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An Existential Soteriology: Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Light of the Mystical Theology of the Church Fathers

An Existential Soteriology: Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Light of the Mystical Theology of the Church Fathers

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by Fr. Joshua Karl Schooping

Paperback: 362 pages

"Come, all ye peoples, and let us venerate the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass." So sings the Church on Eve of the Feast the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.

The love of the Cross is deeply implanted in the heart of the Church, for she finds there bottomless wells of refreshment. Her song continues: “By the blood of God the poison of the serpent is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed by the unjust punishment inflicted on the Just.”

In the Church's reflection on the death of Christ, the Scriptures provide a host of divinely inspired images. Whether that of sacrifice, ransom, or victory over the powers of evil, each Scriptural paradigm is necessary, and none can be ignored or denied without doing harm to the unity and totality of Christian faith and praxis.

One image which has been severely underappreciated, even denied, is that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Although it is not widely known, the Church Fathers did not ignore this aspect of Christ's Atoning work, and the present work seeks to make their views on the subject known. From St. Cyril of Alexandria's commentaries to St. Symeon the New Theologian's and St. Gregory Palamas' homilies to Patriarch Jeremiah's correspondence with the Lutherans to St. Philaret of Moscow's sermons, each era of the Church has affirmed what is today called Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

Although the term was coined in the West, the substance of its content is Patristic. Not satisfied with merely knowing about Christ's historical sacrifice, the Church has sought to internalize the truth of the Cross. Orthodox mystical theology therefore takes up the theme of the Cross as a living reality which works in the heart to transform man through his participation with the divine nature. The present work seeks to make this connection, that between the historical cross and the living Christ, clearer in order that the Christian way of life might stand more firmly.

The Christian path of practice is centered in the life of prayer. Prayer, however, is not a haphazard endeavor. The Church Fathers have ever endeavored to provide instruction that aided the faithful into deeper communion with the Lord. The ability to attend to Him without distraction, however, is constantly being obstructed by the passions. The passions are those internal motions which darken, confuse, and lead the mind astray. Therefore the passions were a principle focus of the Fathers. The present work therefore seeks to address the manner in which the Atonement speaks to the interior life of the Christian, and then to elucidate the methodology of its practice.

The twin pillars of watchfulness and stillness, rooted in the reality of our co-crucifixion, co-resurrection, and co-ascension with Christ, provide the means by which a Christian can learn to walk in his new identity in Christ. Seeing the connection between theology and praxis will help the Christian avoid the trap of reducing the spiritual disciplines to mere pious duties to be performed, and give tools to aid in the deconstructing of the false identities that fallen man weaves for himself.

Lastly, the very nature of what it means to be human will be touched upon. It is well known that God transcends conceptualization, but it is less well known that, since man is made in God's image, man in his experience of himself also transcends conceptualization. In other words, there is a mysterious depth to man's being which exceeds his ability to conceive, and yet he can experience these mysterious depths of his own being due to his apophatic anthropology. God, moreover, who comes to dwell in the hearts of the faithful, can thus be experienced apophatically in the mysterious depths of one's own being. In the depths of interior silence, the image bearer, man, communes with the Original Image, God.

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