Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.


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.


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.


Original Sin 16 – Healing the Nature of Man

Posted: March 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 16 – Healing the Nature of Man

As I began to knit Scripture together with its ancient Christian interpretations, the image that likely sealed my turn toward Christianity was the image of recapitulation first found in the work St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies. His imagery of recapitulation follows St. Paul’s typology of Adam and Christ.

[Christ became man], in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.

Or perhaps my turn was sealed when I read Athanasius who in On the Incarnation of the Word wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.” Or perhaps it was Paul who in Romans 8, Ephesians, and Colossians described a vision of a work of God in Christ redeeming creation, summing up all that is in Christ, and doing it in and through and by love, that captured my heart as no other story about reality had ever done.

But at every point in my journey, I have been drawn to a God of love who became one of us, who was tempted in every way we are tempted, who endured all that we endure, in order to join his nature to ours and through that union restore us to life, bring us into communion with God, and redeem all that exists. That’s a God worthy of all worship and of all love. I would not say that about any other god.

And here is where the doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt creates a serious problem. For if Jesus was never condemned by God, then he could not have been born guilty. However, if his nature at conception did not carry the burden of inherited guilt and the nature of man is so burdened, then Jesus did not actually become fully human. He became instead something like a superhuman. He was not one of us. He walked above us instead instead of with us. Moreover, if he was not fully man, then his work cannot have truly healed man’s nature. St. Gregory of Nazianzus captures it beautifully in the simple statement, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”

If Jesus was born with a different nature than the rest of mankind, then whatever else he accomplished, he could not recapitulate our lives on our behalf. He could, perhaps, purchase us. But having purchased us, he could not also heal us. He could not join our nature to God’s. There is a deep theological problem with the fundamental idea that we inherit guilt at birth as part of our human nature. It makes us other than Christ in our very nature. If Christ is not fully human, Christianity has nothing to offer — at least to me.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 15 – Irenaeus on Christ’s True Flesh

Posted: July 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

We’re going to examine most of Chapter II, Book V, Against Heresies in today’s post. Before we start, I will note that Irenaeus is refuting a specific group of those who held that our corruptible flesh is incapable of incorruption and resurrection. This was likely one of the gnostic groups, but I’m struck by the similarity of this issue to the one Paul faced in the Church of Corinth and which built up to the magnificent 1 Corinthian 15. The group Paul was addressing had no problem believing in the specific resurrection and glorification of Jesus. Rather, they did not believe our corruptible bodies would be resurrected. Irenaeus seems to be refuting a similar line of thought.

But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

Basically, if our bodies cannot attain salvation, if they are not capable of incorruption, if they will not thus be resurrected, then the Lord did not redeem us with his blood, the cup is not the communion of his blod, and the bread is not the communion of his body. All of that comes only from a body like ours. Jesus, the Word of God, acknowledges the cup as his blood and establishes the bread as his body. And through both, he nourishes our body and our blood.

The interesting thing again here is that as Irenaeus makes his argument he simply assumes that everyone knows the Christian confession is that the wine and bread of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Jesus. I’m not sure, in our modern era, that the import is immediately obvious. St. Irenaeus, Bishop of the Church in Lyons, one-time student of St. Polycarp, who in turn learned from St. John and who was martyred, writing specifically against a raft of heresies the Church faced, apparently does not imagine and has not encountered any group that does not know that the Christian confession is that they consume life in the form of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. He assumes everyone knows that point.

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?—even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.” He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man. And might it not be the case, perhaps, as I have already observed, that for this purpose God permitted our resolution into the common dust of mortality, that we, being instructed by every mode, may be accurate in all things for the future, being ignorant neither of God nor of ourselves?

So we’ve not found any historical evidence to date for the modern Baptist view, the 1689 London Confession, and Zwingli’s view. In fact, the ‘mere symbol’ (or even not-so-mere) approach seems flatly contradicted. The above also seems to specifically negate Calvin’s idea of a purely “spiritual meal”. Irenaeus rejects the idea that when Paul speaks of us as members of Christ’s body he is speaking in a purely spiritual sense. And he grounds that rejection in part in the Eucharist.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 14 – Irenaeus Concerning Sacrifices and Oblations

Posted: July 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 14 – Irenaeus Concerning Sacrifices and Oblations

Today we’ll look at a small excerpt I’ve chosen from Book IV, Chapter XVIII of Against Heresies. If you have not read the full work, some of the things he says may not make much sense. Remember, the primary purpose of this writing was to refute specific heresies and heretical groups — thus the title. As a result, Irenaeus  is often referring to the heretics, their beliefs, and their practices. I’ve chosen for today a few quotes that I think are helpful for our topic in this series.

But how can they be consistent with themselves, [when they say] that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood, if they do not call Himself the Son of the Creator of the world, that is, His Word, through whom the wood fructifies, and the fountains gush forth, and the earth gives “first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.”

The ones who are not being consistent with themselves here are the heretics. The interesting thing is the assumption that if they attend any Christian worship, they will have to confess that the bread is the body of Jesus and the cup his blood. In other words, Christians and the heretics among them alike know that is precisely the confession made in Christian worship. Irenaeus is using that to accuse the heretics of inconsistency.  Then he expands this theme with the following.

Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.

Remember, the gnostics thought the flesh (and all things material) was evil and only the spiritual would ultimately persist. Irenaeus refutes that argument by saying that our bodies are nourished by the body and blood of our Lord and thus partake of life. Our bodies, rather than remaining corruptible, receive the hope of resurrection to eternity. Does that sound like the operation of a mere symbol to you? Because it doesn’t to me. Again, though, this is utterly consistent not just with the Holy Scriptures (especially in John 6), but with everything else we have so far examined.

Definitely food for thought.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 13 – Irenaeus of Lyons on Unity

Posted: July 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m now going to move forward a few more decades to a period around 170-180 AD as we focus on Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. We know that when Irenaeus was young he knew Polycarp. Polycarp, as you may recall, was a disciple of John the Beloved. So there remains a close, direct connection between the one writing and the apostles. I mentioned the emphasis of Justin on the Trinity and gave one example. That same perspective permeates the writings we have of Irenaeus. I strongly recommend a recently recovered treasure by Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Not only will you find much on the Father, Son, and Spirit, you will also find an in depth exploration of the many ways Jesus was prophesied and prefigured in what we commonly call the Old Testament. For the purposes of this series, I will be focusing on the books of his most famous work, Against Heresies. But I do commend the above for your own personal reflection.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus is chiefly writing against various groups of gnostic heretics. In fact, his works are one of the sources from which we’ve gleaned much about them. They were many and diverse. Unlike a heresy like Arianism, there was no single teaching in ancient Christian gnosticism. But all the groups did share some common strands. Among those were an emphasis on secret knowledge, a dualism between the material as evil and the spirit as good, and typically many hierarchies or levels of celestial beings, often called Aeons.

I’m going to start our series today with what Irenaeus writes in Chapter X of Book I of Against Heresies, Unity of the Faith of the Church throughout the whole world. He is specifically making this point because the gnostic heresies are so varied and diverse by contrast. However, it does have particular bearing on this series as well. Recall Ignatius’ emphasis on “one eucharist”. Recognize that what Irenaeus will be writing is not merely his sole opinion. Rather, the faith is so coherent and unified that he can write the following words and expect them to be recognized as manifestly true.  Then compare what Irenaeus says to the modern Western landscape of extreme, individualistic Christian pluralism in which the various theologies and sects are even often named for the one who invented them. If you can find any commonality between the two visions of the Church, you have a more discerning mind than mine. Here are Irenaeus’ own words.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one, and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.


Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

Posted: May 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

First, I think there is one sentence from the article, Beyond Justification, that highlights the proper place within our understanding for this discussion.

Theosis is not just the “goal” of salvation; it is salvation in its essence and fulfillment.

In other words, if we are not united with God, if we do not come to live and share and move – to dance – in the communal life of the triune God that I tried to outline in my earlier post, then in what sense have we been saved at all?

This is where the largely juridical categories most often used in the Christian West tend to break down. While the details will vary, most in the Christian West tie salvation to some legal declaration by God that one is not guilty. This declaration tends to be labeled justification and thus salvation is largely equated with being justified. Once salvation itself is linked to whether or not you have attained a certain legal or forensic status, the preeminent question becomes how one attains that status. Thus, the Western categories of thought about God’s work with humanity through Christ tend to be as follows (with salvation predominantly tied to the first category):

Justification ==> Sanctification ==> Glorification

However, with only a few exceptions among primarily the early Latin Christian writers, this sort of perspective on salvation and these categories in particular did not come into being until the rise of Western scholasticism, marked most notably by Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. The Protestant Reformation (and later Radical Reformation) disputed the mechanics for achieving these categories but largely accepted the categories themselves. This is a central reason why the Orthodox will often comment that in their eyes Roman Catholicism and Protestantism seem more like two sides to the same coin. Justification, understood as a legal status, is associated with salvation itself. Sanctification is seen as a process of moral improvement over time, as the development of personal righteousness in reality, a progressive development in our condition. Glorification is then seen as the final state freed from the influence and presence of personal sin. The specific category names may vary, but that is generally the perspective today of the Christian West.

This perspective is not even vaguely similar to that of the Christian East. Justification is not much discussed at all and when it is, it is typically discussed in an existential rather than a juridical sense.

God’s initiative and action in the creation of humanity according to his image, and in the incarnation, Cross, and resurrection are of universal significance to humanity and cosmic significance to creation as a whole. Orthodoxy understands justification in Christ as restoring to all humanity the potential for immortality and communion with God lost in the Fall. This is because all human beings share the human nature of Jesus Christ, which was restored in the resurrection. … Salvation does not consist in an extrinsic “justification” – although this “legal” dimension is fully legitimate whenever one approaches salvation within the Old Testament category of the fulfillment of the law (as Paul does in Romans and Galatians) – but in a renewed communion with God, making human life fully human again.

Salvation is not the declaration of a legal change in our status. Rather, drawing deeply on John 14-17, the letters of John, Hebrews, and much of Paul that is underemphasized in the West (especially Ephesians and Colossians), salvation is seen as union with God. God desires us to join and participate in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity in total union with God and with each other. This is the telos of humanity. The Fathers of the church explicate this beautifully. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writes (Against Heresies):

So, then, since the Lord redeemed us by his own blood, and gave his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our bodies, and poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God and man—bringing God down to men by [the working of] the Spirit, and again raising man to God by his incarnation—and by his coming firmly and truly giving us incorruption, by our communion with God, all the teachings of the heretics are destroyed.

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? As the blessed Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of his body, of his flesh and his bones. He does not say this about a [merely] spiritual and invisible man, for the spirit has neither bones nor flesh, but about [God’s] dispensation for the real man, [a dispensation] consisting of flesh and nerves and bones, which is nourished by his cup, which is his blood, and grows by the bread which is his body.

And, of course, we have the words of St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation):

Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man. The Savior’s own inspired disciples assure us of this. We read in one place: “For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge that, if One died on behalf of all, then all died, and He died for all that we should no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him who died and rose again from the dead, even our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again another says: “But we behold Him Who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He should taste of death on behalf of every man.”

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped.

The Word, the eternal Son, assumed humanity that we might become God. Or, in the more commonly heard English translation of the statement. God became man that we might become God. This is salvation in the Eastern Christian mind. Yes, we are freed from the penalty of our sins. We are forgiven. But that is merely the starting point. That frees us to receive grace, that is to receive the life and energies of God, so that we can grow in communion with God and with each other. We are not saved until we fully participate in the life of the Trinity and in the life of every other true human being.

Salvation is thus utterly synergistic, but not in the merit-based sense that the term typically has in the West. Rather, since salvation is at its core relational in nature, it is synergistic by nature. A relationship, by definition, is two way. A monergistic relationship is an oxymoron. Our participation is empowered by God through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, through the gift of the presence of God within us in the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the intertwined physical and spiritual mystical communion with God and with each other in many forms, but exemplified and rooted in the Eucharist. When you understand this, you understand why the Orthodox say things like, “The only thing you can do alone is go to hell.

But what a glorious vision of salvation this is! At it’s best in the Western sense, salvation still leaves us outside God, at most observing God. We are closer, of course. We can observe something of the dance of the Trinity. But we do not participate within it. We do not become one with God and with each other in the sense that Jesus taught. Sadly, as N.T. Wright has noted, the West has become so dualistic that often what is presented as the ultimate condition of salvation looks a whole lot more like Plato’s happy philosophers than anything recognizably Christian. We’ve reduced it to something small and ultimately boring. And that is truly sad, for the Christian story of what it means to be human and of our ultimate salvation is the best one you will ever find. I’ve explored many such stories and they pale in comparison.

In truth, as in my post on the Trinity in this series, my words here barely scratch the surface of this topic. It is just that deep and that rich. I’m at best an infant in my understanding. But hopefully I’ve exposed some of the beauty. I think there are a few more things I want to say in this series. We’ll see how many more posts that will entail.