There are a number of possible ways to go about interpreting the events of the Gospel. We could choose the most rational, or the most consistent, or the most literal interpretation. The method the early theologians seem to have taken is to go with the most beautiful account possible. Seriously. Thus, if two doxas (teachings, glories) seem to contradict each other, but both are true, and both beautiful, they’ll put them there next to each other and admire both of them. Christ is God? Yes! And Christ is man? Yes! And then they proceed to consider what it means to be both transcendent and immanent, what a hypostasis is, how it works, what the distinction is between the energies and essence of God (or anything else, for that matter), and so on. There are limits: someone tried to teach once that everybody, even the Devil, will be saved in the end. The Church said: no, we believe in free will: you can’t say will, only perhaps, we hope so, if everybody repents and chooses God, because that will puts at naught the whole reason for making a being that can Fall. And in the end that’s the most beautiful possible doxa anyway, even if it doesn’t look that way at first: because only freedom allows history to be a romance between God and free persons.
So how are we to keep from becoming all sentimental and wobbly and wishy-washy? How do we keep the hard sayings? Well, there are some hard sayings that just have to go, as I’m getting to presently. But, ultimately, the wobbly modern perversions of the Gospel are not particularly beautiful theology. It makes things easier in the short run to say that we can keep our own will, and do whatever our strongest passions lead us toward, but it is more beautiful to say that we are to have the same will as God, because the will was originally designed to be an attribute of our nature rather than our person-hood, and as Christ is of one will with the Father, we now have the possibility of being of one will with Him as well. It’s easier to say that we’re good as we are, but, really, if this is good, then good isn’t much worth having, is it? It’s more difficult to say that only God is ultimately Good, and we can participate in that good to the extent that we abide in Him – but it also allows that the Good be so transcendently beautiful that we can hardly begin to imagine it. Thus, a beautiful doxa is not generally an easy one.
Given the “beauty” test, it’s not too difficult to see why people like Fr. John and Fr. Philip so vehemently disavow the doctrine that Christ was crucified to satisfy the justice of the Father. Because it leaves no room for many of the most beautiful doxas of the Incarnation, of God becoming Man so that man might become God; that what Christ is by nature, we may be by grace; that even if there were no Fall He still would have probably become incarnate, because it is the best thing possible for us; that Christ was primarily sinless in having turned every aspect of humanity, even death, into a possibility of communion with God. So when people start talking about the wrath of God, as if he didn’t really love us: No! You can’t tell people that! That’s crazy! says Fr. John. Fr Philip says something much more subdued, but with the same thought behind it: that is absolutely and unequivocally not what Orthodox believe. There are a number of beautiful things about the Eastern Church, including their prayers and Liturgy, but I’m beginning to appreciate that one of its chief beauties lies in incarnational theology, and that more often than not the churches, hymns, vestments, icons, and so on are beautiful because of that theology.