Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eastern Christian Soteriological Distinctive

Unfortunately we in the West have at times viewed salvation only in forensic or legal terms. We summarize the significance of the cross by saying that Christ died to forgive us of our sins and that by his death we are declared righteous. Our emphasis has been that Christ relieves us of our guilt and that he calls us righteous even though we are sinful and unclean. The problem with only speaking of the cross in this way is that we miss an integral and necessary component to salvation; that of healing. This is what I mean when I mentioned at the beginning the primary aspects of salvation being pardon and power. Yes, by Christ’s death we are pardoned and forgiven of our sins. But we are also freed from the power of death and sin. And we are not only declared righteous, but we are made righteous. This transformation that the Holy Spirit enacts in our lives by the work of Christ is not something that necessarily happens instantaneously; in fact, most of the time it does not. We are gradually being restored and brought to perfection by the continuing work of the Spirit in our lives and our continual response to that grace.

Eastern Christianity has much better captures this aspect of salvation. The Eastern Church Fathers taught that even if there had been no fall, the Son still would have had to take on human nature. Let me say that again: the Eastern Fathers taught that even if there had been no fall, the Son still would have to take on human nature. Let me explain. The Eastern Church has understood that when God created humanity, he did not created humanity in the ultimate state that we ought to be. We were created corruptible. We could fall and did. So even initial created humanity was not perfected. In order for humanity to become like God, which is one of the central aspects of salvation that we are to be made holy and changed unto the very likeness and image of God, God would have to become like us. Even without the fall the incarnation would still have to occur because we could not participate in the divine nature unless God participated in human nature. In other words, we could not be made like God unless God was made like us. The Eastern Church has considered one of the most serious consequences of the fall to be mortality. When Adam and Even sinned, death entered the world. So, because the fall introduced death into the world, Christ now had to die in order to fully participate in what it means to be human.

For this reason the Eastern Church has understood the therapeutic aspect of salvation much better than we in the West typically have. They understand that salvation is about setting us free from the bondage of death and is about healing our corrupted moral nature. It is not just about being forgiven, it is about being made into persons who so reflect the character of God that our future need of forgiveness is minimal. As the Church Father Athanasius said, “God became like man, so that we could become like God.”

Perhaps there would be no more fitting way to close than by quoting John Wesley himself, who understood the necessity of integrating both the pardoning aspect of salvation as well as the transformative aspect.

“By salvation I mean, not barely merely deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth. This implies all holy and heavenly tempers, and by consequence all holiness of conduct.”

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Nukes In North Korea

Last night I watched a special on "Nightline" regarding North Korean sentiment towards the United States and the North Korean nuclear programs. As I turned the TV off my mind was swirling and all I could think was, "what a sad world in which we live." Typically I desire to abstain from politically loaded discussions. For one, I only have remedial knowledge of politics. Secondly, more often it is necessary to emphasize the distinction between Church politics and American politics and therefore rarely do I compose pieces surrounding the U.S. political arena. But last night I was prompted to reflect upon this great country in which I live and the decisions we have made in recent years.

It seems to me that going to Iraq was wrongheaded from the get-go. Certainly the war can not be justified from a "just war" perspective and those of us who are more inclined toward the pacifistic end are even more skeptical of our invasion there. My concern, though, is not so much with whether we should have gone but rather with what our going has produced. The aftermath is what we will have to deal with for generations. After watching the program last night the inescapable conclusion is that much of the world hates America; and our going to war in Iraq has only further infuriated them. North Korean propaganda teaches that the U.S. were the initiating invaders in the Korean war and that North Korea stepped in to defend the Koreans. The Iraq war is simply another example of the United State's war-mongering (in their mind).

Of course, we haven't done much to detract from this perception. Bush's labeling of North Korea as part of the "Axis of Evil" was idiotic. This phrase is of course resonant of the Axis powers of World War II and who would not be enraged for being associated with those countries? So much for diplomacy. As childish as it sounds, the North Koreans were incredibly hurt by that labeling and it is not rolling off their backs. Bush's charge against them repeatedly surfaced in the interviews with North Koreans. They're deeply insulted; can we really be surprised?

Now I would never want to place the mantle of fault on Bush. In all honesty I do think he is generally a "good" guy. I do think he's been a part of some terrible decisions. Much of the Middle East hates us, and Iraq has not helped. We've given the terrorists further motivation for seeking to hurt us. We've ticked off countries who had no association with Iraq except that they despise the fact we invaded. Our arrogance will be our downfall; and North Korea has active short-range nuclear weapons on their launch pads. It takes most empires hundreds and hundreds of years to increase in arrogance to the point that they think themselves invincible. Let's be honest, we're already there after 230 years. We think we're the greatest while much of the world hates us.

As an American citizen this disturbs me. Yet I am thankful that my primary identity is not that of an American, but that of a Christian. As I have reflected upon our precarious political position with the rest of the world, my theological bearings have swung me around to reflect once again upon the American Church's alignment with America. This fourth of July also was a representation to me of the underlying problems that we create when we fail to distinguish between the Church and the United States.

I always have to be careful when I tread upon this slippery surface. I love the fact that I'm an American. I love that I live in a country where I have freedoms inaccessible to much of the world. I love that I can worship God without fear of persecution. But while I love the opportunities and freedoms awarded by this country I would be forsaking my true identity if I allowed myself to be so defined by this country. I think many of us Christians have forgotten this. We truly are American Christians rather than Christians who find their place of residence in America. The distinction is significant. American Christians are defined by the adjective American. Their identity as Christians is defined by their identity as Americans. Christians who live in America are ones who realize that their identity is defined by the Church and is expressed in the geographic area known as the United States. We blur this distinction when we allow so much of America into our churches, especially on days such as the 4th of July.

Some say that this is not that big of a deal. It's really a non-issue. Do we really do any harm by saying the pledge of allegiance in church? Do we really do any harm by inisting on having the American flag so central in our sanctuaries? I wonder if those questions would be answered differently by a German who still had the memories of the Nazi swastikas plastered in German churches. Perhaps they understand better the very real and significant dangers of so closely associating the Church with any political unit. Now I'm not suggesting that America is in anyway similar to the Nazi regime. However, what truly lies behind this issue is that of ecclesiology. What is the nature, identity, and mission of the Church? One of the reasons many American Christians fail to even question the aforementioned items in churches is because our ecclesiologies are greatly diluted or completely absent.

The Church is itself a polity. How can we stand inside a local church and proclaim allegiance to another polity that really is only related to the Church in the sense that the Church is located within its borders? Does anyone else see this as a conflict of interests? I feel the blood rush through me as I think of pledging allegiance to the American flag, in a church, while knowing that the political mess that America has made worldwide in recent years is nothing I want to condone or affirm. It is not our duty as Christians to place a blanket of confirmation on all that our nation does and stands for. It is our duty to visibly distinguish ourselves from our nation when our nation acts in ways that oppose the politics of the Church. Even when we attempt to qualify by saying that we truly are allied to the Church first, and the U.S. second we still have the tendency to not truly understand that. Making such a statement before pledging allegiance to the flag seems perhaps even humorous. The very presence of such an act is already evidence that we refuse to view the Church as autonomous from the nation in which we preside.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that we place such a great value upon celebrating our nation's "birthday" in our churches while we ignored the date marked by the Church as its own "birthday." We have truly lost our perspective.