Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Stăniloae on justice and atonement

Thus spake Stăniloae:

Jesus is aware that only by opening up access to God will He save humans. But this access to God is not opened through a death understood in the sense of the later theory of satisfaction. This lowers the relationship between God and human person to the level of a justice that is measured quantitatively (The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, vol. 3: The Person of Jesus Christ as God and Savior, p. 17).

I appreciate what Stăniloae says here, and it is fully consonant with a theme I've been repeating now and again on my blog. God's relationship to the creation is one that cannot be reduced to the level of mere justice. On the contrary, the Bible and important teachers of the Christian tradition teach that the human person and the whole creation are of value to God as such. The story of Jonah relates this point, as does the creation account in Genesis; Athanasius said as much, and Gregory of Nyssa implies the same.

I like that Stăniloae says that a satisfaction theory of atonement -- by which I understand he means a theory of atonement which exclusively involves only satisfaction -- lowers the relationship between God and the human person. It is a lowering because a relation of mere justice is the lowest kind of relationship that can obtain between persons; it is what is required for relations with anyone whatsoever, absent emotional attachment, fundamental commitment to the other, etc. If your relationship with your children or your spouse takes place merely on the plane of justice, it is in a bad place. All the sorts of relationships we want to have with other persons go beyond mere justice onto a plane of love and committed goodwill.

God's relationship to the creation is not just one of justice; it is one of love, and we know this because of that impressive love expressed in the economy of salvation (cf. 1 John 4.8-10). Importantly, it is a love for the entire creation (cf. 1 John 2.2). To reduce the relation between God and any human person at any time to that of Judge-Defendant is impossible and theologically inadequate. To suppose that God's relation to a person may be characterized by love for a time but later only by justice is to ascribe an impossible change to the immutable God.

The fact that God's relation to the entire creation is one defined by love must temper our insistence on divine justice. There is never in fact any divine justice without divine love, since God is immutably loving and the fundamentally committed the creation as such. That kind of strict and severe Augustinianism which proposes that God might have created some persons merely for the sake of displaying his justice in punishing them for their sins must be rejected wholeheartedly in the name of God. And our understanding of the atonement and even of hell must reflect the revelation that God is committed to the whole creation in love. There may be penal and juridical elements in atonement, I don't deny that, but they cannot be whole story or even the defining elements.