The Importance of Old Testament Ideas of Sacrifice in a Christian Understanding of Atonement

This is an article I wrote for a seminary class on Christology and Atonement, which I have found to be particularly relevant in many discussions – especially the part towards the end about “expiation” vs. “propitiation”.
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The Christian doctrine of atonement is an attempt to achieve an understanding of the event of the crucifixion of Christ and the benefits of Christ gained for believers by his death. Atonement theories deal with the question of how an historical even in a specific place and time – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – can somehow constitute universal saving power in perpetuity, as the New Testament claims that it does (1 Jn 2:2, Heb. 10:10-14). Unarguably, it is from the sacrificial system of ancient Israel that we have inherited the framework and terminology of the Christian idea of atonement. A consideration, therefore, of the Old Testament ideas of sacrifice gives insight into and shapes our view of what was accomplished through the crucifixion.

The Christian claim from scripture and tradition is that Christ’s action constituted God’s gift of salvation, and was not merely illustrative of it. Gunton points out that sacrifice is the primary New Testament metaphor regarding the crucifixion. The early church interpreted Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms, which developed out of a context of the temple cult. It is important to remember that the setting in which Jesus and the early Christians lived was one in which the Old Testament sacrifices were still being offered; in fact, these sacrifices were being offered during practically the whole period of the composition of the New Testament. The antecedents of New Testament ideas of atonement are found in the Old Testament sacrificial system. The book of Leviticus, therefore, gives some of the clearest insights into biblical religion and is fundamental to the New Testament’s understanding of atonement.

In the Old Testament, sacrifice is the divinely appointed way of securing atonement, and the need for atonement exists because humankind is estranged from God by sin, hence the need for reconciliation or ‘at-one-ment’ between humans and God. An important understanding in the Old Testament is the distinction between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. One of the duties of the priest was to distinguish between these (Lev. 10:10). Cleanness in the Old Testament understanding has little to do with hygiene; it has to do with imperfection, a distortion of existence. Examples of what would make someone unclean were things like contact with a dead body, a bodily excretion, and committing acts of sin or lawbreaking – either intentionally or unintentionally. God is the super-holy and should anyone unclean come near God, they are liable to be destroyed. Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness, so that people could be restored to fellowship with God.

Leviticus lists five main sacrifices: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering. Each of these, besides the grain offering, included the shedding of the blood of animals. Each was a sacrifice in the metaphorical sense, in that they were of significant cost to the person who presented the sacrifice, which drives home the idea that atonement has a high price and sin is never to be taken lightly. The sin offering and the guilt offering were for the purpose of atonement for committed sins. The sin offering was particularly focused on purification, whereas the guilt offering carried more of the metaphor of compensation for wrongdoing.

In each of the animal sacrifices, the blood of the animal is shed, and the animal dies. Thus, it is clear that in the Old Testament it was recognised that death was the penalty for sin (Ezek. 18:20), but that God graciously permitted the death of a sacrificial victim to substitute or ransom for the death of the unclean person. Herein we have the basis for the substitutional and representative death of Jesus as a sacrifice on behalf of humankind. This same understanding of substitutional sacrificial death which results in atonement can be found elsewhere in the Old Testament, e.g. in Ex. 32, where Moses seeks to make atonement for the sin of the people by asking God to blot him out of the book which he has written. However, in the Old Testament sacrifices, it is not the death of the animal which is the climax of the rite, but rather what is done with its blood. The blood of the sin offering acts as a spiritual cleanser. Jesus’ blood is also spoken of as that which cleanses from sin, e.g. 1 Jn 1:7. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the sacrificed creature was required to be unblemished, representing perfection, hence the importance in the New Testament that Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 4:15, 7:26, 9:14, 1 Pet. 2:22, 1 Jn 3:5); otherwise he would not have been qualified to be an atoning sacrifice.

God says in Leviticus 17:11 of the atoning blood ‘I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.’ From this we learn that although human estrangement from God is because of human shortcomings, God took the initiative to provided the means for atonement. This idea carried into the New Testament view of atonement, in which, once again, God is the one who provides the means for our atonement by sending Jesus to be our atoning sacrifice.

Furthermore, the greatest day in the Old Testament calendar was the Day of Atonement, which was so significant that it became simply referred to as ‘the Day’. On this day, special sin offerings were made by the high priest for himself and for the whole nation. One of the elements of the Day of Atonement was the scapegoat ceremony in which the high priest laid his hands on the goat and confessed all the sins of the people, thereby symbolising the transferring of the nation’s sins onto the goat. Herein we have the basis for the understanding of making atonement for a large group of people at one time, rather than only for individuals, as well as the idea of transference of sin and guilt onto an innocent party – both of which are central to the Christian concept of atonement, in which our sins are transferred onto Jesus, and he who knew no sin becomes sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21, Is. 53:6, Jn 1:29, 1 Pet. 2:24).

The importance of Old Testament ideas of sacrifice in the Christian account of atonement are perhaps nowhere more greatly pronounced than in the letter to the Hebrews, which David Ford calls ‘the most fully developed theology of the death of Jesus in the New Testament’. The great concern of the letter to the Hebrews is to show that the Old Testament sacrifices were inadequate except as types, which foreshadowed and pointed to Christ. This is proven by the fact that they cannot provide entrance into the holy of holies, nor free the conscience from guilt. Rather than remedies for sin, they are reminders of sin, imposed until a time of reformation. (Heb. 9:6-10, 10:3), which has now come in Christ, who was the true and final sacrifice, after which no more sacrifices for atonement are needed (Heb. 10:11-14).

Furthermore, according to Hebrews, Jesus is not only the atoning sacrifice, but he is also the fulfilment of the high priest, who enters heaven (the reality of which the holy of holies was merely a representation), not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood. (Heb. 9:23-26). Thus, Jesus’ death is not simply seen as having been the result of wicked men rising up against him and overcoming him because he was not able to resist them, but as an intentional sacrifice, which Jesus came to present, in order to make atonement for humankind (Mk 10:45).

However, it is not only the letter to the Hebrews which reflects this understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion as being an atoning sacrifice. References to atoning sacrifice, which use the language and imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system are found throughout the New Testament. He is spoken of as the true passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:6-8) and as a sin offering (Rom. 8:3). Jesus spoke of his blood as the blood of the covenant which was poured out for the forgiveness of many (Matt. 26:28).

Historically, Christian accounts of atonement have been culturally mediated, deriving from their socio-political contexts, and reflective of prevailing philosophical ideas. In this sense, it is understandable why Christianity, born in a Jewish context, would have drawn so heavily on Old Testament ideas and imagery of sacrifice. In modern times, the idea of a sacrificial cult in which blood has to be shed in order for forgiveness of sins to take place is generally considered crude, primitive and unsophisticated, and it has been suggested that Christians should take on different views of the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, for example an exemplarist view, in which we learn from Christ the virtue of self-sacrifice, and are moved by his act of self-sacrifice to repentance and faith and are motivated to live a life of holiness. Wellhausen’s moral evolution account has contributed to this line of thinking, in which he claimed to see a critique of cultic practices present in the prophets. However, since most of the prophets were also priests, they were involved with sacrifice and were rather criticising the practice of making offerings in the wrong spirit rather than critiquing the cultic practice of sacrifice itself. Another modern emphasis on sacrifice is that it be understood metaphorically in terms of a ‘gift’. Fiddes points out that this is a slippage form the ancient use of the term which formed the context for early Christian reflection on the death of Christ. Even in Old Testament times, there was precedent, e.g. in the Psalms, to speak of sacrifice in metaphorical terms (‘spiritual sacrifice’), but this was not a substitution of the literal animal sacrifices. In fact, early Christians drew on both the spiritual sacrifices and the literal sacrifices to provide a backdrop and meaning for the death of Jesus.

During the Reformation, one of the theories of atonement which became popular was that of penal substitution; that the law of God demanded punishment from those who breached it and that God, as a strategy of love, effectively propitiated himself in Christ, satisfying the demands of his own justice. The attraction of this theory has been that it does appear to explain how the death of Christ is a final and decisive event, and after his death the anger or truth of God needs not be propitiated again. However, the shortcoming of this theory of atonement is that when we consider the Old Testament sacrificial system, what we find is that atonement is centred around cleansing the unclean person from that which makes them unclean, rather than about dealing with the reaction of God against sin. If we are to claim that the Old Testament sacrificial system is the basis for the Christian understanding of atonement, then we must recognise that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not focused on dealing with God’s reaction to sin, but with removing sin and making the unclean clean. Fiddes contends that when Romans 3:25 says that Jesus was ‘propitiation by his blood’, that the word translated propitiation (‘hilasterion’) should rather be understood as ‘expiation’ (‘to wipe away’), because God is always the subject of the process of atonement, never the object. Although the word ‘hilasterion’ means ‘propitiation’ when it is used in other texts of the period, Fiddes claims that when the New Testament writers use it they are intentionally changing its meaning to mean expiation, which is what the Old Testament atoning sacrifices describe. Certainly the Bible does depict God being angry against sin (e.g. Rom. 1:18). But even though God does feel anger and wrath towards sin, when he acts to make atonement he is not acting to satisfy his anger, but to remove sin. Those who refuse to appropriate this atonement will remain unclean and estranged from God.

It is clear that the writers of the New Testament drew heavily on the imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system in regard to the significance of the life and death of Jesus. This imagery was not only used by the writer to the Hebrews, but is also found in the writings of Paul, Peter, John and the writers of the Gospels, who give us examples of Jesus speaking in such terms about himself. If then the Old Testament sacrifices are the basis of our Christian account of atonement, we can gain insight into what the crucifixion of Christ did and did not mean when we consider the purposes and effects of the Old Testament sacrifices.

Beckwith, R.T., ‘Sacrifice and Offering’ , in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 1035-1044
Carter, D., THY303 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2012)
Currid, J., K. Nobuyoshi and J.A. Sklar, ‘Leviticus’, in ESV Study Bible, ed. by L.T. Dennis, W. Grudem, J.I. Packer, C.J. Collins, T.R. Schreiner and J. Taylor (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), pp. 211-256
Fiddes, P.S., Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989)
Gunton, C.E., The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989)
Goldingay, J., ‘Old Testament Sacrifice and the Death of Christ’ in John Goldingay, (ed.) Atonement Today, a Symposium at St. John’s College, Nottingham (London: SPCK, 1995), pp. 3-20
Marshall, I.H., A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996)
McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)
Morris, L.L., ‘Atonement’, in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 102-104
Morris, L.L., “Theories of the Atonement”, Monergism <; [28/06/13]
Wenham, G.J., The Pentateuch, Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 (London: SPCK, 2003)

How Effective was Government Persecution of Orthodox Churches in Russia During the Communist Period?

I have been toying with the idea of posting some of the articles I’ve written for seminary up on this blog for people to read and discuss. A few friends mentioned they would be interested in this one in particular. The following is an article I wrote for a class on Twentieth-Century Church History. Feel free to chime in and leave a comment below. (Just a heads-up that it’s written in UK English; those aren’t misspellings!)

The twentieth century, along with being a time of great technological development, was a period of some of the most intense persecution of Christianity the world has ever seen. Multiple sources have estimated that more Christians were killed for their faith in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined. Much of this persecution happened under the rule of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Not least among the persecuted churches was the Orthodox church in Russia. However, the Orthodox church did not cease to exist, and now enjoys a constitutionally privileged position in Russia. Tertullian famously wrote, ‘the blood of Christians is seed’; the implication being that persecution, rather than causing the extermination of Christianity, actually causes it to become stronger and to spread. Was this the case in regard to Orthodox Christianity in Russia during the communist period, or did the persecution ultimately reach its objective?

First of all, we must consider what the objectives of the government persecution were. As the largest and most influential religious organisation in Russia, the persecution of the Orthodox church by the Soviet government was both ideologically and politically motivated. Ideologically, one of the ultimate objectives of Marxism was the elimination of all religion. Politically, the Orthodox church had been very closely tied to the ruling houses of Imperial Russia, and thus, in the minds of the communists, was part of the old system which they were trying to overthrow. The fact that during the Russian civil war many prominent Orthodox supporters fought on the side of the ‘Whites’ certainly contributed to the persecution of the church once the ‘Reds’ eventually triumphed. Although all religions and Christian groups suffered persecution during the communist period, the Orthodox church was often treated uniquely; there were times when non-Orthodox were allowed greater freedom in the hope that their growth would weaken the Orthodox church, and there were times when the government sought to work through the Orthodox church as it did through its puppet regimes, to influence people or gain popular support for its agendas.

Some historical context is helpful for understanding the place of the Orthodox church in Russia prior to the communists coming to power. The official christianisation of the Russian people is recognised as having taken place in 988, when Vladimir I led the citizens of Kyiv to the Dnieper river for baptism. One of the factors in Vladimir pronouncing Christianity to be the official national religion was that he believed it would be a means of unifying his divided people by giving them a common sense of identity. Vladimir aligned his people with Constantinople, the ‘second Rome.’ Vassily III was the first Russian ruler to take the title of ‘tsar’, which comes from the Latin ‘caesar’. In 1589, the Patriarchate of Moscow was established; the Patriarch of Constantinople recognised Russia as the political but not ecclesiastical successor to Constantinople, and the tsar was acknowledged as successor to the Byzantine Emperors, but Moscow was not acknowledged as the ‘third Rome’, though its form of Christendom and church-state relations followed that model. Russian history after this point was marked by a struggle for authority between church and state; at some points church leaders claimed supreme authority, while at others the church was reduced to a department of the state and the clergy as state servants. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great suppressed the Moscow Patriarchate in favour of a synod which ran the church as a department of the state, limiting its freedom. Thus, in Russia there was a tradition of autocracy reaching back several centuries, in which the Orthodox church, while enjoying considerable privileges, was subjected to the state. When the communist regime made the churches answerable to a government department, this was nothing new to the Orthodox church. The traditional patterns of church-state relationship in Russia meant that the Orthodox church was surprisingly able to adapt to life under communism, where they found themselves once again in a struggle with the state for authority and once again subjugated to the state. In some ways the situation the Orthodox church found itself in under communism was one they were well-prepared to cope with because it was more familiar to them than, for example, Western-style pluralistic democracy would have been.

The Orthodox church suffered great losses during the communist period, but they also received some surprising benefits. After the Bolsheviks took power, a prolonged period of repression began, rising steadily throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Orthodox church was virtually ‘decapitated’; between 1918 and 1926, over 100 bishops were executed and thrown in prison, along with tens of thousands of priests—85,000 clergy were put to death in 1937 alone. Stalin, a dropout from an Orthodox seminary, continued Lenin’s policy of persecution. During the first decades of Soviet control, the number of functioning Orthodox churches was reduced from around 55,000 to about 500, and the number of monasteries was reduced from 1,025 to 0. The Orthodox church, at least on the surface, ceased to exist; it was forced underground, with believers being led by clergy who took up ordinary occupations to mask their religious activity and to support themselves. We are only left to wonder if the Orthodox church in Russia would have survived at all had this level of persecution continued, because in 1943, Stalin introduced a reversal in policy and allowed the Orthodox church a limited amount of freedom in exchange for their support of the war effort. Such changes in policy happened a number of times during the communist period, with bursts of persecution and moments of reprieve, but it was always generally suppressive, and it was clear that the view of the future held by the communist powers was one which did not include religious groups of any kind, much less the Orthodox church. However, the Soviets were not opposed to using the church in the short term as a mechanism for influencing and controlling people in their empire, as Stalin had in 1943. Furthermore, it was easier to control centralised institutions than underground bodies. Thus, from 1940 the Uniate churches of Ukraine and Central Europe were forcibly united with the Russian Orthodox church and the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate was extended after 1945 to include Orthodox churches in Bulgaria and Romania as they came under Soviet political domination. The Russian Orthodox church had a history of attempting to extend its influence, and ironically, it was the Soviet regime who helped them to do so during the communist period.

The way the communist government of the Soviet Union approached the Orthodox church in Russia differed from policy of the communist government in China towards Christianity. The main reason for this is because communist social thought did not have to undo Christian cultural influence in China as it did in Russia, which had been shaped by centuries of Christian allegiance. In China the Christian community had always been a minority; it was smaller, less influential, and closely associated with foreign influence. Russia, on the other hand, had experienced centuries of Christendom, in which the Orthodox church, far from being considered a foreign entity, was part of the historical and national identity of Russia and the Russian people. This is precisely what Soviet policy sought to undo, as well as the reason why this was as incredibly difficult task, which they never fully succeeded to accomplish. It seems that this was ultimately accepted by the Soviet government, who in 1988, at the millennium of the christianising of Russia, not only allowed, but even participated in the commemoration by minting a gold coin. In the newfound liberty after the end of communism, the Orthodox church rushed in to fill the void in national identity left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Symbols and paraphernalia of Orthodox worship began to reappear and the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family were disinterred and reburied in an Orthodox cathedral in Saint Petersburg. In 1997 a new law in Russia put the Orthodox church in a constitutionally privileged position and limited the freedom of other religious groups. Orthodox priests have been seen blessing Russian army recruits going off to war in breakaway provinces. It would seem that these are signs of a return to Christendom and the failure of the decades-long Soviet policy of persecution.

Statistics, however, suggest that the government persecution of the Orthodox church was not without effect. It is estimated that by 2000 there were around 80 million self-identified Orthodox Christians in Russia—about half the population. The other believers of all religions made up roughly 15 million, leaving approximately 65 million Russians professedly without any religious belief—an astonishingly high proportion compared with countries outside the former communist lands. Of that 80 million, somewhere between 3-15 million actually attend church even once a year. This disparity between practice and professed identity has led some to suggest that Russia is in fact one of the most secularised societies in the world.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, one of the greatest challenges that Orthodoxy has faced is how to cope with Western-style pluralistic democracy. The collapse of the Soviet state, while allowing the church far greater freedom than it had had at any time since 1917-1918, came at the expense of its ability to influence many of the churches once under the Soviet sway. One of the great legacies of communism has been internal church division. The reappearance of the Uniate churches and the formation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as schismatic Orthodox churches in Russia, Ukraine and abroad have significantly weakened the Moscow Patriarchate. Whereas the Orthodox church in Russia, for many centuries under tsarist rule and then still under communist rule was one, unified, ‘national’ church—Orthodoxy in Russia and its former areas of influence is now splintered and divided. Thus, it seems that the vision of a renewed Christendom is something which can never again exist in the same way it did during Russia’s imperial period. The legacy of the communist era is that it forced Russia out of Christendom in an irreversible way.

How effective was the government persecution of the Orthodox church in Russia during the communist period? On the one hand, in the wake of the communist era, an astonishingly high number of Russians profess no religious belief and the once-united Orthodox church is now splintered, divided and weakened. In this sense, the persecution was effective. On the other hand though, it failed to accomplish its ultimate objectives of destroying the church and its role in society. Although there is evidence that church attendance was in decline during this period, it was also in decline in the West; state persecution did not make much difference. In fact, in some ways, Soviet policy helped to strengthen the church by keeping it united and by increasing its sphere of influence. Considering the rapid decline of Christianity in Western Europe—and even more recently in countries like Poland, which remained extremely loyal to the Roman Catholic Church throughout the communist period, but has seen decline in that area since it has become more of a Western-style democratic society—one is left to wonder what would have happened if the communist authorities would have not persecuted the Orthodox church, but had treated it as irrelevant and quietly excluded it from public life, as the democracies of Western Europe did as they transitioned out of Christendom. If the Soviets would have done that, I expect that Orthodox faith in Russia would have gone the way of Lutheranism in Sweden and Anglicanism in England—and maybe it is now, but the transition would have been, I believe, quicker and easier. Forbidden fruit is always sweeter; persecution only strengthens the resolve of the faithful. The real way to kill a religion is not through persecution, but by making it appear irrelevant and making its adherents complacent and uninterested in it.


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