Thursday, July 17, 2008

Be ye therefore perfect...

Does cross-posting something on my blog that I wrote for a TexAgs count as cheating? I hope not.

Anyhow, this grew out of the "Christians, why don't you believe in... thread, this will be a reference point for Orthodox Christian soteriology. This is an important topic for discussion, even among Apostolic traditions, since the definition of salvation and why we need it differs even between the East and West. Orthodox soteriology will also sound foreign to protestants who hold to sola fide. I encourage readers to engage all linked articles and post thoughtful questions and dialogue. If you want to start a thread about your faith tradition's theory of salvation, please be my guest. =)

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect
(Matt. 5:48)

...till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ

(Eph. 4:13) His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

(2 Pet. 1:3-4)

The Orthodox understanding of salvation is often called deification or theosis. St. Athanasius notes in his treatise On the Incarnation that “God became man that man might become god.” St. Gregory Palamas tells us that we are able to become by grace what God is by nature The Orthodox notion of salvation is not juridical; that is, it is not simply justification for guilt. Valeria A. Karras, points this out in her paper Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective:

Robert Eno has pointed out the second generation of Christians, the Apostolic Fathers, “have been seen as presenting an almost total disappearance of the Pauline point of view.” A search of Greek patristic literature on the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae shows that, over a period of a couple of centuries that includes the theologically-rich fourth century, most Greek Fathers don’t talk much about dikaiosuvnh (“justification” or “righteousness”) except when exegeting a passage using that term. The striking exception is Gregory of Nyssa, the late fourth-century bishop who was younger brother to Basil of Caesarea, but, interestingly, when Gregory uses the term, it is almost always in the context of the true, Christian way of life, in other words, works of righteousness; neither Nyssa nor any other Eastern Father ever writes in terms of what Lutheranism calls “forensic justification” (some would claim that the mid-fourth century Alexandrian bishop Athanasius did, but we will return to this issue later).

The absence in Eastern Christianity of a soteriology in terms of forensic justification is serious because Orthodoxy believes not only in ecumenism across geographical space, but especially “ecumenism in time”, i.e., the need to be consistent with the theological tradition of the Church from the earliest centuries. Thus, the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works. Sola scriptura means little to the Orthodox, who as opposed to placing Scripture over the Church, have a full sense of Scripture’s crucial but interrelated place within the Church’s continuing life: the apostolic church communities which produced many of the books of the New Testament, the communities of the catholic Church which over a period of centuries determined which books circulating through various communities truly encapsulated the elements of the apostolic faith; the dogmas and Creed declared by the whole Church in response to the frequent controversies over the nature of the Trinity and of the theanthropos Jesus Christ, controversies which frequently arose precisely from dueling perspectives of which biblical texts were normative and of how those texts should be interpreted.

This of course does not mean that the Orthodox do not believe that each generation of Christians may receive new insights into Scripture, especially insights relevant in a given cultural context. However, it does mean that the new insights must remain consistent with earlier ones, and that one or two Pauline passages (and one specific interpretation of those passages) are not considered theologically normative – particularly as a foundation for a soteriological dogma – unless the early and continuing tradition of the Church show them consistently to have been viewed as such.

History is important in a second way. Because of its less juridical exegesis of Pauline soteriological statements, Eastern Christianity has never had anything approaching the kind of faith v. works controversies that have enveloped and (for both good and ill) theologically shaped the Christian West, whether one considers the late fourth-/early fifth-century Pelagian controversy or the 16th-century Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther. Rather, the East has maintained a somewhat distant and even puzzled attitude toward the theological polemics which have raged over justification in terms of faith or works.

The Orthodox notion of theosis is relational in that we become like God by communing with God, as was man’s created purpose. Mankind’s fall from grace was that Adam & Eve broke communion with God by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and, rather than repenting and returning to --God, they persisted in sin—Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. God removed them from Paradise as a mercy since if they were to further disobey and eat of the Tree of Life they would become eternally sinful. It is instructive that the original sin was a distortion or perversion of created intent: mankind was created for communion with God, but rather than following God’s plan for theosis they partook of the tree to become “like God.”

The consequence of the broken communion and persistence in sin is that man became subject to Death. Christ effects our salvation by restoring communion in His person—fully man and fully God, and by destroying Death. He calls us to “be perfect” because He has made that perfection possible…not easy…but possible, through imitation of Him.

When the Son of God assumed our humanity in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, the process of our being renewed in God’s image and likeness was begun. Thus, those who are joined to Christ, through faith, in Holy Baptism begin a process of re-creation, being renewed in God’s image and likeness. We become, as St. Peter writes, “partakers of the divine nature” (1:4)

Because of the Incarnation of the Son of God, because the fullness of God has inhabited human flesh, being joined to Christ means that it is again possible to experience deification, the fulfillment of our human destiny. That is, through union with Christ, we become by grace what God is by nature—we “become children of God” (Jn 1:12).

“Deification” p. 1692, The Orthodox Study Bible, 2008, Thomas Nelson Publishers

With the Incarnation, God has assumed and glorified our flesh and has consecrated and sanctified our humanity. He has also given us the Holy Spirit. As we acquire more of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, we become more like Christ, and we have the opportunity of being granted, in this life, illumination or glorification. When we speak of acquiring more of the Holy Spirit, it is in the sense of appropriating to a greater degree what has actually been given to us already by God. We acquire more of what we are more able to receive. God the Holy Spirit remains ever constant.

Theosis: Partaking of the Divine Nature by Mark Shuttleworth.

All of this is intended to be worked out in “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), and while we are corporately saved (2 Pet. 3:9), I’m called to worry about my own shortcomings and simply love everyone else. Fr. Matthew puts a nice twist on the mote:log injunction (Matt 7:5) by telling me to keep my eyes on my own plate. And while he is speaking specifically about fasting, the concept maps nicely onto thinking of myself as “chief among sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

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