Reflecting on yesterday’s post, I thought it worthwhile to share these thoughts again on the nature of our salvation. It offers a short summary of the difference between a moral and an existential understanding of the Christian faith and why the difference matters. Indeed, as I look through my writings I know this is a recurring theme. It recurs because it is so fundamental to the Christian faith and is at the same time largely unknown in our modern world.
The nature of things is an important question to ask – or should I say an a priori question. For once we are able to state what is the nature of things then the answers to many questions framed by the nature of things will also begin to be apparent. All of this is another way of saying that questions have a way of determining answers. So what is the nature of things? More specifically, what is the nature of things such that Christians believe humanity needs salvation? (Non-Christians will already feel co-opted but I write as a Christian – can’t be helped).
I want to state briefly several things which seem to me to be of importance about the nature of things in this regard.
1. It is the nature of things that man does not have a legal problem with God. That is to say, the nature of our problem is not forensic. The universe is not a law-court.
2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.
3. It is the nature of things that human beings were created to live through communion with God. We were not created to live as self-sufficient individuals marked largely by our capacity for choice and decision. To restate this: we are creatures of communion, not creatures of consumption.
So much for the nature of things. (I’ll do my best to leave behind the syllogisms and return to my usual form of writing.)
Much of my experience as an American Christian has been an encounter with people who do not see mankind’s problem as existential or ontological – but rather as moral. They have seen that we behave badly and thought that the primary task of the Church (following whatever event was considered “necessary” for salvation) was to help influence people to be “good.” Thus I recall a Sunday School teacher who in my pre-school years (as well as a first-grade teacher who attempted the same) urging me and my classmates to “take the pledge.” That is, that we would agree not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol before age 21. The assumption seemed to be that if we waited that long then we would likely never begin. In at least one of those cases an actual document was proffered. For the life of me I cannot remember whether I signed or not. The main reason I cannot remember was that the issues involved seemed unimportant to me at the time. Virtually every adult in my life smoked. And I was not generally familiar with many men who did not drink. Thus my teachers were asking me to sign a document saying that I thought my father and my grandfather were not good men. I think I did not sign. If I did, then I lied and broke the pledge at a frightfully early age.
My later experience has proven the weakness of the assumptions held by the teachers of my youth. Smoking wasn’t so much right or wrong as it was addicting and deadly. I smoked for 20 years and give thanks to God for the grace he gave me to quit. I feel stupid as I look back at the actions of those 20 years, but not necessarily “bad.” By the same token, I have known quite a few alcoholics (some of them blood relatives) and have generally found them to be about as moral as anyone else and sometimes moreso. I have also seen the destruction wrought by the abuse of alcohol. But I have seen similar destruction in families who never drank and the continuation of destruction in families where alcohol had been removed. Drinking can have serious consequences, but not drinking is not the same thing as curing the problem.
I had a far more profound experience, indeed a series of experiences, when I was ten years old – experiences that made a much deeper impression and framed the questions that burned in my soul about the nature of things.
The first experience was the murder of an aunt. She was 45 and a darling of the family. Everyone loved her. Her murder was simply a matter of “random” chance – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time or simply in a convenient place for a man who meant to do great harm to someone. No deep mystery, just a brutal death. The same year another aunt died as a result of a multi-year battle with lupus (an auto-immune disease). And to add to these things, my 10th year was also the year of Kennedy’s assassination. Thus when the year was done it seemed to me that death was an important question – even the important question.
It probably says that I was marked by experiences that were unusual for a middle-class white boy in the early 60’s. It also meant that when I later read Dostoevsky in my late teens, I was hooked.
The nature of things is that people die – and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are notcreatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.
One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)
This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”
The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existencethat has to be addressed. And again, the New Testament, as well as the Tradition of the Church, turns our attention in this direction. Having been created for union with God, we will not be able to live in any proper way without that union. Thus our Baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, making possible a proper existence. Living that proper existence will not be done by merely trying to control our decisions and choices, but by consciously and unconsciously working to maintain our union with God. We are told “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Thus our victory, and the hope of our victory is “Christ within you, the hope of glory.”
And so if we will live in such communion we will struggle to pray, not as a moral duty, but as the very means of our existence. We pray, we fast, we give alms, we confess, we commune, not in order to be better people, but because if we neglect these things we will die. And the death will be slow and marked by the increasing dissolution of who and what we are.
In over 25 years of ministry, I have consistently found this model of understanding to better describe what I encounter and what I live on a day to day basis. In the past ten years of my life as an Orthodox Christian, I have found this account of things not only to continue to describe reality better – but also to be in conformity with the Fathers. It is a strong case for Christian Tradition that it actually describes reality as we experience it better than the more modern accounts developed in the past four hundred years or so. Imagine. People understood life a thousand years ago such that they continue to describe the existential reality of modern man. Some things do not change – except by the grace of God and His infinite mercy.
“2. It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.”
I remember the first time I read this statement several years ago in one of your earlier offerings. A huge revaltory light bulb went off in my head and I have embraced it as an understanding coupled with other readings/inquiries etc.
Having said that, I still struggle with a clear way of incorporating that notion into so much of the NT writings that, for lack of a better term, “call us to a level of moral righteous living”. There just seems to be a continued gap in my mind about this. I am a life-long protestant now converted for about one year for my reference point. I am looking to tie it all together and would appreciate your illucidations. I have no dissenion, just dichotmy.
I very much enjoy and appreciate your blog and thank you for sharing your thoughts.
When I think of these things, I think on the fact that goodness flows from being, from who I am, and never as an act-in-itself. Even Hitler loved children – yet his heart was black. Moral righteous living only flows from a righteous heart, which is only established by the resurrection and its power in our lives. “If any man is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Good deeds flow from a new creation.
“Moral righteous living only flows from a righteous heart, which is only established by the resurrection and its power in our lives.”
How true Father Stephen. He became what we are (corrupt) so that we can become what He is (infinite mercy).
Thank you once again.
James, forgive me for interloping.
I think that being as pure as an innocent child or a virgin (pick your metaphor) are morally good, yet they are not the object of God’s longing any more than He wanted his children in Israel merely to wash their hands and offer a sacrifice in the outer temple.
David said, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” (Ps 26)
We need to go into the temple where His glory dwells, and transforms us divinely by grace. No stops along the road into where His glory dwells are worthy substitutes. They will not satisfy Him or us, because we were made for nothing less than intimate betrothal to the King of glory.
“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn 17)
Life itself is knowing God in His glory. All good things subsist in dependence on His glory. We need not wait to “go” to heaven. Every moment is right for Him because our body is now the temple and our heart His throne.
Reading this takes me back to all my frustrations and failures as a Protestant Christian. This post, and the one on “showing up”, makes it clear that works do have a transformational effect in our lives. I grew up believing that Christ had changed our legal status, but that also He made our dead souls alive at the time we “accept Him”. The thing is, everything after that point is considered “sanctification” and therefore you were at least guaranteed Heaven (supposedly). This understanding of God’s grace meant that “Works” were unnecessary. But you already know this.
My Christian life was one big frustration after another. Because I never thought anything other than “faith” was needed, I constantly failed and fell into sin, despite being in “ministry” for several years.
Since becoming an inquirer and just recently a catechumen, I see how synergy works in salvation. Going from learning about the Church, to entering into the life of the Church has begun something in me I can almost “feel” in a way that the emotionalism of my former faith never could do. Before I felt like the glory on the face of Moses that faded, only there was no real encounter, only an emotional experience.
I am attempting to blog my journey from Protestantism to Orthodoxy (real original, I know). The last two blogs of yours have given me insight into the reason for my former failings. I am just getting started, and am still sorting out my thoughts to write down.
While I am sure I will stumble on this road to salvation, at least now I have 2000 years of experience and depth to draw from.
In the desert fathers there is a story: a young man once asked a monk, “What do you do in the monastery all day?” The monk replied, “We fall down, and get up, and fall down and get up, and fall down and get up again.”
Orthodoxy offers 2000 years of truth about the living experience of life in Christ rather than doctrinal theory. We will all fall down many times and for many reasons, but it will be there, not with slogans, nor with pep talks, but with the living truth and grace – that you can see, smell, touch, taste and even swallow. Glory to God!
You interloped well and I appreciate the perspective and your offering your insight. It is useful.
This resonates deeply, Father, and turns my eyes towards Easter. Thank you, and God and Mary be with you.
Thanks for the great writings. I really appreciate it.
I have quick question about Orthodoxy though. I have not read much from you about how salvation is Covenantal in nature. I know you place a priority on the heart which I think is a Biblical priority, but the New Testament (i.e. new covenant) talks about how salvation covenantal, which includes heart but also formal agreements which is something close to legality. I think the biblical picture of marriage is a good example of this. It revolves around the heart but does maintain certain legal/moral obligations.
I am just curious how much the covenants in salvation history matter in the Orthodox church. Thank you!
It is not a topic that has a large place in Orthodoxy. Covenantal understandings developed relatively late in Christian thought. In the Eastern Church, for instance, marriage is not seen as a covenant. Promises are not made, though we believe it is life-long. We believe it is a sacrament, a gift of God, rather than emphasizing a covenantal aspect. The image of covenant does come up (I think) from time to time, but is not seen as a particularly strong aspect within Christian theology. Of course places such as “the new covenant in my blood” etc. are treated in the fathers, but they do not hold the prominent place that is typical in Reform theology. I’m not sure that I would agree that it is a Biblical priority. It is not unimportant, but it is one of many images used with regard to our salvation.
Thank Father Stephen. Do you think that there might not be a big difference between marriage as a covenant and marriage as a sacrament? Or difference between baptism as a sacrament and coveanental ceremony? Or the Eucharist as a sacrament that also is a covanental renewal?
For example in Exodus, when the Elders eat a meal in the presence of God, it is both bringing them into the heavenlies but also a covenantal renewal.
Thanks for the conversation. I am just trying to think through this.
I understand the covenantal concern, but in the hands of many who are also into forensic atonement, the covenant becomes just another agreement, an idea. When the Scriptures Old and New are concerned with actual union – even in covenant. My complaint would not be with covenant, but with the very weak, almost contractual character of the concept in the hands of many Christians. Baptism is union with Christ – buried with Him – resurrected with Him. Only if covenant is taken in an extremely strong sense do I see it as useful or well understood.
Michael Spencer, a Protestant writer also known as “the Internet Monk” had similar thoughts when describing the training of young people in the faith. He stressed that youth (and all) need to consider their walk with God in terms of their “identity in Christ”, rather than in terms of “behavior modification”.
I was raised a Baptist, and have been bouncing around from protestant church to church, in and out, off and on, for 20 years or more. The more I learn about scripture and the ancient teachings of the Western Fathers, the less I understand about any of it. The more I read and hear, and the more I ponder what was said, the less clear it all is to me. It is sorta like saying the same word over and over again until it is just a sound devoid of meaning. I have tried to compare Christianity to modern paganist writings, Asatru, Hellenism, Odinism, and Celtic belief, trying to gain some deeper insight into commonalities and differences, all to no avail. Whew, what a mess I am in, drifting, drifting. I don’t feel like I am dying, or maybe I do. I feel kinda dead and pointless more and more lately, but perhaps I’m just tired.
Anyway, I discovered Orthodoxy through the writings and audio lectures of Matthew Raphael Johnson, and was led to your site by the Liturgical something-or-other.blogspot. I saw the box at the bottom here and posted out of curiosity as to what you might say to me.
This comment is interesting to me. I suspect there is something meaningful here, but I don’t understand what it means: It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.
I used to be a Christian. Perhaps I still am, it’s hard to tell anymore, listening to the different preachers, the Greek and Latin philosophers, the new-agers, and my assortment of part-time local preachers. Christians to me nowadays seem to be more and more alien somehow. But people like you, true believers and faith dispensers, seem to have something I cannot see anymore, like a star I believe I see out of the corner of my eye which disappears when I try to look straight at it.
“It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.”
This is a profound statement, Father Stephen — many years!
There is indeed a great confusion within Protestant “church-to-church.” There are many mixed messages, much that has little to do with the fullness of Christian Tradition. Orthodox Christianity is a world apart from what you have been used to and will take time to “attune” to in order to understand it. More than a set of ideas, it is a way of life. What the faith teaches and what Orthodox Christians do as a way of life complement each other so that things begin to “make sense” as a life lived rather than simply a set of ideas. For one, it takes time. Attend a Church, read, talk with a priest. Learn to pray in the most basic ways. Listen.
My statement that Christ came not to make bad me good but to make dead men live – is because good and bad are not the problem (though they are problems). We are not being judged on a legal or forensic basis. Our lives are broken in their communion with the true and living God, who alone is the source of all life. Thus we are in a sort of state of living death – what St. Paul called “corruption.” It’s answer is not to try to do good, but to be restored to true and living communion with God. Dead men live. Out of that true life comes the transformation of who we are so that little by little we become more truly by Christ, because He has become our true life. Hope that helps.
Another way of saying what Father Stephen has said is that we are born into a world which believes that it can “live” simply by making the “right” _____ choices. Fill in the blanks.
It is only when man meets Christ does he truly know himself and indeed what “life” and “right” mean.
Christ is Risen!
Thank you, I understand most of that, except for this:
“Our lives are broken in their communion with the true and living God,”
And what exactly do you mean by “dying”? I feel lost and I feel like I would rather be dead sometimes. Is that what it means?
I guess I need specific examples of how these abstract (to me) concepts manifest themselves, if that is possible, in order to understand much of what Orthodox people have written.
I am curious about attending an Orthodox church. What does an American do? There’s one Orthodox church here near me, but the people I see going in are not my people at all. It’s probably all too weird for us to start going there. Perhaps I could learn something useful, though I seriously doubt we could ever be comfortable being in communion with them.
Simply put, death or “sin” is that which is swallowed up in the Pascha of Christ.
It’s the only place to be!
Christ is Risen!
Thank you for this post Father Stephen. It should be required reading at the Vatican.
Christ is Risen!
Good will come from storm facing Church – Mgr Scicluna