Archive for the ‘Soteriology’ Category

Eastern Orthodoxy, Participation, and Theosis.

July 31, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve spent a lot of time this last week or so reading up on Eastern Orthodox theology – I’ve been reading bits of Bishop Kalistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Way,” Paul Valliere’s “Modern Russian Theology,” along with the “Cambridge Companion to Christian Orthodox Theology.”

One of the things that strikes me about the Orthodox tradition is the thoroughly ontological (or metaphysical) emphasis in all aspects of it’s theology. Central to Orthodox theology, it seems, is an “ontology of participation,” that is, a view according to which all things that exist have their being insofar as they participate in God’s essential being. This ontology figured prominently in the writings of the early church fathers and permeates all of Orthodox teaching – from creation and the imago dei, to sin, and ultimately salvation.

According to the early fathers of the Eastern church, “man is a microcosm, a summation of the composition of the created world.” Human beings, as both spiritual and physical, mirror the whole of reality as heaven and earth. This ontology of man is important to how the Orthodox tradition sees man’s role in salvation – as mediator between heaven and earth. “The ‘priestly’ vocation that is common to all humanity is to offer up all of creation to God. Inasmuch as we sin in any way, we fail in this vocation, and the whole of creation suffers as a result.” (CCCOT, p94).

Augustine is often credited with having identified evil as “the privation of being.” When asked “Where is evil then, and whence, and how crept it in hither?” Augustine’s answer was, “Evil has no positive nature, but the loss of good has received the name evil.” However, Athanasius had already articulated this view when he said, “Now reality is the good, unreality what is evil.” Both of these views are informed by an ontology of participation. Because all things are good only insofar as they participate in the goodness of God’s being, evil is then a falling away from God’s goodness.

What’s interesting is the ontological depth this gives to Orthodox soteriology. Granted, Orthodox soteriology is, like the rest of Orthodox theology, content to leave mystery as mystery. There is in Orthodox theology, none of the frantic compulsion that surrounds Western attempts to pin down the true nature of salvation to a single dimension – e.g., is salvation a matter of deification, divine illumination, freedom from captivity, is it achieved through the incarnation, the crucufixion, the ressurection, or adherence to Christ’s teachings, is it mediated through the church? The Eastern tradition sees these different aspects of salvation as interdependent, indeed as revealing a single reality. They are only separate in human logic. Thus, when Orthodoxy emphasizes a particular strand of the multidimensional reality of salvation, it is not to the exclusion of other important aspects. For instance, it is often assumed by those in the West that the Orthodox church rejects “transactional” concepts in soteriology such as bondage and debt, divine ransom, atonment and redemption. But this is not the case. What the Eastern church rejects are later “substitutionary” models of the atonement according to which God demands the sacrifice of His son as repayment for His defiled honor. Not only is this a distorted portrayal of God’s character from the Eastern perspective, but it also undermines the comprehensive work of God in Christ and the spirit for the salvation of the world (i.e., the multidimensionality of savlation).

The ontological depth that makes Orthodox soteriology different from Western views, is distilled in the Eastern church’s teachings on “theosis,” or “deification.” First and foremost, salvation has to do with the reconciliation of God and creation, through the mediating role of the central creature, the human being. The doctrine of theosis signifies a single aspect of this reconciliation: it is salvation as union. In my experience many westerners have trouble with the idea (or at least the language) of “deification.” Theosis is simply conformity to Christ, it is created being’s participation, by grace, in what Christ participates in by nature: God’s work, will, light and glory. It is the gift of participation in the life of God.