A Review of the Book “Sin & Salvation” by Harry Boosalis

My Jarring Experience

Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with Western theology who begins to explore Orthodox Christianity will immediately find themselves confronted with a dilemma. The centerpiece of Western Christianity, namely the death of Christ on the cross as a substitutionary punishment for our sins and being “saved” from hell by trusting in his death and resurrection, is all but absent in Eastern theology. It’s a jarring experience where everything you thought you knew is wrong, and the solid floor beneath your feet turns to slime. This confrontation immediately begs the question: Why did Jesus die on the cross if that’s not true? What did he accomplish?
I describe this from direct experience since I came to Orthodoxy after 30 years of theological study and teaching from a Western perspective. As I encountered Orthodoxy and was compelled to pursue it, I immediately began reading anything and everything I could find that could attempt to address that question. I read Church Fathers, including perhaps the definitive work on this issue: “On The Incarnation,” by Saint Athanasius the Great. I read modern works such as the outstanding “Two Views of the Cross” by Frederica Mathewes-Greene. When reviewing my reading lists for the last three years, at least a dozen books address this topic directly or indirectly. Yet none have been able to cover the topic as directly and succinctly as “Sin & Salvation” by Boosalis.
In more than 30 years of theological reading, I have encountered few books that have managed to bridge the gap between scholarly depth and layman accessibility as effectively as Harry Boosalis’ “Sin & Salvation: An Orthodox Understanding of Redemption.” This concise yet profound work offers a crystal clear understanding of one of the most significant divergences in Christian theology: the “why” of Christ’s death on the cross and its implications in Orthodox Theology compared to Western Christian traditions, namely Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
sin, salvation, orthodox, theology

The Crux of the Matter: Understanding Christ's Sacrifice

At the heart of Boosalis’ work is an exploration of a pivotal theological question: What did Christ’s death on the cross accomplish, and how is it understood differently in Orthodox Theology versus Western theology? While Western Christianity often emphasizes themes of penal substitution and “atonement” (a modern English word that deserves its own blog post), Orthodox Christianity offers a different lens through which to view redemption. This divergence has sparked theological discussions and debates for centuries. And this question, while fundamental, is often shrouded in layers of complex doctrinal interpretations. “Sin & Salvation” cuts through these layers, presenting the essence of this theological divergence understandably and engagingly for the everyday reader.

Who Is Harry Boosalis?

Dr. Harry Boosalis, Th. D. has been the professor of Dogmatic Theology as a full-time faculty member at St. Tikhon’s Seminary since the Fall of 1992, when he organized, developed, and implemented a new curriculum for the entire sequence of dogmatic courses in the Master of Divinity degree program. He serves the Seminary as the Chairman of the Department of Theology and Spirituality and is a member of the Academic Affairs Committee and the Curriculum Committee. He is the author of five other books: Holy Tradition: Ecclesial Experience of Life in Christ, Taught by God: An Introduction to Orthodox Theology, Knowledge of God: Ancient Spirituality of the Christian East, Orthodox Spiritual Life according to St. Silouan of Mount Athos, and The Joy of the Holy: St. Seraphim of Sarov and Orthodox Spiritual Life all published by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press. There’s an old saying that if you can’t explain something to a 5-year-old, you don’t understand it. By that criteria, it’s evident that Dr. Boosalis understands the theological concepts he discusses in this book.

Orthodox Theology vs. Western Theology

Boosalis masterfully outlines the Orthodox perspective, which diverges significantly from the Western viewpoint. While Western theology often emphasizes juridical or legalistic interpretations of redemption and atonement, Orthodox Theology presents a more relational and transformative understanding of Christ’s sacrifice. This distinction is not just a matter of theological semantics; it represents a profound difference in the perception of God’s relationship with humanity and the purpose of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion. Boosalis begins with a chapter on “Sin.” He clearly states that the West understands sin very differently than the East. And if sin is the “problem,” then your understanding of sin will dramatically affect your knowledge of the solution. Once he gives the reader a clear understanding of the two views on sin, Boosalis lays out the two conceptions of redemption. He clarifies that Christ’s accomplishments are much richer and more elaborate in the Orthodox conception than anything the West offers. This quote is an example: “In the Orthodox Church, you are saved for something. You are saved for personal participation in divine life and love. You are saved for something beyond pre-fallen Adam. In many non-Orthodox denominations, however, it seems you are saved from something. You are saved from the angry fires of eternal hell; you are redeemed back to Adam’s pre-fallen state.” (pg. 29)

A Compact Treasure Trove

One of the most striking features of “Sin & Salvation” is its brevity. In an age where theological works can be daunting in their length and complexity, Boosalis delivers a refreshingly concise book. However, don’t let its size fool you. Each page is packed with insightful content, making it a treasure trove for anyone eager to delve into the depths of Orthodox theology without getting lost in academic jargon. In just 69 brief pages, Boosalis addresses St. Augustine, Original Sin, Anselm, “Atonement,” Calvin, and Predestination, among other topics related to any discussion of “Redemption.” What he accomplishes in so little space is remarkable.

Why This Book is a Must-Read

“Sin & Salvation” is more than just a theological treatise; it contrasts two worlds of Christian thought and helps both sides understand the distinctions without confusion. This book is a rare find for those who have long sought a clear and concise explanation of the ancient church’s understanding of redemption. It’s a testament to Boosalis’ skill as a theologian and educator that he has made such a complex subject accessible and engaging.

A Recommendation for All

 I wholeheartedly recommend “Sin & Salvation: An Orthodox Understanding of Redemption” to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Christian theology, particularly those interested in the nuances that differentiate Orthodox understanding from Western perspectives. Whether you’re a devout Christian, a theological student, or simply someone curious about the rich tapestry of Christian thought, this book is an invaluable resource that offers clarity and insight into one of Christianity’s most profound mysteries.

In conclusion, Harry Boosalis’ “Sin & Salvation” is not just a book; it’s a gateway to understanding the profound beauty and depth of our Savior’s earth-shattering work through His incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. In other words, it’s an outstanding primer on Orthodox Theology.


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