Being Saved – The Ontological Approach

angry-god

I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself. For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons. Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”). There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures. It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being. But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence. The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin. When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic). It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.” The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it. The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…” Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken. The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins. If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha:

“Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems. It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church. It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity. I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

132 comments:

  1. Wow, father.

    I only expected a post in the thread. This article is great.

    I can’t comment yet; I’ve only read it once, I think I need to read it several more times.

    Thanks, way more than I expected.

    Blessings.

  2. When I first heard, “Trampled down death by death” I thought that meant that Christ had went to each tomb, to each person, and literally trampled down their death under foot, one at a time, and then bestowed life upon them.

  3. Indeed Father your writing is helpful. To me, after reading On the Incarnation and studying it with friends the “punishment and assuagement of wrath” idea made even less sense. If God intends to punish us why does He not let us dissolve into non-being?

    Then I ponder the meaning of such passages as in Isaiah “God is like a refining fire…”. “Behold, I make all things new!”. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away”.

    The mystery of hell is deep. I have been uncomfortable with the prevailing idea of hell since reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in high school lit class. Became more indisposed by reading and seeing “The Crucible” especially the line: “God damns liars, Mary” used to induce a false confession of witchcraft from one of the accused.

    Plays and other literature presented a vastly different understanding of God and man. Combined with my upbringing, the Calvinist view simply made no sense.

    Yet I struggled to find a better way. Heresies made promises they could not keep, but Jesus brought me home and here I am in a magnificently woven multi-dimensional ontological tapestry of communion and struggle and love and falling and loss and ressurection.

    So much more…..

  4. In our Episcopal parish this past Easter, the rector preached of the Resurrection that we should all notice that when Jesus called himself to Mary Magdalene’s attention, he called her by her true name and not by any of the bullying words people no doubt called mentally ill women back in that day. That was all. That is, it was all morality, the morality of “don’t call one another hateful names.” I’ve had the hardest time explaining why this (and many other things) are bugging me more and more and more. It’s really driving me nuts. It’s not that I’m in favor of calling anyone a nasty name, and especially Mary Magdalene, who shall we say I’ve long considered a friend. But it was Easter Sunday! I couldn’t find the words to explain it, but I was pretty steamed.

    This post makes a very good start to explaining why I was so very upset with that sermon. It wasn’t just that it so much weak tea for what is supposed to be the biggest feast of all. It … well, I’m comment ing to tell you that this post gives me a beginning way to explain why and what was so very very VERY wrong with that sermon.

    Thank you.

  5. Excellent post Father. It brings into focus the verse “in Him we live, move and have our being….”

  6. Well, Kathy your rector got off to a good start he just made a quick U-turn back to the parking lot.

    Jesus did indeed call Mary by her true name and spoke to the vary depths of her being. All of her life was in her name and Jesus spoke it: past, present and future.

    He saw who she IS. Including the pain and the hurt and the glory.

    That is the Ressurection. I am beginning to wonder if is not also the judgement as well or at least a part.

  7. Many thanks for this, Father. It is difficult to wrap my mind around because it/I am still so focused on the moral/individual viewpoint. Pray for me.

  8. Kathy,
    Yes. The modern world is the most “moral” time in history. What I mean by that is not that we behave ourselves well (we don’t), but that thinking in moral/legal/forensic terms, rooted in the grounding philosophy of Nominalism rules the day. People don’t have another way of speaking about things. So, if they want to say something important, they get very moral about it. Of course, morality when based in Nominalism, only works if someone enforces it. Violence and force are required to make a law/rule be of any use. And so, we get political correctness, public censuring, and all of the anger of our culture that is the expression of highly moral people trying to control all of the other people who are “wrong.”

    When I first encountered this ontological understanding (it was in the late 70’s when reading St. Athanasius), it was the occasion of my life’s true journey. I was preparing to become an Episcopal priest. I continued studying, and even writing privately about this approach. That work continued for another 8 years after seminary. Eventually, I left the parish for a while and went to pursue a doctorate in systematic theology at Duke (though I finally turned it into an MA and went back to parish ministry). There I had the time to read, read, read, write and pray and think. The result, by God’s grace was a much more complete understanding, as well as the revelation that this was generally only found in Orthodox thought and theology. I read more and more on Orthodoxy and became persuaded that it is the truth and the preservation of that same Church in which St. Athanasius lived and wrote (as well as so many others…including the Apostles).

    It has been a liberation. It seems comical to me that my many Episcopal friends said behind my back that I was becoming Orthodox in order to have more rules in my life…that I was uncomfortable with anything else. When, in fact, they were the moralists (whether liberal or conservative doesn’t matter) and I was becoming Orthodox to leave their moralistic world behind and to live in the world of true being and existence. I never looked back. I have now been an Orthodox priest for nearly 18 years. I give God thanks for it every day.

  9. JRR Tolkien’s character Gollum helped me understand an ontological view of salvation: Gollum was not only morally bad, but his actual being was corrupted after he murdered his friend. He refused participation in light – communion with God and others – and more and more became less of a hobbit-like being – less of who he was created to be. He even started to look less like a hobbit-like creature, but became something other.

  10. That is the Ressurection. I am beginning to wonder if is not also the judgement as well or at least a part.

    Michael, I have heard it said that the judgement of God is, in fact, His presence. Thus when Jesus encountered people, this encounter was a judgement upon them! It speaks worlds that this judgement was always made in the fullness of His love, not the juridical danger we usually associate with the term. Just my thoughts.

  11. I understand more and more why the Catholic scholasticism and the Orthodox mysticism battled and separated and continue to battle.

    I am not pro-Catholic. I’m just making a statement.

    Thanks.

  12. I think that a lot of the burdens that people I know (including myself) are struggling under are due to the fact that we have absorbed this notion that who we are is fundamentally the result of the choices we make. It’s really a terrible weight to have to carry.
    This coupled with the fact that the modern era is about enlarging our capacities to impose our will on our surroundings, including say, where we live and who we associate with. It is a really awful and nauseating thing. The strength of relationships is psychological- who do we like and who do we want to be near. What is lost is a real communion grounded in who we are.

  13. I’m finding that an ontological focus, as opposed to psychology and abstraction, necessarily leads to a strong ecclesiology (the temple and body of Christ) and the sacredness of Her liturgy. The reverse, I’ve experienced first hand, is also prevalent. A theology that is primarily abstract renders ecclesiology and liturgy in thrall to an intellectual relativism. Weak, and nebulous. Voluntary.

    Ezekiel 36:25-27

    I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

    Hebrews 10:15-22

    And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

    “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord:
    I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,”

    then he adds,

    “I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”

    Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

    Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

    1 John 1:1-3

    That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

  14. When practicing/studying theology, it is not as clear cut as “the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys wear black hats”.

    Let me explain how many Church of Christ preachers/teachers (especially in the past) would handle this ontological discussion.

    Many would praise as saints and scholars when they agreed with them and curse them as heretics when they disagreed. This is not so common today.

    Just sharing a thought and some of what I grew up with.

  15. I sure am glad, if I understand properly, what matters most is what’s in the Nicene Creed. That certainly is comforting to me.

    So much to do and so little time.

  16. Fr. Stephen,

    I used the following analogy with some friends of mine the other day in response to a more Calvinist depiction. If you have time, please comment on its suitability (and sorry in advance for the mechanistic language):

    Imagine you are a little engine (like Doubting Thomas the Train), and grace is something like energy (in the broadest sense–the energy that ultimately constitutes the material world of which you are made, and the energy that fuels your capacity to function at every level). Imagine too that the fuel upon which you were designed to function makes you stronger, more efficient, more beautiful the longer you use it. In fact, the proper fuel will eventually refine and transform you into true engine-hood! When you use inappropriate substitutes, you become weaker, uglier, and more dysfunctional; indeed, even your ability to make use of the proper fuel is also hindered as a consequence. It would be absurd for you, little engine, to think that either what you are or what you do can be meaningfully credited to your self as some uniquely creative self-sufficient entity. Obviously you owe that all to God. On the other hand, it would be equally absurd to think that this ultimate and complete dependence on the Divine Energy implies that you cannot make free, concerted efforts to secure and run upon only the proper fuel, or that you could not do the reverse– that is, accustom yourself to damaging synthetic substances that restrict, disintegrate, and destroy your engine-hood. Clearly you, the conscious discerning Thomas the Train, must choose, must cooperate. That cooperation (perhaps we could also call it trust or obedience or synergy) is what I call faith.

    So when I hear, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” I hear God saying (adapted for my analogy): “You are made a true engine by using the proper fuel, which I have provided and for which I designed you, owing none of that to yourself so you best shut your little toot-horn.”

    This is my (very rough) understanding of grace and sanctification (or deification), which is to say, the course of salvation.

  17. Thank you, Father. This is an important theme that, I think is very distorted in the Christian doctrine, in which I grew up. It appears that many, if not most, of the posts I find on your blog, are, in essence, tied to the thesis of this post. FYI My background is Church of Christ. Terry made a statement above, that I think is accurate about CoC preachers/teachers, but, it may be true all various Christian church groups. Father, have you studied with converted Christians who are members Churches of Christ? I wonder if your thoughts are common, generally, among Orthodox Churches?

  18. Hi, David.

    I hoped there would be a couple of us Church of Christ members here.

    I hope to reach out to our former folks evangelistically. I hope that is a word.

    Thanks

  19. “Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems.

    “Created problems”. Boy, that’s an understatement.

    I’ve come to notice that the debates over the meaning of Greek words, the reasons that one particular Bible verse is interpreted in a certain way and used to interpret another verse, the very way that the entire narrative of existence and “salvation” is framed and communicated, etc. often comes down to whether the framework that informs it is ontological or forensic. Which usually displays the sort of God that one believes in. If there are differences at that higher up level – forensic vs. ontological – everything below is bound to look different even if similar terminology is retained.

    The way the forensic is typically presented it isn’t complementary to the ontological, it’s competing. You can’t have an ontological framework with even a little bit of that forensic – a legal problem that you need to sort of deal with separately and before you get into the ontological. The legal and the associated wrath-to-come will always be primary then, and everything will be forced to conform to it. It just doesn’t work.

    I can’t think of anything that indicates that Jesus thought of His death as a “payment” to appease the wrath of His Father – a sort of legal fiction existing within the framework of an “economy of exchange.” The cross isn’t the ultimate confirmation of some appeasement mechanism and the legal framework that necessitates it, but their subversion and overthrow.

    But ancient religion (including Judaism IMO) didn’t always have issues with the notion of divine appeasement. I DO think that the forensic is present within the biblical narrative (if one looks at the specificity of particular laws and not just the general notion of “the Law”) and part of what is seen in the prophets and in the way that Jesus and other NT writers reference the OT is a subversion of assumed notions that God is retributive and needs His wrath appeased, where God’s love and “justice” war with one another in a sort of schizophrenic way. That, of course, gets into the nature of “biblical inspiration” and the relationship between the testaments.

  20. Jeremias, I love your train analogy. Especially how you tied it up in relation to important scriptures.

  21. Jeremias,

    ‘Man’, your illustration hit a homerun in my ballpark. I think I saw something I had not seen before.

    Thanks

  22. Father and all,

    Likely beyond the scope of this post, but a brief thought on this most important topic.

    The cause of a moralistic and forensic approach in my assessment may quite possibly be traced to the embrace of univocal predication in our theo-logizing, speaking and thinking about God as if God is like us. This is a rejection of the ‘analogy of being’ and conceives of God as mere Being among beings; in effect this amounts to a projection of human concepts onto the divine. The divide between God and creation is understood to be measured by degree rather than by an infinite interval based on an always greater difference of being. Following analogical predication, God is not a being among other beings, ‘He is’ (a divine ontology) in other words, is categorically and altogether infinitely differently predicated when speaking of God. Salvation accordingly to the Fathers is not on the level of moralism (behaving like God does), but on the level of completion of our human ‘being’ by participation in the divine being (2 Peter 1:4), on the level of ontology in other words.

    But a true participation by human beings in Divine Being presupposes an ontological compatibility, a metaphysics that can accommodate both God and man without changing their respective natures (God remains God, and man remains man in the completion of man – this should not be unfamiliar in orthodox terms of the Incarnation), a metaphysics that only an analogy of being can provide.

  23. I’m so very torn. I believe, deep in my “being” I long for salvation. But for so much of my life I have teatered on the brink of just wanting to NOT exist. If I am non-being, with no consciousness, if I am destined (not predestined) for annihilation why not just be ok with that? In my youth I cried out to God “Why was I ever born?” I (sometimes) still feel this way. My only reason for carrying on is that some day I will possibly actually value God more than I despise myself. I think at times I do but at other times I am sure I don’t. The pain of being overshadows the possibility of restoration. My gut hurts. I believe God is good, I’m just not sure if I care about myself enough to care.

  24. Michael Patrick and Terry,

    Many thanks! I’ve been trying to articulate it for myself and I’m glad that it has been useful to you too.

  25. Please explain if the church fathers borrowed the ontological concepts from Aristotle and others, or if God gave them the concepts directly.

    Thanks

  26. John, thanks for sharing your situation candidly. I personally relate to parts of it and will join with Fr. in prayers for you, for healing and illumination.

  27. Terry,

    The ontological wording is taken from Greek philosophy and redefined. The Greek philosophical words “ousia,” “hypostasis,” etc. etc. have definitely different meanings in Greek philosophy.

    The Church was initially reticent to use such terminology, but “baptized” it and redefined it in respect to revelation.

    One way to see this at work in the Scriptures is Paul’s word for word use of philosphical terms of Menander, Seneca, Epimenides, and others (including similarities to Aristotle and Plato). Also in his appeal to the Athenians to see the true God as the God represented by the pagan Temple to the “unknown God” in Acts 17. In all such cases, Paul uses a common reference point (concepts and language of pagan religion and philosophy) but does not accept them as Christian – but uses them as a bridge to redefine those things from a Christian perspective.

    This is exactly what the Fathers and Councils did with the ontological terminology. If one studies these closely, the words are the same – the meaning of them is actually quite reversed. Thus, Christianity robbed Paganism and secular philosophy of defining the terms, and was able to discuss more broadly with the world the Christian message by “baptizing” human language to reflect the revelation.

    That the short version.

  28. John Kemp,
    My heart aches for you. I know a bit about dwelling in dark places too, though my experience is a little different than yours. Ill pray God casts these demons away from you, and grant you Peace and Rest in Him.

  29. Directly to your question; they are reveled directly by God insofar as they are interpreted through the revelation of Christ Himself. Christ interprets everything and puts all things into right perspective.

    There is a consistent attempt by both Western and Eastern theologians to use common concepts and language to express the Gospel revelation in Christ. But these must always redefine the philosophical language, not take the language and its pre-existing concepts and internalize them. The later is what many analysts believe is what occurred in Western theology, which in many way internalized Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy lock, stock and barrel into it’s theology without redefining and “baptizing” it.

    The Church Father’s were very careful in this regard. Western theologians (from an Orthodox POV) went down an ever-increasing internalization of philosophy as the basis for “natural theology.”

  30. Onesimus,

    That is most interesting.

    It is good how something can be both ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’.

    Thanks

  31. My friend Lisa has been ever so gently suggesting EO reading material to me for the last year. Everything so far has been helpful and good but nothing has made my heart feel nourished like this post did. Thank you for explaining something that others (my Protestant self) have such difficulty with.

  32. John Kemp,

    Many of us have been down there. My own decision was that I was too easily deluded about who and what I was and how good or bad I am. So I gave my life in service to God. And now the decision of whether or not I continue to exist belongs to Him.

    It’s not a cop-out, but rather the smartest thing I ever did. Now my daily life isn’t contingent on how I feel, but lived in obedience to my Master. If you can do this, the weight of existence will become bearable – and then it will be come peaceful in time.

  33. Jesus called out St. Mary Magdalene’s name and she recognized Him. We will receive new names in Heaven. Sometimes the thought that I will receive a new name is so deeply comforting.

    We are told by society that our identity is in our opinions. So we learn to voice loud opinions and measure everything. It cultivates consumerism and leads to deep weariness. It encourages us to judge our brother and dismiss him.

    I remembered today how the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son is told by his father ‘you are ever with Me and all I have is yours.’

    I have also been reminded of the beauty in the paintings that show the Calling of St. Matthew by Carravagio and the one by Hendrick ter Brugghen

    They show an element of deep, deep surprise on Matthew’s face as the Lord begins to show him how much he is valued. They are beautiful reminders for those of us who struggle to see why God values us so much

  34. Terry,
    Most of the concepts seem to have been drawn from Greek culture – Platonism in many various forms was pretty common in terms of cultural understanding. But they seem to at no time to have simply borrowed. They used the language and certain ideas, but changed them profoundly. The concept of Person, for example was their own creation. We certainly believe that the process was inspired.

  35. Terry and other cradle Church of Christ brothers and sisters; I graduated from Lincoln Christian College in ’74, began my journey to Orthodoxy in ’78 with Fr. Peter Gilquist, of blessed memory, and the EOC communion.
    I think this post, Fr. Stephen, is one of the absolute best you have written on the significant and life-changing differences between Orthodox patristic thought and modern western moralistic and juridical categories of “the Gospel.”
    Very significant for me in my journey were/are Zizioulas’ “Being as Communion”, Yannaras’ “The Freedom of Morality” and Kalomiros’ “River of Fire” explaining how western theology causes men to become atheists.
    To borrow from St. Paul, my “Jews” are the good and sincere folks in the Restoration Movement who do seek God, who love the scriptures, but who simply can’t seem to get by their anti-Catholic biases. And perhaps, deep down, they know that once they open themselves up to actually listen to and embrace the early church fathers, it just might start them on a one-way road to becoming Orthodox, and that is often very scary as well as thrilling, not to mention the path to “what eye has not seen, what ear has not heard, what the heart of man has not conceived of what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

  36. John Kemp, I have also been in the state you describe as has my dear wife. One thing I learned and really what kept me from annihilation is that I realized that the voice inside that kept saying I would be better off was not really me. It sounded like me almost perfectly. But it was not me. At that point, I began to distrust it. Just enough. Gradually as I became Christian I realized the voice was from the evil one.

    The evil one alone desires our destruction and he tells whatever lies he needs to.

    Suffering under those lies is oppressive but know that you are not alone and despite what the lying voice says there is hope. No one, least of all you will be better off without you.

    The biggest lie I eventually realized is that there is such a thing as non-being.

    May God bless you abundantly, strengthen you and may His mercy show forth in your life.

  37. I think this post & some of the replies have been really enlightening as to the difference between protestant & EO thinking – Gollum especially helped.
    So there’s this extra dimension to good & evil, not just some moral measure we live up to or not,legally, but as God’s character is the ‘flavour’ of his being, as we are good we are more like we were made to be, in being, & if evil then further away…is that right? Being good, llike God makes us more real & weighty, & evil makes us less substantial & flimsier…& is we love as God loves we are the realest & most healthy in being as we can be? I may have jumped the shark at some point here but I often feel love & being have an intrinsic connection.

  38. I would submit that much of Protestant teaching essentially condemns our being, that is, the starting point is that we are born carrying sin in our being that cannot ever be removed. Hence a requirement to think about salvation/damnation in only legal terms, with God through Christ overlooking our inherent sinfulness.

    Coming into Orthodoxy the sacredness of things, including people, was foreign. But indeed, the death of a man touching the Ark and the healing of a woman touching Christ’s clothing are just a start. Furthermore, the Fall of man says nothing of the Image of God being removed from humanity. Trumping it all, though, is the Incarnation, in which Christ becomes man, defying (or at least substantially complicating) the idea of sin nature, and then He works to heal both body and spirit because it’s simply not about legal terms.

    It is only because our being can be brought into fullness and even Godlikeness that these fundamental concepts even start to make sense. The realization that I was in the Image of God–without the baggage of the inherited “you’ll never actually be anything good but God will overlook it”–was transformational.

    Thanks, Father.

  39. George,

    That’s like comparing brain anatomy and brain function.

    Which came first: the physical brain or thinking.

    Does that relate to the chicken and egg dilemma?

    That’s not really what I was requested info on.

    I think metaphysics is not neuopsychology. Perhaps it is.

    Thanks

  40. Hi Renewal

    I agree with your comments. The reminded me so much of this quote from the forward of the book about St. Silouan ‘The Monk of Mount Athos’

    It begins with a well known quote:

    ” ‘The splendour of God is a man fully alive.’ (St Irenaeus) Staretz Silouan was such a Man—-truly, simply a Man in whom the Image of God, so badly distorted in most of us, appeared in strong relief, with great purity….(this book) gives us the background of traditional Orthodox spirituality which nurtured him, which indeed made him what he was, and Orthodox monk who sought to be a Man in the Image of Christ. To meet a Man is the greatest experience one can have.”

    It is a publication of St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press and the upper case letter m used throughout the quote is not a typo. I was so surprised to see them when I first read this….

    The Gollum example is truly informative and an amazing example of fiction pointing us to what is real. I’m sorry I don’t remember which one it is, but a few months ago one of Fr. Stephen’s posts talked about how the sin of one person marrs his or her physicality and leaves also a change in the universe. The Doxacon lectures also came to mind, which included lecturers like John Granger.

    One of my all time favorite quotes from my priest:

    “We do not go to Church to pretend to be people we are not, we go to Church to discover who we are.”
    From the Sunday of Orthodoxy

  41. Hi Nicole, thanks for that. I’ve always had a lot of questions about God, humans & ontology after reading Watchman Nee when I was a very new believer, where he seems to say that our humanness is as much of a problem to God as our sin & the holier we are the more we put off being human beings. So Orthodoxy seems to run counter to this, with its robust insistence on the goodness of all God has made, including our humanity & human life. Nee was a very good example of a sacred/secular divide instead of the understanding I think I’m seeing in Orthodoxy that all is ‘spiritual’, not ontologically, but in terms of being pleasing to God & part of life as it was meant to be. I’m not sure any of this makes any sense, I’m trying to work a lot of stuff out in my brain (whilst suffering depression & anxiety & medicated) but these are things that are really important to me- the understanding that the closer to God we get the more human we become is compelling, as long as human means something like the way I would use human.

  42. Renewal,

    You wrote, “Being good, like God, makes us more real & weighty, & evil makes us less substantial & flimsier…& if we love as God loves we are the realest & most healthy in being as we can be?”.

    Yes, I’m convinced of it! And this made me think of something said by C.S. Lewis in his short work, “The Weight of Glory”:

    “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” http://www.verber.com/mark/xian/weight-of-glory.pdf

    I think you and Lewis are on to something here!

  43. Shakespeare was in a much deeper understanding of salvation, and the deep meaning of our Lord’s prayer “lead us not into temptation” when he had Hamlet say “to be or not to be, that is the question.”
    Thank you Father for such a gentle yet powerful reply to the previous post’s contentious discussion.

  44. Renewal,

    It is important to draw attention to an important aspect of the absolute difference between God and creation in respect to being – creatures exist by participation (our being derives its existence from God) whereas God is Self-existing, existing unlike us not by participation into something/someone prior. God alone, then, is True Being, underived, uncreated, not dependent on any ‘other’. What this also means is that in God there is no difference between what He is and what He eternally does. This is to say that God is not good (as we participate in goodness in degree and measure), but He is the Good; not merely love, but He is Love. As we become more God-like, we participate in being, God’s self-existent being, in a larger measure. Participation, salvation, is not mimicking of moral behavior – it is rather becoming like God as God is, and coincidentally, as He does. He cannot do other than He is (which cannot be said of creatures, hence our need for transformation – salvation). You see here the categorical difference between a salvation understood along the lines of moralism (i.e. good behavior) and salvation understood biblically as real participation into the Good, into Love, which is none other than the divine nature, of God’s eternal, triune life of love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Fr. Stephen points this out so well in his post.

    Evil, sin, and death on the other hand are understood as the absence of Good, evil lacks true existence and true being (for one, evil is not created by God) as it does not participate in God, in True Being. When we succumb to evil we participate not in True Being but in our own ‘un-being’, in a flight to nothingness. But thanks to God’s selfless philanthropia for humanity, all of creation, has been redeemed.

  45. MichaelPatrick, I’ve read a lot of Lewis in years gone by, I’m sure it’s really his thinking. I’ve never really thought about oneness with God much previously, much more being like God morally, rather than the former implying the latter.

  46. When I was in the Church of Christ, I tried hard to be in the ‘conservative’ part, because I could not ‘stretch’ far enough to be in the ‘liberal’ part. But I just couldn’t stay with the conservative folks. Then I tried to be balanced and between the two, but I was run over over in the street by traffic coming from both directions.

    I think I can now relate this to my 2-year experience in Orthodoxy. The priest I have been studying with, a great man and steeped deeply in the church fathers, is not at all theological and doesn’t care to be. Let me make it clear: I love and respect him with all my heart. He has been so good to me.

    He and I have put off my baptism for who knows how long.

    There is another Orthodox church close to where I live. I know it is more moderate and theological. I think I need to check it out further.

    Please pray for me as I continue my journey.

    Thanks

  47. Becoming Orthodox and becoming ontological are not the same, but it seems they sure are, or want to be, married.

    My background is totally legal substitution regarding salvation and atonement.

    Being Church of Christ means being legally minded. I have an AA degree from a very conservative church school. I have a BS in medicine which put me in tune with ‘reality’. I have a law degree which made me legal. I have a MDiv from a moderate church seminary which first began the opening of my eyes.

    I have the tools and lots of experience in ‘practicing’ theology. And now I have more information to practice with.

    This thread has been the best of all the threads for me. I’m still arguing with and questioning ontology, but it is getting easier and less of a fight.

    Thanks

  48. Renewal, a famous maxim on this from St. Athanasius is “God became man so that men might become gods”.

    And here’s another quote from Lewis, this time from “Mere Christianity”:

    “The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him…”

    http://www.antiochian.org/content/theosis-partaking-divine-nature

  49. Speaking of CS Lewis, I think I know why he never spoke to me or attracted me. I always read him through my legal glasses.

    Interesting. Thanks.

  50. A recommendation needed, please.

    What do you think of Dr Clark Carlton’s books?

    I have 4 of his books and have appreciated him. He has a great book on soteriology.

    I hope this is an appropriate question.

  51. Terry, I can’t comment on Carlton’s books but I tend to get more out of Orthodox classics, reading the saints and liturgical texts than from books by 1st generation converts, especially those from Protestantism. Maybe we converts we have so much to unlearn, and acquiring the mind of the church means changing the whole person, not just our ideas.

  52. MichaelPatrick,
    I’ve read much of C.S. Lewis, but most of it in the early 70’s, during and right after college. As somewhat of an artist I appreciate so much this quote from him you posted, “We do not want merely to see beauty, though God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
    This is what draws me to southern Utah each summer. The beauty all around me there makes my heart ache. I wish to do what Lewis describes. But something even greater tugs at my heart. I could substitute “beauty” with “Christ.” I long to desire him in that way, my heart aching for the Beauty behind all beauty.

  53. Terry, I haven’t read Carlton’s books, but I’ve listened to his messages, mainly his “Faith and Philosophy” podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio. Very helpful stuff…

  54. The church fathers are readable, rereadable, and rereadable.

    The priest here really got me hooked me on the fathers. The priest reveals his love and delight in the fathers. It shows in his face and in his voice.

    Thanks

  55. Please, share some works by first generation Protestants who converted to Orthodoxy.

    Thanks.

  56. Terry,
    Actually, things written by converts can be very helpful – they understand the questions. I’ve met non-convert priests who are utterly clueless and don’t know how to begin to speak with those seeking the faith. Reading the Fathers is good, but only with a good commentary. Often, secondary sources (books that summarize and explain) are far more accessible and helpful for most.

  57. “Some 1st generation converts from Protestantism are very useful to read… 🙂”

    I’ll concede, though I’ve seen pretty poor material from some converts who, like me, had noisy axes to grind. They started writing too early. I don’t write and fortunately found oil to quiet my grinding a little.

  58. Fr. Stephen and MichaelPatrick both speak truly about the two sides of reading convert vs. classic Orthodox. Cradle and seasoned converts both bring some good and needed perspective to the table in my experience for those considering Orthodoxy from Protestsnt backgrounds particularly, but it’s good to steer clear of new converts, even those who are priests, in my experience, or anyone, for that matter, with an ax to grind or an overdose of “new convert zeal”! There are some cradle Orthodox who do an excellent job interfacing on a very accessible level with Christians from the West, and the late Met. Anthony (Bloom) is one of these. I have his little book, “Beginning to Pray” and it’s very good medicine Christians from many different backgrounds could access with great spiritual profit it seems to me. He has the advantage of not using a lot of Orthodox jargon, but just getting to the heart of what it means to grow in faith and commune with Christ.

  59. MichaelPatrick,
    I agree wholeheartedly. I did not write for 8 years after my conversion, and I had a strong academic background beyond seminary. You have to pick and choose. There are classics, like Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, that I would recommend to anyone. I’m somewhat skiddish around those who do much with the Fathers but have no training in Patristics. Andrew Louth is extremely good, though more academic than many. Fr. John Behr’s few books are really good as well. If you can find anything in print by Fr. Georges Florovsky – buy it read it. He’s extremely accessible but solid as a rock.

  60. I remember reading Milton in college and having a single moment that impacted me so deeply. There was a description of God the Father and the Son, before creation, looking at each other with Love and both know that humans will sin and that the Son will go to the Cross to redeem them.

    It dawned on me that God knew before creation that the cost of creation is redemption and He created us anyway.

    I realized that the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection were not a ‘plan B’ that God came up with after the fall.

    ——

    From the prayer for brothers and sisters I discovered the line:

    For what is better or more beautiful than for us to live together as brothers?

    This helped me to realize that holiness is somehow ‘ergonomic’

    It is not a twisting and bending to appease a tyrant, it involves the living here, among other people, as humans.

    “Live a human life.”
    -Fr. Tim

  61. Terry,
    I have read Carlton Clark’s books and listened to his podcasts. They’re all helpful. Matthew Gallatin’s, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, is a good book to give inquirers into the faith as is Fr. James Bernstein’s, Surprised by Christ. I’ve also given out many copies of Howard Thomas’ book, Evangelical is not Enough. Hope this helps.

  62. Sorry for all the posts. Thomas Howard became Catholic but his book was instrumental in leading me into Orthodoxy 21 years ago. Our journeys are all different–what may be beneficial to one may not be to another, and we certainly come from varied backgrounds. I’ll be praying for your journey, Terry.

  63. Dean, with the exception of Howard’s book (which I borrowed), I own the convert testimonial books you mention. I second your recommendation of them.

  64. I did not read Carleton until after I was received and I was never Protestant, nor Catholic but I found them helpful in understanding the mindset and soul set of those who came from Protestantism particularly.

  65. I enjoy the church fathers.

    I am told I can’t read the Bible without the church fathers.

    Now, I am told I can’t read the church fathers without………….. ‘Help’!

    Somehow, that doesn’t all register with me.

    Thanks

  66. I’m told to read modern writers in order to read the fathers in order to read the Bible.

    That circle doesn’t connect to me.

  67. Terry, forgive me….but it seems to me that It’s your thirst for knowledge being satisfied. You are asking for resources. You could just as well pray and trust, and I’d encourage that. But you have a thirst for intellectual answers. People are responding to that. Now it seems you are bucking those who give you resources to satisfy that thirst?

  68. Terry,
    Of course you can read Scripture on your own, but you’ll likely only see those things you were already taught to see. The Fathers are good, but, honestly, some of them can be difficult to read. Often, someone writing in our time, within our context, speaking about the fathers and Scripture is actually of more use.

    That’s not because of some chain of authority – it’s just sound advice – nothing more.

    People say, “Read the Fathers.” I don’t think most people know what they’re doing when they jump right into the Fathers. The Fathers, like the Scriptures, often need a guide to know how to read them.

    That’s why I tend to recommend good, modern secondary sources. Americans are deeply under-educated. We need help.

  69. Onesimus,

    Just because I ask for help doesn’t mean I have to stop thinking.

    I use the Orthodox Prayer Book and the Jesus Prayer daily.

    And that circle still doesn’t make sense. I have spent the last two years in detailed study and contemplation, attending services, etc. I’m not a neophyte. I have read the fathers routinely. I’m just not yet Orthodox. If I have to park my brain, I’ll never become Orthodox.

    You seem a tad judgmental, but I thank you anyway.

    If that circle is true, that puts ancient men and modern men between me and the Bible.

    I come from a group that highly, highly regards the Bible.

    Thanks and blessings.

  70. None of the books I asked for were dealing with the church fathers, they were all on Orthodoxy.

    There is a difference, at least to me.

    Honestly, what I see here is much, much too much between me and the Bible.

    Again, it seems more and more like Gnosticism. I know something you don’t know. I guess I’m just not one of the initiated.

    Last post. I don’t think I’m really Orthodox material.

    Thanks, again.

  71. Hi Terry,

    You wrote briefly today about the secondary sources related to the Church Fathers standing in between you and the Church Fathers. I think people were responding to Fr. Stephen’s kind observation from yesterday

    “Reading the Fathers is good, but only with a good commentary. Often, secondary sources (books that summarize and explain) are far more accessible and helpful for most.”

    I call this kind because I am a math lady, and my ability to focus and read through long volumes is much decreased in my years after grad school….

    How I love the Orthodox Study Bible! I do hope you have a copy. The footnotes amaze me, how they bring the Fathers’ and the Councils to my weak, impatient attention in such a streamlined way.

    Only from those footnotes did I learn why God valued Abraham taking Isaac to the mountain. God wasn’t looking for a guy willing to indiscriminately kill, He was looking for a Man with utter faith that God’s goodness will not leave death as the end of the story. Should anyone know the location of that footnote please let me know, it might be linked to the Epistles.

    That footnote was a joyous insight for me a few years ago. The Church Fathers in short form in a beautiful way….

    Terry, please excuse advice on the value of short references that may be aimed for those of us with trouble sitting still over a book.

  72. Terry,
    I am sorry if I misunderstood you…I thought you had asked for books by converts since you inquired about Carlton. Going back to the matter of church–For me it finally became a matter of authority. I began looking for the most ancient church I could become a part of. I knew it wasn’t just Jesus and me on the Jericho road. And I certainly could no longer be my own pope trying to figure out for myself what the Bible said. I had tried that for 45 years as an evangelical. Like you I also had been a pastor and had a degree from a Mennonite seminary. The last church I attended had two services, one traditional and the other contemporary. Neither group seemed to understand the other. One tended to be more charismatic, the other saw it with jaundiced eye. Who was correct? How could I decide on my own? Protestantism was/is so highly fractured that I could no longer find help from its morass of competing truth claims. I felt I was at an end, where could I go? To whom could I turn? I first looked into Catholicism. They’ve so many books on apologetics. However, I could not get over the stumbling block of the pope nor over the modernism I saw creeping into many of her churches. But as I read some of the apologetics and books by converts, once in a while someone would write, so and so, or this couple chose to become Orthodox. So I decided to investigate. First Orthodox church I called was Coptic. Number disconnected. Next one, no one answered and no playback machine. The 3rd I called was Serbian. I left a message. Father George returned my call in a couple of hours. Next day I attended liturgy alone, my wife not choosing to go. And I was overwhelmed by the liturgy! God, in one fell swoop answered by questionings about authority, truth claims, and so much more. I knew in my heart of hearts that Christ had led me home and into His Church. It is a knowing that has never left me in all these years. I still often feel born anew after each liturgy. And no, it’s not gnostic nor esoterical. You won’t have to park your brain at the door. But it is the Church Christ promised He would build, the fullness of faith, the bulwark and foundation of truth. So Terry, continue in your quest. God always guides those of contrite heart, even a sinful one as mine often is.

  73. I went back and reread the posts on church fathers and they were not addressed specifically to me.

    What a mistake.

    I am sorry for my attitude and for what I said.

    I read a lot. I have access from grad school to a web site wth thousands and thousands of scholarly theological articles. What a jewel for a guy like me. Thousands of articles on Orthodoxy.

    One of the things that frustrates me is the existence in the Orthodox Church of the conservatives, moderates, and liberals. I thought and hoped ‘the church’ would be beyond that. I guess not, but it also existed in the NT times and church.

    I know some Orthodox folk who have no clue about ontology, but I guess they don’t have to. I don’t ‘have to’, either, I guess.

    Again, this thread has been the best for me, so far, of those I have read.

    I will get over this frustration. Pray for me. The journey into mysticism, for me, is strange and a little frightening.

    I have ontological fears and ignorance concerning ontology.

    As Popeye used to say, “I yam what I yam”. But I would also add, “I yam also what I will be”.

    Thanks to all.

  74. Terry, I have found the lack of some systematic guidance on the Fathers troublesome. That is probably the main reason I have not read much in them. A bit here and there. Also knowing how to read and understand the Scripture. I usually just read it with as little effort to figure out any meaning as possible.

    Here is what I have found by living in the Church as faithfully as I can at the moment, when I do read the Fathers, they make sense. When I read modern stuff that comports with them it makes sense. When stuff is off it is frequently way off.

    Just listen to the services, pray them, sing them if you can. That’s the Fathers too.

    Indeed such transmission of the faith has been the predominant means for all but the last couple hundred years or so.

    It is still reliable. I am beginning to suspect that a road map of the Father’s is right there in front of me: our Divine Services.

    It is too easy for me to abstract things from the environment in which they live and “study” them.

    Stick with it.

  75. Renewal, it’s not just Gollum who illustrates your idea that “Being good, like God makes us more real & weighty, & evil makes us less substantial & flimsier…& is we love as God loves we are the realest & most healthy in being as we can be?” It’s Bilbo too. In the beginning of the Fellowship, when Gandalf comes to take the ring away, he describes himself as “thin, sort of stretched….like butter that has been scraped over too much bread” (Chapter 1). Tolkien nails it!

  76. Isidora,

    Your illustration made sense to me; I’m slow.

    Does being real and weighty versus being unsubstantial and flimsy basically summarize ontology and salvation?

    Thanks

  77. Michael B,

    I feel closer and closer to you.

    I have at times left divine services and felt as I were floating in the air.

    Thanks

  78. We are Christ’s “rational sheep”

    A service of Lent or Holy Week uses that exact phrase.

    We all have a true friend in St. Euthymius who worked as a professor and researcher. His feast day is January 3.

  79. Terry,
    Generally, Orthodox would not identify themselves with notions of ontological or legal, etc. It is a way of speaking about things and understanding them. I think that what is called the ontological is very much in line with how Orthodoxy speaks about many things (but not being self-consciously “ontological”). I find it useful and extremely helpful for people who have been burned or burned out by various treatments of the legal or judicial imagery. And I think a lot of my readers probably fall into that last category.

    But there are others, good priests and saints, who for whatever reasons, primarily use judicial imagery in thinking about things. It doesn’t make them conservative, moderate or liberal. Neither does ontological.

    What I’ve seen about things is not schools of thought or groups of conservative or liberal, but simply personalities. I’ve met personalities (among priests especially) who simply look at the world in very conservative ways, and I’ve seen other personalities. But there’s really not a division about such things.

    One priest might insist on priests wearing their cassocks everywhere and wearing beards, etc. And another not worry about it. But doctrine is really not up for grabs. The faith is the faith.

  80. Father,

    Who defines ‘the faith”? Where can I find ‘the faith’ detailed?
    Who decides what is discussable or not?

    What is the ontological difference between what a thing is and what it does?

    What in ontology determines whether a thing exists or not?

    Thanks.

  81. Hi Terry, I see that you’ve addressed your last questions (at 9:04 pm) to Father Stephen, but your questions are intriguing and I have a moment to think about and engage with your questions if it’s ok. Please remember I’m a recent convert and have very little experience engaging in theological questions. But perhaps even an infant in the faith can help or at least open your questions in a kind of ‘unpacking’ kind of way.

    I believe your question “who” defines the faith is very important. Speaking candidly I sometimes think the Orthodox clergy believe that they define the faith, but interesting things happen when they try to act on their ‘beliefs about their authority’. There appears to be a kind of stirring in the congregations, discussions happen between the local clergy and their local parishes. These conversations then seem to spill into the hierarchy and include the bishops; and then they (the bishops) might be moved to make ‘a statement’. The statement isn’t necessarily a directive, but a kind of call, like the word “attend” during Divine Liturgy. Ultimately what I think I’m describing (which is coming from my limited experience) is what is typically called the “mind of the Church”. Involving laity and clergy together. Hopefully it is the Holy Spirit working in the Church to express ‘the faith’. While there is hierarchy in the Orthodox Church, it isn’t the ‘final arbiter’ of what is the faith. (my personal recommendation is Met. Kalistos Ware’s books, “The Orthodox Way” and perhaps his “Orthodox Church”, if you haven’t already read them.

    I believe St John of Damascus is considered one of the first to create a work called “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”. I’ve read parts of it. It might help to read it but you might also check with your priest or Fr Stephen about this suggestion.

    Who decides what’s discussable or not? What does your heart want to know? What does your heart want to discuss? It is your heart that decides these things. These questions I pose might sound like odd questions. The reference to ‘heart’ has taken me quite a while to understand and be somewhat comfortable with such a reference. My career required my intellect. Not my heart. Does a ‘heart’ even think–that muscle in my chest?? what are we talking about? these were my questions.

    What a fantastic question: “What is the ontological difference between what a thing is and what it does?” This is a brilliant a question for me to ponder because I was a physical chemist and our focus was on the function–how does a molecule work–type of question. In chemistry there are molecules that appear exactly alike but are mirror images of each other. We use the language of ‘handedness’ like that of the left and right hands are ‘mirror’ images of each other. Such molecules seem so identical but ‘nature’ has a tendency to use only one of the mirror images in living organisms. Why? what’s the difference? Each atom is the same, each connection between atoms appears to be the same in each molecule. But how they work in nature, how they ‘fit’ into nature is quite different. Why would nature be selective of one and not the other? What is it that makes one molecular image so different that nature would build on one and not the other? By themselves, by just looking at their structure one might think they have the same chemistry. But they don’t.

    We are not our molecules (it’s even quite funny to say it). But what they do when they all get together!! We now know in physics that even the space, what we used to call ’empty space’ between molecules, isn’t really empty. Space even has meaning that we haven’t really grasped yet, but we’re working hard to try to understand. There is a ‘something’ that fills all things’. (sound familiar??) Whatever we are, my best understanding as an infant in the faith, we are ‘that person’ which is in the process of becoming. At the core of our being we groan with the rest of creation the birth pangs of the Kingdom breaking into our reality.

    Last question: What in ontology determines whether a thing exists or not? I can’t help myself. I really like these questions, but feel sheepish about trying to answer them… who am I– just a fool wanting to talk about these things too!

    The short answer: God determines. But that answer is like saying God thinks like us so that we would describe the acts of God as determining existence. We’re the ones with material brains, not God. God doesn’t need to determine. God is. I’m offering something now that I don’t know how to describe as a scientist. Our material reality isn’t exactly what we think it is. Rock, tree or table. The material reality seems simple enough doesn’t it? But going down deep into the physics and molecular levels, what a thing is, the boundaries of what a thing is, begin to move. If we say even at this level, all creation has the image of God imprinted in it like an icon, what are we saying? What are we seeing? I see the very ‘breath’ of God moving in electromagnetic fields, in gravitational fields, in light bent into brilliant colors.

    Obviously you have inspired me but I doubt I’ve been any help. I’m grateful for these questions you have asked, for they have encouraged me to look upon God’s face in the icon of nature whether or not you knew this when you asked your questions.

    Thank you for your questions!
    Dee

  82. Dee,

    Thank you for your kind post. I cried as I read it. Yes, 66 year old men do cry.

    Thank God for you and others like you on this blog.

    I will respond more tomorrow.

    Thanks

  83. Terry,
    If I may intrude for a moment. There has been much said in the last few days and I am certain you are quite confused by all our inputs as there have been many very good ones directed your way. Why? Because we care about you and your walk in faith. Please do count that as a real plus.
    I would like to address your first question. I am a firm believer in keeping things simple because it is too easy to go down a rabbit trail in discussing such a complicated subject. You can find the Faith in the Nicene Creed. If you accept those statements of faith and act on them, you are looking at the Orthodox Faith. Our Faith is not something we hold in our heads but something we do for being truly Christian means that we are changed by our faith.
    The Creed is straight forward but is one of the most tightly packed theological statements one could read. At your place the surface is good enough for now. You are asked by the Creed to accept the Tri Unity of the Godhead, The tangibility of the Incarnation, the work of the Passion, the reality of the Resurrection and the reality of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. There is much more in the Creed but to become Orthodox it is not necessary to know all the details in the beginning.
    The rest comes in time.
    The best way to learn some of the rest (because the rest is in the fullness of God Who is Uncircumscribable) is to attend services. If your Parish does Matins or Compline (Morning or Prayer before bed) services, I highly recommend that you attend and listen to what is said. George Florovsky (arguably the leading Russian Orthodox scholar of the last century) was asked by a journalist where he had attended school to learn such a depth of wisdom in the faith. Fr George told him that he never went to school to study theology. The journalist was shocked and immediately inquired how Fr George became so gifted. Father answered that it was simple, he served liturgy for over 30 years.
    I recommend those two services because they contain Canons (In this case the word means a composition of 9 parts (Odes) set to music that address parts of the Faith). These Canons are packed with things of the Faith that teach us. Like everything else in Faith, it is fundamentally Scripture based but in a way that explains Scripture in a Patristic understanding. It saves reading many books and papers and wrestling with ancient writers whose vocabularies and concepts are from another time. The rest of the services are also good, but listening to services that contain Canons is like a crash course.
    Good prayer books contain a few Canons, generally to Jesus and the Theotokos and they are well worth reading and using as prayer.
    Watching this blog for the last few days I got the impression that you were trying to get a drink from a fire hydrant on full. We can be very overwhelming. My advice to you is to slow down, read the Creed over many times and ponder it in your heart. The Faith is best explained in the silence of internal prayer and meditation. Pray until you feel Peace and then hold yourself silent in that Peace.
    I hope this helps. God bless

  84. Terry,
    Good questions. The Creed is the most basic expression of the faith, summarizing the primary doctrines of Holy Scripture. It is interesting to note that certain parts of the Creed actually existed before the New Testament was written (a later discussion). The definition of the Faith and its authoritative interpretation belongs to the bishops of the Church and is done in a conciliar manner – they agree. Every bishop takes an oath to teach only what has been received as the faith. In my experience this is reliably true.

    Orthodoxy tends to react quickly when an actual matter of the faith is at stake.

    Ontology. Robert Fortuin noted in an earlier post that only God is self-existent. We are completely dependent on Him for our existence. God is not a being who acts – His being and His actions are one. This teaching comes from the Fathers, particularly as defined in the Palamite Councils of the 1300’s. But our own existence is distorted and there is a division between what we do and what we are. That division, in a word, is sin. But we’re quickly going much further in this discussion than will be helpful, I think.

    Be well.

  85. Forgive me for the side comment.
    As a Restoration Movement Christian Church minister, I have found (and as Father Stephen has reinforced) that we have been trained to *seek* the first century Church and not try and re-invent it (not that many haven’t tried…). It’s in the DNA of the ICC/CoC movement- and as a result, I’ve seen many of my friends and associates received into Orthodoxy, and I may well follow.

    Not all Protestants buy into total depravity/Calvinistic mechanistic heresies. Calvinism has produced some incredibly recalcitrant atheists- it’s so hard to reason with someone who has seen the monster of a god that “TULIP” reveals.

  86. A few words (maybe as a sort of summary in the conversation). I’ve been in the Liturgy for the Dormition this morning, but meditating on our conversation all the while.

    I want to caution against the use of terms “conservative” “liberal” “moderate” with regard to Orthodox writers, thinkers. It is an importation and an imposition of the matrix that shapes our political world. It’s terribly inaccurate and basically invites battle lines. Thus, I will have edited a comment of Dee’s and removed that characterization (forgive me, Dee). That’s also a way of saying that I will be editing comments in the future (or moderating them) that characterize in that fashion.

    By the same token, the “ontological approach” is not a school of thought or a movement or any such thing. It’s simply a way of understanding the faith rooted in the Fathers, particularly in the writings surrounding the Seven Great Councils. It is the dominant form of thinking in St. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, St. Maximus the Confessor – the great Teachers of the Faith in that very seminal period. On the other hand, all of those writers are more than capable of making moral pronouncements that sound like a juridical approach. Moral preaching (something clergy do a lot of) has the same tone as instructing children (indeed, some of the fathers compare it to just such instruction). With children, you tell them what to do, but not so much why they should do it. An adult, however, is wiser if they themselves can answer the questions of why.

    But there is no division of this – two camps or whatever.

    I write for many reasons – my work on the ontological approach is done largely because it has been neglected by most modern Christians (of every background). It is a way of thinking within the Scriptures and antiquity and in the Fathers that our modern age gradually left behind. This is largely due to the philosophical shift that occurred some 500 years or so ago in which Nominalism became the normative way of thinking. In that philosophical framework, moralism and the juridical approach is the only thing possible. I’ve explain all that I think.

    But God forbid that anyone would think that our language has to be purged of all juridical references, etc. They have been around from the beginning, though we do well, if we are adults, to think carefully about what we mean when we use such language.

    So, I feel better now, having gotten all that off my chest! Have a blessed feast day!

  87. I am beginning to suspect that a road map of the Father’s is right there in front of me: our Divine Services.

    When I first became Orthodox, I had a great fear (that sometimes still arises) of the need to teach children in our parish. In my mind, this meant a need to create an Orthodox school; something that would bring up children in the truth and protect them from the desires and ideology of our secular society. My priest stated that all the necessary teaching of the Orthodox Church is found in the Liturgy, in Matins, in worship. He instructed me to listen to the hymns of the Church during Liturgy and it has been a great boon. Sadly, I still grow anxious from time to time and desire something more “formal”. It’s a difficult desire to shake.

  88. Terry, after I read your question I was going to post reply but got interrupted. I would have said essentially the same thing: the Creed and the bishops in council.

    Simple unified answer from three independent sources.

  89. Nicholas,

    Thank you.

    So far I’m handling the articles and posts I’m involved with, which is now this thread mostly.

    I hold in my hand the Nicene Creed. I already do a lot of what you recommend, The prayer book I use has several canons and akathists.

    I don’t feel like I’m drinking from a fire hydrant, but the flow is constant and weighty.

    As you shared, there is still lots to do.

    Thank you very much.

  90. Father,

    So there is no one place which states this is the Orthodox faith: …….?

    There’s no such place in the Church of Christ.

    Thanks for explaining.

  91. Terry, if you have not had the privilege to hear Fr. Thomas Hopko’s talk titled “The Word of the Cross”, let me commend it to you. If you are interested, Fr. Stephen can send you my email address and I can easily get you a personal copy. Indeed, it would be my delight to do so! It answered so many of my questions and helped me go deeper. What’s more, Fr. Hopko’s wisdom effectively put a compass in my heart and mind that’s allowed me to profitably and safely pursue further learning even up to today – some 20 years later.

  92. Father, I’ve read several statements from the seven ecumenical councils. They are not always easy to read.

    Some sound just like this thread on ontology and salvation, comprehensive and deep.

  93. Thank you too Terry. I appreciate the moment for the reflections you inspired.

    Father Stephen,
    Please forgive me for interjecting the political into this thread. I repeated talk that gives political attributes to specific speakers, which I believed was wrong in the first place, but I should not have repeated them, regardless of my dismissal of them. Thank you for the deletion and I will be more diligent against doing this in the future.

  94. Dear Fr Stephen,
    I come to this post late and rarely post.
    This may not be related, but could you address if what I have heard elsewhere is correct.

    When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of Knowledge their sin brought on death so that they would die and not live forever in sin. God did not want us to live fore ever in sin. They were expelled from the garden so that they could not eat of the tree of Life and therefore live fore ever in sin. Christ had to take on every thing of our nature including death, descend into Hades and rise again so that our nature (ontologically) would be changed and we would then be able to rise with Him and join Him in Heaven. If we didn’t die then we would live fore ever in sin and would never be able to join God in Heaven.

    Forgive my poor explanation and correct if it is not Orthodox teaching.
    Mary

  95. Mary,
    This is essentially correct. I think one of the things I find most fascinating in reading the Fathers on things like sin and our natures, etc., is how little I understand the terms at first. We use most of the words in common speech, and so we think we know what they mean, but there are layers beneath layers beneath layers of understanding. Even the most simple story defies an easy understanding.

  96. Dear Fr Stephen, so Christ died so our nature could be changed, not to pay a debt. What great Love God has for us!
    Mary

  97. Terry,
    Not at all. “Spiritual” and “mystical” are not opposites of literal, by the way. It is true that things that are discussed, such as “being” and “existence” are larger than the words that describe them – but they are obviously real (since you and I exist we must be said to have some form of being).

    Here’s a very good example of ontological language. The NT speaks of marriage as a union of husband and wife. It does not describe it as a contract or an agreement (a legal or forensic arrangement). Instead, we say “the two become one flesh.” A literal fulfillment of that is their offspring (bone of bone and flesh of flesh). But the union of husband and wife takes place truly, and really, whether their are children or not. Moreover, St. Paul even says that fornication (such as with a prostitute) makes a union with her. He doesn’t describe it in moral terms (“breaking the law”) but in ontological terms. Something actually happened!

    Indeed, ontology is more literal than juridical language.

    In our modern culture, where the juridical has come to reign, the union of a man and woman has been reduced to nothing more than a contractual understanding. And most Churches were unable to say anything about same sex unions other than that they were breaking God’s laws. But they couldn’t actually say they were not real marriages, because they themselves had reduced marriage to a contract arrangement.

    Orthodoxy says that only a man and woman can have a union – it is ontologically impossible for a man and a man to be united. They can have sex – but they will not be in a union. Same-sex marriage reduces “marriage” to mere contract.

    But the Scripture uses the ontological imagery of a true marriage union to illustrate our ontological relationship with God. The Church is His Bride – she is bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh – not just a bunch of people with a contract.

    That might provide some food for thought.

  98. And most Churches were unable to say anything about same sex unions other than that they were breaking God’s laws. But they couldn’t actually say they were real marriages, because they themselves had reduced marriage to a contract arrangement.

    Father, did you mean to write “But they couldn’t actually say they were ***not*** real marriages”? Or did I just read that incorrectly.

  99. So, Jesus’ death on the cross was totally ontological? I don’t mean ontology vs the legal model. I mean in application.

    I think I see how ontology applies to ‘this world’, but how does it apply to the ‘next world’?

    In other words I think I see how ontology applies to the physical world, but how does it apply to the non-physical world. How can you (or can you?) use the same words, i.e., nouns and adjectives, to describe both?

    Thanks

  100. Terry,
    Same problem, btw, when it comes to using our legal terms and applying them to God. Much of this falls in the realm of what is called the analogy of being – a good portion of which is beyond my pay grade. 🙂 In a nutshell, it is the notion that we can speak of God by analogy to His creation.

    One of the most profound theologians working today is the Orthodox David Bentley Hart. He is what would generally be called a “philosophical theologian.” He was written on the analogy of being. If Robert Fortuin reads this comment, I wish he would send a link to something good on the topic. His recent summary in a comment was excellent.

  101. Terry,
    For me, the question, “Was Jesus death on the cross totally ontological?” is the equivalent of saying that His death was “real.” His death changed everything. In Him, everything was contained. He is the union of God and creation. In Him, all of creation died, and in Him all of creation was resurrected (and this is made clear in Romans 8). It will be made manifest at the end of all things.

    If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. That’s a pretty ontological statement (as is so much in the NT).

  102. There’s a lot on YouTube by David Bentley Hart. It would keep one busy for a long time.

    If ontology is analogical, can it also be said to be descriptive mysticism or descriptive metaphysics

    I like the marriage example; it speaks to me.

    Thanks.

  103. Terry,

    I hope that I can express this adequately;

    In the “economy” of salvation, Christ’s incarnation and self sacrifice make ontological unity possible again in a complete sense…but not in complete “application…”

    Vladimir Lossky calls this the “economy of the Son”

    But there is “another” economy (not truly another but a contuiation of the One economy of the Father through the Son and In the Holy Spirit.). the person and the “economy of the Holy Spirit.” There is a Trinitarian economy to salvation which is One. The Son came to do as the Father taught, and the Holy Spirit speaks not of His own but what the Father gives Him.

    This world and the “next world” are united thought Christ and we begin to partake now in the the next world through the Holy Spirit, and to shine forth the light of the next world to those in this world.

    Ontologically “it is Finished” in Christ. Ontologically it is being finished in us through the Holy Spirit. Christ is our prototokos and we are being “conformed to His image” through the Holy Spirit. But we can either participate with that finished grace, or we can “grieve” and “quench ” the Holy Spirit.

    I hope this makes some sense out of the “application” of ontology in “this world and the next,” as you put it.

  104. I want to be careful about the “not complete in application” part;

    Perhaps an excerpt from Fr. Hopko will put it in perspective;

    So St. Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake in my flesh. I complete/perfect/fulfill what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of His body, that is the Church, of which I became the servant according to the office given to me.”
    And I once asked my professor, “How could St. Paul say such a thing that ‘I complete in my flesh what is lacking in the suffering of Christ, for the sake of His Church, which is His body? ’ What the heck is that?” I said, “I thought everything was totally done by Jesus on the Cross.”

    And my professor said to me, “My dear, it is. Everything is perfected. When He died and said, ‘It is fulfilled, ’ it’s all done, except for one thing. It’s got to happen in you. And if it doesn’t happen in you, you’re not saved. You’ve got to die with Him. Otherwise, He’s died in vain.” So, this teaching is that’s how it surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, because it’s living as members of Christ, who are the light of the world and the salt of the earth by their activity as Christian disciples, as disciples of Christ.

    From his sermon on the mount series part 2 on AFR.

  105. Terry, I haven’t addressed you previously: hello!

    You wrote:
    Honestly, what I see here is much, much too much between me and the Bible.

    I would say yes — about 20 centuries and, assuming you are Western, the end of the western portion of the Roman Empire and the ‘Classic Period’, the rise of the Germanic peoples in Western Europe and the birth of Western Civilization, the Gregorian Revolution of the Latin papacy, the Protestant Revolution, the Cartesian Revolution — and a whole lot more.

  106. Onesimus,

    ‘It is finished’ and ‘conformed to His image’ do make sense.

    Thank you.

    There is ‘now’ and there is ‘to be’, and they are ontologically connected.

    I hope that’s right.

    Is theosis to be understood ontologically?

    Thanks

  107. Terry, “I have some of Thomas Hopko’s works … He is on my list to reread and to read.”

    The Word of the Cross is a talk on CD sold by SVS Press. It is not available as a book and not a podcast. This talk simply must be heard by everyone.

    http://www.svspress.com/word-of-the-cross-the-cd/

    If you change your mind, Fr. Stephen can send you my email. I would be sincerely blessed to give you one of the copies I have.

  108. Father, you wrote “A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment.” Shouldn’t that be death is merely the result?

  109. Jacksson,
    I said “punishment,” because in the moral account, it’s ultimately punishment that matters. Morality (keeping the rules in the juridical account) really only works if someone is enforcing the rules. Thus the “results” are punishments. I don’t like the juridical/moral account – because it wrongly depicts God, I think.

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