Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Salvation, East and West

In the last post about my faith journey, I described the theological controversy around the meaning of salvation by faith alone that I encountered while in college. Although I came to a few conclusions on the subject, I had not resolved it satisfactorily when I encountered the Eastern Orthodox church over 15 years later. The Orthodox ended up helping me see the question from a different perspective.

What I found was that Eastern Christianity was not so focused on sin and forgiveness as much as a new kind of life and the transformation of our natures. Salvation is a process called theosis, which is being changed from our fallen human condition into sons of God, brothers and sisters of our Lord, transformed into his image, and partakers of the divine nature. We enter into this new life by faith, but our initial response of faith is just the beginning of this life of transformation. We receive the Holy Spirit, who works in our spirits, and we commune with God through prayer. However, we are not just spiritual beings; we are also physical. Therefore God makes use of physical means such as the sacraments to transform us. Our changed nature is reflected in the way we live our lives.

In short, the life of discipleship is not optional for a Christian, but the very path of transformation that saves us from a life of self-destruction, and brings us into eternal life. Heaven is not so much a reward for believing the right thing, but the fulfillment and completion of a supernatural life that begins in this life. What I found in Eastern Orthodoxy was that faith, good works, the work of the Holy Spirit, and salvation, were all intertwined in a dynamic relationship with God.

I read a booklet by Bp. Kallistos Ware where he responded to the Evangelical question, "are you saved?" He said that he was saved by Jesus on the cross; he is being saved now as he grows in his relationship with Christ; and his hope is to experience the completion of salvation in heaven. Notice that heaven is his hope, not his guarantee. He knows that he freely entered into this relationship with Christ, and he could freely leave it, even as a bishop. Apostasy and turning to a life of sin is always a possibility for any Christian in this life, so we must be vigilant so that we don't drift away. Don't get me wrong, God does not easily let go of us; he wants our salvation more than we do. However, he does respect our free will, and it is possible for a Christian to get so caught up in the world and sin that he prefers it to God, and is in danger of destruction.

That's my quick sketch of the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation as I understand it. What surprised me years later was that this was very similar to the Catholic view. Indeed, the worldwide Catholic Church includes Eastern Catholic churches whose theology of salvation is no different than the Eastern Orthodox. When you get to Western Catholic theology, there is more of an emphasis on sin, punishment, and forgiveness. Western categories are more distinct, and Western theologians try to nail down answers to questions that Eastern theologians prefer to leave unanswered. Western theologians use the term "sanctifying grace" to talk about the presence of God that accomplishes theosis. They use the term "mortal sin" to describe the kind of act that completely kills our relationship with God, and "venial sin" to describe an act that damages but does not kill the life of God within us. Eastern Christians recognize both kinds of effects of sin, but they are reluctant to categorize things in that way.

Nevertheless, Catholic theology recognizes that we need the grace of God to forgive our sins and to lift us up into the life of God. We respond to God's work in us by faith, and so cooperate with him. In other words, God will not change us if we don't want him too. We, in ourselves, can add nothing to what God does, but we can say "yes" to the offer of Christ to live his life through us. As in the Eastern view, there are physical as well as spiritual means through which God works in us. Although there are lots of activities involved in the Catholic walk of faith, known as works of charity, they are all actually works of Christ, because it is Christ who does them through us.

Well, these are huge topics, which I've barely touched on. I hope, however, it clarifies things a little bit. Please feel free to ask specific questions, and I'll see if I can find some answers.

1 comment:

kkollwitz said...

This emphasizes the tragedy of the Schism.

As JP2 said, "Christianity has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them."