Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Communicatio Idiomatum: Salvaton by Participation

It is often bandied about by those who like to talk about theology, that while most Protestants understand Christ’s saving action to be that of substitutionary atonement (Christ took the punishment that I deserve), Orthodox Christians understand Christ’s saving action as the conquering of death. Most often, the writings of St. Irenaeus are used to support this contention. However, in reality Orthodox Christians are far too apophatic to let themselves be tied into such a narrow, either/or, understanding of a mystery that is beyond human comprehension. Yes, Orthodox Christians talk about the saving work of Christ as conquering death, but within the tradition there are also those who, like St. Paul, use substitutinary language—although this is generally understood metaphorically in reference to Old Testament sacrificial typology.

Another way the Church understands Christ’s work of salvation, a way that was emphasized by St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Palamas (and many others, but these two come to mind immediately) is communicatio idiomatum, exchange of natural properties. According to this way of understanding salvation, in Christ’s incarnation human nature (all human nature) changed. When Christ who is God, one of the Holy Trinity, joined himself to our nature, human nature became infused (by Grace) with divinity. By joining human and divine natures in his incarnation, Christ makes a path and shows a way for all humanity. Thus, for example, Christ’s conquering of death is significant not because Jesus arose from the dead as God , but because as the God-man Jesus arose from the dead. In Christ human nature conquered death; consequently, all human beings also have conquered death.

You might call this salvation by participation. Christ has participated in human nature, so all human nature has (again, by Grace) communicated in or exchanged or participates in the properties of Christ’s divinity. Everything that is Christ’s by nature is ours by Grace because Christ has taken on our nature. In a sense, this is a done deal, fiat accompli. No matter what any particular human being does or does not do, wants or does not want, human nature has been “joined to heavenly things” (as it says in the Divine Liturgy), and this reality influences everything. And yet, each human being also responds to this reality: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and will not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth come to the light” (John 3: 19-21). The light has come. The Grace of God has divinized human nature and those who do the truth come to the light, but those who are practicing evil hate the light.

Each human person is free. Really, it all now comes down to love. Do we love the light or the darkness? One of the biblical and central metaphors of the Christian relationship with God is that of Bride of Christ. And like in any marriage, it takes two to turn hell into heaven. When we love Christ, love the light, following joyfully his commandments, we are happily married to God in Christ. At death, a door opens and all of the passions, temptations, confusions and ignorances that made it difficult for us to fully express our love for Christ will pass away, and the little bit of heaven we experienced on earth will give way to the full embrace of the heavenly bridal chamber. If, however, we have hated the light, if we have refused to come to the light; then death will be a doorway into a hell unlike any imaginable, for all of the entertainments, distractions, excuses and accusations that we have used to shied ourselves from the presence of our loving heavenly spouse will disappear. Then only the light, the light that we cannot hide from, the light that we have hated, will shine brighter than the sun. The hell begun in this life will continue with unimaginable intensity in the next. It’s all a matter of what, or better, whom, we love.

Monday, February 22, 2010


In order to compete in the Olympics, athletes must have the right equipment: you can’t complete in long track speed skating wearing skates designed for short track racing. Expert skaters may debate among themselves which slight variations of, for example, the ankle support are optimal, but when it comes to basic distinctions between long track and short track skates, there is no debate. The difference between the skates is obvious to anyone who has seen both, and in order to compete in long track speed skating, you need long track skates. There is such a thing as the right equipment—you might even call it “ortho-quipment.”

If some inexperienced person wanted to give long track racing a try in short track skates, I’m sure he could make it around the track. In fact, if the person in the wrong skates is in great shape and he were racing me—even if I had the right skates on—he would probably lap me before the end of the race. I’m in terrible shape. Nevertheless, that fact that someone in very good shape wearing the wrong skates can race faster than someone in lousy shape wearing correct skates does not change the basic fact that the fast one is wearing the wrong skates. It only shows that the faster fellow has worked very hard to get in shape while I have been sitting at my computer all day writing blogs and sipping coffee. With the right skates, “ortho-skates,” the fast would be even faster.

As Orthodox Christians we celebrate our tenacity. We hold on to the right faith and accept no innovations. We proclaim the right faith: the truth declared and clearly articulated by the holy Fathers from the beginning. We accept the teaching handed down to us by men and women who by experience in the things of God were able to articulate differences between what are the right ways and what are inappropriate ways to talk about the Mystery of God’s appearing in the flesh, His life, death, resurrection, second coming and the fearsome last judgment. There is a right way to understand theology. “Experienced experts” through the ages have confirmed for us the Orthodox faith, and this is the faith that we hold. We are not at all shy about declaring our faith, nor are we shy about pointing out heterodoxy. There is right faith and there is other faith (hetero means “other”).

Having right faith is very important if we are going to grow in our relationship with God, repent of our sins, and increase in virtues and godliness. Just as athletes need the proper equipment to train and compete at their highest level, so Christians need right faith to grow well in the Christian life. But it is not enough merely to have right faith, just as it is not enough for an athlete merely to have the right equipment. If one is going to compete in athletics or grow in the Christian life, one must put on the equipment and get out and train.

Lent is a season of asceticism. It is the season of the year in which Christians force themselves to train a little harder—in fact, the Greek word askisis, where we get the word “asceticism” means athletic training. Orthodox Christians have an advantage in that we have inherited right faith from our forefathers: we have the correct equipment. But if we do not put on the equipment; if we do not put on mercy, gentleness and faith; if we do not control our habits, our speech, our eating; if we do not force ourselves to strive a little harder in prayer and repentance especially during this season of the Great Fast, then having right faith will not do us much good. Equipment is to be used just as faith is to be practiced. A faith that is not practiced is like skates that are never worn. Only when we put on our skates and start working our way around the track do we become athletes: just owning the skates means very little. So too, being Orthodox Christians has meaning only when we “put on” our faith and make an effort to live it every day.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Baptist to Emulate

Yesterday I visited The Rose of Sharon Baptist Church and Christian School. Holy Nativity is looking for church property, and The Rose of Sharon has just begun a new building project on a nearby piece of property; so I called up Pastor Dave to see if they are interested in selling their old property. They are, so yesterday Bonnie and I found ourselves guided by Pastor Dave on a tour of the Rose of Sharon facilities.

May God grant that all Christians be half as humble, honest and committed to selfless service to others as Pastor Dave is.

On 1.3 acres, The Rose of Sharon owns a worship space seating 225, a modest fellowship hall converted into a gymnasium of sorts, three modular classroom buildings, and a seven-bedroom house—all in good repair. When I first entered the lobby through the door under the sign that said “office,” I was immediately intimidated by the large rack of Chick Tracts next to the open window behind which the secretary sat. My mind was preparing me for an encounter with a harsh fundamentalist.

Pastor Dave looks like a Baptist pastor: a little past middle age, conservative hair, conservative clothing, conservative bearing. He was expecting us. After awkward introductions, he began to show us around. His speech was polite and matter-of-fact, focusing on size and space, heating and roofing, water and sewage. We worked our way from the worship space through the offices (a peek out the back door to point out the septic tank and field location), then on to the gymnasium-esque fellowship room where over a hundred local children gather every Friday evening for their AWANA (youth Bible memorization) program. Out another door, we went through the three classrooms full of signs of active learning. None of the teachers were talking. All of the students (1st through 12th grades) were busy with books or on computers or writing at desks or (especially some of the younger ones) on the floor steadily focused on something or another. The classrooms exuded a kind of creative disorder that said, “Were a little too busy learning right now to keep things straight and tidy.” The students and teachers smiled politely and stared as a stranger in a cassock walk through.

Then we looked at the basement of the house, where the school kept its library in three of the seven bedrooms. Pastor Dave told us that the original pastor had eleven children, thus the need for so many bedrooms. We took a look at the detached garage and storage sheds, packed with school and church miscellany. We couldn’t look at the lived-in part of the house, though, because the renter wouldn’t be home for another half hour. After a walk around the parking lot and the children’s play area, Pastor Dave invited us to wait with him, if we wanted to see the house. We took him up on the offer.

Back in one of the offices, we awkwardly tried to make small talk. I commented on the school, and he explained their individualized teaching/learning style. I mentioned that we had homeschooled our children. He asked about our family. I asked about his. Then he told us a little story. His wife thought she would never marry because a doctor had told her that she would never be able to have children. Pastor Dave, not knowing this (twenty some odd years ago), was frustrated that Fran, whom he loved and who seemed to love him, refused his proposal. Finally Fran told Dave that she was not able to have children. Dave said, “If God gives us children, it will be a miracle and a blessing, if God does not, it is because he has something better for us. I want you to marry me to be my life companion.” A year and half after they were married, Fran was pregnant with her first son. They have had five sons and four daughters.

“Wow,” I said, “you seem to be the perfect pastor for church with such an emphasis on children and youth.” This seemed to open his heart. He told me that the whole vision and focus of the church is on the next generation. The congregation is about 130 people, and together their commitment is to build strong families. (They also operate a family counseling center off site.) Over the past fifteen years, since they purchased this facility, they have not only functioned as a church, built a school and provided youth and family outreach programs, they have managed to raise enough money to buy a 4.3 acre property (about ten years ago) and now begin building a campus with a larger church, school and real gymnasium.

I asked him what they charge for tuition at their school. “$2400 per year,” he said.

“That’s cheap. How do you pay your teachers?”

“Our teachers get paid very little. They do it as a ministry. Everything we do is for ministry. If we don’t give everything to save our children, the church will die in one generation. “

I was struck by his calm earnestness and willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of his church’s continuity, for the sake of others. I was impressed by his ability to lead a small congregation in embracing such an unselfish vision.

We eventually saw the house, thanked Pastor Dave, and drove away. May God bless Pastor Dave and his family and his ministry. May God grant that Holy Nativity grow in godliness, generosity and vision; that the day will come when neighborhood youth will be gathering in our gymnasium, that busy students will be studying in our class rooms, and that daily Orthodox worship will be offered to the God who loves mankind.

Grant this O Lord!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Day of Judgment

Sunday is the Sunday of the Last Judgment. I struggle to help my people (and myself) keep the sense of Fear of God and the “fearsome Day of Judgment,” while not subscribing to the Medieval European mythologies (Danté, for example) and Scholastic understanding of judgment. Our culture sees judgment as a determination of guilt or innocence. The reality is that there is no determination. The whole world is already determined to be in sin, and already saved and forgiven by Christ’s death and resurrection. The final judgment is a revelation of what we have loved: darkness or light. If we have loved the darkness, it is because our deeds are evil and we do not want to come to the light so that our deeds will be revealed. Those who love the light, come to the light, confessing their sins, and their deeds are revealed as having been worked in God. (See John chapter three). St. Gregory Palamas says that the Matt. 25 passage on the sheep and the goats refers only to acts of mercy (instead of all the other virtues) because love (shown in acts of love) is the crown of all virtues, the roof on the temple of God. The foundation is Jesus Christ, the walls are the virtues (patience, self control, gentleness, meekness, etc.). Without the foundation, there could be no walls. Without the walls, there could be no roof. And without a roof, the foundation and walls are useless. Christ died in vain if I do not build on him a life of virtue and crown that life with love, love shown in acts of mercy, acts of love of neighbor. So the judgment of the walls and the foundation is the roof. I have a professional roofer in my church, and when we look at old buildings together, he can tell a lot about the condition of the walls and even the foundation just by looking at the roof. It is amazing, but he knows what he is looking for. So on the Last Day, God will just have to look at our “roof” and everything will be revealed. What we have loved (and do love) will be revealed by how we have loved the "least of these." May God have mercy on us on that fearsome Day.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Effective Evangelism, According to St. Isidore

Isidore was an Egyptian … the kinsman of the Alexandrian Patriarchs Theophilus and Cyril. Having studied all the secular disciplines, he renounced worldly riches and glory, and for the love of Christ he devoted himself completely to the spiritual life…. St. Isidore wrote: "It is more important to teach by a life of doing good than to preach in eloquent terms." And "If one desires that his virtues appear great, let him consider them small, and they will surely manifest themselves as great." St. Isidore’s rule of life was this: "First do and then teach, ac­cording to the example of our Lord Jesus" [Acts 1:1]…. Isidore took up his habitation in the Kingdom of Christ in about the year 436. [Adapted from The Prologue of Ohrid]