Why The Small Things Matter

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Perhaps one of the greatest disservices done to Christians by the spate of “Left Behind” novels and the like, and the romanticism that is inherent in the drama depicted – is that it makes the true struggle undergone by Christians seem trivial by comparison. When the small actions, little choices for kindness, forgiveness, joy, comfort – the whole panoply of our daily struggle – are minimized, the heroism of our struggle and its importance can be reduced to insignificance.

When this is coupled with a reduced doctrine of the Atonement, in which a simple act of intellectual acceptance, a “choice for Jesus,” acquires a blood payment for sin in a once-for-all momentary encounter (I’m doing my best to describe the popular conception of the Substitutionary Atonement Theory), Christianity itself becomes minimized. One decision and you’re done. Little wonder that many have traded-in Christian ascesis for political action – at least the latter seems real to them.

I have described the Substitutionary Atonement as a “reduced” doctrine because it uses only one sacrificial image to describe Christ’s work on the Cross. This single image does not begin to do justice to the many images of sacrifice given in the Scriptures, all of which are fullfilled by Christ’s death on the Cross. Christ sacrifice is not one thing – but all things.

The reduction of Christianity to a virtual land of fantasy has granted undue power to our present age in the guise of the secular. There is, in fact, no such thing as secular – it is a modern fiction – one which Christians should not empower by granting it recognition. God is excluded from nothing whatsoever, nor does He ask for our permission in order to be present. We may do unspeakable things in His presence – but that does not render Him absent. It renders us hardened hearts but can make no change in the changeless God.

The sooner Christians awaken to the marketing scheme of secularizing dogma-merchants, the sooner they can begin their search for the God whom they have “left behind.” He is truly near us, even on our lips and in our mouths. We should renounce the false romanticism of modern dispensationalism and the hucksters of false messianic prophecies. All of these things are removing the truth of our faith from the smallest of things before us, and placing them on the false stage of “history.”

Small things matter for it is there that we will meet Christ – and there alone. Every moment of our life, even when it is later dramatized for narrative effect, is still quite a small thing. Either we will see and embrace Christ in these moments of our existence, or we will worship a false Christ manufactured by human imagination and fantasy. For the Christian, God is here or He is nowhere at all.

20 comments:

  1. Father, Bless,

    This is great post! Without a doubt, much of the current reaction against Christianity is cause and effect of the silliness in marketing the faith in such misrepresented terms. Who could reasonably embrace evaporation of the “saved” as a guide to how to live! “Saved” as a term that is presented as credo, via Calvin and descendants, leaves out all the small things and makes God a capricious monster; reaction/rejection of such an Almighty is only reasonable.

    Mary Lowell

  2. So beautifully stated Father Stephen, thank you. Here is a quick story about my recent “small thing”: I was told by my priest, Father Anthony during a current/ongoing struggle, that we are not to focus on externals (I was trying to understand why I was having trouble holding on to who I was when I visited with family who knew me before I embraced Orthodoxy, it might sound strange but falling into old patterns of behavior was/is a problem for me) that it is much more important to focus on all of the things that truly are internal and thus essentially Orthodox. Its not the “face” I put on to be accepted in any particular group but the person that I want my family, friends and neighbors, even strangers to know when they encounter me. This was a small thing, just a tiny shift in perception, yet somehow huge.
    Was any meeting loving, filled with the good things of the Holy Spirit, even if it is a difficult encounter? Father Anthony taught me, in a simple way (thank you God) that Orthodoxy is more about internal change as a Christian than externally explaining how great the faith is and what it can do for your life. Let’s see it only took seven years to figure out that much, I wonder what I will learn in the next seven?
    Christ is in our midst!
    Mary-Leah

  3. “Secular” is derived from the Latin word “saecularis” meaning “of the age.” As God is not of our age, but ageless, I believe “secular” is an appropriate term for the demarcation between that which is worldly and finite and that which is purportedly not.

    Secularism is probably THE idea that has saved the United States and other modern civilizations from degenerating into an impoverished hell on earth. So show some respect please.

  4. Sorry to have violated the dictionary – but God is everywhere present and fillest all things, according to Orthodox doctrine – the infinite God became incarnate in finite matter and has thus changed the relationship of all matter. From an Orthodox perspective nothing is secular. If you want to separate Church and State, I’m all for it. State’s have not been that good for Orthodoxy on the whole (to quote my Archbishop).

    I’m also aware of the argument that Kant and others who contributed to notions of the secular (religion under the limits of reason) sought to do so to prevent the religious wars of the West. Orthodoxy was not a participant in those wars. But the secular societies have not degenerated into impoverished hell on earth as you well noted. But they have degenerated in many respects – and the second World War proved that secular states were as capable of destroying one another as religious states. Indeed, the secular state, in many cases, simply transferred the loyalties of its citizens from the Church to the state. Thus, to quote Stanley Hauerwas of Duke, we succeeded in getting people not to quit killing, but to quit killing in the name of God. Now they’ll kill in the name of the state and do so quite regularly.

    I’ll stand by my assertion, despite the Latin. It’s just proper Orthodox theology.

  5. A second word on “secular.” In proper theological terminology we make a distinction between “created” and “uncreated,” God alone being “uncreated.” But secular seeks to make a distinction within the “created” – that some created things are not related to God while others are – thus the split of “sacred” and “secular” or “sacred” and “profane.” It is this split within the created order that I argue is false. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”

    Distinctions such as secular and profane are generally made by those who want to change the issue of power. Henry VIII “secularized” much Church land and butchered many monks, and created large wealth for the ruling class of Britain.

    The state has done this any number of times, whenever the Church lacked the popular support to prevent such wholesale thievery. But, of course, governments like to practice wholesale thievery anytime they can get by with it.

    As noted from any number of observers (from the Diary of Samuel Pepys to Mark Twain) “No man’s property is safe while the legislature is sitting.”

  6. Would you say that secularism is the problem by itself? The US was for a long while both Christian and Secular (hopefully some parts still are). I’d argue that modern radical liberalism, basically any philosophy that denies the fallen-ness of man and believes he can be perfectable on Earth (i.e. socialism, communism, etc.) alone has been far more dangerous than just the separation of Church and state.

  7. Steve,

    I am not saying that secularism is the problem – nor am I arguing against the separation of Church and State. I am talking not about what’s wrong with our culture, etc., but what’s wrong with us – me and you. It’s that we see things as secular and otherwise and this is not true. Even the State is not secular if we see correctly. How the State sees itself does not matter to me. But how I as a Christian see everything matters tremendously – not for it’s politicial impact – I don’t care about it’s political impact. It’s the impact on my soul. If I am seeing things in terms that are not true, then I do not see Christ as I should and my heart becomes clouded.

    All of my writing on the one-storey and two storey universe have been to direct our hearts to see the truth – not to think of how to construct our culture. It would be a distraction.

  8. Fr. Stephen,

    I agree with you comments on secularism. ‘Christ must be Lord of all or else He is not Lord at all’, to take a phrase from Os Guiness. It is similar to the original conception of the university–a place where all of man’s knowledge was united and related to God who made man and the universe. No field of knowledge was seen as unrelated to God; and Theology was the queen of sciences (i.e. ‘fields of knowledge’) not because it dictated to the rest as Enlightenment propagandists would have it but because it was Theology that gave us knowledge of God the Source of all things and to whom all those things are ultimately related. The modern university has no such unifying vision; many fields do not and cannot talk to one another.

    Many historians of Western Europe argue that Protestantism was the great secularizing force: it destroyed the unity of Western Christendom, it deprived people of sacred time and sacred space. More could be said.

    Finally, our founders did not envision separation of church and state. Several of the states had established churches at the time the Constitution was ratifed. The founders forbade the Federal government to establish a national church. The degree to which a phrase in a private letter of Thomas Jefferson has been made the de facto meaning of the First Ammendment contrary to the literal words thereof has become ludicrous. “Separation of Church and State” has become a slogan with too little thought behind it. It does very effectively secularize the state in our minds so that it is hard for us to imagine a government with any relation to the living God. And as Christians, for us to accept the premise that there is any part of our lives that is exempt from God is a serious error.

    Fr. Justin Frederick

  9. Thank you, Fr. Justin, for your comments. I very much agree that the turmoil of the Reformation and certain strains of thought created the Western version of secularism. It’s simply a false world-view. However, it’s a world-view, not a political science. How the state constructs itself is almost beside-the-point for me. It it were a religious state, for instance, I think it would make more trouble for us than it does at present. It would not be an Orthodox state, for sure. And even “Orthodox” states (I think of the Russian state from Peter the Great forward) were frequently more devastating on the Church than a non-religious state would have been. And Byzantine Emperors were constantly interfering in the life of the Church – including being the well-spring and sponsors of the heresy of iconoclasm.

    Where I come down in this, is to say to myself and anyone else, that political reform, etc., are largely beside the point. If the state is disordered, so be it. But myself and the Church should not be disordered because of it. I should understand that “secular” is a fantasy and not true. I should see the truth of how the world is, regardless of the state or the culture around me. Everything I am and all that I see should shout the existence of God and the good news in Christ. Nothing can stop that, except me. I don’t mean to be individualizing the gospel (God forbid) but my practice of the Gospel depends on nothing other than the Grace of God.

    I generally don’t do much commentary on political matters, because I don’t think Princes and the Sons of Men will do us much good anyway. Constitutional practice has certainly changed since the founding of America, but interestingly, Church attendance as a percent of population is probably higher now than at the time of the Revolution. American culture is a strange bird.

    By the way, I recommend any of the books by George Marsden on American Church history (I think he’s at Notre Dame now, but was at Duke when I was there). His writing is very insightful, and not nearly as politically driven as a number of other historians (on the left and the right).

  10. Father, thank you once again for the small picture. If we Christians would take care of all the small things in a Christian manner, the big stuff would take care of itself.

  11. Esau,

    The Orthodox by no means reject atonement, but the substitutionary atonement tends to narrow the entire subject into a very specific transaction that in many ways says more than Scripture itself does. It did not develop as a full blown theory until the middle ages in the West. The East by no means rejects atonement. Christ made peace through the cross, he cleansed us from sin, he paid our debt, he destroyed death by death, etc. But the atonement was to unite us with God (at-one-ment) not just buy us a ticket to heaven. The whole of our salvation is completed in the resurrection. Theosis is nothing more than being conformed to the image of Christ. The West usually breaks this out as a separate category of sanctification, but the East sees this as an unnecessary distinction. All of Christ’s action in our life is our salvation. You can speak of it in various aspects.

    The tendency in the West is to break all of Christ’s work into very discreet segments and talk about some (atonement) more than others. The East has always wanted to speak of all of it together as one thing, though it may run through the whole of our life – and if anything – to speak of it in its most final form, which is theosis, or conformity to the image and likeness of Christ.

    I would say that for someone who only knows the atonement of Christ under the heading of substitutionary atonement has a too small understanding of atonement that does not do justice to all of the imagery used in the New Testament, let alone the typology of the Old. It does not need to be jettisoned, but simply put in its place.

    It has problems: it tends to put an emphasis on justice that is medieval rather than Scriptural. It tends to view the Father as angry and in need of payment. When put in hard and fast terms, and taken out of the metaphorical realm, it says some things about God that are contrary to a proper doctrine of God. It is a usuable doctrine, if it is balanced with other Scriptural images.

    No Ecumenical Council of the Church ever codified a single image or doctrine of the Atonement. The best things to read:

    St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word

    Also: The Anaphora (consecration prayer) of the Liturgy of St. Basil. These will give some starting places.

  12. Esau,
    A recent Illumined Heart podcast interviewed the Protestant author (Dr. Joel B. Green) who co-authored the book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. They discuss the many interpretations of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and why “penal substitutionary model” is deficient.

    Listen Here

  13. Yes, Esau,

    There is a clear sense in these early Fathers of a ransom, though it tends to be “from death” rather than from “the devil” or “from the wrath of God.” The wrath of God (as the substitutionary atonement with its theories of Divine Justice) generally do not figure in this language very often. The full substitionary atonement doctrine is not found in a “full-blown” form in Scripture without assuming a lot of things that are not there. It is for this reason that it found little echo in the East. Trust me, the Eastern Fathers use every image in Scripture that is available.

    The payment for the debt to Divine Justice generally requires the marriage of Latin Western thought and early Germanic thought to arrive at its end point. I know that it has become a matter of dogma among many evangelicals, but it has very little warrant in Christian history.

    It is image that can be used (I believe) with certain caveats surrounding it. There is no doubt that Christ died for our sins, none whatsoever. But how precisely you describe that event is problematic – for Scripture uses many images. I believe as a point of fact, that Christ’s death is the fulfillment of every sacrifice in the Old Testament – which covers a lot of different understandings of atonement, etc. The Cross fulfills everything.

    But does God have a Divine Justice that has been injured and must be repaid? Of this I am not certain. It is a late theory, and runs into difficulties of:

    a. God is “bound by His justice” I’m not sure that is a correct theological statement
    b. God would be bound to send some to hell as punishment. I do not think hell, properly understood, is punishment. It is real, but not the result of Divine retribution, but of human sin.
    etc.

    The imagery, as I say, can certainly be used, but it would be incorrect to raise it to the level of dogma – it does not have the authority of a council or Christian usage. As such, it is a novel theory, and should be used carefully. Many Protestants, have made more of this than they should, primarily in reaction to Tridentine Roman Catholicism. The reactions of Rome and Geneva drove both into extremes that would have better been avoided.

  14. Esau,

    I think those are excellent questions, indeed. Of course Christ fulfills the sacrifices of the OT. Seeing them as “substitutes” however may be reading into the text what is not in the text. For one, we cannot import into St. Paul’s use of the term “just” the entire baggage of later Latin-Germanic usage of the term – it’s anachronistic. In the case of Ro. 3:25 God indeed is just – but in Jewish terms this would have more a meaning of “the one who sets right” but not the same thing as the one who pays off what is owed, etc.

    Dikaios, in St. Paul, should be read more carefully. I think NT Wright has tried to do some of this in his recent work. There is also Stephen Finlan’s Problems with Atonement that is helpful. Finlan seems to also be a liberal Catholic which takes him to some conclusions I would not share, but a lot of his basic work is still quite solid and worth reading.

    We have a centuries’ old history of reading certain words according to either Anselmian theories or Lutheran theories, any number of things other than reading them according to the Fathers or according to St. Paul in his own context. That history can make somethings seem obvious that are not obvious.

    For instance, “propitiation,” as a translation for “hilasterion,” (literally “mercy seat”) is problematic. Propitiation carries an entire atonement theory within itself that mercy seat may not carry, or at least not quite the same content.

    I recommned Finlan if you want to dig into atonement theory within Scripture, though, as I say, I can’t go along with all of his solutions. But he states the problems fairly well.

    What is interesting is the substitutionary theory finding virtually no place in the Eastern Fathers. Why would that be? It cannot possibly be their lack of Scriptural knowledge. Usually ideas don’t occur to someone because the constituent elements of the idea simply don’t exist. They did exist later in the Western mix of Latin and Germanic thought, where the theory comes to reign. But why not in the East?

  15. Esau,

    Again good questions. I don’t think there is anything “hidden” in Orthodoxy. It’s all out there – but it’s a lot of reading. 🙂

    The last questions:

    1. Is God angered by our sin. Only in a metaphorical sense. God is not subject to human emotions. Anger is, at best, metaphorical when speaking of God. The Fathers are quite clear on this.

    2. Sin separates us from God in the sense that it cuts us off from the Lord and Giver of Life. It plunges us into death (which manifests itself as the whole panoply of disease and corruption). It does not separate God from us (while we were yet sinners Christ died for us). God has entered into Hades for us – where we had separated ourselves from Him – but He crossed over to us in order to reclaim us as His own. So separate, but only on our part.

    3. Absolutely Christ ends that separation through His life on earth and death on the cross, and having united us to Him in His death, unites as well to Him in His resurrection. This is absolutely the case. We believe that man must say yes to God who has done so much for us. We are not saved against our own will. But there is ample Grace for all to say yes to God. That some do not say yes seems to be clear in Scripture, and the almost unanimous voice of the Fathers. There’s a minority of about two Fathers who thought that when everything was said and done, God would have won us all (St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Isaac of Syria) neither of whom are condemned for such speculation (theirs was different than the dogmatizing of Origen). But the general teaching of the Church is that God is not willing that any should perish, but all of us are not so willing.

    But we are saved from the consequence of sin and made new only through Christ. There is no other salvation. This is the faith of the Fathers.

  16. Fyi, N.T. Wright has not “completely abandoned some form of substitutionary atonement in his thought.” He insists that, rightly understood, penal substitution, is a biblical doctrine.

  17. I would be interested in how N.T. nuances the substitutionary model to make it consistent with the New Testament. But properly nuanced I’m sure you could. As it has classically been taught, it borders or blasphemy.

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