041 Eastern Orthodoxy

Though the perspectives of Eastern Orthodox peoples have rarely received much attention in the West, there is (perhaps because of the Iron Curtain’s collapse) a growing interest in The Orthodox Way as Bishop Kallistos Ware titles his fine introduction to the subject (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s seminary Press, 1993). First published in 1979, this book provides an accurate and accessible entree to the riches of Orthodoxy. Yoked with his classic The Orthodox Church, Ware’s scholarly works give us the best introductions to his church.

He begins by insisting that the only way to know truth about the Way is to “step out upon this path, commit ourselves to this way of life,” to discover it through a “living experience” of its reality (p. 8). Christian Faith, to the Orthodox, is less a rational system of belief than a life-giving relationship with the Holy Spirit.

This insistence grows out of the Orthodox insistence that God is fundamentally Mystery. As St Gregory of Nyssa said, “‘God’s name is not known; it is wondered at'” (p. 16). We know little more about God than a new baby knows of the world. This is not to say we know nothing, however. We can never know God in His essence, but we can know him as we discern his energies, as He works in His world.

According to St Maximus the Confessor, our knowledge of God comes “‘from the grandeur of his creation and from his providential care for all creatures. For by this means, as if using a mirror, we attain insight into his infinite goodness, wisdom and power'” (p. 31). While alone in the desert, St Anthony was asked how he could find truth. In response, he said, “‘My book, philosopher, is the nature of created things, and whenever I wish I can read in it the works of God'” (p. 54).

What we cannot fathom concerning God’s essence, such as His trinitarian nature, He must supernaturally reveal to us. The first seven Ecumenical Councils, which Orthodoxy considers doctrinally definitive, defined God as three persons in one essence. Easterners have always insisted on keeping the three persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–distinct, a community within the godhead.

God the Son became man. Christ’s Incarnation marked a new day for humanity. In His perfection we envision our potentiality. “The Incarnation,” Ware says, “is not simply a way of undoing the effects of original sin, but it is an essential stage upon man’s journey from the divine image to the divine likeness” (p. 93). Conversion, repentance, faith, are not a one-time crises but continuing steps along the Way. That journey involves an increased sharing, a participation in the very nature of God.

This “participation” means, to the Orthodox, “deification,” a term which abrasively grates on Western ears. It closely resembles what we Wesleyans call “sanctification.” As Ware explains it, “To be deified is . . . to be ‘christified’: the divine likeness that we are called to attain is the likeness of Christ. It is through Jesus the God-man that we men are ‘ingodded’, ‘divinized’, made ‘sharers in the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4). By assuming our humanity, Christ who is Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are ‘adopted’ by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-son” (p. 98).

Such participation assumes man’s free will. Created in God’s image, we are free. By its very nature, love requires freedom. A loving God is free. To love God we must be free as well. Unlike many Western theologians, who have often slipped into an Augustinian-Calvinistic determinism, the Orthodox (from St Irenaeus of Lyons onward) have resolutely stressed the necessary human role in salvation. “We are to hold in balance two complementary truths: without God’s grace we can do nothing; but without our voluntary co-operation God will do nothing” (p. 149).

Human freedom derives from the real and active presence of the Holy Spirit. Where the Spirit is, there is freedom! “The whole aim of the Christian life,” says Ware, “is to be a Spirit-bearer, to live in the Spirit of God, to breathe the Spirit of God” (p. 119). Thus, “If the aim of the Incarnation is the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, the aim of Pentecost is the continuation of Christ’s Incarnation within the life of the Church” (p. 124).

The reality and power of the Holy Spirit have generally been emphasized more in the East than the West. Christ’s crucifixion has often been the focus of Western theology; his resurrection has generally remained central to Easterners. As St Athanasius said, “‘The Logos took flesh, that we might receive the Spirit'” (p. 124).

This stress on the Holy Spirit at work within us explains the interest Wesleyans (including Wesley) have taken in Orthodox thought. To understand its basic teachings, Ware’s treatise gives us solid guidance.

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Whereas Ware’s treatise is a balanced work, the product of a life devoted to scholarly reflection, the zeal of a recent convert characterizes Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religions (Brookline, MS: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, c. 1994).

Schaeffer’s father, Francis, whose works are known to most of you, espoused a strongly Reformed version of evangelicalism and influenced thousands of thoughtful young readers a generation ago. (Young Schaeffer’s portrait of his father and mother, incidentally, seem clearly drawn in a novel, Portofino {NY: Macmillan, 1992}, which is an interesting account.) Frank’s spiritual quest brought him to Orthodoxy, which he now believes, as a result of historical and theological study, is the true Church of Jesus Christ.

Part One of the book deals with “the age of false religion.” Here Schaeffer discusses the culture wars which polarize Christians and secularists. Needless to say, he thinks the secularists have largely won and now occupy positions of strategic strength.

Much that he says here was anticipated by one of C.S. Lewis’s incisive remarks in a 1954 letter: “‘I do think the State is increasingly tyrannical . . . {it} exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good–anyway, to do something to us or make us something. Hence the new name “leaders” for those who were once “rulers.” We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.'” (p. 27).

The secularism which strides triumphantly under the guise of the therapeutic state came to power, Schaeffer argues, as a consequence of the “reductionistic rationalism” launched by Reformers such as Calvin. Protestant reformers didn’t reform the Roman Catholic Church. They “created a rival Augustinian religion” which overemphasized original sin, predestination, justification by faith, etc. In denying freedom of the will, in desacramentalizing worship (and thus creation), in making faith purely subjective and individualistic, in creating pluralistic religious communities, the Reformers unwittingly sowed the seeds of destruction for Western Civilization.

Consequently, there is little coherence to what we call “Christianity,” especially in America with its plethora of denominations and entrepreneurs. Everyone seems to decide for himself what constitutes the Faith. “Once it had been held by all Christians that one’s Christian life rested on three equally important sustaining legs, much like a three legged stool. The first was adherence to changeless doctrine. The second was moral behavior. The third was participation in sacramental worship. These three interlocking facets of the Christian life were understood to provide the basis for how one went about being a Christian, as opposed to merely saying how one became a Christian” (p. 127).

The legs of the stool have been strangely warped (if they still stand at all) in many “Christian” groups. Thus there has developed an amorphous “civil religion,” a political creed which carries with it a certain religious mood. Some of this took place as revivalists such as Charles G. Finney injected social reforms into their religious movements. Some of it occurred as politicians such as FDR devised “new deals” which stirred religious currents in adherents’ souls, allowing folks to feel righteous by supporting (usually with other folks’ money) entitlements for social justice. Lost in the process was the historic faith, the Church established by Christ and His Apostles.

What’s been largely lost in the West, Schaeffer argues, has been preserved in the East. Here, he says, in Part Two of the book, one finds the ancient truths of the “authentic orthodox faith”–the apostolic doctrines, the unchanged sacramental form of worship, the traditional standards of morality, which have always characterized true Christianity. Here he summarizes material found in works such as Ware’s The Orthodox Way, accurately explaining basic tenets of the faith.

Importantly, especially to us in the Wesleyan tradition, he stresses that Christians are not merely forgiven. If they’re real believers, they’re in the process of spiritual transformation. Too often Protestants have equated conversion with salvation, while in fact they’re fundamentally different. Conversion starts the process of salvation, but “We are taught by the Church that the crown of salvation goes only to those who finish the race, not to the so-called Elect or to those who merely believe they are ‘born again,’ regardless of the content of their characters or actions” (p. 254).

Though admitting Orthodoxy’s own unique problems, Schaeffer urges spiritual pilgrims to find their way home, to the “Orthodox Faith.” It’s the true Church, the presence among us of the ancient Truth. In the process, he hurls anathemas against the Reformed Protestants his father represented–and Roman Catholics of the liberal American sort. His turn to Orthodoxy (like Thomas Howard’s turn to Roman Catholicism), it seems to me, helps us understand something of what’s lacking in American evangelicalism. However, I suspect that many who know Orthodox congregations would doubt that tradition contains the answer for Christian faith in this nation.

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Schaeffer has joined a uniquely American form of Orthodoxy, the Evangelical Orthodox Church of America, which was formed a few years ago by some veterans of Campus Crusade for Christ who sought a more traditional structure for ministry and ended up joining Orthodoxy. One of the leaders of that movement, Peter E. Gillquist, wrote Designed for Holiness: God’s Plan to Shape and Use You for His Kingdom (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, c. 1986). (He first published the book in 1982, entitling it Why We Haven’t Changed the World). The revised edition reflects Gillquist’s embrace of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Gillquist tells his own story as the book opens. Joining Campus Crusade as a college senior, he aggressively evangelized university campuses for a decade. “My passion was to see the world changed for the good–for God” (p. 5). While individual “decisions” routinely occurred, while hundreds “accepted” the Lord after assenting to questions posed by the “four spiritual laws,” the “world” seemed largely unaffected. Gillquist increasingly sensed that the world needed to see “holiness and righteousness” (p. 9) in churches which instead seemed to delight in celebrating the fact that their adherents are “not perfect, just forgiven.”

Sitting next to a Christian psychologist on a plane, he recorded his observation: “‘Ten or twelve years ago, most Christians I knew were so bound up and legalistic, I found myself talking to them almost exclusively about freedom in Christ. Today, just a decade or so later, evangelicals are so licentious and self-seeking, I find myself giving them boundaries from God’s Word. I have concluded that we must never divorce the righteousness of he Law from the freedom of the gospel–and we have done it. either one by itself is meaningless and will lead to error'” (p. 29).

Preaching, believing, living what Bonhoeffer accurately labeled “cheap grace” has produced a parody of Christianity–a lukewarm, lackluster religion which allegedly worships a “holy God” with less than holy resolve.

So Gillquist launched a search for holiness. In his judgment, holiness is “a forgotten theme” in many evangelical circles, some of which prefer to portray the Way of Christ as a “party” or “dance,” discounting the spiritual disciplines while claiming the gratuitous gift of an “abundant life” (p. 66). His search necessarily took him “beyond ‘positional truth'”–the pervasive Protestant message of sola gratia which tends to require nothing of believers but a moment of assent to such diluted definitions of faith as Tillich’s “accepting the fact that you are accepted.”

To those who believe we are “holy” by virtue of our “position” in Christ, Gillquist argues: only those who are truly transformed, only those who are regenerated as well as justified, deserve the label “Christian.” Being “born again” is fine, for the Christian life must in fact begin at some point. But the really important question is where we end up! More important than beginning is finishing! Thus we validate our faith as we “fight the good fight,” and “finish the race,” as we become truly Christ-like. Holiness is not something gained by-and-by when death has detached us from a sinful body. Holiness is not something imputed to us by Christ’s blood. Holiness is a cleansing of sin, the result of God’s grace imparted to us by the Holy Spirit.

“Therefore,” Gillquist concludes, “the Scriptures teach, and we must conclude, that personal holiness is no option for the Christian. It is a necessary part of the life we have in Jesus Christ. Without it, we will not see the Lord. All that is necessary for our righteousness has been made available by God Himself. We are left lacking in no way. We simply need to walk, in obedience of faith, in what He has told us to do and to be” (p. 86).

This is what the Church, traditionally, has taught. Gillquist continually quotes Early Church Fathers, Councils, Creeds. To be authentically Christian, one must conform to the ancient deposit of faith. While modern American Evangelicals may fear the notion of “tradition,” we all follow it. The only question, of course, is which “tradition” we make normative. For some of us, tradition is what has emerged in the past five years since we started a house church and fallen into predictable routines. For others, tradition is what has shaped the life and liturgy for centuries of the faithful. At the heart of the most ancient Christian tradition lies the formula of faith set forth at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Those churches which regulate their doctrine in accord with Nicea rely upon its summary in their interpretation of Scripture. Gillquist has found, in the ancient teachings of Orthodoxy, the call to holiness he failed to find in American evangelicalism.

We in the holiness tradition can learn much from this book. Its call for seriously following the spiritual disciplines, its commitment to a community-rooted rather than individually-advanced hermeneutic, its openness to the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, all make it largely compatible with the Wesleyan perspective.

* * * * *

St Augustine once said “He who is not spiritual in his flesh becomes carnal even in his spirit.” One of Eastern Orthodoxy’s strengths is its constant concern for sanctifying all realms of reality, making holy the most mundane of events. Thus marriage, as Paul Evdokimov makes clear in The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, c. 1985), is considered an important sacrament in Orthodox tradition.

In its profoundest sense, “Sanctification is the action of the Spirit who brings about the miraculous birth of Christ in the depth of the soul” (p. 35). According to The Orthodox Confession, a sacrament is defined as “a holy action through which the invisible grace of God is given to the believer under the visible sign” (p. 124). A Christian marriage is, as Clement of Alexandria said, a “House of God,” a holy place where God accomplishes his sanctifying intent in men and women.

Created by Love, called to love, we find in the marital bond the finest arena for spiritual perfection. Christian husbands and wives rightly pray “Grant, O God, that by loving one another we may love you” (p. 67). In marriage we find a holy place where we have opportunity to become people of character, virtuous persons.

In the words of Pius XI, “‘{love} must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue; . . . this mutual inward molding of husband and wife . . . can in a very real sense . . . be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony'” (p. 45; quoting the encyclical On the Christian Marriage).

To become godly, to be fully conformed to Christ, we must fully surrender our will to God’s. God sanctifies those who fully surrender themselves to Him. The surrendered will is the open door through which God enters to accomplish his saving, sanctifying intent. As St Maximus the Confessor said, “‘The Spirit begets no will that resists Him. He transfigures by deification {theosis} only the will that desires it'” (p. 55).

Thus our calling as Christians involves the renunciation of self. In a sense, any vocation demands the renunciation of self, the total giving of oneself to something higher than the insular self. Our calling as husbands and wives also demands self-surrender, surrendering our will, learning to serve our spouse or children. Meeting others’ needs, not having one’s own needs met, makes marriage good. Doing so enables us to contribute to the synergistic work of salvation God seeks to accomplish within us.

Endokimov’s treatise enables us to understand what marriage as sacrament means to the Orthodox. It further helps us understand how sanctification is stressed by writers who seek to show how the Holy Spirit imparts grace to believers. The book also includes the (lengthy) liturgy of the marriage service.


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