Archive for January, 2008

The Love of God and the Gospel of Christ

January 22, 2008


I believe that the love of our enemies is utterly essential to the love of God. If we do not love our enemies, we will not know God, nor rightly love Him. Indeed, I believe that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. If anything, this points to the utter necessity of grace – for how else will we ever love our enemies? On the other hand, I believe that embracing an interpretation of Scripture in which God’s wrath is seen as literally true, not only undercuts other statements in Scripture concerning God’s love, but also the consensus of the Fathers (certainly in the East). But more directly, belief that God’s character is such that He hates some and loves others, finally makes loving our own enemies impossible. How could we love more than God loves? If God hates some, then how can we dare to be different? St. Luke has a passage which is pivotal for me:

Luke 6:32-36 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

But, of course, if God is only merciful to some, then need I do more? It is absolutely foundational in the spiritual teaching of the Church that God is love and His mercy is towards all. Not only is His mercy towards all, but our mercy is to be the same. Thus the Church reads words such as “wrath” and “anger” metaphorically when they are applied to God – for God is not subject to human passions. It is not just foundational for understanding God – but foundational for our own salvation – our own conformity to the image of Christ. If we do not journey as far down the road towards the utter forgiveness of our enemies, we will have taken our hand from the plow, turned aside from the path God has set us.

I append a short conversation of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos which points towards how our attitude should be towards all – and how the gospel should be preached. Such stories are not an argument for those who are convinced that the Bible teaches that God is wrathful and angry with sinners. I can only take refuge in the received teaching of the Church and the received interpretation of Scripture. The proof, if there can be such, of its veracity can be found in the lives of the saints, whom God has given us in every age.

Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone – to his capacity for loving Christ.

I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz [Saint Silouan] and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. the Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people. The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly,

‘I tell them, Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’

The Staretz heard him out, then asked,

‘Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?’

‘Yes, that they do believe.’

‘And do they revere the Mother of God?’

‘Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.’

‘And what about the Saints?’

‘Yes they honor them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?’

‘Do they celebrate the Divine Office in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?’

‘Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services with ours – how cold and lifeless theirs are!’

‘Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honor the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation…. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.’

St. Gregory the Theologian on our Ransom by God

January 22, 2008


One of the greatest orators of his age, St. Gregory the Theologian (also known as Gregory Nazianzus), is considered among the most central of Church fathers. His work, and that of St. Basil the Great, did much to win the day for the Nicene Creed (by God’s grace) and to secure its completion at the first Council of Constantinople, where the Creed received its final and present form. He is not as easy to read for moderns as Augustine or some of the Latin Fathers. But is well worth the read. Below is a portion from his Second Paschal Oration in which he asks the question: “To whom was the ransom (Christ’s death on the Cross) paid?”

Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence.

His final summation puts my garrulousness to shame.

Justice and Mercy – With Thanks to the Pontificator

January 22, 2008


Fr. Al Kimel has recently posted an article (The Injustice of Grace) on the triumph of God’s mercy that is well worth reading.  The following is an excerpt in which he quotes passages from St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Antony the Great:

The seventh century ascetical master, St. Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)

The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:

God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. As St Antony the Great wrote:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

To Father Al’s thoughts (which take these quotes to other important conclusions) I would add my own. This thoroughly patristic understanding of God’s justice and the metaphorical sense that must be applied to such words as wrath, etc., is utterly essential in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It goes to the very heart of our understanding of God. Nothing, in my mind, has done more damage to the Gospel of Christ than the loss of this understanding, and the substitution in its place of various theories in which the anger of God has been propitiated by His only Son. It is surely true that Christ’s death is a work of atonement – it makes possible and restores our relationship with God – but it brings about no change in God. The love of God is made manifest in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The death of Christ on the Cross makes no change in the love of God – but every possible change in the sinners for whom He died.

Every other proclamation of the Gospel that says otherwise seriously distorts the revelation of God in Christ and fails to properly appropriate the Tradition of the Holy Fathers as the Church has received them.

Further Notes on a Common Faith – Newman

January 21, 2008


In my recent post on a Common Faith, I offered a concatenation of quotes from the Fathers, East and West, on the doctrine of salvation as union with God (divinization or theosis). It included as well, both Luther and Calvin. I commented at the time that with some little research surely we could add Newman to that number. Considering that he was one of the 19th century’s greatest scholars on St. Athanasius, I knew I was right. Today I offer fruit of my small search:

It would seem, moreover, as I have said, that [Christ’] has done so by ascending to the Father; that his ascent bodily is his descent spiritually; that his taking our nature up to God, is the descent of God into us; that he has truly, though in an unknown sense, taken us to God, or brought down God to us, according as we view it. Thus, when St. Paul says that our life is hid with Christ in God, we may suppose him to intimate that our principle of existence is no longer a mortal, earthly principle, such as Adam’s after his fall, but that we are baptized and hidden anew in God’s glory, in that Shekinah of light and purity which we lost when Adam fell – that we are new-created, transformed, spiritualized, glorified in the Divine Nature – that through the participation  of Christ, we receive, as through a channel, the true presence of God within and without us, imbuing us with sanctity and immortality. (Quoted in Keating, p. 22 – the original is from Newman’s Lectures on Justification, lecture 9.)

More evidence that there is indeed a common faith, to be found in the early Fathers of the Church. Such a common faith, shed of later speculations about how many forms of grace there are (there is but one) or other “epicycles” of scholastic theology, is a watershed of truth, both seamless with the gospels and the apostolic canon, and proclaiming a faith that is indeed, or should be, the common faith of Christendom. That this common faith of Christendom, also happens to be the living faith of the Orthodox Church is not a moment for triumphalism, but a moment for thanksgiving on the part of all. That we need not become theological miners, searching for hidden truth in caves long dormant, but that we may become theological partners in the sharing and appropriation of the common faith of the Fathers, which is none other than the Apostolic faith, is a moment of joy and an occasion for thanksgiving to the good God who has kept us all for such a time.

The Theological Task of Orthodoxy – A Further Word

January 20, 2008


Last October I ran the following quote from Fr. Georges Florovsky:

Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

Florovsky is arguably the most important Orthodox voice of the 20th century. He argued and demonstrated time and again what he referred to as a “neo-patristic synthesis,” a clarion call for Orthodox theology to return to its roots in the Fathers and within the Orthodox Tradition. Many would today be surprised that Orthodox theology was ever otherwise – but in Florovsky’s youth, theological academies in Russia were heavily influenced by the West (from both Protestant and Catholic directions – classes in some cases were conducted in Latin), as well as those in Greece and elsewhere. There are few Orthodox theologians writing today, who have not drunk deep from the wells that Florovsky argued for. Vladimir Lossky was a protege; Met. John Zizioulas considered himself a student of Florovsky; Fr. Alexander Schmemann was a colleague both in France and in America. The landscape of Orthodox theology at the beginning of the 21st century would likely look much different had Florovsky not lived and wrote and taught.

His own view of the role of Orthodox theology, written in the mid-twentieth century, would likely have to be revised at this point in the early 21st century, even though the task he set for Orthodox theology has never been completed (and rarely attempted). The landscape of the Church has changed. The Orthodox Church that Florovsky addressed consisted almost entirely of those who had been born to the faith. Though revolution and other circumstances had created a “diaspora,” placing many Orthodox in the West – the Church was still an Eastern Church with converts being rare and frequently turned away.

Today, Orthodoxy in America is quickly becoming “native.” Both converts whose roots have always been in the West, as well as the descendants of original diaspora Orthodox becoming “Westernized,” the Orthodox Church in many places in the West today can speak of itself as “Eastern” only as an historical artifact. Its converts have not become “Eastern” in the process of becoming Orthodox – we have not become citizens of a foreign culture. Deeply influenced and immersed in Eastern experience – yes. But I would contend that converts have become to a great extent individual examples of Florovsky’s original proposal. They are now Orthodox Christians who have personally experienced the “western religious tragedy.” As a result of that tragedy they have come to Orthodoxy, but never as a tabula rasa. Every convert who enters the Church brings with them, in some fashion, the inheritance of centuries – problems not of their own creation but inherent to the West and to the modern Western world. To a large extent the problems of the “West” have now become universal problems for the simple reason that Western culture has become the dominant culture of the world. Others have our problems whether they want them or not. As converts within the West or even just Orthodox living in the West the inner encounter between Orthodoxy and Western experience is unavoidable.

Thus I see Florovsky as a “prophet” of sorts, but with the playing field drastically changed. He did not see the consequences of an Orthodoxy that could speak English (or French, or Spanish, or any number of other “Western” languages). Interestingly, my primary dogmatics professor, when I was an Anglican seminarian, had done his doctoral work under Florovsky at Harvard. His voice and vision echoed in that professor’s classes. How many Anglicans wrote papers on St. Gregory Palamas in earlier decades? I can recall reading Palamas (who was just beginning to be translated into English) and bringing his thought to bear on the problems raised in my theology classes. It was Florovsky’s vision – but in an entirely different setting. It is not surprising that I should have eventually become Orthodox – it is where the answers to my questions had always been.

Today, in ways and in places that many would not think of as “theological” in the formal sense, Florovsky’s vision is being fulfilled. We are the West – all of us who live here and many who do not. And within our own hearts is the crucible of Western tragedy meeting the patristic synthesis of the Orthodox East. At first the encounter can feel almost schizophrenic. It is all too easy to simply be anti-Western. But this is not an answer – just a reaction. God is not anti-Western, else He would have withheld Orthodoxy from us. But He has not withheld it. He has plunged it into the very midst of our culture with the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. And in the hearts of His people this great encounter of patristic theology – the living inheritance of the Christian Church – meets all the various forms that the “Western religious tragedy” has taken. I believe the meeting that takes place in the heart is not to condemn the tragedy (for Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world) but that through such an encounter the tragedy might be raised from its own brokenness into the fullness of the Church.

I write as an Orthodox Christian – but I cannot pretend that there is nothing “Western” in what I do. Who would I be kidding? By the same token, I daresay that no other Orthodox writer in the West, including those born within the faith, can claim to do otherwise. Florovsky’s vision is not an enterprise to be undertaken – it is a prophecy of an inevitability. It is an inevitability because God so loved the world. There are no tragedies that God does not take into Himself – no failures that he has disowned. He has become what we are that we might become what He is – and it is happening before our very eyes.

The Alpha and the Omega

January 18, 2008

st-catherines-monastery-500As Christ walked in the midst of the people of Israel an event that was far more than historical took place. The One who was in the midst of them is also the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Strange paradox that you should meet and encounter a person who is Himself the beginning and the ending of all things. This paradox has led to many of the more profound insights of the Christian faith.

St. Maximus, reflecting on this, said that “the Incarnation of Christ is the cause of all things,” thus paradoxically placing the cause not “before everything” but in their midst, for the one who was in their midst was “before all things.”

Christ Himself would utter strange paradoxes that were completely true though opaque to his listeners: “Before Abraham was I am.” (John 8:58)

This aspect of who Christ is lies very much at the heart of much Orthodox understanding. Thus we understand that when we gather together for the Divine Liturgy, it is “heaven on earth.” It is not a change of locations of which the Church speaks, but a change in the nature of the location in which we gather – for as we gather “two or three,” “there am I in the midst of them.” And so our remembrance uttered in that service transcends the bounds of time:

Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which came to pass for us: the cross, the grave, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting down at the right hand, the second and glorious coming again…

The language of the service has us speak even of the second coming in the past tense – not because we believe this is an event which has preceded us historically, but because in the presence of the Risen Christ, we stand at the end of things as well as their beginning. The Lord of time and space is not bound by his creation but raises His creation “into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.”

It is this reality that is also proclaimed by the holy icons. They are not placed in the Church as though they were a photograph album of heroes now long dead. They are instead the “great cloud of witnesses” made present to us in the image, not as wood and paint, but hypostatically (i.e. personally). Thus icons are described as “eschatological” images – images that are painted according to the end of all things and not according to the historical record. The language of inverse perspective becomes the grammar of the age to come in the icons of the Church – pointing us not to what has come and gone, but to what is coming and now is.

And the whole congregation is invited into this new existence. Baptized into the death of Christ and raised in the likeness of His resurrection (Romans 6:3-6). It governs our actions. Being dead to this world, we forgive the things of this world (“by his resurrection” we sing at Pascha). A life lived in forgiveness toward enemies and love for all is a life that is lived in confidence that all has turned out as it is promised by Christ. Christ defines history and gives it its meaning in His death and resurrection. His sentence of forgiveness, spoken from the Cross, is nothing less than the justice of God echoing across our world. For there can be no other justice than His freely offered forgiveness. Such light may be unbearable to some, particularly if they were counting on God to smash their enemies for them.

It is to such an Alpha and Omega, such a fount of forgiveness, such a liberty of resurrection, that we are invited to draw near as the Holy Cup of the Body and Blood of God is brought forth to us. God help me to forgive all by the resurrection and to stand before the cup of the New Covenant – and in everything to remember where I am and when I am.

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18-24).

Riddled with the Worm of Bad Temper

January 17, 2008


We ought to be very careful to keep watch on ourselves. When a harbor is full of ships it is easy for them to run against each other, particularly if they are secretly riddled by the worm of bad temper.

St. John Climacus, 4

I have seen my four living children nearly grown. The youngest turns 17 tomorrow (which is quite old as we all know). Her older sisters are in their twenties and married. Her brother is enjoying his first few months of marriage while still in college. When I think of my life with these marvelous people, I am staggered by how quickly years have sped by. I am stricken with grief at the many words which failed to be spoken, and with compunction at many of the words which were.

St. John Climacus, in his classic work, The Ladder, looks at the inner life of monastics. And though they pray more and fast with greater rigor, their life is not categorically different from that of the rest of us. We share, after all, one human nature. And thus it is that we can read the advice from an ancient monastic of the desert and find that it fits our own hearts and the struggles within our own families and social climates.

How many words I have spoken in haste with unkindness to one of my children – or my spouse – when there was no provocation! It is to such words that St. John refers when he speaks of the “worm of bad temper.” To awaken in the morning in a bad mood was one of my great indulgences as a teen. It later was curbed when I lived with a group of committed Christians in my early twenties. There was no room for “grumpiness.”

Living with others – particularly with my immediate family – has been the most important crucible of the inner life. It is one thing to be a father – it is another thing to be a father who happens to be a priest. The children with whom you are sharp in the morning have the great spiritual trial of forgiving you and seeing you as a priest later in the day at the altar of God. By God’s grace we learned to beg forgiveness of one another – and I was usually the one who stood first in need of begging. Fortunately my children are good hearted and forgive very willingly.

But the interior world of the heart that our closest relations and associations reveal to us is indeed the great battleground of the faith. St. John the Theologian says it all very simply:

If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).

Of course there is a world of difference between grumpiness and hate. But hate is a plant that does not flourish in the ground of kindness and meekness. Grumpiness is perhaps a minor thing but can make a fertile soil for far more serious.

I have to quickly recognize that my family has taught me much. One of my children once said to me: “Our family is a lot like a monastery – and you’re the abbot.” I smiled at the time – though it was true. It was the crucible where the love of God was being forged in our hearts. If we could not love our own flesh and blood, how hard it would be to love another.

That two of my children have taken up the cross of being the wives of priests only makes me pray more for them, and to think that my wife clearly set an example that was worth imitating. But each to his own call.

For all of us, in our various states and stages of life, the battleground is much the same. Most of our battles are with matters small and insignificant of themselves. A worm is but a tiny creature! But unless we tend to the battle moment by moment – struggling for love and forgiveness – then something other than love and forgiveness will triumph in our hearts. There is no neutral ground in the heart.

To my daughter who has tolerated me for seventeen years I pray: “Many years!” And ask that Christ “make her yoke easy and her burden light.” And that for all of us, we may take up His cross in our battles (small and great) and triumph over every temptation – even bad tempers!

A Minor Note

January 16, 2008


While the world was turning and other matters of import taking place, Glory to God for All Things, crossed a half-million views today. Thanks for reading – I hope to make it worth your trouble. I simply appreciate the opportunity to think a bit and write. Blessings to all of you and a good evening. East Tennessee has had a rumor of a winter storm (which means we will likely see nothing of the sort). They tell us these things to sell bread and milk. Other Southerners will know what I mean…

Iconoclasm and Ignorance

January 16, 2008


My expectations for intelligent discussion on television is close to nil. An example, on the subject of icons and statues, can be found on Handmaid Leah’s site. If you want to see the subject handled badly on television take a look. I promise a posting on the doctrine of the holy icons in the near future. My thanks to Leah for her posting this small video. We need to speak in some fashion to these sorts of distortions. I’ll not be surprised if they call us cannibals next week for eating the Body and Blood of Christ.

A Common Faith

January 15, 2008


There are doubtless many differences to be found between groups of Christians – though there is probably more that all Christians share than not. Orthodox Christianity generally holds to those doctrines that were at one time universal and continues to be a watershed of classical Christian faith. It is interesting that some things that many think of as distinctives of Orthodox Christianity have a wider attestation than most people know. These common essentials are often blurred by an emphasis on distinctives or the fact that certain things which have remained central within Orthodoxy have become marginalized in other places.

Perhaps no single doctrine is more classically expressive of the Orthodox faith than the doctrine of the Divine exchange (divinization or theosis). First offered in its most classical form by St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century (though there is ample Scriptural support for the doctrine), it is generally stated: God became man so that man could become god. This same statement of faith, in varying forms can be found in fathers, both East and West.

Daniel Keating has produced a small book on the topic: Deification and Grace. He says:

Following Irenaeus – and probably dependent upon him – we find wide attestation to this formula throughout the patristic period. It is noteworthy that some form of this expression can be found in writers from Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, Syria, North Africa, and Rome….

St. Clement of Alexandria:

the Word of God became man, that you may learn from man how man may become God.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria:

For he was made man that we might be made God…and…he himself has made us sons of the Father, and deified men by becoming himself man.

St. Gregory the Theologian:

Let us become as Christ is, since Christ became as we are; let us become gods for his sake, since he became man for our sake.

St. Gregory of Nyssa:

…the Word became incarnate so that by becoming as we are, he might make us as he is.

St. John Chrysostom:

he became Son of man, who was God’s own Son, in order that he might make the sons of men to be children of God.

St. Ephrem the Syrian:

He gave us divinity, we gave him humanity.

St. Hilary of Poitiers (in the West):

For when God was born to be man the purpose was not that the Godhead should be lost, but that, the Godhead remaining, man should be born to be god.

St. Ambrose of Milan:

For [the Son] took on him that which he was not that he might hide that which he was; he hid that which he was that he might be tempted in it, and that which he was not might be redeemed, in order that he might call us by means of that which he was not to that which he was.

St. Augustine of Hippo:

God wanted to be the Son of Man and he wanted men to be the Sons of God.

Pope St. Leo the Great (5th century):

[The Savior] was made the son of man, so that we could be the sons of God…and…He united humanity to himself in such a way that he remained God, unchangeable. He imparted divinity to human beings in such a way that he did not destroy, but enriched them, by glorification.

Even in Protestant writers…

Martin Luther in a Christmas sermon:

For the Word becomes flesh precisely so that the flesh may become word. In other words: God becomes man so that man may become God.

John Calvin, rather eloquently:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.

This is a wonderful testimony, of almost universal appeal, to one of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Often obscured by other doctrinal formula, it remains central in the Christian East, where the principle of exchange – that God took upon Himself our human condition that we might share in His divinity – runs throughout the whole of doctrine.

Keating’s book is a refreshing read. It was a Christmas present to me from Fr. Alvin Kimel (aka the Pontificator). My deepest thanks.