worth of his glory. Because he loves us, he hates sinful men. Punishing mankind for sin is the most loving thing he can do.

There are two places at which this equation falters. Here, I will only deal with one. The argument above is that God punishes humans because he loves them. “Punishment,” in one understanding of the word, can indeed be loving. If I “punish” my son who has refused to eat all day by keeping him in his high chair until he has received sustenance, I thereby love my son. Though the action of restraining him is against his will and causes him discomfort, I perform the act solely out of a desire to provide for and love him. But the word “punishment” doesn’t really get across the right meaning here. The negative connotation associated with the word makes even loving actions sound harsh. The word “discipline” would be much more accurate. I discipline my son for his good, out of love for him. Sometimes discipline is unpleasant, but it is always done in love, and it always has the end goal of restoration and healing.

But the punishment of God in hell, as explained by PSA, is not discipline. It is only punishment. Its cause is purely retributive. Its end is only suffering. In the hell of Penal Substitution, God punishes people for their sins and never stops. He doesn’t do out of a desire to love mankind; he only does it to get back at us for the wrong we have done. Thus, God does not love mankind. He loves himself. He loves his glory. Therefore he punishes mankind to display his glory and to alleviate his wrath against sin. Loving discipline is always designed to produce repentance and to restore. Infinite torture does no such thing. It is not love.

The problem with this view is that it says God hates mankind. But we are told countless times in Scripture that God loves us. For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son. God shows his love in that he died for us when we were yet sinners. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. So if God loves us, why does he torture us for eternity? Here, PSA is inconsistent with Scripture.

Now, we must point out the obvious fact that those who hold to PSA also believe God loves us. They believe God punishing Jesus instead of us is the greatest display of this love. But when you combine this with the discussion above, you reach a rather confusing result. The dilemma is this: In PSA, the object of God’s wrath and love are one and the same — man.

But how can this be? How can one love and hate the same thing at the same time? Loving someone is wanting the best for them and working toward that with all your might. Hating someone is wanting the absolute worst for them and working to accomplish that. Hate and love are mutually exclusive. And yet, PSA seems to teach God hates and loves us simultaneously. He loves us beyond any doubt – Scripture bears witness to that. But PSA teaches God hates us because of our sin. The Orthodox do not and never have held to the doctrine of PSA. Nor do they hold to Sola Scriptura. But even for those who do hold to Sola Scriptura, the question eventually becomes: Which source are we to trust – the work of one man in the 11th century or the inspired word of God? PSA, even standing on its own theological framework, cannot stand firm.


C. The Payment That God Makes

This raises another question about God’s loving relationship with man. God loves man and wants him to be free from sin. God doesn’t want mankind to be condemned, but wants everyone to be saved. In PSA he sends his Son to take his wrath on the behalf of mankind. And yet, after God does this, his wrath still remains on some. But where is the logic in this? If God loves mankind, why would he not just remove his wrath from everyone? In PSA, God does that very thing for some people. So why not for everyone? Let me explain this further, considering both the Calvinist and Arminian approaches to this topic.

In the Calvinist view, God predestines to save those whom he foreknew — the elect. He sends Jesus to pay the penalty for the sins of these people, dying only for these select few. God chooses these Christians without any regard to anything they did or will do, on a purely impartial basis. The rest are left with an infinite debt to pay, but no way to pay it. These are the damned. But if God loves mankind, why would he not choose to save everyone? It was within his power. It was within his will. In the Calvinist view no one is saved until God sends Jesus to pay their debt and the Holy Spirit applies that work to the believer. Nor does anyone believe until the Spirit, without their permission, softens their heart. But God goes so far in Scripture to say that he longs that all might repent and be saved. So if God wants everyone to be saved, why doesn’t he just do it? Calvinism cannot answer this question. In this view, God is schizophrenic, or at best confused.

In the Arminian view, God does not predestine people to heaven or hell. God sends His Son for everyone. He pays the penalty for everyone that has or ever will live, giving everyone a chance to be saved. But if God took all his wrath against every human being out on Jesus, why does  anyone wind up in hell? After all, hell exists as a place for God to torture humans with whom he is angry. But he no longer has any anger against any of them. So why hell?

Perhaps one could answer that God took care of all their sins at the cross, but if they reject Jesus and refuse to accept him, God gets angry again, and that anger was not dealt with on the cross. But this denies a central tenant of PSA soteriology: the chronological transcendence of the atonement. In Protestant theology Jesus at the cross takes the punishment for every sin ever committed — past, present, and future. If Jesus did not die for future sins, no one who sinned at any point after Jesus’ death would be saved. That would mean every Christian born after Christ’s death is doomed to hell. So Arminians and Calvinists alike rightly hold that Jesus died for all sins throughout all time. Because God exists outside of time, he can apply Jesus’ work to any human at any point in history. But then if Jesus took the punishment for all future sins, did he not also die for the sin of rejecting him? Or did he leave that one out? If so, what about those who reject Jesus when they hear about him but later repent and receive the gospel — are they saved? Such a view is likewise incoherent. If we believe Jesus died for all sins, we must believe all are saved from God’s wrath.

In Orthodox soteriology, there is no such conflict between God’s desire and action in salvation. In Orthodox thought, God’s love for us drives his hatred of sin. Sin separates us from God. But God wants us to be united with him, to share in the love of the eternal three-in-one. We should not hold that God loves and hates us at the same time. That is oxymoronic. Instead, we should understand God’s wrath and anger in Scripture as being against sin, and existing, not to harm us, but to lovingly remove sin from us. Like loving discipline, God’s anger can seem harsh when not understood in its context. But after it is over and the dust settles, if you cooperate in and understand the discipline, you realize everything was done out of love and for your benefit. God is like a surgeon, bringing a scalpel down next to our flesh to cut off the cancerous growth of sin. For those who dread God and do not trust his accuracy and intention, they scream and kick and fight, thinking God means to hurt them, possibly even cutting themselves against the knife in the process. But for those who understand and trust God, while the process may still be painful, it is quicker and easier and brings healing. God loves you. Therefore he longs to remove sin from you, for sin separates you from himself.


C. Forgiveness

In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, God does not forgive mankind until just punishment is rendered. God, in his righteousness, demands payment be offered for his offended glory, and man is without hope. But Jesus takes the punishment in our place, allowing God to forgive us.

The problem here is with the word forgiveness. The word forgiveness means “to cease bearing anger toward someone or to cancel a debt.” But in the Penal Substitutionary model, God does neither of these things. God doesn’t stop being angry at us. God doesn’t cancel our debt. Instead, he placed the weight of both those things upon Jesus. Jesus bears our wrath and pays God what we owe him on the cross as a sacrifice in our place. And God will not forgive until Jesus performs this on our behalf.

To forgive is to no longer hold something against someone else. But God doesn’t do this. He always punishes someone — either Jesus or us, either him on the cross or us in hell. There is no forgiveness. The debt is never cancelled. It is paid in full. This does not meet the definition of forgiveness. And yet PSA claims God forgave us by paying the debt for us. But this is not forgiveness. This is the opposite — this is holding a grudge.

What is more, God tells us to forgive the way he does. Paul commands we love one another as God in Christ loved us. But if Jesus does not forgive, instead demanding payment before he lets go of his grudge, shouldn’t we do likewise? Shouldn’t we demand recompense for every tiny slight and inflict pain for every harm done to us? Logically, we should. PSA adherents argue in response that we do forgive the way God does. We forgive knowing God will take vengeance for the wrongs done to us, either on Jesus at the cross or on the sinner in hell. But this is reading into Scripture an idea simply not present. Ephesians 4:32 and its context do not say we look should look to God’s pouring out of wrath on Jesus or them and therefore forgive. We are just told to forgive, leaving everything else to God.


D. The Faith That Saves

In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, we are saved from the eternal torment of God by grace through faith in the Son of God. Jesus’ work placates the wrath of the Father, but this is not applied until the believer has faith. It is by faith we are saved, this faith working by somehow uniting us to Christ and his death. But how exactly does this work? Why do we need to have faith in Jesus’ work to receive it? Is there some ontological necessity within us or within God that prevents either the giving or receiving of Christ’s work without faith? Perhaps God simply does not want to forgive until he is honored by the act of belief?

Think about it this way: If God emptied his judgment and wrath upon Jesus at the cross, he doesn’t have any left. Nothing else needs to be done. It’s gone. All of it. So why do we need to believe? Why would I need to have faith to receive something which is already finished? Really, I don’t need to receive it. God is the one who received payment, not me. Perhaps one could argue that we need to believe to receive and/or develop the righteousness of Christ. OK, that might be getting somewhere, but it doesn’t explain the foregoing wrath that must be quenched. If God’s wrath is extinguished in the sufferings of his Son, why do we need to believe for him to stop being angry at us? He’s already done being angry. Nothing else needs to be done. The cross already accomplished this. The only way to get around this issue is to say we do not have to believe to be saved, which is inconsistent with Scripture and Protestant teaching.

In Orthodox soteriology, no such problem exists. Orthodoxy views salvation as the unification of man with God. God has invited all to come to him and desires that all should be saved. He has provided his Son as a means to remove our bondage to sin and death and re-stamp his image on mankind by the incarnation. The only factor now separating man from God is man’s unwillingness to approach him, the fear of death, and unbelief in his goodness. Some reject God simply because they love other things more; some because they want to grab as much pleasure as they can before they die; and others because they have been deceived to believe God is cruel and should be avoided. Belief is the cure to this disease and to all its symptoms. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God frees us from the bonds that hold us to sin and death. By faith we know God is the greatest pleasure. By faith we know eternal joys exceed the ups and downs of hedonism. By faith we know God is love, even as his Son has revealed. By faith all the barriers within us that separate us from God are removed.

In PSA, God is the reason people do not make it to heaven. God refuses to accept anyone until he dispels his wrath and makes man perfect. But in Orthodoxy this is not the case. In Orthodoxy, man is the sole cause of his own demise, not God. God in his love accepts all, but not all accept him. Jesus has made a way back to the Father, but few choose to walk that path to its end. There is much more to the Orthodox view of salvation which I do not try to express here. That would require a separate paper by itself. I hope the small revelations I have made thus far will suffice for the time being.

If you begin to lose faith in PSA, do not thereby begin to believe God is not the savior of mankind. He is.

But what he saves us from is much different in the Orthodox view. I hope to expound on the Orthodox view of salvation thoroughly as time passes. Should you desire more information speedily, let me know and I would be happy to provide some articles and books that can steer you in the right direction.

In the paragraphs above I have only given a brief sketch of why I deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Every point would require chapters to cover thoroughly. And entire books could be written about arguments of which I have not even made mention. God willing, there will be time for that later.



  1. Paula

    Thank you for this very important work. As an Orthodox believer, I have struggled with understanding this idea, and you have explained it very clearly here.

    In my conversations with a Reformed person, the statement you make here:

    “The problem with this story is that Satisfaction theory was a new doctrine. But doctrine does not develop. As I discussed in part one of why I became Orthodox, right beliefs were handed down by the Apostles and have been maintained to this very day. The ideas expressed by Anselm and Calvin were new ideas and not congruent with what had been taught and believed since the inception of the Church.”

    would have been answered by saying that because of Constantine, the church fell into apostasy until Calvin. He also would have told me that doctrine does develop because people have become smarter over the centuries, as evidence by all the advances to civilization made possible by Protestant people, whereas the Orthodox are responsible for the Dark Ages by allowing the conquest of the Ottomans.

    He would also have said that one has evidence of being among the Elect because God rewards those whom He has chosen to save with worldly status and wealth. It’s worth mentioning that this firm Calvinist, when times grew tough for everyone worldwide, including himself, chose to commit suicide because his belief system could not encompass reality. I’ve felt, because if this, that getting this information that you have presented here out to all Reformed is vitally important. So again, thank you.

    • J.B. Aitken

      ***would have been answered by saying that because of Constantine, the church fell into apostasy until Calvin. ***

      Calvin would not have said this, since he himself quoted church fathers (which would have been odd if they were apostate).

      ***He would also have said that one has evidence of being among the Elect because God rewards those whom He has chosen to save with worldly status and wealth. ***

      Maybe, maybe not. Reformed historical theologians (Richard Muller) are challenging this thesis. Calvin himself was in poverty for much of his life (towards the end of his life he ate 1-2 eggs a day and that was it) and in his Institutes he said the elect are often in poverty. Beza took some statements by Calvin and was not judicious in his phrasing of the Practical Syllogism.

      ***It’s worth mentioning that this firm Calvinist, when times grew tough for everyone worldwide, including himself, chose to commit suicide because his belief system could not encompass reality***

      This is anecdotal and really can’t prove anything.

      • Paula

        J. B. Aitkin, I wasn’t speaking of Calvin himself, I was speaking about a friend of mine who was struggling in his life and who killed himself last spring.

  2. Matt Ferdelman


    I am of the same disposition. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is more than just a heterodox belief. It is heresy. And heresy of the worst kind. All heresies have negative results for those that hold them, but this more so than all I know. For if you truly seek to imitate that retributive god, and you succeed, you become a monster, a demonically-influenced contusion of the image once placed into the fiber of your being through the Son. You lose the image of God and take on the image of Satan.

    For that is precisely what PSA is: a lie from Satan. It is his attempt to re-make God in his image, and to blaspheme the Holy One on his throne. God is Love, but Satan has called him Hate. If followed logically, trust in and worship of this god causes you to become like him. I sought to be like God when I held to this heresy, and I succeeded. I became a monster.

    Pray for me then, the worst of sinners. Pray for the millions who have fallen prey to this heresy. Lord, have mercy.

    This is an important work, since it has not yet been covered thoroughly to my knowledge. For this reason I hope to contribute to the welfare of mankind by writing a book on the subject at some point in the future. God-willing, it will bring many to peace.

    • J.B. Aitken

      Was the Suffering Servant pierced for our transgressions? Did Yahweh lay upon him the iniquity of us all? Did his soul make an offering for guilt?

      • Mason

        The Psalmist tells us that the Lord desires mercy, not sacrifice. The object of our Lord’s sacrifice was to cleanse his sheep of their sins, not to assuage the wrath of an angry God.

        • J.B. Aitken

          I think you mean “objective” or “goal.” The object of the sacrifice was the Lord himself, since he was the one sacrificed.

      • Matt Ferdelman


        This is a great question. Give me time; I’m writing a response. This passage is crucial for the penal understanding of the cross, so I want to address it thoroughly.

    • Matt Ferdelman

      I wish to repent of something I said earlier. Above I said PSA was a “lie from Satan.” Forgive me, my friends. I did not mean this as an insult. I said this because I recognized how much harm had been done to my through Satan by my belief in PSA. However, if I could take those words back, I would. I did not mean to insult anyone. Lord, have mercy on me, the worst of sinners.

      • Paula

        Matt, why are you apologizing? You spoke from your own experience. I can confirm what you have experienced via my own witness to other’s lives, and Mason can correlate what you say directly to his own life. Hold firm, my brother. Don’t be distracted from the work you are doing here, which could save many.

        • Matt Ferdelman

          Paula, a good number of people from my parish have indicated they thought I meant those words as an insult. I did not mean them as such. But I wanted to apologize in case it came off that way. It can be difficult to read tone in written media.

  3. Paula

    Yes, it became exactly as you say with this person.

  4. Stefano

    Hi Matt,
    I agree with Paula that you have discussed the differences between the Orthodox view/ views of the Atonement and penal substitution in a concise and informative manner.

    During the polemics exchanged between Orthodox and Catholics in the late Byzantine era Orthodox had no idea that Catholics differed in this area. It was very much people using the same words to convey different concepts. Even into the Reformation era Orthodox did not emphasise the differences when they were drawing up their confessions, i.e. Metrophanes Critopoulos, Dositheus of Jerusalem and Peter Moghila. Of course, Orthodox were not overly concerned with theories of the Atonement but the practical day to day steps towards salvation. A topic like this is a good example why you should read writings outside of your historic and cultural context to ensure your views are not simply a cultural construct.

    Can I point out that in Medieval Western Europe {rtf1ansiansicpg1252
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    } crime was not merely against the state but actually against the ruler. It was to your king that you had to make amends.

  5. Karen

    Thanks for this, Robert and Matt.

    It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that many would argue the Reformers took elements of Anselm’s theory and warped it out of its own context. Other Orthodox have shown Anselm’s understanding of God’s “honor” and of Christ’s Atonement re-establishing that honor, was not quite what is understood today in many (mostly Protestant and Reformed) circles, but was considerably closer to Orthodoxy. More here: http://holyresurrection.areavoices.com/2014/11/30/the-minimum-reading-list-post-1-anselm-of-canterbury/

    The inconsistencies between Reformed Penal Substitution and certain core Scriptures (as well as my own inner conviction of what the impartiality, grace and unconditional love of God must mean) was what drove me from Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy as well. As a case in point, over Christmas in the home of a relative, I heard part of a broadcast of Erwin Lutzer (Pastor of Moody Church in Chicago). Lutzer articulates many of the corollaries of classic Reformed beliefs as they are typically held today by many Protestants. True to form, in the Q&A at the end of this particular broadcast, he tackled the question of why God, as Father/loving Creator of us all, would consign some of His children/creatures to hell without chance of repentance for their rebellion. Lutzer’s response was, to my Orthodox mind, simply blasphemy, but it was based on his taking certain verses about God’s “wrath” pretty much on their literal face value to a modern reader without using the guidance of the Church Fathers’ Christ-centered and gospel-centered interpretation of such Scriptures. As a result, Lutzer’s conclusion was to teach that God doesn’t love all of His creatures unconditionally, but only those who do not rebel against Him (Lutzer holds to the Calvinist belief in “Limited (or “Definite”) Atonement”)! More on Lutzer’s view of hell here (which relies on the interpretive traditions of Calvin and of Jonathan Edwards’):

    • J.B. Aitken

      It’s not that they warped it out of context, but they saw that medieval feudalism probably isn’t the same thing as Hebrew context. And Anselm as he stands is simply Roman merit theology.

      Missing from Anselm’s theology is any discussion of the covenant. Therefore, the Reformers knew they simply couldn’t parrot Anselm.

  6. Matt Ferdelman


    While I am appalled that someone might think this, I must say I am glad Erwin Lutzer is consistent on this point. To believe in PSA is to believe God does not love all his children. I at times have great difficulty convincing people that, in the end, PSA means God is not, in his nature, loving. He is … something else.

    To believe in PSA is to take certain verses which should be understood in a literal sense in a figurative one. When we read in 1 John 4:8 that God is love, PSA must say “well, God certainly is loving at times; but he is not the self-giving agape love indicated here.” This would be a metaphorical interpretation which, while appropriate in many passages of Scripture, is an incorrect application here. Likewise, when we read John 3:16, PSA must interpret the verse allegorically, perhaps by saying “When the passage says God loves the world, it means the world of believers. The word “world” does not refer to all humans, but to the elect he has chosen.”

    What you see in such interpretations is the use of allegory. If you take such verses literally, PSA cannot stand. Naturally, much of Scripture is meant to be understood allegorically. So who decides whether these verses should be understood allegorically or literally? The answer is the Church, the pillar and buttress of the truth.

    So you see the battle over the idea of the atonement is inextricably tied to the battle of traditions. In the end, both sides are arguing for their tradition’s interpretation of certain verses. And who is right? How do we know which tradition is the right one?

    This question is the beginning of the search. To ask the question is to seek God. To continue in the hunt is to love him.

    • Karen

      Amen, Matt. That is certainly what happened to me.

      I came to Christ in the context of traditional (as opposed to liberal) Methodism in the 60s, where my view of the Atonement was more shaped by earlier Church tradition as viewed through a Ransom Theory or “Christus Victor” lens (especially as seen through C.S. Lewis Aslan in his Narnia series).

      From the time I was introduced to Evangelical PSA in my teens (as my family gravitated away from the liberalism of mainline denominations and into more Evangelical churches), I was agonized over the question of both the nature of hell & the nature of God. This came to a head after some 25+ years as an Evangelical, and precipitated a ten-year struggle that culminated with my reception into the Church.

      A great ray of hope and answer to my quest for understanding come in the form of Alexandre Kalomiros’ address, “The River of Fire,” which I discovered during my research online. When I learned from a friend’s Orthodox Priest that this didn’t represent a theological “fringe” within Orthodoxy, but was completely within the patristic tradition of the Church, the rest, as they say, was history, and it was just a matter of clearing the rest of the obstacles of my Protestant interpretive biases out of the way (which probably took less than two years), so I could enter the Church with a completely clear conscience, knowing Orthodox faith is entirely consistent with the true and full meaning of the Scriptures summed up in Christ.

    • J.B. Aitken

      ***To believe in PSA is to believe God does not love all his children.***

      I, for one, am troubled by the doctrine of hell. However, we must admit that even if God didn’t predestine people to hell (and I am not saying he did at this point), we must admit that he created the world in such a way that a lot of people simply wouldn’t hear the gospel and be saved).

      The Reformed doctrine might be harsh and austere, but I can’t see any real cash-value difference in non-Reformed treatments. The only real alternative that keeps God from looking like an incompetent monster (since he created the world in such a way that people would go to hell regardless) is to posit some kind of inclusivism. Once we go down that road, however, we are tomorrow’s liberals.

      • Matt Ferdelman


        You are asking the right questions. Keep asking them. This is something that has been on my mind for a few months now. From the very, very little I understand, the Orthodox think something similar to Lewis, in that some may never hear the name of Jesus, and yet when they see him face-to-face, they will realize he is the one they were trying to worship, but of whom they did not have a full revelation. So they will cling to him in that day and be saved. Other heathens will see Christ and say they want nothing to do with him. He is not the deity they were seeking to worship.

        A similar principle would be true of people with the fullness of Christianity. We can develop incorrect ideas about God and worship this imagined god. Then when we see him face-to-face, we may reject him, wanting our false god in his place.

        This is just a shot in the dark from the general themes I’ve seen. Please DO NOT quote me on this. I have not researched this subject at all. I am in the same boat as you. From what I know so far, the Orthodox approach here sounds like it might be similar to “liberalism.” I have yet to dig deep enough to know for sure. Hopefully I’ll get some time to research this and get back to you soon.

        • Erik

          “We can develop incorrect ideas about God and worship this imagined god. Then when we see him face-to-face, we may reject him, wanting our false god in his place.”
          Well said, this reminds of people who when they are confronted with some aspect of Christianity they personally do not like will say something like ‘Well, my God would never do this or that’. You’re right, your God would never do that because you made him up and he doesn’t exist.

          • Matt Ferdelman

            I see what you did there. Very clever. 😉
            I thought someone might try to pull that on me.

            But really, it’s no joke. It’s a very series question. Which God is the God we worship? Is he the God of PSA or no? Ultimately, each of us are fighting for a different characteristic which we think is present in the Almighty. In the end, we are each fighting for a different God.

            Now I do believe people can believe in PSA and still worship the true God, but it takes some mental gymnastics. I found this in myself frequently, always trying to balance the ideas of God’s love with his retributive wrath which he wanted to pour out on those he hated. I think most Protestants likewise believe Orthodox can worship the true God, though that would be difficult for the Orthodox since their idea of God is warped, since PSA is absent.

            This subject is a very grave matter. Hopefully more discussion will happen on the subject in the years to come.

          • Erik

            I was actually offering sincere agreement. I didn’t intend that to apply to you or the EO in general, I really was applying this to people who reject something without backing up that rejection with reasons from Scripture or Tradition. It is simply their personal opinion. For example, I was discussing the issue of homosexuality with a RC and her defense against parts of Scripture that condemn it was simply that Scripture is outdated and needs to be changed. I just meant that I like your phrasing.

          • Matt Ferdelman

            Ah, my apologies, Erik. I misunderstood your meaning. It is at times difficult to read tone in printed media. I myself am especially inept at it.

  7. Robert Miller

    I am a non-Orthodox minister who has been looking for the New Testament church for some time. In my studies over the years I have struggled with many traditional doctrines of the reformed church.

    This brief discussion of the doctrine of Salvation/Atonement/PSA or what ever name you give it is of great concern for me. I am still struggling with when a person goes from being on the path to eternal separation from God to being “saved.” My theological history, admittedly Western, tells me that there had to be a time when I was “lost but now I’m saved.” Yet when I look at my personal history I see that there was never a time when I was not seeking God. When I did not ask for forgiveness when I did something wrong. I now teach that when we sin we hurt God’s heart and we need to ask Him to help us to not do it again rather than cower in fear that he will punish us severely.

    I am not disagreeing with anything said above. I am trying to understand, and by telling you where I am now perhaps get insight to grow.

    This is in the Journey to Orthodox discussion group. If this is truly where I am, then I have only taken my first few steps on that journey. It is a lot to try to take in at one time. For over 45 years I have been following, been taught and am teaching post Roman Protestantism theology. So forgive an old man who is struggling, but really does want to understand, what seems to be a whole new theology.

    • robertar

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! I’m sure there are folks out there who are happy to engage your questions. One response I would make is that when we sin, we turn away from God who is Love, Truth, and Life. So when we sin we do harm to ourselves because we then fall from true Love into a perverted self-love, from Truth into error and confusion, and from true Life into a corruption and disintegration. For me the parable of the Prodigal Son is a powerful lesson that although we may be far from God through repentance we can turn back to God who wants to receive us back home where we belong.


  8. David

    I marvel today at how long it took me (a 34+ yr zealous Reformed
    Calvinist & twice PCA Elder) to question & then seriously ponder
    the implications of the renowned Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon
    titled; “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”. Increasingly, even
    before being introduced to Orthodoxy, I began to question IF the
    God of Scripture…was essentially such an Angry God. Did God damn
    humans in His own image and likeness to eternal Hell in anger, for
    choosing Death as automatons of God’s own predestination — de-
    creed by God before the foundation of the world? The linguistic gym-
    nastics to salvage God’s character here became increasingly untenable.

    Even more problematic as I became more familiar with the Fathers,
    Church history, and the Church Councils, it became more and more
    obvious that such “problems” about God’s character are foreign to
    Holy Tradition and the Church Fathers discipled by the Apostles.
    There simply are NO similar “problems” or “answers” like my protes-
    tant teachers, Pastors and commentaries were forced to indulge in.

  9. Paula

    Ironically, Erwin Lutzer was born to Ukrainian Orthodox parents in Canada. The Moody Church has many adherents here, and makes a point of giving converts from Orthodoxy a spotlight at “services” (I use that term loosely) to talk about how their lives were so dark and evil as Orthodox Christians. Christ The Savior Orthodox Church is across the street, and is gradually accumulating former Moody members. Pray that they continue to do so.

    • Karen

      That’s interesting, Paula. I’d be interested to know if Lutzer has made public statements about his Orthodox heritage if you are aware of this.

      My parents’ Evangelical pastor was raised Orthodox as well, but his parents left their Orthodox parish for an Evangelical one with a dynamic youth ministry when their Orthodox priest treated their son’s teenage testing of boundaries and questions about faith with harshness instead of understanding. He now pastors the largest Evangelical church in his city–an “undenominational” megachurch with Reformed roots. It would be interesting to know what Lutzer’s experiences were like.

      It’s noteworthy also that Dr. Bradley Nassif, raised Orthodox, first came to recognize or internalize the love of Christ in his teens as a result of the youth ministry of Evangelicals. I don’t believe he ever officially changed his church membership, and he eventually returned to worshipping in Orthodox parishes, but remains to this day deeply appreciative of Evangelical Christians for enabling him to come to recognize and own many of the truths of his Orthodox faith.

      It seems to me we Orthodox can’t afford to have a triumphalist attitude about the realities on the ground within Orthodox institutions and parishes, which are not exactly the same thing as the “Orthodoxy” or “the Orthodox Church” we are seeking to proclaim and defend. Though the former ought to be faithful expressions of the latter, we must admit they sometimes are not (or, perhaps more accurately, the individuals within them sometimes are not). In order to adequately defend our Orthodox faith, we have to genuinely live it. Sometimes, it must be admitted non-Orthodox Christians, despite the errors they embrace, do a better job of that than many who are formally Orthodox. We Orthodox aren’t exempt from the temptation to a merely nominal faith, externalism, or legalism, even if our faith does proclaim in her Creed, Liturgy and Saints the fullness of the apostolic Christian faith.

      • Paula

        Karen, Lutzer’s background is well known. I heard this from members, as well as from the program printed for his anniversary celebration as pastor. I hadn’t heard that the family converted away from Orthodoxy from some inadequacy of the experience they had, but more so because of the location in which they lived. I believe the Moody church nurtures almost a vendetta against Orthodoxy because so many members convert to Orthodoxy. The things that members say about the Orthodox reveal that they consider Orthodoxy to be identical to Catholicism. The post “service” Sunday School classes make a point of pointing out the errors of Orthodoxy. It serves as a convenient “boogey man” to frighten others away from exploring Orthodoxy. The Moody church also looks down on evangelicals, and do NOT consider themselves Evangelicals. From what I understand, the evangelicals are viewed as near-heretics. So, I’m not able to agree with your final paragraph where this topic is concerned. It’s rather a separate subject of its own. No one who has been steeped in Moodyism is going to understand Orthodoxy better. Those who leave do so in spite of great odds against them.

        • Karen

          You are probably right that there are those who would distinguish between Calvinists/Reformed and Evangelicals. In my experience, it is the staunch Calvinist types who want to distinguish themselves from the wider umbrella of Evangelicalism (which is theologically quite diverse and getting moreso), while Evangelicals are usually quite glad to include the Calvinists and Reformed types underneath their banner. I worked in “Evangelical” (not specifically Reformed) publishing, and both publishers I worked for published books by Lutzer and/or others in that camp (e.g., R. C. Sproul), and were happy to include him in their camp of authors.

          In cases where Orthodox experienced a positive influence from Evangelicals (i.e., Brad Nassif’s case, and I believe it was my recently-elected OCA bishop, who I heard describe similar positive Evangelical influence in his youth, though he was raised Orthodox), these were more broadly Evangelical exposures, and I believe on the more Arminian and Pentecostal end of the Evangelical theological spectrum. It’s certainly true I’ve also heard Orthodox complain of the kind of treatment and mindset they’ve experienced from Evangelicals.

          It’s understandable Moody Church might seem to have a bit of a “vendetta” as you describe it vs. Orthodoxy, if, as you say, it is losing a significant number from its members to the Orthodox Church–I imagine that would put them on the defensive. It’s also pretty common for Reformed and Evangelicals to confuse Orthodoxy with Catholicism. Calvinist and Reformed churches do tend to attract those with a strong desire to found their beliefs on “objective” biblical truth, not emotion, and Orthodoxy being the fullness of truth and not given to promoting or using the kind of emotional manipulation common in some of the more pietist and especially charismatic and pentecostal-influenced churches can genuinely provide that firm foundation and application of biblical truth in its stable dogmatic tradition and sober, reverent praxis–yet without the problems of theological distortion found in PSA.

          • Paula

            I used to tell my late friend that the root of Protestant is Protest and his faith withers when he doesn’t have a strawman enemy to fight. I was right, unfortunately.

          • Karen

            Paula, what you have described with your Reformed friend, who committed suicide when a reversal of his circumstances convinced him he was out of favor with God, is very tragic. It is a rather dramatic demonstration of the truth that ideas have consequences, and wrong ideas can have very destructive consequences.

  10. Mason

    After having spent 4 years as a staunch Calvinist in a PCA church, earlier this year I decided to remove my wife and 4 small children from its twisted doctrinal echo chamber. There were simply too many unspoken assumptions that I was required to accept in order to make all of the pertinent passages fit the paradigm. When the mind holds propositions that are at odds with each other, or fundamental aspects of our experiences, we can handle the cognitive dissonance in two ways: ignore it and deal with neurosis’ that invariably manifest or seek to resolve it. Part of being a scholar, as the folks on this blog, and the author of this excellent piece know, is being bold enough to ask difficult questions and then having the conviction to act upon what is discovered.

    PSA was the deal breaker for me. It is an untenable position that I have come to believe is demonic in its core. I pity those that still hold to it. Elements of PSA are found in Augustine, however this author is correct that Anselm of Canterbury developed further by incorporating language from the existing feudal organizational structures found in England as well as most of western Europe. Roman Catholic scholars tried to incorporate Anselm’s view as well as alleviate the obvious horrors of its logical conclusions, thus lines developed along “strict” vs. “loose” Augustinian construct. The later accretions of Luther and particularly Calvin were probably too extreme for Anselm, however he clearly erected the scaffolding that allowed for the rigorous legalist’s to complete the building.

    It’s often noticed that the devil seldom changes the label on the bottle but rather changes its content. The modern day exponents of the divine wrath argument often retain the same terms however they have liquidated them of their meaning. For example, the words “love” and “wrath” obviously mean something different than what had been understood by the Church for the first 10 centuries.

    If I may recommend a site that addresses this specific topic: http://www.orthorev.net
    The author has put together several dozen excellent podcast’s that trace the origin and development of this monstrous doctrine. (I get no remuneration of any kind for the plug, I just believe the author has done an invaluable service to the bride through his materials)

    Thank you Matt for this article. I believe this is one of the central issues that the Orthodox can witness to western Christians, particularly those of the reformed mind control camp.

    • robertar


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! Glad to have you part of the conversation.


      • Mason

        Thank you Robert. I have enjoyed the writings on this blog for quite some time. Much that has been written here has been helpful in my decision to leave the reformed protestant world. Thank you for all that you do and for allowing me to respond.

        God be with you.

  11. Matt Ferdelman

    Robert Miller,

    Thank you for your questions. I can understand the feelings that plague you, given my own bewilderment when confronted with argument against Sola Scriptura and PSA. When I began studying these, I was indeed overwhelmed. But not lost.

    Salvation in the Orthodox Church is more than a one-time event. By this I do not mean that Jesus’ work was once and for all. It was. But there is still more to be done.
    Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection were all crucial to our salvation. By these he conquered the powers of sin, death, and Satan, and recapitulated mankind in himself. Without his work, there would be no resurrection. Without his victory, we would still be enslaved to sin via the fear of death. Without him, we would still be enslaved to Satan, the god of this world. But thanks be to God he has come.

    These actions performed by Jesus were once and for all. They paved the way back to God. But we must walk that path. Jesus has made a way back to the Father, but we can always choose to reject him. This is why, when asked whether he was saved, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware replied by saying “I trust I am being saved.” God does the heavy lifting, but we must cooperate in his work of theosis, to be remade into his image.

    What I have said above is just a short summary of the themes of salvation in Orthodoxy. Much more needs to be said on each point, but this is at least a bare-bones outline. Below I will provide a few links I found helpful when first delving into Orthodox soteriology. But reading can only do so much. More than anything, I would suggest attending an Orthodox liturgy. Learn by doing. I have spent countless hours researching Orthodoxy. But much never made sense until I actually participated in Straight Worship. For that is what Orthodoxy means. Also, talk a priest. Find a father-confessor who can answer your questions face to face. One of the downsides to reading is the difficulty in understanding the author’s tone. Some of the meaning can be lost. And a priest will be more trained in the art of giving counsel. Though note some Orthodox are not aware of the doctrine of Penal Substitution.

    I dearly hope this helps.

    It seems the website will not allow me to post links. Please perform Google searches to find the following resources:

    Youtube: The Gospel in Chairs
    A short and excellent visual exposition on the Orthodox understanding of salvation

    nagasawafamily.org -cslewis-paper-atonement.pdf
    This is not written by an Orthodox author. But it’s a useful introduction.

    glory2godforallthings.com the-river-of-fire-kalomiros
    The River of Fire, a classic piece

    Metropolitan Kallistos on Salvation

    Podcast: The Wrath of God, parts 1 and 2;
    Series: Speaking the Truth in Love from Ancient Faith Radio
    By: Fr. Thomas Hopko
    Where: Ancient Faith Radio

    modeoflife.org heaven-and-hell-the-divine-fire-of-gods-love
    The Orthodox view of hell

    • robertar


      You gave good advice to Robert that he attend the worship services in addition to the reading. This is something I encourage all inquirers to do.


      • Robert Miller

        As a minister in the church I attend, and that I’m still just starting to research Orthodoxy, it’s premature for me to walk away. We have Sunday service at the same time the Orthodox churches do so that’s not really an option right now. That and other things going on.

        I’ve decided though that I’m free for Saturday Vespers and I attended my first one the other day. Working with the picture of silence presented in Bread & Water, Wine & Oil (a give from the local Priest) I found it very refreshing. Even though I got lost. 😉

        I’m in contact with my local Priest and he understands that I’m still on the path and not ready for the jump. But there is nothing wrong with ya’ll praying that I get the answers for which I’ve been searching for about 4 years.

        And thanks for the kind responses.

  12. Matt Ferdelman


    I am glad you found the article helpful. I am also thankful for the link. I had hoped to research the topic of the development of PSA thoroughly as part of a book on PSA.

    I agree with many of your statement, but I would be careful to not come off too harshly. You may in fact not be; it is difficult to read tone over printed media. My guess is you are angry that a doctrine such as PSA which destroys those that hold to it has crept up into the church. I also bear wrath toward the notion, for it harms the bride, molesting her as Satan always tries to do.

    But let us be careful to enunciate what or who our anger is directed against. Much of PSA soteriology comes from confusion over the objects of God’s wrath and love — some start to think God is wrathful toward them when, in reality, he is angry at sin since it harms the children whom he loves. Much harm has been done by saying God’s wrath is directed at us specifically, in a retributive way. We must be careful to avoid such incorrect language.

    Likewise, we must seek to show that our wrath is directed at lies that have harmed our fellow man, and not at those who hold them. We must not cease to speak the truth. But we must make every effort to show we act in love. At times, people will still see our love as wrath, even as the sinner does in hell the love of God. But we must continue to love nonetheless.

    I am grateful for your comments. I say these things for the benefit of all, and not necessarily because I think you need them. As I said, it is difficult to perceive tone in written media. Peace be to you, my brother.

  13. Mason

    Thank you for pointing out that we need to speak with specificity about “wrath” and “love”, they clearly mean something different when viewed through western legal categories.

    If I come across as harsh, that’s because I meant to. I think the doctrine needs to be dealt with very directly, and at times it will come across as harsh to some; perhaps it’s the post-modern sensitivities that we’ve all internalized. Our criticism’s of an idea, particularly a harmful one like penal substitutionary atonement, will inevitably spill over onto the men that publicly espouse them. No doubt Paul came across as direct, and was perceived as harsh by some when he publicly rebuked Peter in the book of Acts, so I want to be careful I’m not holding myself to a different standard. 🙂

    I wish you the best on your endeavors. God be with you.

  14. Matt Ferdelman


    You may be right. Perhaps my aversion to sounding harsh is just a post-modern development which in fact hampers acts of love toward others. It is difficult to separate the wheat from the tares. I will consider this further.

    • Mason

      Let us remember also that our Lord’s rather harsh treatment of the money changers was an act grounded in love for the Truth that He came to reveal. Heresy has always been dealt with harshly, always out of love for defending the Truth of what has been bequeathed to us.

      I certainly don’t want my testimony to distract in any way from a great essay. You did a most commendable job summarizing a difficult topic. Let us pray that those that are inquiring will give what you wrote much consideration and will continue to research. Thanks be to God for the miracle of the internet!

      I do look forward to more of your writings.

      Take care.

      • Erik

        While it is true that there is a time for sternness and unwavering commitment, Galatians 6 also tells us that when someone is overtaken by a fault or transgression that we should help restore them in the spirit of gentleness or meekness. So heterodox thought should not always be met with harshness, it can depend on the situation, such as in the difference between being obstinate or rebellious against “I’ve never heard of an alternate atonement theory”.

        • Karen

          I agree with you, Erik, about the more gentle approach. In my experience, in the context in which we are speaking, harshness is virtually always counterproductive to the purposes of Christ (James 1:20). In my own case, such harshness usually stems from my human insecurities in the face of opposition (which “obstinacy” is usually also rooted in insecurities more easily disarmed through a gentle, humble and winsome approach) and has little to do with a genuinely righteous indignation against a lie (though it can often be difficult to see this).

          I find I frequently return to this post of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s for reference around these issues:

        • Mason

          Advocates of divine wrath theory, or PSA, in its current form expect me to accept that God hates me for being born and that this cannot change unless He so decrees. Forgive me if I fail to see this is a slight fault or transgression. We are not deliberating over breaking the rules of the fast or being overly judgmental toward our orthodox brothers in faith, where gentle correction is warranted. We as laymen, and particularly our clergy, should listen respectfully, but this is egregious error that must be dealt with vigorously. Sure, one can lose their bearing in being overzealous, for example Bishop Nicholas punching Arius in the face at Nicea. Obviously not the norm but one can only listen respectfully to ludicrous assertions for so long. PSA classifies as such an assertion.

          Should we calmly present alternatives to those that think PSA is the only valid position? Absolutely, and I have done just that to those that are willing to listen. But in the end, it’s utter nonsense that needs to be rejected in no uncertain terms because it enslaves the mind and is cruel to its adherents.

          • Paula

            We all learn in different ways, and are moved by different things. There will be those who are gently led, but there will be those who will benefit from a more confrontational approach, and every degree in between.

          • Erik

            Actually one could be Reformed or generally support the idea of eternal decrees and not subscribe to PSA, just as one could be Arminian and still subscribe to PSA. One does not necessarily equal the other.

          • Mason

            Erik, you wrote below that one could be Reformed and not subscribe to PSA. Perhaps the reformed Episcopalian’s don’t put much emphasis on it, but all of the reformed confessions codified the “God of vengeance / divine wrath” (PSA) theory. So, no, you really can’t hold to a traditionally Reformed confession and deny PSA. In the Reformed world, which I am very well versed in, Pauline justification is shrouded in PSA language and is considered THE gospel.

          • Karen

            I’d certainly agree that PSA in the form I am familiar with must be roundly rejected as incompatible with the gospel. My comments about “harshness” have less to do with my attitude toward the PSA doctrine itself than toward those who hold it (in good faith) having received it as their “orthodoxy” and without having looked carefully at any biblical arguments contra this view. For years as an Evangelical my focus was on the view of Christ (Self-sacrificing Savior, Redeemer, Deliverer) presented by PSA, which is not far from the Orthodox if it can be distinguished from it at all. What never sat entirely well with me and what I did not for a long time closely examine (partly because it just didn’t compute or make ethical sense to me) was what PSA stated or implied about the nature of God/the Father or the demands of His “justice.”

  15. Erik

    While I can appreciate that the author’s rejection of PSA is only a part or contributing reason for moving to Eastern Orthodoxy, it must also be said that one does not necessarily have to follow the other. One can reject PSA and still be within the realm of what is generally considered orthodox Protestantism. There are alternatives like the Governmental Theory, the Moral Influence Theory, and Substitution Theory without the penal aspect. There is even the Ransom Theory, and I’m not talking about the idea that a ransom was paid to Satan but that it was paid to death, as St. Athanasius explained – “But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die…having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.”

    A few points of order that I would like to add:
    1) “In the Calvinist view…He sends Jesus to pay the penalty for the sins of these people, dying only for these select few.”
    I will grant that the modern Reformed view leans towards this position, but this is one of those instances of Calvin versus Calvinism. Here are Calvin’s actual words on the matter: “”That, then, is how our Lord Jesus bore the sins and iniquities of many. But in fact, this word “many” is often as good as equivalent to “all“. And indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world. For it is not speaking of three or four when it says: ‘For God so loved the world, that he spared not His only Son.” But yet we must notice that the Evangelist adds in this passage: “That whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but obtain eternal life.” Our Lord Jesus suffered for all, and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation through him. Unbelievers who turn away from Him and who deprive themselves of him by their malice are today doubly culpable. For how will they excuse their ingratitude in not receiving the blessing in which they could share by faith?”
    And in another place:
    ““To bear,” or, “take away sins”, is to free from guilt by his satisfaction those who have sinned. He says the sins of many, that is, of all, as in (Romans 5:15). It is yet certain that not all receive benefit from the death of Christ; but this happens, because their unbelief prevents them.”

    2) “So if God wants everyone to be saved, why doesn’t he just do it? Calvinism cannot answer this question”.
    This is not really true; Calvinism does provide an answer to this question. You may not like it or agree with it, but they do submit one. They would argue that the phrase ‘desires all men to be saved’ refers to all types of people and nationalities, not every single individual person. The follow-on would be that God does save the individuals He wills to. Bear in mind that I’m not arguing for its validity, I’m just pointing out that they do respond to this question.

    3) “…if Jesus took the punishment for all future sins, did he not also die for the sin of rejecting him? Or did he leave that one out? If so, what about those who reject Jesus when they hear about him but later repent and receive the gospel — are they saved?”
    I may not be following in your argument in this section, so please excuse me if this is not addressing the issue, but what I have encountered as the majority Reformed opinion is that the willful and continued (as in not necessarily a single event) rejection of God despite having been enlightened by the Holy Spirit (as in knowing the truth but still rejecting it, apostasy, etc.) falls into the category of what Matthew 12 describes as the unpardonable sin. Or what is meant in Romans 1 by someone hardening their heart to the extent that God gives them up to a reprobate mind.

    • Mason

      In regard to point 1, Matt front loaded the question because of the well known Calvinist position toward predestination. Sure, Calvin’s “actual words” on whether our Lord was sent to all men or many, may give the indication that he believed the offering went to all, however his logic forces him in later passages to admit that God, through his mysterious decrees, allows the reprobate to in fact stay as such. While he paid the penalty for all, He forces belief upon some and allows damnation, with no choice, for the others. The obvious conclusion is that our Lord died for the select few. This is the logical conclusion, directly from Calvin, which was quickly codified in the various Reformed confessions throughout the next 2 centuries, and is what is believed by the Reformed today. There are a few instances where modern Calvinism holds positions that Calvin would not, ie. Calvin held a quite high view of the Lord’s supper, modern Calvinists, with a few high church exceptions, have a tragically impoverished view of it. However this is not one of those instances. Calvin and his modern exponents cannot escape the conclusion that his theology lays out: that Christ only died for the select few, as the author of this essay elucidated for us.

      • Erik

        Not necessarily. You must not confuse the expiation, or the one oblation of Christ, with reconciliation or atonement. Expiation is the sacrifice of Himself that Christ offered up to the Father as our High Priest, it was a sacrifice offered on behalf of all mankind. Atonement, or what is reconciliation, is a subsequent action that follows the oblation and it is only applied or ultimately counted towards those believe on Christ and persevere to the end. This is like when the high priest of old would in one stage offer a sacrifice at the altar, but it was not complete until he then turned to sprinkle the blood of the offering on the offender(s). Yes, there is a strong interrelationship between the two, but they are not one and the same. This is why it can be said that the sacrifice was for the world on the one hand, but it will only efficaciously count in the end towards those in Christ. We find this borne out in the two natures of Christ – it was only by His human nature that He could suffer death, but it was only by His divine nature that He could overcome it.

        • Mason

          I wasn’t confusing anything. For some reason you’ve chosen to answer my point about Calvin’s view of Christ supposedly dying for all by interjecting the expiation/propitiation distinction. In Calvin’s logic, Christ died for those that God chooses unto salvation. End of story. Obfuscate all you like with arguments that are not germane to the specific point being deliberated, but I’ll not accept the legerdemain nor continue down this rabbit trail.

          • Erik

            Alrighty Mr. Winning-Attitude, I will not pursue or harass you anymore with my slight of hand tricks and indulgences in pernicious sophistry. Are you sure you left on your own, or were you asked to leave?

          • Mason

            Remember, you’ve chosen to name call, not I sir.
            If pointing out poor argumentation results in a request to leave, then I’ll man up and head out.

          • Erik

            You’re right, I apologize. I just found the accusations of trying to be intentionally misleading offensive. As well, it seemed very odd to me that somehow discussing a different understanding of the expiation is, in the context of a discussion about who He died for, not related to the topic. One note of clarification, the distinction is not between expiation and propitiation, these are the same thing. The distinction is between expiation and reconciliation. Perhaps our written verbiage doesn’t translate very well to the other so I will just leave it at that. Again, I apologize.

          • J.B. Aitken

            It’s actually a somewhat open question on what Calvin viewed regarding the scope of the atonement. I think the accepted view that Calvin held (as well as all Dominicans and Augustinians in the middle ages) was that Christ’s death was sufficient for all, efficient for the elect. If we say, rather, it was efficient for all then we have universalism.

  16. Matt Ferdelman

    Hi Erik,

    You bring up some excellent points. Unfortunately, addressing those areas was not within the scope of my article. I hope to address those thoroughly in the book I am writing. But let me at least give the beginning of an answer below.

    First, yes it is possible to reject PSA and still remain a Protestant. But I would be disinclined to say this is within the confines of Protestant orthodoxy. One of my friends from my previous church even voiced concerns that I had lost my salvation when I denied PSA. To deny PSA is to remove an essential part of the doctrine of the atonement for the majority of Protestants. It is essentially to deny the gospel they teach and to uphold another. It is a different gospel. So really, I was not surprised to hear a few people say they were deeply disturbed by my denial of PSA. In fact, if anything I was surprised there weren’t many more people lovingly saying my new beliefs were heresy and that I had lost the true gospel.

    But then, even though the majority of Protestants hold to PSA, it would be difficult to define what doctrines are and are not considered “orthodox” by Protestant believers. When you start delving into questions like this, you begin to realize there is no one definition of orthodoxy in Protestantism. Instead you have each man deciding what to believe for themselves. They may adhere to a certain group’s doctrines, but only because they align with their own. They may in fact be seeking to come under proper authority and right teaching, with an honest heart seeking for God. This described my attitude as a Protestant. But I realized over time that I had no method by which to measure the veracity of any doctrine. If I held to Sola Scriptura, how could I know which interpretation of Scripture was the right one? I couldn’t. I had to decide for myself which preacher was right. But how could I be smart enough to decide such a thing? My first post on why I became Orthodox describes this thought process in detail.

    1. This may indeed be a discrepancy between Calvin and Calvinism as taught. I have not yet read Calvin for myself, so I am uncertain. Note I speak in my article only about Calvinism as taught today. I in no way seek to address Calvin’s doctrines directly. Although, I would find it interesting to know to reconcile the quotes you provided which seem to display unlimited atonement with the notion that anyone would wind up in hell. If Calvin held that Christ took the punishment for all, why would any end in hell? I assume here the definition of hell as retributive.

    2. A good point. I recognize that as an answer to my question when I wrote my paper. However, I was seeking to avoid an overabundance of material, so I skipped a few steps there for the readership. I find this Calvinist answer to be inadequate. The answer seeks to take this verse in an allegorical sense. Understanding passages metaphorically is indeed appropriate at times, but not in this instance. But you are right to say that, for Calvinism to be consistent, it must take this verse allegorically. In the end, that means God doesn’t love the world. He doesn’t love everyone. He is not agape. He is selective with his love.

    This circles back to the question of interpretation we encountered earlier. Every tradition must interpret some passage metaphorically. But how do we know which passages to interpret in this manner? Only our tradition can tell us. But which tradition is the right one?

    3. Yes, I have heard that understanding of the unforgivable sin. Currently, I am unaware of the Orthodox position on that passage. I definitely agree God gives up people to their reprobate mind when they continually resist him. But I believe this passage about the unforgivable sin is one the Orthodox would take metaphorically. The sin is not unforgivable because God is unwilling to forgive. God is always willing to forgive. It is unforgivable because by resisting God man turns away the desired end to his extended forgiveness: reconciliation. Forgiveness is not complete until reunion is accomplished. Perhaps someone who is a seasoned Orthodox Christian can clarify this for me?

    But I notice one conclusion to the line of reasoning you present would be to say there is one sin Jesus did not die for. There is one sin for which he could never die. In this sense, God is limited, in opposition to the Monergistic understanding of salvation, in his ability to save by the action of men. In this regard grace would indeed be resistible, and the Irresistible Grace point of Calvinism would be inoperable.

    • Erik

      When you use a metaphor or allegory you are using one thing to stand for another symbolically. For instance, God is the potter and we are the clay, or Isaac and Ishmael were symbolic of the two covenants. The Calvinist is not saying that all men in this instance is symbolic of something else, they are literally saying that God desires people from every tribe and nation, not just the Jew, to be saved.
      God is love, but God is also righteous. It is true that God does not love every individual and Scripture testifies to this – “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you (God) hate all evildoers”. Or, as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
      Now anthropomorphically attributing emotions like love, hate, and repentance to God are of course to be understood analogically; however, it does indicate that God maintains a different disposition towards sinners than to those who would be believers.

      • Matt Ferdelman

        Hi Erik,

        1 Timothy 2:4 states “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The word translated “people” here is anthrōpous, which means “a man, one of the human race.” Generally, the term is translated as “men.” The definition of this word implies God desires each and every person be saved. Would I be correct in saying then that you take this passage metaphorically and not literally, thinking “men” means “people groups?” I want to make sure we’re on the same page.

        The Orthodox would take Psalm 5:5 allegorically, as being strong language used to make a point. The same goes for Luke 14:26 where Jesus tells us we must hate our family to follow him. I was correctly taught in the Protestant tradition that the word “hate” here should be taken metaphorically, as a form of art used by Jesus to get his point across. Obviously he doesn’t want us to hate our family. The Orthodox do the same with Psalm 5:5.

        “Jacob have I love, but Esau I hated” is a very interesting discussion. I’d love to delve into it. But that is far beyond the scope of this article, and I don’t want to get side-tracked. Suffice it to say the Orthodox answer would be that Romans 9 refers to whom God uses to bring about the Messianic seed, not whom he chooses to save and whom he chooses to torture in hell. If you want to read more, the four part article below is fantastic. I would ask though that if you do want to discuss this idea further, let us do so outside this post. You can contact Robert here and have him send you my email: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxbridge/contact-us/


        • Erik

          I Tim. 2:4:
          I do not claim any advanced Greek knowledge, so feel free to correct me here, but my understanding is that you need an article in front of this noun in its plural form to make it include every and all individuals, such as in Mat. 12:35 and other instances. The article doesn’t appear in Timothy so new translations use “people”, as in people groups or types, instead of referring to every individual that has lived. Also, in this specific instance, others would argue that you have a qualifier in the preceding verses – “thanksgivings be made for all people, (qualifier) for kings and all who are in high positions”. Thus the command is interpreted as we are to pray for all types of people, even those in authority. A parallel would be found in 2 Pet. 3:8-9 where ‘God is not willing that any should perish’, but the statement is qualified by ‘toward you beloved’. In other words God is not willing that any of His beloved should perish.
          So, no, it is not taken metaphorically. There is just a distinction in what is meant by people.
          To be fair about other opinions, though, another Reformed argument I have seen takes this verse in the sense you describe but uses a variation of the Arminian argument. For the Arminian, God indeed desires that every single person in history be saved, but he is restrained by His commitment to human self-determination. For this Reformed variation, God desires every individual saved but is restrained by His commitment to the glorification of His sovereign grace.

          “The Orthodox would take Psalm 5:5 allegorically, as being strong language used to make a point”
          I’m sorry if I’m nitpicking but strong language to make a point is actually hyperbole, not allegory. Such as when Christ said to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye, this was hyperbole because self-mutilation was itself considered sinful. Metaphor or allegory is when you use the image of one thing to stand for another, such as ‘God desires that all His earthen clay vessels be saved”. So if you don’t take “hate” in this instance at face value, which I don’t suggest because God’s knowledge, emotions, etc. can never the same as ours, you are actually taking it analogically as opposed univocally.
          “Romans 9 refers…not (to) whom he chooses to save”
          I wasn’t bringing this up in the context of election; that is a separate argument. I was just using this verse to demonstrate that God does have a different disposition or outlook between believers and the reprobate.

          • Erik

            I probably shouldn’t limit that second argument to just being a Reformed variation, you see something similar with others who argue that there is a distinction to be made between what they call God’s Moral versus Sovereign Will, or how Aquinas phrased it – “Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently wills the murderer to be hanged. In the same way God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned”

          • Matt Ferdelman

            In the end it will come down to how someone interprets a certain passage. In the ESV 2 Peter 3:9 reads “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” How we understand the word “any” will likely determine what we believe. Does the “you” which only refers to Christians preceding the “any” somehow modify our understanding of “any?” I believe taking “any” in its natural sense makes the most sense. Could another understanding be the right one? Let’s say maybe. If so, how do we know which is the right interpretation?

            I do not have the training necessary to answer your questions about the word “people,” so unfortunately I can’t dive into that now.

            Thank you for correcting me on hyperbole. You are definitely right there. I thought something was wrong when I was typing that. I should have verified before hitting “post”!

            Concerning Romans 9 you said “I was just using this verse to demonstrate that God does have a different disposition or outlook between believers and the reprobate.”
            Yes, that is what I was seeking to address. The Orthodox do not believe Romans 9 deals with believers and the reprobate. They believe it deals with the chosen people through which God brought about the Messianic seed. The article I provided gets into this in detail.

    • Erik

      “When you start delving into questions like this, you begin to realize there is no one definition of orthodoxy in Protestantism”
      It is true that there is not one exact definition accepted by all, but once you remove outliers like Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, etc. and only look at historic and traditional Protestantism, you do see a pretty standard central core of beliefs. Now, one of these would be that Christ provided some sort of substitutionary atonement, but it doesn’t require the exact modeling of the PSA analogy. It is only meant to stand against such ideas that would suggest Christ’s life and death was just a model that we can follow on our own. Not unlike what you might find in Arianism. Moreover, this very basic concept of substitution is to be found within the orthodoxy of the historic church. This is why Athanasius could say that Christ paid our debt, His sacrifice was on our behalf, or more expressly – “He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required.”

      • Matt Ferdelman


        I see what you mean. Morons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are certainly in the minority. But is it just the attribute of majority that gives a doctrine its orthodoxy? Before the first council of Nicea, some think as much as half the Christian world had fallen prey to the heresy of Arianism. If this was the case in our day and age in the Protestant church, how could we respond? What if the Mormons were in the majority — could we still say their beliefs were heretical?

        This is what I struggled with as a Protestant. How could I know what was heresy and what was not? Ultimately, I couldn’t find a way to be sure.

        • Erik

          “Morons” – Be nice 🙂

          • Matt Ferdelman

            Ha! That was a complete mistake on my part. Is there a religion spell-checker I can purchase somewhere?

    • Erik

      “But I notice one conclusion to the line of reasoning you present would be to say there is one sin Jesus did not die for. There is one sin for which he could never die. In this sense, God is limited, in opposition to the Monergistic understanding of salvation, in his ability to save by the action of men. In this regard grace would indeed be resistible, and the Irresistible Grace point of Calvinism would be inoperable.”
      Maybe it didn’t come across, but I tried to point out that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not a single event or “one sin”, it is an ongoing or continued rejection of known truth. It is probably more accurately described as a state than event, as in a continued state of apostasy or open rebellion. It is to be left or given over to the state of reprobation.
      Actually, God is sometimes limited, but only so by His nature. For example, God cannot lie, God cannot be unjust, God cannot be wrong. In this case, God will not save or forgive someone He has given over to reprobation.
      With respect to IG, the Calvinist could follow a couple of different arguments. The modern 5-Pointer might say that a reprobate is simply someone that was never given the gift of regeneration or saving faith, thus IG doesn’t really come in to play. The Augustinian-Aquinas predestinarian might say that resistibility can only occur once God withdrawals His persevering grace, for whatever reason that might be.

      • Matt Ferdelman

        Hi Erik,

        I was having some trouble understanding how to respond when I realized something. I had become confused because the original quote related to an argument I had against Arminianism, not Calvinism. You are right that Calvinism is not at fault at this point. It is consistent here.

        I believe we are in agreement about how God is “limited.” But let me say a few words so that we avoid confusion. God is limited only because he chooses to be. He can do anything he wants to do. But he consistently chooses to do some things and not others. God “cannot” lie in the sense that he continually chooses to not lie.

  17. Prometheus

    I think that in Protestant circles there is a lot of leeway on this one. One explanation I thought of in high school was that a) we owe all we are to God b) we have not given him everything c) anything that we would use to pay him back would be from him d) we need him to forgive us what we owe because we cannot possibly pay even a tiny bit of what we have failed to render him. Another explanation I used at around that time was sin is like us falling into a pit. Grace is like God giving us a rope. Faith is holding onto that rope. (Many Protestants would squirm at my definition of faith . . . but I guess there you have it.)

    Also, I’m not entirely sure that I believe that forgiveness cannot be understood alongside paying a debt. Our sin is often considered a debt to be paid or forgiven (the word being the same in Greek!). It is common metaphor in the scriptures for what Jesus did for us. See, for instance, the Lord’s prayer “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (see also Matthew 18).

    I would love if you would expound on wrath a bit more. I feel that you gave it short-shrift, especially Hell. We were once “children of wrath” – that is ones who by nature . . . what? made God angry? What does it mean that those who reject Christ have only to look forward to the “wrath” that is to come. For those who refuse to repent, how is this wrath remedial? I do however buy into the idea that the wrath of God is not part of his nature. If it were, he would have to exercise it in his intra-trinitarian relations. Love is intrinsic to him because we see it as part of his pre-creation existence. Therefore in some way his wrath must be a function of his love (if you will allow me to be so mathematical).

    I’ll leave you with two useful links:
    a) A great listing of patristics on substitutionary atonement http://razilazenje.blogspot.com/search?q=atonement
    b) A decent Orthodox critique of PSA, though I think a few of his points are illogical http://preachersinstitute.com/2011/06/02/orthodox-problems-with-penal-substitution/

    • J.B. Aitken

      Thank you for your above post. It avoided the standard “knee-jerk” reaction to anything Western.

  18. Prometheus

    Oh, I did want to add that your depiction of Orthodoxy as all loving and without wrath and fear seems to belie what I read in the daily prayers of the Jordanville prayer book. I feel that many Orthodox that I have seen writing apologetically shy away from the difficult aspects of its own traditions . . . perhaps to the detriment of Orthodox apologetics? If any of you all can shed light on this sense that I have, please feel free to do so.

  19. Prometheus

    I thought about saying this before, but I wanted to think about how to say it well. I feel that in presenting Penal Substitution as you have, it sounds like a “knee jerk” reaction to the West rather than a deep engagement with Orthodox or Protestant sources. The comment section on the following blog is golden: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2014/02/24/the-death-of-jesus-as-sacrifice-an-orthodox-reading-of-isaiah-53-and-romans-325/. The writers are authors lamenting an overly anti-western presentation of Orthodox doctrine. It seems to strike better balance of what is in the Orthodox tradition. I’m especially keen to point out the penal aspects of the patristic sources mentioned and the fact that some PSA theories emphasize God’s punishment of sin rather than his son. But they do a better job than I.

    • robertar


      You raised some good points about the complexity of how we are saved from sin. Also, I agree that it is unfortunate that some Orthodox Christians have engaged in a knee jerk reaction to Protestantism. Your questions about God’s wrath are good ones. I come across references to God’s wrath when I do the Morning and the Evening prayers, especially when I read the psalms. I don’t quite know what to make of these passages but I read/pray them because they are part of Scripture.

      Thanks for contributing to the dialogue between the Protestant and Orthodox traditions. While there may be differences of opinions over PSA, hopefully we can come to a better understanding of what Scripture teaches and what the early Church understood about our salvation in Christ. I look forward to reading the links you provided and reflecting on what they mean.


  20. Matt Ferdelman

    Prometheus, some excellent points.

    Models of The Atonement

    That framework you developed in high school for understanding the atonement sounds a bit like Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory. Would that comparison make sense to you? I want to make sure I understood your theory well enough. The idea of paying something to God may have a place in Orthodox soteriology – it may be connected to the idea of sacrifice. But the Orthodox emphatically believe such sacrifice is done for the sake of the giver and not the receiver. So, if we say Jesus paid a debt we owed, we must say he did not do so because God would not accept us without it. We must say he did so because we needed to make a sacrifice. This is similar to the idea of offering God a sacrifice by fasting. God doesn’t need us to fast for him to accept us; but fasting helps us connect with God. It removes the distractions that surround us. In Orthodoxy, God is never the cause for an individual not being with him in paradise. Humans are always the cause of their own demise (taking into account the adversarial work of Satan).

    The idea of grace being a rope let down into a pit sounds very Orthodox.


    Forgiveness certainly involves forgiving a debt. As far as I know, the Orthodox would even say God had every right to demand payment or to inflict punishment on us for our sin (but don’t quote me on this; I am not certain this is the case). But God doesn’t; because that’s not his character. He chooses to forgive … just because that’s who he is. We do need our debt to go away for us to be with God. But God doesn’t hold that debt against us. St. Athanasius says this clearly: “Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough…” (On the Incarnation, 2.7) Here he indicates that God’s hand is always held out in forgiveness. The only reason God would need to be paid back is if he demanded payment. But he doesn’t. He just chooses to forgive.

    More than that, if God does demand payment then, as I argued in my paper, he is not truly forgiving. Forgiveness is not making payment on someone else’s behalf. Forgiveness is simply releasing the debt without payment. Could someone say God needed to be paid back for us to accept him, as does PSA? Yes, one could make that assertion. But that God is not forgiving. He is demanding; and he never lets go of a grudge.


    Ah, yes, “wrath,” the elephant in the room. This is the great question of the day. This is what is so difficult for us with a Western mindset to understand. Even after countless hours of study, I still find it hard to grasp the Orthodox understanding of wrath. It certainly makes sense when you hear it, but it takes a long time to sink in. That’s the stage I’m at right now.

    Please understand my lack of in-depth coverage on this topic was not an oversight, but a deliberate attempt to keep the paper from becoming a book. With that said, let me begin to give an explanation.

    In Orthodoxy, the wrath of God is not one of his attributes. It is not at all part of who God is. Wrath is a reality; but it is created by man, and not by God. Wrath is our experience of God’s love when we separate ourselves from him. Have you ever done something horrific to a loved one and at once were tortured in your soul, knowing you had caused them great harm, and spurned the love they had for you? I have. And let me tell you it is a terrible experience. That aching, burning sensation in the chest that consumes you when you spit in the face of love is completely unbearable. This is what we experience in certain degrees when we spurn the love of others. We also experience this when we knowingly spurn the love of God. Hell will be this wrath in its most powerful form. At the last judgment, God will reveal his glory to all mankind in full force. He will pour out his love on all his creatures, whether they want it or not. For those who hate God and reject his love, the worst pain imaginable will be experienced. I myself have seen the pain imbued when one fights against the love of God. I cannot begin to imagine how monstrous it would be to reject this love when it is so clearly seen on that final day.

    You are perfectly right then to say that God’s wrath is a function of his love. God’s wrath is our experience of his self-giving love when we reject him. That is why Scripture says those who reject God are storing up wrath for themselves at the final judgment. By hardening their hearts now, they are forcing a larger gulf between them and their creator. Love is always meant to be remedial. Love is always given to restore and build relationship. But for those that reject love, this act of restoration becomes destruction.

    I would not say the Orthodox shy away from speaking about wrath. At least, that is not what I have seen. Perhaps your experience has been different.

    You may also find these articles on wrath helpful.


    These are part of a three-part series:
    Preacher’s Institute: the-wobbly-exegetical-basis-of-penal-substitutionary-satisfaction/

    The podcasts by Fr. Thomas Hopko I mentioned earlier are also helpful.

    I read that article on problems with PSA before. It’s good as a short introduction. The book by Alexander Renault from which it comes is excellent. I just read it a few weeks back.

    I hadn’t seen that article on substitution in the Father’s before. I look forward to reading it.

    Reaction to PSA

    That article on Isaiah 53 is quite good. I believe I read the majority of the comments not too long ago. I’ll have to revisit them.

    The atonement may indeed have aspects of the punishment of sin, though I think the word destruction might be more appropriate. It’s going to take me a lot of reading before I can get a grasp on exactly how the Father’s thought about salvation. But, while I would say over-reaction to an incorrect doctrine is wrong, I would not say the denial of PSA should be conflated with the denial of the West. I was taught many correct things in the Protestant tradition. I think even now that the Protestant church I most recently attended is one of the best out there. But in that it still teaches Penal Substitution, it is wrong.

    In the Radical Reformation we see a certain group of individuals over-react to perceived abuses in the Roman Catholic church by throwing out anything and everything they saw as tradition. In many cases, some parts of the Reformation threw out the baby with the bath water, expelling the good with the bad. It has been my endeavor from the first day I discovered Orthodoxy to not reject all Western thought as inherently wrong, but to take the good and leave the bad behind. PSA is in the basket of bad things that should be left behind. It is unequivocally wrong. However, this does not mean the atonement was not substitutionary. It was. Where PSA goes wrong is when it says the sacrifice Christ offered was penal. This we must reject.

    • Erik

      “Forgiveness is simply releasing the debt without payment”
      I’m not sure this is a right conclusion or description to draw from the debt analogies presented in Scripture. When someone forgives a debt, it’s not there is no payment at all anywhere, it just means that the benefactor is either paying the debt for you or personally absorbing the cost in some fashion. I think what you are proposing goes against what Athanasius claimed – “But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.”
      So in Athanasius’ words, there is an account that at some point needs settling. However, I can agree that God actually extends His love towards those that would be His by adoption before there is any type of payment; nevertheless, a person must accept Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf and be absorbed into union with Him before a full reconciliation can be completed.

      • J.B. Aitken

        I agree. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).

      • Matt Ferdelman

        Erik, there are two parts to this that should be addressed.

        First, at the end of your quote, Athanasius indicates the debt paid was to death, not to God. This sounds more like Christus Victor and Ransom theory than Penal Substitution.

        Second, both you and J.B. bring up a point which I did not address earlier for the sake of brevity. There is more to forgiveness than just releasing a debt. Below is something I wrote to help explain Hebrews 9:22 to a friend a few months ago:

        “The word “forgiveness” used here is the Greek word aphesis. This word has two meanings: (1) release from bondage or imprisonment and (2) remission of penalty. PSA largely focuses on the remission of sin, but ignores the notion of freeing a prisoner. Recapitulation and Ransom theory recognize we are in the bondage to sin, death, and satan, and must be freed. Jesus condemned the sin of the whole world in himself on the cross, giving us the ability to fight and overcome sin. By repenting throughout our lives in the power of the Spirit, we are able to unite ourselves to God. God forgives freely without the payment of penalty. But his forgiveness exists because he wants us to be united to him. For that to be done, we must choose him. But even if we wanted him, sin within us will cause us to continually fall short of fully choosing him. But Jesus made a way for us to overcome sin, that we might be united to him. By repenting and choosing him, we are released from our bondage to corruption.”

        • Erik

          This sounds more like Christus Victor and Ransom theory than Penal Substitution.”
          Exactly, I mentioned in the first paragraph of my first posting that outside of PSA there are other substitutionary models like the “RansomTheory”. While admittedly not the dominant view in Protestantism, all I was trying to say is that one can still stand within both the bounds of orthodox Protestantism and the historic church with this model because Protestantism only requires a substitutionary model over and against something like an Arian model. Thus one does not necessarily have to leave the Western Church in order to escape PSA.

        • J.B. Aitken

          ***PSA largely focuses on the remission of sin, but ignores the notion of freeing a prisoner.***

          This is odd since the most substantial defense of PSA (Leon Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross) bases his entire argument that antilutron means to “buy back.” Have you really read the primary and substantial sources on this topic? I don’t mean to knit-pick, but you said my belief was “the worst heresy imaginable,” so I am going to hold you to a strict standard. I don’t expect you to have read everythign on the topic, but this is a faux pax of first-order proportions.

          The Reformed tradition has always held to aspects of Christus Victor, but it refused to absolutize the position because CV can’t address the pro me aspects of atonement.

          • Matt Ferdelman


            There is a wide range of presentations on PSA. I’m certain some tie it to “antilutron” and buying back. But in the presentations I have seen, this has not been the case.

            I am glad you are holding me to a high standard. We need to make certain our approaches are rigorous and cogent. My statement that PSA was the worst heresy was not meant as an insult to those that hold it. Rather, I was overwhelmed by the harm I had seen it cause in my life and others. This was not meant as an argument so much as an emotional response indicating my desire that others would not also be ensnared by it. Forgive me if it came off as an insult. That was not my intent.

            I have read many authors defending PSA. But I have not read that one yet. If you wouldn’t mind, I would greatly appreciate it if you could send me a list of books and articles that you believe make the best defense for PSA.

          • J.B. Aitken

            As to the wide range or not, that would depend upon the treatments in standard texts. Here are the best:

            1. Leon Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Kind of technical (assumes some knowledge of Greek) but not too long.

            2. Michael Horton, Lord and Servant. The best treatment on the topic, period.

            3. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.

            4. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Kind of heavy and pricey, but the best modern systematic theology.

            5. Hill and James, The Glory of the Atonement. See particularly the essays by McCormack, Vanhoozer, Carson, and Groves.

            6. Any of the older theologies (Berkhof, Bavinck, Hodge) will also deal with it in substantial detail.

          • Matt Ferdelman

            Thank you for these. I look forward to reading them.

          • J.B. Aitken

            If finances are tight, I’ve always gone to public or university libraries and gotten them on Interlibrary loan.

          • Erik

            I definitely like Wright, here’s a great short video with Wright on the Atonement.

            Of the Systematics I like Berkhof, very direct and easy to read.

  21. Mason

    If God changes not, then how can anything we do cause Him to change, to become wrathful? God’s wrath is a linguistic device designed to remind US of our condition in reference to the unchanging, holy, providential, transcendent God. When we fail to cooperate with the uncreated energies of God that he manifests, then the consequences we reap are “the wrath of God”.

    So in a sense, we assuage “God’s wrath” when we sincerely work out our salvation with fear and trembling, doing acts of mercy, praying without ceasing, etc… Failing to do these things, to miss the mark, to sin, to sow the wind, is to reap the whirlwind, or the “wrath of God”. We need to be careful not to hold to a literal interpretation of the anthropomorphic language of the OT.

    The idea that we can do anything to make God change HIS position toward US is exactly what we see with the gods of Greek antiquity. The traditional orthodox understanding sees that WE must change our position toward the great I AM lest we damage ourselves and our brothers around us.

    Christ’s great sacrifice of His blood was FOR US, to cleanse, to purify US, of our sins. He was OUR champion substitute, as St. Athanasius put it. The penal (divine wrath) substitute theory may be employed in a very limited, metaphorical sense so as to remind US that we can reap “Gods wrath” by our deeds, but if it is pushed too far, which it clearly has been with Anselm and the Reformers, then love dissolves in a drama of divinely sanctioned suffering, with various permutations of buy-offs and imputations, so God can appease Himself.

    The Christus Victor view of Christ’s offering was the conciliar view of the Church for the first millenia. Sure other metaphors were pondered and discussed by the Fathers, but they intuited that Christ’s victory over death ennobles the human spirit. Conversely allowing a questionable divine wrath theory to be the sole factor of the great holocaust for us, thus relegating everyone to be hated beings in the hands of an angry God, confuses the mind as well as emotions and ultimately dampens the human spirit, breeding bitterness and a joyless existence.

    Since leaving Calvinism and becoming Orthodox, I see my sinful behavior more clearly now than ever, yet I have more joy than before because I know that I was not, and am not, hated by God, but truly united to Christ through my active participation in the divine society that He came to establish.

    I sincerely hope I’ve added to the discussion here.

    • Matt Ferdelman


      This is great. I very much like what you said here.

      Truly, I also sinned greatly as an adherent to PSA. This was not because believing PSA was wrong on my part — I ignorantly though it was simply how the Church always understood the atonement. But I sinned in that, taking on the nature of the God I worshiped, I became an angry tyrant to those around me, and expected payment be rendered when wrong was done. PSA destroyed me and broke the image of God within me.

      Truly I am the worst of sinners. But God in Christ has shown me yet greater mercy.

      • Erik

        “I became an angry tyrant to those around me, and expected payment be rendered when wrong was done”
        I have to say that I am personally confused about how one is supposed to necessarily flow from the other. We are to forgive without recompense because the reality of sin is that is that it is ultimately always against God. When confessing his sin concerning Bathsheba and her husband David stated “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment”. Or in 1 Sam. 2 – “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him”.
        I would argue, though, that forgiveness and reconciliation between believers are two different things. Perhaps not unlike how justification does not equal the whole process of salvation, but is merely one aspect of the process.

        • Matt Ferdelman


          We all naturally mirror those we see. I in many respects am like my father, since I lived with him for so long, and over time developed his habits and modes of thought. In like manner, I already see in many ways my first born son becoming like me, treating women the way I treat my wife, etc. The same principle holds true for friendships, but it is always the most powerful for those you look up to most. All of us naturally become like the ones we worship. Those who spend their days reading up on celebrities and follow their lives start to emulate the demeanor of those people, because they worship them. The same is true for any area of life, whomever you worship.

          So, in the course of time, I began to emulate the god I perceived. I became like the god I worshiped. And it was horrific to look at. Many who know me can attest to this. I began to lose the image of God. I began to die.

    • J.B. Aitken

      ***If God changes not, then how can anything we do cause Him to change, to become wrathful? God’s wrath is a linguistic device designed to remind US of our condition in reference to the unchanging, holy, providential, transcendent God. ***

      I think you’ve honed in the proper target. It depends on what we mean by impassibility. The early fathers believed God’s essence to be a stasis beyond all perturbations. A better understanding is that God isn’t overcome by human pathoi. Even better–and was not developed by the fathers–is that God is faithful to the covenant.

      The Reformed do not say that God’s essence changes by propitiation. We say the relationship between God and man changes, and relationships are not the same as essences. Turretin and all of the Reformed theologies make this very clear. You guys are still hamstrung by a substance-metaphysics and a limited view of impassibility

      You said God’s wrath is simply a linguistic device. That’s philosophical nominalism and really doesn’t tell us anything about God. God’s wrath is his judicious, holy response to the violation of his law and covenant.

      • Matt Ferdelman

        This are of debate is beyond the scope of my learning. I have heard the supposed change in God used as an argument against PSA frequently, but I have not yet plumbed its depths, and cannot say whether or not it holds water. For that reason I specifically left that argument out of my paper.

        Mason, J.B. may be onto something here. What do you make of this?

  22. Mason

    Well said Matt. Adhering to PSA broke me down mentally as well. It did not restore what is broken in me, but rather enveloped my ill tendency’s within key words and phrases that made me feel better about myself periodically. But all the platitudes only diffused the pomposity. (scratch hard enough and you’ll see how pompous a Calvinist can become) I too was a monster, expecting satisfaction for wrongs done and thought this is how I am supposed to be, I was the elect after all, God’s instrument on Earth.
    Now, thanks be to God, I see myself as the monster that I am but know that this is NOT how I am supposed to be. By God’s grace, I will work to correct this defect we all inherited through Adam.

    Be well brother. Enjoy your journey and your family. This is my last post as you and others may have the last word. I do hope that I’ve added and not detracted from what you all are doing here. God be with you.

    • Paula

      Mason, thank you for your contribution here. I’m glad to have confirmation from you and Matt that what I had witnessed in someone as a result of the Reformed theology was not my imagination.

      • Matt Ferdelman

        Yes. This type of deformation can and does happen to many who hold to Calvinism and PSA. I have brought this up to many of my friends at my former church. I expect many of them are thinking “well that’s not a good argument against PSA since that’s not what I am like. And I see plenty of people around me who believe PSA who are very loving.”

        Their statements are true, but I believe their conclusions are incorrect. Many who believe in PSA are very loving people. But I don’t believe this comes from their adherence to the doctrine. Rather, I see it as an inconsistency in applying it. I found in myself an egregious dissonance building, warping, and shattering my mind. In one area I knew God was love — Scripture, sermons, and my own experience of God told me this. Yet PSA seemed to imply God was selective in his love. And, combined, with Calvinism, it even seemed to indicate God created some people with the express desire to torture them for eternity. Moreover, he decided who these people would be without any regard to anything they would do. That certainly doesn’t sound like love. For the longest time, I just assumed my definition of love was wrong. Every time I ran into a problem with PSA, I assumed there was something wrong with me and my mind, not with the doctrine. I rightly held at the time that God is the basis by which we defined the word love and all good things. So why did my idea of love differ from what I saw in him? I naturally assumed there was just something wrong with me. But over the years I could not overcome the growing idea that God simply wasn’t loving. He seemed cruel and distant. I started reading Scripture less. I started praying less. In time, I started loosing hope. Likely, I was headed toward Atheism or something of the sort. More likely, I would have committed suicide, since I had studied Atheist claims in the past and found them wanting. Without Atheism as an option, I would have had no way of escape from this God, from pondering the magnitude of his horror.

        It is possible to believe PSA and believe God is love. But it is an example of George Orwell’s double-think. It i holding two mutually exclusive ideas at the same time. It can be done for a while. But the longer you hold to PSA, the longer you think about it, the harder it becomes to reconcile it with God’s love. Lord, have mercy. In his goodness, he has saved me from an eternity of grief.

  23. Prometheus

    Interesting take on PSA and demanding payment yourself. First of all, it seems that most of the negatives are coming from former Calvinists . . . and I think this is what has always been most likely to harden my spirit. The idea that there is a sense of indignation in God against wrong done is not hard to imagine for me. Nor is it difficult to understand that there is a controlling factor in his character by which he wills to forgive the wrong or affront. That this should take place in a sacrifice that covers over the sin, and pay the debt (that one of you said he has the right to exact, though he doesn’t). But I suppose this takes us a little out of the realm of PSA strictly understood. Nevertheless, Jesus words are “so my father in heaven will not forgive you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” I would think any proponent of PSA would remember that and find that he had no right to judge anyone else. This phrase is always before my mind. The real issue seems to me God’s harsh decree (decretum horribilie as Calvin called it), determining from before the ages (either prior to or after the fall) who would and wouldn’t be damned and saved. But those who are not Calvinists, particularly (inclusivist) Arminians, don’t have a sense that God created anyone for destruction. All are offered the free gift from their perspective. So while they may use PSA language to describe this, they certainly don’t have a problem with recognizing love as God’s primary relational attribute (he is Trinitarian after all!).

    I do tend to agree with J.B. (I think) who said that one must not confuse the impassibility of God’s essence with the changing nature of his relationship with us (though how it can change in light of God’s unchangeable eternal decree is beyond me). I think it was Erik who argued that one must actually accept the gift of God in order to have reconciliation with him. If so, I think that all of us must agree that there is something about how God created human beings that makes it so that he is unwilling in some sense for all to be saved. In other words. There is something that God values more than the salvation of all. I am inclined to agree with the Roman Catholics and the Arminians (perhaps the Orthodox, too?) that it was that there was no other way to create creatures who could truly enter into the love of the divine fellowship except free beings that could reject him as well. The Reformed answer, however, seems to be (ala Calvin, Westminster Confession, John Piper, etc.) that God did it for his own glory . . . to display his wrath, because wrath is part of his character that must be displayed to creation so that he may be fully glorified. He would not be glorified if his full character were not revealed. That said, I think anyone who makes God’s love his primary relational attribute, whether they claim to believe PSA or not, will end up with a God whose creatures are only ultimately doomed to destruction by their own will, not his. That is why: a) I find it so frustrating to hear PSA condemned as the worst heresy, but b) at the same time I am so glad that you, Matt, made it clear that that was an emotional reaction.

    That said, I think this discussion has been very helpful. It has made me think more clearly about my own position and those of others. I don’t think I am a PSA proponent, and I have a fairly easy time with the Orthodox view: hell being God’s searing love on those who would still reject it. That view of hell certainly has ontological advantages over the typical Protestant view of hell as being separated from God. There certainly is a sense in which one is separated (i.e. relationally; no reconciliation), but it would not be an absence of God (ontologically).

    One question that does come up is how the searing presence of God for one eternally hardened can be love, unless there is hope of ultimate repentance. If God created us with the ability to reach a point of no return, is that loving? Is there a way to explain this without becoming a hypothetical universalist? I mean, it seems that the Bible (not to mention one of the Apostolic Fathers, I think 1 Clement) portrays a final judgment that admits no repentance. We get something like that said in Hebrews (re: how we should not be like Esau who gave up his birthright and found no repentance). It says we should repent while it is still today. That we should learn from the Israelites who did not enter into the promised land. Because if we become faithless, we too may miss our chance. Anyway, wondering if there is a good Orthodox explanation of how that all fits together. 🙂

    Thanks again, everyone. I have been learning a lot.

    • Paula

      Prometheus, you said “That said, I think anyone who makes God’s love his primary relational attribute, whether they claim to believe PSA or not, will end up with a God whose creatures are only ultimately doomed to destruction by their own will, not his. ”

      5 point Calvinism disallows this via double-predestination.

      • Erik

        Could you clarify how you are attaching Calvinism to this statement?

    • Matt Ferdelman


      I am glad you have found the discussion helpful. That is the result I had hoped for in having Robert post this article. I pray it has been helpful to all involved. I definitely do not think the things discussed in any way “prove” PSA to be wrong. There’s a lot of thinking that needs to be done on each point, and on PSA in general. And that’s why I wanted to share this: in the hopes that it would help us all to think about it more clearly, including myself

      I must apologize then for saying what I did earlier about PSA. This did not contribute to the discussion. As I indicated, this was spoken out of sadness, since, as far as I could tell, many wrong tendencies had developed in me from believing the doctrine. Lord, have mercy.

      I have been asking myself that exact same question about repentance after death. At this time I haven’t seen too much on the subject, and would likewise be interested to hear more about this in the future.

  24. Paula

    What I have been told by Calvinists is that humans do NOT have the free will to turn towards God. All efforts come directly from God. God elects you before you are born for salvation or damnation, and there is nothing you can do about it. The way you can tell if you are elected for salvation is because you have “spiritual hunger”, which manifests, often I’m told, in reading and listening to sermons, but I’m sure is defined more broadly than I am doing here.

    • J. B. Aitken

      Election and regeneration are two different terms. Reformed dogmatics has always taught that humans have the natural ability to turn towards God, just not the moral ability.

  25. Erik

    I guess what I’m getting at is what specifically about his statement are you applying Calvinism? Are you saying that because of it God cannot have love as a relational attribute, are you saying that because of it a person cannot be doomed by their will, or are you saying that PSA is part and parcel of Calvinism and because of that the other two things are not possible? Please understand I’m not trying to debate the merits or failings of Calvinism itself, because I think that would be outside the scope of this article, I’m just trying to understand how you are relating it.

    • Paula

      PSA is part and parcel of Calvinism, and because of that, the other two are not possible.

      • Prometheus

        PSA being part and parcel of Calvinism does not imply that Calvinism is part and parcel of PSA.

        • Mason

          Divine wrath/ PSA is found in more moderated form within the Roman Catholic tradition, however, it was not taken to the extreme’s that Luther and Calvin took it to, nor the modern exponents. Calvin was working with the categories he inherited from scholasticism, particularly the Augustinian strain, and took them to their logical conclusion. In the last couple of decades, many non-Reformed Protestant scholars have made serious arguments against PSA theory, and most Protestant denominations that I know of would be hesitant to preach it to their congregants. Today it is only the Reformed Calvinist’s (whether premil, amil, or postmil) that vigorously advocate the PSA/divine wrath gospel.

          Calvin’s view that God is a God of vengeance is a common theme throughout his Institute’s. His linear progression of reading of the NT through the OT (specifically the legal aspects) and his unstated assumption of absolute divine simplicity, requires a divine wrath/penal heuristic and also predestination. The creeds of the Reformation codified this view.

          It’s difficult to see how there is PSA, as we currently understand it, without Calvinism.

  26. Erik

    General question: When the EO read the section of the Nicene Creed about Jesus coming again “to judge both the quick and the dead”, how do they envision this judgement? Is this not a forensic representation of people being judged (such as in Rev. 20) against the law for their sin, as St. John’s First Epistle tells us that “sin is the transgression of the law”? If people are judged and their name is not found in the Book of Life, will they not be suffering the curse or ‘penalty’ for transgressing the law? If so, how do they pass by this judgement and avoid the penalty?
    Please understand that I’m not suggesting this is some kind of mechanical representation of what happens; it is only meant to be an analogy we can relate it to. However, I guess I don’t see how penal-substitution does not offer a differing, but parallel, perspective to what the ransom-substitution image of Athanasius offers. Yes, the ransom is paid to death, but if we also consider the courtroom images that are presented to us in Scripture (such as the Great White Throne), is it not divine justice that is being placated in this instance? If not, what is being satisfied then? I suppose I see value in both. The ransom image really points to Christ the Victor conquering death and sin, while penal substitution brings out the aspect of how Christ became sin and died on our behalf in order to fulfill what was required of the curse/penalty that results from transgressing the law.

    • Prometheus


      I think you brought up a great point. The judgment scenes . . . what are they? From what I understand about the preceding explanations, it seems to me that the acquittal is from the claims of death. So that death, so to speak, claims us his victim as a result of our transgression of the law. But God in his mercy vindicates us from the claims of death, having satisfied its demands through the death of Christ. But even beyond this we see death is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation. So the forensic isn’t enough either.


      • Erik

        That’s very interesting. I guess I had always just thought of one person standing in the dock in front of the judge, but what you say about there being a plaintiff and defendant makes a lot of sense. Death has a rightful claim on a person but Christ stands in our place to settle that account with death. That actually does pair more nicely with the idea of a ransom substitution. But what you said about one not being enough is right, I suppose I look at the courtroom/ransom imagery as differing pictures of the crucifixion, while the Christus Victor model pictures the resurrection and Christ vanquishing sin/death and kicking open the prison doors. Thanks for that.

      • Karen

        I believe our modern “courtroom” analogies of God’s justice miss the biblical notion. The God of the “Great White Throne” judgement is in no way a “judge” in the sense of our modern legal systems. That is, God, as Judge of the Universe, is not adjudicating according to a mere legal or moral code (which is necessarily to a certain extent arbitrary and even where it is directly established by God Himself as in the Mosaic Law, can only be a shadowy pointer toward Reality–it is not Reality Himself). Nor is God subject to His Law as if it is identical to a static written code that stands outside and over Himself. Breaking a law (a legal code) in the modern forensic sense may or may not have any true natural spiritual or material consequences, e.g., how many times do we all break traffic laws and experience no consequences? (Fr. Stephen Freeman talks more about this here: )

        But breaking God’s “law” has more the sense of going against a “law” of the natural world–i.e., if I ignore the law of gravity and jump off a cliff, I am going to experience serious consequences. If I feed my body with junk food and don’t exercise, my bodily health is going to deteriorate. If I fail to discern and respect the image of God in my neighbor/brother and instead treat him like an object or obstacle judged according to my own desires or fears, my relationships with him and God is going to suffer. God’s law is analogous to this kind of law–only it does not just pertain to material, but also relational/spiritual reality and is an expression of the very nature of the Trinity.

        Orthodox would understand that God’s “wrath” is His mercy (i.e., Himself, His Presence, His Love) as it is experienced by those who are in active rebellion against Him. It is the loving will of God for our wholeness/well-being/healing as it is experienced by those who are in active rebellion against that. If I set myself against the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, the natural consequence is going to be that the law of death and corruption will be at work in my members. I believe this is what we mean by saying salvation is therefore in its essence “ontological”, and not merely legal/forensic in the modern sense, and where the biblical “legal” language implies something much deeper (i.e., something ontological). Sin and death are ontological consequences of our breaking communion with God, Who is Life–not an arbitrary punishment “from” God, extrinsic to His or our real nature or state. Rather “sin” and “death” are simply accurate descriptions of the nature of fallen humankind’s state of alienation from God.

        • Karen

          Sorry, forgot the link:


          Further to my comment, I have also read while “theology” as an academic discipline in the West was placed under the school of law, had there been a similar academic university system put in place by the East, “theology” would have been placed under the school of medicine.

          • Mason

            Again, very good points Karen. St. Athanasius referred to the Eucharist as the medicine of immortality.

            In the several thousands of pages of reformed literature that I’ve read over the years, I’ve never come across this understanding of our Lord’s sacrifice. Only that in the cup (of grape juice) is wrath and anger as God the Father abandoned his Son on the cross so the Father could display His approbation at the violation of His law.

            Lord have mercy.

          • Prometheus

            Karen, as I recall about this post, there were a number of serious Orthodox reactions to this post “sin not a moral problem” that suggest it went quite a bit too far.

          • Erik

            Another comparison I heard was that in the East they are concerned about Who and Why, but the West wants to know How and When.

          • J. B. Aitken


            ***In the several thousands of pages of reformed literature that I’ve read over the years, I’ve never come across this understanding of our Lord’s sacrifice. Only that in the cup (of grape juice) is wrath and anger as God the Father abandoned his Son on the cross so the Father could display His approbation at the violation of His law.***

            Then you missed a bit. I recently read this statement in a book by Michael Horton. And the grape juice slam is uncalled for. Most Reformed churches I have visited used wine, unless you are equivocating on “Reformed” and “evangelical,” in which case you should know better.

            I have no problem with “medicine of immortality” language, but its commitment to substance-metaphysics needs to be heavily qualified to make it acceptable to biblical usage.

          • Paula

            Prometheus, Fr. Freeman’s article was a three parter, and also drew upon many of his other blog posts. The commenters who felt he “went too far” did not read all of them and didn’t understand what he was saying.

          • Karen


            As a long-time reader of Fr. Stephen’s blog (because what he says in its own context most fully resonates with my own Christian experience on my journey to Orthodoxy), I would say with regard to the online reaction to Fr. Stephen’s post, “The Un-Moral Christian”, the only thing that went “too far” was the straw-man conclusions to which some took Fr. Stephen’s (intentionally provocative) language by putting words in his mouth! As Fr. Stephen has pointed out, the post that provoked the storm is part of an eight-year “conversation” on his site, and in its own context, the meaning of his language was entirely Orthodox.

            Speaking from my own experience of Orthodoxy (and contrasting it with the “True Orthodoxy” some construe as the real thing because it appears to most fully uphold all the externals of Orthodoxy), Fr. Stephen’s teaching is also Orthodoxy fully digested (by living its life) and put into terms which can actually faithfully communicate, not necessarily always its native patristic language (though I believe Fr. Stephen is quite conversant in that as well), but the real meaning of that language, to his own immediate American modern context and religious subcultures.

            I’m an avid reader of many Orthodox and other Christian blogs, but as a former Evangelical steeped in this culture, Fr. Stephen’s site has far and away most helped me to begin to more fully understand and to begin to articulate my own experience of God as an Orthodox believer within the Orthodox Church.

            As a Christian Education major at an Evangelical college, I was taught if you cannot accurately put something you believe into your own words and faithfully explain its significance in terms even a small child can clearly understand, you do not truly understand (in the most important biblical sense) what you say you believe. You are no different essentially than a parrot. Being a faithful Orthodox Christian does not mean we can more excellently parrot the Church Fathers and recite the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils–it means we are truly learning from our own experience what it means to live in Christ!

        • robertar


          We’re have a good dialogue going on here. I would like to add some of my thoughts about the courtroom scene with respect to the Final Judgment. Every year Lent begins with the Sunday of the Final Judgment in which Matthew 25:31-46 is read during the Gospel reading. It’s a powerful teaching moment. Over the past several years I’ve noticed a number of striking aspects of this parable.

          One, Christ renders judgment not on a legal text but on whether or not we have loved our neighbors. This reflects the teaching that the Law/Torah is summed up in our call to love God and our neighbors (Mark 12:28-34).

          Two, failure to love our neighbor is equivalent to failing to love God. This is found in the statement: “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45) This equivalency between Christ and the “least of these” is grounded in the Incarnation and Christ being the Second Adam.

          Three, the Greek word for judgment is “krisis” from which we derive the English word “crisis.” Each time we meet someone in need we are faced with a crisis: Will we love our neighbor and keep God’s commandment? Or will we love ourselves more and grieve God’s heart?

          Four, my understanding from all this is that the Final Judgment is not like the final exam students take at the end of the term but the posting of the final grades. Every day life is full of spiritual quizzes and tests and at the end of history all this is tallied up with respect to the question: Do I truly love God or do I love something else? Keeping the law is not a matter of punctilious moral perfection, it is a call to love and humility. When we fall flat on our faces, we get on our knees and cry out: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner! So you are right when you wrote that there is something deeper behind the legal language of Scripture; behind the Law/Torah is the call to love God and our neighbors.

          Five, with respect to Jesus being angry. I find the passage in Mark 3:1-6 where Jesus heals the man with a withered hand instructive. The Pharisees refused to give priority to love and mercy, insisting that no healing take place on the Sabbath. Mark writes: “He looked around at them in anger [Greek: met’ orges] and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts ….” (Mark 3:5) I am struck by how Christ’s anger is rooted in his love. Christ and the Pharisees both believe in the Law/Torah and in divine judgment but in such different ways! So while we are using the image of the courtroom in this comment thread we need to be keenly aware of how we understand divine judgment.

          We need to beware of superimposing our modern American sense of justice on the biblical text. Given the powerful influence that the forensic paradigm has had on American and Western culture we need to exercise discernment and caution when we discuss the penal substitutionary atonement theory.


          • Prometheus


            But while his anger is rooted in love, it is anger, is it not? Certainly he loves the Pharisee and the man with the withered hand, but the Pharisee’s lack of sympathy and understanding rouses real anger does it not? God is not like a rock at the bottom of a cliff wherein his anger is what happens when you jump onto him from a cliff. I find this “natural law” analogy of Karen’s to make him quite impersonal and uncaring. (Sorry to mix the two of your comments together.)

          • robertar


            I approach Karen’s analogy of the rock at the bottom of a cliff metaphorically. I think you are right to be troubled by the implicit impersonalness of the analogy. I believe I’m closer to your understanding of God’s anger being grounded in his personal love. A loving father can be both delighted by his son doing something praiseworthy and angered when the son does something foolish. Two different responses arising from the same love.


          • Karen


            I understand what you are saying about my analogy of using natural physical consequences seeming to be mechanistic and thus seeming to undercut the personal aspect of God’s relationship to us as it pertains to the spiritual order of the created in relationship to Him. I suspect this is at least partly the result, though, of the Enlightenment materialism and secularism we imbibe and unconsciously absorb from the moment we are born in this culture, and the consequent Deistic notions of “God” in His relationship to creation that we import into our “biblical” (and even “Orthodox”) Christian faiths. This is not solely an “Orthodox” or “Protestant” problem–it is a problem of those raised in cultures affected by the philosophical upheaval of “modernity.”

            Fr. Stephen Freeman addresses this very frequently on his blog using the “Two- vs. one-storey universe” analogy he borrowed from Francis Schaeffer. I’ve found his writings very helpful in understanding this.

            In biblical and pre-modern times there was the understanding that nature/creation was the Self-expression of the personal God/Creator revealed in Christ (or from the ancient pagan perspective, “the gods”) and is at every point alive with meaning and speaking of Him. This personal dynamic and meaning within even the “non-personal” material world can only be rightly perceived to the extent our hearts are pure and we see all through the eyes of God (i.e., to the extent we are filled with His Spirit, the Spirit of love). Accordingly, as St. Isaac the Syrian expressed it, we can only truly “know” or understand someone or something in creation to the extent that we love him/her/it.

            In Orthodox understanding, the entire universe and all its “natural” processes are at every point and every moment sustained by the completely Personal energies and will of God, or they cease to exist! In modern times, even those of us who believe in God as Author of creation tend to perceive the currently existing forces in the universe as independently-running cosmic or biological “mechanisms” (again, in substantially Deist fashion, though we identify as Christians, not Deists). This is completely counter to the biblical witness, which views them as God’s Self-expression sustained only in Christ and also subject to and intimately impacted and connected to the condition of mankind (and his use or abuse of his free will) to whom at their genesis God subjected the rest of creation.

          • Karen

            All that was not to say to Prometheus that I disagree with anything Robert has said in his reply to the same comment. It is certainly possible to take my analogy of the cliff too far.

          • Erik

            What about Christ’s literal trial and death? Doesn’t it picture what we generally imagine in a courtroom with a judge, accuser, and defendant? It is noteworthy that God is not the judge here, but could it not be said that Christ is in this account standing in our place and taking the penalty of death that we have earned through transgression. Even if there is no placation of divine justice in this scenario, isn’t it still at least an imaging of penal substitution in its most basic form?

        • Mason

          I think you have made some excellent statements here. Civil penal procedures have to a large degree been superimposed upon the text of the NT, as well as conditioned by a faulty reading of the OT.

          Breaking God’s law is not a sin against God himself or His “honor” per se (as if he’s a feudal lord), but indicates how we as fallen beings often work to fracture the wholeness of His created order. Indeed, as you pointed out, the focus is how this is spiritually damning to ourselves and to our family/neighbor’s/ community.

          For the orthodox, God’s love and wrath are tightly linked. His love for us is His desire to have relation with all of His creation, with mercy as the vehicle. When we fail to re-orient our passions and work to repair the breach, we sow the seeds of corruption and thus experience the wrath of God due to His ever present reality.

          Salvation is ontological, and more specifically, it is a change in our ontological status, which is to say a change in our very being. The original Christian understanding, which the Church Fathers write about in great length, is that the goal is to change from the inside out, the core of our very being. Thus the transformation of grace becomes the process by which one can become able to interpret all things through the uncreated energies of God. Our Lord’s body and blood is offered to His people as a type of blood transfusion, or modification, to help in this process.

          Sadly, the Reformed completely miss this when they make the focal point of salvation a legal transaction. In this truncated view, our being itself is not changed, but rather our ontological status is simply transferred from one category to the other Thus the focus becomes how one “gets saved” as a one time event of transferring categories, rather than “being saved” as an ongoing process of changing our very being.

          Thank you again for your succinct comments!

          • Prometheus

            Two comments:

            a) David says, “against you and you only have I sinned”

            b) You are right about the mere legal status being a problem in Protestant circles. I have long been dissatisfied that nothing actually happens when we “get saved” in a Protestant view. God looks at us through the lens of Christ, but we are still the same! Funnily enough it is hard not to see that in Orthodoxy when one says continually “have mercy on me a sinner.” Am I still a sinner now that Christ has saved me? Or am I now a saint who wrestles with the sin that is still in the world? That is why the Catholic understanding of the transformation that occurs through baptism is so attractive.

          • Mason

            a) David says, “against you and you only have I sinned”

            And this penitential Psalm is the foundation upon which we have to accept divine wrath / PSA theory?

            The rest of the verse: “And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge.”

            David certainly did sin against others, but the poetic imagery he uses conveys a sentiment that we know intuitively that when we harm others, we shake our fist at the Creator of those others and hence will be accountable for our actions to Him alone. The Psalmist is recognizing that while he did so many wrong things to other people, ultimately they were sins against almighty God, meaning his created order, and that He, not man, will be our ultimate judge.

            There’s much, much more that can be said about it, and it certainly can be done more adequately by someone else for sure, but we need to be careful not to pull a few verses out as a proof-text to serve as a foundation for an ideology.

            The orthodox faith is more holistic and doesn’t play gotcha with certain verses as the thousands of protestant denominations do. The questions we should be asking when we come across verses we think support a particular heterodox view is “how do we understand…” and seek council from something external to our personal will.

          • Prometheus


            I only quoted “I have only sinned against you” not to support PSA, but to point out your inconsistency when you say that “Breaking God’s law is not a sin against God himself.” I am not proof-texting for PSA, which I certainly don’t fully buy into.


          • Mason

            Ok, I understand. I qualified my statement with “per se”, attempting to decouple the image of God as a large man with a scowling look on His face with his hand out looking for payment, like a feudal lord. Admittedly it was a sloppy sentence.

            Yes, of course, as the Psalmist wrote, we sin against God alone, ultimately.


          • J.B. Aitken

            ***Sadly, the Reformed completely miss this when they make the focal point of salvation a legal transaction.***

            The covenant is also relational, so to say we make it the focal point is to misread the covenant.

          • J.B. Aitken

            ***Civil penal procedures have to a large degree been superimposed upon the text of the NT, as well as conditioned by a faulty reading of the OT.***

            Are you saying that modern Reformed are theonomists? Surely not. Your statement is unclear.

            ***Breaking God’s law is not a sin against God himself or His “honor” per se (as if he’s a feudal lord),***

            And this was precisely the Reformed’s critique of medieval Rome. We never said God’s “honor” was impugned, but rather his dikaoisune.

            ***Indeed, as you pointed out, the focus is how this is spiritually damning to ourselves and to our family/neighbor’s/ community.***

            This may be true, but if that is the sum total, how could God forgive sin and be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ Jesus? If the whole point of atonement is to make me cool with everybody and heal my brokeneness, why did Jesus have to die in such a bloody way?

            ***Salvation is ontological, and more specifically, it is a change in our ontological status, which is to say a change in our very being. ***

            Chain.Of.Being. If salvation is ontological, then you really can’t escape the nagging idea that creation and finitude is the problem.

            *** In this truncated view, our being itself is not changed, but rather our ontological status is simply transferred from one category to the other***

            We don’t believe our problem is ontological, so we don’t believe in an ontological transfer. If you say that you have read thousands of pages of Reformed theology, how did you miss these basic points?

          • Mason


            “The covenant is also relational, so to say we make it the focal point is to misread the covenant.”

            The reformed concept of atonement, PSA/divine wrath, is THE focal point of its theological system. I don’t believe that I’ve misread the covenant as you have presumed.

            Covenant theology is one of the strong points of Reformed ecclesiology and has some merit. That is until you realize that God predetermines who’s in it and those on the outside are damned for eternity simply because God wouldn’t force them to love Him. Thankfully I no longer have to grind my mind upon this heretical anvil.

          • Mason


            ” If the whole point of atonement is to make me cool with everybody and heal my brokeneness, why did Jesus have to die in such a bloody way?”

            He poured out His blood because it is a type of disinfectant that cleanses us of our sin, and this pleases the Father and reconciles us with the Trinity. It is the medicine of immortality, poured out for us, similar to how Moses struck the rock and water poured out for God’s people to drink. The Reformed use similar language of reconciliation but the Lord’s Supper is seen as a means of grace, somehow, as we stew in our emotions over how mad God was at Christ when he suffered on the cross. If this is not the proper view, then the pastor of the church we attended has led in error hundreds of seminarians at the school where he teaches.

            Now, I WILL admit that sometimes the orthodox view comes across as squishy…can’t we just all be “cool with everyone” as you phrased it. I think this tendency is understandable as you have an Eastern tradition trying to explain itself to a western world that separated from the faith for nearly a millenia. At times their may be an constant emphasis on particular aspects to provide the contrast. But, look into the life of a monk and see if they think the faith is about “being cool with everyone”. It’s not, it’s absolute warfare. Obedience, constant penitential prayer with full cognizance of the crooked timber that each sinner possesses. Nothing squishy there.

            But you don’t have to believe that God, our Creator, hates you, His creation, because you were born with the inability to seek the good, and are going to spend eternity separated from Him unless He forces you to seek Him, or about trying to convince yourself and others that you are part of the elect.

            The other comments you made require too much time and space to respond in this format. As Stuart Chase argued in his book “The Tyranny of Words” most disagreements between parties are based on different understanding of terms. The very word salvation means something different between the Orthodox faith and Reformed theory and we’ll just keep slinging platitudes passed each other, trying to make ourselves look smarter than we really are if we fail to come to this understanding. I need clarification on a few points and to define terms that we can both accept and, quite frankly, I’m simply not interested. There’s been enough info provided on this blog as well as plenty of resources available if your willing to give it honest consideration.

            I was where you were for a number of years ago. Yes! I studiously absorbed the literature and sought genuinely to understand and it’s simply divides the mind and makes no sense. (Which explains why so few people are Calvinist’s today) When I saw there were alternative views that PREDATE what John Calvin and Martin Luther decided upon, well, that was the string I needed to pull the sweater apart. Thanks be to God.

            You can have the last word. I’m out.

          • J.B. Aitken

            I don’t want the last “word” in terms of argument. Largely because there isn’t one. Simply a bunch of assertions strong together with anecdotes. Peace.

          • J.B. Aitken

            And if you want to talk about so few people being Calvinists today (again, anecdotes), I would love to bring up your very own Bradley Nassif who bemoaned why EO are losing so many members. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for gander.

          • Karen

            J.B. says: And this was precisely the Reformed’s critique of medieval Rome. We never said God’s “honor” was impugned, but rather his dikaoisune.

            The article I linked elsewhere in this thread on Anselm’s theory claims the feudal system in which Anselm lived and used by way of analogy, understood the lord’s “honor” in a way much more analogous to the Orthodox understanding of God’s “righteousness” as being reflected in His life-giving and healthy ordering of the cosmos (including man’s own being). If this understanding of “honor” is more true to Anselm’s overall meaning in context, then man’s sin “impugns” God’s integrity (whether you want to understand that as “honor” or “justice”) only insofar as it effectively threatens to destroy (at least temporally) the integrity of the created world as God so orders it toward the “Telos” of life in Him. Also, “satisfaction” in Anselm would then seem to remain consistent with an expiatory understanding of the Cross (which is quite Orthodox), whereas, as I understand it, the Reformed PSA theory took elements of Anselm’s theory in a decidedly propitiatory direction. (All we know from Scripture per se is that the whole economy of the Incarnation, which reaches its apex at the Cross, rights the relationship between God and man. Everything that attempts to say how that occurs apart from the direct statements of Scripture is interpretation.)

            This Orthodox understanding of God’s honor or “righteousness/justice” in the context of the economy of our salvation in Christ as meaning His ordering of His creation toward Himself (i.e., toward its own health and well-being in Him) also makes sense of the statement of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is man fully alive” (i.e., in Christ), where God’s “glory” in this context is synonymous with His “righteousness displayed”. It is also consistent with the teaching from Scripture we repeat in our Orthodox prayers of preparation for Communion that “God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather wills that he turn from his wickedness and live,” and that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

            Any view of the Cross that does not view it as effecting a true change (repentance) through the action of grace in redeemed man (i.e., not just in his “standing”, as a sort of legal fiction, before God), is biblically defective from an Orthodox perspective.

            How does this compare/contrast with your understanding, J.B.?

          • J.B. Aitken


            *** If this understanding of “honor” is more true to Anselm’s overall meaning in context, then man’s sin “impugns” God’s integrity (whether you want to understand that as “honor” or “justice”) only insofar as it effectively threatens to destroy (at least temporally) the integrity of the created world as God so orders it toward the “Telos” of life in Him***

            For the most par I will agree with that reading of Anselm. He isn’t the evil bogeyman that most EO want him to be.

            ***All we know from Scripture per se is that the whole economy of the Incarnation, which reaches its apex at the Cross, rights the relationship between God and man. Everything that attempts to say how that occurs apart from the direct statements of Scripture is interpretation.***

            Aside from the absence of Scriptural evidence, I haven’t seen you guys deal with the OT sacrifices on guilt and atonement. It’s not just expiation (which Reformed have never denied; That should be my motto which I have to put on repeat). There is also the relation between God and man. —God has to have a way to be both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Christ Jesus.— If He forgives sins without a bloody sacrifice (without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness) then he is not just. That means you can’t reduce everything to “expiation” or “righting the cosmos.”

  27. Robert Miller

    I want to thank everyone for the comments and “forcing” me to delve into this subject. In my class to new members, I had some points in it that talked to Substitutionary Atonement. The Minister of Education and I were going over my class last night and he said “I have a problem with this line. I don’t find anywhere in Scripture where God punished anyone because he got mad at them.” We then got into a whole discussion on PSA and he used the word heresy on his own. It was refreshing.

    With this discussion, I am now able to look through my course matter and excise all those references and actually know what I’m (sort of) talking about.

    Still a ways to go, but I’ve been convinced on this matter. Not only by this discussion, but by this combined with scripture search.

    Again, thanks.

    • Mason

      If I may point you to a few resources that could help in your studies.

      Leighton Pullan, Anglican layman, “The Atonement” (1907) – His detailed study proves that the OT sacrificial and “atonement” rituals were not about appeasing God’s wrath but about cleansing His people of their sin. His case is thoroughly convincing and I know of nobody who has attempted to refute it. (probably because it’s irrefutable)

      Stephen Finlan, “Problems with Atonement” – Outstanding analysis of the legal/punitive metaphors used throughout the Scriptures. He ultimately concludes that none of punitive, sacrificial metaphors capture’s the true essence of the gospel. God was/is not beholden to a sacrificial ritual in order to reconcile His creation. Christ repudiated sacrifice when he restated the Psalm in the temple: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It is the Incarnation, rather than atonement, that is the essential purpose of Christ’s mission, and that the process of theosis is the truest, most mature expression of our faith in Christ. This is precisely what the Orthodox faith has maintained throughout the centuries.

      I hope these help you in your journey. God be with you.

      • robertar


        Thank you for your recommendations!


  28. Prometheus

    I wonder whether God’s “emotions” or “feelings” towards sin are real from an Orthodox perspective. What I sense from the above EO explanations is that love is real, but wrath is in us, not in God. He does not feel angry about sin. He does not feel sadness. It seems that such a philosophical blanket application of impassibility to God deprives him of vital personal attributes. While I would agree that God is impassible in the sense that he does not have to let anything affect him, I think that he is quite capable of creating something that he actually interacts with: i.e. humans. The whole point of creating was to share himself with creation. But the kind of creation he chose – ones with free will (if I may be so bold) – interact with him. They respond to him and he responds to them. He is pleased by their obedience. He is upset by their disobedience. He regrets having made them (cf. Noah’s flood). Much of the logic used against PSA seems to also deprive us of such rich Biblical imagery. Do the Orthodox have any way of understanding such language besides saying that it is our perception of God that is “sadness” “anger” “regret”? Or is this really how God reacts to his creation. I know that historically the question of impassibility has been huge because the church had to affirm that the one who died on the cross was not merely man, but very God: “behold the immortal dies” as one Protestant hymn puts it. This put a very great strain on the church as it endeavored to hold on to the doctrine of impassibility, according to Pelikan. I remember wondering, when I read it, what the big deal was. Why cannot the God of the universe, though of himself impassible, choose to suffer? Ultimately he would not be changing who he is. True impassibility, to me, means not passive rather than unable to feel. So God in Christ did not suffer on the cross because he was the victim of circumstance, but because he chose to. I am unsure whether what I am saying is Orthodox or Heterodox, but I am trying to understand whether the Orthodox have lost Biblical drama while trying to protect certain aspects of God’s character. I’ve certainly seen this in other groups of Christians, but I’m not sure that that is what I am seeing here.

    • Karen


      You are asking great questions. I think the question of impassibility is frequently misunderstood to mean God is what we think of as “stoic”, but the reality is Jesus is our picture for what this means. It means God’s love (which some of the Orthodox Fathers or contemporary Elders even describe as divine “eros”!–I think of Christ’s lament over Jerusalem as one example of this divine “eros” demonstrated in the Scriptures) and His essence are never altered by our state or actions. “Love alters not when it alteration finds,” as the poet famously says. He is not reactive, as even the best of humans inevitably are, thus the biblical anthropomorphisms about His “anger,” and “changing His mind” and so forth need to be significantly qualified by what this does not mean. Unfortunately, it seems to me (and to many) that fundamentalist literalisms of many kinds about the Scriptures in the modern era have obscured this critical patristic doctrine of God’s impassibility and, indeed, created many false “God”s in the minds of modern professing Christians, agnostics, and atheists” alike!

      Even “righteous” human anger is typically at best impure and mixed with sinful passions, i.e., disordered human fears and desires. God has no “anger” in that sense. It also means He cannot be injured or made less than He is by anything we do (James 1:17). It also means God is completely impartial and cannot be prejudiced to go against His predisposition to demonstrate and pour out His love on all of creation by some human action or lack thereof. God is love (1 John 4:8) in His energies toward creation, and cannot be manipulated to become anything less than this. Thus we must see His “wrath” as an expression of His love and not its transformation or absence (as so much of the language about God in our modern American scene can seem to make it out to be–especially as it pertains to Final Judgment).

  29. Karen


    You write: Aside from the absence of Scriptural evidence, I haven’t seen you guys deal with the OT sacrifices on guilt and atonement. It’s not just expiation (which Reformed have never denied; That should be my motto which I have to put on repeat). There is also the relation between God and man. —God has to have a way to be both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Christ Jesus.— If He forgives sins without a bloody sacrifice (without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness) then he is not just. That means you can’t reduce everything to “expiation” or “righting the cosmos.”

    First “righting the cosmos” is expansive and all-inclusive–it is not “reducing” anything. I do not believe the “bloody” sacrifices of the OT are Christianly understood as propitiation of God in the sense that either Reformed forensic PSA theory postulates or the ancient pagan “bloody” sacrifices were appeasements (essentially=bribes) of their gods. Insofar as Reformed and Protestant interpretations of the OT treat them as such, I believe they miss the mark of a genuine apostolic and Christ-centered interpretation of the OT.

    That does not mean I believe the Israelite people or writers of the OT necessarily understood these fully in the way they revealed Christ, since even Christ’s disciples had to be illumined as to how the OT and its sacrificial system “spoke of Christ” (Luke 24:27).

    I think it would be fair to say that while many Protestant treatments of the OT sacrificial system look at that system in its own immediate context and attempt to take it on “face value” then transpose that “literal meaning” onto the death and shed blood of Christ, the Orthodox and apostolic (i.e., the NT) approach is instead to look at the full revelation in Christ and then, only in the context of that full Revelation, to look back to understand in what way the various OT sacrifices (including the blood) speak (in a shadowy and partial way) of the meaning of Christ’s passion and outpoured blood. If one does that, it is possible to come up with a very different view than is required by PSA. The OT sacrifices do not define Christ’s–rather’ His Sacrifice defines the real meaning (for Christians) of the OT sacrifices.

    Some articles & comments from an Orthodox perspective that touch on the assumptions in your above paragraph of your comment to me are found here:

    Incidentally, there is ample Scriptural testimony in both OT and NT that God indeed forgives sins without a bloody sacrifice! Forgiveness is contingent only, even in the OT, on the genuine contrition and repentance of the sinner, e.g. Psalm 51 (LLX 50). In the OT sacrificial system, I suggest it is what (on the part of the worshipper) the guilt offering and sin offering represent and are inherently connected to in their symbolic meaning (i.e., the worshipper’s repentance and desire for reconciliation with God) which appropriates God’s forgiveness (and this more in the sense of its assurance for the worshipper assisted by the Tabernacle/Temple liturgy, not of the raw fact of God’s forgiveness which the Scriptures assure us is freely (without condition) extended to the “broken and contrite heart.” In fact, the OT is quite clear God rejects and despises the blood sacrifices of His people offered (however correctly in external form) according to the Law when they are unaccompanied by sincere repentance evidenced in the offerers’ treatment of others–especially the poor and oppressed! Similarly, Orthodox believers are taught that if they approach and partake of Communion “unworthily”–without true repentance–they “eat and drink” not life, but “condemnation” to themselves.

    God is indeed “just” and “justifier” of the one who has “faith in Jesus”, but this does not require a Reformed PSA interpretation. He is just and justifier because the death of Christ is the apex of Christ’s identification and uniting himself with fallen humanity’s sin and death, and it is this real union which empowers our repentance and connects us to the life of God (found in the blood!). There is no understanding of how Jesus’ blood brings us life apart from His teaching in John 6:46ff! This is also why Christ says we must die with Him in order to live (rather than that He must die “instead of” us that we might live!). God is just because in Christ He makes a way for our repentance and healing. He condemns sin by actually reversing its power through our union with Christ and putting us right with Him (progressively in reality–not just as a legal fiction), and we are declared righteous because, through faith in Christ, we are actually being made righteous (even though our sinful habits–the symptoms of our sin–take time to eradicate). When we genuinely place faith in Christ (as opposed to some theory of Atonement), our full transformation into His likeness is truly already underway (even if, like in a germinating seed, that life is hidden for long time from the view of anyone but God).

    • J. B. Aitken

      I am quoting Romans 3:26. Paul is saying that if God passed over former sins without a requisite sacrifice he is unjust and hence, unrighteous. That’s why there had to be a sacrifice.

    • J. B. Aitken

      ***rather than that He must die “instead of” us that we might live!***

      You do realize that *huper* and *anti* mean “instead of”? And without this “instead-of” most of the Old Testament sacrifices which preshadowed Christ don’t make sense.

      Secondly, and this will save you time in the future, I don’t play link-tag. If that is how the argument goes, then I can copy and paste several hundred links for you to read, yet that probably isn’t a wise use of either of our time.

      And to put it nicely, I don’t care what Stephen Freeman says. Even when I was looking into EO, I cringed at his treatment of the biblical text. It was essentially recycled German Liberal Protestantism, minus the German words.

      • Mason

        Thank you for your excellent response. Truly outstanding. The simple fact is that God in fact did forgive sins without bloody sacrifice. After all, as the prophet declared and our Lord reiterated, I desire mercy NOT sacrifice. Apparently they didn’t get the memo about God’s justice demanding Christ’s blood for himself. Christ’s blood was for us. But apparently he changed His mind and demands blood to satisfy his own sense of justice.

        Your philosophical commitment to reformed presuppositions is quite obvious and I fear no alternative presentation will permeate the supra-structure that you are certain is correct. Their is a great deal of scholarship by non-orthodox that refute your system.

        Divine wrath/pen sub metaphors are discussed in limited cases by some of the Church Fathers, but to make them the absolute lynch pin of our understanding of the gospel truncates our understanding of God. It’s really that simple. Almost too simple to believe. That’s the beauty of the orthodox christian faith.

        But you’ve already investigated it and found it mistreated the text, the text which the Church wrote and provided for you.

        • J. B. Aitken


          Your philosophical commitment to substance-metaphysics is quite obvious and I fear no alternative presentation will permeate the supra-structure that you are certain is correct.

          It’s funny that you say neo-Orthodoxy refutes my system, since I am a closet Barthian. In fact, TRs have often accused me of being a Barthian (which isn’t entirely accurate. I accept Barth’s reading of divine simplicity and his critique of analogia entis)

          ***Divine wrath/pen sub metaphors are discussed in limited cases by some of the Church Fathers, but to make them the absolute lynch pin of our understanding of the gospel truncates our understanding of God. It’s really that simple. Almost too simple to believe. That’s the beauty of the orthodox christian faith.***

          I’m pretty sure I didn’t make it the lynch pin (if anything, covenant is). You are reading theories into what you want me to say so you can knock them down. By the way, I thought you said you were “out.”

          • Paula

            JB, I think this blog is intended to reach the audience of Reformed who wish to know more about Orthodoxy because they are contemplating crossing the bridge. You don’t seem to be that person, which makes me wonder why you are devoting so much time to arguing?

            Just a thought, though. You say you are a Barthian. That would mean you are not a Christian. You are a follow of Barth (Bart? I don’t know who this is anyway). Just like those who attend the Moody church are not Christians, they are followers of Dwight Moody.

            Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection gave us the means to overcome the death that we brought into the world through our willful disobedience. Had we heeded His words, He may not have needed to endure crucifixion, but since we didn’t, He showed who He is in this way, and thereby who we must be to be reconciled to Him. We are as sinful as we ever were, but now we have a means of salvation that we did not have before. It was not a slate-wiping event, it was creation of a new relationship for our benefit.

          • robertar


            This is blog is intended as a place for dialogue between Orthodox and inquiring Reformed Christians and other Protestants. You’re right in that Jacob is no longer an inquiring Protestant but has become something more of a shrill critic of Orthodoxy. It is as a courtesy that I let him comment on this blog. My goal is to encourage reasoned and charitable discussion across the different faith traditions. But I become deeply concerned when Jacob starts to hog the conversation. Jacob, please dial back your comments for the time being. Thank you.


          • Mason

            I wrote non-orthodox, not neo. Nor is my acceptance of a gospel message that is devoid of PSA a tacit endorsement of “substance-metaphysics”. I’ve not delved into metaphysics so please refrain from casting out herrings to get serious inquirers off track.
            Seriously, stay grounded.

            Alexandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that the mind cannot accept what the heart cannot confirm.

            This is why I do not accept the reformed theory of Christ’s sacrifice. Perhaps I was not predestined to do so.