A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Orthodox Christians on Penal Substitutionary Atonement


Comments from Two Readers on my article “Evidence for Christ’s Descent into Hell

David Roxas on 10-June-2018 wrote:

“This is not to say that Protestants and Evangelicals should relinquish the penal model of salvation altogether, but that they should incorporate the ancient patristic model of Christus Victor into their theology.”

Scratching my head over this one. What exactly do you mean the penal mode of salvation should not be relinquished? Should the Orthodox then accept it? Forensic justification by faith alone and penal substitution go hand in hand so how do you propose to separate them if at all? How does penal substitution fit with salvation by participation in the uncreated energies of God (theosis)?

“I believe that there is some merit to the penal theory of atonement and that we need a balanced corrective to the dominant Protestant understanding.”

As Ricky said to Lucy “You got some ‘splainin’ to do!” Please tell us more about what you think the merits of penal theory of the atonement.

Anastasia Gutnik on 14-June-2018 wrote:

I had no idea you were a closet protestant! haha! After 6 years of blogging and you cannot get past penal substitution. that is hilarious Robert!


My Response

I appreciate David and Anastasia’s questions about a statement I made in the article “Evidence for Christ’s Descent into Hell. (6 April 2018)” I am also somewhat amused by their incredulity at my attempt to maintain a charitable openness towards Protestant soteriology. Becoming Orthodox did not entail my rejecting Protestant theology wholesale, but only that which is incompatible with the historic Christian Faith.

How Christ saves us is a tremendous mystery that cannot be reduced to a simple doctrinal formula as many Protestants seem to assume. While both Protestants and Orthodox Christians see great importance in Christ’s death, they approach it very differently. Whereas the Protestant understanding has been shaped by their reaction against medieval Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox understanding has been shaped by the early Church Fathers and the ancient liturgies. Unlike Protestantism, which has well-defined and clearly-articulated statements on how Christ saved us, the early Church had no clear-cut soteriology (McGrath Vol. 1 p. 23; Kelly p. 375). This means that it is difficult to draw a clear-cut black-and-white distinction between Protestant and Orthodox soteriologies. Whereas the Orthodox Church has rejected Protestant doctrines like justification by faith alone and double predestination, there has yet to be a formal condemnation of the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. While there are Orthodox Christians who are very critical of this theory, there are others who are receptive to it. I hope one day to write a more in-depth article on the differences and similarities between the two theological traditions. However, in light of the importance of David and Anastasia’s questions for Reformed-Orthodox dialogue, I believe that I should attempt a brief sketch in this article.

To answer their questions: Yes, Orthodoxy does believe in Christ’s substitutionary death on the Cross, but not in the same way as Protestants do. Below is a sketch of the paradigmatic differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy over how Christ saves us through his death on the Cross. Then, further down in the article, I cite several contemporary Orthodox apologists—Kabane the Christian, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and Father Josiah Trenham—on their understanding of Christ’s saving death.

Problem – In Protestant theology, the big problem is the guilt that results from our violating the law and God’s wrath against guilty sinners. In Orthodoxy, the big problem is our alienation from God who is Life, and our captivity to the Devil and Death.

Solution – In Protestant theology, the solution is Jesus being punished on our behalf in order to pay the penalty we richly deserve. In Orthodoxy, the solution is Jesus’ dying on the Cross, his descent into Hades, the realm of Death, and his third-day Resurrection, in which the gates of Hell are shattered, captive humans set free from Death, and joined to Christ the Life of the World.

Emphasis – This explains why the key doctrine of Protestantism is justification by faith alone—the word “justification” puts the focus on the legal imputation of guilt, the requisite punishment for that guilt, and the imputation of Christ’s legal righteousness to those who have faith in Christ. In Orthodoxy, this explains why the emphasis is on our union with Christ who is Life, and on faith in Christ as faithfulness to Christ.

I would encourage readers to listen to the two podcasts linked below and to consider purchasing Father Josiah’s excellent book. I have provided a few transcribed remarks with time marks for their convenience.

Kabane the Christian’s “Do Orthodox Christians Believe in Penal Atonement?

He states forthrightly: “Yes, Orthodox do believe in penal substitution.” [0:21] He also notes that the Church Fathers taught that Christ took the penalty we deserved. [0:53] He then goes on to explain that the penalty we deserve is death, the tearing of the soul from the body.

Kabane notes that in the West, death, which Orthodoxy views as the primary problem, gets shoved to the side and eternal hell is seen as the real punishment even though hell is not mentioned in Genesis 3. [5:20] For the Orthodox, hell is the eternal realization of death. [5:57]

Frederica Mathewes-Green’s “Orthodoxy and the Atonement

She notes about Orthodoxy: “We just believe that God just forgives us. He doesn’t expect anyone to pay. It isn’t that he gets a third party to pay. He just lets it go.” [5:08] She notes that in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35) the Master forgives; he does not get a third party to pay off the debt owed him. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son the father forgives the son and welcomes him home [5:45]. The father does not demand that the son repay the money squandered (Luke 15:11-32).

Frederica notes that our problem is not so much forgiveness as death. “We have to be rescued. We’ve made ourselves captives of the Evil One. We’ve gotten ourselves enclosed in the prison of death through our sins.” [6:18]

Father Josiah Trenham’s Rock and Sand

Fr. Josiah notes:

The great problem with Protestant teaching on salvation is its thorough-going reductionism. In the Holy Scripture and in the writings of the Holy Fathers salvation is a grand accomplishment with innumerable facets, a great and expansive deliverance of humanity from all its enemies: sin, condemnation, the wrath of God, the devil and his demons, the world, and ultimately death. In Protestant teaching and practice, salvation is essentially a deliverance from the wrath of God. (p. 288; emphasis added)

The traditional Christian teaching expressed in the New Testament and the writings of the Fathers on the subject of the atonement of our Savior is the Cross saved us in three essential ways: on the Cross Jesus conquered death; on the Cross Jesus triumphed over the principalities and power of this evil age; on the Cross Jesus made atonement for human sins by His blood. Because the Protestants were working out of a soteriological framework of a courtroom and declarative justification, they read the teaching about the Cross through these lenses and as a result articulated a reductionistic theology of the atonement, which ignored the traditional emphasis on the conquering of death and the triumph of the demons. Everything for Protestantism becomes satisfaction of God’s justice, and by making one image the whole, even that image became distorted in Protestant articulation. (p. 294)

. . . the greatest reductionism is found in the immense neglect of emphasis upon the heart of the New Testament teaching on salvation as union with Jesus Christ . . . . The theology of the Church bears witness to the fact that the mystery of salvation is accomplished not just on the Cross, but from the very moment of Incarnation when the Only-Begotten and Co-Eternal Son united Himself forever with humanity in the womb of the Virgin Mary, his Most Pure Mother. Salvation as union and communion between God and Man drips from every page of the new Testament and in the writings of Holy fathers. (p. 296; emphasis added)

To be fair, two nineteenth-century Reformed theologians, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff of the Mercersburg Theology school, sought to highlight the more holistic understanding of salvation within the Reformed tradition. (See my assessment of this small but important movement.)  More recently, Anglican bishop N.T. Wright’s writings and some of his Reformed followers in the Federal Vision movement have moved away from this narrow, exclusively legal-forensic view. Sadly, in their attempt to incorporate aspects of patristic theology, they have been charged as heretics by their Reformed brethren for seeking to recover ancient Christianity!  (See the Recommended Reading at the bottom which lists several articles about the alternative soteriologies that recently surfaced within the Reformed tradition.)


Oftentimes, when one experiences a feeling of disbelief and incredulity, they will say: “Pardon me. I don’t think I heard you right?” My response to David Roxas and Anastasia Gutnik is: “No. You did not hear me right. You are trying to understand my statements using the black-and-white theological categories that emerged from Protestantism’s conflict with Roman Catholicism in the 1500s.”

David Roxa’s assertion that justification by faith alone and penal substitution go hand-in-hand is an assumption that needs to be scrutinized in light of Scripture and the early Church Fathers’ reading of Scripture. While there is a penal aspect to Christ’s death, how we understand “penal” needs to be scrutinized for hidden assumptions. What also needs to be scrutinized is the centrality of justification (legal righteousness) to our salvation in Christ. Is justification central to salvation or an aspect of salvation? It seems that for Protestants, forensic justification is equivalent to salvation. But is that the case in light of the rich, diverse Scriptural teachings about how Christ saves us? My impression is that in defending sola fide (justification by faith alone) Protestant theology inadvertently ended up suppressing certain passages from their reading of Scripture. This gave rise to a theological paradigm that many Protestants today accept uncritically. It also gave rise to their ignorance of its novelty and sola fide’s being conditioned by medieval Roman Catholicism. If, on the other hand, it is union with Christ that is central to our salvation, of which justification is one aspect, then the penal substitutionary theory does not necessarily preclude theosis. This would address David Roxas’ concern that penal substitutionary atonement is incompatible with theosis – salvation as participation with the uncreated energies of God. This would help correct some of the overemphasis in Protestant theology and help Protestant inquirers integrate the Church Fathers into their understanding of how we are saved by Christ. Furthermore, it would validate my suggestion that a Protestant who wishes to become Orthodox would not necessarily need to relinquish the penal model of salvation provided that he or she seek to understand it within the context of the patristic consensus.  Therefore, one need not be a “closet Protestant” as Anastasia Gutnik sarcastically alleged in her comment but in fact a solidly Orthodox Christian.

In closing, I urge David Roxas, Anastasia Gutnik, and other Protestants to be more open to the early Church Fathers who had a richer and more holistic understanding of Christ’s death on the Cross. I also urge them to learn from the ancient Eucharistic prayers that contain valuable insights into how the early Christians understood Christ’s saving death. While the Church Fathers affirmed that Christ died on behalf of sinners and that He paid the penalty we deserved, the judicial emphasis is quite subdued, and other motifs such as redemption and union with Christ are given greater emphasis.

Below are some excerpts from the early Church. In them one will encounter a theological paradigm that is strikingly different from that of Protestantism, which should cause thoughtful Protestants to rethink their theology.

Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the earliest Church Fathers, who died circa 200, wrote:

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God,—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. (Irenaeus of Lyons Against Heresies Book 5.1.1, ANF p. 526)

Athanasius the Great, a stalwart defender of Christ’s divinity during the Arian controversy of the fourth century, wrote:

. . . Even so was it with Christ. He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind. No. He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those others His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. (Athanasius the Great On the Incarnation §24)

In the fourth century liturgy of Basil the Great we find this statement in the Eucharistic prayer:

He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. (Eucharistic prayer – Liturgy of Basil the Great, 4th century)

While not Protestant, the early Church Fathers were undeniably Christian in theology. There is much spiritual wisdom in the Church Fathers that both Protestants as well as Orthodox can benefit from.

Robert Arakaki


References and Recommended Readings

Robert Arakaki. “An Eastern Orthodox Critique of Mercersburg Theology.” OrthodoxBridge (2012)

Athanasius the Great. On the Incarnation.

Basil the Great. Divine Liturgy. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Jordan Cooper.  “Thoughts on Mercersburg Theology.”  Just & Sinner (2014)

Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies 5.1.1. Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1

J.N.D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines. 1978 edition.

Alister McGrath. Iustitia Dei: A history of the Christian doctrine of Justification. Vol. 1 The Beginnings to the Reformation.

Matt Powell.  “Mercersburg and the Federal Vision.Aquila Report (2016)

Alastair Roberts.  “Approaches to Justification within the Federal Vision.”  Alistair’s Adversaria (2006)

Father Josiah Trenham.  Rock and Sand. (2015)




  1. John Burnham

    Really good post, Mr. Arakaki! I can definitely begin to appreciate how one, as an Orthodox Christian, can better understand Protestantism’s core dogmatization of penal substitution in the light of the general consensus of the Church’s Fathers. I opine wholeheartedly that one of your greatest points in this post is where you write:

    “My impression is that in defending sola fide (justification by faith alone) Protestant theology inadvertently ended up SUPPRESSING [my emphasis] certain passages from their reading of Scripture. This gave rise to a theological paradigm that many Protestants today accept uncritically. It also gave rise to their ignorance of its novelty and sola fide’s being conditioned by medieval Roman Catholicism” (Conclusion, Paragraph 2).

    In a canny way, your statement strengthens my own view of how heresies generally tend towards producing a warped vision of the God-man and His saving work: That a given heresy most usually focuses on a singular tree within a forest while unwittingly ignoring the forest as a whole. Protestantism does just that; it ignores the core message of the Apostolic Tradition and institutes a dogma whole cloth, so to speak, out of a few fragments, that the Holy Apostles themselves never taught, and one which the Church Fathers, many of whom were pupils of the same Apostles, never believed or traditioned into their own writings. Likewise, this demonstrates how Protestantism, as equally well as Roman Catholicism, will cherry pick both the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Church’s Fathers to self-justify certain aspects of their own rationalized theologizations.

    Lastly, it is so worth noting how Protestantism ends up being an unbroken continuum of Medieval Catholicism’s self-justifying scholasticizations, and, ironically, is just as papal-centric as Roman Catholicism itself. For example, one could rewrite your cited paragraph 2 from above in this manner:

    My impression is that in defending Papism; a.k.a., papal-centric magisterialism (Roman Catholicism’s dogmatization of Papism’s threefold claim to universal jurisdiction, absolute supremacy, and personal infallibility of the Pope of Rome), Roman Catholic theology inadvertently ended up suppressing certain passages from their reading of Scripture and the Church’s Fathers. This gave rise to a theological paradigm; i.e., a theologized narrative, that many Roman Catholics today accept uncritically. It also gave rise to their ignorance of Papism’s novelt[ies] and their being an innovation that had been slowly developing into what they are today, ever since the Great Schism of 1054.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking and balanced post – most appreciated!


    • Robert Arakaki


      Thanks! And, I liked your analogy of the tree versus the forest.


  2. David E. Rockett

    Well done Robert, and very balanced. It seems we live in an age of Reductionisms. Everyone wants the quick, succinct, Readers Digest version of everything. But like proof-texts, Reductionisms are lazy, and often distort more than they elucidate. Like that classic Bumper-Sticker read:
    “Most important things in Life, can be
    Tragically distorted on a Bumper-Sticker!”

    When I was an inquirer/catechecumen to Orthodox I could not understand why so many
    Orthodoxy railed vehemently against, and denied ANY place for penal-substitution…when it did appeared in our Liturgical language. When I finally glimpsed the FAR more rich and beautifully full view of Salvation championed in Orthodoxy, it became an overwhelming cool refreshing breeze — while distortions which reduced salvation to appeasing an Angry God — rightfully ugly.
    John is right above. Heresies geminate in such distortions. Sadly, there was a time when any mention of God’s Love offended me, and I revelled in God being angry with sinners every day. God was re-made like Man…in my own image and likeness, which was too angry.
    But far from equal, His anger with sin and sinners is subordinate to God being Love. Indeed, God is Slow to anger (not to love). God IS Love…which means God is patient, God is kind, Slow to anger, long-suffering and abounding in loving-kindness and tender mercies. As our Liturgy repeatedly says of God, “The lover of mankind.” And the fullness of Orthodox salvation reflects this very reality. Thanks be to God.

    • Philip Enomoto

      Hi David,
      I agree with your comment to Robert’s blog article. Personally, Theosis can be the only enabling-factor for men to become true lovers of others created as the Imago-Dei; loving others unconditionally requires a supernatural transformation and willful spiritual habits; i.e., prayer, Scripture reading, solitude and reflection to invoke this love action.
      It is more than a concept. Protestant seem to be satisfied with the concept of salvation rather than the practice of one who has experienced salvation in relationship with others. I do volunteer work with those having mental health problems and in this context loving others unlike me is almost humanly impossible so it provides a real challenge to genuine Christian loving. Most of my friends have been rejected by their own families because they haven’t fit the bill as off-spring, siblings or relations; it places substantive flesh on Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors.

      In my Protestant upbringing, I often buckled under the weight of my constant guilt derived from ” nailing of Christ to the Cross due to my sins.” Over the years, God transformed into an angry monolithic stone-faced person whose arms were folded and who stood at an unreachable distance from me.
      I am not yet Orthodox yet but have tasted of the prayers which I recite from a Prayer Book and find that the God as the “Lover of Mankind” is indeed merciful as stated in the Jesus Prayer and works with us in spite of our nature; He readily loves the unlovable as easily as lovable persons.

      I believe the real measure of genuine faith is whether we are indeed transformed in a divine sense to “care for the orphans and widows”, to this have been called. I think it will only happen through the transforming process which is called theosis.

      • Robert Arakaki


        I’m glad you are benefiting from the Orthodox prayers. I believe that through these prayers we can grow in God’s love and find healing for our souls. God bless you in your journey.


      • Richard Mohr

        Howl are you doing now? Unlike other times, we are constrained in our church attendance, so we cannot take in what the Church offers us during Lent. I hope that you are at least “attending” streaming services on the internet.
        I am a former Evangelical with a Fuller M.Div. I started attending liturgy in Harbin, China, when I took an old Russian woman to the recently reopened Orthodox church in the city. Imagine going to a church and understanding none of the Church Slavonic! I persisted. Keep reading and praying!

  3. Doug Sangster


    Thank you for this lucid explanation. You are a fine writer and I appreciate your gentleness.

    God bless you and this blog.


    • Robert Arakaki


      Thank you! Your words of encouragement are much appreciated!


  4. Philip Enomoto

    Hi Robert,
    Another great explication ! I always wondered why I was getting so neurotic over my sins over all the years while worshiping God in a classic Protestant denominational church for the majority of my life span to date.

  5. Simon

    Please, think your beliefs through. Saying that ‘judgment is very much self-inflicted’ doesn’t make it fair. Basically you’re saying that God is someone who says ‘Ignorance of the law–the way things work to create consequences–is no excuse.’ I hear you saying to someone ‘You jumped off the cliff and gravity worked its magic and now you’re legs are broken. You did that to yourself!’ And the person says ‘But, I was blind and didn’t know that a cliff was there or that such things as cliffs exist!!’ And you say ‘Doesn’t matter. This is the way it is. You did this to yourself.’ The god of the consequentialists has a “natural” law of causes and effects on our souls such that this direction naturally and unconditionally erode the soul and leads to death AND the other direction naturally nourishes the soul and leads to life. And who made the system to work that way? God did. So, there are some people who in their ignorance and blindness and lunacy will be in a direction of death when they die and then what happens to those poor people? Hell forever after??

    • Robert Arakaki


      Welcome to the Reformed-Orthodox conversation. Were you intending your comment to one of the comments or to the article? If it was to the article, could you point out the sentence that troubled you? This will help facilitate clear communication. Thank you.


  6. Kevin

    If all that was necessary for our salvation was for the Son of God to die on a cross in our place, then there really wasn’t a need for Christ to be born and experience thirty-some years of humanity. God could have done things more simply and quickly if it were simply a matter of making a third-party payment. In my Protestant experience, when hearing the “gospel” that Christ died for my sins in my place, I often had a sense of, “Okay, that sounds good…but now what?” I even imagined an eternity where Jesus was kind of “over there” in a heavenly temple and we either watched or ruled those on earth for a thousand years (pre-Millennial Dispensationalism), or zipped around the universe exploring Creation. The Orthodox End is rather different.

    • Stephanos

      No Reformed Christian worth his salt would subscribe to the idea that our Lord’s 33 years of active obedience to the Law was not necessary for our Salvation. Christ fulfills all the requirements of the Law through His life, death and Resurrection. He came to fulfill ALL righeousness on our behalf.

  7. Andronicus

    Thank you Robert for this insightful post. Even before becoming (or even knowing anything about) Orthodox, as a Protestant, I could not agree with Penal Substitution Atonement as espoused by the majority of churches. For a time I was influenced by the “Moral government theory” of the atonement (which Charles Finney and others held to), which states that God could not simply forgive mankind’s sin, as the latter would then not know the seriousness of sin and take the forgiveness lightly. God would also be seen not to have a high regard for his own law (the punishment of the sinner). But of course God wanted to save mankind. So to (i) offer forgiveness and salvation for mankind out of His love and simultaneously (ii) show both the seriousness of sin as well as the high regard for His law, Christ died as our substitute on the cross. This view always made more sense to me than PSA. When I became Orthodox I was delighted to see not only an alternative , but that all of Christ’s actions were to accomplish our salvation.

    Here is a article by Hieromonk Damascene of “What Christ accomplished on the cross”, which touches on some of the legal language used by scripture and the Holy Fathers: http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/christcross.aspx

    Thank you again for your ministry Robert, may God bless your wonderful efforts.

  8. Michael Bauman

    Robert, excellent as always. I am not an expert at all on the different doctines of atonement but I have studied the nature of heresy and Mr. Burnham is quite right. Heresy often takes one facet of the truth and makes it the only thing.

    The Incarnational reality of our Lord being fully God AND fully man stresses our rational abilities to the breaking point.

    Our theories of salvation, no matter how inspired and complete are still not the whole story. Only through an encounter with our Lord Himself can we begin to know some of the Truth.

    When my wife died during Lent a few years ago I went to the Pascha service in grief. I left still in grief but knowing beyond any doubt the reality of the Resurrection and Our Lord’s victory over death. So whatever the details, isn’t that what salvation is all about?

    It seems to me that salvation is small, extremely intimate and unique to what each of us needs within the context of the Church.
    While unique, salvation is not individual or isolated. PSA has always seemed to me to divide us from God and each other so it cannot be true, but I was not Protestant or RC before being received into the Church.
    I was just looking for the place God wanted me to be.

  9. Jimmy

    As a person who was baptized, and still is Catholic who has had exposure to Eastern Christianity, what I have seen posted on this site has helped my faith immensely.

    • Robert Arakaki

      I’m glad that you find this blog helpful!


  10. Matthew Lyon

    It would be helpful to read some of Simon’s comments on the Glory to God for all things blog, topic Consent to Reality.

    As for Penal Substitution – the greatest difficulty I have with it is that it doesn’t fit within the scheme of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. No animal was ever punished, suffered penalty, for the moral crimes of another person. The animal blood covered the death and conferred temporary life to the participant making them temporarily “clean”, and given some measure of safety for entering Sacred Space, provided there were no other circumstances which rendered them unclean for a certain period of time. The fact that you were constantly offering sacrifices for your uncleanness – for your death – was a constant reminder of the problem of death. It made worship all the more serious since it was life threatening. You never would have received access into the inner Sacred Space either – it was too dangerous, it was dangerous even for the High Priest. Moral crimes were punished, not atoned for. But Christ’s Once for All Sacrifice could keep you clean from death, and forgive moral crimes, because He is Life. Because of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, Christ gives infinitely more than an animal or any other human ever could have. His blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness – the unclean kind and the immoral kind. That is why Christ is still offered on the altar at every liturgy – ongoing union in his life, death, and resurrection through participation in His Life which entails ongoing repentance, faith, and communion. His Life keeps us clean and prepares us through theosis for Life in the Age. We are no longer unclean, almost nothing is in one sense, because Life has triumphed over death.

    So, I could perhaps see Christ’s sacrfice for our uncleanness due to death being non-penal, but his sacrifice for our moral crimes being penal in one sense – but repentance, the offering of the heart, turns the heart of God, not sacrifice. If fear of death is behind man’s sin, and Christ loved the Father more than life, “Not my will be done…”, then Christ’s offering of His life was the offering man should have given God all along, and was very much to free man from fear of death – especially when you consider that He had no plan to remain dead. If Satan held man in bondage to sin through fear of death, what greater blow might he land on Satan (besides bursting into Hades) than to look crucifixion in the face, Pilate in the face, Pharisees in the face and say “No man takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord.” Fearlessness in the face of death is true freedom and this is what we see if the lives of so many martrys. A presentation of their bodies as a sacrfice of love- not for appeasing, not for sins, but out of love. You can see Jesus over and over telling us not to be anxious, not to fear men who can only kill us, fear not, etc. – and He gives us the best possible reason to believe Him, the resurrection.

  11. Matthew Lyon

    Sorry to be so long, I was thinking about this through the night and morning.
    Does Orthodoxy affirm Penal Substitution?

    1) No, because the sacrifices in the Old Testament that restore you to “clean” are there to deal with the fact that you carry death. Any loss of life (blood, emissions) or contact with death (bodies, unclean animals) made you unclean, not morally compromised. The blood of the sacrifices, or some other procedure of cleansing, gave you temporary “cleanness”. Christ removes the need for unending animal sacrifice because of the superiority of His Sacrifice. Since we are united to Christ in His resurrection, our unclean problem has permanently been removed.
    2) Yes, because there were no sacrifices to deal with moral violations (coming into contact with a dead body was not a moral violation) you were either excommunicated for having relations with your aunt for example (which meant death since you had no access to sacrifices – you had no access to communion) or killed (if you murdered, committed adultery, etc. Christ suffered the death penalty in our place, so it could be called “penal” – but not in the sense of appeasing the Divine wrath (since the death penalty was not “wrath” and God had no pleasure in the death of a sinner – yet he would have pleasure in the death of the Son because it was offered for the World, and for His friends). There was no animal sacrifice with the ability to forgive sins – sin being a more ultimate move towards death – the animal blood couldn’t deal with this kind of death – the animal was not Life in itself and would never have been resurrected. Our moral crime problem has not been finally done away with because we continually sin. So, prepared in faith and repentance, we approach the Sacrifice again and again which has the power to heal and forgive our continued moves toward death.

    What do you think of that?

    • Robert Arakaki


      What you propose is interesting and very intriguing. To be persuaded I would need to see what the Church Fathers had to say about the Old Testament sacrificial system. If you find the information, I think you could even turn it into a worthwhile article for this blog.


      • Matthew Lyon

        I will look into this. My guess is that there are several elements of Old Testament thinking in the Fathers that is assumed rather than explicated. But, I will check into it.

      • Richard Mark Rusovick

        What do orthodox JEWISH scholars and rabbis say about what the Tenakh says about the the Mosaic sacrificial system and it’s use in the lives of those people at the time?

        • Robert Arakaki

          Good question! I’ll need to research that topic.


  12. David Roxas

    Fr Josiah Trenham writes:

    “. . . the greatest reductionism is found in the immense neglect of emphasis upon the heart of the New Testament teaching on salvation as union with Jesus Christ . . . . ”

    What neglect? Calvin himself wrote much about the mystical union with Christ. Protestantism teaches that we are made righteous IN Christ. The teaching that faith is a bond of union with Christ is prevalent in Protestantism. The devotional literature of Protestantism is likewise filled with this subject. There is no neglect on the teaching of union with Christ within Protestantism.

    “If, on the other hand, it is union with Christ that is central to our salvation, of which justification is one aspect, then the penal substitutionary theory does not necessarily preclude theosis.”

    That is an assertion you have not proven but which I would love to hear more about. How does penal sub unite us with the divine energies of Christ? Protestantism of course rejects theosis as you can read about in the controversy with Osiander. Also how you are even defining justification? Making or declaring righteous? Something different?

    The FMG quote is problematic in that simple forgiveness has no room for penal sub. Penal sub means someone is paying the price in your place. You cannot have simple forgiveness and penal sub. Without the shedding of blood is no remission so with Christ shedding his blood there is no simple forgiveness. If she really does deemphasise forgiveness then that too is a problem in light of the many verses teaching the importance of forgiveness of sin such as Acts 5:31, Acts 13:38, Acts 26:18, Eph 1:7, and Col 1:14 not to mention the whole of 1 John.

    For my part, after all I have read, I would argue the mechanics of the atonement are a great mystery and I personally agree with the following:

    “I can illustrate the relationship between the theories with a cake. Christus Victor is the cake itself—the thing that Jesus was doing on the cross. Penal substitution supplies the ingredients, the flour and sugar. And moral influence and example are the frosting, the lingering sweetness of our great salvation. The cross assures us that we are loved, and it motivates us to love others as God has loved us.

    Christus Victor explains why Jesus died, penal substitution explains how his death worked, and the double-sided moral influence and example theories explain what we should do in response.”


    Rashdall: Idea of the Atonement
    HEW Turner: Patristic Doctrine of Redemption
    Grensted: Short History of the Doctrine of the Atonement

    All of those books are good overviews of this subject and show the doctrine of the atonement has never been uniform within Christianity. Does anyone today actually teach the ransom theory? Or the bait and switch theory? It is too bad that this doctrine has never been dogmatically defined.

    • Robert Arakaki

      David Roxas,

      While John Calvin did write about the believer’s union with Christ, I did not hear much emphasis on this important theme, at least in the Reformed circles I was part of. I strongly suspect that Calvin’s understanding of union Christ differed quite a bit from the early Church Fathers. This is a topic I hope to write about in the future. So I think Fr. Josiah Trenham’s point is still worth considering.

      With respect to Frederica Mathewes-Green, I took a look at the verses you cited: Acts 5:31, Acts 13:38, Acts 26:18, Eph 1:7, and Col 1:14, and I noted that while they all mentioned the forgiveness of sins, none made reference to penal or forensic basis for forgiveness. For your point to hold there would need to be presented biblical texts where forensic atonement is the basis for our justification and that this is the dominant teaching of Scripture on salvation.

      You asked, “Does anyone actually teach the ransom theory?” The answer is that the Orthodox Church teaches the ransom theory every time the Liturgy of St. Basil is celebrated (about 10 times a year). The theme of Christ offering up himself as a ransom is found in the Anaphora (the Eucharistic prayer). Where Protestantism favors articulating doctrine in books and written statements like the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, the early Church expressed its theology through corporate worship, i.e., through the Liturgy. I refer you to the excellent article “Jesus the Ransom for Many” on St. George Greek Orthodox Church’s website. The liturgical Eucharistic prayers and those use in the Paschal celebrations function very much as the Orthodox Church’s dogmatic formulation of its understanding of how Christ saves us. This approach is better suited to reflecting the complexity and richness of salvation in Christ than long elaborate doctrinal statements favored by Protestants.

      Lastly, I would ask you to refrain from using snide language as in your question: “Or the bait and switch theory?” It is disrespectful to the early Church Fathers who taught the ransom theory and does not contribute to the civil and courteous conversation I encourage on this site. You are welcome to take part of the conversation here. I only ask that your questions be presented in a courteous and respectful tone. Thank you.


      • David Roxas


        How is using the phrase “bait and switch” in the least bit snide? That is descriptive of the doctrine taught by a few Fathers that the humanity of Christ was the bait Satan took and he was caught on the divinity inhabiting it. That is also a phrase I have heard Orthodox use.

        When I ask if anyone teaches the Ransom Theory I mean as taught specifically by the Fathers that Christ was offered up as a ransom to Satan as noted above. The scriptures do teach that Christ is a ransom and I would agree with Bp. Kallistos Ware who notes that the scriptures never tells us who that ransom is made to and perhaps it would be unwise to speculate.

        My issue with FMG is that she has nothing to say about forgiveness of sin while the scripture does plus God does not simply forgive sins. After all Christ is our ransom.

        • Robert Arakaki

          David Roxas,

          You might not know it but “bait and switch” is a term used for a widely-used consumer fraud. The insinuation of illegality in connection with a widely held theological position is what I find disturbing and offensive about your question: “Or the bait and switch theory?” So far as I know no reputable Orthodox priest or seminary professor described the ransom theory in terms of the fraudulent scam that goes by the name “bait and switch.” I would be interested to learn who your sources are.

          You asked if anyone taught the ransom theory as the Church Fathers did. I believe Ambrose Andreano’s article “Reclaiming the Ransom Theory” might answer your question.

          As to your contention that Frederica Mathewes-Green had nothing to say about the forgiveness of sins, I leave that to the readers to decide. I believe the excerpt from her talk “Orthodoxy and the Atonement” gives ample evidence for her belief that God forgives.


          • David Roxas

            From Ambrose Andreano:

            ““In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by [Satan] who required it, Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active. -St. Gregory of Nyssa (The Great Catechism, 24)”

            “Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine of Hippo all see the atonement as “Christus Victor.” The difference is, they provide an insight into one aspect of how Christ conquered death, in that he deceived the deceiver in a battle of wits. Christ led the devil into a trap.”

            “Origen says that Christ deceived Satan into thinking he could have power over the divine nature, because Christ purposely showed his human nature to be vulnerable (remember what Sun Tzu said). However, Satan didn’t realize that he got more than he bargained for when the time came. St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine add that Satan (like a mouse) “took the bait,” and was trapped. Satan was deceived into letting Christ (the essence of light) into his house of darkness. Could the sun ever enter a cave and coexist with darkness? Christ hid himself in the body of man, and Satan saw the incarnation the way a fish sees a worm. Satan thought, “I can kill him.” However, just as the fish is ignorant of the hook, so Satan was obliviously hooked by the divine nature.”

            Why are these words ok but the concise phrase “bait and switch” is not? What is the fundamental difference?

        • Brad

          “How is using the phrase “bait and switch” in the least bit snide?”
          “Bait and switch” is typically used as a derogatory phrase in contemporary theology. I agree with Robert asking you to be more respectful to the early Fathers.
          “Disturbed by the idea of God as a bait-and-switch trickster, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) advocated a theory of atonement that emphasized, instead, God’s honor. ”

          • Robert Arakaki


            Good question. If David Roxas was my student, I would return his comment-paper and tell him to do it all over again. I would require him to undertake the following steps: (1) list the identifying marks of the “bait and switch” method, (2) provide a list of quotations of Church Fathers with specific phrases highlighted that fit in with specific identifying marks described in (1), and (3) a concise closing argument that show how the evidence line up with the identifying marks of the “bait and switch” method. As it stands David Roxas’ comment consists of a vague, undefined theory called “bait and switch” and long excerpts from the Church Fathers that purportedly supports the vague theory. This method of reasoning is unconvincing.


          • MA

            I am disappointed that the discussion has turned on a debate about words because I would have loved to read the comment of Eastern Orthodox posters on the atonement theory mentioned by David Roxas. While it is not usually called bait-and-switch – fishook is the preferred term – this variant of ransom theory which was expounded at least by Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine explicitly includes some kind of deception. The Fathers have not shied away from speculating in that direction, so I don’t think we should take offense if someone uses the term bait-and-switch to describe the theory. David Roxas did not make up this theory, which has been discussed in several scholarly works (ex: DISGUISE AND SELF-DECEPTION IN GREGORYOF NYSSA by J. Fischer and K. Kirchhoff and The Last Temptation of Satan: Divine Deceptionin Greek Patristic Interpretations of the Passion Narrative by N. Constas).

  13. Gregory Tipton


    Citing the Patristics and Liturgy is powerful, if you’re Orthodox or Catholic. For Protestants the obvious answer is Scripture, in which we find “ransom” there: Matthew 20:28,Mark 10:45,John 13:1-17 — “ransom for many.” The Patristics and Liturgy are those developments of what is already part of Holy Writ.

    I find it interesting we’re trying to enumerate which “things” Jesus exactly fulfilled upon the Cross. Is it not everything that is? Is it not creation and the covenants and all human potentiality? Is it not the virtues as the Patristics, and amongst the Cardinal Virtues, even the Greek pagans before Christ proclaimed (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, etc.)?

    You’ve rightly retraced how satisfaction, while an innovative term of the 11th c., is not an innovative concept fabricated out of Western theologians. It has its roots in the first centuries, in the cross in fact. It’s pre-Feudalism because honour is something from eternity, though we reject a wordly sense of honour, for we say all honour is to God. After all, this so-called “Feudal” concept is found anywhere an Honour Culture is found, such as The Byzantine Empire, or any ancient culture for that matter. It’s a matter of the Liberal Tradition that removed it. To locate “satisfaction” to a culture is as silly as suggesting “rationality” was located in Chinese culture in the 7th c. AD, or Calculus to France in the 16th c. And most people believe in Satisfaction, it’s only an abstract internet conversation that begets all this. If someone steals my wallet and I “forgive” them and they walk off with the wallet, something isn’t quite ‘reconciled.’ And after all, is forgiveness not for the saking of restoring cosmic disorder caused by sin? Does not St. Maximus the Confessor’ theology then perfectly assume and correspond with St. Anselm’s view of Satisfaction. Methinks so. For the former to be true, we must give an account of what ought be corrected. “Retribution,” while a dirty word in the modern world, can mean “to rehabilitate” as Plato suggested 2,300 years ago.

    But I do wonder at the reductionistic tendencies you’ve pointed out. Could it be The Scriptures do attest to God’s Wrath over and over, to Divine Law, to Justice, BUT ALSO to His Love, to theosis, and participation in The Divine Life?

    Are Love and Justice contradictory? If not, then do we not need Divine Law, thus a sense of trespassing, for if there are no trespasses, there can be no forgiving those who trespass against us. To forgive is to acknowledge it as a reality. If this is the case then there must be some sense of a forensic, juridical account of Justice, yet not quite as The Protestants say, for they frequently fall back into the Euthyphro Dilemma. We might have to God is Justice, which means Justice is God. Thus when ‘God was crucified’ that was Justice in some sense. This is holy mystery, no?

    It was my impression all virtues are One because all virtues are ultimately participation in God’s Being. At least I thought that’s why Plato is sometimes regarded as a Forerunner.

    The more troublesome thing though, is while you can cite The Holy Scriptures and The Divine Liturgy, at the end of the day this will only be ‘your version of Orthodoxy,’ unless an actual authority pronounces you right or wrong.

    Is this not the lesson we learned of Athanasius vs. Arius, Cyril vs. Nestorious, Maximus vs. Sergius.

    • Robert Arakaki

      Dear Greg,

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! With respect to your last question about the need for an “actual authority” to pronounce one is in the right, this is why it is so important for inquirers to attend the Divine Liturgy (Sunday worship), listen to the teachings presented in the Liturgy, and to meet with the priest one-on-one afterwards. The Orthodox priest is the official voice of Orthodoxy. He has been authorized by the bishop to lead in worship and teach the Faith. Orthodoxy is by nature a faith community. Visitors to this blog are urged to visit the local Orthodox parish and find out for themselves whether or not I am accurately describing Orthodoxy. That is why I often close articles with: Come and see!


  14. Michael Bauman

    If one is raised in a certain faith tradition it is tough to change the suppositions of that position. It was easy for me becoming Orthodox because of what I was taught by my parents even though not Christian they both new that God is with us, everywhere present and filling all things.

    I have a tough time understanding what many Protestants seem so confident of. None of it is at all obvious to me.

    But Robert is right, one has to come and see. I still remember vividly my very first Orthodox Divine Liturgy 32 years ago. I thought I knew what to expect but boy was I wrong. Frankly remembering it still takes my breath away. But I am an experential guy.

    Not everyone has that experience but it is truly different than any other Christian service. The premises are all different. Some walk away unmoved or even angry.
    It is worth the effort especially if one goes with an open heart saying, let it be done until me according to Thy word

  15. Quartermaster

    “In Protestant teaching and practice, salvation is essentially a deliverance from the wrath of God.”

    “The traditional Christian teaching expressed in the New Testament and the writings of the Fathers on the subject of the atonement of our Savior is the Cross saved us in three essential ways: on the Cross Jesus conquered death; on the Cross Jesus triumphed over the principalities and power of this evil age; on the Cross Jesus made atonement for human sins by His blood. Because the Protestants were working out of a soteriological framework of a courtroom and declarative justification, they read the teaching about the Cross through these lenses and as a result articulated a reductionistic theology of the atonement, which ignored the traditional emphasis on the conquering of death and the triumph of the demons. Everything for Protestantism becomes satisfaction of God’s justice, and by making one image the whole, even that image became distorted in Protestant articulation.”

    These make interesting strawmen, but that’s about as far as it goes. I have as yet to see or read, anyone teaching the reductionist view of which he is accusing Protestants. In fact, I’ve exactly opposite, both in Arminian and Reformed Camps. This is the first place I’ve seen this accusation. Calvinism can be a hard thing to nail down as there are several different brands, and if you nail people you get one of two responses, “I don’t believe that,” or “You just don’t understand Reformed Theology.” Given that one can read their founder’s magnus opus, makes the latter claim absurd for anyone who has read it (I have, and I’m Arminian in Theology. I’m told few Calvinists read it anymore)

    Part of the problem of one camp understanding another is the field of Systematic Theology. The manner in which they are written, things can be scattered around and you don’t see it all in one place.

    Another part of the problem is many don’t understand that salvation does not culminate in this life Romans 8: 28 gives the order of salvation and Glorification is the final step and when all those things that Christ won for us on the cross are then given to us. The spiritual benefits of the atonement now, allowing us to be regenerated. Later, in Glorification, we get eternal life, death is destroyed for those who have been regenerated, and the power and influence of Satan and his minions is forever removed from lives. It starts with Faith – a central assertion of Paul in the Book of Romans. Without faith those things won on the cross are not available to us.

    • Robert Arakaki


      Given that Fr. Josiah Trenham had studied at Westminster Seminary (Escondido, CA) then at Reformed Seminary (Jackson, MS; Orlando, FL), I think he would be in a good position to understand Reformed theology. I personally am aware of how far so much of present day Reformed churches, which are theologically liberal, have drifted from their historic roots. This diversity of theological viewpoints could be behind your criticism of Fr. Trenham’s constructing “strawmen,” but I would ask you consider whether he has presented the historic version of Reformed theology. If you disagree, I invite you to provide for us a more accurate portrayal of Reformed soteriology.”


  16. John Morariu

    Exodos 34:6,7
    Liviticus 16: 1-34

    Penal substitution makes no sense in light of these OT quotes. AT ALL!!!
    XC came to restore the kingdom of G-d and conquer death .
    The uncreated does not need to bargain with Himself.

Leave a Reply