by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Meaning of Christ's Suffering

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A hymn from the 4th-century Liturgy of St. Basil is familiar even to some Protestants: "Let all earthly flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand."

Devotion didn't simply change with the times; the same awe-filled reticence continues unchanged in Eastern Orthodox worship today. Something else happened to cause a profound change in European Christianity's understanding of salvation. Western theologians usually say that the greatest event in the development of salvation theology was the publication of the treatise "Why Did God Become Man?" by Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury. Before Anselm, as we've seen, the focus was on Christ's victory rather than on his sufferings as the means of salvation. "The wages of sin is Death," and due to our sins we were enslaved by death, poisoned and helpless to resist sin. Christ comes on a rescue mission, and in the process he suffers very much like that policeman rescuing the hostages. As a human, he dies and gains entrance to Hades; as God, he blasts it open and sets the captives free. It is in this sense—so Christians in the first millennium understood—that Scripture speaks of Christ's death as a ransom for many.

Some early writers elaborated on the question "Who received this ransom?," unwisely it would seem. Today their analogies seem crude—for example, that God lured the Devil by hiding Christ's divinity inside his humanity, and the Devil responded like a fish grabbing a baited hook (Gregory of Nyssa) or like a mouse going into a trap (Augustine).

But when we speak of Christ paying with his blood, we don't necessarily have to imagine a two-sided transaction. The brave policeman, above, "paid with his blood" to free the hostages, but that doesn't mean the kidnappers were left gloating over a vial of blood. When the Lord ransomed his people out of Egypt, Pharaoh did not accept a fat bag of gold in exchange. "Redeem" can just mean "doing what is necessary to set free."

Further, the young officer might have said "I offer this mission to the honor of my chief, who has always been like a dad to me. I love him and want to do his will, and I am making this sacrifice in his name." The chief didn't receive the young man's blood either—a bizarre thought—nor did he require that blood before the hostages were freed; he was not their captor but rather an ally in the rescue. So take a step back and see these terms in a looser sense. Sometimes we use images like "paid" to mean a simple act of giving, without envisioning a two-sided transaction that includes a receiving on the other end.

Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) protested that the question of "Who received the payment?" should not be pressed hard. No matter what debt the Devil was owed, it could not possibly have included God himself. On the other hand, the Father could not have been the recipient of the ransom, since he was not the one holding us captive. And if the blood of Isaac had not pleased him, why would he desire the blood of his beloved son?

Nazianzus sums up: the Father accepts Christ's sacrifice without having demanded it; the Son offers it to honor him; and the result is the defeat of the Evil One. "This is as much as we shall say of Christ; the greater portion shall be reverenced with silence."

Anselm took aim at the exaggerated versions of the ransom theory, but he didn't agree to leave the greater portion to silence. He theorized that the payment was made to God the Father. In Anselm's formulation, our sins were like an offense against the honor of a mighty ruler. The ruler is not free to simply forgive the transgression; restitution must be made. This is perhaps the most crucial new element in the story; earlier Christians believed that God the Father did, in fact, freely forgive us, like the father of the Prodigal Son. No human would be adequate to pay this debt, so God the Son volunteered to do so. "If the Son chose to make over the claim He had on God to man, could the Father justly forbid Him doing so, or refuse to man what the Son willed to give him?" Christ satisfies our debt in this, the "satisfaction theory" of the atonement.

"And that has made all the difference," as a tousled Yankee poet liked to say. Western Christian theology marched on from that point, encountering controversies and developments and revisions, but locked on the idea that Christ's death was directed toward the Father. When Western theologians look back at the centuries before Anselm, they can't find his theory anywhere (well, there are some premonitions in Tertullian and Cyprian, but it wasn't the mainstream). But you can read St. Paul as supporting the "satisfaction" view, so Anselm is hailed as the first theologian to understand St. Paul.

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