What is the nature of a relationship with God? It is commonplace in our modern parlance to speak of a “personal relationship” which is either redundant, or a way of weakening the true meaning of “personal.” I suspect that the modern meaning of “relationship” is in fact not capable of bearing the true weight of theological meaning and is simply a shallow way of speaking about the Christian faith. What Scripture invites us into is communion with God. I have written on this topic previously, addressing the substitution of the word “fellowship” for communion. I have offered a new reflection here as well as appended two articles on the topic from my previous writings. They seem quite on topic. One could substitute “relationship” for “fellowship” and the articles would work in that way as well. God has offered so much to us – it is a pity if we allow language to lessen the magnificence of that gift.
To Be “Born Again”
This morning I received a small comment (deleted) that is not uncommon. Someone will have read an article on the blog and posted the question: “Yes, but have you been born again?” I know that the thought is well-meant, someone wondering if I am “saved” (according the understanding of some evangelical Christians). However well-meant such postings may be, they are ill-informed.
There is an assumption among a number of Protestant Christians that to be “born-again” is the equivalent of a particular decision (which the Orthodox would term “repentance”) at a particular time in which we repent of our sins and ask Jesus to be the Savior of our life. Repentance is indeed Biblical, as is the phrase “born-again.” However the conflation of the two, in which a particular response at a particular time (always and necessarily at the “age of accountability” or later) is equated with the “born again” in Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of St. John’s gospel. That conflation is of very recent vintage, a Biblical interpretation dating back to the origins of the Evangelical Movement a few hundred years back. That is to say – it is a novel idea – not an item of Christian revelation.
There is nothing within the actual text of Scripture that requires such an interpretation. Indeed, Christ’s use of the phrase in St. John’s gospel, makes specific connection with “water and the Spirit.” The traditional interpretation of the phrase “born-again” has in fact always been to equate it with Holy Baptism. St. Peter’s reference to being “born again” (1 Peter 1:3-5) where it is written that God . . . “has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, . . .” is another reference to Baptism – for it is specifically in Baptism, St. Paul tells us (Romans 6:4-6), that we are united to Christ’s resurrection. This is the faith of the Orthodox.
However, such a belief carries within it an understanding that Holy Baptism is more than a “mere symbol” or an “empty ritual.” It is the means given to us by Christ through which we are united with Him. It is also the understanding of the Church that the gift given to us in Holy Baptism should be continually received by us in the life of faith. But being “born again” is not to be reduced to a “spiritual transaction.”
At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be in relation to God. How is it that we are saved? What is the goal and purpose of the Christian life? Some versions of modern Christian thought have offered radical departures from classical Christian teaching – making salvation external to our life (in various forensic models) – or grounded in various transactional accounts (with emphases on our ‘decision’ for Christ).
Salvation is union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is Trinitarian. It transcends the will though it includes the will. It transcends the will just as the will is not the ultimate seat of our personhood. It includes the will just as the will is an important aspect of our existence. Those who have exalted the role of ‘decision’ in our salvation have also unwittingly diminished the personhood of those in whom the will is diminished (the unborn, the mentally impaired, etc.). The exaltation of the will, it would seem, is a by-product of a culture in which the most important role of human beings is as consumers. Salvation in Christ is not a product for our consumption. It cannot be marketed or reduced to something grasped by the will.
Who can give a true account of the mystery of grace that brought him to Christ? I appreciate St. Paul’s brief summary of his conversion:
But when it pleased God who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace to reveal His son in me… (Galatians 1:15)
It is a wonderfully elegant version of all that transpired in his life – including his encounter on the road to Damascus. What was filled in Baptism in Damascus began “when God…separated me from my mother’s womb” (and surely while he was within the womb). We do well to give thanks to God for the mystery of our salvation. We also do well to avoid modern reductionist accounts of salvation – they are insufficient for the fullness of the faith.
Is “Fellowship” with God Possible?
Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.
This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.
But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek – the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.
The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.
In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).
What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.
The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.
My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.
Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.
What Does It Mean to have Communion with God?
I am sure that the title of this section seems obvious and as though I had pulled a question out of a catechism. And yet, my experience tells me that things that seem as though they ought to be obvious often are not, particularly the more basic and fundamental they are in our life as Orthodox believers. I noted in the section above that the world fellowship is often found in English Bibles as a mistranslation of the Greek word koinonia, the result being that frequently when Scripture is giving us information about communion with God, our translations are giving us something completely different.
One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What’s wrong with the human race anyway?” 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 Christians 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.
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 – Orthodoxy, it can be said, 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 ourontological 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, these vitally important parts of the Christian life usually become 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.
If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put in the sort of terms used above, then you have missed out on hearing most of the New Testament. You have missed the story as told by the Fathers of the Eastern Church (which means, most of the Church Fathers). It is possible that you have heard such a distortion of the Christian faith that you have wanted nothing to do with it.
But if what I have described above sounds like good news – then the news is very good – because this is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church founded by Jesus Christ and which continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church.