“Eventually, I began to realize that the essential truth of our faith, the Good News – was not that we were suddenly made perfect and free from all danger of sin, but that the infinite source of God’s mercy and love had been opened to us in Christ.” (Irma Zaleski, LIVING THE JESUS PRAYER , p vi)
This is the fifth blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation. The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (IV).
The Orthodox understanding of salvation is that God has been working it out over the long history of the world. Thus we celebrate many feast days in Orthodoxy each occurring at different times but each contributing to the beginning of salvation: Christ’s resurrection, His death, His birth, the birth of His mother, and so on through the men and women of the great genealogies found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew and St. Luke.
Likewise, the Christian understanding of salvation did not instantly emerge in one moment of time. Events unfolded, and it took time for believers to understand the events. The women disciples of the Lord and those of the Twelve who ran to look into the tomb of Christ, did not immediately understand the resurrection let alone its implications for the world. The empty tomb was not enough, requiring angels to explain it to the witnesses, and then their testimony was not enough to convince the other disciples.
The Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament Epistles show the early Christians wrestling with both the concept of salvation and its implications for life – both personal and communal. The cosmos was radically changed by the event of the resurrection, and yet the first Christians struggled with sin and death. They proclaimed the resurrection but soon faced the death of martyrdom. It took centuries to work out some of the most basic understanding of the implications of salvation in Jesus Christ. Even when they were sure of the terminology, the theological ramifications remained staggering and were much debated.
“The whole time he (St. Gregory Palamas, d. 1359AD) is defending communion with the living God as the only means of salvation for man, and combating the conception of salvation as an extrinsic justification which leaves man to live independently of God outside the ‘supernatural.’ That was not God’s plan for man, and it was not for that that the Son of God put on flesh and clothed himself in a nature altogether similar to our own; He ‘became man that we might become God.’” (John Meyendorff, A STUDY IN GREGORY PALAMAS, p 163)
The incarnation implied theosis – a partaking of and participation in the divine life (2 Peter 1:4). Patristic authors were more able to articulate the truth precisely than to explain it’s full meaning – an apophatic mystery in which we participated without being able to find an adequate language to explicate its every meaning.
“In his great work on the history of doctrine, [Dr. Jaroslav] Pelikan makes the point that, although the theology of the person of Christ (who Christ is in relation to God) received thorough doctrinal attention, the ‘meaning’ of the saving work of Christ (how we are saved in specific terms) never received similar doctrinal focus in the patristic period. One will not find an Eastern parallel to the West’s discussion about justification. The Greek Church fathers wrote about the meaning of salvation in a variety of ways, using multiple biblical and particularly Pauline terminology: new covenant, sanctification, new creation, transformation and glorification.” (Theodore Stylianopoulos, ENCOURAGED BY THE SCRIPTURES, pp 121-122)
There were images in which to convey the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ, theological metaphors and philosophical poetry to proclaim the truth while acknowledging the mystery and the inadequacy of human reason to fathom salvation..
“’A new heaven and a new earth’: man is not saved from the material world but with it. Because man is microcosm and mediator of the creation, his own salvation involves also the reconciliation and transfiguration of the whole animate and inanimate creation around him – its deliverance ‘from the bondage of corruption’ and entry ‘into the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21). In the ‘new earth’ of the Age to come there is surely a place not only for man but for the animals: in and through man, they too will share in immortality, and so will rocks, trees and plants, fire and water.” (Kallistos Ware, THE ORTHODOX WAY, p 183)
The physical is not opposed to the spiritual, but rather the secular is shown capable of bearing the sacred and of becoming holy. God incarnate. Humanity deified. Creation untied to Creator. Creator entering into creation. God creates that which is “not-god” and then God Himself enters into that which is “not god” and unites that which is “not god” to God. This is the salvation of the world.
Next: Images of Salvation (VI)