Book Write-Up: The Victory of the Cross, by James R. Payton Jr.

James R. Payton Jr. The Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

James R. Payton Jr. teaches history at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada. This book is somewhat of a primer on Eastern Orthodoxy. It gets into Eastern Orthodox perspectives on the significance of the cross, atonement, the divine inspiration of Scripture, the extent of human sinfulness, the salvific role of the incarnation and life of Christ, and the divinization of humans. Payton draws from church fathers, some of them church fathers on whom Western Christianity has relied. But Eastern Orthodoxy goes in a different direction from Western Christianity. To highlight a few examples, Eastern Orthodoxy has a stronger view of human free will and a weaker view of human depravity. Eastern Orthodoxy also does not see the cross as Jesus appeasing the wrath of a just God but embraces more of a ransom view of the atonement, in which Jesus delivers people from the power of the devil.

In my periods of discontent with conservative Protestant Christianity, some have recommended that I take a look at Eastern Orthodoxy. After reading this book, I am confused. Here are some areas of my confusion:

—-The ransom view of the atonement has never made sense to me. I can accept the ransom view that Jesus delivered people from the power and authority of the devil: that the devil gained authority over human beings after the sin of Adam and Eve, and Jesus took that authority from the devil. Where I differ from the ransom theory is in its view that the devil did not fully know who Jesus was when Jesus was on earth. According to the ransom theory, the devil did not realize that he was putting God to death in killing Jesus, and thus the devil was overreaching. I think a case can be made, however, that the devil knew Jesus’s divine identity. He and the demons frequently call Jesus the Son of God.

—-One cannot read the New Testament and avoid the conclusion that Jesus’s death brought about the forgiveness of sins. How did it do so? Western Christianity has a clear answer: Jesus paid the death penalty for our sins. I am unclear about how Eastern Orthodoxy believes that Jesus’s death brought about forgiveness of sins. From the patristic quotes that Payton provides, it seems that the Eastern Orthodox are somewhat similar to Western Christianity on the mechanics of atonement, only the Eastern Orthodox have different emphases. Yet, Payton argues rigorously that, when the church fathers speak of Jesus paying a debt, they do not mean the same thing that Anselm later meant (i.e., Jesus paying a debt to God). So I am back to square one.

—-The concept of human depravity is a stumblingblock to me, when it comes to embracing Christianity with full conviction. I acknowledge that humans are morally imperfect. But there is also good in them. Of course, believers in TULIP have an answer to that, as Payton acknowledges. Their answer is that the image of God did not completely vanish with the Fall, and that total depravity does not mean that humans are as bad as they possibly can be, but rather that even the good that is in them is corrupt. First of all, when it comes to human depravity, I wonder what exactly the difference is between the TULIP conception and Eastern Orthodoxy: both acknowledge some good within humans, but also serious flaws. From what Payton says, the Eastern Orthodox even maintain that some divine grace is necessary for humans to believe the Gospel: prevenient grace. That overlaps with TULIP, which does not believe in prevenient grace but still thinks that divine grace (in this case, irresistible grace) is necessary for people to believe the Gospel. Second, if TULIP believes that there is some good within humans, why is it so insistent that humans cannot believe in the Gospel on their own? Cannot that good part within humans turn towards God, albeit imperfectly?

—-Eastern Orthodoxy believes in the divinization of humans. This means that Christians partake of the divine nature because they have the Holy Spirit, have immortality like God, and are on the road to becoming virtuous, like God. In some sense, according to Eastern Orthodoxy, the incarnation relates to human divinization: Jesus, as God, became a human being and in the process elevated human nature beyond what it was before. How did Jesus elevate human nature through the incarnation? At least prior to his resurrection, he was not personally immortal, for he could die like other people. Did he make human nature more virtuous, as his divine nature made his human nature better morally? Is Jesus, as a human being who has God as part of his nature, analogous to Christians, who are human beings with the Holy Spirit inside of them?

—-Irenaeus held to incarnational recapitulation: that Jesus, as God becoming man, recreated humanity. Jesus not only did right what Adam did wrong, but Jesus, throughout the various stages of his life, embodied God’s will for human beings, thereby recreating humanity after God’s desire. How did this recreation of humanity occur? I can somewhat understand the Lutheran perspective that Jesus fulfilled God’s righteousness on our behalf, so Jesus’s righteousness is imputed to believers. But how did Jesus’s incarnation make human beings practically righteous? Here, the answer may be staring me in the face: Christianity is about God transforming human beings. Connecting that with the incarnation is a bit nebulous to me, but perhaps it’s not impossible.

Moving on to another critique, it seemed to me that Payton was projecting a modern evangelical conception of divine inspiration of Scripture onto the church fathers. That conception is that God speaks but through the distinct human personalities of the authors. I doubt that the church fathers had that high of a conception of the human role in Scripture. Payton also tries to apply patristic ideas to the creation/evolution debate. Here, he has valuable things to say, as when he notes that some church fathers did not interpret Genesis 1 in a strictly literal, historical sense. Still, the church fathers probably would not agree with Payton that, at some nebulous point in the past, human beings disappointed God and fell. They likely accepted the Adam and Eve story as a literal and historical account of how the Fall occurred.

Where the book was helpful is that it clarified, somewhat, the image and likeness of God within humans. Where this issue has been confusing to me is that I have wondered if humans are in God’s image right now. On the one hand, there are passages that seem to indicate that they are, and that is why humans should treat each other with respect (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). On the other hand, there are passages that appear to imply that humans, since the Fall and apart from Christ, are not in God’s image. Adam was made in God’s image, but Adam’s son Seth reflected Adam’s image (Genesis 5:1-3). And sanctification is God enabling believers to reflect the image of God (Colossians 3:10), implying that they currently do not, apart from Christ. One way to reconcile this is to say that humans, apart from Christ, bear God’s image imperfectly, and Jesus enables people to reflect it fully. According to Payton, the church fathers had another approach: all humans are in God’s image, but Christ enables people to reflect God’s likeness (i.e., virtue). The church fathers may be drawing a distinction that is not present in the biblical text—-the biblical text seems to use the terms image and likeness interchangeably—-but I appreciate their attempt to wrestle with how humans bear the image of God.

Although the book is a bit muddled, it is replete with patristic references, and Payton does well to wrestle with questions, and with a friendly tone.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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