Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dr. Alexandre Dr. Kalomiros’s “The River of Fire”: a Rejection of the Biblical View of the Cross

The atonement view of the crucifixion—the view that God sent his Son to die on the cross to pay for our sins—tends not to be very popular in Orthodox circles. Orthodox Christians will agree that God saves repentant believers through the cross, but they take issue with the idea that someone “paid” for our sins, because it paints a portrait of a god who is bound up and limited by rational necessity. They hold that the crucifixion was not necessary for our salvation, for God is bound by no limits and can save anyone He wishes at any time. The idea that Christ had to die on the cross and take the punishment for our sins paints a portrait of a juridical god who is obsessed with punishment, who is bound by a system of laws that He is unable to transcend, and who is limited in grace and compassion.
This view is popular among Orthodox Christians and is articulated in Alexandre Kalomiros’s “The River of Fire,” a presentation at the 1980 Orthodox Conference sponsored by St. Nectarios American Orthodox Church in Seattle Washington. The web site of St. Necarios Press has published the lecture, which presents an interesting view, one that tries to emphasize God’s compassion and omnipotence. Yet despite these qualities, the view rejects basic principles that are indispensable to orthodox, biblical Christianity and it winds up relegating the crucifixion to an historical event with little relevance for the modern believer.
Dr. Kalomiros begins his presentation with a critique of the atonement view of the West. The “eternal wrath” of an omnipotent but wicked Being” is central to such a view, for it holds that someone or something had to take a great an eternal punishment in order to satisfy the fire of this wrath. The Western peoples naturally would conclude that “even eternal Paradise would be abhorrent with such a cruel God.” He then proceeds to blame the birth of atheism on the West: “the West was [atheism’s] birthplace. Atheism was unknown in Eastern Christianity until Western theology was introduced there, too. Atheism is the consequence of Western theology.” Here Dr. Kalomiros fails to account for the fact that atheism, the denial in the belief in God, far predates the development of Western theology. King David wrote in before the foundation of the Christian Church, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psa 14:1). The denial of faith in God has been around since the fall, and to blame the Catholic and Protestant Churches on its birth not only starts his paper off with an antagonistic tone, but it is also factually erroneous. Furthermore, it should be noted that the Eastern Orthodox Church had a near monopoly on religion in Russia prior to the Bolshevik Revolution that effectively declared atheism to be the state religion. To imply that Catholics and Protestants are to blame for this would require some major research and support from Dr. Kalomiros, none of which he offers.
Dr. Kalomiros proceeds to describe Western Christians’ understanding of God and his system of justice. “God's justice for Westerners operated like a vendetta. Not only the man who insulted you, but also all his family must die. And what was tragic for men, to the point of hopelessness, was that no man, nor even all humanity, could appease God's insulted dignity, even if all men in history were to be sacrificed. God's dignity could be saved only if He could punish someone of the same dignity as He. So in order to save both God's dignity and mankind, there was no other solution than the incarnation of His Son, so that a man of godly dignity could be sacrificed to save God's honor.” Here, Dr. Kalomiros is mistaken on the West’s understanding of the crucifixion. It was not in order to appease the insulted dignity of a whimsical, arbitrary God that He sent his Son to die on the cross. Rather, it is because God, in His love, wanted to save all of humanity. It was not necessary that His Son die, for anyone who lives according to God’s will is able to enter paradise. Yet because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), they are unable to enter paradise. Yet God, in His tender mercy and compassion, “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Joh 3:16).
Dr. Kalomiros seems to believe that the Western view denies the one omnipotent God, for how can a God be omnipotent when He is required to follow a series of legal procedures in order to offer salvation to His people? The problem with Dr. Kalomiros’s critique is that he forgets that the “legal procedures” are God’s own laws; they are not imposed from some other being superior to or foreign to God. Western Christians do not believe that God is subject to a “rationalistic Necessity,” as Dr. Kalomiros seems to say. Rather, He is subject to his own laws and promises. That God cannot break His own promises or be any less than faithful is part of His own divine nature. This is not a pagan idea that crept into Western Christianity; it is a biblical idea from time immemorial that God authored the divine law and that He will see it enforced. It was God’s own words to Noah that murderers should be put to death (Gen 9:6); it is the Hebrew law given to Mosen by God that prescribes the death penalty for bestiality (Exo 22:19), adultery (Lev 20:10), and a host of other sins. Living by the flesh naturally leads to death, first spiritual, then physical. The Apostle writes, “if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13). That death is the consequence of sin is a law that does not transcend God; it is God’s own law, and it is by His own faithfulness to His words that what He says must come to past.
To deny these basic truths and declare that only an angry, wrathful God would permit anyone to perish is a position that one is free to take, yet it is not a biblical position, for we know from the Scriptures that “God is a merciful God” (Deu 4:31), and yet those who do not repent and who are not born of God do not inherit everlasting life (Joh 3:3). If Dr. Kalomiros wishes to argue that the Western, juridical conception of God paints Him as wicked and vengeful because He allows for the death of sinners, and does not force anyone to be saved, then he must also argue that the God of the Bible is wicked and vengeful, for we read from the passages above that some are allowed to perish, though God opens the doors to all. God demands a certain degree of holiness from His people. For Him to create laws and then break them would be far more arbitrary and unjust than to abide by them.
God not only abides by every letter of His own law, but where man falls short of the law, in order to save man, and yet prevent even “the smallest letter of the law from disappearing” (Mat 5:18), God even takes the punishment unto Himself by sending His one and only Son, who is one with the Father, to die on the cross. This is the apex of love and mercy. To say that this atonement view is cold and has given birth to atheism is simply to say that the biblical view is cold and has given birth to atheism. To deny this view, and to hold that God could or should discard His own laws and save all men would be to make a mockery out of God’s own Word, to cast distrust into the minds of all those who trust His Word, and to make a mockery out of God’s kingdom, where unrepentant sinners would stand before God blaspheming and mocking Him even as they enjoy the same eternal life as His most repentant and transformed saints. The entire law would have no meaning and holiness would be rendered irrelevant.
If Dr. Kalomiros is right that the West has misread the Scripture and has misunderstood the crucifixion, then I would like to ask him what purpose the crucifixion serves? If the West is incorrect in interpreting the cross as the ultimate payment for man’s sins, if it was not necessary for the salvation of the world, then what purpose did it serve? Was it simply a miraculous sign that would lead to mass conversions? Couldn’t such a sign been given through sending a chariot of fire to light up the night sky with bold skywriting? Was all of Christ’s suffering necessary? Was the purpose to send a great moral teacher? To provide more teachings? If so, couldn’t this purpose be more efficiently achieved through sending down more laws, more prophets, and more writings? Why Christ? Why God becoming man? Why His death and resurrection? Indeed, the answer is in the Scriptures: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1Pe 2:24).
Dr. Kalomiros prefers not to see it this way. For him, the idea of a God who requires payment for sin is an “infinitely insulted” and petty God whose justice “demands infinite sacrifices in order to be appeased.” He then equates such a God who demands sacrifices with paganism. Yet demanding sacrifices as a covering for sins is thoroughly Christian; God throughout the Old Testament demanded animal sacrifices. He required, for example, that Abraham sacrifice a heifer, a she goat, a ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon (Gen 15:9). Sacrifices were required as sin coverings throughout the history of the Jewish people as a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This does subject the Christian God to paganism; it makes Him a just God who demands holiness and perfection from His people.
Furthermore, Dr. Kalomiros takes issue with Western Christianity’s justice because “it punishes and demands satisfaction from persons which were not at all responsible for the sin of their forefathers.” Here, Dr. Kalomiros once again fails to understand Western Christianity. Catholics and Protestants believe that they, like Adam, are sinners who have rebelled and sinned against God (Rom 5:12). The punishment that is their due is not for Adam’s sins, but for their own. Theoretically, Western Christians believe it is possible for a man to escape punishment if he never sins—God would not punish Him for Adam’s sins; the problem is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
One may argue that it is then unjust of God to send His innocent son to die for the sins of humanity. This would overlook the fact that God and the Son are one. Can it be unjust for the creditor to pay the debt of his own debtor? It certainly would not be vengeful or unloving. Can any act be more loving? What alternative can be offered? The Gospel presents the story of a great and noble ruler who wrote a code and followed every stroke of every letter, but because of his love for his subjects, when one was condemned under it and came before the ruler in repentance, the ruler himself took on the punishment and paid the price. Would it be more just to ignore the law and let the condemned go free? Would it be fair to the ones who are harmed by the infraction if all of the infractors are let free? Would it be fair to ignore the law on vandalism and let the vandalizer of a home go free and impose the burden and costs of the damages on the innocent owner of the home? Would it be anything but just and loving for the judge to find the vandalizer liable and then, out of love for him, to pay the debt himself so that the repentant vandalizer can go free? This is the nature of the good, just, and loving God of the Gospels; this is the God that Christians of the West and of the East have embraced for centuries. Yet it is a God that Dr. Kalomiros takes issue with and finds to be foreign to Orthodoxy.
Let us suppose I am wrong. Let us suppose that my reading of the Gospels is erroneously juridical and it ignores God’s love. Let us say that the parable of the wages, where the laborers who came at the last hour received the same reward as those who toiled from the first hour, shows a God who is not bound by our conceptions of justice. Let us further concede that the parable of the prodigal son, which for nothing more than his contrition, was given authority over all of his father’s wealth, shows a God who is not bound by the conception of justice defended heretofore. Then if this were the case, and if the parable of the prodigal son was not in fact teaching about a just God who looks only for the repentant hearts of those who know and love their Father, and if the parable of the wages was not about a Master who rewards generously even those who come at the last hour, and yet his generosity does not contradict his justness, then what was the purpose of the Gospel? What is the purpose of the law? What is the purpose of the commandments? If God is not a just God in the sense that we humans are able to understand—in the sense that He requires His laws to be obeyed or for the consequences to come about—if that is not true, then why do we have five books in the Old Testament providing thousands of laws on every part of life? Whey do we have dozens of prophets who have explained and exposited the law? Why doesn’t God simply open up the sky and transport all people—sinners, believers, atheists, the repentant, and the unrepentant alike, and grant them paradise?
My friends, the answer is in God’s holiness. Because He is perfect, and a God or order and harmony, he is unable to break His own law, which is His Word. He cannot make a promise and then break it. He cannot make a rule and then ignore it. Yet He is able to forgive because he offered an ultimate sacrifice for our sins: His one and only Son. To ignore this would be to ignore the core message of the Gospel, as contained in John 3:16: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” This is a verse that we as Orthodox Christians must always have on our hearts and on our minds, for it summarizes the whole of Scripture.
The greatest damage in Dr. Kalomiros’s presentation is not in offering a conception of an arbitrary God who may or may not uphold His Word and respect His own law, for this conception can easily be repaired through Scriptural reading. Greater damage is that inflicted on relations between Christians of the East and the West, as Dr. Kalomiros continually and recklessly casts aspersions on our brothers and sisters of the West, constantly misrepresenting and disparaging their views. At one point, he quotes a magnificent text from the first volume of the Philokalia, which describes God as “good, dispassionate, and immutable.” Dr. Kalomiros proceeds to imply that Western Christians do not share this view, and instead believe in a God who “returns evil for evil” and cannot “pardon and to forget the evil done against His will, unless an infinite satisfaction is offered to Him.” Here Dr. Kalomiros ignores the fact that the first volume of the Philokalia is the common heritage of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches and furthermore, the author of the text he quotes, St. Anthony the Great, is accepted as a saint in the Catholic Church. How can he imply that Western Christians would not adopt the view of the merciful, loving God that one of their own saints describes?
Yet Dr. Kalomiros engages in this kind of erection and knocking down of strawmen throughout his presentation. He describes the West as pagan at best and atheist at worst, and then proceeds to describe the superiors of the West in the East. He has little idea or knowledge about Western Christianity or the beliefs and doctrines of Western Catholics and Protestants. He is able to find in the West only the “child of pagan, humanistic Greece and Rome.” His entire text is extremely offputting, offensive, slanderous, and disrespectful of our brothers and sisters of the West and I can only hope that the current outreach of our Ecumenical Patriarch and other bishops towards the West will contain any damage caused by this and other presentations like it. It is my hope and my prayer that we Orthodox can demonstrate Christ’s love in approaching others of all faiths with respect and understanding and then preach the true faith of Christ’s Church first through our living.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Was Prelapsarian Man a Carnivore?

Meredith Kline’s Kingdom Prologue offers readers a nearly line-by-line exegesis of the book of Genesis and the major themes explored therein: creation, the fall, and redemptive covenant. One of Kline’s most fascinating arguments is in his treatment of death in prelapsarian Eden. In chapter 2, “Holy Theocratic Kingdom,” Kline highlights a consecration-sacrifice-death cycle in Paradise. He states that “when something belonging to the organic, living level of creation is sacrificially consecrated to the interests of a higher creature, as when plants are assigned as food for animals and men (Gen 1:29, 30), death is an appropriate term for this form of sacrifice” (p. 53).

Yet the reader may be left wondering whether such an analogy is applicable in this prelapsarian state. Nothing prior to the Genesis 2 fall suggests that man would experience death or that animals experienced death or were killed and taken as food. As for the death of plants, in Genesis 1:29-30, God states that “I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food.” Kline, in reading this, implies that the assignment of plants for food equated the death of plants in a cycle of consecration and elementary sacrifice.

Yet such a reading does not necessarily follow from the Scripture. If man in paradise ate not the trees and plants themselves, but rather, their seed-bearing fruit, then the death of the plants and trees would not automatically follow thereafter. Rather, in taking of their seed-bearing fruit, man would be participating in the propagation of plants by helping them to spread their seeds and thus multiply. In such a state, man’s use of plants and of the seed-bearing fruit of trees for food would imply a harmonious cycle between man and the plant world in prelapsarian Eden. Man would be working to further the natural end of trees and plants as they multiplied. Neither man, plants, or animals would experience death in this perfect state.

Certainly, man would exercise dominion over the animals (Gen 1:28), but this does not necessarily mean that he would slay them to use as food. Rather, in his dominion, he might use the animals as beasts of burden or in other ways as helpers as he tilled the garden.

Kline argues that while it is true that Genesis 1:29-30 does not explicitly state that man was given animals as food, these passages should not be read as having restricted man’s diet to fruit and vegetables. Rather, they mention only plants and fruit and leave out meat because they prepare the reader for the “exceptional stipulation in Genesis 2:16, 17, prohibiting the use of the fruit of the tree of knowledge” (p. 55). To state that meat was forbidden would be to make an argument from silence.

Yet nothing in the prelapsarian passages of Genesis imply the death of animals. In postlapsarian Eden, in contrast, a multitude of passages imply the killing and death of animals. For example, God clothed Adam and Eve with “tunics of skin” (Gen 3:21) and Abel brought to God “the firstborn of his flock” (Gen 4:4), presumably, as an offering that foreshadows later sacrificial worship offering. Finally, in the first explicit sanction for man to take animals for food, God states in Genesis 9:3 that “every moving thing that lives shall be food” for Noah and his sons.  
It also seems counterintuitive that the cycle of consecration, sacrifice, and death would begin in prelapsarian Genesis, where man stood in a state of grace and full communion with the Lord, a God of life and creation. Prior to man’s fall, sacrifice and death would seem to have no place in such a state. Accordingly, death is only first mentioned in postlapsarian Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground … For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.”
This is a view that has been held by great thinkers and writers throughout history. For example, in Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, the fallen Adam only first notices the animals hunting and killing one another in postlapsarian Book X. In prelapsarian Eden, the animals lived in peaceful harmony. Such a view is consistent with the Scriptures’ first having mentioned God’s explicit permission for man to eat the animals in postlapsarian Genesis 9:3, where death has already entered the world. In my view, animals prior to that moment were not killed and taken as food.