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  • Writer's pictureJM Zabick

My Real Problem with the "Western" Church

How the Battle against Penal Substitutionary Atonement Is Yielding Needless Collateral Damage

The “Western” church is under attack.

It’s true.

However, it’s not (in my view) as many perceive—that their faith is under assault by certain political, secular, and social groups.


No. To whatever extent or not that’s correct, these are not the “oppositional forces” about which I am writing.


What concerns me is something I just cannot seem to stop reading/hearing/watching, which involves Christians themselves.

This, then, is about a proverbial “inside job.” Perpetrated by people who continually classify their grievances over aspects of doctrine and practice as issues inherited from the “Western” church.


It’s as if making an association to the “Western” church, these days, automatically signals that whatever “thing” is being questioned or challenged, is justifiably more questionable and in greater need of challenge.

Why?

Well, because it’s “Western.” And … duh … anything “Western,” especially with regard to the church, is fruit of the poisonous vine. IT JUST IS!


This fashionable trend is especially popular among a segment of unsettled evangelical (or post-evangelical) commentators, theologians, and church culture observers who happen to be rightly raising some long-time-coming and sorely needed issues pertaining to a select circle of doctrine and practice.


However, as an ex-vangelical theologian and observer of the church myself, I want to say how misguided, ineffective, and misleading this “Western” association is, no matter how serious those things are in need of address.


A For Instance and A Thesis


By example, many of these commentators are vigorously confronting the Atonement theory known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) and theological issues stemming from it.

In fact, practically all their “Western” grievances are in some form or other connected to PSA.

And, as though it were required, they consistently claim this interpretation of Christ’s work on Calvary is the byproduct of the “Western” church’s fixation on a juridical, transactional, and propositional outlook on the Faith as a whole.[1]


Yet here I am: (1) A Westerner who finds PSA similarly, deeply objectionable; (2) In a “Western” Church (Catholic) which resists PSA; (and 3) With some “Western” Protestant/evangelical associates and friends who do as well.

While I’m not setting out to defend my views on PSA, or debate anyone else’s (although prepared to), I am setting out to make and defend this argument by way of that example:

The pejorative label “Western,” when applied to such critiques, is nonsensical.

I hope to demonstrate here how confused and misleading the term is, in its own right, as well as in its ignorance of the vast diversity among Christians in the West.


In short, while raising concerns over such doctrines can be good and healthy, utilizing the term “Western” when addressing them is like carpet bombing the entire city for a problem isolated to a corner of it.

What Is “Western” Anyway?


Traditionally, Western Society, Western Thought, Western Culture, Western “Whatever” has identified characteristics of patterns, structures, and systems in the western half of the globe. It implies a "West v. Everyone Else" distinction. A distinction still present in our world, yet nowhere near as vivid as even a century ago.


A Western Outlook speaks to the way the West has tended to see its history, philosophical evolution, cultural, and socio-political upbringing. It describes how the West views present reality and ecological association, and (broadly speaking) has come by its “world view.”

Let’s call that “Westernism,” if you will.

When tracing the sources for Westernism, three major streams account for it: (1) Classical Greek Thought (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, et al.); (2) Abrahamic Monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam); and (3) The long-lingering influence of the Roman Empire (as a socio-political and cultural model, far outlasting the physical Empire in the West).

These streams converged across Middle Ages Europe (especially West, Central, Northern, and Southern), and over centuries “Western” Civilization was forged, and things like Renaissance, Reformations, Enlightenment, and Scientific, Social, and Industrial Revolutions were part of it, among other things, contributing to how Westernism was fashioned.

From all this, an ideology was birthed that was uniquely “Occidental” (a stereotypical term equal yet opposite to “Oriental”). Thus, upon such terms, the Eastern/Western outlooks were set apart.


Where Even Is the “West” Today?


Across the twentieth and into this first quarter of the current century, we can virtually see our world shrinking. Air travel, the internet, and globalization have brought the inhabitants of this planet into a human community practically unimaginable not even two centuries ago.

Through this we see Westernism having migrated to every part of the globe. And by the same dynamic, we see every equal and other non-Western “ism” spreading as well.


Perhaps not everywhere in equal measure, but in today’s world “everywhere” is, in part, here. Just as “here” is, in part, everywhere else.


So then, as the world shrinks … it intermingles. Subsequently compelling it more logical to ask, “Where isn’t the West?” Or, for that matter, “Where isn’t the East?”

Now, I accept there are places barely touched by Westernism. I have Western friends in faraway lands who can attest just how non-Western certain regions of the globe are. And, of course, I am not suggesting the value of cultural distinction and outlook is somehow diminished by this. I am merely pointing out how geography is not as useful as it once was in determining which “isms” are to be found where.

What Then Is the “Western” Church?


Truth be told, I don’t even know. Any definition I could muster to describe the classically “Western” church, would be limited to a bygone day, making little sense in the present.


That’s the root of my problem.

A millennium ago, there was no “Western” church. There was just one Church, a Catholic (Big “C” intended) Church.

While the Roman (Latin/west) and Byzantine (Greek/east) portions of that Church had for some time been drifting apart, schism was still a generation off.


With this being the era of high Christendom (a period where church and dynasty were indistinguishable), we could speak of the “Western” church as synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, understanding now how the Eastern portion was moving off into the Orthodox Traditions.


Yet, going back only half as far, we see the “Western” Church begin to rapidly break apart with the rise of Protestantism across the Reformations Period.

Today, five hundred years removed from Luther and Calvin, the West knows tens of thousands of churches.


While there remains one Catholic Church, there is no single Protestant Church, but churches of countless variation.


Then there’s evangelicals. We could go on ad nauseum, literally, trying to map that movement’s particular veins out.


At this point … my point should be developing into one fairly obvious. Given the remarkable (even radical) distances these “expressions” have meandered from one another, I would argue the only thing they all commonly share is what is referred to as mere Christianity.[2] Still, I wouldn’t argue even that very hard.

Therefore, if one were to take to task that which is uniquely connective to the whole of “Western” Christianity, one would have to take charge at the substance of the Christian Faith itself.

What Is Really Going on with the “Western” Church Label?


I’m certainly not the only one who sees this. I’m confident many of the gifted and knowledgeable people slinging this label around are aware of how broad (and how worn out) their “Western” brush is.

So then, why do they sling?

My answer takes note of three pretty consistent tactics.

 

The first involves the utility in the term’s lack of exactness.

Avoiding precision is comfortable, because it either forgives us the ignorance of mistargeting the problem, or it alleviates our fear of directly confronting it.

It’s like voicing frustration with dog droppings on the sidewalk by getting on the HOA forum and taking aim at neighborhood “dog owners.”

The logic goes, if I blast them all, I’ll get the point across to the unknown culprit. Or … I know it’s my neighbor’s dog, and being too afraid to speak directly to them, I call out the whole, hoping the neighbor gets the point.


In either case, I know full well the whole of neighborhood dog owners is not, together, responsible for my specific complaint.

 

The second strategy stems from the first. It hints at alternatives being the answer, after extending the problem to the whole.

One day it’s me taking aim at the neighborhood dog owners, because of one dog. Then, it’s taking aim at neighborhood young drivers because a teen was speeding down the block. Or it’s all the “damn kids in this sub” because one of them cut the corner over my lawn when riding their bike around the block.


If you’ve ever witnessed these tactics on your HOA forum, you already know what happens next.


Certain statements follow ... sure as the sun rises.

“This used to be such a quiet ‘place.’”


“When did all these discourteous people move ‘here’”?


“Got a friend in the next sub, and this stuff doesn’t happen ‘there.’”


Do you see the emergence of an implication arising?


It’s the idea that particular people doing particular things are no longer the issue, rather the neighborhood itself is.

 

The third tactic is employing those uncertain terms which tend to say it all by way of mere association. “This place,” “this neighborhood,” or “these people” become all that’s needed to make the indictment.


Nothing more need be said to articulate the alternative is better, because “they don’t deal with these sorts of things.”

 

“Western church” is one of these terms, most typically played by folks who have some affiliation with or growing attraction to the Eastern Orthodox Tradition commensurate with a dimming of their acceptance with (mostly) the conservative evangelical and/or Reformed communities of their (already or soon to be) past.


So then Eastern becomes the alternative of Western … and all its “thing(s).”


What Is the “Western” Church’s “Thing”?


Many, recognizing beauty in Eastern Orthodoxy, have had their head turned by a growing uneasiness (theologically, spiritually, logically) with a PARTICULARLY harsh portrait of God espoused in the Christianity of “this neighborhood,” (wherein “this” implies “Western”).


This is a view that cannot seem to help portraying God the Father as a sort of cosmic Monarch with a stern and unflinching judicial hand, bound in his own purity, which feeds a divine requisite for unheralded and eternal wrath upon a lowly, wretched, and sinful humanity.

It’s a paradoxical Theology Proper, coupling a jurisprudence so spotlessly holy with a derision so fiercely insatiable, that in order to bring justice upon the wretched and sinful (who he is simultaneously and strangely wanting to save), the Father consigned his perfectly blameless Son to stand under the sentence and execution of a violent and shameful death. One more elegantly befitting you and me.


This is, in brief, the aforementioned theology of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).


It not only yokes tremendous tension to the belief that God the Father IS love, IS good, and IS just. PSA also casts an ill light upon all sorts of doctrinal matters that run downstream of the most central of Christian dogmas—Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

It colors how we understand essentially everything else about our Faith and the gift of salvation offered to each of us through the work of Jesus Christ, because it confuses what the work of our Lord was all about.

It forces a view of original sin that necessitates humanity being inherently vile. Which in turn means we are incapable of responding, by any action of our own, to the grace that God so lovingly extends to all … exactly so that we can respond to him.

In this economy, no matter how “loving” we proclaim the Father is, it remains logically troublesome reconciling how in the world he is more into restoration than retribution—and how Calvary was more about atonement than appeasement.

Failing an ability to work out that tension, many expressions under the Christian umbrella, simply reduce their doctrine of God to accommodating the burden of making work, forcing everything else to conform to this spoiled mold.

Afterwards, all adjacent theologies become grossly disfigured.


How we see ourselves and others (theological anthropology).


How we relate to others and the world around us (ecological theology).


How we process today by prioritizing things to come (eschatology).


… and on and on.

 

Perhaps it seems like this little excursus on PSA was an editorial tangent—a rant.


Admittedly, I cannot hide the enormous exception I take to that doctrine, but there is utility in explaining it as I have.[3] Here’s why.

The grotesqueries of PSA and its effect upon all adjacent theologies is, at heart, what these “Eastern” attractional commentors are remarking on when they call out the “Western” church.

In this sense, the alternative seen in Orthodoxy is something thought to be a more beautiful gospel. One that is not only a loftier portrait of God the Father, but one that lends to a far healthier appreciation for our redemption in Christ as fully the work of the Trinity, and not something the Father had given, then callously forsaken, the Son to finish apart from him.

It is a more beautiful gospel. Unquestionably.

It is a gospel that is far more ancient than the sixteenth century Reformers, tracing all the way back to the earliest generations of Christian voices of the Faith, especially found among a group of patristic writers, which theologians today dub the “Greek Fathers.”[4]


These thinkers of the Greek speaking realms taught this more beautiful gospel in terms that were not transactionally fixated on escaping hell fire and damnation, but which conveyed the promise of theosis, sanctification, and recapitulation.

Those hefty theological terms simply mean theirs was a view of the Atonement that placed its hope in the redemption and reconciliation of humanity to the Father, as opposed to salvation from the Father.

And in contrast to all the mutations placed upon this gospel by the burdens of PSA, the commentators critiquing that, naturally, look to a place where this more beautiful gospel is preserved, cherished, and taught.


Finding the Orthodox Church of the “East” to be that place, these commentators are attracted to what the East has to say.

As it relates to sharing the concern these voices raise, who can blame them?

Orthodoxy is indeed a fresh alternative, when viewed over the shoulder of PSA. The mistake, however, is in leaping to the assumption that it is the only alternative … that it is special and unique.


As a Roman Catholic, I can attest, it’s every bit as beautiful and special as it’s believed to be. But insofar as it’s unique, it is only so with regard to the Church that predates Eastern/Western distinctions being a historical thing.


Simply, the “more beautiful gospel,” turning ex-PSA heads toward Orthodoxy, is the same ancient “more beautiful gospel” that led me to reconsider, and ultimately return, to the Catholic Church. If the incoherence of the idea of a “Western” church wasn’t adequately formulated earlier, perhaps that fact, alone, should do it.


But experience has taught me to know better.

Yeah but … (The False Dichotomy behind the Idea of Eastern Orthodox Exclusivity)


Pushing onward to conclusion, PSA and its effects on downstream theology, is the root of this weed. Thus, it is quite largely a Protestant (more precisely) evangelical thing.


Lest I’m accused of carpet bombing too, I will concede this is a generalizing statement that warrants caution. However, it can be rightly acknowledged (if we’re being honest) this claim uses far more precisely targeted munitions. [5]

It’s just a fact.

So then, why do these commentators use such a broad swipe as “Western”?


Again, there is utility in a lack of accuracy. As described above, most of these “Western” jabbing voices are/were from those tribes where PSA remains a robust part of the religious DNA.


So, the vagueness stands to reason. Who wants to call out their own, right?

People are pretty much good if you call out their neighborhood. Just don’t directly call out their block. In this same manner, calling out the “Western” church is tolerable. But calling out my church … well, that’s a problem. These commentators and theologians know that—feel that.

What they fail to account for is just how insufficient “Western” is when they find out how slight the distinctions between Orthodox and Catholic really are, when it comes to the doctrinal grievances they are prosecuting.


Having studied the theology of them both, quite thoroughly before my departure from the evangelical community (as well as whatever knowledge a decade in seminary has deposited upon me), I am convinced the distinction is no Eastern/Western one at all.

The most radical differences on the matters so hotly under accusation, if anything, fall along an Orthodox and Catholic/Protestant and Evangelical divide.

In my discussions with some of these Eastern attractional theologians and commentators (kind enough to have responded to me), as well as Protestant evangelical classmates, pastors, professors, and adherents who also resist PSA, I have encountered one last element behind all this “Western” labelling—a latent anti-Catholic orientation.

I say latent, because it’s like a fingerprint—it’s right here on the surface, but you don’t often see it until you know how to see it.


It’s nothing viciously obvious. It’s subconscious ... most of the time.

It starts with the presupposition that Catholic doctrine can’t be correct. So, if Eastern Orthodoxy has it right, and my evangelical tribe has it wrong … then Catholics MUST REALLY HAVE IT WRONG!

That is grounded in a two-fold dynamic. The first element starts with a gross unfamiliarity of what the Catholic Church, itself, teaches. This is coupled to the second, an understanding of the Catholic Church based in what non-Catholics (or the classic “I grew up Catholic”) voices have said it teaches.

It runs up the heights too. Protestant theologians at the university level have described Catholic doctrines to me completely alien to what the Catholic Church holds to.


And that manifests in a lot of “Yeah, but …” remarks, as though the grounds against the “Western” distinction simply cannot be warranted.

Here’s two common examples, for making the point:

“Yeah, but …” Orthodoxy followed the Greek Fathers, and Rome followed Augustine, just like Calvin and the Reformers did.


Reality: Those Greek Fathers are, each of them, venerated as Saints by the Catholic Church. In fact, most of them are included in an even more select group of teachers the Catholics heralds (cherishes) as Doctors of the Church. And while St. Augustine is indeed preciously influential to the Latin Church, in a way never as appreciated by the Byzantine East, that should not mean every part of his massive body of theology is taken as bond. Most notably, those areas of Augustinian theology the Reformed/Calvinists cuddle most readily to, are the same aspects of his theology you don’t find often highlighted, much less noticeable, in Catholic theology.

“Yeah, but …” Orthodoxy teaches the recapitulation theory of the Atonement, while Catholics teach the satisfaction or substitutionary theory of the Atonement.

Reality: The satisfaction theory and substitution theory both hold to the idea that the work of Christ satisfied a debt owed by a humanity which could not pay it. That debt was the consequences of sin and death, which separated us from the fulness of relationship with the Father. But there is no penal disfigurement in this. Jesus’s work on Calvary was a Trinitarian gift of grace to take on the debt humanity owes but cannot cover. It was never to take on the violent wrath God wished to rain upon humanity, as PSA claims we deserve.

Final Thought


Are there substantial and serious difference between Catholic and Orthodox Traditions? There sure are. And there is no intent here to minimize those. Nevertheless, it is my contention they most often reside in aspects of the two, that while significant, are not the sort I find to be what is concerning the “Western” labeling crowd.


In fact, when you remove differences with respect to polity (Church governance), the balance of faith and reason, and static v. dynamic doctrinal positions, perceived vast differences are really just nuances.


Considering the driver for the Eastern attractional mindset behind the “Western” label (PSA), is it any wonder why I take exception to the term?

Given how it so drastically taints the theological well from which so many doctrines drink, I understand the need for distancing oneself from it.

Inasmuch as I respect the motivation, I can’t get on board with the strategy. Applying the term “Western” is a uniformed and meaningless effort for arriving at a worthwhile distinction.


There is indeed a more ancient and beautiful gospel. It’s out “there/here” in the Orthodox Tradition, just as it is “here/there” in the Catholic one.



 

NOTES:

[1] Juridical (pertaining to legal proceedings). Transactional (give to get). Propositional (adherence over awe).

[2] Not C. S. Lewis’ great work by that title, but rather the substance of the Christian Faith that makes it Christian and not something else.

[3] Some readers will accuse my presentation of PSA to be a straw man—or a caricature of what the doctrine really holds to. I do not believe it is either of these. Having long studied these subjects as both a historical and systematic theologian, the harsh presentation of PSA here is fairly equivalent to the harsh presentation of the Father offered by it.

[4] Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Basil, Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor

[5] That is a hat tip to my Protestant and evangelical friends who reject PSA as well. I see you.

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