Salvation


It remains spiritually impossible to talk of Hell for others. The theme of Hell can only be broached in the language of I and Thou. The threats in the Gospel concern me; they form the serious tragic element in my spiritual destiny; they prompt me to humility and repentance, because I recognise them as the diagnosis of my state. But for you, the numberless you of my neighbour, I can only serve, bear witness, and pray that you will experience the Risen Christ, and that you and everyone will be saved…

Olivier Clement quoted in Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church, 227.

Imitate God! If He willeth that all men should be saved, there is reason why one should pray for all, if He hath willed that all should be saved, be thou willing also; and if thou wishest it, pray for it, for wishes lead to prayers. Observe how from every quarter He urges this upon the soul, to pray for the Heathen, showing how great advantage springs from it; “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life”; and what is much more than this, that it is pleasing to God, and thus men become like Him, in that they will the same that He does. This is enough to shame a very brute. Fear not therefore to pray for the Gentiles, for God Himself wills it; but fear only to pray against any, for that He wills not. And if you pray for the Heathens, you ought of course to pray for Heretics also, for we are to pray for all men, and not to persecute. And this is good also for another reason, as we are partakers of the same nature, and God commands and accepts benevolence and affection towards one another.

But if the Lord Himself wills to give, you say, what need of my prayer? It is of great benefit both to them and to thyself. It draws them to love, and it inclines thee to humanity. It has the power of attracting others to the faith; (for many men have fallen away from God, from contentiousness towards one another;) and this is what he now calls the salvation of God, “who will have all men to be saved”; without this all other is nothing great, a mere nominal salvation, and only in words. “And to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The truth: what truth? Faith in Him. And indeed he had previously said, “Charge some that they teach no other doctrine.” But that no one may consider such as enemies, and on that account raise troubles against them; he says that “He willeth that all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth”; and having said this, he adds, “For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men.”

Saint John Chrysostom, Homily VII on 1 Timothy ii. 2–4.

As the last stage in the divine descent (katabasis) and self-emptying (kenosis), the descent of Christ into Hades became at the same time the starting point of the ascent of humanity towards deification (theosis). Since this descent, the path to paradise is opened for both the living and the dead, which was followed by those whom Christ delivered from hell.  The destination point for all humanity and every individual is the fullness of deification in which God becomes ‘all in all’. It is for this deification that God first created man and then, when ‘the time had fully come’ (Gal. 4:4), Himself became man, suffered, died, descended to Hades and was raised from the dead.

We do not know if every one followed Christ when He rose from hell. Nor do we know if every one will follow Him to the eschatological Heavenly Kingdom when He will become ‘all in all’. But we do know that since the descent of Christ into Hades the way to resurrection has been opened for ‘all flesh’, salvation has been granted to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all those who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the Early Church inherited from the first generation of Christians and cherished by Orthodox Tradition. This is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ Who once and for all conquered death, destroyed hell and granted resurrection to the entire human race.

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), “Christ the Conqueror of Hell – The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions”

This morning I was reflecting on the decided coolness that some Christians around here seem to display towards Orthodoxy. While this is no doubt partly because we are really pretty unknown, I suspect that there is also more going on. On the one hand, there are  Evangelicals I know who I suspect regard us as some sort of weird sect, or else as a more exotic version of Catholicism which, for some of them, is probably hardly any better. But there are also, on the other hand, more liberal Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics, who show more interest in the Church, being fascinated by the icons, music, Liturgy and so on, until, well, until we give offence. The discovery that we do not accept “intercommunion,” or believe that all religious expressions are of equal validity, or buy into an agenda of “inclusivity,” seems to lead – understandably enough if one is committed to such things – to a coolness even if this is not expressed as an outright rejection.

Anyway, I  as I was washing the bath this morning I found myself thinking that Orthodox Christianity does indeed go “against the grain” of many contemporary cultural assumptions. However, no sooner had I voiced that phrase than I caught myself. While it is an expression that I have used before, I had never really considered where it came from until now. And, as a bookbinder who had only yesterday emailed a prospective client explaining the importance of grain direction, I really ought to know. And, as I reflected on this, I realised that it is actually a misconception to say that Orthodox Christianity goes “against the grain” or that it can ever be a good thing to go “against the grain.”

This is an expression that originates in the grain direction of paper. If you take a sheet of paper and bend it to fold it, you will notice that it folds more easily in one direction than the other (usually in the length with a sheet of A4 paper). When one is binding a book, it is very important that the paper is folded and glued “with the grain” and that the board for the covers and all other paper used should likewise run in the same direction. If this does not happen one gets friction between the different elements of the book, one may get warping and, quite simply, the finished product does not open and read as easily. (Regrettably publishers of many commercially bound books ignore this in the name of economy, but if you wonder why some books are not as supple to open as others, this could be why).

Anyway, reflecting on this, I realised that the Christian vision, while it may go “against the grain” of certain contemporary cultural assumptions – and, indeed, of the dominant assumptions of any era – does not go “against the grain” of our human nature, and of our deepest human identity. For we are created “with the grain,” in harmony with the grain direction of the universe, for we are created in the image and likeness of God. While that image has been distorted and marred due to sin, it is still our deepest identity and salvation in a Christian perspective is not only to recognise that image, but also to recover the likeness that has been lost by sin.

In this context, the life of the Church is there to form us – and re-form us – in the right direction, not simply in order to adapt us to a standard outside of ourselves, but because this is the direction of our own deepest nature. It is to ensure that we are in harmony with those to whom we are attached in a greater whole, to re-orientate us to the true reality in the universe. In this context, to try and go “against the grain,” to use the bookbinding analogy, is asking for trouble, not simply because it is being rebellious, but because it is inattentive to our own deepest identity.

Since posting on my response to Evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement, I seem to have got involved in some discussions with some Evangelicals. I am still trying to work out whether this is a good thing or not, but it has prompted me to want to post something on Orthodox understandings of salvation. I recently listened to a lecture on “Salvation in Christ” by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia. This was part of The Way course, (which I have been meaning to post about, but that will have to wait). In any case, it seemed like a worthwhile introduction to the topic of how salvation should be understood in Christian tradition and so I decided to summarise it and make it available here. Part of my motivation in doing so is that many western Christians, perhaps particularly in South Africa, seem to automatically identify salvation with the substitutionary atonement theory. Or, when they come to reject that, they move into something totally subjective. And if I can help to make people aware that the Tradition is actually broader and deeper than these rather sterile alternatives, then that will probably be a good thing. In any case, I’m posting this here. It’s long, but is worth reading….

Metropolitan Kallistos begins recounting a rather typical story of being asked “Are you saved?” by a man on a train. How is one to answer such a question? And how are we to understand Christian salvation?

He then proceeds by pointing out that the New Testament does not provide a single way of understanding the saving work of Christ, but rather “a whole series of images and symbols set side by side. They are symbols of profound meaning and power, yet for the most part they are not explained but left to speak for themselves.” He suggests that we should not isolate any one image of Christ’s work but should rather view them together. In this talk he will highlight possible models of salvation, but these are not exhaustive.

Underlying all six models is one fundamental truth, namely that “Jesus Christ, as our Saviour, has done something for us that we could not do alone and by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves; we need help. … We could not come to God, so He has come to us.”

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The Divine Person of Jesus Christ, Who possessed all the fullness of Divine life, and Who at the same time became perfect Man (i.e. man in all things but sin), not only re-establishes in its original purity the image of God defiled by man in his fall (“having refashioned the soiled image to its former estate”),[Kontakion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy] but also conjoins the human nature assumed by Him with the Divine life – “suffused it with Divine beauty”. The Fathers of the VIIth Oecumenical Council say, “He (God) recreated him (man) into immortality by giving him this inalienable gift. This recreation was more in God’s likeness and better than the first creation – this gift is eternal”, the gift of communion with the Divine beauty and glory. Christ, the new Adam, the beginning of the new creature – the heavenly man bearing the Holy Spirit within him – brings man to that aim for which the first Adam was created and from which he turned away through his fall; he brings him to the fulfilment of the design of the Holy Trinity concerning him: “Let us make man according to our own image and likeness” (Gen. i,26). According to this design, man should be not only an image of God, his Creator, but should also bear His likeness. Yet in the description of the accomplished act of creation “And God made man, according to the image of God he made him” (Gen. i,27), nothing is said about likeness. It is given to man as a task, to be fulfilled by the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit, with the free participation of man himself. Freely and consciously, “since the expression ‘according to the image’ indicates capacity of mind and freedom”, man enters into the design of the Holy Trinity concerning him and creates his likeness to God, insofar as is possible for him, “for the expression ‘according to the likeness’ means likeness to God in virtues (perfections)” [St John of Damascus], in this way participating in the work of Divine creation.

Thus, if the Divine Hypostasis of the Son of God became Man, our case is the reverse: man can become god, not by nature, but by grace. God descends in becoming Man; man ascends in becoming god. Assuming the likeness of Christ, he becomes “the temple of the Holy Ghost” which is in him (I Cor. vi, 19), re-establishes his likeness to God. Human nature remains what it is – the nature of a creature; but his person, his hypostasis, by acquiring the grace of the Holy Spirit, by this very fact associates itself with Divine life, thus changing the very being of its creaturely nature. The grace of the Holy Spirit penetrates into his nature, combines with it, fills and transfigures it. Man grows, as it were, into the eternal life, the beginning of deification, which will be made fully manifest in the life to come.

Leonid Ouspensky, “The Meaning and Language of Icons,” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 34-35.

It was not things non-existent that needed salvation, for which a bare creative word might have sufficed, but man – man already in existence and already in process of corruption and ruin. It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument and by that means unfold Himself to all.

You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it. If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it none the less. Naturally, therefore, the Saviour assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore he put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And, indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death?

Saint Athanasius the Great, The Incarnation of the Word of God, 44.

Since, then, there was needed a lifting up from death for the whole of our nature, He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate humanity, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole human being. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this Member, as though the whole of humankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature. What, then, is there beyond the bounds of probability in what this Revelation teaches us; viz. that He Who stands upright stoops to one who has fallen, in order to lift him up from his prostrate condition?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 32.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘It had been better for me, had I not accepted Mary’s Son, for He has come to me and destroyed my power; He has shattered the gates of brass, and as God He has raised up the souls that once I held.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘My power has been destroyed. I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep Him prisoner and with Him I shall lose all those over whom I ruled. I held in my power the dead from all the ages; but see, He is raising them all.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘My dominion has been swallowed up; the Shepherd has been crucified and He has raised Adam. I am deprived of those whom I once ruled; in my strength I devoured them, but now I have cast them forth. He who was crucified has emptied the tombs; the power of death has no more strength.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Holy Saturday Vespers, The Lenten Triodion , 655-656.

Since posting on my reaction to evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement theory, I have been reflecting on how very fundamental the Incarnation of Christ is to an Orthodox understanding of salvation. As a friend said to me recently, while western Christians may well believe in the Incarnation, the liturgical texts of the Church tend to rub our noses in it the whole time! I think that it was Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) who wrote somewhere (I can’t remember where) that whereas the West, and certainly evangelicals, tend to see salvation as Christ doing something for us, the East tends to see it as Him doing something in us. In conquering death, the Cross of Christ renews our human nature, restoring the Image of God within us. Or, as the texts for Small Compline on Palm Sunday put it, “He who suffers for us heals our passions by His Passion; for willingly He undergoes in our human nature His life-giving sufferings, that we may be saved.”

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about relations with evangelical Christians this last week, and I hope that what I say here will not be too offensive. (And I fear that my thoughts may also be somewhat rambling). I suppose that that is in large part because I seem to increasingly realise that what many, perhaps most, people in South Africa understand by Christianity is some version of evangelical Protestantism, even if they have rejected it or moved into some form of post-evangelical consciousness.

Yesterday, during coffee after Liturgy, a non-Orthodox woman present complained at how exclusive we Orthodox are. Admittedly, we had been reacting to certain things and I wondered whether we had been unfair. But others responded by pointing out, quite bluntly, that there really are fundamental differences between Orthodoxy and evangelical Protestantism. I could certainly relate to this as I had had a conversation with a colleague earlier in the week that had left me feeling that the differences are very great indeed. And yet I was also uncomfortable drawing the lines too sharply – after all, I have known thoughtful evangelicals and some things do need to be said with a certain nuance.

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