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A Short Introduction for “Evangelicals” on “Salvation” in Eastern Orthodoxy
by Fr. Christofóros Schuff
In Western, post-Reformation circles a use of terminology and expression has developed which has become an intricate part of a Western Christian’s understanding of many theological phenomena, including salvation. When the question is asked, “Are you saved?”, a certain set of associations come to mind to anyone familiar with, for example, Evangelicalism in the United States. In some denominations the understanding that a Christian has “Assurance of Salvation” has also become a part of many’s idea about whether or not they will be going to heaven. I present below a list of questions common for modern “evangelicals” when engaging in one-on-one, door-to-door or street evangelism: - Are you saved? - Do you know Jesus? - Are you going to heaven when you die? - Have you accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour? Though for many Western Christians these questions and the answers to them are satisfactory explanations of salvation, problems arise when Western Protestantism meets Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity. When Orthodox Christians, hearing these questions, seem to be taken aback it is assumed by many Western missionaries that the reason is because they don’t have “Assurance of Salvation”. Even if these questions are asked only after having built a relationship with the object of evangelism (i.e. through relationship evangelism), the same terms are used and the end to such an approach is that a type of “Sinner’s Prayer” is said. Another way of misunderstanding an Orthodox Christian’s difficulty in answering such questions is that they don’t really know Christ personally. Generally, the next step is to talk about the heresy of religion and the pharisaic following of traditions. In my opinion, the greatest difficulty with West meeting East is that though the same terms are used, the general definition used by each part may be diametrically opposite.
Towards an Orthodox understanding of Salvation
I wish to present salvation as understood by the Eastern Orthodox Church. This may be shocking to some, interesting to others and hopefully dynamic for those willing to investigate Orthodoxy seriously and on it’s own premises.
1. The Fall
What are we being saved from and why do we need salvation? Is man “wicked” by nature or does man have a tendency to rebel against that which is good? Man was made “...according to the image of God” (...κατ’ εἰκόνα Θεοῦ Gen. 1,27) and ”...and behold, it was very good...” (...καὶ ἰδοὺ καλὰ λίαν...” Gen. 1,31). When the devil tempted Eve he played with questions of the will; he caused Eve to doubt the reason (logic) behind submitting her will to the will of God. Obedience is a matter of will. When mankind sinned it was because it allowed it’s will (βούλησις or βούλημα) to be overrun by desire (πάθος/ἐπιθυμία). This, passion or desire, is the greatest weapon of the enemy according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church. The paradox is that we were created with a free will. We were given the ability to choose. Man’s nature (φύσις) did not fall, for the nature of man (as God created it) was to be obedient and incorrupt (ἄφθαρτος)1. When we sin, we go against our “being” by way of our will (βούλησις). It is our will which has fallen. Thus, when we speak of the fallen will, we speak of a “tendency” (κλήσις) to sin and not determinism to sin due to our fallen being. The sons and daughters of Adam have because of him inherited mortality; not his specific sin as such, but rather the “wages of sin” (Rom. 3:23), which is death. As such, though a child may die because of sin (i.e. the common denominator of all humanity), this does not mean that the newborn child per se individually has committed sin nor has genetically (so to speak) inherited the specific sins of his or her parents. It is rather the inclination to sin, i.e. to do that which goes against the natural order, and as a result death which is the fruit of the “Fall of Mankind”.2 The following text by St. Athanasius the Great sums this up very well: Thus, then, God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption (ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ); but men, having despised and rejected the contemplation of God (τὴν πρὸς τὸν Θεὸν κατανόησιν), and devised and contrived evil for themselves [as was said in the former treatise3], received the condemnation of death with which they had been threatened; and from thenceforth no longer remained as they were made, but were being corrupted according to their devices; and death had the mastery over them as king.4
This word is used both as incorrupt and immortal, many times without distinction. The antonym of this is φθορά or φθαρτός. See 1st Peter 1, 23. 2 See: Cummings, THE RUDDER pg. 679. 3 St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen. 4 St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word § 4.
2. Salvation: Continual and Communal
Salvation, according to Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers, is a process. Salvation is the path from death to Life, transgression to Forgiveness, hate to Love. Salvation transcends time itself. It is simultaneously punctual and continual. Through salvation we obtain the “kingdom of God/Heaven” which is “already within...” us (St. Luke 17, 21). We pray for the Lord’s will to occur “as in heaven, also on the earth”. This is a hereand-now occurrence. However, as while on earth we receive the kingdom of heaven through struggle, tears and prayers, in the kingdom to come we see God in the context of eternal rest, also partaking of the nature of God, but in peace. We are being saved and we will be saved. Salvation is co-operation (συνέργεια) with God; God operates, man co-operates. However salvation requires the willingness of the individual. We are not forced to submit ourselves to the process. It is our choice to continue in the transformation that salvation is. Salvation is only hindered by one’s turning from God. Yet, even when we are unfaithful, “God remains faithful, for He cannot deny His nature” (2nd Tim. 2, 13). Salvation is a process common to all the members of the Church; it is communal. We cannot obtain heaven but by participation in the Divine Mysteries together with all the saints. Salvation is not merely a private event. With or without our knowledge, others will lay down their lives for our salvation. We too must do the same. Laying down one’s life is praying, weeping and petitioning God for the salvation of others. Laying down one’s life is living out the Gospel to such an extant that our lives become worthy of exemplification. Salvation supersedes our own wishes to “get to heaven”. The Liturgy of the Word (preaching and teaching), by the grace of God, produces knowledgeable Christians, giving them a practical guide to living out the example of Christ and following the commandments. Good teaching offers “the truth in love” (Eph. 4, 15), sometimes correcting, always encouraging and to the end of forming Christian character and adjusting practice on the practical level. However, knowledge without Grace is of little value. Every good work which we perform through our own natural powers causes us to refrain from the corresponding sin; but without grace it cannot contribute to our sanctification. 5
St. Mark the Ascetic: On Those Who Think they are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and TwentySix texts, §24. In the Philokalia, Vol. 1, pg. 127.
2.1. The Mysteries: Gifts by Grace
From the beginning the Church has understood the Mysteries as “a source of incorruption” (ἀφθαρσίας πηγή)6. In ancient prayers we still use today we ask God to make the catechumens worthy of the “garment of incorruption”7; this is an ancient metaphor for Holy Baptism. The fall of the will brought about “corruption (φθορά) which is in the world by lust (ἐπιθυμία)” (2nd Pet. 1, 4). Our will has been marred and the end of salvation is to restore the proper state which God intended at creation. We must be freed from the “bondage of corruption” (Romans 8, 21). The Sacred Mysteries restore us. The sacramental life (Holy Baptism, Holy Communion and the other Mysteries) brings about the mystical and spiritual salvation of the Christian. This is a gift (χάρισμα) accorded by grace (χάρις)8. The mysteries are gifts from God to man, that the Christians “might be partakers in the divine nature” (2nd Pet. 1, 4). It is the spiritual food which, though a Christian may be fasting, gives Divine strength to assist the Christians in living out faith in one’s everyday life. This is a part of partaking in the divine nature; we are given the characteristics of God by grace. This is why frequent participation in the Life of the Church is necessary for every believer (Heb. 10, 25). “Private” church is never truly Church. The Church, established by Christ Himself, is where we receive both sound teaching and the Divinely given strength to fulfil what has been revealed to us. Both aspects should always be present in the life of the Christian just as “faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2, 17). We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given us.9
2.2. BECOMING GOD: Théosis
According to the Orthodox Church, the Incarnation of God is the beginning of the redemption after the fall. God took on flesh and this is turn meant that humanity can take on the divine. “He became man that we might become god” (Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν∙)10. This is the ultimate end of salvation: deification.
See Lampe pg. 275 and in turn Rit.Bap. pg. 400. Also ACTA JOANNIS 109, 13-15: σὺ γὰρ εἶ μόνος κύριε ἡ ῥίζα τῆς ἀθανασίας καὶ ἡ πηγὴ τῆς ἀφθαρσίας καὶ ἡ ἕδρα τῶν αἰώνων... 7 St. Clement of Alexandreia says: περιβαλὼν τὸν χιτῶνα τῆς ἀφθαρσίας Paedagogus 1.9. Used as a metaphor for martyrdom is the phrase “crown of incorruption” (Epistula ecclesiae Smyrnensis de martyrio sancti Polycarpi 17 and 19). 8 See Romans 12:6, etc. 9 St. Mark the Ascetic: On Those Who Think they are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and TwentySix texts, §23. In the Philokalia, Vol. 1, pg. 127. 10 St. Athanasius in On the Incarnation of the Word § 54
What does “deification” mean? Can we actually become “god”? The Orthodox Church understands this as “participation by grace”. We are granted aspects of the divine, becoming in the end partakers of the fullness of God save one aspect: we will never be fully “uncreated”. Only the Triune God is, was and will be such. In the process of θέωσις the first thing which is transformed is our ”will”. First, we must submit in some way, be it ever so slight, to God. Théosis can never be fulfilled without our will being brought into submission. Our choice to submit our will to the “contemplation of God”11 is a struggle. At some point we make a cognitive choice. For example, we first choose to follow a pattern of life partaking in the Mysteries and following a rule of daily prayer and weekly fasting. As we focus on God in this manner, aspects of ourselves and of God are revealed to us. Sins may be revealed to us and in turn Divine Grace. It is important to remember that repentance is not a single, temporal action: it is a way of life. As the enemy of our soul sees us pursuing God more fervently he will try and stop us with temptations or by various other methods. He may even use what in principle are good thoughts, i.e. thoughts concerning good works, etc. to make us fall by pride. We can call these “vain thoughts” (λογισμοί)12. If he can make us proud we will soon fall harder than ever13. We should continue to act out the Gospel, but in humility not in haughtiness. In this process we may fall many times, but we must also rise again. For this reason it is important to be in continual fellowship with the Church. Having a spiritual elder who acts as a guide helps us remain on the path of salvation. What had started out as a matter of will, in that we chose to turn towards the Triune God, goes from a conscience choice (i.e. of the mind or reason) to a matter of the heart. In this process all aspects of our life are being united with God. Our thoughts, our will and emotions become intertwined with those of God. In the end we become completely permeated by God so that one knows neither where the Divine stops nor humanity begins. “He who achieves deification is fittingly defined by both: he is on the one hand unoriginate, eternal, and heavenly, as we heard just above, on account of the uncreated grace that eternally derives from the eternal God; he is on the other a
See the quote above by St. Athanasius, pg. 2. “Casting down imaginations (λογισμοί) and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God (κατὰ τῆς γνώσεως τοῦ θεοῦ), and taking captive every thought to the obedience of Christ.” 2nd Cor. 10:5 13 Proverbs 16:18 – “Before ruin goes insolence (ὕβρις), before a fall folly (κακοφροσύνη).” Also: Proverbs 11:2 – “When insolence (ὕβρις) enters, there also is shame: but the mouth of the lowly studies wisdom.” ; Proverbs 13:10 – “...a wicked one with insolence (ὕβρις) makes contention: but wisdom is with the well advised.”
new creation and a new man and things similar to these, on account of himself and his own nature.”14 This is the heavenly state, yet here is there no dualism only simultaneousness. The believer is present here on earth as well as in heaven or vice versus. True “deification” makes us truly human in that our humanity is deified and our actions reflect this. True “godliness” is the divine energy (i.e. through synergy) dwelling in man and God operating through him or her. Man remains in the world and is not removed from this present life, yet he shares in incorruption and divine life. “Thus within St. Paul, while still in this present life, Christ lives and speaks, and yet it is Paul who is alive and speaks; thus St. Peter puts to death and brings to life, and yet it is really God alone who puts to death and brings to life.”15
2.2.1. Knowledge of God and Participatory Experience of God
Any human being may, by looking around at God’s creation, deduce that a Creator exists. However this knowledge of God does not bring one into personal communion with God, but only acknowledges His existence. As mentioned above, it is only once one submits to God and comes into union with His Church that deifying grace is granted. The energy (ἐνέργεια) of God is so great that mankind can only receive small portions at a time without dying. For the prophets of old, to see God was to die. Thus, little by little, we are given participatory experience of God which over time leads to a fuller knowledge of God. This is true theology: knowledge by participation. According to St. Gregory Palamas: “...[theoretical] theology is as far from the vision of God in light, and as distinct from communion with God, as knowing is from possession.”16 The further we come in experience of God, the more we comprehend the fullness and complexity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the Orthodox Church, theology must always be “apophatic” in nature, that is to say, that we acknowledge our ignorance of the fullness of the Godhead. We can only speak in general terms or in negatives, i.e. God is “uncreated”, etc. Thus, many times, an Orthodox will discourse backwards and ambiguously when entering conversations of a theological nature. We can speak of aspects of Divinity but never the fullness for this transcends our rational mind. As St. Athanasius writes.
St. Gregory Palamas in Answer to Akindynos 3, 6, 15, Works 3, pg. 172. Compare to St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1141A – 1144D. 15 St. Gregory Palamas in On Divine and Deifying Participation 20, Works 2, pg. 154. 16 St. Gregory Palamas in Defence of the Hesachysts 1, 3, 42, in Works 1, pg. 453.
“Better is it, then, not to aim at speaking of the whole, where one cannot do justice even to a part...” 17 Recognizing God’s presence and experiencing God’s presence are two different things. The history of the Church can be understood and explained intellectually, while the presence of God in the Church must be experienced by participation. True theology and knowledge of God is always experiential. And such are the Divine Mysteries. One can theorize about Holy Baptism, but that does not make one baptized. A “spiritual” Eucharist does not exist, for one must receive the Body and the Blood of Christ in person. All Mysteries are administered by participation. Such is the nature of God and such is the life of the Church.
Is “salvation” merely a ticket to heaven? No! Salvation is the reclamation of our true nature and full communion with God. God was made incarnate to impart unto us divinity through participatory experience and Christ died to conquer death and the Devil “who had the power of death”18 over us. He accomplished this by death itself and “He delivered us from the oppression of the devil.”19 Through His life, death and resurrection He provided the keys to the Kingdom of God, His life to be exemplified and direct contact with God within His Church. The Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor was not merely a transfiguration of Christ Himself, but rather the transfiguration of His disciples who experienced the uncreated and eternal appearance of Christ as He was, is and will be. It was first there that they were able to see. We were created to “... see Him as He is” 20. Yet even after seeing they abandoned Christ. And so I ask, “Am I saved?” Have I “assurance of salvation”? Do visions of the uncreated Light assure our salvation? Or prophecy? What if “I have all faith so I could remove mountains”? 21 The Orthodox answer is: “God knows”. We know in part, He in full. He has given us His Church and His Word. To these we are called to submit so that in everything we do, we do it “...as to the Lord” (Col. 3:23). He has called us to love, to truth, to humility; to the foolishness of faith and self-sacrifice. That which we know we must do.22 He has given us His Body and Blood for “the remission of sins” (St. Matt. 26:28). This we must eat for:
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, §54 The 1st Exorcism of the Catechumen in The Priest’s Service Book (in English and Greek), pg. 43. 19 The Blessing of the Oil (for Holy Untion) in The Priest’s Service Book (in English and Greek), pg. 175. 20 1st John 3:2 – “...we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” 21 1st Cor. 13. 22 James 4, 17 – Therefore, to him that knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin.
“Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is truly meat and my blood is truly drink. And he that eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him.” 23 All the Mysteries are ordained in the spirit of humility and repentance. A broken and contrite heart24 the Lord will not disdain. The experience of the Church shows that where there is lowliness, humility and repentance there God is. The foolishness of Christ is that repentance brings about joy; in lowliness grace abounds. This state is described as “joyful-sadness”; simultaneously we recognize our own sin while experiencing grace. Humility forbids us from proclaiming our own salvation, yet we recognize the process.
St. John 6:54-56. Psalms 34:18; Psalms 50:17 (LXX); Isaiah 57:15; Isaiah 66:2.
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