Very few topics have received as much attention in the history of theological debate as “the atonement.” Just last week, I posted a book review for “Sin & Salvation,” which addresses “atonement” brilliantly. Today I review another book that approaches atonement from a different angle. “Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption” by Patrick Henry Reardon is a significant addition to the conversation. The book is a profound and illuminating work that stands out for its depth, accessibility, and fidelity to Eastern Orthodox tradition. This book offers a refreshing and compelling perspective on atonement, diverging from the well-trodden paths of Western theology to explore the rich, nuanced teachings of the Orthodox Church. Through meticulous scholarship, an evident love for the subject, and a pastoral heart for people, Reardon invites readers to rediscover the transformative power of Christ’s atonement.
About the Author
Patrick Henry Reardon, an archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, is a renowned author, lecturer, and senior editor of Touchstone. He’s also a retired priest at All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. Known for his insightful writings, Reardon has penned numerous books that delve deep into the intricacies of Orthodox Christianity, including Christ in the Psalms (review coming soon) and The Jesus We Missed.
So as not to bury the lead, the book was excellent, and I recommend it to any serious theology student. I say that before sharing my one quibble with the book. I fully confess that I may be alone in this critique, but the title of the book set up an expectation that was not fully met. By using the word “reclaiming” in the title, I fully expected Fr. Reardon to provide a much more direct comparison and contrast with prevailing Western understandings of the word “atonement.” (Perhaps similar to Fr. Josiah Trenham’s book “Rock and Sand.“) Since I am familiar with the etymology of the word “Atonement” and the fact that it carries with it a significant amount of theological “baggage,” as it were, I expected Reardon to address that at length and then lay out the Orthodox understanding of salvation in such a way as to unhitch or “take back” the idea of “atonement” from the western understanding so inherent to the word. Reardon took a different approach. Except for Chapter Two, where Reardon directly critiques Anselm’s theory (see below), and Chapter 11, where he briefly addresses some of the underpinnings of Calvinism, there is virtually no direct comparison and contrast with the significant “atonement” theories in the West. If you desire a comparison, you need to have at least some familiarity with the alternative views in the West when reading Reardon’s explanation of each topic from an Orthodox perspective. That leads me to mention the introduction of the book.
The Introduction: A Critical Piece of the Puzzle
In many books, you won’t miss much by skipping the introduction. This book is an exception. The introduction is essential reading. Instead of being a cursory overview, it sets the stage for the profound discussions to follow. First, the introduction establishes that the book is a collection of essays that have been edited to become a cohesive treatment of “Atonement” from an Orthodox perspective. Knowing the genesis of the chapters is very helpful. Because, unlike a traditionally written book, the chapters don’t flow from one to another in a cohesive flow, with each chapter building upon the previous. Instead, while the chapters follow a logical sequence related to the Orthodox understanding of salvation, starting with the Church and ending with a chapter on Eschatology (“Last Things”), each chapter can stand alone. In the introduction, you also learn that the material was born from Father Reardon’s pastoral work of interacting with Catechumen coming into the Orthodox Church. Everything in the book was once a question on the mind of an inquirer. You feel Father Reardon’s pastoral heart on every page of the book. This explains why the book didn’t meet my expectations based on the title I mentioned above. Instead of “debating” with the West point by point, Fr. Reardon provides an authoritative and thoroughly fleshed-out explanation of how redemption (or atonement or salvation or whatever synonym you want to use) “works” and, to the degree that it has been revealed, why it works that way. One last aspect of the introduction that is worthy of note is Father Reardon’s discussion of the word “Atonement” and his use of the word in the book’s title. If you are unfamiliar, the word atonement is relatively new and uniquely English. It is not found in the Old or New Testaments. (I recommend this blog post by Fr. Stephen D. Young, in which he discusses some of the word’s history and its implications for use in theological discussions. )
Chapter One underscores the importance of the Church in relation to soteriology. Reardon’s analysis of the role of the Church in salvation challenges readers to reconsider their understanding of salvation as a purely individual experience. He asserts, “The Church is not merely the context in which salvation is realized; it is, in its very essence, the ongoing act of God’s salvation in the world” (p. 23). This perspective is deeply rooted in Orthodox theology and echoes the sentiments of St. Cyprian of Carthage, who said, “He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.”
Chapter two addresses the prevailing theory of atonement in the West – penal substitutionary atonement. Reardon offers a comprehensive analysis of Anselm of Canterbury‘s theory. For those of you who are not familiar, Anselm of Canterbury, a preeminent scholar and theologian of the 11th century, is widely credited with conceptualizing the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, mainly through his seminal work, “Cur Deus Homo” (“Why God Became Man”), written around 1098 AD. Anselm’s theory posits that humanity’s sinfulness necessitates a form of divine satisfaction that only the sacrifice of Christ could fulfill, thereby reconciling humanity with God. This perspective marked a significant departure from earlier theories of atonement, introducing a legalistic framework that emphasized sin as an offense against the honor of God, which could only be atoned for through the substitutionary suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Over time, Anselm’s theory of penal substitution has become the predominant understanding of atonement within Western Christianity, profoundly influencing theological thought, preaching, and teaching across various denominations, encapsulating a view of salvation that underscores the necessity of Christ’s sacrificial death to satisfy divine justice and enable human redemption. In critiquing Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement and the widely accepted Penal Substitution model in the West, Reardon skillfully navigates this complex theological debate to present a perspective that is both ancient and urgently relevant. He argues, “The notion of divine wrath requiring satisfaction through penal substitution is foreign to the Orthodox understanding of God as love.” (p. 57).
The exploration of Theosis in chapter four is perhaps the most compelling aspect of Reardon’s work. Theosis, or divinization, is presented not as a theological abstraction but as the very goal of Christian life. Reardon eloquently states, “Theosis is the process of becoming by grace what God is by nature” (Reardon, p. 102), a concept that resonates deeply with ancient Orthodox teaching. For instance, perhaps the most famous quote on this topic came from St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria: “God became man so that man might become god.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus said, “Let us become like Christ since Christ became like us. Let us become God’s for His sake since He for ours became man.” Of course, the idea of Theosis is found throughout Scripture as well. For instance, 2 Peter 1:4 says, “Through these He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Reardon lays the foundation for theosis as the telos, or purpose, of the incarnation and the very meaning of “salvation.”
Chapters Ten & Eleven
This review is already too long, but I will mention briefly that Chapters 10 and 11 delve into themes that most Christians in the West will be very familiar with, such as The “End Times” (known theologically as Eschatology) and Israel. In that context, Reardon offers the most direct comparison to a prominent subcategory of Protestantism: Calvinism or “Reformed” Theology. That analysis is worth reading, and since it comes at the end of the book, ample Orthodox context has been provided.
While it may not fulfill its promise of “reclaiming” the concept of atonement in comparison to other denominations, “Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption” remains a worthwhile read for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the ancient Church’s teaching on salvation.
For those interested in theology, “Reclaiming the Atonement” is not just a book to be read but an invitation to embark on a journey of spiritual discovery. This book will cause you to meditate, reflect, and pray on immensely profound concepts and their implication for your life and the life of the world. Through its pages, Patrick Henry Reardon offers a beacon of Orthodox theology that illuminates the path toward a more profound comprehension of redemption. His work is a testament to the richness of Orthodox soteriology and a must-read for anyone eager to delve into the depths of Christian doctrine.