You’ve returned from your vacation; playing on the beach, snorkeling, hiking and more. But that dreaded Monday arrives, and it’s back to work at corporate headquarters under the florescent lights.
You bump into Robert, the brainiac computer network technician, at the water cooler. You sigh and prepare yourself for a weird conversation, as “Bob” can never seem to get out of his head and into the real world.
“You seem different,” he remarks.
“Oh yeah,” you respond, “I just got back from Hawaii. I was out in the sun a lot, so I really got tanned.”
After a brief pause, Robert finally retorts, “That’s an interesting idea.”
“Idea? It’s not an idea! It’s a sun tan!”
“I just think the sun is such an interesting concept,” Robert continues. “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could really experience the sun as it is?”
“But I did experience it!” You’re a little annoyed at yourself because you’ve allowed him to pull you in again…but not enough to just walk away. “I experienced the sun, and I got a tan!” you insist.
Robert chuckles, “Well, the sun is almost 100 million miles from the earth. You can’t really experience the sun.”
“But the sun’s rays…” you begin to explain in a bit of a huff. But Bob, as if in his own little world, has already turned and begun to walk away as if he didn’t hear you. The last thing you hear is, “The sun! What an amazing concept!”
The fictional conversation above can provide us with a metaphor for describing the radical contrast between the ancient Orthodox Christian theology of grace and the novel Protestant view. For as the sun was just a concept for Robert, having no real, organic relationship to you, a real human being, the Protestant idea of grace is just that, an idea. Grace becomes an idea that a mental belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection magically makes one eligible to go to heaven when one dies.
The Protestant understanding of grace is usually articulated as “God’s unmerited favor.” It is the idea that God’s attitude changes toward me, not that grace changes me. It is essentially a get-out-of-hell-free card.
But what of the Orthodox Christian understanding? I have to confess that even as a seminary graduate, and later as a priest, I did not truly comprehend the teaching of divine grace according to the scriptures and Church Fathers. And yet, if we are indeed “saved by grace” (see Eph. 2:8), it is imperative that we truly understand what grace is and how we acquire it. “Saved by grace” cannot be surrendered to Evangelicals; it belongs properly to Orthodox Christian teaching and faith.
Know The Faith
This is one reason I was motivated to write this book now just released by Ancient Faith Publishing, Know the Faith: A Handbook for Orthodox Christians and Inquirers. We Orthodox must know the Faith and be able to articulate it to others through the Holy Scriptures and Fathers of the Church.
The chapter on “Grace” comes second only to the chapter on “The Church” since it directly relates to our understanding of the Church as Christ’s glorified Body. I believe it is a much-needed study as I am not aware of any other comprehensive presentation in English dedicated solely to the Orthodox theology of God’s grace.
Know The Faith includes other topics rarely expounded upon by Orthodox writers, e.g. “Justification by Faith” and “Ordination and the Priesthood,” as well as addressing other more familiar topics with a fresh approach relevant to our situation today, especially in America: “Salvation;” “Tradition and Scripture;” “Eucharist and Christian Worship;” “Confession and Repentance;” “Icons, Veneration, and Worship;” “Intercession of the Saints;” and the “Veneration of the Virgin Mary.”
But let’s get back to the topic of grace.
Not an Idea
In Orthodoxy, grace is not an idea. Rather it is the real, substantial, and transforming energies and power of God. Remember the woman with the issue of blood (St. Veronica) who approached Christ in faith and touched the hem of His garment? It was not an idea that healed her. What did the Lord say? “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me” (Lk. 8:46).
The Church has always understood this saving power of God as His divine grace and His uncreated energies or activities. Or, as St. John Chrysostom calls it, “the energy of the Spirit.” It is God’s divine grace and energy that saves us when we open ourselves to it, for grace is the very life of God Himself.
Grace is not a concept or a declaration of innocence; rather, it is the uncreated life of God that flows from Him naturally and eternally. It is a real and concrete participation in the divine life that God has desired to share with us from the beginning. It is the life that He blew into the dust to make Adam “a living being” (Gen. 2:7). It is the “stuff” that unites us to God, bringing us into a true, organic communion with Him.
Just as we truly participate in the created power and energy of the sun, grace is a participation in God’s uncreated divine energies. To quote from the chapter on “Grace”:
We all experience the power and energy of the sun. We truly experience and feel its warmth and light through the rays of energy that shine down upon us. These rays do not merely give us an impression of what the sun is; they are not a substitute for the sun; they do not present us with ideas about the sun; they do not merely illustrate what the sun is like; they are a real participation in the very energies of the sun itself. By our contact with the rays of the sun we actually participate in the light and heat it produces. The sun’s power interacts with our human cells and real, organic changes occur in our human chemistry.
In western theology, there is a tendency to see grace as something created, something superimposed over man to make him appear holy and pious. We see this approach expressed artistically in the “halo” of western religious depictions as compared to the way Orthodox iconography traditionally pictures grace as emanating from the face or being of the person depicted. Why is the distinction important? If grace is created, then by definition it cannot be a real experience of the uncreated God.
Essence and Energies
Western Christendom has also lost the distinction between the essence and the energies (grace) of God articulated early on by Fathers such as St. Basil the Great. While God’s essence, i.e. His inner life, cannot be known by His creatures, His uncreated energies are a true self-revelation and experience of Himself. The confusion in the West led to conclusions that God could only be known through the reason or philosophy.
Most importantly, having lost an Orthodox Christian understanding and experience of grace, the West got caught up in controversies regarding grace verses works. How is one saved, by grace or by works? The Orthodox teaching resolves this seeming enigma in a way one may not suspect.
But I will have to leave that to be explained in Know The Faith.