Faith as Synergy


The saints frequently describe the life of faith as a synergy between the human and God.  Each has their part to do which is part of the mystery of faith in an omnipotent God who grants free will to His creatures.  God does not do for us what we must choose to do for ourselves.  God warned Noah about the flood but did not build him the ark.  On the other side of that, we need so many things from God which we constantly seek, such as God’s mercy.  Our best efforts will fall short if we don’t connect with God.   I think the Virgin Mary expresses it well in her hymn in Luke 1:46-50 where though she is fulfilling the heights of being human she recognizes this is God’s wish and will for the world and not just for her life.  If there is no “God with us” our greatest miracles will be no more than a temporary delay of the universal decline into entropy.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”

This cooperation between the Creator and human creatures is readily found in Orthodox spiritual writings.

St John Chrysostom says: ‘A man’s readiness and commitment are not enough if he does not enjoy help from above as well; equally help from above is no benefit to us unless there is also commitment and readiness on our part. These two facts are proved by Judas and Peter. For although Judas enjoyed much help, it was of no benefit to him, since he had no desire for it and contributed nothing from himself. But Peter, although willing and ready, fell because he enjoyed no help from above. So holiness is woven of these two strands. Thus I entreat you neither to entrust everything to God and then fall asleep, nor to think, when you are striving diligently, that you will achieve everything by your own efforts.”  (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 11142-51)

An important point for us – even being a chosen apostle does not guarantee synergy or communion with God.  Being Apostles was no advantage to either Judas or Peter  over us in terms of cooperating with God for salvation.  If we think faithfulness is hard and would be made easier if Jesus did a bit more, we might remember it didn’t help Judas to be one of the Twelve Chosen and to walk with Jesus daily.  Faith is the willingness to cooperate with God to accomplish God’s will.  It doesn’t guarantee that were won’t be struggle or loss or sorrow or setback.  It does mean believing despite all these struggles.  It means being judged in our current circumstance, not in some better time.   “For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not” (2 Corinthians 8:12).  We are not told to do our best in perfect circumstances, rather we are told to be perfect in the circumstances we find ourselves.  Which means in the end we need God’s mercy.

We All Offer Sacrifice and Sacraments to God

We shall only understand the character of the world when we think of it as a gift or present.

The whole world ought to be regarded as the visible part of a universal and continuing sacrament, and all man’s activities as a sacramental, divine communion.

Because man is unable to give God anything except that which he has already received from God, man learns to perceive the world as gift and sacrament by sacrificing something in this world for God’s sake, as a sign of his grateful love, and as the vehicle of this love. God for his part returns to man what man has sacrificed in the form of fresh gifts, containing a new manifestation of His love, in a new and repeated blessing. “Grace for Grace.”  And so an unbroken interchange between God and man in man’s use of the world takes place, an ever-renewed and growing mutuality of love. The more man discovers the beauty and the higher use of created things, and the greater the gratitude and love with which he responds to God, the more God responds with still greater love and blessing, because man is in the position to receive it.

Man puts the seal of his understanding and of his intelligent work on to creation, thereby humanizing it and giving it humanized back to God. He actualizes the world’s potentialities. Thus the world is not only a gift but a task for man. Man is able to mark the world with his seal because the world as the gift of God’s love for man is not the fruit of necessity but the fruit of divine freedom. If it were the fruit of necessity there would be no freedom in it, and it would develop as an inexorable casual process. But it is SO constituted that divine freedom and human freedom can manifest themselves in an unbroken dialogue.

(Fr Dimitru Staniloae, The Time of the Spirit, p. 28)

Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

September 8 for Orthodox is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.


“Rational man suffered even more, awaiting his liberation. For this reason, mankind offers the highest gift to Christ Who becomes man: His Virgin Mother.

In fact, we men had nothing more honorable to offer God. The Panaghia(‘Pan Aghia’: ‘All Holy Mother of God’) had already offered herself entirely to God, and as a most pure vessel was ready to receive in her womb her Son and her God and so, at her Annunciation, when Archangel Gabriel told her that she would become the Mother of Christ, she could answer with confidence in God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word’ [Luke 1:38].

Moreover, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God if she had not offered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God would not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say ‘Yes’ to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have – human nature – in order that God might give man what he did not have – deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God’s free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.


This mutual freedom is the prerequisite for love. God offers freely without any necessity, and the Virgin accepts the gift freely without compulsion. The Virgin could not co-operate with God if she had established her own egoistic satisfaction at the content of her freedom – rather than her offering to God and man. Moreover, the Virgin is always rightly blessed by all generations of Christians, and especially during these holy days, as the: ‘cause of the deification of all.’ At the same time, she points out the way of true freedom.” (George Capsanis, The Eros of Repentance, pp. 68-70)

The Key to Evangelism: Repentance

“Today we call this cooperation with God in our lives in order to transform them synergia. The same teachings, practices, and sacraments that made new people out of pagan in the second century exist in the Church today, and they can accomplish the same thing. But for us to call others to this way, we have to be living transformed lives ourselves, or today’s pagans will not give us the time of day. As the author of the Second Epistle to Clement wrote: ‘For when the heathen hear from our mouth the oracles of God they wonder at their beauty and greatness; then discovering that our deeds are not worthy of the words we utter, they turn from their wonder to blasphemy, saying that it is all a myth and delusion.’ If we are going to evangelize successfully, we must stop making excuses for our own sins.” (Micheal Keiser, Spread the Word, p 680


The Church and The Will of God


Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.   Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.  (2 Corinthians 5:17-6:1)

We are to work together with God for our salvation.  In the days of Noah, God told Noah to build an ark for the salvation of the world.  God didn’t build it for Noah.   Noah had to co-operate with God and do his own share of the work.  This  is an image of life in the Church.  God commands us to go into all the world, but God doesn’t do that work for us.  We have to do what God commanded us to do.  But we also must always realize our place in the plan of salvation – we are essential to the plan and the plan is for us, yet we have to discern the plan and carry it out.  We are not God.  We are to work with God – synergy.  Our plans as church are not merely human, for God shows us the way and then lets us choose to follow Him. Salvation is not merely humans making the best human choices possible, for it always involves the full being of God.

“The Church is and must remain ‘of God’ and not ‘of man.’ That is, humans were not placed in stewardship of the Church in order to invoke their will for where they see the Church going but rather to guide the Church into the will of God.[…] The conception of the Church as an institution represents the hijacking of the Church by humans for their own end. Bishop Meletios notes, ‘The beginning and end of every act of God is the salvation of the world. We must place the weight of our attention on this, not in the work of institutions.’ The hope of humanity cannot be placed in the Church but only in God. If the Church is only an institution that acts like any other institution and can be evaluated like any other institutions, then it will fail.” (Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, Beauty for Ashes, pp 147, 149)

Called by God to Choose to Obey

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  (Romans 8:28)

St. John Chrysostom presents an interesting picture of the relationship between God’s will and our free will.

“God does not compel, but allows people to be masters of their own choices even after the call.” (Margaret M. Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet, p 213)

God calls us to follow Him and to obey Him, but even when the omnipotent God calls us, God allows us to choose how to respond.  There is a true synergy between God and any human – we have to cooperate with God for our salvation.

“… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Striving for the Kingdom

“At the same time, Paul is aware that he is not yet perfect, that he must continue to hasten toward the prize of the upward call of God (Philippians 3:14). Paul does not say that his growth in perfection requires his suffering. He says rather that his growth in perfection requires his striving. And he says that as one who strives he is one who has the righteousness of God and shares Christ’s sufferings. It is as a person ‘in’ Christ, righteous with God’s righteousness, suffering with Christ’s suffering, that he strives. This whole human package – the righteous sufferer – is who strives for the upward call of God.  Paul says that his perfection will be achieved by this striving of one who has been seized by Christ (3:12). Subsequent to this seizure, suffering is part of his makeup. Suffering is not an instrument of sanctification, except insofar as it is part of the condition of the whole ‘in’ Christ person. Paul directs his converts to strive in a similar way: ‘work out your own salvation with fear and quivering; for God is the one who energizes you both to will and to work for God’s good purpose.’ (2:12-13)” (L.Ann Jervis, At the Heart of the Gospel, p 52)

Confession: Christ in Us

Thoughts on the Sacrament of Confession

Bishop Kallistos (Ware) writes:

Prodigal Son

“Once we regard Confession as fundamentally Christ’s action rather than our own, then we shall begin to understand the sacrament of repentance in a far more positive way.  It is an experience of God’s healing love and pardon, not merely of our own disintegration and weakness.  We are to see, not just the prodigal son, plodding slowly and painfully upon the long road home, but also the father, catching sight of him when he is still a long way off and running out to meet him (Luke 15:20).  As Tito Colliander puts is, “If we take one step toward the Lord, He takes ten toward us.”  That is precisely what we experience in Confession.  In common with all sacraments, Confession involves, a joint divine-human action, in which there is found convergence and “cooperation” (synergia) between God’s grace and our free will.  Both are necessary; but what God does is incomparably more important.

 Repentance and confession, then, are not just something that we do by ourselves or with the help of the priest, but above all something that God is doing with and in both of us.  In the words of St John Chrysostom, “Let us apply to ourselves the saving remedy (pharmakon) of repentance; let us accept from God the repentance that heals us.  For it is not we who offer it to Him, but He who bestows it upon us.”  It should be remembered that in Greek the same word exomologesis means both confession of sins and thanksgiving for gifts received.”    (The Inner Kingdom: Volume 1 of the Collected Works, pg 51)

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos writes:

St. Andrew of Crete

“If we learn to open ourselves to God, we avoid many problems which are the result of inner desolation. Confession—being a part of repentance—is abolishing the monologue with ourselves and opening up a dialogue with the living God.”  ( The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, pg 142)

Orthodoxy in the World: Teachings (D)

This is the 12th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.   This blog continues the section on basic teachings of Orthodoxy, the previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Teachings (C).

Christ Enthroned

In Orthodoxy, Jesus Christ is not merely a model of or teacher of morality.  If the Torah had been enough to heal the separation of God and humanity which is so evident throughout the Old Testament, then there would have been no need of an incarnate messiah.   If repentance was all that was needed to reunite humans to God, then prophets and angels could have called humanity to that.   But Orthodoxy believes that what was ailing humanity – separation from God resulting from death – needed to be healed.   And it is in the God incarnate, in Jesus Christ, that divinity is reunited to humanity and is not separated from humankind even in death.    Because of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, no aspect of being human is now separated from God.     The Orthodox believe that only if and because Jesus is fully God incarnate and also fully human is there an end to the fracturing of the world caused by sin.  Only in Christ is the human will once again in union with God’s will, only in Christ is the soul and body permanently united despite death, only in Christ are humans reconciled to God, only in Christ are males and females reunited, only in Christ does humanity regain its proper role as microcosm and mediator, only in Christ is all of creation restored to God.  For all of these reasons we can understand why in the earlier centuries of the Christian movement they felt it so essential to have a correct understanding of who Jesus is.   All Christian understanding of the scriptures, of God, of humanity, of creation is founded in the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?”, at least according to Orthodoxy.

            For Eastern Orthodox Christians the Good News of the Gospel is that God so loves the world that He chooses to become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  God unites himself to all that is human, undergoing even death itself, in order to reunite all of humanity with divinity.     Despite the willful rebellion of humans who wanted to overthrow the lordship of God, God enters into the human condition and suffers death in order to save humanity from the consequences of their own sin.   Just as God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, so now God has saved all of humanity from slavery to sin and death.  God has brought us not just from Egypt to the Promised Land, but from death to life and from earth to heaven.   Christ in Orthodoxy is the victor, not the victim.  Christ is the liberator who saves us from death, giving us eternal life through uniting us to divinity.   He has offered this salvation to every human who has or will exist.

            And Orthodoxy fully recognizes human free will and the necessity for humans to cooperate with God for their own salvation.   Humans must want this union with God.   Mary, the mother of Jesus is called the Theotokos, the one who bears God in her womb.   She is the ultimate sign of human cooperation with the will of God – a supreme act of love which results in human and divine union.

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World:  Key Practices (A)

Scriptures and Tradition

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is Further Reflections on Reading Scripture.
The Holy Land 1000 BC

God’s revelation to humankind may be recorded in the Bible but it played out in history.  The Bible is a written record of that revelation as God’s self-revelation occurred over the centuries of human existence.  The Bible itself has a history since it belongs not to just to the created order, but  also is a product of human work – men and women inspired by God wrote the text, edited it and preserved it through time.  The Bible did not fall from heaven in its current state, but was written and developed and adopted over many centuries.   The Holy Scriptures thus have a human history which can itself be studied.  The text of the Scriptures have a context in which they appeared, were preserved and interpreted.  The were written by a particular group of people chosen by God for the task, and these inspired authors were part of a chosen people who were inspired to read, interpret and live by the teachings contained in and derived from the Bible.  Thus the Bible is part of a particular Tradition, and belongs to that Tradition and to the people whom God chose to live that Tradition – to be shaped by it and to shape it.

“Scripture cannot, in fact, stand alone as a source of authority, for it is always the Scripture of a particular community and always needs interpretation—the inspiration of Scripture cannot be separated from the inspired use of Scripture within the Church.”  (John Behr in ABBA: THE TRADITION OF ORTHODOXY IN THE WEST, p 163)

 “Scripture exists within Tradition, and by the same token Tradition is nothing else than the way in which Scripture has been understood and lived by the Church in every generation.”  (Bishop Kallistos Ware, THE INNER KINGDOM, p 10)

 “The Scriptures are not more profound, nor more important than Holy Tradition but… they are one of its forms—the most precious form, both because they are preserved and convenient to make use of.  But removed from the stream of Sacred Tradition, the Scriptures cannot be rightly understood through any scientific research. …  Men are wrong when they set aside Sacred Tradition and go, as they think, to its source – to the Holy Scriptures.  The Church has her origins, not in the Scriptures but in Sacred Tradition.  The Church did not possess the New Testament during the first decades of her history.  She lived them by Tradition only—the Tradition St. Paul calls upon the faithful to hold.   It is a well-known fact that all heresiarchs have always based themselves on the Holy Scriptures, only their interpretation differing.”  (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 88)

The Scriptures separated from their particular Tradition – the text removed from its context – will inevitably create a new tradition.  This new tradition, separated from its historical context will be limited by the historical conditions and logic of the people who created the new tradition.  It will in fact be more human than divine in its inspiration.

Ss Peter & Paul, Leaders of the Apostles

So Tradition is the context in which the text of the Scriptures occurred and received their meaning.  Tradition and the Scriptures were simultaneously created by a living and organic interaction between the chosen people of God with God’s historical self-revelation as it was unfolding,  and then further interaction occurs as it is recorded as the authors and editors of the scripture make sense of what was experienced (things they may not have personally witnessed or experienced but have only heard about). And then again the people of God interact with those written Scriptures as they meditate on them, interpret them, and become shaped by them – this is the unfolding of God’s Revelation and of Tradition.   Tradition is thus living, an open rather than closed canon.  It is God’s people inspired by the Holy Spirit’s interaction with God’s unfolding revelation, and includes the interpretation and meaning which are derived from this revelation and interaction with it.  God’s people inspired by God and co-working with God become co-creators with God of Tradition.   Tradition is thus not only about the past, about rules carved in stone, or about how ancient peoples experienced God and the written Scriptures which they had to guide them.  Tradition is ongoing and is also our being inspired by the Holy Spirit to understand the past and the Scriptures which carried that received tradition into the present.  We in turn are both shaped by and shape that Tradition as we hand it on to the next generation of believers.   I have used this metaphor in previous blogs:  on the ship of salvation (= the Church), Tradition is not the anchor which holds us to the past, it is the sail which catches the refreshing movement of the Holy Spirit and propels us to the eschaton.

As David Horrell mentions, to interpret the Scriptures is to use them to think with.   This is the living interplay and interaction which makes God as self-revealed, Tradition, God’s people and the Scriptures all have an organic unity with one another.  They are an inseparable organic and historic unity.   “… only a community already formed by the story of the Kingdom of God can begin to read scripture rightly.”  (quoted in SOLIDARITY AND DIFFERENCE: A CONTEMPORARY READING OF PAUL’S ETHICS by David Horrell, pp 4, 75)

Next:  The Canon of Scriptures