Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Greene on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Khouria Frederica has been giving a number of lectures on the Jesus Prayer recently. I wanted to share this lecture at Oberlin College in particular. In this talk, she provides a shorter version of her own personal journey, she explains the concept of nous, and she describes how some of the Western ideas about God look from an Eastern Christian perspective, especially to those who have been raised within an Eastern context.

I particularly appreciated some of the things Khouria Frederica said about Western atonement theories. She jumps to the heart of the matter and identifies their central problem. The Western theories describe a God who cannot forgive, but who must, instead, be paid. At one point, she says it’s almost like eating in a restaurant and being told that your bill has been paid. The owner of the restaurant was still paid. He didn’t really forgive your debt; he was just paid by someone else. I have actually heard people use exactly that metaphor to describe Christ’s work. And long before I knew anything about Orthodoxy, I apparently reacted it to it in an essentially Orthodox manner. The Western view of the atonement turns the parable of the prodigal son on its head. Instead of the Father embracing his prodigal son in love and forgiveness, it’s as though he tells his younger son that his offense is unforgivable. However, his older brother has never done anything wrong and has obeyed his father, so if he killed him instead, the father could accept that death as payment and allow the younger son to return.

Khouria Frederica uses an example in English to illustrate the language of sacrifice and substitution in Scripture. If a soldier were killed in battle, we might say that he paid for our freedom with his life or a similarly phrased statement. If someone was not a native English speaker, he might ask who was paid? But, of course, that’s not what we mean at all. In the same way, the language of payment or substitution in the Holy Scriptures does not describe an act where the Son pays our debt to the Father (as if we needed to be rescued from God), but rather the act of rescuing us from the grip of the evil one who used the power of sin and death to keep us in bondage.

I also really enjoyed one of her statements about the work of prayer and other disciplines. “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.” Yep. I’m confused when people act as though Christianity ought to be easy. How can anything as complex as the reality of our lives and relationships be easy? Orthodox Christianity does not try to hide the difficulty and struggle of our faith. Yes, God loves us. Unconditionally. Unending. Unchanging love. But most of the time, we don’t even really want God. At least, that’s true of me.


Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


Jesus Creed 25 – In the Jordan with Jesus

Posted: October 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 25 – In the Jordan with Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 3:13-17.

This last part of the book looks at the active obedience of Jesus as he lives a perfect life of love. McKnight starts at the Jordan, but it really starts at Jesus’ birth. We just don’t know a whole lot until the Jordan. But we needed someone to pave the way for us. Or as Scot puts it after an opening illustration, “Opening a path to a spiritual clearing is what Jesus does for us with his entire life.”

I’m not sure I fully understand why this aspect of the grace and atonement of Jesus is so very important to me. But I do not I’m not alone. Iraneaus writes about it in the second century. Paul mentions it more than once in the first. For a time recently, people have seemed to find it less important, but that time appears to be passing. I hadn’t particularly noticed this train of thought when I first read The Jesus Creed, but after reading Embracing Grace I’m able to connect it to my reaction. I used different words and found most of my examples in putting it together in the early fathers. But I’ve come to see it’s the same basic idea.

To get these theological terms in focus, we need to remind ourselves of what God asks from us. Here’s the mystery of the Jesus Creed: Jesus both loves God and loves others for us and he summons us to love God and to love others. Three theological terms clarify this. First, Jesus substitutes for us in loving God and others perfectly. The term ‘substitution’ tends to be a little too clinical for what the Bible is getting at, so it is important to observe that, in substituting for us, Jesus also represents us before God in loving God and others. Further, by representing us he empowers us to participate with him in loving God and loving others.

I’m not sure this can be stressed enough. I sometimes have the sense, with some of the things we say and some of the songs we sing that we have reduced the gospel to virtually nothing but the cross. And that’s bizarre for something that doesn’t even show up in Christian art until the fourth century or so. Is the cross important? Absolutely! But when it seems to overwhelm Jesus’ life, his resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, and his promise to come again, which it sometimes seems to do, I think we’re going too far. The whole picture is not just important, but essential. I don’t think I see any ‘most important’ aspect, unless you wanted to say they are all ‘most important’.

Scot then spends some time emphasizing the fact that John’s baptism was for repentance. Why? So he could explore it in this section.

John’s baptism is for repentance, but Jesus is sinless. So why was Jesus baptized? To begin with, we are no more baffled than John himself, for he does his prophet’s best to keep Jesus from jumping into the Jordan with this jumble of sinners. … According to John, never were two people more unequal: the sinful John and the sinless Jesus.

But Jesus is baptized anyway. John’s baptism is for repentance, and Jesus doesn’t need to repent. Clearly then, if Jesus doesn’t need to repent, then he must be repenting for others, for us. Why would he do that?

Because in so ‘repenting for us,’ Jesus begins to unleash the power of the Holy Spirit for his followers. John baptizes with ‘water,’ but Jesus will baptize ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ John is referring here to the prophetic prediction of the coming of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit comes upon Jesus at his baptism when it comes down as a dove, and it comes on all his followers on the great day of Pentecost when they are flooded with the Spirit.

With these considerations, the baptism of Jesus becomes clear: Jesus is baptized to repent perfectly so God can send the Spirit to empower us for our vocations. … The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person — and he would not need it.

Here’s the big picture and how baptism fits into it: the spiritually formed person loves God (by following Jesus) and others. Jesus loves God and others perfectly. We don’t love God perfectly, and we might as well admit it. We love God and others perfectly only when we follow Jesus through our piles of sin, which we do when we participate in Jesus’ own life. This expression ‘following Jesus’ that we’ve often used now gains full clarity: To follow Jesus means to participate in his life, to let his life be ours.

I know that was a long excerpt, but this strikes me as so important. Scot summarizes it in this following thought.

There is only one reason for Jesus to repent for us: We can’t repent adequately.

He proceeds to explore why, and we fail in all areas. We don’t know our own hearts perfectly. We never truly and completely tell the truth to God about sin, however hard we try. Our decisions or commitments to change are flawed and tend to contain that connector ‘but’, and we do not follow through with consistently changed behavior. Basically, we’re pretty lousy at repenting, so Jesus does it for us.

It’s also important to note that John’s baptism was one both of repentance and for forgiveness of sins. By participating in Jesus’ repentance, our sins are truly forgiven. The renovation of our hearts begins. One of the things Baptism today is still for is the repentance of sins. It’s one of a long list of things such as our adoption or entrance into the communion of God’s family and Jesus’ body, but still also for the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus paved the way for us — with his entire life of active obedience.

That cannot be reduced to a single event or sequence of events within his life. His whole life paved the way for us. He blazed the trail through the impenetrable jungle. And it’s the only path that actually leads out.


Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Atonement | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I’ve worked through my thoughts on this blog across a variety of topics from original sin to justification to hell in separate multiple post series on this blog. I have not written such a series on the fairly common Protestant teaching of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA from this point on) because I don’t have anything to work through on the topic and I don’t really have much to say about it. However, this teaching seems to surface in many of the discussions I follow and I’ve become increasingly convinced that I should try to write something on the topic for those who from time to time browse my blog. I don’t really expect there to be more than this one post on this subject unless others raise questions that seem to me to warrant another post.

I will say up front that I’m pretty familiar with this teaching. I’ve read many of the primary sources. I’m familiar with the common prooftexts. I’ve listened to it expounded and taught countless times in countless ways over the years. I understand many of the different ways it is nuanced — both in theory and in practice. But I do think the essence of this teaching is pretty simply stated. In fact, the following statement I recently saw in Sunday School distills it pretty accurately, if not to any great depth.

Jesus died on the Cross to pay God the Father the debt of our sin.

I beg to differ.

St. Gregory the Theologian provides the best summary I’ve found of my reaction to that idea.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

I don’t have much to add to what St. Gregory says. As far as I’m concerned, PSA teaches a different God and a different faith than the one I believe. It’s as different to my eyes as the faith taught and the God described by the docetists and the arians.

The problems with PSA are legion. It teaches that God has a problem with forgiveness. Even as he commands us to forgive, he is unable to forgive himself. Rather the infinite debt must be paid in full by someone and since we are finite beings, the debt can only be paid by the divine Son. But PSA fundamentally denies God mercy and forgiveness. Instead, God becomes the unrelenting debt holder. In the mechanics of paying that debt PSA violates everything Christianity says about the nature of the Trinity. It has members of the Trinity acting almost in opposition to each other rather than in concert as one. The Son is paying the debt the Father can’t forgive. The Father is exhausting his divine wrath on the Son. The Spirit almost vanishes from the picture. And even with the debt paid, we are not actually healed and we do not truly commune with God. Instead, we move into a sort of legal fiction. When God looks at us, he doesn’t actually see us. He sees his Son. The list of problems goes on ad nauseum.

Now, that is not to say that the Spirit has not been at work in the groups of Christians who hold some variation of this belief. I would not deny the work of the Spirit anywhere in humanity. And the Spirit certainly has more tools with which to work among those who proclaim that Jesus — the image of the invisible God — is Lord, however distorted their vision of him might be, than among adherents of entirely different world religions.

However, it is also true that there are many people who correctly understand the sort of God postulated by PSA and have rejected that God in revulsion. I empathize with them. If I thought the God described by the PSA theory was really the Christian God, I would absolutely reject Christianity myself. No, our God is the good God who loves mankind. He is the God who has never had a problem forgiving us. He has not required satisfaction. He has not had to have his wrath assuaged by pouring it onto the Son. All three persons of the Trinity were always acting in concert to save us, even in the worst moments on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is indeed the instrument of our salvation, but we never needed to be saved from God. Instead we were rescued by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in and through the Cross by the power of the Resurrection. We were ransomed from sin and death, the powers which enslaved us — not from our good God and not ultimately from the Evil One (though he certainly used the power of sin and death against us).

And, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

I’ve posted it before, but I’ll post again this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Cross. It says much of what I would say better than I could say it.

Understanding the Cross

I would also recommend the much shorter reflection (5 minutes) by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

The Tree Heals the Tree


An Orthodox Mind?

Posted: July 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was reading (or actually re-reading, since I’ve written a past series based on it) an article this morning that prompted a variety of thoughts. As a result, I believe this post will be a more meandering one than I usually write as I wander down different corridors in my mind. The article is Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective by Valerie A. Karras. The article has something of an academic flavor to it, but I found it both interesting and easy to read. If you find anything I’ve excerpted from it today interesting, you may want to go read the entire article. The statement that caught my eye this morning and has been bouncing around my head lies in the following from the introduction of the article.

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.

Here is the specific phrase I want to highlight: 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. I don’t think there’s any sense in which I can be said to have been formed with any sort of traditional Orthodox mind. Nevertheless, this expresses precisely something close to the core of the difficulty I have experienced over the past fifteen years or so as something like an American Protestant (or Evangelical) Christian. I’ve never tried to participate in any sort of religion without digging deeply into it. And I’ve always been very interested in history. In Christianity, those two coincide in ways that go beyond what you find in most religions. At the core of our faith lies a man who lived, taught, died, and was resurrected in a particular place, at a particular time, within the context of a particular clash of cultures. From that flows a community unlike any other ancient community — one that draws from all peoples and acts in love toward all, crossing cultural, ethnic, and class barriers — who says they live and act the way they do because this one man is their source and is actively leading them to act as true human beings. They essentially claim in some sense to be forming the true, renewed humanity from all the nations and that this true humanity is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a startling claim and it had a radical impact across the ancient world.

This connection makes Christianity more deeply and intimately connected to its entire body of historical practice leading back to Jesus of Nazareth and the apostolic witness, to the historical church which carried that witness, than is true of many religions. Since I became Christian, it has always been a problem to me when I could trace the origin of a belief or practice which contradicted previous belief or practice to a specific person or group. For instance, the practice of using unfermented grape juice in communion can easily be traced to the late nineteenth century and completely contradicts the universal prior Christian practice. The belief that communion is merely a memorial and is symbolic (using symbol in a modern sense to mean something that is not real and merely represents that which is real) can be traced to Zwingli in the sixteenth century and contradicts all earlier Christian belief and practice. The practice of “four bare walls and a pulpit” not only contradicts the universal practice of ancient Christianity, it directly contradicts the seventh ecumenical council.

Those are just three simple illustrations, but when I’ve pointed these and others out to my fellow Christians, the dissonance has not usually bothered them at all. And I’ve always had a very difficult time understanding that perspective. A phrase I’ve often heard goes something like this, “Well, I believe the bible says…” That’s always seemed like a very odd thing to say to me. The Holy Scriptures of Christianity are a rich, deep, and complex collection of texts. I could believe they say almost anything I wanted them to say. And I’m more than intelligent enough to find a basis in “the bible” for almost any interpretation I desired to make. So what? If my interpretation has no basis in the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostolic witness, and the belief and practice of the church, then it’s merely another way to construct my own little god, my own religion, and ultimately it can never be any larger than my own limitations. I’ve traveled that road (though in non-Christian contexts) and I’m very familiar with where it ultimately leads. I have no desire to return to that place and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t need to coat it with a Christian veneer.

It is not possible to read or study any single human being and find an expression of the Christian faith that is without any error. We are all human. We are all limited. We all make mistakes at times. (Oddly, it tends to be Protestants — who tend to claim some sort of “soul competency” for believers to separately and individually interpret scripture — who tend to root beliefs and entire belief systems in the interpretations of individual Christians. Think about it. You’ll quickly see what I mean.) However, if the ecumenical witness of the ancient church failed to preserve the apostolic witness — a deeply historical witness, then it’s gone and there’s no way to recover it. If that’s true then we have no idea who God is or how to be Christian. I find no credibility in the restorationist narrative which postulates that the church apostasized in the first century and we have only recently recovered the true Christian faith.

So it seems that while I’ve never been Orthodox, I entered Christianity with a mindset remarkably similar to that of Orthodox Christians. That likely explains why I believed so many things that the Orthodox believed long before I was consciously aware of modern Orthodoxy. I drew from the same sources. (It doesn’t explain why the Jesus Prayer came to me. I had never read any of the works or discussions of the Jesus Prayer beforehand.) Within that context, new insights and understandings are fine. We should build on the work of those who came before us in the faith. And as Christianity interacts with new cultures, new and beautiful facets will be revealed. God cannot be compassed, so there is always something new to say about him. But God is also not inconsistent. So anything new that is revealed must be consistent with Christianity not just across place, but across time or it should be almost automatically suspect.

That’s the main point that was bouncing around my head, but as I re-read the article, it seemed worthwhile to me to highlight some additional thoughts in it.

Thus, Orthodoxy understands human sin primarily not as deliberate and willful opposition to God, but rather as an inability to know ourselves and God clearly.  It is as though God were calling out to us and coming after us in a storm, but we thought we heard his voice in another direction and kept moving away from him, either directly or obliquely.  It is illuminating that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “to miss the mark”.  Despite our orientation toward God, we “miss the mark” because, not only does the clouded spiritual vision of our fallen condition make it difficult for us to see God clearly, but we fail to understand even ourselves truly; thus, we constantly do things which make us feel only incompletely and unsatisfactorily good or happy because we don’t recognize that God is himself the fulfillment of our innate desire and natural movement.  Explaining Maximos’ theology, Andrew Louth offers, “… with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfilment.” Ultimately, it is not our natural human will that is deficient, but rather how we perceive it and the way, or mode, by which we express it; as Louth sourly opines, “it is a frustrating and confusing business.”

The image of hearing God in a storm, but not being able to tell the direction is a compelling one to me. We all not only interpret texts and experiences in order to understand them, we are constantly reinterpreting our past experience in the light of our present understanding and position in life. From where I now stand, I can see so much of my first thirty years of life as attempts to follow a voice with almost no sense of the direction from which it came. I was never one who simply didn’t care about the deeper questions of life. I was always pursuing something, following some path, seeking something. Even as a Christian, it’s often been a journey of steps in the wrong direction and down the wrong path. Every human being is created in the image of God and thus has within themselves the capacity to turn their will toward God. But that image is tarnished and cloudy. We see through a glass darkly, as though lost in fog, or from the midst of a sandstorm. It is truly “a frustrating and confusing business.”

The question is whether Luther’s soteriology – and, for that matter, other forms of Western atonement soteriology – are truly based on the christology of the early Fathers, especially those behind the dogmatic formulations of the ecumenical councils.  Both the dogmatic definitions and the supplementary patristic writings surrounding the christological controversies seem to indicate a negative answer to the question.  Far from emphasizing atonement as satisfaction or a forensic notion of justification, these writings express an understanding of human salvation rooted not simply in a particular activity of Jesus Christ, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.  Gregory of Nyssa, writing more than a millennium before the development of the Lutheran doctrine of “imputed righteousness,” in the context of the controversy over the extreme form of Arianism known as Eunomianism, rejects the notion that one could be “totally righteous” in a legal but not existential sense.  Human beings are not restored to communion with God through an act of spiritual prestidigitation where God looks and thinks he sees humanity, but in fact is really seeing his Son. Justification must be as organic and existential as sin is:

I always found the idea that somehow you could be “righteous” in a legal or forensic sense without ever actually being righteous (whatever you might take that to be) a very strange idea indeed. My first concern as I stepped deeper toward Christian faith was to try to understand this Jesus of Nazareth. As I began to understand and then began to know Jesus (though sometimes it felt like I was rediscovering an old and intimate acquaintance), I began to wonder more how to be Christian, how to follow him, how to participate in his life, how to become more truly human. The idea that when God looks at me he somehow sees Jesus instead always struck me not only as a bizarre, but as a deeply undesirable and even repellent idea. I was moving down this Christian path in order to hide or be hidden from God. I wanted to know him and that always meant he had to truly know me. We all want to be known. And it’s a tragedy of our existence that we often are not known, even by those who are closest to us, because we are trapped in fear. Most of that fear lies in the idea that if we are truly know we will be rejected. It seems to me that in this perspective of God, people have simply transferred that fear to God. But the truth of Christianity is that God already knows us. We can’t find him in the storm, but he sees us clearly and fully. And he loves us. He loves us so much that he joined his nature to our fallen nature, the Word became flesh, became sarx, became all that we are, so that we could have true communion with God.

Lucian Turcescu has rightly criticized Orthodoxy for focusing so strongly on theosis that it has tended to ignore the “justification” side of the coin.  However, I disagree with him that, simply because Jewish notions of justification had forensic significance, therefore Paul, or the early church, understood the term in the same legalistic way (in fact, Paul’s point in Romans is precisely to rid Jewish Christians of their forensic understanding of justification rooted in the Levitical law).  Orthodoxy may emphasize theosis (correlated to “sanctification” in the Lutheran model) and see one continuous relational process between the human person and God, but it does not ignore the distinction between justification and sanctification.  Rather, the Eastern Church recognizes two purposes to the incarnation, which may be identified with justification and sanctification:  restoring human nature to its prelapsarian state of “justification” and providing the possibility for true union with God through participation, respectively.  The former purpose was necessitated by the Fall and has been the focus of Western soteriology.  For the East the restoration of human nature to its prelapsarian potential (justification) explains why the Son of God took on humanity’s fallen human nature, i.e., why it was necessary for Christ to die and be resurrected.  Hence, Orthodoxy agrees in affirming the free nature of that restoration through grace (in fact, Orthodoxy proclaims the gratuitous nature of our justification even more strongly than most of Western Christianity since it is given to all humanity, not just the “elect” or those receiving prevenient grace). However, the Fall is not the primary reason for the incarnation itself since, as Maximos and others point out, the incarnation was always part of God’s plan since it was the means by which humanity could truly achieve salvation, understood as theosis or union with God, an approach which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Thus, as many theologians have noted, the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s crucifixion, derived from soteriological christology, is diametrically opposed to the Anselmian theory of satisfaction which underpins both Catholic and Lutheran notions of justification.  God is not a judge in a courtroom, and Christ did not pay the legal penalty or “fine” for our sins.  His redemptive work was not completed on the Cross, with the Resurrection as a nice afterword.  The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality.  Jesus Christ died so that he might be resurrected.  Just as Christ is homoousios with the Father in his divinity, we are homoousios with him in his humanity; it is through our sharing of his crucified and resurrected human nature that our own human nature is transformed from mortality to immortality.

Jesus did not become human in order to rescue us from our fallen state. He took on our fallen nature — become mortal — and died and was resurrected in order to rescue and restore us. But with or without the fall, he had to become human in order for us to ever have true communion with God. As creatures, that’s something we could never accomplish. God had to come to us — become one with us — before we could be one with him.

And yet, salvation is an ongoing process of existential faith:  as St. Paul says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), which the Joint Declaration cites in paragraph 12.  And so, we do indeed “work out our own salvation”.  Orthodoxy soteriology is synergistic, but not in the perceived Pelagian sense which has resulted in such a pejorative connotation to the word synergy in Protestant thought. We do cooperate, or participate, in our salvation precisely because salvation is relational – it is union with God – and relationships are not a one-way street.  As human beings created in the image of God, we respond freely to God’s love and to his restoration of our fallen human nature.  As Kallistos Ware asserts, “As a Trinity of love, God desired to share his life with created persons made in his image, who would be capable of responding to him freely and willingly in a relationship of love.  Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.”

Many of the views or perspectives of God that permeate Christianity today do not actually perceive God as a Trinity of love, even if they use the words. “Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.” That really says it all. The amazing thing in creation is that God somehow made space for that freedom. He is its sovereign Lord and sustains all of it from moment to moment. But he is love and thus begrudges none of creation its existence. (That’s why annihilationism is ultimately wrong.) And yet, even as God permeates and sustains everything, even our own bodies, he has made space for an element of uncertainty in the very fabric of creation. We have the ability to love or not to love. And the ripples of the impact of that choice echo through creation far beyond our immediate sphere of experience. When we love, we participate in the healing and renewal of creation. When we do not, we participate in the disordering and destruction of creation.


The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching

Posted: April 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’ve been considering a series on the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons. However, I decided that if I tried to break it up, it would lose its cohesive thread. So instead, I encourage everyone to go read it. This is by Irenaeus who sat at the feet of Polycarp who sat at the feet of John the Apostle and beloved of Jesus Christ our Lord.

In this text you will see the Holy Scriptures of what we call the Old Testament expounded in a way that many today probably have not heard. And you will hear other notes as well. Beginning in paragraph 31 you will find one of the clearest and most detailed expositions of the recapitulation atonement theory. That’s the one that very early on drew me more deeply into Christianity. The theory of recapitulation and the ransom theory capture pretty much everything I believe about the atoning work of Jesus of Nazareth.

On this first Monday of the great feast of Easter, I urge you to read this ancient writing and try to put yourself inside the narrative of God’s work in and through Jesus of Nazareth.


For the Life of the World 30

Posted: January 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 30

The series continues in section 3 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

The beginning of this victory is Christ’s death.

Those opening words to this section capture the paradoxical nature of Christian faith. Though not strictly related to this chapter, I will note that far too much of Christianity has placed all the focus on Christ’s death. I like the way the above is phrase. Christ’s death is the beginning of this victory, but not its fullness.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to note that the “liturgy of Christian death” is not something that comes into play when someone dies and we are ushering them on in some dignified manner. It begins every Sunday, every feast day, and most especially in every Easter. Our whole life in the Church is “in a way the sacrament of our death.” We proclaim our Lord’s death and resurrection. But we are not death-centered, because our Lord is a living Lord.

To be Christian, to believe in Christ, means and has always meant this: to know in a transrational and yet absolutely certain way called faith, that Christ is the Life of all life, that He is Life itself and, therefore, my life. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” All Christian doctrines — those of the incarnation, redemption, atonement — are explanations, consequences, but not the “cause” of that faith. Only when we believe in Christ do all these affirmations become “valid” and “consistent.” But faith itself is the acceptance not of this or that “proposition” about Christ, but of Christ Himself as the Life and the light of life. “For the life was manifested and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1 Jn 1:2). In this sense Christian faith is radically different from “religious belief.” Its starting point is not “belief” but love. In itself and by itself all belief is partial, fragmentary, fragile. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part … whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Only love never faileth (1 Cor. 13). And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the “content” of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess Him as the Life of my life.

If we depend on what we think or believe, we are standing on shaky ground. Such things can change easily. I know. I’ve probably shifted beliefs more than most people do. The one who kept the swirl of Christianity engaged, even if just barely so at times, with my life was Jesus of Nazareth. And it was people in a strange way almost manifesting this Jesus who kept drawing me back. I’m still not sure what I think or believe or how much more it will change, though I’m rather more certain now what I don’t believe. But I’ve come to know Jesus enough to be certain that I want to love him more. I am confident that in him we see a good God who loves mankind — and who loves me.

The Church is the entrance into the risen life of Christ; it is communion in life eternal, “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” And it is the expectation of the “day without evening” of the Kingdom; not of any “other world,” but of the fulfillment of all things and all life in Christ. In Him death itself has become an act of life, for He has filled it with Himself, with His love and light. … And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life. … Christ is risen and Life reigneth.

What more to say than amen? That is where I have placed my hope — with Life.


On the Incarnation of the Word 39 – There Cannot Be Another

Posted: October 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 39 – There Cannot Be Another

I had to read this section of On The Incarnation several times before I really grasped his point. Basically he is refuting the Jews who say the Messiah or the Christ or the Anointed is yet to come. There are two key sentences.

But on this one point, above all, they shall be all the more refuted, not at our hands, but at those of the most wise Daniel, who marks both the actual date, and the divine sojourn of the Saviour, saying: “Seventy weeks are cut short upon thy people, and upon the holy city, for a full end to be made of sin, and for sins to be sealed up, and to blot out iniquities, and to make atonement for iniquities, and to bring everlasting righteousness, and to seal vision and prophet, and to anoint a Holy of Holies; and thou shalt know and understand from the going forth of the word to restore and to build Jerusalem unto Christ the Prince”.

In other words, Daniel predicts the time and that time was the time of Christ. Moreover, there are other particulars.

Perhaps with regard to the other (prophecies) they may be able even to find excuses and to put off what is written to a future time. But what can they say to this, or can they face it at all? Where not only is the Christ referred to, but He that is to be anointed is declared to be not man simply, but Holy of Holies; and Jerusalem is to stand till His coming, and thenceforth, prophet and vision cease in Israel.

Jerusalem was to stand until the coming of the Anointed. But Jerusalem fell and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. So that can no longer happen.

I’m struck most, though, by Athanasius’ point that Jesus was not anointed as a man only, but also declared the Holy of Holies, that is the place where God dwelt among his people. Of course, that’s what Christians have always proclaimed, but I never thought of it in precisely those terms before.