The immensity of this work of Christ, a work incomprehensible to the angels, so St. Paul tells us, cannot then be enclosed in a single explanation, nor in a single metaphor. The very idea of redemption assumes a plainly legal aspect: it is the atonement of a slave, the debt paid for those who remained in prison because they could not discharge it. Legal also is the theme of the mediator who reunited man to God through the cross. But these two Pauline images, stressed again by the Fathers, must not be allowed to harden, for this would be to build an indefensible relationship of rights between God and humanity. Rather must we relocate them among the almost infinite number of other images, each like a facet of an event ineffable in itself. Looming large in the Gospel are the Good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep, “the strong man” who triumphs over the brigand, ties him up and takes his spoils from him, the woman who rediscovers and cleans the drachma where the image of God lies printed beneath the dust of sin. Liturgical texts, particularly during Holy Week, have for their leit-motif the theme of the victorious warrior who destroys the enemies and breaks down the gates of Hell where, as Dante writes, “their banners enter in triumph.” There abound also in the Fathers images of a physical order: that of the purifying fire, and particularly that of the doctor who heals the wounds of the people. Indeed, since Origen, Christ is the Good Samaritan who tends and restores human nature wounded by brigands, that is, by the demons. Finally, the theme of sacrifice is much more than a metaphor. It is the culmination of a typology which participates in the very reality it announces, in the “blood of Christ” offered “in a spirit of eternity,” as is written in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where this image completes in death the legal symbolism. ~Vladimir Lossky, Orthodoxy Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp. 111-112.
Much of the Christianity that surrounds us assumes that there is a simple answer to the question of how Jesus saves, usually some form of penal substitutionary atonement. Since I’ve returned to the Bible belt, I’ve noticed this cropping up even more, but it is never really absent in a society where conservative evangelicals are the loudest Christian voices.
Lossky, drawing heavily from the Scriptures and the liturgy, as well as the Fathers, comes up with a number of metaphors, all of which surround the immense and ineffable mystery of the saving work of Christ. We might add to the mix or question Lossky’s particular emphases, but that’s beside the point I’m trying to make, namely that there is astounding breadth, even in the most traditional of materials.
I suspect that the attempts to zero in on one metaphor to the exclusion of others equally well attested in tradition amount, in fact, to heterodoxy. Penal substitution is, arguably, not present in the early tradition at all (though it is a kind of development of what Lossky calls the metaphor of redemption). In my view, the one-sidedness of zeroing in on a single metaphor, where Scripture and tradition are internally diverse, is the root of heresy in the worst sense. It is far more dangerous than the particulars of the option chosen. We can highlight certain metaphors and bring their implications into focus (even as we downplay or sideline others), without either undoing their tension with other voices in the tradition or subverting the provisional character of all true Christian witness. At a minimum, Christian witness is provisional because it dares to speak of the ineffable God.
Often, the early witnesses, like the contemporary Body, are diverse for a reason. Theology too, like the human beings who do it, stands at the foot of the Cross, waiting on the gift and promise that consummates all things in Christ. May that Gift, the Holy Spirit, bind us in charity and lead us now and always into Truth.