A few months ago Christianity Today editor David Neff did an interview with Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware. This interview is now available online. Bishop Ware, who is from Great Britain, was an Anglican before he entered the Orthodox Church as a young adult. His story is widely known and can be accessed online as well. He is probably best known for his written work, much of it explaining Orthodoxy to the non-Orthodox. Unlike so many leaders in the Orthodox Church Bishop Ware understands and loves evangelical Protestant Christianity.
The Christianity Today interview was actually conducted while Bishop Ware was in the Chicago area speaking at North Park University and Wheaton College. I heard the Wheaton address at the Billy Graham Center. His lecture at Wheaton was titled: “What Have We to Learn from One Another?” He answered, at the outset, “We need one another to be truly human!” I shall never forget this answer so long as I live. This is at the core of what I’ve discovered through missional-ecumenism. Knowing my brothers and sisters from the whole church has, I sincerely believe, made me more “truly human.”
Bishop Ware also said that there were only two kinds of Christians in the end: (1) Those who make it up as they go, and; (2) Those who live on the basis of a revealed religion. Priceless. He then explored three areas: (1) Church and Eucharist, (2) Scripture and Tradition, and: (3) The work of Christ. Quoting J. I. Packer he agreed that “We should do everything we can together that we are not obligated to do separately.”
In the final point he stressed that the Orthodox and the evangelicals focus on the cross is different. The Orthodox make no clear distinction between justification, sanctification and glorification. They stress salvation as union with Christ and include all three but without the sharp distinctions we’ve made. Quoting Antony, “Conversion begins but never ends.” This is a “Yes/But” approach, or better yet, a “Both/And.” Example: Christ died, yes he died for me.
Bishop Ware told a story about an evangelical asking him if he was saved? He said he did not answer “No.” But he did not say “Yes.” Nor did he say, “I don’t know!” He answered, “I trust by God’s grace I’m being saved. Life is a journey home to Christ.”
This type of thinking is captured in the interview David Neff did with Bishop Ware. Here is a small part of the interview that touches on the points I just made:
If I were to meet you on a train and ask you, "What is the center of the Christian message?," how would you succinctly put that?
I would answer, "I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human." And I would say to you, "The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again." That's my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit.
Evangelicals agree with everything you have just said. But we tend to focus on a transaction that happened at the Cross and a transaction that happens when the believer puts faith in what happened at the Cross. We take up Paul's courtroom metaphors. How would you describe the East's way of looking at it?
It's true, we Orthodox would, on the whole, not use the word transaction. It's also certainly true that we do not emphasize legal language.
We prefer the image of Christ as victor over death, love stronger than death, the kind of victory that we sense at the Paschal service Easter midnight in the Orthodox Church, when there is a constant refrain, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs he has given life." That is the image of Christ's work that we chiefly stress.
But certainly within the New Testament there is a whole series of images. There is no single systematic theory of the Atonement, and we should make use of all these images. So, yes, we should find a place for the idea of substitution, which the Orthodox don't stress so much. It is there in the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 5:21: "He who was without sin was made by God to be sin for us, that we in him might become righteousness." The idea of the sacrificial Lamb is also a profound scriptural image. We should make use of those images as well as Christ the Victor.
I don't care so much for the idea of satisfaction. Satisfaction is not a scriptural word. The legal imagery, I think, should always be combined with an emphasis upon the transfiguring power of love. The motive for the Incarnation was not God's justice or his glory, but his love. That was the supreme motive. "God so loved the world." That is what we should start from.
The final paragraph above is a pretty good summary of what I have come to believe over these many years. The idea of satisfaction is rooted more in culture of the West than in a central theme in the Bible, at least in my view. I believe in substitution and I believe in the legal category we see in Pauline language. But I also believe evangelicals have gone much too far with both of these in how they have reduced the cross to them almost exclusively. What I do not see is the over developed dogma of satisfaction, which makes God into someone other than the God of love who redeems the world because of his love. What convinced me of this was preaching six sermons on John 3:16 way back in 1991.