Salvation, Prayer and Communion with God

MACEDONIA-ORTHODOX CHRISTMASFew things are as fundamental to the New Testament as the reality of communion (koinonia). It means a commonality, a sharing and participation in the same thing. It is this commonality or sharing that lies at the very heart of our salvation. This communion is described in Christ’s “high priestly prayer”:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).

The unity for which Christ prays is no mere “quality” of our life in Christ – but is our life in Christ. That this unity (communion) is the very life of salvation is made clear in St. John’s first epistle:

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion [koinonia] with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion [koinonia] with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 5:5-7).

Here our communion with God is described as a communion of light – though the nature of that light is made clear: God is light. St. John uses light to say that our communion is a true participation in God, in His very life.

This same saving participation in the life of God is presented in Christ’s discourse on the Eucharist:

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me (John 6:53-57).

Some time ago I wrote about the problem of many modern English translations in which koinonia is rendered “fellowship,” a very weak translation indeed. Our very life in Christ is trivialized by unwitting (I hope) translators into a noun used to describe church socials. It is a witness to how far removed many modern treatments of our saving relationship with Christ have become from the classic treatments of Orthodox tradition.

The compartmentalization of theology (ethics, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology – and the list goes on) frequently results in a fragmented, disjointed account of the Christian life. When you view the massive tomes that comprise the average systematic theology it is a marvel that the New Testament manages to be so short.

A telling weakness of many “theologies” is their failure to give account for the most common aspects of our Christian life. Prayer is a very straightforward example. Many systematic presentations of theology have no treatment of prayer whatsoever, despite the fact that we are bidden to “pray without ceasing.” How is it that something so pervasive finds no place in a theological description?

It is just this kind of spiritual myopia that marks theology that has departed from the Tradition of the faith and set off on its own trail of creativity. Thus, much has been written on “predestination” (a word which occurs but a few times in all the New Testament) while prayer is relegated to lesser treatments in what amounts to a category of recreational reading.

The Tradition does not treat prayer in this manner. Prayer is so much at the heart of the teaching of the faith that it is stated: Lex orandi, lex credendi – “the law of praying is the law of believing.” This is far more than saying that liturgy preserves the most primitive and pure proclamations of the gospel (though this is true). It is also saying that prayer itself is a pure expression of the gospel.

This becomes particularly clear when prayer is understood to be communion [koinonia] with God. And it is not prayer alone of which this can be said: the whole of the Christian life – every sacrament of the Church – has as its foundation our saving participation in the life of God.

I offer here some thoughts from a post in 2007 on communion with God:

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What is wrong with the human race?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christian doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

St. Athanasius describes this in his On the Incarnation of the Word:

For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature ; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom : “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.” (Wisdom 6. 18)

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – the Orthodox Christian faith does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, many vitally important parts of the Christian life are reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

We were created for communion with God – it is our very life. Thinking about communion with God is not a substitute for communion with God. Theology as abstraction has no life within it. Theology is a life lived in Christ. Thus there is the common saying within Orthodoxy: “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

This is our salvation.

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27 Responses to “Salvation, Prayer and Communion with God”

  1. Cameron Says:

    Very helpful, Father. Thank you.

  2. Fr. Paul Yerger Says:

    It’s not just modern translations; the KJV, which I generally find best, translates koinonia pretty consistentlly as “fellowship.” Maybe fellowship was a stronger word in 1611.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Paul,

    I have to confess that I consider the KJV to be “modern,” meaning by the word pretty much everything from around 1500 forward. In that sense, Protestantism is inherently “modern.” It is thus a problem in English that there is not a good Orthodox translation (the NKJV used for the Orthodox Study Bible does not address these mistranslations in the NT – I would have liked to have seen them adjusted). As is, I’m glad I can read the Greek.

    Interestingly, the BCP is generally pretty good in its treatment of the understanding of participation. The Prayer of Humble Access is probably one of the most beautiful statements in English of this classic doctrine.

  4. coffeezombie Says:

    I suspect that the creators of the Orthodox Study Bible could not, due to copyright laws, adjust the wording of the NKJV to correct the mistranslation. Perhaps if they had written permission from the copyright owner they could have, but without that, it is likely that their hands were tied.

  5. Scott Morizot Says:

    They did adjust the translation in many places. That’s especially true in the OT where there are a lot of differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text. A lot of the criticism of the OT work that I’ve seen is not that they didn’t try to change to match the septuagint, but rather that they didn’t do it enough or that they didn’t make the best choices for the english translation. I’m sure they had the appropriate permissions for using the NKJV as the basis.

    I’m not sure there is a good way to translate koinonia into english. Communion is probably the closest equivalent, but is still apt to be misunderstood. In some ways it’s like trying to translate nous.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Coffee (do you go by “coffee” or “zombie”?)

    I think much was learned between the production of the NT and Psalms and the later complete Bible which edited the OT by comparison to the Septuagint.

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  8. coffeezombie Says:

    haha…either works for me.🙂

    I’m not sure, though, if your comment was actually a response to my speculation that the OSB producers’ hands may have been tied legally, or to Scott’s comment about the OT translation? Sorry if I’m just dense.😀

    Anyway, I thought the OT was actually a separate translation, not a modification of the NKJV. Looks like I was wrong about that, so I guess they did have the freedom to do so!😀

  9. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Having worked for many years for a Protestant Bible publisher (and handled some of the copyright permission authorizations for its proprietary English translation texts), I doubt the producers of the OSB would have had permission to change much, if anything, from the NKJV NT. As Fr. Stephen has pointed out, the OT in the OSB is a brand new English translation of the LXX, not a revision of the NKJV using the LXX (though I’m sure they referred to many other English translations of both Masoretic and LXX texts in the course of their work.

  10. Karen Says:

    Forgive! Father, I forgot to mention that I second Cameron’s comment! Thank you also for the short rule of prayer you provided in comments at another post. I’ve been attempting something similar, but I also found your instruction a helpful reference. Also, obviously my previous comments should also have been addressed to Coffeezombie!

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Coffee,

    It was my understanding that the OT translation used the NKJV as the “boilerplate” translation and modified it as needed according to the LXX and, of course, did a new translation of the LXX books not included in the Masoretic text.

    I did not get to the ground floor soon enough, but would have loved to have done some translation work.

    I still think a “from the ground up” translation by Orthodox scholars would be nice – particularly if we had a single or dominant English translation of liturgical materials. Alas, we do not. The echoes of the Scriptures one should constantly hear in the language of the liturgy are sometimes missing, unless you know the underlying languages from which they are translated – and even then you miss much.

    I recall sitting in the middle of a conversation between Fr. Paul Lazor, retired Professor at St. Vlad’s, and Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. Their encylopedic knowledge of languages and Scripture and liturgy held me spell-bound.

    And for both of these men, they not only knew their subjects and languages, but knew them on a proper level because they prayed them with great attention. Thus it was not a conversation that offer a show of mere erudition – but the depths of the Tradition in a life richly lived. Many years to them both!

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  13. Dana Ames Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Do you know about this?

    http://www.orthodoxanswers.org/eob/index.asp

    What do you think about it? I would be very interested in your opinion. I am reading the NETS LXX – seems to be the most readable serious translation available right now – but am intrigued by the prospect of a scholarly translation by Orthodox academics.

    They are looking for translation checkers/editors for the OT.

    I haven’t met him yet, but Fr. Laurent is in my “neighborhood”- only 3 hours away- in California that’s like being in the next holler🙂

    Dana

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Dana,

    I was not aware of this. Looks worth following up on.

  15. Dana Ames Says:

    Please let me know what you think, either here or by email.

    D.

  16. Scott Morizot Says:

    The introduction to the OSB states that Thomas Nelson Publishers granted permission for use for the NT and also for the OT where it matches the LXX. Where it varies, copyright is with the St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. I knew both were based where possible on the NKJV and assumed they had to have the appropriate permissions from Thomas Nelson. It appears that assumption was correct.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Scott,

    Nelson has been fantastically cooperative in the Orthodox Study Bible. There are some great people in the company.

  18. John Says:

    After all the work on the OT in the OSB, I don’t get why they didn’t make some token effort to conform the NT text to something other than the TR. Such as the Majority Text, or something. Would have only taken someone a week or something. The danger is the TR becomes ingrained now.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Actually it is no accident. The Textus Receptus has the advantage of its close similarity to that other Orthodox standard the famous Byzantine Lectionaries that play such a role in Textual Criticism.

  20. John Says:

    Similarity doesn’t mean it is the same. It is similar enough that they could have conformed it with not too much work, but they didn’t do it.

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    That is true.

  22. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! Sorry, it appears I was under the wrong impression regarding the OT of the OSB. I did not realize it was a hybrid of sorts (all I needed to have done was read the intro. to the OT in my copy! :-(). Thomas Nelson also handles the rights to the NKJV I believe, so it makes sense that they would be willing to allow this sort of partial use in a product for which they are a co-publisher. (It would probably also not technically be considered a revision of the NKJV OT text, since that portion which is from the NKJV OT was apparently not changed).

  23. Karen Says:

    I should also add that I am very, very grateful to have such a resource (in the OSB) for which many sacrifices were made!

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    I think the OT NKJV portion was edited where it differed significantly from the LXX text. Of this I am sure. But Nelson’s approved the arrangement.

  25. jamey w. bennett Says:

    This may be beating a dead horse, but Thomas Nelson’s CEO is Orthodox, and one or two CEOs before him were, too. In addition, there are others on staff at TN that are Orthodox…add to this that the NKJV is probably Thomas Nelson’s most significant copyright holding, it made sense from a production standpoint to us the NKJV.

    Fr. Stephen, this is a very helpful essay. I particularly love your re-centering of things like “love your enemies” on living our life in God. “We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.” Beautifully stated.

  26. fatherstephen Says:

    I knew about the Orthodox connection at Nelson’s – indeed I know the CEO. I didn’t want to get into that side of things. I think that we were simply blessed that they were there. The OSB is an important step in the life of English-speaking Orthodoxy. It is not perfect but is significant and a great help for the study of Scripture. I own one, use it and recommend it. Though, having been trained in Greek and Hebrew, I am never satisfied with translations. I find that I always have to go to the original language to feel that I’ve read and begun to understand. Hebrew doesn’t think like English. Greek does some things that simply cannot be translated. But I enjoy my OSB.

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