Book Review: The Victory of the Cross (James Payton Jr)
Reading about the Eastern Orthodox tradition bears some similarities to meeting a long lost family member. There are undeniable traits, even recognisable gestures, and patent indicators of familial resemblance. But there are also marked differences, the results of growing up apart and being shaped by our respective environments. For this reason alone, James Payton’s The Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy is an excellent resource. His book acts as the metaphorical introduction between estranged relatives. Of course, Payton functions on behalf of Eastern Orthodoxy, as both the book’s title and his own academic focus suggest. In the preface he writes, “If Western Christians are to learn about Orthodoxy responsibly, they must seek to get inside the instincts, intuitions, and perspectives of the Orthodox approach.” Payton achieves that throughout The Victory of the Cross.
In this review I will outline Payton’s method, highlighting his use of Eastern Orthodox liturgy. Then we will move into some theological considerations. These include positive evaluations of Payton’s book and the East’s doctrine of salvation: it holds the work and person of Christ together; we encounter a well rounded view of sin, or evil; and humanity’s destiny is bound up with Christ, for we will be like him. However, a few critiques are also offered. The most noticeable of these will be Orthodoxy’s emphasis on Christ as victor rather than victim. Finally, I will suggest that this emphasis is rooted in the East’s allegorical approach to Scripture, which struggles to hold the parts of the grand biblical narrative together—particularly swathes of the Old Testament.
His method is both a simply structured and a useful model for approaching theology. Payton moves from Scripture to its interpretation in Eastern orthodoxy (especially the church fathers) before considering how these truths are expressed in the church’s liturgy. The approach is both informative and interesting. Instead of bringing a doctrine into conversation with various expressions of it, Payton unravels the biblical truths within their Orthodox environment. This makes his explanation of Eastern Orthodox theology more akin to a story than an argument. As Payton takes his readers from Bible to church praxis, via dogmatic development, he invites them to inhabit the Eastern Orthodox world and mind. I really appreciated this while reading the work, partly because the structure functions as a learned guide but mostly because that guide leads the way with fervour.
I was converted in a Baptist church, but soon found myself serving in an Anglican denomination. It was only in the latter that I encountered a formal pronounced liturgy. Unfortunately, much of Western Christianity is suspicious and even dismissive of ‘liturgical services.’ Obviously, we all have a Sunday worship liturgy, as Kevin DeYoung argued a few years back (and James K. A. Smith has shown to be true in all of life). Therefore the way Payton weaves Eastern Orthodox liturgy into his work reminds readers that worship is thoroughly theological. Likewise, the Christian life is not merely us assenting to a set of truths but toward lives shaped through habits, practises and repetition. Consider the sign of the cross. It is, in essence, to embrace Christ’s victory at Calvary (p174). Thus Payton explores how the liturgical motion instructs believers, both corporately and individually. Far from being a suspicious ward, the sign serves to remind us that Christ’s cross is central to the Christian life. It moves Christians to humility as it reminds us that our confidence before God is found in the cross.
Significantly, as Payton shows throughout his book, the cross in Eastern Orthodoxy is God’s great victory, “the church fathers saw Christ as victor, not victim” (p77). He goes on, “according to scriptural and patristic teaching, the cross on which the Saviour suffered and died was a trophy of victory”. Payton’s emphasis here, explicitly grounded in Eastern Orthodoxy upholds the work of salvation as conquest, rather than defeat out of which good arose. It is also driven by Eastern Orthodoxy’s desire to hold the cross and resurrection closely together, coming close to conflation. Quoting Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware, the death and resurrection are considered “a single, indivisible action” (p12). On Good Friday the victory is hidden while on Easter morning it was manifest (p14). There are important correctives here for many Christians today. Salvation is nothing other than God’s gracious initiative, purposeful and effective from beginning to end. This grace is vastly more than enabling salvation. Nor is it something received from God. It is an all encompassing term that describes how God does everything for us, so that we might know him and become like him (p166). However, I wonder if Orthodoxy overemphasises the close relationship between Christ’s death and resurrection, to the point that it is hard to speak meaningfully about either without collapsing each into the other.
Despite the above criticism, I hugely appreciated the breadth and depth of Payton’s presentation of salvation. Payton spends much of his work outlining the interconnectedness between the four primary salvation themes, most clearly expressed in Christ’s work: incarnation, Christ as the last Adam, death on the cross, and resurrection (p74-76). It is another regrettable truth that Western Christianity pays short thrift to the incarnation of God’s Son and his faithful representation of mankind as the last Adam—unless it’s Christmas or we arrive at Romans 5 while preaching through the epistle. Bound together as the single gracious action of God, salvation in Orthodoxy is primarily about victory. This is a strength of Eastern Orthodoxy’s presentation of salvation. But it is also perhaps one of its greatest weaknesses.
Towards the beginning of The Victory of the Cross, Payton distinguishes between Orthodox and Western Christianity’s respective views of the cross. As we have seen above, couched in the promise of God to restore all of creation, in the East the cross is God’s victory for our sake. Whereas in Western Christianity Christ’s suffers judgment for our sake (p17). The East follows the majority of early church fathers, who emphasised God’s victory over death and satan (p94). Christ defeats our enemies, he redeems us from them. While I agree generally with the desire in Orthodoxy to understand the cross as a victory, it is hard to get away from the New Testament’s presentation of Christ as victim. To use the language of Hebrews, Christ is priest and his blood is the effective offering. But Payton presses the evidence in the early church fathers, who emphasised Christ as victor not victim (p90). He finds support for this position in Gustav Aulén’s seminal work of the early 1900s (p102-104). But there are at least two major problems with this view. The first is that it privileges patristic doctrine over what we can plainly read in the New Testament. The second is that salvation is bereft of the categories of sin and substitution. If we follow the East at this junction we are more likely to understand Christ’s death as a ransom paid to satan than the satisfaction of God’s perfect justice (p101).
As Payton reminds his reader throughout, the reason for above disagreement is rooted in the different emphases of East and West. Firstly, Eastern Orthodoxy understands the problem of sin, or evil, differently. It is not so much our guilt before God as it is rebellion with dire consequences (p40-41). Death is not the punishment for sin, or the curse of God. Rather death is corruption. Again, there is support for this in the church fathers—especially Augustine (p46). It is the diametric opposite to what would have resulted for humanity had Adam and Eve obeyed God in Eden (p25-26). The strengths of this position and presentation are obvious. Evil and sin are more than a verdict. They are human realities. As Payton writes, “the line between good and evil does not run out in the universe somewhere…that dividing line runs through each persons’ own heart” (p19). This is the sobering biblical truth: our very beings are corrupt, even evil (p43-44). We need healing. As one of my lecturers, Robert Doyle, often reminds us: Christians are convalescents.
Secondly, following from the first point, the goal of salvation is more than enjoying the presence of God. Instead, Eastern Orthodoxy holds to the doctrine of theosis. The redemption and restoration of humanity involves becoming like God. Such language is not foreign to Scripture (1 John 3:2). Payton suggests that humanity’s God-given destiny was leveraged by the serpent, when he tempted Adam and Eve (p30). Following Eastern Orthodoxy, Payton explores what this means, positively. The strength here is again the cohesion of Orthodoxy’s view of salvation. The work and representation of Christ are not separated. The deification of Christ’s humanity sets the course for all humanity (p118-124). But this course is not novel. It is the restoration of God’s original purpose for creation. The East makes sense of Christ’s humanity by treating him as the pioneer to be imitated—he is the last Adam. The Son becomes human so that humanity might become divine (p114-115). As a human he conquers our greatest enemies: satan and death. Thus the process of renewal and healing is begun. The Christian life is therefore following after Christ, imitating him and ultimately becoming like him: glorified (p135-140).
I found the above two points refreshing. Because in my own tradition sin is often reduced to behaviour or guilt and therefore salvation is little more than justification by faith. However, as we move towards a conclusion, it must be said that it is hard to square their pride of place in Eastern Orthodoxy with all of what the New Testament teaches. In fact, the language of justification is thin in Eastern Orthodoxy’s doctrine of salvation. Yes, the early church emptied the theosis language common in antiquity and filled it with Christian content (p115-116). However, the point I have already made above applies here: early church doctrines and interpretations are not binding. As one of my favourite theologians, the late John Webster, often exhorted the church: theology must constantly be evaluated and refined by biblical exegesis. If we don’t do this we will continue venerating Mary, simply because she was enshrined by the early church (p83-84). Payton’s presentation of salvation in the Orthodox church is vivid, delightfully cohesive and invitingly dramatic. Those are surely some of the reason Christians who have grown tired of Western Christianity, which is often individualistic, cerebral and extrinsic. But the measure of both East and West, the force that must form them, is and always will be Scripture.
So let me make one final observation before I conclude. The review copy of The Victory of the Cross that I received did not have a Scripture index. But my guess is that if there is one in the print edition of this work it will reveal Eastern Orthodoxy’s selective and scarce use of the Old Testament. Of course, Genesis 1-3 receives a lot of attention, while the Psalms are sporadically quoted, especially in Eastern liturgy. But when the Old Testament is cited it is very often interpreted allegorically (p63-70). In fact, Payton contrasts contemporary biblical scholarship with “the patristic path” (p50). The latter - while aware of important details like authorial intent, original audience, genre, and occasions - was more concerned with the mind of God than those of the authors. Payton makes two dangerous distinctions here. The first undermines inspiration—and ultimately Scripture. For it searches for hidden meaning beyond what is plainly communicated in the text. Secondly, Payton says that the patristic fathers were faithful pastors before they were academics (p51). Admittedly, he recognises their scholarly gifts. Yet the implication is that fidelity in the pastorate need not necessarily mean the serious and informed study of Scripture. A robust view of inspiration drives Bible readers towards careful reading rather than the more imaginative and allegorical ones.
Let’s return to my introduction, and one of Payton’s desired outcomes for his book. If you, reading this review, belong to the Western tradition of Christianity then I would strongly encourage you to seek more opportunities to interact with your estranged family in the East. In many places it will become apparent that our differences are merely matters of emphasis. In others the disagreements are more significant. Yet we should do better than simply writing off a tradition we have decided is not our own. Payton’s presentation is well argued and richly adorned. Therefore it warrants conversation and reflection.