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).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Comparative Religion

I wrote this in response to a thread at asking whether or not the resident Christians had studied other faith traditions. Please forgive any inaccuracies I may have written below, as my study has been self-initiated and is, in all likelihood, incomplete.

In-between my formative years when my family attended first an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church (Worth Baptist, Ft. Worth), then Southern Baptist churches (Matthew Road, Grand Prairie; First Baptist, Euless) and my conversion to Orthodox Christianity, I did study Buddhism and Taoism. Growing up, I went to my best friend's synagogue (Congregation Beth Shalom, Arlington). In college I had gone from my Baptist roots (First Baptist, Bryan) to non-denominational (Grace Baptist, College Station). When my then fiance and I started talking about churches we visited churches based on her background as well (St. Thomas Episcopal, College Station). We ended up halfway between our faith backgrounds (A&M United Methodist, College Station).

Our pastor there, Buddy Walker, a Baptist convert himself, helped me start to understand issues such as infant baptism. When I brought my thoughts about Buddhism to him, he also made the point that the same Christ that said to love our enemies probably wouldn't have much problem with most of what Buddha said.

I have in the last two years done fairly extensive reading on Baha'i and Islam. What I have found in all of my reading and participation is that there seems to be something innate in most people that draws them to be part of something bigger than themselves. I concur with prof. gradoo that I'm likely to have approached all of my study through the lens of some basic "Christian" assumptions, but I've also shattered some of those assumptions along the way (e.g. OSAS, Sola Scriptura).

The assumptions that I have left are that we are intentionally created (though I don't take a dogmatic position on how or when); that Christ is God; and that our calling is to love one another. Besides Christianity, Buddhism & Taosim come the closest to providing a framework for understanding my experience. The difference for me between these two and Christ is that instead of the person being subsumed in an everythingness of Being, in Christianity, the person becomes an integral part of unity in God, but retains his personhood. For a great meditation on Lao Tzu as a pre-Christian prophet (ala Aristotle) see Christ the Eternal Tao by Fr. Damascene Christensen.

Coming to Orthodox Christianity, I struggled with some concepts (e.g. veneration of icons, the role of the Theotokos, confession) more than others that were more familiar in my upbringing (e.g. the Trinity). What I discovered is that while there is a wealth of texts and traditions in Christianity, so too there are a wealth in other faith traditions as well. This is, finally, what I think faith is. I decided that I would trust Christ's word that he had established a temporal church and that it would persist (Matt. 16:18) and be led by God into all Truth (John 16:13). Along with trusting that Christ’s church existed and persisted to our times and had preserved Christ’s teachings intact and unaltered, I had to trust that those things which I didn’t cognitively understand would be made clear.

With respect to the comparative religion, I don’t disbelieve Judaism but think that Orthodox Christianity is a fulfillment of the Law and Prophets in Christ (and Judaism post-Javneh has a flavor of damage control for the “Christian problem”). Islam is a radical monotheistic reaction to Christianity. Baha’i is a universalist reformation of Islam. Buddhism/Taoism, like many pre-Christian religions (including Native American religion and Zoroastrianism) reveal mystical truths which are fully revealed in Christ. I’ve not studied Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, or Sikhism in any depth past casual reading. Confucianism is more of an system of ethics than a faith, and as such isn’t necessarily at odds with Christianity. In the case of Hinduism and Jainism, I think that multiple gods and/or ancestor worship can be influenced by evil spirits and/or point to later, more fully revealed truths in Christianity. Sikhism also points to a “Universal God,” which is beyond human ken…also has the ability to be interpreted as fulfilled through the Trinitarian understanding we have of God as uncreated and outside of time.

The bottom line to comparative religion for me is a truth that I discovered in Orthodoxy (it certainly wasn’t an aspect of the Evangelism Explosion training I received in the Baptist Church) is that I am called to focus on my own salvation, to work that out in “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and not worry about what someone else is or isn’t doing, but to love them as icons of Christ.