The eastern Orthodox churches finally split with the Roman Catholic
western church in 1054, though the differences had been building up
long before and have continued ever since. Among these, the eastern
churches retained the Julian calendar – which is why, this year,
Orthodox Easter falls on Sunday 12 April, a week later than for the
western churches. More significantly, because of this great schism,
eastern churches such as the Greek Orthodox church didn’t fall under
the sway of a theory of salvation developed by St Anselm of
Canterbury and his massively influential Cur Deus Homo of 1089, a
book that radically altered the western understanding of Easter and,
with it, a great deal of our moral hinterland. Indeed, the
respective current attitudes towards debt of the Greek and German
governments can be seen, to a remarkable extent, to track the
eastern-western split over the meaning of Easter.
According to Anselm, and the Reformation thinkers that followed him,
the story of Easter is basically God’s response to a debt crisis.
The argument is this: human beings have sinned against God, thus
incurring a debt that has to be paid. (If you think this shift from
sin to debt is odd – and it is – remember we still speak of
criminals as “paying back” their debt to society.) On this model,
the scales of justice have to be balanced. Crimes must be paid for,
with the level of punishment being proportionate to the level of
offence. But the theological problem is that human debt is way too
high – us being miserable sinners and all that – which means that we
are totally incapable of paying back the required amount.
This is why, says Anselm, Jesus comes to receive the punishment that
is due to us and is crucified, thus repaying the debt on our behalf
and levelling our account. Redemption, remember, is an economic
metaphor. “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,”
as many western Christians are singing this Eastertide. For
evangelicals especially, this is the very essence of salvation. Sin
is repaid. Hallelujah.
But this is absolutely not the eastern story of Easter. Indeed, no
Greek Orthodox congregation will be singing about Jesus paying the
price of sin during their Easter services. For one thing, they are
not so obsessed with sin. And they don’t think that Jesus’s
suffering (or anyone else’s) is the way it gets repaid. Indeed, it
doesn’t get repaid. Which is why Greek Christian art, unlike western
Christian art, doesn’t obsess with the bleeding crucified Jesus. For
eastern theologians, Jesus’s mission is to break human beings free
from their imprisonment to death. All the important action happens
at the resurrection, not the crucifixion. For, if salvation is
merely payback and this happens on the cross, there is no saving
work left for the resurrection to do. No, they say, salvation is not
some bloody cosmic accountancy. It’s a prison break. The emphasis is
on Christ leaping from the grave not hanging on a cross. It is about
life triumphant over death.
Angel showing the resurrected Christ's empty tomb and shroud
The western church typically criticises the eastern view for having
a “free lunch” view of salvation. No pain, no gain, insists Anselm.
The eastern church says that the west fetishises suffering and is
more committed to some iron logic of cosmic necessity than to God
for whom all things are possible.
Atheists such as Alexis Tsipras, the Greek leader, may think both of
these are fantasies. But for present purposes that’s beside the
point. It’s worth recognising that these two completely different
stories support two contrasting moral worldviews and different
attitudes towards economics in general and capitalism in particular.
Tsipras – like me – is very much more in the Greek Orthodox camp
when it comes to salvation. And the Lutheran minister’s daughter Angela
Merkel is very much
in the western one. He wants to leap free from death-dealing debt.
She believes it must be paid back, no matter how much blood and pain