White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Preach the Proskomedia: The Eucharist, Atonement, and Protestant Orthodox Dialogue

Published Friday, November 13, 2020 By Adriel Sanchez

As a Reformed Protestant who enjoys reading the Eastern Fathers and dialoguing with Orthodox friends, I was glad to hear about the publication of On the Tree of the Cross some years ago. The book is a compilation of articles that focus on the atonement of Jesus Christ.  It aims at putting forward a positive atonement theology in distinction from the extreme strands of “hyper-Reformed orthodoxy” and radical feminist theology (10). This was done, partly in honor of Fr. Georges Florovsky, who sought to “promulgate the Orthodox teaching on atonement, drawing from the witness of the Holy Fathers in the context of a sincere dialogue with non-Orthodox Christians”(12). This promulgation is especially necessary today, where in some areas of the Orthodox Church talk of vicarious substitution is replaced altogether with the language of deification (10). Hence the need for an Orthodox articulation of the atonement, so often set aside as a Western concept.

One chapter in particular especially caught my attention, written by Bishop Irenei Steenberg. The chapter, “A Sacrifice for Life: Atonement in the Orthodox Liturgical Tradition,” derives a theology of the atonement from the liturgy of the church. The liturgical starting point is the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), which for the Hebrews was the pinnacle of the liturgical year. From Yom Kippur Steenberg examines the Divine Liturgy, and through the principle of lex orandi lex credendi makes several conclusions about the doctrine of the atonement.

Before looking at Steenberg’s conclusions, it’s important to define lex orandi lex credendi for Christians not familiar with the jargon of liturgical studies. This phrase, simply translated “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief,” refers to the principle that our theology is shaped by our worship. In other words, the church’ doxology forms her dogmas. The songs you sing, and the way you pray, will (or should) form the beliefs you have about God. This especially became evident during some of the Christological debates of the 4th century.

Khaled Anatolios writes concerning Alexander of Alexandria (AD 326 †), “According to Alexander, the ultimacy of Christ, as strictly integral to divine perfection, is substantiated and demonstrated by the public worship of the church” (Anatolios, Retrieving Nicea, 84). For the early defenders of Christian orthodoxy, liturgy told us what to believe, and since in the early liturgies Jesus was worshipped, the early Christians were taught to embrace him as God.

Alexander was an early opponent of Arius (AD 336 †), the heretic who taught that there was a time when Jesus did not exist (i.e. he was a created being). One of the problems with Arianism, was the inconsistency between its worship, and its theology. The Arians did not embrace the dogma that was inherent in the liturgical worship of the church, which adored Christ with worship and prayer. Jaroslav Pelikan has written, “The Arians found prayer to the Logos [Jesus] an unavoidable element of Christian worship. Yet by this inconsistency between their dogmatic principle and their liturgical practice the Arians were saying, in effect: ‘Abandon the worship of the creation, and then draw near and worship a creature and a work’” (Pelikan, Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 199). The Arian “doxology” failed to inform Arian dogma, and although they adored the Son liturgically, they denied him by their theology.

Ambrose (AD 397 †), the bishop of Milan, wrote of this inconsistency in his work De Fide, “Let these heretics, then, cease either to worship him whom they call a created being, or to call him a creature, whom they feign to worship, lest under the color of being worshippers they fall into worse impiety” (I.XVI.104). Along with the other defenders of Christ’s consubstantiality with the Father, Ambrose pointed out that the Arian dogma was out of line with their inherited doxology.

This principle of lex orandi lex credendi wasn’t invented by the Church Fathers so much as it was received by them. New Testament writers frequently appealed to liturgical formulas in order to make ethical or doctrinal points. Commenting on Ephesians, Frank Thielman observes concerning the mysterious quoted text of 5:14, “Awake, O Sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”:

What is the origin of this new, authoritative voice? A Spirit-inspired psalm (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26)? A fragment of a baptismal liturgy? A hymn anticipating the imminent return of Christ and the final resurrection of the dead? None of this is clear. Since Paul seems to assume that many in his wide audience will recognize the citation, he is probably not citing the kind of unwritten Spirit-inspired speech that 1 Cor. 14:26 describes. His quotation is a carefully crafted piece of early Jewish-Christian liturgy that was probably widely used in the first century but, like so much from that era, was later detached from its original context.

ECNT Ephesians pg. 350, emphasis mine.

The development of doxology to dogma from the Bible to the Church Fathers is summarized by Paul Gavrilyuk,

Prior to debating the issue of whether and how God was involved in the suffering of Christ that dominated the christological controversies, the early Christians sang hymns to the Crucified, confessed the Crucified in baptism, ate the body of the Crucified in the Eucharist, expelled evil spirits by the power of the Crucified, reorganized their calendar around the events leading to his crucifixion and resurrection, and, in the case of the martyrs, followed the Crucified to the point of death. As is widely acknowledged, several NT christological hymns, notably Phil 2:6-11 and Hebrews 1:3-4, express in a few succinct statements three major themes: first Christ’s pre-existence, second, his earthly ministry with the emphasis on his suffering and crucifixion, and third, his exaltation and ascension to heaven… It is precisely because the above-mentioned hymns contain in nuce this vital tension that they came to occupy a pivotal role in the centuries long christological debates that led to the formulation of the major confessional documents of the church. In the early church the hymns, with their emphasis upon Christ’s divine status, provided raw material for the creeds. 

The Suffering of the Impassible God, 65, 67.

The principle of lex orandi lex credendi isn’t without its critiques.[1] But I believe it stands as a general rule. It is not surprising then that for Orthodox Christians, when asked about something like the atonement of Christ, one is directed not to a tome of systematic theology, but to the living worship of the Church.

Bishop Steenberg writes, “The shape and reality of Orthodox belief comes from the Divine Liturgy. Or rather, it comes from the whole liturgical consciousness of a Church that has, from its earliest history – and indeed, its older ‘prehistory’ – been shaped and molded by its life of ordered worship of God” (25). This “prehistory” leans on the cultic rituals of the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus to show that sacrifice is deeply rooted in the worship of God’s people. Steenberg moves from Israel’s cult to the Divine Liturgy, finding it to be full of sacrificial images which engulf the worshipper in an “incarnational, eucharistic concept, stressing the forging of communion between the divine and human, God and man, through participation in the incarnational unity of the Father’s Son.” (27) Absent from the sacrificial imagery is language depicting Christ’s sacrifice as a debt-payment for sin, or vicarious penal substitution. Neither is the image of Christ’s death appeasing the Father’s wrath a theme related to sacrifice. Steenberg notes that these pictures do come up at times in the liturgy, but not in connection to the sacrifice proper.

Here it is worth noting a kind of “regulative principle of worship” (to borrow a phrase from my own tradition) that the Orthodox embrace: “It [the liturgy] is not the form that man has given to express his theology: it is the form that God has given to ground man’s theology” (28). The worship of the Israelites came directly from God, and this is key for understanding whywe must return to worship if we are to grasp dogmatic belief. The principle of lex orandi lex credendi in this system is not just a practical truth (worship inevitably shapes belief), but it is a “divinely revealed reality” which authoritatively grounds faith. Thus, it is imperative to begin with liturgy, and in particular the revelation of the Day of Atonement, if we’re to rightly understand atonement theology.

What does the divinely revealed reality teach us? According to Steenberg, the sacrificial focus of the Day of Atonement is on “remission, expulsion, and eradication of sin” (29). This process leads to union with God, but the emphasis of the Israelite liturgy is on the expiatory nature of the sacrificial offerings. Both expiation and union are also present in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, but the Divine Liturgy swaps the emphases. Whereas the Day of Atonement focused on the eradication of sin (renewed fellowship being implied), the Divine Liturgy highlights union with God as the emphasis of atonement. This makes the eradication of sin a secluded concept, with union through the eucharistic, bloodless sacrifice, coming to the foreground.

The Day of Atonement was a public ceremony witnessed by the faithful. It fixed their eyes on a drama which vividly depicted the costliness of forgiveness. In the Divine Liturgy, the substitutionary drama is eclipsed by the sacrifice of union. Steenberg notes that it is during the proskomedia (for those unfamiliar with Orthodox liturgy, think of a pre-service Communion preparation) that Christ’s sacrificial acts are dramatized. Hence, “the focus on the physical sacrifice of the Lamb takes place at the table of oblation behind the closed iconostasis and before the opening blessing” (31, emphasis mine). This means that the laity are absent during this re-presentation (or liturgical actualization), a stark difference from the Day of Atonement. Israel’s liturgy put the expiatory sacrifice front and center before the laity, the Divine Liturgy has moved the expiatory imagery behind the veil, away from the view of the laity (and often prior to their arrival for worship).

Now the worshipper’s gaze is directed not on the cross per se, but to its benefit, namely, deification.

It is taken as a given throughout the Divine Liturgy that this atonement is made possible through a remission of sin, and that without such remission no union with God is possible; but henceforth the acts and the fact of sin’s defeat are not what is emphasized in the liturgical participation in Christ’s sacrifice. They are its preamble. The atonement experienced in the Divine Liturgy – which is “the Sacrifice of Sacrifices,” just as the Day of Atonement was “the Sabbath of Sabbaths” – is a sacrifice of union. (34)

The forgiveness of sins is the groundwork which leads us to the anaphora. We lift up our hearts to be united with the Logos, and this sacrificial eucharistic-union is the focus of the Divine Liturgy. According to Steenberg, the cumulative act of worship directs our attention to the Incarnation. Years ago, Gregory Dix noted that liturgical scholars often characterized a focus on resurrection instead of crucifixion as the difference in ethos between eastern and western anaphora (Dix recognized that this was not entirely accurate See: Shape of the Liturgy, 288). Here I suspect there’s an even more stark contrast being articulated. Justification through the forgiveness of sins by the atonement of Christ is collapsed into union with Christ via the incarnation. New life through Christ’s work is centered not primarily on propitiation (or resurrection), but the condescension of the Logos. Hence, “The chief act by which the Son atones for the sin of mankind – that is, for the separation and division caused by man’s sin – is in ‘becoming flesh and dwelling among us’ (John 1:14)” (39).

This shift in focus may be necessitated by the East’s liturgical tradition of focusing on Calvary during the proskomedia (also called the prothesis). Dix observed, “The Byzantine prothesis only puts into action the underlying conception by its obvious symbolism of the enacting of the passion outside the eucharist altogether, and apart from the assembly of the church, ‘before the liturgy begins.’ But since the eucharist cannot thus have its primary significance transferred to a point before it begins without absurdity, a wholly fresh focus has to be found for it within the rite…” (Shape of the Liturgy, 290). Whereas this fresh focus typically landed on the resurrection, Steenberg has found it in the incarnation, making the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross a preamble to his incarnate birth; what Steenberg calls Christ’s, “chief act of atonement.”

Accepting the binding nature of divine revelation, especially as it relates to worship, I wonder how exactly Steenberg finds warrant for shifting the focus of the liturgy (and the eucharist in particular) away from the sacrifice of Calvary. Although he appeals to several prayers offered by the priest throughout the liturgy to justify this shift, it seems to me to be mostly required by the Byzantine proskomedia. Furthermore, even the prayers he appeals to seem to emphasize Christ’s offering up of himself more than his incarnate birth.

The Reformed Tradition welcomes biblically regulated worship, and while we believe the ceremonial laws which bound Israel’s cult are no longer in effect, Steenberg is on to something when he looks at the Day of Atonement as a guidepost for thinking about what should be placarded before the faithful in new covenant worship (if only he didn’t redirect the focus). The hand laying rite with the scapegoat in Leviticus 16:20-21 anticipates the “great exchange” of the new covenant. The scapegoat bears the iniquities of the people and is exiled from the community. Likewise, Christ, the Lamb of God, bore the iniquities of his people “outside the camp” so that we might be forever cleansed (see Isaiah 53:11 & Hebrews 13:12). If the lex orandi is to shape the lex credendi, then shouldn’t the liturgical act of Leviticus lead us to highlight vicarious and penal substitution in worship, the very thing absent from the sacrificial imagery of the Divine Liturgy according to Steenberg?

Biblical scholars have noted the unique place which Leviticus, and especially Yom Kippur, has in the Pentateuch.[2] Being the central book, it fixes our gaze directly on the expiatory means of our communion with God. This is precisely where the apostles wanted to direct our eyes, and what they taught us the eucharist itself proclaimed. “We preach Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23), and related to the Supper, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26). It was the billboarding of Christ crucified that was so central for apostolic teaching (vividly anticipated in Leviticus 16). The proskomedia was preached to the faithful rather than assumed, and hidden. Both expiation and union must be emphasized, but the mystical union we experience through the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood cannot be disjointed from the preaching of the cross. Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote,

In the sacrament we partake of him who comes and abides with us in the word, and the mission of the Church consists precisely in announcing this good news. The word presupposes the sacrament as its fulfilment, for in the Sacrament Christ the Word becomes our life… In separation from the word the sacrament is in danger of being perceived as magic, and without the sacrament the word is in danger of being ‘reduced’ to ‘doctrine.’

The Eucharist, 68.

For the apostles, the word was Christ crucified, and one wonders if that focus hasn’t been lost somewhere behind the iconostasis. The vicarious and substitutionary work of Christ should be continually set before the faithful as God’s power unto salvation. Sadly, this message can be just as hard to find in Protestant churches as I suspect it might be in Orthodox ones. I’m grateful to bishop Steenberg for directing us to the worship of the Church, and in particular to the divinely revealed worship of Leviticus as a starting point for atonement theology. Taking our cue from there, may we placard the Lamb who came to take away the sins of the world, and see him there for us in the eucharist.

Adriel Sanchez is pastor of North Park Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, he also serves the broader church as a host on the Core Christianity radio program. He and his wife Ysabel live in San Diego with their three children.


[1] See, e.g., The Study of Liturgy, 6.

[2] Michael Morales noted that several scholars have identified Leviticus 16 as the book’s “literary centre.” At the pinnacle of the Torah we find a picture of communion with God through expiation! Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, 27.

  • Adriel Sanchez