A Great and Fearful Mystery: St. Symeon the New Theologian on Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The following contribution is from Fr. Joshua Karl. The original article may be found on his personal blog, here.

Following up on the previous article’s Patristic teaching on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), a closer reading of St. Symeon the New Theologian on PSA appears warranted due to the variety of questions and comments elicited therefrom. Doubts about, and false certainties that deny, how Christ could be said to be punished for the sake of man appears to some unwarranted and unPatristic. This, however, will be shown to be false. It ought to be noted, however, that the Patristic teaching on PSA is in no way beholden to Reformed articulations of the same. It is entirely possible that Patristic PSA offers much-needed corrections to misleading Reformed emphases, but whether or not this is the case, it is key to understand the Fathers’ teaching on the subject, of which St. Symeon provides perhaps the longest and clearest exposition of the Scriptural data theologically understood.

To begin, in Homily 1, “The Transgression of Adam and Our Redemption by Jesus Christ” (from The First-Created Man, tr. Seraphim Rose), St. Symeon the New Theologian identifies and defines the two types of death that occurred to Adam: one of body and one of soul, both of which were passed on to all of his progeny by way of inheritance. He states (45):

Thus, in soul Adam died immediately, as soon as he had tasted [from the fruit of that tree from which God had commanded him not to taste, threatening him that if he should only taste of it he should die]; and later, after nine hundred and thirty years, he died also in body. For, as the death of the body is the separation of it of the soul, so the death of the soul is the separation from it of the Holy Spirit… Later, for this reason, the whole human race also became such as our forefather Adam became through the fall – mortal, that is, both in soul and body. Man such as God had created him no longer existed in the World.

There are a few key things to note from the above. One is that the soul Adam persisted in a state of separation from the Holy Spirit for over 900 years. Another is that after 900 years his soul finally separated from his body. Moreover, these are the two deaths which are passed on to the whole human race, rendering us corruptible and mortal, for “human nature is sinful from its very conception” (70). Thus the Fall is a condition of persisting in separation from the Holy Spirit, and persisting, one might say, by the natural power implanted in the created soul, for some period of time, as a soul-body or psychosomatic unity. This is the universal condition of man, for as St. Symeon teaches, “We are all born sinners from our forefather Adam who sinned… subject to the curse and death from him who was subject to the curse and death” (115). As he teaches elsewhere (70):


All people also who come from the seed of Adam are participants of the ancestral sin from their very conception and birth. He has been born in this way, even though he has not yet performed any sin, is already sinful through this ancestral sin.

St. Symeon contextualizes the foregoing situation with a discussion of the scope of the divine chastisement on sinners, and the nature of its remedy (44):


The sentence of God remains forever as an eternal chastisement. And all of us men became corruptible and mortal, and there is nothing that might set aside this great and frightful sentence. … For this reason the Almighty Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, came so as to humble Himself in place of Adam. And truly He humbled Himself, even to the death of the Cross. The word of the Cross, as the Scripture says, is this: “Cursed is everyone that hangeth upon a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13).

What St. Symeon is making clear is that Adam had an unbreakable sentence declared against him and so upon all mankind, a chastisement, a punishment that was eternal in nature, for “the words and decrees of God become a law of nature” (82). What is more, St. Symeon clearly expressed that Christ came to stand in Adam’s place, humbling Himself “in place of Adam,” receiving the curse that was Adam’s, the death of soul and body, “for the abolition of the above-mentioned decree” (83). Since the decree is eternal and unbreakable, “a law of nature eternal and unchanging” (83), Christ came that He might submit Himself to the chastisement, to death, and then to rise again so as to break the unbreakable sentence, to destroy death by death: “Therefore, for the abolition of this decree, the Son God, our Lord Jesus Christ, was crucified and died, offering Himself as… a sacrifice frightful and infinitely great” (83).

St. Symeon asks (45-6):

Why did Christ become such a one? In order to keep the law of God and His commandments… But this was allowed so that there might be performed a certain great and fearful mystery, namely, so that Christ, the Sinless One, should suffer, and through this Adam, who had sinned, might receive forgiveness.

For Christ to keep the commandments also signifies the accepting of Adam’s chastisement, the sentence which was an eternal decree, for only He could dispense the death which was binding for all and yet not be bound by it unto eternity. In short, Christ received punishment in place of Adam, voluntarily undergoing “a death which served as punishment for the worst kind of sinners” (70). Thus, as St. Symeon states, Adam was forgiven through, and on the basis of, Christ’s suffering.
It must be kept in mind that Christ did not defeat death by not dying, but by dying. He did not avoid death when He entered into pitch battle with the devil. He accepted the chastisement of Adam, entered into Adam’s condition, which is to say his death, and so He fulfilled the commandment, the eternal chastisement and law of nature that bound mankind to death. He received Adam’s punishment, which was death, death meaning the separation of the soul from the Holy Spirit, from God. It is through Christ’s suffering of Adam’s chastisement that Adam is forgiven.

Since Adam had fallen under the curse, and through him all people also who proceed from him, therefore the sentence of God concerning this could in no way be annihilated; and therefore Christ was for us a curse, through being hung upon the tree of the Cross, so as to offer Himself as a sacrifice to His Father, as has been said, and to annihilate the sentence of God by the superabundant worth of the sacrifice.

Christ received the punishment which was due to Adam by God’s will. God willed as an eternal sentence of chastisement that Adam be punished, as St. Symeon explains, and so Christ received the Father’s eternal chastisement upon Himself, the decree of being separated from the Holy Spirit, which is to say death, for only through the Son’s divine nature could the eternality of the decree be defeated. The Cross, according to God’s will and thus His law, was the medium of imputing the curse of separation to the sinless Christ. It is said to be “imputed” in order conceptually preserve the fact of Christ’s inherent and necessary sinlessness. To assert otherwise would be to say Christ actually became a sinner and died because of His own sinfulness rather than vicariously accepting Adam’s. St. Symeon teaches: “He was hung upon a cross and became a curse… in order to loose the whole curse of Adam” (116). To “become a curse” is to say that He received the ascription of being cursed in order to loose the curse, received the condemnation in order to loose the condemnation, which was death, i.e. soul-separation from the Holy Spirit.

And yet, some will cavil and with a Nestorianizing eisegesis state that to claim Christ received separation from God implies a division, either in the Trinity or within Christ Himself. The rest of the article will argue how this is not at all the case.

To begin, it must be emphasized that Hades, the place of the death, which is to say separation, the place of those whose souls have been separated from both their bodies and from the Holy Spirit, is not without God. God is present, as the Prophet and King David sings (Psalm 139:7-12):

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,”even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.

In other words, God is present everywhere, including Sheol, or Hades. Thus it is that in Hades God’s presence is experienced as separation. Since God is “everywhere present and fillest all things,” as the prayer “O Heavenly King” teaches, and thus also in Hades, the idea that God is absent or separated from (or out of communion with) those in Hades, and that they require His intervention (as in the descent of Christ to Hades) to effect at-one-ment or comm-union, we understand that this separation is not annihilation. It is separation, as in dislocation, as when a joint is separated or dislocated. Hades is the state of dislocation; Hades is the “place of dislocation,” the place or state of separation, and so this is not to say that the limb has been removed from the body, for in terms of the analogy Hades cannot mean that God is absent to the extent that the souls cease to exist. The souls still exist, and therefore God must be present to the degree that they are maintained in existence, but they are “separated” in a manner like a separated or dislocated joint. The limb is still present, but due to separation it is totally weakened and futile (cf. Romans 1:21; Ephesians 2:1, 5), and its dislocated mode of existence is naught but a source of pain, weakness, and futility. It is unable to restore itself to being re-jointed or “at-one-ed.” Returning from the analogy of the separated joint to the separated soul, the pain and futility therefore come from the dislocation and separation that is death, the state of separation or dislocation from at-one-ment with the Holy Spirit, though not in an absolute annihilating sense.

In the case of separation from the Holy Spirit, Adam did not immediately die in body, but persisted in his natural, psychosomatic life. Now, because his soul was separated from the Holy Spirit, Hades is the consequent “location of dislocation.” Although God is present in Hades, Hades is yet not a place of communion with God. Separation from the Holy Spirit is therefore an existential condition, not an annihilated condition. Separation or alienation is a mode of being rather than of non-being, something a person can experience or undergo and thus it does not indicate a radical departure from existence, but existence according to a certain mode. Just as hunger is a mode of relation between stomach and food, that of absence, so is death a mode relation between soul and Spirit, again that of absence. Now, if Christ was positively declared to have experienced hunger, weakness, and grief, all of which are relations of absence, it is no difficulty to understand death in the same sense, as relational absence, which is to say presence experienced as absence, as in hunger in the presence of food, loneliness in the presence of people, or a joint dislocation, rather than as pure non-existence or denial of presence.

Thus when it is said that Christ bore the chastisement or punishment for sin, and went via the Cross to the “location of dislocation,” it is absolutely not signifying a division within either the Trinity or within Christ, and could not be. To be separated does not mean God is absent in an absolute sense, but relatively and in a relational sense, and so Christ is not said to be divided off, but to experience dislocation, weakness, futility, forsakenness, i.e. death. It is a relational separation, not absolute, and so it in principle denies any ascription of division to the Godhead or between the natures of Christ, but presupposes their unbreakable unity. Hades functionally signifies “the place of separation,” and, since Orthodoxy affirms that Christ entered Hades, this does not introduce a division in the Trinity any more than stating that Christ died, for death is separation. Christ is never divided in His Personhood, nor divided from the Trinity, and so in His single Subjectivity He experienced through the medium of His created soul what separation from God is, which is just another way of saying He bore the curse of the Cross and so went to Hades.

If the created body and created soul of Christ can experience death at all, then He can experience alienation, or separation, because death is alienation/separation, as St. Symeon the New Theologian defines: “the death of the soul is the separation from it of the Holy Spirit.” It would be trivial if Christ had underwent merely the condition of the death of the body, for this would not have dealt with the principle condition of fallen Adam, which is separation from the Holy Spirit. Hades is the place of separation, not merely of dead bodies, but of souls, and so for Christ to go to Hades is imply that His created soul experienced separation. It is a mystery. The soul in the state of death is what Hades is, that place of alienation from Life. Now, when we affirm that Christ died, do we mean only death of the physical body? Does He trample down physical death only? Physical death according to St. Symeon is the separation of the soul from the body, but if Christ did not heal the deeper separation, then what type of death did He defeat? We affirm that He trampled down death by death, that He went to Hades even, and so it would be contradictory to assert that His created soul did not experience alienation/separation.

To deny that Christ bore our punishment means the same thing as denying that He died, for death/separation is the punishment, death is what “punishment” means in this context. There is not some “other,” super-added punishment being considered, for alienation from the Holy Spirit is the painful condition called death, Hades being the “place” of this condition, the location of dislocation. Christ didn’t go to the lake of fire of the second judgment, as when He comes again to judge the living and the dead, rather He went to Hades, the location of presence experienced as relational absence, not annihilational vacuity.

The punishment of separation is a mode of relation, and therefore it asserts no radical division of Christ from either Himself or the Trinity, rather denies it, for it presupposes that Christ must be in constant relation to the Trinity at all points in order to experience separation/alienation/dislocation. To experience the forsakenness of God is, then, to experience His presence as agony, as separation and alienation, not annihilation. Otherwise, forsakenness would mean the cessation of existence. To say, then, that Christ was punished by the Father is simply to state that Christ received and bore the separated condition of Adam, what St. Symeon calls the “penance of death” (98). It does not mean there was some lightning-bolt-bearing, angry, supernatural being with a blood lust. Rather, “through the fulfillment of all justice” (96) Christ received the alienated mode of relation in order to restore communion between man and God, and this is transposed into legal terms as receiving the punishment or the chastisement.

Now, what does it mean that Christ offered the sacrifice to the Father, as St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches? It means that it was the Father’s will that Christ be chastised. Now, many balk at this, but it is perhaps the most obvious teaching from the Garden of Gethsemane, when Christ prays, “Not my will, but Thy will be done” (Matthew 26:42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; John 12:27). Especially is this clear in John, when Christ asks Peter: “shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” (John 18:11) In other words, it is the Father’s will that Jesus receive the curse of the Cross; He gave it to Christ. This is why St. Symeon stresses that it is God’s eternal decree that must be dealt with, and why Christ came to fulfill the commandments. He did not come to sidestep the Father’s judgment, but to fulfill its demands for the sake of Adam’s salvation. The Father gives the Cross to Christ, it is His will that it be done, which imputes to Christ the entire curse of the law, the consequence that belongs to Adam, so that Christ can offer the sacrifice back to the Father.

The Father wills that man be saved, and the Trinity, having a single will, in the dread mystery of the divine dispensation, ordained that Christ God fulfill His Father’s eternal will to restore, in the context of the created soul of Christ, the broken communion which He took upon Himself via the Cross in order to heal the rupture with the Holy Spirit, which is poured out in the heart of man (Romans 5:5). Since God willed to restore man, to heal Him through relation, Christ God entered into this condition of alienation, and so it is entirely appropriate to state that God willed that Christ bear the punishment. Misunderstandings and distortions of this doctrine which seek to portray it as portraying a despotic, arbitrary, emotional Deity in no way addresses the doctrine itself. In short, a doctrine is not evaluated according to the permutations produced by its being misunderstood.

St. Symeon teaches: “All our sinfulness is mortified by the death of Christ on the Cross” (48). In other words, Christ bears the sin and death of man by bearing man’s just punishment, having it imputed to Him via the curse of the Cross, the chastisement of separation from the Holy Spirit, which is to say, soul-death. This was willed by God upon the created soul of Christ, and yet rejects any intimation of division in the Triune Godhead, or within the two natures of Christ. Broken but not divided, the Person of the Word was able, in the context of His created soul, to undergo forsakenness, alienation, and separation, which is to say death, the chastisement of Adam, for what forsakenness means is fundamentally relational, thus preserving unbroken the Triunity of the Godhead and duality of Christ’s natures.

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