Cruciform Hermeneutics: True Theology Begins with the Cross

crucifixion1To begin, I want to say that in many ways, this blog is a continuation of my thoughts from my blog “Cosmic Sky Dad“. I’m nearing the end of Father John Behr’s (Dean of St. Vlad’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death” (A great review here), and I have gained drastic insights into systematic theology from this book. It has been highly informative and formative in my thinking and theology in just the couple of weeks I’ve been reading it. I want to summarize in my own words what the book deals with. This is not a thorough treatment at all for the subject matter, so I highly recommend one pick up their own copy!

In the preface, Father John writes that he is presenting a “Christian theology that is systematic yet remains true to the way in which theology was first learned” (page 15). He begins to critique modern theology by saying that it seeks to be a model based entirely on the historical events or “what really happened”. He accuses modern theology and scholarship of starting with the theological debates found early in Christian history, but “separate these theological formulas form the way in which they were in fact learned and from the exegetical practice, the manner of using scripture, in and through which they were articulated” (page 15). Father makes a point that if we read define theological formulas detached from the original way they were learned we’re in danger of reading Scripture in a vastly modern way.

The notion of the Trinity is read as a history of the interaction between man and God and culminates in God being incarnate in order to bring about redemption. He says that this

approach to theology has become, in modern times, all but ubiquitous. But the fact that we only understand retrospectively should caution us to consider more carefully how such theological statements are made and what kind of assertions they are. For example…the term ‘incarnation’ [read in such a manner described above] is used to refer to the becoming human of the second person of the Trinity by being born from the Virgin Mary. But it is a stubborn fact, or at least is presented this way in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that the one born of Mary was not known by the disciples to be the Son of God until after the Passion, his crucifixion, and resurrection…Thus, to speak of the ‘Incarnation,’ to say that the one born of the Virgin is the Son of God, is an interpretation made only in the light of the Passion. It is a confession about the crucified and exalted Lord, whose birth is then described in terms drawn from the account of his death…; it is not a neutral statement that could be verified by an uninvolved bystander as a part of an objective history, an account of things ‘as they really happened,’ in the manner of nineteenth-century historiography” (page 16).

It is here that the heart of the book is presented. The point Father John is beginning to make is that the historical method of reading Scripture like this, on its on, places Jesus strictly in the past. Who He was, what He did, and what He said are all matters of history, but for the early Christians the crucified Lord was eternal and ever present, the One of whom the Scriptures speak. And it is precisely here that the book’s foundation is built. Father John states that the Apostles knew Christ in light of His passion, death, and resurrection. They turned to Scriptures, as directed by Christ, to see that it is He of whom they speak. Even in I Cor. 15:3-5, the Apostle Paul states that “Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures”, which he means the Old Testament.

Father John writes

Despite having been with Christ for a number of years, having heard his words and seen his marvelous actions, the disciples did not yet really understand him. Only after his Passion, his crucifixion, and resurrection, do they begin to understand who Christ is and what he has done, and they did this by turning back to scriptures” (page 22).

He goes on to say on page 25, “…Scriptures, the Old Testament, provided the means by which the disciples began to understand how God was at work in the Passion of Christ (for the early church the Passion includes the crucifixion, death, and resurrection and were celebrated as one event). It is in the Passion of Christ, that hermeneutics and theology must begin. I like to think of this as cruciform hermeneutics because it is in the Passion that theology begins. It is in Christ giving himself up for the life of the world that theology proper begins (page 31). This is where God is revealed to us and this is where our theology must begin. Father John makes a great point that the first principle of hermeneutics is Christ Himself! The Cross is where we start!

The Cruciform God of the Cross

I recently finished Michael Gorman’s “Inhabiting the Cruciform God” and also highly recommend it as well! However, I have noticed a lot of meshing between these two books I’m reading. Gorman proposes that the following verses from Phil. 2:6-11 (translated in his own words) is the Master Story of St. Paul and the beginning of theology proper, with which I’m inclined to agree, but also I’ll venture to say that Father John would too:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Dr. Gorman makes a point that these verses paint the accurate, wholesome view of theology proper, of divine power. It reveals to us how foolish we think of divinity. For humanity, divinity does not empty itself, but demonstrates itself over us through power. However, the saints, Father John, and Dr. Gorman make a point that the cruciform God is revealed through strength in weakness. Thus St. Paul’s master story turns theology proper upside down, or perhaps, right side up. It is here that we can begin to understand God and who He is and what He has done. Father John says that “the centrality of the Passion of Christ [is] the locus of the revelation of the transformative power of God…” (page 33). God is revealed in the voluntary death of Christ on the Cross; this is the scriptural reflection of the Apostles and has been the theological vision of many theologians. It should be ours as well.

Father John writes in regards to Phil. 2:6-11,

Christ’s taking upon himself the role of a servant, voluntarily going to the Passion, does not diminish our perception of what we might otherwise have considered his divinity, but actually manifests his true divinity. The transcendent power of God is manifest in this world in flesh, in darkness and in death, as a servant. But this manifestation of divine power, in weakness, is simultaneously a transformation: Christ, in the form of a servant, shows us the image of God; darkness and death become light and life; and the flesh assumed by the Word, becomes flesh of the Word–and becomes Word…The Passion remains as the locus for contemplating the transforming power of God, the ‘God revealed through the Cross'” (page 35).

Father John closes the first chapter by stating that, again, “in the night in which he was given up” to “in the night in which he gave himself up” is the beginners point for theology. It is

a theology which does not simply speak about God in the abstract, nor satisfy itself with a historical report about events in the past, but which contemplates the transforming power of God revealed through the Cross, the eternal, timeless power that upholds all things, inviting and challenging us also to become transformed in its Word, putting on the identity of Christ” (page 43).

Theology is Confessional

What does this all mean for us? It means that we possess a confessional theology, which we witness to through the transforming power of God manifest in Christ on the Cross: “Light in darkness, Life in death, Word in flesh” (page 141). An historical reading or recording of these events don’t do them the justice they deserve. That is why I’ve come to believe a cruciform hermeneutic, a reading of Scriptures in light of the Passion (crucifixion, death, and resurrection) are needed to develop proper theology and theological formulas. We must search the Scriptures in light of Christ and go from there, from the Cross. Father John writes,

What history would record as Jesus being put to death, theology confesses to be the very victory over death by one who gave himself up for the life of the world. The basis for this confession is not a claim to ‘historical evidence’ provided by the empty tomb or resurrectional appearances: the empty tomb needs to be interpreted…Theology begin, rather, with the opening of the scriptures by the risen Lord, so that his disciples see how they all speak of him and the necessity of his Passion, and so be prepared to share in the meal to which he invites them, when he is recognized and disappear from sight, creating in them a desire for the Coming One. It is based on Peter’s acknowledgement that he had betrayed Christ, that he was complicit in his death, but is nevertheless, and as a forgiven sinner, called to be an apostle, proclaiming the forgiveness of Christ, his mercy, and his love–a new creation.

Such theology is a confession, acknowledging the work of God in Christ. But it is only possible if it is accompanied by a confession about oneself. As with the denier Peter, the persecutor Paul, and the Prophet Isaiah before them, the reaction to the encounter with the Lord is the confession of one’s own sinfulness–that we are, each, complicit in the death of Christ and his persecution and that he is our victim in each of our acts of violence and victimization. As we look to the Scriptures, with the crucified and exalted Christ as our starting point, we can, only now, recognize that the world has lain in sin and death from the beginning, waiting to be saved and brought to true life by Christ. The truth of God revealed in Christ brings with it the revelation of the truth about human beings, both what they are called to be and that they have fallen from this high calling. The aim of theology always remains ‘the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of the human being'” (page 142).

This means for us that not only do we have a confessional theology found to begin in cruciform hermeneutics, but that we have a confessional theology that leads to a confessional theology, meaning we must see the depths of our own depravity as revealed in our theological confessions and formulas, which, again, begin with Christ. It means we find our stories within the story of Christ and his faithfulness to God. Father John states that an encounter with the Christ proclaimed “in accordance with the Scriptures” leads to a transformation of our lives. For me this means a cruciform theosis, direction union and participation in Christ and His faithfulness through co-crucifixion. It is the beginning of our past lining up with salvation history. Father John writes,

If, as is sometimes said, the ‘self’ of each person is their own past told form the perspective of the present, and that past acting in the present, then the encounter with Christ provides a new, and yet eternal, vantage point from which to narrate one’s own past: we are invited to see our own past retold as our own ‘salvation history'”(page 143).

For me, this highlights even more what I have spoken of in regards to what the Gospel is, which is the faithfulness of Christ to God. Our past is united to Christ and told from the vantage point of the Cross. Christ is the Faithful Israelite who fulfilled the demands of the law vertically and horizontally. By co-crucifixion with Christ, we share in His sufferings, but also in His faithfulness. It is by this co-crucifixion that we become deified and theosis is worked in us. It is here that such proper theology found in cruciform hermeneutics leads us: nailed on the Cross with Christ sharing in His faithfulness and sufferings. His story becomes our story, one of faithfulness, love, forgiveness of our sins, and mercy. We are to share this story and pour out such joy it has to the world by proclaiming the God revealed on the Cross.

Our stories lived up prior to the encounter of Christ were meant to prepare us for encountering the crucified and exalted Lord. Father John writes, with which I close,

Everything is compressed within his economy: standing in the light of Christ, we can see him as having led us through our whole past, preparing us to encounter him. He alone knows the alone knows the reason why he has led each of us on our particular path, for we still walk by faith, not by sight. But it is a faith that all things are in the hand of Christ, and that ‘in everything God works for good with those who love him'” (page 143).

Our theology must begin with the Cross, with Christ. It is here that true theology begins by opening up the Scriptures who testify to Him. It is here that we experience God, the God of power in weakness. Thus it is in our weakness that God is revealed to us and saves us. Our theology must start with the Cross so that it can lead us to the Cross ourselves, so that through our weakness the transformational, holy, reverent, love of Christ is displayed by uniting us with Him in His sufferings and faithfulness bringing us to union with Christ through cruciform theosis, which brings us to peace with God who is a good God and loves mankind.

The Eucharistic Dimension of Death

Minolta DSCSome more profound insights from Father John Behr’s (Dean of St. Vlad’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death” (A great review here):

There is clearly a close relationship between the dynamism and the fruitfulness of the Spirit and the action of the Word operative in the processes that lead both to the Eucharist and to the resurrection. It is by receiving the Eucharist, as the wheat and the vine receive the fecundity of the Spirit, that we are prepared, as we also make the fruits into the bread and wine, for the resurrection effected by the Word, at which point, just as the bread and wine receive the Word and so become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eucharist, so also our bodies will receive immortality and incorruptibility from the Father. As such, death, within the overall economy of God seen in the light of the Passion of Christ, takes on a eucharistic dimension, alongside its educative and limiting function, and the economy as a whole can be described as the Eucharist of God” (page 106).

Yeah, my head hurts to, so I’m off to ponder these magnificent insights! Go buy this book! Truly stretching me and forcing me to think!

The Cross Stands, While the Earth Revolves

crossI’m currently about a 100 pages into Father John Behr’s (Dean of St. Vlad’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death” (A great review here). I’m enjoying this book immensely and finding it both challenging and enlightening in regards to theological method and hermeneutics. I came across, what is to me, a profound insight, which I simply wanted to share from chapter 2 “For This We Were Created”:

We can only speak of creation as having been brought into being by and for its savior Jesus Christ, and its whole history as having been providentially guided by him, from the moment that he is revealed within its history, at the Passion. Theologically speaking, creation and its history begins with the Passion of Christ and from this ‘once for all’ work looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light, making everything new. Christian cosmology, elaborated as it must be from the perspective of the Cross, sees the Cross as impregnated in the very structure of creation: stat crux dum volvitur orbis–the Cross stands, while the earth revolves. The power of God revealed in and through the Cross brought creation into being and sustains it in existence” (page 90).

There are many great insights in this book, and I hope to review it or write up some more thoughts on the acorns of wisdom I have gathered up from Father John while reading his book. I can say this: go buy it and read it for yourself! It is worth the few bucks it costs!

Cosmic Sky Dad

godI had a friend tell me this week that he just can’t wrap his mind around the idea of a “Cosmic Sky Dad” and what not. He said, “It’s hard for me to grasp a Big Cosmic Sky Dad..even if He is a loving Cosmic Sky Dad that one day created everything so that it would worship or be in union with Him or Her just seems really bizarre.”

I did explain to my good friend, who is a very dear friend with sincere intentions and honest questions, that that is a deeply Secular view of God and in all honesty a caricature of God and of the Christian understanding of God. Often we all approach the subject of theology proper (the doctrine of God) with clouded lens. Myself included. We have horribly informed presuppositions about God do we not? Scripture, Tradition, and the Church has never nor would they ever speak of God as being some sort of Cosmic Sky Dad.

I don’t know of any religious faith, outside of Secularism, nor my own especial, that would say this of God.

It’s like the story a friend told me of a 7 year old girl asking her atheist father about God, to which he responds, “Some people believe there’s an invisible person in the sky that knows everything and sometimes grants wishes if they ask him.” Of course this particular 7 year old was full of wisdom and skeptical because no one really believes that.

That is not at all what any serious Christian believes, nor any serious theist, would believe of God. That is more what Secularism believes in this country. Secularism would very easily believe in said Cosmic Sky Dad, but I digress.

My friend continued the dialogue this morning after reading my responses. He asked, “If I don’t use terms like Cosmic Sky Dad and such what would you call the centrality of God (The need to be worshiped? Jesus, etc.?)?” He went on, “Theology, to me seems to be answers to questions about a religion, a sort of fence or moat around a castle.”

I believe my friend posted a great question! One that made me think! How do we talk about God? What do we mean when we talk about Him? Who is He? What is He?

How would you answer that question. This is my response, but I have of course edited it out to be a little more detailed for the purpose of the blog, but it is the best I could do:

Theology is the study of God. That is what the Greek root words mean. Theology, in general, but Christianity especially, just doesn’t answer a question about a religion. A religion is a set of beliefs about metaphysics, anthropology, teleology, eschatology, so on and forth. I get the feeling you may be seeing it as most Americans are, not saying you are, just a suspicion, that you are having a Secular view of it that states “religion deals with the big man in the sky per the study of theology” but this is flawed especially in regards to the deeply incarnational theology of Christianity in general, but Orthodoxy especially.

If I don’t use terms like Cosmic Sky Dad and such what would you call the centrality of God? (The need to be worshiped? Jesus, etc.?)?”

For anyone asking along with my friend this is where some deep engagement with Orthodoxy in the form of study and participation would deeply do one well. According to what I have come across in my short time of being Orthodox, the Church Fathers speak of God as person [Disclaimer: not to be confused with theistic personalism]. Not person how we are person, but person in His existence. Of course He is the Supreme Being. He is what He is. On our icons of Christ you will see Hebrew letters or sometimes Greek, one on the left, top of his head, and on the right. that mean, “I am” essentially. David Hart writes:

To speak of ‘God’ properly … is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be ‘beyond being,’ if by ‘being’ one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called ‘being itself,’ in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.”

He is!

That is God in Christianity. He is Reality itself. That which is Real. the Numinous, the Mystery.

Just this morning I discovered some blogs by a priest friend that he had just written. They are reviewing David Hart’s (Orthodox philosopher) book “The Experience of God“. In it Hart says, “God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek, but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever” (p. 10). What follows is an excerpt from Fr. Al’s writing, but he is quoting Hart’s book here as well:

God is ‘the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things’ (p. 30). He is not an inhabitant of the material world or any spiritual dimension. He is not posed over against the universe, nor is he the universe itself. He may be described as beyond being, if by ‘being’ we understand the totality of all created beings. He may be described as being, if by ‘being’ we wish to signify God as ‘the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation’ (p. 30).

The true and living God must therefore be clearly distinguished from the various gods with whom humanity has always dealt throughout history. The gods, if any exist, do not transcend nature; they belong to nature. ‘They exist in space and time,’ explains Hart, ‘each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one, in a way that a finite object might be merely singular or unique, but is oneness as such, the one act of being and unity by which any finite things exists and by which all things exist together. He is one in the sense that being itself is one, the infinite is one, the source of everything is one’ (p. 31).”

So I hope that is at least a beginners look at personhood, the Person of God, theology proper. It really isn’t even a beginner’s look, but a humble attempt to sincerely answer my friend’s questions. I’m not a theologian, pastor, nor a priest. I highly recommend one take my blog at face value and look further at better, brighter sources. Christianity created the concept of personhood. God is person! Again, this is where 3 things need to occur if you’re reading this and you have the same questions and concerns my friend does:

  1. Engagement with Orthodox theology per study and reading with a teacher if possible,
  2. Engagment with Orthodox worship per participation,
  3. Engagement with an Orthodox priest for I am not qualified to answer many of these questions and can only do so limited by my own ignorance. I’d wish better for you than my wimpy little answers and regurgitation of others smartness.

I’d really like to help anyone with these questions the best I can though, so I hope this does. I’d recommend also checking out Father Stephen’s blog on this matter of speaking about God.

I hope to further this notion of theology proper in another blog as sort of a review of Michael Gorman’s “Inhabiting the Cruciform God,” which I just finished reading. In the book, Dr. Gorman makes the case that Philippians 2:6-11 is St. Paul’s master story and a revolutionary theology proper. In these verses we can see a grand story and an even grander theology proper. I will not elaborate on that any further, but merely leave you with these Scriptures as an answer to my friend’s question and something for you to ponder until another day. If you have questions about who God is and what He is please read these and contemplate upon them. This is Dr. Gorman’s translation of Phil. 2:6-11:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

May God bless us all in our journey to find Him and know Him. May we be guided always by the Light of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, to the His truth and love.

Blessings.

N.T. Wright Extends Debate with John Piper by Releasing Apostle Paul Tome

wrightN.T. Wright Extends Debate with John Piper by Releasing Apostle Paul Tome

By Jonathan Merritt

N.T. Wright is one of the top five theologians alive according to Christianity Todayand given his accomplishments, it’s a difficult claim to dispute. Wright is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of St. Andrews, and before that, he served as Bishop of Durham for The Church of England and taught New Testament studies for 20 years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He has written a stack of widely-acclaimed and bestselling books, both academic and popular, and has a cult following among young Christian thinkers in the United States and Europe.

But Wright has also become a controversial figure in recent years, igniting a heated debate among American theologians with his so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” Many prominent Christian leaders wrote rebuttals of Wright’s perspective–most notably pastor John Piper, who devoted an entire book to the matter (The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright).

How does one respond to such controversy? If you’re N.T. Wright, by penning a 1700-page tome on the life and theology of the Apostle Paul–the most comprehensive published work on Paul in the history of Christianity. It’s called Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and it promises to extend the debate he sparked years ago. Here, we discuss the book’s thesis, how it may inform gender and political debates, and what he thinks will make John Piper most upset.

JM: And how do you anticipate that this historical and theological study of Paul will reframe Christian theologies of salvation, justification, and law?

NTW: The main point is that most second-temple Jews weren’t discussing “salvation” and “justification” in anything like the way later Christians did. They were anxious about how Israel’s God was going to unveil his long-awaited covenant purposes, returning in person to deliver Israel from subservience to pagans and to launch “the age to come”. That, for them, was “salvation”; and “justification”, not that they discussed it much, was about how you could tell in the present who God would vindicate in the future. Their debates focused on how all that would happen, and what they should be doing in the meantime.

I have shown how Paul’s teaching on justification, the law, etc. is best understood as the radical reworking of these debates around the new fixed point: that Israel’s God had returned in the person of Israel’s Messiah and that, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he had not only launched but had also redefined the “age to come”–right in the middle of ongoing and contested history. For Paul, this sovereign, saving act of the creator and covenant God was then being implemented through the work of the Spirit and in the announcement of the “gospel” in the pagan world. We only “get” what he means by “justification” and “salvation” when we put it all in this larger context. Nothing of value is lost thereby from older traditions (though some cherished formulations, themselves unbiblical, will need to be revised in the light of what Paul actually said); but much, much is gained, particularly the large and utterly coherent vision of his whole thought and work.

 

CONTINUE READING HERE! 

Atonement, Theosis, and St. Paul

paulGreat post from “The Preachers Institute“:

Atonement, Theosis & St. Paul

by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

Orthodox Theology has only recently found its way into English, and much of that English is dominated by Latin terms: Trinity, Sacraments, Deification, Advent, Mission, Nativity, Presentation, Redemption, Salvation, and so on. Most Orthodox Christians appear to have no problem with this. Non-Latin English theological terms appear less frequently, Lent being the obvious exception.

Writing in English, consequently, I hope to be forgiven by other Orthodox Christians for using a uniquely English expression, “Atonement,” to designate what Christ the Redeemer accomplished on the earth. I am relying on this word, which is signified in its central, accented, and load-bearing syllable, to convey four ideas. Indeed, I am hard pressed to think of another English word that conveys all four of these ideas equally well:

First, “At-one-ment” conveys the force of the idea of Reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19; cf.Romans 5:10). On man’s part-not God’s-says Paul, there was an enmity God Himself removed by what He accomplished in Christ. This is one of the meanings of Atonement:

“the Redemption which is in Christ Jesus”” (Romans 3:24).

Second, the word conveys our experience of being “in Christ” and “with Christ.” These analogous “prepositions of place” have long served to designate the union we have with Christ by his gracious love. “Atonement” expresses this union perfectly: We are at-one with Christ.

Third, “Atonement” expresses the goal of Redemption, which is union of man with God. Orthodox Soteriology should not start—as Saint Anselm did—with fallen man. It should commence, rather, with man completely restored in Christ. The word “atonement” means the goal, the telos or skops of all God’s activity in this world: man’s participation in the life of God.

(Anselm, let me mention in passing, did not know or use the word “Atonement.” He was an Italian who wrote exclusively in Latin. Those who speak of “Anselm’s theory of the Atonement,” then, can be safely dismissed.)

This is a very traditional idea in the Church. Already in the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons, the direct and almost-immediate heir of the Pauline and Johannine traditions of Asia, wrote of

“our Lord Jesus Christ, who by his supreme love became what we are, in order to bring us to what he himself is.”

More boldly Athanasius of Alexandria, two centuries later, wrote of God’s Son,

“he became man that we might become God.”

The tradition represented by Athanasius regarded the divinizing of man as the purpose of the Incarnation. Variations of theopoiesis appear repeatedly among the Alexandrians.

Slightly later in the fourth century St. Gregory Nazianzen invented a shorter expression, theosis, which became more common among the Greek Fathers to designate the believer’s incorporation into the life of God. This persuasion—and even this mode of expressing it—became standard during the period of the great Christological controversies.

Largely through the Latin translations of St. John Damascene and Pseudo-Dionysius in the Middle Ages, the equivalent Latin word, deificatio, gradually became acceptable in the West.

I use the word “Atonement,” then, to include Redemption’s full effect in the human being—that is, deification, man’s transfiguration in the glory of Christ. Among properly English words I cannot think of one that better expresses this theandric (God-man) quality of what Christ accomplished.

Fourth, “Atonement” enjoys the added merit of expressing the cosmology of Redemption, the reconciliation of the whole universe, its “re-heading” (anakephalaiosis, recapitulatio) in Christ. “Atonement” conveys everything St. Paul meant when he wrote that it pleased the Father, through Christ,

“to reconcile all things (apokatallaxsai ta panta) to Himself, through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross.”

Christ’s reconciliation embraces “all things”—ta panta. The glory of the transfigured Christ transforms the whole universe; heaven and earth are full of his glory.

For this reason an adequate theology of the Atonement should treat of several subjects not commonly associated with the Atonement, such as history, philosophy, literature, and psychology. I believe this disassociation is a serious defect; the exclusion of these subjects narrows the soteriological idea to a mere fraction of its meaning. All of these expressions of human consciousness and creativity give voice to man’s place in the world, his vocation to be the one locus where the Universe tries to makes sense of itself.

The Faithfulness of Christ is the Gospel: Ruminations on the Gospel and Soteriology

faithful“If someone were to ask me how to become a Christian, I’m not sure what I would tell them, except to follow Christ.”

A friend of mine on Facebook made this remark to me yesterday in response to some discussion on what is known as “The Sinner’s Prayer” (a prayer you pray asking Jesus into your heart). I had remarked, along side some other believers, that that prayer is dangerous and for lack of better terms, crappy. The gentleman had inquired as to why we would say that and that is wherein he wrote the sentence above, which prompted some quick thoughts in response. I wanted to elaborate on what I had said to him in response to what he asked.

Before I share that, however, I must dive into what we call the Gospel. As many following along here or on the Facebook page may know, I have been diving into N.T. Wright’s work as well as Michael Gorman’s. So the question of “what is the Gospel?” has been coming up and is fresh in my mind, which was good since I saw my friend’s remark about what to tell someone if they asked about how to become a Christian. In order to address that, we must focus shortly on what the Gospel is.

Without being too theological and verbose, for me the Gospel is the answer to the promises that God made to Abraham. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled in the Messiah, who we know is Jesus Christ. God’s plan for the world through Israel (to borrow Wright’s language) was to sort out what had gone horribly wrong with humanity, to make right that which was wrong. The Gospel is Christ, and more specifically the faithfulness of Christ (more on that in a moment). The story of Christ is the long-awaited fulfillment and coming of a new age. It is the end of an exile. An exile filled with sin and death. The Gospel is God’s breaking into the world via Christ to set it right, to bring about the beginning of the new creation. As N.T. Wright says, it is a rescuing from sin and death and corruption and an invitation to look upon Jesus and to participate in His death, burial, and resurrection in a very real, deeply sacramental way.

The Faithfulness of Christ is the Gospel

I recently shared a post on the blog with a video of N.T. Wright speaking about the Gospel. In it, he is asked what he would share if someone asked him to share the Gospel with them in a few short minutes. He makes a great point I want to mention here that the Gospel can’t be reduced to such, and I certainly am not attempting to paint a full picture here, but merely give some thoughts on how I would do it if I had just a few moments to speak with someone about it.

N.T. Wright said that “at the center of it [being asked what the Gospel is in a few moments] must be Jesus Christ. Not a theory, not an idea, but actually something about this Person.” He gives a beautiful illustration that the front door of the House of the Christian Faith is Jesus Christ Himself; without Christ it all means nothing. He remarks that it has to do with who He was, the meaning of His death, His Resurrection, etc. It is through Jesus that God has opened the door to the new world. Wright encourages us to say a quick prayer, keep it about Jesus and something about what God has done through Christ. It is now that we can turn to the faithfulness of Christ is the Gospel.

If I were to share the Gospel with someone in passing, in a few short minutes, on their deathbed, or when asked in general, I would begin with the faithfulness of Christ. What do I mean by that? Let’s examine what St. Paul says in Galatians 2:16:

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”

This is where I’d begin. I would explain as quickly as possible, and as simply, that through Christ God is reconciling the world (II Cor. 5:19). God’s ideal vision for the Israelites was that they’d be a vehicle through which He could redeem the world. Having given them the Law, they were to be His people and He their God. He entered into a covenant with them and has remained faithful to His covenant. Again, His plan all along was to bring about the True Israelite who would fulfill the covenant and the Law, which in turn opens the door for Jew and Gentile to belong to God’s family. The Israelites being as sinful as anyone else failed to fulfill their covenant role and the Law.

The Messiah enters.

It is through the Messiah’s faithfulness to fulfill the Law and the Covenant that we are justified. The Orthodox Study Bible has this to say about Gal. 2:16, “The faith of Christ IS the Gospel…It is the faith of Christ-His beliefs, His trust, His obedience-that justifies us, not our faith as such.” The Messiah breaks into humanity to rescue it from sin, corruption, and death by defeating those on the Cross and in His Resurrection, which liberates us from the power of sin and death. Christ, as Gorman says, fulfilled the vertical and horizontal demands of the Law in our place, so that the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled and the door to the new creation is opened.

It is not our faith, which comes and goes, that justifies us. It is the faithfulness of the Messiah that is the Gospel. It is through His faithfulness that we are declared right and found in favor with God. It is through His faithfulness that we can participate in His death, burial, and resurrection.

How Are You Saved? 

Back to “The Sinner’s Prayer” aspect of the story here. Herein lies my issues with that prayer: For me it is flawed because it treats salvation like a one time event and it is not. I also do not differentiate between being saved [or getting saved] and baptism. For me baptism is being saved and it is through the grace of the waters that God save you or better yet it is God’s grace in the water. Salvation is a continual life event but to begin it one cannot just simply utter a prayer.

To be saved is to be obedient to Christ and what He taught and what the Church has taught. It is to recognize that God has done something in the world through the Messiah and that you want to partake of Christ’s faithfulness by being baptized into His death and raised with Him in resurrection via baptism. It is accepting Him as messiah and participating in His sufferings [and suffering love] which redeem us. It is cruciform theosis! We are in Christ and it’s His faith that justifies us and liberates us and vindicates us. We then are free to carry on with good works. We die daily to ourselves and work out our salvation daily.

This is what it means to be saved. We are saved by the grace of God in baptism, we are being saved by the grace of God in dying daily to ourselves, being crucified with Christ, suffering with Him, while the Spirit restores us to union with God, and we will be saved, Lord willing, in the Final Judgment. Salvation is not a one-time event. We are transformed by the power of the Cross and of the Resurrection. The faithfulness of Christ is what opens the door to salvation up for us. This is nothing we can do our own! It is a gift given to us by Christ, which we reject or embrace.

Become One with Christ

In summary, my friend was right when he said, “I’m not sure what I would tell them, except to follow Christ.” At least he is headed in the right direction. It is about Christ. I would say, to use stronger language, that is about being crucified with Christ. Justification is for St. Paul by faith, but that faith has to be understood as co-crucifixion with Christ. It is direct participation not just imitation in the death, burial, and resurrection with Christ. The old man dies; the new man is born! Theosis is the continuing work of the Spirit in our lives to conform us to Christ and to unite us with God. If I were to be asked about the Gospel, I’d say it is about Christ, His faithfulness, our participation in that faithfulness, and cruciform theosis to become one with Christ in a very real way. This is not a thorough treatment, full exegesis of any texts, or an holistic definition. There is much more that could be said, but I was prompted by Wright’s thoughts and the conversation with my friends, so I wanted to reflect on this. It is sometimes a question that may surprise us, but we should contemplate what we’d do if we were asked “what is the Gospel?” or told “tell me about God”.

I would share with them that it is about bringing our story into the story of Christ, which is one of faithfulness, love, courage, redemption, reconciliation, restoration, and more than anything, one of hope and beauty for us sinners.