Monday, March 5, 2012

Response to "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" -- part 2

This second part of my review of "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" will focus exclusively on Chapter 5, which is the first chapter in Part Two: Teachings.

As with previous chapters the author opens up with his visit to an actual Orthodox parish. This time he visits an Antiochian Orthodox parish. There should not be too much to say about his visits, since these are personal reflections on personal experiences. However the author makes a terrible mistake in his account this time. On page 62 the author mistakes the antidoron with the Body of Christ. He writes:
Congregations members received the wine from a spoon a spoon from the priest, and as they were leaving, they took a piece of bread from a tray held by one of the deacons. Two people offered me a piece of the bread. I thought it was odd that they would have a notice in their bulletin saying that the Lord's Supper was only for people who shared their faith, but yet casually offer a visitor some of the Communion bread.
In previous chapters the author correctly identified the antidoron (the blessed bread used by Orthodox to cleanse the particles of Christ's Body and Blood from their mouth, which is also offered to non-Orthodox visitors as a sign of friendship because they cannot receive the Eucharist). Here, though, he tells the reader that it is the "Communion bread." I think this is a sad editorial mistake. I find it hard to believe that the author can identify the antidoron in his previous visits to Orthodox churches but somehow fail to make that determination here. Perhaps this was the first congregation he had been to (not in the sequence of the chapters, but in the sequence of his research) that offered him the antidoron, and his reflection in the book is what he thought at the time (though no indication is given that here; he only indicates the Antiochians are receiving the Body of Christ from a basket and offering it to non-Orthodox, which is untrue). This is pretty shoddy; this casts a shadow of doubt over the author's credibility.

This Book is Propaganda

In the previous four chapters I noted that the author does not restrict himself to presenting data about Orthodoxy, but mixes in his own opinions with the data. That trend is magnified 100 fold in this chapter. The presentation of the data on Orthodoxy in this chapter is constantly prefaced with extreme judgments against it, so before the reader encounters new information he or she is already told that it is bad, unacceptable, against the Gospel, etc. The belief is constantly driven home that the "true" Gospel of St. Paul fell away right after the Apostles' deaths, and that the early Church formulated its beliefs on un-Scriptural grounds to the point that I began to wonder if the WELS is some sort of cult (or is this just the author). So again, this is not entirely a scholarly book but a personal reflection on the part of the author. The author's opinions are so extreme that this chapter is as much propaganda as it is a presentation on what Orthodox Christians believe.

Summary Evaluation

The author was able to identify data relevant to the topic of Theosis, but in his persistent attempts to convey to the reader that each point was wrong he managed to fall short of presenting the data in context. He focused in right away on the idea of union with God and man's transformation into God's likeness, but he failed to grasp the place of the cross and resurrection in this scheme. In fact he has outright denied that the cross, resurrection, and forgiveness of sins has any meaningful place in Theosis. He also fails to connect God's creation of man to Theosis, which is absolutely critical. Therefore he has utterly failed to represent Orthodoxy's belief about Theosis. He has only presented the data in a fragmented mixture of WELS propaganda.

I will give him credit, though, for identifying key theological ideas such as Theosis/divinization, the exchange formula (God became man so that man might become god), essence vs. energies, and experiencing God in the Church vs. only knowing information about God. However it seems that the things he describes he doesn't understand, but rather has only found the data in various books. Let the reader beware.

It's useful to point out that whenever the author notes the Orthodox belief that our salvation lies in becoming god, the author capitalizes "God." I am used to the word "god" not being capitalized when applied to the deification of men and women in the Church, as a way of showing the difference between the only true God and the creatures who live and grow in communion with Him and through Him.

What Theosis Really Is

The author mixes in so much of his own propaganda that it becomes hard to get an accurate picture of what the Orthodox Church means by Theosis. Really this term is not entirely necessary when we talk about salvation, but it has been useful in the past. Theosis is a simple way to refer to the destiny of mankind. This destiny finds its source in God's creation in Genesis, and it finds its culmination in Jesus Christ. Objectively speaking, God created man in His own image and likeness. God placed man in Eden with the provision that he not eat from one tree, even though that tree was deemed good with the rest of creation. The consensus of early Christian interpretation is that mankind started out new and was meant to mature. Through the intervention of the Serpent man abused his freedom to take what God had not given him, did himself mortal harm in the process, and fell under dominion of the devil, death, and sin.

Christ recapitulates Adam. He enters creation, takes on man's nature without sin and our existence under fallen conditions. He became as we are. He succeeds where Adam failed. In Him we find the fullness of what a human being is supposed to be. His is righteous and without blame. But He is also God, the One Who Is, the One who is Life and Light. He bore our sins in His own flesh on the cross (1Pt 2:24), trampled down death and its power, and in this way disarmed the devil and freed us from his tyranny (compare the Devil to Pharaoh in Exodus here). Death took a Man and was confronted with God. Christ is risen from the dead unto Life, and establishes the reign of Life, righteousness, and peace in the universe. He is our Passover, that is, He is the One who goes before us to bring the entire universe and each of us from death to Life, from sin to righteousness, from slavery to freedom.

The power of Theosis lies in this Passover being applied to each person. This Passover is all about our transformation from a lost and exiled sinner, from a person who takes pleasure in sin, who is dominated by the Enemy to a person who is healed in his or her soul and from there becomes free, becomes a child of God, becomes a co-heir with Christ, a person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, a person who is energized with the working of God Himself in his or her soul, body, and life. Theosis is entirely about passing over from death to life, from sin to righteousness, from the likeness of demons to the likeness of Christ.

In this context we can better understand the importance of communion with Christ. A person's own salvation depends on unity with Christ. Christ united Himself with our nature in order to heal it and free it and propel it forward in the destiny God designed for it. God poured Himself into our nature. Christ saves a person by sharing His healed, deified human nature with that person - think of it like a transfusion but better. This is a communion with the whole Christ - human and divine. Our human nature is healed through communion - that means a change is effected in us, not in God. Our human nature passes over in Christ - a change in us, not in God. We become acceptable to God literally in Christ - a change in us, not in God. We partake of Christ's resurrection through this communion, which transforms us according to the pattern of Christ Himself who is seated in glory and will return on the Last Day. For the believer united to Christ all things are yours, for all things are fulfilled in Christ.

The sacraments are all about this union. Faith is all about this union. Good works are all about this union. Through faith in Christ we have a union with Him that makes Christ both present in each Christian and makes Christ the effective power behind all good that a Christian does. What the author calls "keeping the law" in Orthodoxy takes on the character of performing a sacramental rite, except it is not a rite but it is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, abiding with sick and needy, putting to death the uncleanness that comes from our hearts, etc. And the result of these sacramental acts is similar to those things we normally call sacraments: God works His power to heal from sins, to build up in love, and to further transform the doer and the recipient into the likeness of the God who is Love.

Theosis describes man's destiny to pass over from death to life in Christ. Life is characterized by growth, and Life in Christ is characterized by the nature of the Kingdom that will be revealed when He comes again in glory, but which is here and now revealed in the Church and in each faithful Christian. There is no Theosis without the cross and resurrection, because this defines the Christian's entire existence.

In terms of the word "salvation" we would say the following: in Christ I have been saved, I am now saved, and I hope to be saved. I have been saved because Christ died on the cross and rose again for me. I am now saved because now I believe in Christ and am in communion with Him. I hope to be saved in that He will come again on the Last Day, where some will be surprised to find they are rejected from the Kingdom (Christ will say "I never knew you."). That is a Day of judgment according to our works. We might say that our faith will be established or proven vain in that day by our works.

The Good and the Bad

Since there is so much propaganda involved in this chapter, it seemed best to make a running list of what seemed good and what seemed otherwise.

  • Page 67 - Correct: the author says Theosis lies at the heart of almost everything an Orthodox Christian does. We could go a bit further than that and say that Theosis lies at the heart of everything an Orthodox Christian believes about salvation, too.
  • Page 69 - Correct: the author says that no Orthodox Christian believes he will actually be God in the fullest sense.
  • Page 69 - Incorrect: the author simply says there is no description of clear boundaries as to what a human cannot cross in Theosis. The boundary is God's nature, which is unapproachable to created beings. No human being can come anywhere near turning into God Himself or into a God equal to the only true God. This is actually what the Serpent tempted Eve with in the Garden, in a sense: that she and Adam could become God on their own in their natures.

    On this page the author mentions a second point, namely that the Orthodox hold to a distinction between God's essence (nature) and energies (God's activity outside Himself). Our transformation more and more into the *likeness* of the infinite God occurs on the spectrum of God's activity in us (His energies), and in this respect there is no limit to our growth, because the limit depends on God Himself, and God has established no limits nor is Himself limited. Thus it is better for the author to say there is no further limit than God's nature, which itself is not a limit like a barrier but a limit of category. God enables me to become like what He is, without becoming what He is. Divinity is never mine outright but mine by way of gift and participation in the Grace of the only true God.
  • Pages 69-70 - The conclusion is correct that God makes us divine, but he fails to mention that this is in a relative sense. Man does not become divine in his nature, but only by way of participation through what we call communion and faith. Man always remains man, but through communion with God attains to participation in divinity.
  • Page 71 - He accurately outlines the connection between the Incarnation of Christ and Theosis.
  • Page 72 - He is correct in saying that Theosis determines our whole understanding of salvation and the conduct which flows from it.
  • Page 72 - Incorrect: the author assumes Theosis is hard to relate to the laity. He has already established that the term is not itself used all that much, and that it is more an idea at work behind everything going on in Orthodox Christianity. One only has to examine the sermons of St. John Chrysostom to see how Theosis relates to the laity.
  • Page 72 - Incorrect: the author assumes that the focus shifted from Christ's death and forgiveness to keeping "the law" and on external phenomena that "would display the divine nature within a person."
  • Page 74 - Incorrect: the author says monasticism (monks, monasteries, etc) is a picture of what all Christians will in enjoy in heaven. This is a gross mischaracterization! Monasticism is comparable to the grave, not heaven. The entire purpose of monasticism is to die to the flesh, the world, and the devil in a focused and determined manner. The monk leaves the world behind as one who had died to it, and he or she spends life in prayer for the world and struggle against his or her own sins. The author is overly focusing on those particular instances where some monks have either experienced spiritual phenomena or been given the spiritual gifts of miracles or prophecy. This is not the norm, though, and is by God's choice and gift. It is not the purpose of monasticism.
  • Page 78 - Incorrect: the author says Orthodox theologians are not schooled to present their material logically. Aside from being mean and ill-informed, he is giving the reader the impression that logic is incongruous with experience and illumination. In Orthodoxy we believe God has revealed Himself in the person of His Son, and that each Christian is called to both believe in Christ and enter into a relationship with Him based on faith. As Christ Himself says to the disciples, "You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. Orthodoxy has many logical presentations of the Christian Faith. But Orthodoxy also believes that definition is given only where necessity drives it, and that definition should define boundaries. It is not possible to exhaust the mysteries of the Kingdom. Really the author dislikes the Orthodox belief that one can know God and live in a direct relationship with Him in His Church, a relationship based on Scriptural teaching, sacramental illumination, and personal activity along the lines of what Christ has said in John 15. Unlike the WELS the Orthodox Church has never had to derive Christianity anew from source material (the Scriptures), but has received the Faith from Christ in the Holy Spirit from the beginning (as the history section of the book indicated) and continually lived in it to the present day.
  • Page 78 - Correct: the author points out that Theosis is for all Christians.
  • Page 78 - Correct: the author says the Church is the way to achieve Theosis. I would add that the Church is Christ's institution of the reality of His Kingdom. The very reality that is established by Christ's sacrifice for sin and victory over death, that is the source of the Apostles' preaching and miracle working and evangelizing, has continued down through history to this very day. This is the Orthodox Church. In the Church each person can achieve Theosis, that is, each person dies to this world and rises new in his or her soul in Christ, and through the Grace of God (the energies of God; the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit) grows more and more into the image and likeness of God that man was meant for from Creation. In the Church the power of Christ's death and resurrection is imparted through the Sacraments to the believer, and their effect transforms the participant who lives out their faith in love as Christ's friends.
  • Page 78 - Incorrect: the impression is given that the Church is the way of Theosis for those who are not monks. The Church is the way of Theosis for all, monks and non-monks alike.
  • Page 79 - The author quotes Kharlamov saying, "Kharlamov says that deification 'is really a cluster of related concepts present in Christian theology from the beginning.'" This quote is important and should be stressed. The author has not adequately portrayed this reality in his presentation of Orthodox Theosis.
  • Page 81 - He correctly says that all (read: most) Western Christian denominations are asking the same question: "What must sinners do to satisfy a holy God and bridge the gulf that sin has caused?" He correctly identifies that Orthodox Christians are asking a different question. He oversimplifies the Orthodox question as "What must a person do to achieve union with God?" The question may better be posed as "How does God restore our union with Him that was lost?" The emphasis is on what was lost being found, and on God being the one to reconcile us to Him, not us trying to calm down God toward us.
  • Page 82 - Incorrect: The East is not bothered that the West wants to know how to be saved (so do we in the East), but that the West is fixiated on a God that must be appeased, rather than that God wants to change and transform us for our salvation. The West, especially the WELS and other traditional Lutherans, believes that God's heart must be changed toward sinners for us to be allowed into God's good graces. The Orthodox believe that God's heart toward sinners does not need to be changed, but WE need to be changed. The Lutherans believe the cross is about changing God's heart; the Orthodox believe the cross is about changing us (hence the need for the Sacraments). The problem is bigger than we are, so God provides all that is necessary for our salvation (our change and transformation.
  • Page 84 - Incorrect: the author says guilt and punishment play negligible roles in Orthodoxy. I think the author is looking these emphases in sermons, when Orthodoxy saturates these issues in its prayers and hymnography and Liturgy. Guilt is often expressed in personal terms (viz. I am guilty), as is punishment (viz. I am deserving punishment on the Last Day), which then leads into the Orthodox Christian asking for mercy for Christ's sake. The sin, guilt, punishment, the cross, mercy, resurrection, and the working of God are applied in personal ways instead of general terms (God will punish, God finds us all guilty, God has mercy on us all, etc.) The author is, according to his own expectations, looking for these things in the sermon, when they are instead put into the ear and mouth of the Orthodox believer everywhere else. In Orthodoxy the emphasis is on the individual appropriating these themes to him- or herself through faith's activity in prayer (personal and corporate).
  • Page 84 - Incorrect: the author says Orthodoxy does not give place to the human conscience regarding our sin and God's judgment. Any Orthodox person would be stunned to hear such an accusation. Refer to the previous point for an answer to this ludicrous charge.


honorGod said...

Great content. Specially appreciate your notes on page 82-84. Can you expound on the weaknesses of augustinian views of martin luther roman catholicism derived understanding of God's Wrath needing to be appeased by substitution?

Regarding works of mercy. Can you add how the dynamic of a spiritual father and confessing our struggles and sins to a trusted human being (i.e. counselor - in modern emphasis) is also vital to cleansing from inside out? In the West, Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend do a great job in applying this in their works such as "12 Christian beliefs that can drive you crazy" or "How people grow" (although they disconnect through a wall of separation not found in Scripture Justification from Sanctification)

Deacon Benjamin Harju said...

I do not think I am an appropriate person to ask about works of mercy and the dynamic of a spiritual father. I can only speak to the value of confessing our sins. How can we make progress in the spiritual life if our failures pile up and weigh us down? If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Then we can continue to move forward and build upon the good the work being accomplished in us by the Good One.

Regarding your first question, I would direct you to my post "The Wedge Becomes the Ax" to start. If you want to talk more about this topic (since my post does not directly address the points you raise), you are welcome to email me privately.