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.”


Casey Rycenga said...

Well done, Ben. Its been a while since I flexed my theological muscles like that. I had one thought that stood out for me. If we are continually trying to discover what it means to be Christ-like, or holy, pure, ect., then in the same token, is God the father continually trying to understand better what its like to be human? Could this be a Biblical concept? I like the picture that it presents because it reminds us to have compassion for the people who aren't committed to Christ, and to be as empathetic as possible.


coach d said...

Kudoes for that helpful reminder of a very Wesleyan approach... enjoyed it!

Scott David Hendricks said...

Ben, while I'm not sure that any Western theologian would say that Christ would have come even if we had not fallen, the general position of the Catholic church before and after the Protestant Reformation is that Justification is not just forensic, but entails inner renewal as well . . .

I don't pretend to know all the origins of forensic justification, but I surmise Martin Luther had something to do with it, with "faith alone" and his belief that we sin mortally even when we do good works. Anyways, forensic justification was entirely Protestant, NEVER Catholic. I think you will even find this the case in the canons of Trent.


Ben Robinson said...


While I don't know what the Eastern Fathers would say to whether God is continually discovering more of what it means to be human, I am inclined to think they would not understood the glorified state of Christ this way. Humanity was created to advance further into the divine life and participate in the divine energies. The Son taking on flesh was so that we might be able to engage in such participation. Therefore, it is part of our role to be continually growing in our participation in the divine essence. We can not fully participate because we are creatures and the creator is infinite. Considering we are not infinite or necessary beings I would think it unlikely that God would be continually understanding better what it means to be human.

But then again, I may be wrong. :) I also cannot speak on behalf of the Eastern Fathers; this is merely speculation on my part.

Ben Robinson said...


While Roman Catholicism has tended to better emphasize the therapeutic aspect of salvation, they have still operated primarily from a legal foundation. Even at the Council of Trent one of the most significant debates was over the subject of justification. The conclusion was the God infused the righteousness of Christ in order that we may be justified. One of the questions addressed was how humanity can be justified in a way that does not seem to "deceive" God. Justification, in a sense, is the foundation for Western soteriology and subsequent transformation, while it may hold importance (and significant importance in many Western ideologues) still tends to be somewhat secondary.

For example, some recent Lutheran studies have shown Luther's theology to be more sympathetic to Eastern therapeutic concerns. However, Luther still has a very forensically focused soteriology. Reformed theologians have perhaps emphasized the most this legal terminology of salvation.

In contrast, for a theologian such as Wesley, justification was more the gateway into sanctification. His emphases lie in therapeutic concerns (as the East) and therefore while he retained the language of pardon and so forth for justification, justification was not the epitome of salvation. In fact, Wesley even spoke of justification in such a way as to in a sense delineate between initial and final justification. Final justification was contingent upon our continual response to the Spirit following initial justification.

David Drury said...

In the split between East and West that you mention, I've tended to side with the West Coast, including Warren G, Tupac, et al. But I digress.

Great to get your thoughts on this and it was nice to get the "devotional version" here at staff prayer meeting too. Keep up the good thinking and writing!

PS - have you read John's piece on Barth's treatment of Hebrews -- here I'm thinking primarily the introduction where he talks about the selection of biblical images to communicate the meaning of the cross?

Here's the link if not: http://www.drurywriting.com/john/Priest%20Sacrificed%20in%20Our%20Place.htm


Scott David Hendricks said...

Ben . . . you're a GOOD THINKER. Kudos.

You are right--as I have been reading more and more modern Catholic theology, it is evident that justification happens likely not only once, but many times in a persons life. Indeed, every time one receives the sacrament of confession he is justified. This is because, of course, that persistence in mortal sin is as good as a ticket to damnation according to Catholic thought. However, this not only implies that sin opposes God and his moral law, but also that to sin mortally is to fall from sanctifying grace, the Holy Spirit's work in us. Not every sin, said Trent, would make you lose your faith, but every sin was a sin against grace and charity. I personally appreciate the seriousness with which sin is treated.

I wonder, do you know if the Eastern Orthodox are less categorical and exact when it comes to the eternal consequences of sin? I don't believe they make the mortal/venial distinction, so do they not warn so much against the possible consequences of one sin?

Thanks for writing and thinking.