Some friends who heard that I had become Orthodox but who are unfamiliar with what the Eastern Church believes asked if I might explain something of our faith. I in no way want to enter into a debate, nor do I want to be critical of views that may be important to someone reading this. Nor do I presume to speak for the Orthodox Church on matters of faith. Instead, I want to share some things I've discovered as I have pondered the faith of the Orthodox for the past 17 years.
My conversion to the Orthodox Church was a surprise to me. Given that I had invested my entire life to a particular understanding of Christianity and to a particular career within that understanding, for much of my life I would have considered it lunacy to give it all up in order to become Orthodox. Cocooned by my upbringing, my Christian experience as an American southerner and my career choice as a Protestant clergy person, I was ignorant of the Orthodox Church until I turned 37. I assumed it was an eastern version of Roman Catholicism. To my surprise, I began to discover that all of my assumptions, and what little thinking I had done about them, were mistaken. All I can say is that the more I learned about the Orthodox Church, its history, its theology and its unbroken connection to earliest Christianity, the more attractive and, indeed, compelling it became. In fact there is too much to tell about that journey in such a short piece. What I want to do here instead is explore several of the most important themes within Orthodox theology, and relate how these ancient but new-to-me ideas went a long way towards transforming my understanding of the Gospel, and indeed, my life.
The Eastern Church has always understood salvation to be a process. Nobody is in a position to say that he or she has been saved; rather, we say that we are being saved. This is because in the Eastern Church, salvation is not understood as a resolution of one’s legal problems before God. That is not to say that forgiveness is not important in the East. Rather, the Orthodox understand the predicament facing humanity to be even worse. First, because of our sin against God and against each other, we have broken our relationships and we are alienated from each other and from God. Secondly, our choices to sin, to live for ourselves – our choices not to love – have corrupted our character and marred our ability to live the life our Creator intended us to live. And thirdly, our sin not only corrupts our character; our sin has brought death into our lives and the cosmos as a whole.
The salvation undertaken by Jesus in His incarnation, his life, His death on the cross, and His resurrection provides the antidote to the deadly poison sin releases into our lives. Sin is not so much a judicial issue as it is a relational crisis. Our repeated decisions to sin destroy our relationships. And the salvation brought by Christ provides the way that our sin may be forgiven and for our relationships to be restored. Jesus comes to heal our broken relationship with God and our broken relationships with each other. To this end, in love, Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice for our sins - Jesus’ death on the cross becomes the sacrifice through which forgiveness comes. We are forgiven by God the Holy Trinity. A new relationship with God is made possible. Our decision to respond by repentance is our movement into that new relationship. And having been reconciled with God, we are able then to forgive and be reconciled with each other. Salvation is thus experienced in our relationships. What was wounded, estranged and broken before becomes increasingly healed and whole by God’s grace.
But salvation also involves the transformation of our character, that is, our true selves, into the very likeness and image of God. What in the West is understood as sanctification and union with Christ, in the East is known as theosis. We were created in the image and likeness of God. Theosis is the restoration of that image and likeness, the result of our increasing engagement with God in prayer and our increasing union with God in our discipleship. This engagement in love with God heals the deformities caused and inflamed by our sin. We become increasingly like Christ, just as we will ultimately be transformed to be like him in every way, excepting his divinity, in the age to come.
Thirdly, salvation for the Orthodox means that the final enemy – death itself – will be destroyed. At present, every single person dies and endures the destruction of his or her body. As human beings, we were created as a union of physical and metaphysical, as both a soul and a body together. Death breaks the bond between soul and body and renders us naked, as St. Paul says, stripped of our earthly tent. Jesus conquered death by His own death, giving life to those in the tombs because death could not hold the Second Adam, the Man who was also God and the Author of Life. Jesus released the Old Testament saints from death’s power and then Himself rose from the dead, the ‘first fruits’ of what will be the experience of every single person created by God. We will all rise again and stand before Christ Himself to give account of what was done while we were ‘in the body’.
These brief paragraphs hint at the direction taken by the Orthodox understanding of salvation. I found this compelling for two reasons. First I found that these were the same issues that concerned the Apostles and Jesus Himself as they proclaimed and explained the Gospel in our New Testament. But I also felt that these were the same issues that I myself struggled with, and that the good news held forth in the gospel was not just for some ‘pie in the sky bye and bye’. Instead the Gospel touched me where I needed to be touched right now and right here, and gave me hope in the face of my own set of griefs and brokenness. And though even a cursory inspection of my life would make it impossible for me to say ‘I am saved’, I can sing and shout for joy that the process of my being saved is underway by His grace, glory to God!
A second aspect of Eastern theology that I found challenging and transformational is the Eastern understanding of the Trinity. In the Eastern Church, the Holy Trinity is the central dome of the cathedral of Christianity, encompassing everything under its expanse and grandeur. Everything is touched and transformed by the Eastern teaching on the Trinity, from anthropology to salvation, and from worship to ecclesiology. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit may in their essence be beyond knowing, but the Three who are One have revealed themselves to be the essence of love. The fundamental principle of God in the East turns out not to be ontological in nature, but relational. Thus, when one reads the creation accounts in Genesis, the issue that concerns the author is not the age of the universe, nor is the issue what the nature of a ‘day’ might be. What emerges from the text itself is a God, motivated by love, creating in love a universe and world that are intended to reflect his love. We learn in the very first chapter that God is in fact plural, and that God’s plurality will become the template of human existence. And just as love can only exist when there is another, so the plural God creates humanity in ‘our’ image. The result is that ‘man’ is created male and female – a plurality, a community, just like God. The plurality of humanity reflects the plurality of God. And as humanity shares God’s ‘image and likeness’, so the love that characterizes God in God’s plurality is intended to characterize humanity’s relationships in humanity’s plurality.
God is love, and love requires the free choice of the lover to give him/herself to the beloved. In order for there to be a free choice, there must be a possibility for the lover to choose not to love the beloved, or for the beloved not to respond to the gift of love. This is in fact what God has done with us. We are created in the image and likeness of God. As such we are created with the capacity to love. We reflect the image of God when we choose to love. But we can also choose not to love. And it is this choice not to love that becomes the essence of ‘sin’. And it is living in a world that is increasingly characterized by the cumulative choices of people not to love, either God or other people, that the world, i.e. our culture becomes ‘fallen’.
While Jesus is the 2nd Adam and is God’s rescue mission to reclaim his sin-marred image, the Trinity is the relational model of what reclaimed humanity is intended to be. And given the catastrophe of what humanity became as choices not to love piled on, salvation is the restoration of God’s original intention for his creation. Salvation is ultimately the apocalypse—the unveiling of God’s renovation of the universe, and it begins with the transformation of our relationships through the Gospel.
Far from being a theological side show, in the East the Trinity is foundational to the doctrine of God, and to the doctrine of humanity, and to the doctrine of salvation, and to the doctrine of the end times. And a truly Trinitarian theology is a theology of love. As Christians, we are what we believe. And as love is the essence of who God is and what the Gospel is and what salvation does, the Apostle Paul rightly points out that wherever the Holy Spirit of God is at work, one can tell because love is the fruit produced. It therefore is not a difficult thing to determine if one is dealing with a Christian or not. As Jesus Himself says, you will know the tree by its fruit.