Gregory of Nazianzus on how the cross “pays” for sin

Today I encountered an awesome quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century Christian theologian who was largely responsible for our understanding of Jesus being fully divine and fully human at the same time, which was established at the Council of Chalcedon. Gregory writes the following about the mystery of the cross:

God, not being a bloodthirsty God, did not require or desire the sacrifice of his Son to himself. Nor was it an offering to ‘pay’ the devil in order to ‘buy’ man’s freedom, since nothing was owed to the devil. But the empirical result of Christ’s death was the destruction of sin, the destruction of him who had the power of death (the devil) and the destruction of death. The death of the sinless one and his resurrection, had these results.

The mystery of the cross is that it “pays” for our sin in some kind of way, but it’s ambiguous who the recipient of the payment is supposed to be (if we’re honest about what the Bible actually says). For Gregory, it’s self-evident that God can’t possibly be the recipient of the payment of Christ’s blood since He’s not bloodthirsty. But try telling that to the vast majority of evangelical Christians today who do in fact believe that God is bloodthirsty and find that to be His most attractive feature. It’s important to name that nowhere in the Bible is the cross explicitly identified as the satisfaction of God’s wrath, even though this is the primary way that it is described in evangelical theology today. The closest you can get to that is in the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53 which is as much about Israel as it is about Jesus. Our deformed theology today is a tragic result of a well-intentioned error on the part of 11th century theologian Anselm in explaining why Jesus needed to be fully human and divine.

The more popular view when Gregory was alive was that the cross functioned as a ransom payment to the devil, since most of the New Testament language that talks about the cross as a payment describes it in the terms of a “ransom” payment like you would pay to a kidnapper or a bail bondsman. But this view was scandalous enough to ultimately be abandoned completely because it suggested that the devil deserved to get paid back, which is why Gregory says that can’t be the truth since “nothing was owed to the devil.”

So what Gregory says is that even though it’s unclear who actually gets “paid” by the cross, Jesus uses it to destroy sin, Satan, and death. To me, this means that in a way we ourselves are the recipients of the payment of Jesus’ blood rather than God or Satan (since Satan is just an anthropomorphic representation of the forces of cynicism and accusation that entrap humanity in a poisonous existence). Through the sacrifice of the cross, God disempowers the Satanic lies that have held us captive. It’s not that there’s a person named Satan who “deserves” to be paid a ransom, but rather that the ransom payment of Jesus’ blood liberates us from the evil voices of cynicism, shame, and vengeance that we have been seduced by.

Of course, it’s easier just to use the shorthand and talk about Satan as a physical, literal person. But when we do so, we need to recognize that neither satan (in Hebrew) nor diabolos (in Greek, which cognates into “devil”) are proper nouns in their original Biblical usage. This is an illusion created by our translation of these words into English as names for a specific person. They were abstract common nouns that were built from verbs that mean “accuse” or “slander” in each of those respective languages.

In any case, if we accept Jesus’ payment on the cross, that means that we accept the freedom from shame that allows us to confess our sins openly and receive God’s forgiveness and sanctification. It means that we accept the freedom from vengeance that allows us to hand over to Jesus all the ways we have been hurt by other people and accept His cross as a payment for sins that have been committed against us. It also means that we accept the freedom from death established by Christ’s resurrection that allows us to transcend the neurotic instinct of self-preservation that dominates human existence for so many people.

If only evangelical Christians today had the common sense sensibilities of Gregory of Nazianzus (to whom we are indebted for so many presuppositions about Jesus that we take for granted), then we could drop-kick one of the chief stumbling blocks that keeps non-Christians turned off to our faith. We do not worship a bloodthirsty God; we worship a God who knew the extraordinary measures by which He would need to prove His mercy decisively and irrefutably so that no Satanic lie could ever hold us hostage.

18 thoughts on “Gregory of Nazianzus on how the cross “pays” for sin

  1. Pingback: Why the dream has been deferred | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. Amen! The surprisingly deep thriller “Revolver” (2005), puts forward a similar understanding of the devil as nothing more than one’s own ego. The idea was explained in the special features. I could certainly describe my own inner voice as frequently becoming my heckler.

    For the most part, the life and death of Jesus looks very much to me like a refutation or assassination, if you will, of the recurring messianic myth. The desire for a strong leader to vanquish one’s enemies, when fulfilled, results in monstrous cataracts of violence. King Shapur II is an elegant historical example. There are many examples from the last two centuries. In fiction, Dune Messiah shows the logical conclusion of the messianic death wish to be the Jihad that rampages beyond the control of the hero.

    Jesus seems to tell us: “Your enemy is your dogma. Allow it to die.” Because our egos would only accept blood sacrifice, He gave us this lesson in terms we could understand.

  3. Thanks, Morton, for a stimulating essay. I haven’t read Girard yet (nor have I studied Hebrew or Greek), but on the face it would seem hard to rebut the centuries-old concept & practice of blood atonement that pervades the Old Testament and culminates in Jesus’ crucifixion (prophesied in Isaiah as “the suffering Servant”), about which St. Paul emphasizes ‘justification by faith’ as entailing a purging of guilt or debt (after a legal or courtroom analogy). Elsewhere (in Galatians 4) Paul speaks of the incarnation “when the time was right” and our subsequent “adoption as sons.” As to nomenclature for ‘satan’, doesn’t Jesus somewhere speak of “the evil one”?

  4. About a decade ago I became a dissident regarding the concepts of sin and justification as taught by the Western tradition in both Catholic and Protestant circles. I can no longer buy into the idea that the Almighty orchestrated the horrific death of his beautiful Son to satisfy and settle some alleged “debt”. The more I thought about it, the more it resembled a Muslim honor killing or something Chemosh & Molech would demand.

  5. I’m glad to see these ideas being restored in the western traditions. Gives me hope that someday we may all be one.🙂

  6. “It is a grand thing to share the exile of the persecuted Christ…

    Submit to be stoned if need be, for well I know you shall be hidden from those who cast the stones; you shall escape even through the midst of them, like God. If you be brought before Herod, answer not for the most part…

    If you be scourged, ask for what they leave out. Taste gall for the taste’s sake; drink vinegar; seek for spittings; accept blows, be crowned with thorns, that is, with the hardness of the godly life; put on the purple robe, take the reed in hand, and receive mock worship from those who mock at the truth; lastly, be crucified with Him, and share His Death and Burial gladly, that you may rise with Him, and be glorified with Him and reign with Him. Look at and be looked at by the Great God, Who in Trinity is worshipped and glorified, and Whom we declare to be now set forth as clearly before you as the chains of our flesh allow, in Jesus Christ our Lord” – Gregory of Nazianzus

    Reads like a handbook for one who wishes to be a despised one… : )

  7. N.T. Wright blew my mind when he translated it as “the satan.” I’ve begun to think differently about it ever since!

    So, it sounds like the ransom is payed to our “flesh” (to use Pauline terminology) which hold our souls hostage? That would seem to coincide with a slowly blooming theology in my mind which believes that Hell is what we build for ourselves when we prefer to be our own Lords.

  8. I’m intrigued by what you say about “Satan” and “the devil” not being proper nouns in the original languages. Do you have a link to more about this? Isn’t σατανας used as a proper noun?

    • Σατανας is a Greek cognate of שטן which is the root for accuse/heckle/oppose and is used as both a noun and verb in the Hebrew Bible. Διαβολος = βάλω (to throw) + δια (amidst) and its used religiously to talk about the slanderer or blasphemer.

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