An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
A lengthy bit of theological pondering while riding the waves to work:
An Orthodox inquiring friend of mine has sent my theological thoughts flying in the direction of faith "vs." works. A topic to which I generally don't give a great deal of consideration. This is perhaps the case because in the Orthodox understanding of things the two are not mutually exclusive and are certainly not dichotomous. Not to mention, the issue is more recent to the theological memory of the western churches and I really do suspect that much of Protestant emphasis on faith over and above works is a knee-jerk and erroneous reaction to medieval Roman Catholic extremes in setting up a system of salvation that an accountant could appreciate.
Many efforts to “reconcile” St. James and St. Paul in such a context end up requiring some truly back-bending and circular reasoning. Looking back in time I suspect we AGers would simply say that works were a natural response to salvation and so whereas faith saves us (and, we must have also said, faith is NOT a work in and of itself but is the gift of the Holy Spirit), the evidence of saving faith is of course works. So, was I saved or not? Because good works never came “naturally” or should I say easily. It was always a struggle and as I read through the NT I saw unending exhortations to struggle and “work” and to do good and avoid bad. And, in fact, the existence of many of the epistles is attributable to the need for such exhortations. Many a late night was spent tearfully asking God to take away my inability to stop sinning. My good works were few and far between and I knew it, and so what could I do with what St. James was telling me? What had become of my “Blessed Assurance”? (Hmmm...contrary to the hymn, maybe I do not own Jesus?) I never could figure out what was meant by “working out your salvation with fear and trembling” despite all the fancy theological foot shuffling to make THAT one fit the mold. Anyway, this was the AG struggle I had...but in general, I think most Protestant struggle to some degree (often in slightly different ways since Scripture is so perfectly clear that dozens of different understandings of the intricate and technical workings of faith and works exist) with salvation being attributable to faith alone and yet works clearly being important for something, but NOT salvation.
I rather sense a need (product of the enlightenment perhaps) to define in the most precise and technical terms the process by which salvation functions. Who, what, where, and how am I saved? It’s like not being satisfied with the fact that your alarm clock wakes you up in the morning, one MUST come to an understanding of how the clock functions in intimate detail. This, I suppose, makes some sense depending on your understanding of what salvation is...literally.
Is salvation a legal contract, a fiscal ledger, or a relationship? If the latter, then I think it is obvious that seeking a system of functionality becomes absurd. Like seeking to understand what is the key "issue" with regard to your marriage working: is it faith in your spouse or is it works? One or the other...choose. If salvation is a legal contract then it makes sense to argue and debate about how that contract is fulfilled, but if it is a relationship then it becomes something that the functionality of which encompasses many things and it becomes silly - even insulting - to try and nail down the technical details. It's like science trying to tell me that my love for my wife is all about biochemistry. Salvation, like any relationship, is REAL, it is not a subjective agreed upon and contracted pseudo-reality. In other words, the little article of paper from the state of Washington truly says nothing about the reality of my marriage.
Works being included in the process of salvation is NOT about keeping score, it is about being in a relationship - we do things to maintain a solid relationship with our spouses - we hopefully do not have a secret tally sheet whereby we are able to keep score. We cannot quantify a relationship...this is the mistake we would say was paramount in western RC thought with notions of indulgences and purgatory all representing sin and holiness quantified.
God will do (or did?) what is impossible for us to do, while we must do what is possible for us to do. It's really rather simple isn't it? What is so difficult to understand here? There is no war between faith and works, unless one overemphasizes one at the expense of the other.
Consider context in Scripture. In my protestant hermeneutics class I was indeed taught that context is important in interpreting Scripture, but I wonder if this was really a bit of lip service to the notion. The New Testament is not and indeed was not intended to be a systematic theology or a sort of “summa theological”, but alas many Christian sects treat it as such. Thus, when St. Paul writes to the Romans and Ephesians about how your good works cannot save you, we might forget that he may very well have been addressing a specific problem in the Churches of Rome or Ephesus or wherever. In other words, like in so many other places he may have been correcting an error that had developed or a controversy to which we simply are not privy. Was someone in Rome or Ephesus overemphasizing works? Or perhaps was pride creeping in such that St. Paul had to remind them that “no man may boast.” Similarly, perhaps St. James was addressing a problem in which the importance of works was being negated?
I, for one, cannot read the New Testament and fail to see the importance of our cooperation with God. I think that too often with Protestants there is an assumed foundation which they set up (based - they say - on the Bible) and then the New Testament is made to fit it, in some cases the fit is perfect and in some areas it doesn't seem quite as good a fit and thus the founder gets out his crowbar and duct tape and forces it into place. A little bit of caulk and paint and you can hardly notice the contortions that had to be done to make it fit. Better to make such contortions than to assume the foundation was wrong to begin with. I've no qualms in saying, that with regard to Orthodoxy I have never seen the New Testament makes so much collective and overall sense...a perfect unity that requires very little explanation or philosophical loop-de-loops, caulk, or paint.
So many of the pages of the NT are wasted space if their words of exhortation to DO SOMETHING are meaningless. Like the woman with the “issue of blood”, her faith may have healed her, but it was intimately and inescapably connected with her reaching out and touching Him. She worked...her will and her body conformed to the will of God.
God has no interest in a marriage contract or a pre-nuptial agreement which act “as if” we have a relationship. He wants a REAL relationship with us and since we are not automatons, clearly we are involved. Salvation implies a real ontological change in our being and in our nature, not a change in legal status. Christ has renewed us so that we are no longer slaves to sin, but made alive in Him. This is the new life to which we are raised and the western theologians of all breeds may bicker and argue and try to label the Orthodox understanding over it all, but it seems clear to me that I have work to do...with fear and trembling – a verse that makes a good deal of sense to me now and the theological loop-de-loops are no longer necessary in this new (actually old) context of understanding (more accurately: experiencing) salvation.
The best way to begin reflection on the supposed "dilemma" of faith "versus" works is at the beginning.
What is God's original intention in creating anything at all, including us? Is it so that He might forgive us of our sins, thus constituting something called salvation? No. It is that the entire cosmos, with mankind as its crown, would come freely into life union with Him. God's original, and ultimate intention then, is theosis.
Clearly, Adam's fall into sin requires treatment. However, IT DOES NOT CHANGE GOD'S ORIGINAL AND ULTIMATE INTENTION. Sin, which is essentially death (i.e., separation of that which belongs together) at every level of our being, requires a change of God's method, but it does not change the purpose for which God created in the first place.
The non-Orthodox paradigm is juridically rather than onotologically qualified. Thus, the relationship of faith and works is cast in the form of a false dilemma, chiefly because the word "works" is interpreted from the viewpoint of MERIT rather than SYNERGY (cooperation). Historically, this is understandable because of Luther's combat with the papal abuses of his day, but theologically, it is one of the greatest of all tragedies that have befallen us because it operates on premises that are limited at best and false at worst.
In the ontological paradigm, the sin-death complex has disordered the relationship between the spirit, soul (mind), and body, such that the body and the passions are in the driver's seat, with all the consequences that we all know so well. What is needed, then, is not so much forgiveness for legal infractions (although we certainly are forgiven), but a CHANGE OF BEING. This change of being is available only in and through the Body of Christ (as Eucharist) becoming active in the bodies of the faithful. Why is this? Because the Incarnate Son assumed, not an individual human nature, but generic (or Adamic) human nature, and in that very nature, He overcame the triple barrier of nature (in the Incarnation), sin (in His crucifixion), and death (by His resurrection). And it is just His ascended, glorified human nature that He feeds us with in the Divine Liturgy.
Now, this is very important to get across to both Roman Catholic and Protestant inquirers into Holy Orthodoxy: Every so-called church other than authentic Orthodoxy teaches that death is a just (and infinite!) sentence inflicted by God upon man's finite sin. Therefore, in these heterodox systems, whatever is called salvation essentially denotes a change, not in man's very being, but in God's attitude toward man. You hear it all the time: Grace is God's passing from righteous wrath to unmerited favor, because of the work of Christ. Well, that sounds good to a lot of people, but it's false. There is (and can never be) change in God. This is also why forgiveness cannot be seen as the center of salvation, considered from the viewpoint of God's original and ultimate intention. Why? Because one can be forgiven (since this depends only upon the forebearance of God) WITHOUT ACTUALLY EVER SHARING GOD'S VERY LIFE. Forgiveness is to theosis what showering is to putting on wedding garments. What numbskull would think that taking a shower is sufficient preparation for going to a wedding feast?
You mention the observation of context as a necessary element in biblical interpretation, and so it is. Well, then, the works that St. Paul criticizes, chiefly in Romans and Galatians, are of the Pharisaical kind, which are bound up with the idea of merit, which shaped a lot of later Christian heterodoxy because of the unfortunate influence of Tertullian.
On the other hand, the faith that St. James criticizes is not really faith in the N.T. sense, but fideism (faith in faith). That is, it is not faith "alone" that saves, but faith in Christ. And strictly speaking, it is not even faith in Christ that saves, but CHRIST WHO SAVES THROUGH FAITH, AND THE ONLY AUTHENTIC FAITH IS THAT WHICH WORKS THROUGH LOVE. Everything else and everything less is mere mental data to which we happen to ascribe, but that's not the change of being that God has intended from the very beginning, and therefore, it is not salvation as such.
One other thing occurs to me in this context. From time to time, we meet people who quite honestly believe that all religions basically teach the same thing. Well, if we read Fr. Hierotheos Vlachos very carefully, we'll know how to answer this tragically mistaken opinion. Fr. Hierotheos denies that Christianity is a "religion," if by religion we basically mean a method devised by mankind for the appeasement and/or manipulation of a deity. The heterodox judicial view of the atonement is an instance of this, surprising though it may seem, because the crucified human nature of Christ is still seen as a propitiating sacrifice offered from man's side in order to "change" God's mind.
No: The only way to answer the opinion that all religions are basically the same is to say something along the lines of, "Yes, all RELIGIONS might be essentially the same, but all REVELATIONS are not the same." Only authentic Christianity reveals the Holy Trinity in the Incarnate One's baptism and transfiguration, and if a so-called religion does not reveal the Holy Trinity, it does not reveal God, because the Trinity is not merely the "Christian theory" of divinity over against Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, or some other -ism; the Trinity is who God is. If we do not end up knowing the Trinity, or more accurately, if we do not end up being taken up into the life of the Trinity, nothing else matters.
Thanks so much for your discourse on this issue! Well said...
However, having parents that are entrenched Protestants of the Evangelical variety, I can say that your words would only further entrench them. Only until my parents come to grips with the fact that healing is needed for the soul afflicted by passions, they will never become Orthodox! They are perfectly fine with the formula: saved by grace + faith = salvation. Christ has done all the work, they just need to believe. I have tried, on many occasions(I don't anymore) to see the shortcomings of this, but to no avail. Until they themselves become dissatisfied, they will never change their thinking; of course!
For myself, I became disenchanted by that formula; it wasn't helping me to become a better person. I was "saved", but my attitudes never changed. How could this be if I was "saved". Something miraculous should have happened. Sure, I had zeal when I became born again, but like the seed that is thrown into the thorns, or the seed that had no foundation, I dried up. Only until I desired more did I pursue Orthodoxy.
All this to say that your discussion here clarifies many things but that is because I have open ears. How to reach those fellow Christians who don't, that is the question.
I'm just recasting what I've learned from my mentors, but I'm glad this was apparently helpful. The paradigm shift from non-Orthodoxy to Orthodoxy is prodigious indeed. I suppose I can speak to it constructively because I had to claw and scrape my way out of the Tertullian-Augustine-Anselm-Aquinas mindset into that of the Greek fathers, especially the Cappadocians and Palamas.
As far as spending more time articulating this subject, I'd be happy to, and St. Paul's is moving toward adult classes of which such subjects will be among the offerings. I've already been asked to teach the key differences between Orthodox and non-Orthodox soteriology, for example. Other than that, I try to get the word out to anyone who will listen, but the problem is that lecturing someone for 30 minutes during coffee hour is hardly practical and, well, kind of cheeky, if you know what I mean.
The main things for us converts from non-Orthodoxy to remember is that (1) virtually everyone---even some so-called cradle Orthodox---has inherited the Jonathan Edwards Syndrome. That is, we congenitally think of ourselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God. With this as our presupposition, no wonder we can't figure out why the heck this very same God tells us to love our enemies, that He IS (rather than merely HAVING) love, and that the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son really mean what they say. If the prodigal had the view of his father that mainstream heterodoxy teaches about God, he would never have returned. Indeed, it would never have occurred to him; better the devil that you know, you know?
For me, this is where the rubber hits the road. It is why holy tradition, as no-doubt inadequately but nonetheless usefully expressed in dogma, is indispensable, but of course, dogma need not be expressed dogmatically; you know: By someone who speaks as though they have a copy of the Book of Life in their hip pocket. That being said, many people hate God because of what the "churches" have taught about Him. Therefore, the place to start with a lot of folks is to simply affirm that their instincts are correct: What they've rejected is not authentic Christianity in the first place. I know that this has a pathos all its own, but the denominational situation is not of our making, and at any rate, an unprincipled inclusiveness is no more of an answer than an arrogant triumphalism is. There just has to be a way to speak the truth in love. But for that to happen, there first must exist a truth worth speaking.
I also wanted to say that James has it right when he says that non-Orthodoxy tends to live in a kind of virtual, "as-if" reality. God treats me "as if" I'd never sinned. God regards me "as if" I'd been crucified, buried, and risen with Christ --- but for many evangelicals (including Baptists!!!), baptism doesn't actually accomplish this, but merely symbolizes what my personal affirmation has effected. And so on. Even the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14) and the virtues listed in the Beatitudes are virtualized such that Christ's possession of them is simply imputed to us regardless of our quite obvious lack.
Jared, you're right, too: Until and unless people feel a need, there's not much use in trying to convince them. However, apologetics is another matter. If they want to know why you're Orthodox rather than denominational or "non"-denominational Evangelical, there are lots of things you could say, depending on context.
My main hobby-horse is the judicial/virtual vs. the ontological/realistic view of redemption. For me, nearly all roads converge toward or diverge from here. While I realize that this can easily sound like an over-simplification, all classic forms of confessional heterodoxy teach that God the Father (or His wrath, or His righteous indignation, or His justice) is in some way the obstacle that must be overcome if salvation is to be had. It is authentic Orthodoxy alone that provides a radically different view.
The apologetic road has been well traveled with my parents. They have finally come to the conclusion that the "heart" of our faiths are identical; they just look different. We just pretty much don't discuss our faiths, which I think is very sad. I wouldn't be where I am today without my Christian and moral upbringing! They taught me to have faith in the one True God: the Holy Trinity! That is why I let the matter drop when they say we believe the same things. Even though I disagree, they have had a profound influence in my Christian life, and I thank God for that!
I love the story of the Bishop(I don't remember his name) who heard about three hermits who lived on an island. They were so isolated, that it had come to the Bishop's attention that they did not know the Lord's prayer or something like that. Anyway, he was determined to teach them the true Faith by visiting them and instructing them personally. He sailed to their remote island and taught them the Lord's prayer for many days, but to no avail! They couldn't remember it! He finally became impatient and left. When his ship was a ways out, the three lowly hermits were seen to be running on the water toward their ship! When they boarded, they entreated the Bishop to instruct them again because they forgot the Lord's prayer. He humbly bowed before them and told them to forget about it and to teach him!
We are all given a measure by God. How we live up to that measure is how we will be judged. This comforts me when I think of my parents. Even though they believe heretical teachings, they sincerely love God and I believe that God will honor that. I also think of those Christians that were never exposed to Orthodoxy. They work very hard, even though what they have been given isn't Orthodox. This really does show the mercy that our Lord and Savior has for each of us!
Brethren, I am reminded that in Orthodox ecclesiology, the Church doesn't "send" anyone anywhere --- namely, to Heaven or Hell. As Chrysostom says, the Church is the hospital for sinners. Hospitals don't send anyone anywhere; they administer treatment to those who have come to the place where they know they need treatment and will submit to it.
The eternal destiny of the non-Orthodox is not something I think about, for one simple reason: All human judgmentalism is pride, an attempt to validate ourselves and/or demonstrate our worth over against someone else --- all of which is definitely against the spirit of Orthodoxy. Making clear the claims and beliefs of Orthodoxy is one thing; pronouncing upon the saved status of other people, ONE WAY OR THE OTHER, is simply out of our province. Indeed, since we believe that salvation is a journey that includes purification, illumination, and theosis, rather than a once-for-all judicial divine pronouncement of "Not guilty", passing everlasting judgment on anyone at a particular historical moment is pure folly. Thus, I assume nothing about anyone, whether Orthodox or not, not even myself, because it is quite literally pointless to do so. It ain't over 'til it's over. That doesn't mean that we all "basically believe the same things, only different," or that there is no such thing as truth vs. error. It just means that it's crazy for me to make myself out to be the final arbiter of anyone's everlasting destiny. Orthodoxy teaches love for one's enemies, period. And if we are to love our enemies, that certainly embraces those who are not our enemies, per se, but simply disagree with us. Nor does loving either our sworn enemies or our peaceful theological opponents entail agreement; after all, we can love them all we want, but the fact will remain that we are out of communion with them. Either that means something important, or it does not. What it does NOT mean, however, is that we should hate them or put the worst possible spin on everything they think and do.
"If you, O Lord, would count our sins, who would survive?"