Posted on August 21st, 2013
Often, when preparing for these little sermons* on the Psalms, I find myself turning to Patrick Henry Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms. It’s a fine book, with a two-page meditation for each Psalm. Instead of a verse-by-verse commentary, Reardon highlights some key themes in each Psalm and gives helpful application to the Christian life.
Reardon is a former Episcopalian turned Orthodox priest, and like many converts to the Eastern Church, his zeal leads him to disregard some essential doctrines of Holy Scripture. Consider this passage on tonight’s Psalm, 76:
Whereas later theology, particularly in the West, has been disposed to think of the Christian redemption chiefly in legal terms, favoring a rather literal interpretation of the commercial metaphors used in the Bible with respect to it (cost, purchase, price, debt, etc.), the older and more traditional texts of the Church, especially the liturgical texts, have tended to use exactly the same terms in an interpretive context of combat, defeat, and victory.
The contrast between these two perspectives will perhaps be made clearer by examining a single image very important to the biblical understanding of redemption: the shedding of the blood of Christ as the “price” of our salvation. The later (eleventh-century) Western view regards this expression in a kind of legal and commercial setting, understood rather literally. This view must then fit the concept of “price” into the full context of a legal and commercial transaction, a kind of business arrangement, as it were, involving a true quid pro quo, in which Jesus pays to His Father the debt of fallen humanity.
The older view, on the other hand, represented in patristic and liturgical texts (in both East and West), perceives this same image—the blood of Christ as the price of our salvation—in terms of combat, defeat, and victory. In this perspective, Jesus indeed “paid the price” for our sins, saving us by shedding His blood unto death, but He did so as a warrior doing battle with the devil, sin, and death on our behalf.
Now this all sounds very appealing. Gone is an angry God who punishes the sinner; we have a convenient villain (medieval Roman Catholicism); and one gets to embrace the seemingly “older and more traditional” Christianity. But it comes at a price, and that price is the Bible itself, the Apostle Paul, and the great comfort of the forgiveness of sins – full and free pardon, not dependent upon your progress in holiness.
The refutation of Reardon’s argument is in his own writing. What he claims is older and more traditional is in fact later than what he is rejecting: a “rather literal” reading of Holy Scripture. That is what you have to reject to embrace Reardon’s argument. That is what you have to reject to embrace Eastern Orthodoxy – the “rather literal” reading of the Bible.
Now it is true that St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in the eleventh century about the so-called satisfaction theory of the atonement, and that this heavily influenced Western scholasticism. But one need not even understand what any of those words mean to see the language of satisfaction, substitution, and the appeasing of the wrath of God in Holy Scripture. Just read Romans. Or Leviticus.
But this is why I love being a Western Christian, and more specifically, a Lutheran. If you want to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, you will have to reject one of the basic ways Holy Scripture talks about our Lord Jesus Christ and the meaning of His death. But if you become or remain a Lutheran, you don’t have to choose. You get to have both!
For one way of speaking about the death of Jesus isn’t enough. Just as the Bible very clearly says that He is the sacrifice to propitiate, appease, turn aside God’s wrath—that God may be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus—so also does it speak in terms of battle and victory. A prime example is in tonight’s Psalm: “At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned.” “The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil; they sank into sleep; all the men of war were unable to use their hands.” The LORD “is to be feared by the kings of the earth.”
Think about how our Easter hymnody weaves together both themes: Christ who dies as payment for sin, and Christ who is victorious over death and devil. “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands / For our offenses given.” And yet, “It was a strange and dreadful strife / When life and death contended; / The victory remained with life, / The reign of death was ended.” Jesus Lives, the Victory’s Won. The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done.
Here is why this is important: because you need both! You need the forgiveness of sins and the pardon of an angry God, and you need the victory over death which holds you captive. In the Bible, you get both. Because in Jesus you get both. And therefore in Lutheranism, you get both.
The only reason I’m a Lutheran is because it is faithful to the Scriptural teaching: the teaching that in the death of Jesus, your sins are forgiven, God is not angry with you, and death is defeated, the devil thrown down.
You don’t have to choose. In Jesus you get both: payment and victory, conquest and forgiveness.
* While not a typical midweek homily, this post was delivered as a sermon at Evening Prayer at Immanuel on August 21.