-Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
In any discussion about East and West, no one can speak with more authority than the pastor of All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, Father Patrick Henry Reardon (who also is a senior editor of Touchstone, and the author of several good books). In one lifetime, he has done what it has taken all three of the Hart brothers to do: he has been Roman Catholic, then Anglican and is now Orthodox. What sets him apart is the depth of his learning, since his knowledge of the entire Christian Tradition is about as exhaustive as any one man can possess. After all of his decades of scholarship, he has been able to speak in terms that all Christians can appreciate, demonstrating the reality of our common ground. Fr. Reardon has stated more than once the threefold separation between man and God that has been overcome for us in Christ, the separation by nature, by sin and by death. We are saved from our separation by nature in Christ’s Incarnation. We are saved from our separation by sin in Christ’s death, and we are saved from our separation by death in Christ’s resurrection.
I want to use this to answer a common assumption held by some of the modern day Orthodox, especially converts, in the words of one of their own: “The West's concept of God, salvation, human nature, even sin itself, are near 180 degrees off that of the early Church, but are in many ways quite consistent with Greek pagan philosophy.” Before addressing this in terms of Christian theology, we should notice that this idea exalts Greek Paganism beyond measure. If the “Western” “concept of God” is consistent with Greek Paganism, then the pagans must have believed in a transcendent God who is Wholly Other from every created nature, dwelling in eternity, unknowable and unapproachable. Somehow, this does not fit the notion of Zeus on Mount Olympus, or of the gods who were subject to passions. It is simply another empty charge and invented excuse for maintaining and deepening division at any price.
About salvation, just how different is the “East” from the “West?” I believe that Saint Paul, unless he was capable of time travel, never read Cur Deus Homo by Saint Anselm. And, yet, he summarized the entire concept of the Jewish sacrificial system in the Law, and the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah, with the words “Christ died for our sins, according to the scripture (i.e. in fulfillment of those scriptures about sacrifice).”– I Cor. 15 : 3. Much is made of whether this was simply by passing from death to life, or if the death itself was juridical. In fact, the scriptural language about the One and the many is quite consistent, whether the last verse of the Suffering Servant passage, the fifth chapter of Romans, or the statement in the second chapter of I John: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” The One and the many is a simple concept: The One who did not have any sin, and therefore no obligation to die, gave his life. The sinless one died. The scriptural image of sacrifice fits the reality of how this relates to justice, righteousness, and holiness; not to mention the words of the Apostles, that “Christ died for our sins” and that he is “the propitiation for our sins.”
Here we look again at those three ways in which salvation is offered to us in Christ. By dying He took away the sins of the world. Can this really have no relationship to Divine Justice? Is God so immoral or a-moral? Christ overcame death, but in His cross He conquered both sin and death. Furthermore, in order for the Incarnation to save us from death and open to us the hope that we become “partakers of the divine nature,” (II Peter 1:4) sin must first be taken away by the Lamb of God, the “propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” In order for His resurrection to give us immortality, sin had to be removed first. In order for us be given the grace to partake of the divine nature by theosis, we first needed this redemption from sin/ death (really one thing for us, not two).
The caricature of a wrathful Father taking delight in Christ’s suffering ought to be spotted for what it is by converts to the new version Orthodoxy. It is a straw man argument, created to establish yet another false division. The scriptural use of metaphorical language about wrath has never been taken literally by learned theologians in either east or west, but understood rather as a warning to be reconciled to the eternal and unchanging, impassible, God. The words in our General Confession, “provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us,” speak not of an angry God, but of the injustice of our sins. They rightly do provoke such wrathful justice from the human side: yet the whole prayer is based on our belief in God’s mercy, a certain hope of Divine compassion. The prayer speaks of repentance, by which we seek to be on the right side of the divide with God who never changes.
Pitting atonement against theosis is bad theology. It sets the cross against Easter, instead of proclaiming the full truth of our Passover from captivity to sin and death to the freedom of life and immortality in Christ. The Fall should be understood in terms of what we lost: we lack the grace to become what we were created to be. Our only hope is in Christ, His Incarnation, His cross, and His resurrection, by which grace is restored. Before we can “become partakers of the divine nature” we must receive mercy as the objects of Divine compassion.