It seems to me, from my study of St Cyril and St Severus (which I am not suggesting is comprehensive), that the Anselmian notion of Penal Substitution is very far from their own Orthodox teaching. Indeed I do not believe it is Orthodox at all.
This does not mean that there is not a place for an understanding of God’s just and righteous judgement against sin, his hatred and condemnation of sin, his punishment of those who turn to darkness and harden their hearts. But this is not what Anselm teaches. The more I study our own Orthodox Fathers – St Athanasius, St Cyril and St Severus – the more I am filled with their own sense of the deep and abiding love of God for mankind, and the sense that the whole of the Holy Trinity is involved in earnestly desiring the renewal of mankind in life above all else. The idea that one of the Holy Trinity had to somehow become an object of hatred by another is far, far from Orthodox.
I will not fill this forum with extensive passages from the Fathers, but I can do if necessary, and perhaps I will write a paper explaining my understanding. I need to write something but I will try now to summarise my understanding.
God, the Holy Trinity, created man as the object of divine love. Looking upon Adam and Eve He said that what He had created was good. Man was created from dust, and like all created beings was naturally mortal and corruptible (corruptible is not the same as corrupt). But Adam and Eve received the breath of life, the Holy Spirit, who was breathed into them and granted them the gift of immortality and incorruptibility. This blessed life in the Garden of Eden was contingent upon one thing only, that the law of God which said ‘you shall not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’ was not broken. As long as Adam and Eve preserved themselves in obedience they retained the gift of the Holy Spirit, and would have lived for ever in a state of happiness with God.
But Adam and Eve were tempted, and by the exercise of their own free will they chose to satisfy their own pleasure, and by choosing other than God’s will they fell into sin. Sin is nothing other than the exercise of the human will apart from God. The Fathers are very clear that sin has no existence at all. It is a wrong choice. A choice for self and not for God. When Adam and Eve chose other than God they broke the one command they had been given, and the curse fell upon them. Dust you are and to dust you shall return.
The Holy Spirit withdrew from Adam and Eve, it cannot dwell where there is sin. Adam and Eve found themselves left in their own human nature – mortal and corruptible. Human nature was not changed. St Cyril and St Severus are absolutely insistent that our human nature has not become corrupted. But our hearts are without the stabilising grace of the Holy Spirit and our wills are shot to pieces, choosing other than God all the time. Yet even when the curse fell upon Adam and Eve our Fathers teach us that this was an exercise of God’s mercy and love. It would have been a terrible thing if mankind was allowed an immortality in sin, and so the length of a man’s life was cut short by his natural mortality. Even more, God granted that the soul of a man might retain the gift of immortality so that it would always be drawn beyond itself to the spiritual heights of heaven – which is why every man is filled with a yearning for that which is eternal.
Cast out of Eden, man was doomed to suffer, to hunger and thirst, and eventually to suffer a bodily death. Yet there was a greater doom, since having lost the Holy Spirit he was already in a state of absolute death, of separation from God.
Each of us is born into this condition of mortality and corruptibility. But we are not born sinners. We are not born corrupt. Our human nature is as it was when God created it and saw that it was good. Yet because we lack grace and the Holy Spirit we all of us find that our will is turned this way and that and quickly finds itself bound by sinful habit, ignorance and self-love. We are born mortal, but not sinners. We choose to sin.
Yet we are still under the curse and in the power of death. Not even so much the death of our bodies but the death of separation from Life, from God Himself who was the true life of Adam and desired to be the true life of all mankind. The ultimate problem which mankind faces is the righteous judgement laid upon Adam which we all suffer the consequences of. Even if each one of us stopped sinning, or somehow had never sinned throughout our whole lives we would still be lost, not because our humanity is corrupt and sinful – this is absolutely rejected by the Orthodox Fathers – but because we are all in a state of gracelessness, and we all naturally lack the Holy Spirit. Even a sinless man would suffer all of our human frailities and would die. Even a sinless man would be left apart from God for eternity, because all of mankind is in the state in which God’s judgement upon Adam left us – we are mortal and corruptible and do not have the breath of Life in us.
When the Holy Trinity willed to save mankind from this state it was not possible that the curse be lifted simply as an exercise of mercy. As has been said elsewhere in this thread, the mercy and righteousness of God must both be satisfied. But the Fathers do not teach that God was so angry, or filled with such wrath, that only a divine sacrifice could appease Him. Far from it. The work of salvation is the will of the whole Trinity, which loves man and wished his salvation.
No mere man could save man, because even a perfectly holy life could not take away the curse which was justly spoken. Rather, it was necessary that a new humanity be created, not by changing the substance of our humanity, but by renewing the divine relationship with man so that the Holy Spirit could once more take up a habitation in our hearts and souls.
The Word Himself became man as we are, save for sin. This means that he took our own humanity from the Virgin Mary, a humanity which was mortal and corruptible, but not corrupt. It was liable to suffer, to hunger and thirst, and to die. If he was to save mankind then he must unite our own humanity to himself, and not some other humanity that was not in our situation. Being mortal and corruptible it was found in the state of being under the curse of God. He shared our own condition, caused by sin, by Adam’s sin, but he never chose other than the will of God, and therefore there was never any sin in him, and though his body was physically corruptible and liable to suffering and blamesless passions such as hunger, there was never any trace of the moral passions which we allow to grow and flourish in our own hearts.
The Fathers teach us that one of the reasons why our Lord took our humanity by means of a Virgin Birth was not because he had anything but the highest regard for the sancitity and holiness of marriage, but because he wanted to show that he was the firstfruits, the founder, of a new spiritual humanity in which those who were to be united with him would be sons and daughters of God.
What did the Word do in his incarnation? The Fathers teach us that it was necessary that he lived out our human life in obedience. He is described many times as ‘taking up the fight which Adam lost’. So we must understand the incarnation as replaying what happened in Eden. In the Garden, Adam, the man who held our human destiny in his hands, blew it in a big way. Now in his earthly life, and clearly in the Garden of Gethsemane, the same contest happens again, but this time Christ, the Word Incarnate says ‘Your will be done’. The failure of Adam had been redeemed in the obedience of Christ.
But this was not enough. A perfect human life had been lived in obedience, which was the basis for the renewal of man’s relationship with God. But the curse remained. The curse was not an act if God’s implacable anger, but a necessary provision for the salvation of man. Therefore it was necessary that the power of death, true death, be broken by an exercise of power by the one who is true life. Death needed to be destroyed from within. And to be destroyed from within it needed to be experienced by one who was mortal and subject to death, therefore the Word became mortal in our own humanity.
We see several features in his death. He died on the cross, which the Holy Spirit had inspired the prophets to speak of as a cursed manner of death. He was lifted up into the air, as Moses lifted up the golden serpent in the desert for the healing of the people. He was unjustly accused of sin when there was no sin in him at all. Even in his burial he was laid in a borrowed tomb, signifying that the death he endured was not his own but was that which was due to us.
If he sacrificed himself, and he said, ‘No-one takes my life, but I lay it down’, then who did he sacrifice himself to? Certainly not the Father, who had sent him to do this work of salvation – for God so loved the world. Certainly not to the Devil – the prince of this world has nothing in me. But surely he offered himself as a sacrifice of love for us. He did not die INSTEAD of us – because we were already dead. But he died WITH us so that we might live, might experience his life.
What happened when He died? In the first place he experienced that separation of body and soul which we call death. His soul descended to Hades (which I will not attempt to define) and brought out the souls of the righteous to Paradise (which I will not attempt to define). His body was preserved free from corruption – as the Fathers teach us – and as it is written in the Psalms. Then on the third day, by an exercise of his power, he destroyed death. A holy man destroyed the power of death. The curse had not been taken away, in the sense of being quietly forgotten. Rather the Word Incarnate, as a mortal man, died and then came out the other side.
A holy man, a perfect man, could not achieve this. The best he could have achieved was a sad commendation by God, well done, but sorry you are still cursed, you are still separated from God by true death. But the Word Incarnate could not only live a holy life, but he could die, and more than that he could raise himself from death.
But what does it mean for us? It means that a man, the Divine man, representing all of mankind, has made a way through death to life for us all. This Divine man has a humanity which is filled with resurrection life, true Life, and with the Holy Spirit. Now we can be united with this man and be born again into a new humanity. His life becomes our own. We participate in this life by faith and by the sacraments. These renew in us the presence of the Holy Spirit. He dwells in us not because we are perfect and holy but because Christ is and we belong to Christ. By faith we cast ourselves in humility before God alone and ask Him to have mercy on us. By baptism and chrismation God unites us to Christ and we receive the benefits which He has won for mankind. We receive the Holy Spirit who is our life, our true life. Death is overcome for us and in us. Our turning to God in faith and repentance allows God to forgive our sins, but forgiveness of sins is not all that we need. We need both forgiveness AND the life of the Holy Spirit. Our sins are forgiven because Christ, the Word Incarnate, has taken upon himself our death and in swallowing up the power of death over us he has taken away the power of the curse and has made it possible for our sins to be forgiven. He has lived an obedient life on our behalf – as Adam could have done but did not. And so we are able to say – do not look at my sins, Lord, but look at the obedience and holiness of your own son.
So why do we still die? Well the curse has not gone away. It was and is a righteous judgement against sin and against man who sins. It had an effect because of Adam, and that effect persists. We are mortal and die as mortals. But by faith and the sacraments we are united with God and follow Christ through mortal death to life. We have already received the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that we will rise to true life, because the Holy Spirit does not dwell in those who are subject to death. If we have any experience of the Holy Spirit at all then we can have faith that what has been begun will come to fulness and fruition in the life beyond death. Our sins have been forgiven because Christ has offered himself as a man who has done no sin, and who bears the consequences of our sin himself. He entered our death and took it upon himself.
But Christ has made a way for us through death to life. We follow in his footsteps. We are baptised, we fast and pray, we allow ourselves to be despised and treated as dead in the eyes of the world, we suffer and eventually we die. But this is not the end, it is the means of passing beyond the power of the just judgement of God and being restored to the place of blessing and life.
Christ did not die to satisfy God’s anger. He died to manifest God’s love. He died for us all, not standing in our place in the face of an infinite wrath, though we must not forget that God is indeed angered by our sin, and did indeed bring a just judgement and chastisement upon Adam and us all, but even before the judgement was made God had already – as our Fathers clearly teach – prepared a way of salvation to deal with the outcome of Adam’s sin, which he foresaw. He has always acted in love towards us, even before he created us, and even when Adam sinned.
If we are found in Christ then mortal death holds no fears. It is the path to life. It frees us from the power of the curse and brings us to the place of promise. We can experience this now, if we are faithful. Life in the midst of death. Life in the face of death. Life with power over death. If I die surely I will live.
The teaching of Anselm reminds us that we should not diminish the offence of sin in the eyes of God. It is death to us. It is the opposite of life and therefore is anti-God. It repels God. But we should not turn to Anselm to remind ourselves of the cost of our sin, and its offensiveness. He is not Orthodox. He teaches a deformed Christianity. We must always turn back to our own Orthodox and trusted Fathers and see how they explain these things. And we can find much in our own Fathers about the seriousness of sin. We should not base our theology on a Roman Catholic teacher, this will lead to imbalance.
No mere man could save us. The judgement of God against us was indeed an infinite judgement which could not be overturned. But it was always the judgement of a loving Father, not an angry, wrathful and distant deity. Only the Word Incarnate could overcome the divine judgement by participating with us in the outcome of that judgement, by living with us and for us, by dying with us and for us, and by rising to new life in the Holy Spirit for us. God is love, not wrath. ‘God so loved the world’, not was ‘so angry with the world’.
My every sin deserves death and is a slap in God’s face. But God knows what I am like. Christ knows what I am like. Yet still I am offered new life in Christ. He allows me to share in his renewed humanity though there is nothing in me that warrants such kindness. All of this demonstrates to me the overwhelming love of God towards us.
Penal substitution as popularly taught does not do justice to God’s love, nor is it rooted in the teaching of the true and Orthodox Fathers. This is not the teaching of St Athanasius, St Cyril or St Severus. Justice indeed had to be served, and the Fathers are constant in this theme, God could not simply overturn His judgement, but this is never because he is so angry, or because he is offended. He knew what we were like before he made us, nothing is a surprise. Even his judgement is a mercy, as St Severus and St Cyril teach us. And even while he was angry with a righteous indignation against Adam and Eve, and against each one of us who follows them in sin, nevertheless he was always loving with a perfect love towards those he had created and chastised them and us rather than punishing us as we truly deserved.
I could write much more, but I hope that this short summary explains at least my own understanding of these things.
God bless all who seek to understand the truth, may the Holy Spirit lead us into truth