Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Atonement and Theosis

“I see this going on in Orthodoxy all the time. The continuous discovery of new and improbable ‘differences’ between East and West has become virtually a cottage industry among some Orthodox Christians. Many of these alleged differences, however, seem not to have occurred to most Orthodox Christians who lived either before the Russian Revolution or outside of Paris.”
-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.


Paul Hunter said...

Thank you for this post. I have had a number of discussions with an Greek Orthodox friend recently on the topic of sin and atonement, and this says very well some of the things I have tried to convey. I particularly appreciate that you point out the falsehood of the 'wrathful God' straw man employed by many Eastern Orthodox polemicists.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I have long been only negatively impressed by EO apologists or converts who try to sell the idea that "Western theology is Aristotelian and forensic, whereas Eastern theology--the real stuff--is Platonic and mystical." Its easy to debunk the Aristotelian/Platonic dichotomy, but the forensic/mystical requires just a bit more learning. One has to come to grips with the fact that the Fathers of East and West alike were steeped in the Scriptures, which they took to be the infallible Word of God. The Fathers cannot be intelligently read without a deep familiarity with the Bible. (You have to know about Holinshed and Ovid to comprehend Shakespeare, right?)

I have recently profited greatly from a very short book by Thomas Oden, "The Justification Reader."
It is a long catena of quotes from the Fathers, both Eastern and Western, which sound like they were culled from the writings of Luther and Calvin. The "mystical/forensic" dichotomy is as modern as the branch theory!

Currently I am feasting on a splendid, really SPLENDID, book by Michael Horton, "Covenant and Salvation." Horton is a WTS-California professor, an Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals type. But he winds up this book with a chapter entitled "Justification and Theosis." I cannot wait to get to it. Theologians of his ilk have discovered that the EO theosis is remarkably similar to the Reformed sanctification-glorification. Maybe the EO's will read the Fathers again and discover what Oden has found about Justification.

Canon Tallis said...

Let me be the third to add my "Amen" and sing it again. I would never claim to the sort of learning that Father Reardon has, but my own experience of reading both modern Orthodox theologians and the Greek fathers during my college years led me to believe that the doctrine which I found at the heart of the Anglican tradition was also that of the earliest fathers and the Orthodox Church.

But that was also of the days when Orthodox Christians who had no local Orthodox Church were told to go to the Episcopal Church. Unfortunately the apostasy of TEC has ended all of that. And worse, unless we can find within ourselves the resourses to persuade the primates and bishops of the Global South and Southern Cone that if there is any hope of restoring Anglicanism to its former reputation and credibility, it will be through their insisting both to their clients bishops and clergy in North America as well as to the Archbishops and bishops of the churches in the British Isles that nothing less that a full return to faith and practise of antiquity as expressed both by the canon of St Vincent of Lerins and that of Lancelot Andrewes is an absolute and bare minimum. In words heard at the GAFCON meeting, it may not be a sin to be a woman, but it is extremely sinful to attempt to add or subtract from "the apostles' doctrine and fellowship" by pretending to be able to do what they never did and would not have tolerated.

poetreader said...

This is one of those many disputes among members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, that are entirely misdirected when they become disoputes. In this, as in several other areas of argument, the concept of either/or is a guarantor that both sides will have inadequate and possibly heretical teaching. What both Scripture and the Fathers make clear is that it is rather a case of both/and, and that it is in the interaction of seemingly opposite views that we can come to a fuller understanding of God.

I, for one, am powerfully moved both by Western thinking on Atonement and by Eastern thinking on Theosis.


Anonymous said...

Father Wells' comment about "theologians of his ilk have discovered that the EO theosis is remarkably similar to the Reformed sanctification-glorification" sounds a lot like the "New Finnish Interpretation of Luther," which emphasizes something very similar. I think this is an interesting field of (re)discovery and would like to learn more about it.

Anonymous said...

I must acknowledge a dismal and abysmal ignorance of the "New Finnish" interpretations of Luther, although I can boast of having heard of it before. But I don't think the resemblance of EO theosis and Calvinistic sanctification/ glorificaton is all that complicated.
The heart of sanctification, according to the Westminister standards, is renewal of the Imago Dei in the redeemed. And lying in the background is the Reformed distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes of God.
Those communicable attributes (such as holiness, love, etc) produce a GODLY (think about the staggering implications of that word!) person.
We frequently get our hackles up when theosis is presented in terms which sound new-agey or pantheistic. But that's not a fair presentation of the concept.

Anonymous said...

Well put, Fr. Wells. I wish the connection between sanctification and theosis had occurred to me in my Presbyterian days; it would have made for some interesting Bible study conversations.

David said...

I believe I can speak with some authority being a convert to Orthodox Christianity. Many of us converts are looking for a definable distinction to explain our conversion to Orthodoxy from a more familiar Western tradition.

I see myself as being more like Fr. Patrick (who's books I love). I find that many of my fellow Orthodox are unfamiliar with him. I think Orthodoxy has more in common with Orthodox Anglicanism because they both seek to love all the Saints and not just the Western or Eastern Saints. I know there are still some hold outs in Orthodoxy who look for division and reasons for it over a fraternal relationship with our other Orthodox brethren.

In defense of the Orthodox the division in Anglicanism between the theological camps has made it difficult for outsiders to grasp just what an Anglican is.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

In defense of the Orthodox the division in Anglicanism between the theological camps has made it difficult for outsiders to grasp just what an Anglican is.

That is very understandable. It may help you to understand us by reading the Affirmation of St. Louis (a sort of Continuing Anglican Church constitution), and here is a link.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed two kinds of Orthodox converts in the West: those that see everything in the Western churches as heretical, and those that see virtually nothing in the Western churches as heretical.

IMHO, neither are correct from a historical Orthodox point of view. To find the real differences, I suggest John Meyendorff's Byzantine Theology. His grasp of English is better than mine and he neither exaggerates or down plays the real, fundamental, historical differences between Latin and Greek theology.

David said...

I have found two types of cradle Orthodox those who think that faith is inherited and those who with humility never feel like they have arrived at a perfect faith but continually seek to abide in Christ.

I don't see much difference between most conservative Anglicans I have met. I always worry about thinking I have arrived or that I can be sure I got it right (in becoming Orthodox). All my life I want to fear the Lord.

Unknown said...

Any thoughts on Fr. Reardon's first book on Atonement? I know it is the first of a series but would love to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

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