Christ as Teacher of Repentance in St Symeon of Thessaloniki

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Fr Maximos Constas


(This is the fourth and final part of a four-part essay on the 'repentance' of Christ. Read the entire essay here.)


Before concluding this essay, it will be worth considering what to my knowledge is the only Greek theological text that associates Christ with repentance, and which also follows the principle of appropriation we saw in Gregory the Theologian, Maximos the Confessor, and John of Damascus. The text in question is from the late Byzantine theologian Symeon of Thessaloniki (ca. 1381-1429), who was a prolific author of commentaries on the services and liturgical practices of the Orthodox Church. In a short treatise On the Sacraments, Symeon’s aim is to associate all of the Church’s sacraments with the person of Christ, which admittedly poses challenges. He argues, for example, that even though Christ did not marry, he participates in marriage through virginity, because virgins are brides of Christ. Symeon’s remarks on repentance (μετάνοια) follow the same logic: “The Savior did not repent (ὁ Σωτὴρ οὐ μετενόησε)” and “had no obligation to perform works of repentance for his own sake (εἰς ἑαυτὸν τὰ τῆς μετανοίας μὴ ὀφείλων εἰργάσατο), but rather performed such works, such as fasting, in order to reveal to us the things concerning repentance … for he who alone is without sin, and who alone is holy and pure, did not repent, but rather taught us repentance, because, he says, ‘I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’.” (Mt 9:13)[1]


Conclusion


The notion of Christ’s vicarious repentance was introduced into Christian theology in 1856 by Scottish Reformed theologian Joseph McLeod Campbell and adopted by subsequent Scottish Reformed theologians down through T.F. Torrance, who was arguably its greatest proponent. In general, the position of these theologians is that, whereas Christ did not personally and voluntarily sin, he assumed a sinful human nature, by which they do not simply mean a human nature subject to the blameless passions (when Christ allowed these to operate), but a nature marked by blameworthy and sinful passions.[2]


However, such a view is not found among the Greek or Byzantine Fathers, who explicitly reject it and instead offer a much more nuanced and biblically based theology of the Incarnation (cf. Heb 4:15). Far from having any need for repentance, Christ had no personal knowledge or experience of sin or evil. Shortly before his crucifixion, he announced that: “The prince of this world is coming, and he has nothing in me (ἐν ἐμοὶ οὐκ ἔχει οὐδέν)” (John 14:30). “This means,” as Maximos the Confessor explains, “that at the departure of his soul, the devil could find nothing at all in the natural passibility of his human nature that was properly his own.”[3] In other words, Christ’s human will never inclined toward or manifested a sinful movement or volition, and thus to speak of his “repentance” is to redefine the word without the core meaning which everywhere else defines it. Repentance by definition implies a change of mind, heart, and life, and this cannot be applied to Christ even in a vicarious way. Thus, to speak of Christ’s repentance is to use words wrongly.[4] But there is more at stake here than an abuse of language. From the perspective of Orthodox theology, the notion of “Christ’s repentance” completely contradicts the thinking, principles, and carefully articulated dogmatic tradition of the Orthodox Church.


It is often noted that Reformed theologians developed the theory of Christ’s vicarious repentance in response to an excessive emphasis on the physical sufferings of Christ, which often tended to regard his redemptive work as the discharge of an official function without any need for his sharing in the actual experience of those on whose behalf he suffered. The result was that Christ’s work was artificially separated from his life, and the atonement reduced to a remote operation of divine omnipotence. It was truly praiseworthy to have resisted such views, and one cannot but appreciate the impulse of Campbell and his disciples to repent, as it were, for the sins of less thoughtful theologians. However, the notion of the vicarious repentance of Christ, while seeking a way out of the dilemma, ends by imposing on Christ a relationship with sin that he did not possess, and which is contrary to the Church’s traditional theology of the Incarnation, however much Christ can be said to have appropriated to himself the weaknesses and struggles of fallen human nature.


(This is the fourth and final installment of a four-part essay. Read the essay in its entirety here.)

 

[1] Symeon of Thessaloniki, On the Sacraments 17 (PG 155:193C-196A). I am thankful to Fr Demetrios Bathrellos for calling this work to my attention.


[2] The natural, blameless passions (i.e., hunger, thirst, weariness, death, etc.), which human beings have no choice but to endure patiently, become in Christ freely chosen acts of the will; see Maximos the Confessor, Dialogue with Pyrrhus: “These natural things of the will are present in him, but not exactly in the same manner as they are in us. He truly experienced hunger and thirst, not in a manner similar to ours, but in a mode that surpasses us, in other words, voluntarily” (PG 91:297D); and John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith III.20: “Nothing is perceived in him as taking place by necessity, but rather all things are voluntary, for he willed to be hungry, he willed to be thirsty, he willed to fear death, and he willed to die” (Kotter 2:163).


[3] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 21.7 (Constas, 147).


[4] I cite this phrase from Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Some Aspects of Christian Belief (New York: George H. Doran, 1923), 88, to which I am indebted for some of the points that follow.