You Are Not Alone – And Neither Is God

I consider it both a strange mystery and a settled matter of the faith that God prefers not to do things alone. Repeatedly, He acts in a manner that involves the actions of others when it would seem, He could have acted alone.

Why would God reveal His Word to the world through the agency of men? Why would He bother to use writing? Why not simply communicate directly with people? Why speak to Moses in a burning bush? Why did the Incarnation involve Mary? Could He not have simply become man, whole, complete, adult, in a single moment?

Such questions could be multiplied ad infinitum. But at every turn, what we know of God involves others as well. We may rightly conclude that such a means of acting pleases Him.

An Orthodox hymn for the Annunciation says:

The manner of His emptying cannot be known;
the manner of His conception is beyond speech.
An Angel ministers at the miracle; a virginal womb receives the Son;
the Holy Spirit is sent down; the Father on high is well pleased,
and according to their common counsel, a reconciliation is brought to pass
in which and through which we are saved.

“According to their common counsel” is a rich phrase describing this conciliar action of God.

At the same time that this conciliar mode of action seems obvious to Orthodoxy, it is frequently denied or diminished by others. There is a fear in some Christian quarters that were we to admit that God shared His action with any other, our salvation would be a matter of our own works and not the sovereign act of God. It is feared that a conciliar mode of action shares the glory of God with mere mortals.

It is true. This understanding shares the glory of God with mere mortals. But, interestingly, St. Paul says that man is the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor. 11:7). Apparently, we were brought into existence in order to have such a share.

The failure to understand this and the effort to re-invent the Christian story with diminished roles for angels and saints, or Christians themselves, comes very close to setting forth a different gospel altogether.

The Word became flesh of the Virgin Mary. The flesh of the Virgin is also the flesh that is nailed to the Cross (when her soul was itself mysteriously “pierced”). The flesh which we eat in the Eucharist is also the flesh of the Virgin – for there is no flesh of God that is not the flesh of the Virgin.

And it does no good to protest that the Word merely “took flesh” of the Virgin. For Adam cried out concerning Eve, “This is truly bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And St. Paul noted concerning the wife of a man that a man should love her, “For no one ever yet hated his own flesh.”

I puzzle at how Christians who understand that it is wrong for a woman to say, “It’s my body and I can do with it what I want,” when she is carrying a child, can at the same time treat the Mother of God as though she had merely lent her womb to God for a period of time.

God’s conciliar action in our salvation is so thoroughly established that it involves our will, our soul, our flesh and bones. This is not only true in the Incarnation, but continues to be true for every saving effort in our lives. We cannot save ourselves, of course, for that, too, would be denying the conciliar action of God.

There is a saying among the fathers, “If anyone falls, he falls alone, but no one can be saved alone.” But I think we cannot even say that we fall alone – for the one who falls is equally bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Christ does not distance Himself from the one who falls, but unites Himself with him so completely that He endures the consequence of our fall, entering death and hell to bring us back alive.

The Church is nothing other than the conciliar salvation of God, bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh – His body. We are being saved together whether we will admit it or not. Those who study and quote the Bible are themselves handling documents that were written, copied and preserved by others. It is a conciliar document.

The Orthodox way of life urges us to embrace the fullness of our conciliar being. In sacraments and saints in worship and wonder, we live within the cloud of witnesses and share the common struggle.

For this reason let us unite our song with Gabriel’s,
crying aloud to the Virgin:
“Rejoice, O Lady full of grace, the Lord is with you!
From you is our salvation, Christ our God,
Who, by assuming our nature, has led us back to Himself.
Humbly pray to Him for the salvation of our souls!”

56 comments:

  1. Thank you Fr. Stephen for explaining how the flesh of the virgin Mary is the flesh that was nailed to the cross! This is a new concept to me. I always pondered some prayers to the Theotokos like ” Most holy Theotokos save us” I found it a bit confusing/ unacceptable to address Mary as if she’s the Savior. You shed some light on that here. I’d appreciate if you’d expand on praying to Mary to save us.
    Glory to God in all things 🙂

  2. This is a wonderful way to begin the season of the Nativity Fast, Father. Thank you for this. As I’m sure you know, Kh, Frederica Mathewes-Green was the speaker at our women’s fall retreat at St. John in Memphis this past weekend. One of her three presentations focused on Mary, which was also a wonderful beginning to the season. As I (continue to) struggle with my passions and especially with fasting, these very strong connections to our flesh are so helpful.

  3. I recently read from THE LIFE OF THE VIRGIN MARY, THE THEOTOKOS:
    Saint Ambrose (339-397), Bishop of Milan, wrote
    that “Mary’s life, is a rule of life for all.” Mary.
    Theotokos was to become an icon of the renewed.
    Church.
    ( from the Preface of the book)

  4. Andrew,
    “Not wanting to be saved” is, obviously, a problem. On the one hand, I’m always sceptical of claims that someone doesn’t want to be saved – in that I’m not really sure what is meant by that. Sometimes it means that someone doesn’t want to be religious (for various reasons, some of them quite good).

    Our life (and all creation) is a gift. Salvation is nothing other than our willing acceptance of that gift. Christ’s death and resurrection save us from “losing” that gift, from drifting towards non-being. He restores us to the giftedness of our existence. Our willingness to accept that is not just important – it is an inherent part of what it means to live in that giftedness.

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “Anyone capable of giving thanks is capable of salvation.” So, I would start at that point as an absolute, extreme minimal. Is there no giving of thanks, no willingness to be grateful in any degree? If there is some tiny measure, then, the gracious God will nurture and encourage that tiny spark. So much of this happens where we do not see it taking place.

    So, if someone refuses the gift – their refusal becomes their existence, in a manner of speaking. But the gift is the only true existence. How it all plays out is known to God alone.

  5. Fr. Stephen,
    my previous question, on reflection, should have been: What about people who have no interest in God and are quite content to some degree with there lives?
    There are people who don’t seem to be bothered about indulging in the life of the passions ( it wouldn’t be seen as such) and are quite grateful for the benefits they derive from such a life.

  6. Fr. Stephen,
    I don’t really know for certain, hence my questions and my trying to understand what I have experienced and to gain some understanding, as much as I am able, of what I have not experienced.

    Something that has stayed with me and given food for thought, was a lecture I attended some years ago. The RC priest giving the lecture spoke not just in an academic sense, but also from his pastoral experience. He said that people tend to die as they have lived; death bed conversions being very rare. Now this is only one priests experience.

    I have listened to many questions over the years and there are many people who are seeking something that is beyond just the material. Some people get confused with all the different Christian denominations and many other religions and spiritualities out there. Some then just give up, others opt for the cherry picking method of taking anything that suits from this spiritual smorgasbord. Others still, reject any belief system as having been made up to control people and assuage their fear of death with the fantasy of an afterlife.

    Then again their are those that say you only have one life and this is it, so get what you can from it and enjoy as much as you can and have an anything goes attitude.

    Others believe in God and seek the good things in life too, wealth, fame, etc. They speak much about their gratitude and about how much God has given them; very questionable, because if you are not given these things it is the individuals fault for not having enough faith. A private jet being a must have.

    I have also met people who have no interest in, nor any questions about God, or any deeper meaning to life; this is how it is and it is accepted unquestionably and the only question from them is, why do you bother yourself with such things, it’s pointless asking to many questions, just get on with life and don’t worry about it.

    I am not very good at translating my thoughts to the written word and hope what have said is clear enough.

  7. Andrew, how people live is not always obvious to us. Mostly only God knows a person’s heart…..and His mercy endures forever. I know there is a moment before a person dies where that Mercy is offered. To everyone, Clearly offered.

    I have seen enough folks die to know it. What they do with that gift is up to them. I suspect many more than we would think say yes.
    I also believe that all of the prayers of those who believe and repent during our lives (never enough) make it easier for others to say yes.

    Forgive me, O Lord a sinner is not just a selfish prayer for me but includes all of those whom i have harmed in any way and all of those who have harmed me.

    Lord, have mercy!

  8. I have been with many dying people (hundreds, in fact). There’s a variety there – but it does have a way of “concentrating” things. What I think is that the heart is real and it is always there – and it is a tremendous gift if we’re ever allowed to see it, much less to speak to it. I have always liked CS Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, where folks take a busride from hell to heaven, if only it has a way of depicting a variety of hearts confronting the only thing that matters. I’ve always assumed that there is a way, beyond death, that people confront what might have not been seen before. But a veil is drawn across that, largely.

    What I do think is that none of us is a blank slate. We’re born these days into the insanity of our times, where Christianity is (for many) a vast confusion. None of that is of their making. What I see, however, is God’s grace abundantly at work and calling and making saints, saving us. But, I think the map must be ever so much larger than we see or know. So, I work with what I see and know. It has to be enough.

  9. Thank you Fr. Stephen and Michael, some food for thought there.

    Fr. Stephen, you say ‘you work with what you see and know.’ That’s a reasonable proposition and I have to admit that I don’t know.

  10. Andrew,
    There are a number of things I presume about all people that are theological “givens.” For example, I believe that everyone desires God (though they may not know it – having buried it or some such thing). I could multiply that, somewhat, (with some reflection). I generally view human beings as “victims,” that is, not results brought about by their own free choices. If, for example, I were liberating a holocaust camp, and I encountered an inmate who was angry, bitter, and certain that the whole world was evil, I would think of him with pity and great mercy, understanding that there were good reasons why he thought that. I would be patient with him, etc.

    At the same time, everyone we meet is, to one degree or another, a victim of our adversary (who may have used other people to do his work). Our work (I think) is like that of Christ in hell. You find chaos, lots of confusion, but the point is to rescue people, get them out of the smashed gates, and into some sort of triage so they can be healed from the ravages of their stay in hell. It’s a way of thinking that keeps me from losing heart or from being surprised at what I encounter (though I’m being ravaged a bit myself!).

  11. Fr. Stephen,
    thank you for your patience with me and responding to my questions. There is much to learn and adjust to.

    I have often wondered how anyone who had been in the Nazi death camps remained sane in the face of such demonic and human evil.

    I do wonder though and struggle with how much I have been a victim myself and how much is down to self will, directed away from God and towards indulging the passions? My refusal to cooperate with God.

    May the good Lord bless you and give you grace and strength to weather the storms that are besetting you.

  12. Thanks all for your comments and questions here already; they are helpful to me.

    Hi Father, I have kind of a funny question and comment that may or may not be relevant here, but I’ll take a gamble that it is. I’m reading today about Peter being asked regarding the temple tax in Capernaum. Jesus first makes it clear that “the sons are free.” But what I find interesting in light of your work is that we are in Peter’s hometown, and he’s going to be embarrassed about not paying, and even the question posed (“Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?”) is designed for shame, it seems to me. Of course, after Jesus makes His point clear regarding sons, He tells Peter to find a coin in the mouth of the first fish “lest we offend them” and give it to the temple tax collectors “for Me and you.” This really struck me as an example about shame, and also Christ’s compassion for Peter within his community, and I was hoping you could comment on it. It seems like an important example of economia in some way.

    And that leads me to a comment about Andrew’s questions and your responses. I am glad you linked it to thankfulness. I do have people in my life who really don’t care and want to reject all thought about such things, but the one thing I have noticed that is really troubling is a kind of mercilessness or lack of compassion, a high degree of materialism, and a very troubling lack of gratitude. And I think the last is the really problematic thing, because as you say there are all kinds of ways that God can work to bring people to faith. But the entitlement/lack of gratitude seems to me a really hard stumbling block.

    Anyway I would appreciate your comments, even if I have the wrong end of the stick regarding the temple tax , etc

  13. Sorry, the passage I refer to is Matthew 17:24-27. And in the interest of full disclosure, I do write a Bible study blog and this is the passage I’m writing about today, and I do plan to write about shame as best I can. However, I really and truly would like to know what Fr. Stephen says about this! And especially because I might have the wrong end of the stick at least in some way or other! I know there are things I don’t understand about the topic that Father works so diligently on.

  14. Janine,
    It’s a brilliant example that you’ve shared – and I think shame is a good way to approach it – certainly on that level. The story carries, first, the application concerning who Jesus is. They ask Peter, “Does your (you plural – we Southerners would say “Ya’ll’s) teacher pay the temple tax?” Peter says that He does. Which is sort of Peter putting himself out on a limb, saying something about Jesus when, perhaps, he doesn’t know it for sure. So, Jesus quizzes him, asking who do kings tax – their sons or their strangers? Peter rightly says, “Strangers.” So, Jesus says, “The sons are free.” In that sense, in His sonship, He “owes” no temple tax. And then he gives the coin in the mouth fish miracle – which “saves face” for Peter, lest he look a fool in front of others. Jesus “covers” Peter’s shame.

  15. Andrew thanks for your interest. I’ll put the link in my signature on this comment. I’m just a lay person with an interest though, and I defer to Father! I had pretty much written my commentary but I’m going to cite Father as well, and not for the first time!

  16. I think, Father, thanks to you, I have decided that shame and a genuine expression of compassion will likely always be linked in one way and another. I couldn’t really elaborate, but it seems to me so and something to ponder. No matter how much the world praises compassion, when we’re called upon for it, it’s frequently a moment of bearing a little shame and being willing to do so.

  17. Thank for that Janine. It’s what you said about Jesus and Peter, regarding the temple tax and shame, that piqued my interest; not a connection I could have made. So when you mentioned you have a blog, well I thought there’s someone else I can learn from.
    Our own insight can only take us so far and we see through our own lens of bias, experience and understanding. We can miss so much; getting perspectives from others is a great help.

  18. Hello Father, and thank you for your post.

    ” I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg” Luke 16 3
    This statement speaks to me of the conciliar mode of man with God,
    admitting “I am not strong enough to dig” I am giving first place to Christ, Who “digs a pit” and places Himself in voluntarily or our salvation,
    “I am ashamed to beg” speaks of how I must not reconcile shame with more shame. Shame is a call to action
    towards my fellow man while guilt is a call for repentance to God. I must take my finger off the scale that kept my self interest above my fellows. The shame is a call to unity in the fabric of the one humanity. Our shame in action greets one another. We all offer each other unrighteous mammon it is for this reason we need The True Bread of Life. But even our gestures (of themselves bound to fail) when purified in the eternal habitation through Christ , reveal them selfs to be commendable intercessory prayers for one another to our and God and Father.

  19. Hi father Stephan,

    I am just musing on the gospel reading for today.
    if you could possibly elaborate on how the parable of the bad steward is a step towards a conciliar mode with God the Father?

    thank you again for your posting

  20. George, on Luke 16:1-9
    How do we “make friends with unrighteous mammon.” We do this by giving money to the poor and needy. Had the rich man “made a friend” of poor Lazarus at his gate, then he would have found himself “received into everlasting life” when he died. Our salvation is quite conciliar – even a “bad” man can be saved by acts of kindness and generosity (such is the mystery in Christ). Christ says that a single drink of water to “one of these little ones” can secure a reward for us. This is the mercy of God at work.

    “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

  21. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your answer to George. Just today I was reading a piece you wrote on March 5, 2017, called “Put Your Money to Work – It’s for Your Salvation” (https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/?s=buy+your+salvation). In it you say “You can indeed buy your way into heaven. You must bribe the poor to pray for you. Be such a friend that they will always remember you before God.”

    This made a deep impression on me because I realize that it’s true but I have seldom heard anything like it, except of course in the gospel readings that you also quoted. My work sometimes involves helping the poor. It has never occurred to me to ask any of them to pray for me, yet I suspect many would if I only asked. Please forgive this practical question, but I want to understand further if this is a good and important thing to do. Should I ask them?

  22. This conversation reminds me that Jesus taught to invite those to table who cannot pay you back. I suspect we would gain prayers without even asking. Perfect thought for this next week

  23. Kenneth,
    It is not a bad practice (to ask them to pray for you). If you will, the “work” itself will pray for you as well. Thus, alms given secretly are still powerful in their intercession before God.

    I don’t think that we ever ponder things in that manner. Think of the “blood of Abel” that cried out from the ground to God. The suffering and sorrow of the poor rises as a bitter complaint before God. I frequently think that if we understood these things, people would flee wealth rather than seeking it out so diligently.

  24. Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I just might have the boldness to do this at the right moments. I pray for you too and am thankful for you.

  25. Dear Kenneth,
    Thank you for your comment yesterday. And to Father for his response. I needed such edification this morning and I’m grateful for it.

  26. Fr. Freeman,

    I didn’t read through the comments, but what corrected my imagination most, that God preferentially desires active participants with Him, and in part destroyed my Calvinist soteriology, was realizing that a Divine Council was clearly there in the Bible. I found this before becoming Orthodox in Michael Heiser’s books, now much of the same information only better couched in the history of Orthodoxy is in Fr. Stephen DeYoung’s books/podcasts.

    Council and counsel, well, they’re very related. Who was there at Creation when God says, “Let us make man..” The Holy Trinity, and a host of angelic beings. Angel gets swapped for a lot of designations in the OT that don’t make their way conceptually into Greek, or are best expressed as angel in Greek. Angels did not help make man, but they were addressed it seems in the “Let us make man.” There is no polytheism here or henotheism. All created beings have their origin in God and are not God. In one sense, I truly believe this is the rationale for praying to Saints, for Saints at all, as we do not become angels, we become greater than angels, if we are healed. “More honorable than the Cherubim..” We are now, part of the Divine Council, and we are ensured a permanent place among the Council, among the Family of God, provided we remain loyal. We are the terrestrial Imagers and there are non-terrestrial, heavenly imagers. We unite to form one “choir” of sorts.

    As it relates to soteriology, remembering God is not alone, means, monergism is not true, never was true – or – is true in parts, in Creation, in Incarnation (though here another Imager, the Theotokos is involved), in the Passion, in the invasion of Hades, in the Resurrection – these are monergistic so that a later synergism is possible. That’s without me developing the argument. That we have “all the means of salvation” means, we are or could be, the means along with many other means.

  27. The monergistic work of God, Creation, etc. is His alone. His glory in His activity/works/etc. – is His and can not be attributable to any created thing. People who put the monergism in the wrong place, final salvation, have confused matters horribly. In the OT, God not sharing His glory, was largely about correcting a Pagan imagination. Baal didn’t create, God did. Baal doesn’t ride on the wings of the wind, God does. The monergism/creative activity was attributed wrongly to a demonic impostor. God does not share the glory of His invasion of Hades, of His Resurrection/defeat of death, of His Passion, He enables us to participate in them, and when all is done, He receives all glory. His work, made all of this possible, and was never possible without Him. Even willing, properly, is a gift from God given to all, the possibility thereof. The created thing has no right think, it made itself. Realizing our own contingency, instead of our Original Sin nature, fixes the glory issue. If OS is true, and man is attributed with finally saving himself through a choice, God’s glory is wrongly given away, no matter how you try and say otherwise. If OS is not true, man’s choice to be saved, is contingent already, on God’s willingness to save Him, there is no merit in this equation, no stealing from the glory of God. Same would be true of the Theotokos.

    I hope my OS rants make sense. OS is the only reason a competition would occur for glory in salvation. Without it, God gets all the glory.

  28. ‘Who can save me from this body of sin; thanks be to God for our Lord Jesus Christ.’

  29. Some further thoughts on shame (I hope it’s okay to put them here), as I continue blogging on Matthew 18. It seems to me that Jesus’ procedure for correction within the Church is all about “bearing a little shame” but doing so in the process of reconciliation and forgiveness. When a sin (or debt or trespass) is acknowledged, especially in the context of a “brother” or “brothers” (and of course I include “sisters” in this, as I am one of those!) then that requires a little shame to be borne. Either face to face with the hurt party in private, or even moreso in an expanding circle of community, the shame of admission is borne in order to be forgiven and to create community. Wow, that is hard, I must admit. It gets so convoluted too. It makes my head spin thinking about it. I will need your clarification further Father!

  30. Matthew Lyon,

    If God is indeed as he is alleged to be (entirely self-sufficient and satisfied within himself), then what exactly would be his issue with sharing his glory? He doesn’t need it, not at all. It seems that, if he himself is remotely as charitable as he demands his followers to be, he would be eager and not reluctant to share it.

  31. Stewart,
    I can’t speak for Matthew but I’ll give a quick answer.

    First off, the conversation regarding “not sharing His glory,” is mostly a Protestant conversation (or classical Protestant). It was part of the argument against Catholicism, particularly, giving any attention to saints or to the Virgin. So, it became something of a rallying cry.

    In OT terms, the sense of not “sharing His glory” was simply the statement of monotheism – that God alone is God, and the false gods of the nations were false.

    In contemporary conversation – there is a proper concern to be reminded again that God alone is God. He alone is the source of life, etc. But in Orthodox Christian understanding, God has made known to us that the goal of our existence is union and communion with Him. Thus, we participate in His glory (not as the origin of glory, but as participants). This we see in the saints, in the conciliar character of our life in Christ, and so on.

  32. Angels did not help make man, but they were addressed it seems in the “Let us make man.”

    I believe the only one involved in the creation or “making of” man is God. And that the angels participate toward helping us in our well being.

    “Us”, when spoken by God, seems to me to be a reference to the Holy Trinity. I’ve heard Orthodox teachers refer to the usage to support the Orthodox awareness of Christ’s actions in the creation of all things from the very start.

    I hope and ask that Father Stephen corrects my understanding as needed.

  33. BTY, when I refer to the usage of “us” I’m specifically referencing the quote which was taken from Genesis: “Let us make man”.

  34. Dee,
    My understanding has always been a Trinitarian interpretation of that Genesis passage. A rabinnical or historical/critical take on it would be to likely see it as addressing the angelic beings of the “Council.” But, here’s an example where I think a simple historical reading of the text is problematic. We are not created in the image of angels. The “odd” turn of phrase, while likely referring in its historical context to an angelic reference, is corrected by a later patristic reading that gives it a Trinitarian/Christological reading.

    I am not very given to some of the present historical readings that I’m seeing – in that I take them to be sometimes problematic. It is not Marcionite to read the OT through a Christological lens – nor is it “incarnational” to insist on the primacy of the historical. A historical reading has its place – but it has also had a long history of being, from time to time, “corrected” by the Fathers, for either moral or theological reasons.

  35. Fr. Freeman, Dee, Stewart,

    The point is, God was not alone when He created man in His image. If you read Job, the account of creation there, it’s a packed house, “when the morning stars were singing together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” – Job 38:7 LEB. I’m not saying God asked advice or help from angels, or that we are made in their image – I specifically distanced myself from any such notion already – but that they were included as addressees, whereas the Holy Trinity do the activity of Creation, with angels invited to the event. When you take the information in as a whole (or a big part of the whole) that God has to our knowledge, most always, included a range of created beings in His plans, the idea that God would be stripped of glory or that, if God did work in tandem at least some of the time with humanity or angels, that His sovereignty is in question, that is just flat out wrong. I doubt it’s a concern for many people here, but it is very typical anti-Orthodox/Catholic apologetics. Now, I think that apologetic is convincing on many levels if we were Catholic, because the soteriology is very much the same as for Protestants, but it is not for us.

    Many people are convinced, once pressed with the knowledge of their own sin, combined with doctrines that teach man is born evil and without a beneficial will, into monergism, that God accomplishes basically everything He wants to get done in a unilateral sense, apart from any other wills involved. This is true, some of the time, but the Biblical picture hints that it’s not true most of the time. The Theotokos should be the most obvious example for us.

    Here is the crux really: when man is born evil, how could man help save himself through the use of the will? He can’t. To say he did, would attribute something to man that he is not capable of and would amount to egregious pride and insanity. If man is born with death and not depravity, he has the possibility of synergy. Man is never primary because God was free to create and man depends on God’s freedom for his existence. Man has no aseity, only God. This is the answer to the glory question that is raised first, in the Bible, with many phrases such as Isaiah 48:11 “My glory I will not give to another.” God’s glory, at least one aspect, is His right to claim sovereignty as Creator. But for Him to claim complete sovereignty over the fate of the world as it relates to heaven or hell, actually requires Original Sin and Guilt. If you are born evil, you’re going to need His sovereignty to bail you out. Once the false doctrine is set aside God’s will actually has the capacity of being influenced by – His imagers. My contention has been, that we as Americans, even after becoming Orthodox, are a mixed bag here because this is likely the soteriology we were brought up in.

    If I had to give a different example, think of Paul’s use of “works of the law”, “by the works of the law no one shall be justified.” Because Original Sin is already assumed when Luther gets around to exegeting what no one understood before him, this means, works and grace are opposed. Why? Your actions, your member status in the Divine Council is not so much active participant as it is passive observer. Since your will was formerly bound in depravity in Adam, and God had to overcome your active obedience to sin, what will your works be even after regeneration? Filthy rags. it’s the snow-covered dunghill again. It’s funny actually, in a sad way, you are not really washed white as snow, you are covered with snow in this view – at least as it relates to what you will now produces. Your will produces literal, I’m tempted to use expletives. In this view, or others like it (and now Lutherans and others scramble to figure out how to incorporate theosis lately) God’s glory is protected by your inability to do anything good. What started the whole weird situation? A false doctrine of man that emphasized his depravity – and not – his contingency. This is what gets emphasized very often in Orthodoxy. “The only Lover of mankind”, “the God who created us from nothing”, “Do not despise the works of your hands.” “You brought us out of nothing into being, and when we had fallen away, You raised us up again…”

    To me, far from being some product of modern exegetical/historical-critical butchering of the Bible, the idea of Council, is a recovery, the basis behind much of what we already believe.

    Thanks,
    Matthew Lyon

  36. Continued…

    The logic the Reformers used against the Catholics, and which Evangelicals and others use against us, is that Saints/the Theotokos/relics/icons/etc. – divert proper devotion away from Christ to created beings, which make us idolatrous. Just saying we venerate them instead of worship them, does not usually dissuade the accuser. But, if you assumed, under a modified Calvinistic perspective or another Augustinian one, that people were born evil, were saved apart from works (and again, works for Paul, are not the 10 Commandments like Luther assumed) monergistically, then, they would be right. To be honest, after meeting several Catholics who became Protestant, the logic works on some. There is no virtue where there is no ability to will, so, why would anyone venerate someone who doesn’t deserve it? The Theotokos becomes a vessel, and so do we in their thinking, even if we esteem someone, all the glory is God’s – but for a much different reason – it now lies in His prerogative to save us – apart from works or apart from will.

    Luther’s take on “apart from works of the law” and Calvin’s “apart from the will” are two peas in a pod, but, historically, Catholic understandings of Holy Baptism, would entail a monergistic understanding that when someone was baptized, they were Elect in the Church, but possibly were not elect unto final salvation. So, God elects some to be in the Church who are not elect unto final salvation for, His good purposes which amount to what – Glory. All is for Glory in the end in these views. The damned highlight the glory to the elect, that is in part, their purpose in life/existence.

    See, you take this thinking far enough and what do you get, craziness. Remove the OS/OG, put back very good Adam, put back theosis (with room for various definitions) and union, put back death and Satan as obstacles to love, and you’re back in the world of the Bible and of Orthodoxy.

  37. Fr. Freeman,

    I was thinking of this yesterday, that St. Athanasius, who maybe more than anyone else gives us – what I fully agree with you (that incarnational is correct) – an incarnational reading of Scripture was likely steeped in theosis/gods/Council readings of the OT. This I will explore more. But, if so, it would mean that it is likely anachronistic to think “incarnational” reading of the Bible apart from these, if, he did rely on a previous understanding of theosis that included Divine Council. We would be applying incarnational categories via him and others, while denying their own basis – possibly – I may be wrong. Happy Thanksgiving.

    I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:
    a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…
    Numbers 24:17

    It’s definitely interesting, that just as Abraham’s descendants are called “stars” and that this language was associated with divine/heavenly beings, that a major prophesy associated with the Nativity, with Incarnation, calls Jesus a star and a scepter.

    I won’t go on, but a simple search of scepter and star, reveals some interesting connections. When Hebrews 1:8 connects, “Your throne O God is forever and ever, the scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom, with Psalm 45:6, to Christ, again, an interesting apologetic methodology is revealed. The star announcing Jesus’s birth is called, His star. I’m not saying I know what these things mean, but they point to more than just astronomy. The stars falling from heaven and the powers being shaken. Joseph’s brothers are called stars. Deborah and Barak’s song in Judges 5 mentions new gods being chosen and stars that “fought”. Job calls the angels at creation morning stars, and Jesus is called, “The Morning Star”. David tells the sun, moon, and stars to “praise the Lord.” Satan is called the Day Star and is accused of trying to elevate himself above the “stars of God” in Isaiah 14:11. Daniel 8:9-11. Amos 5:26 references a “star god.” The dangerous false believers in Jude are called wandering stars, who Enoch warned about. Then in Revelation, a bunch more star language used for churches, judgements, possibly the Theotokos, then Jesus again as morning star.

    Now, if St. Athanasius and others who were debating Christology and anthropology, were arguing using these verses, and they surely were with some of them, their incarnational theological Bible reading, would have been based on, this sort of reading – where theosis is connected to Council or to union.

    That was unsolicited I know.

    Thanks for all you do,
    Matthew Lyon

  38. Matthew,
    St. Athanasius was, on the whole, quite careful to avoid any hint of viewing Christ as an angelic being – but he was certainly aware of the “Council” and the angelic aspects of the Old Testament. I think it is a mistake to assume that what St. Athanasius is up to “starts” with Scripture. The doctrine/dogma of the Incarnation of Christ, of the Cross, etc., precedes his reading of the Old Testament (and this is often typical in the Fathers). I know there’s a current fascination with the “Council” of heaven, the angels, etc. It seems to me to be a non-starter as a basis for doing theology (such as a “Biblical theology”). St. Irenaeus described what he called the “hypothesis” of Scripture – by which and through which the Scriptures were interpreted. There has to be such a hypothesis (pattern) in order to guide how we put the pieces of the puzzle of interpretation together (he used the image of assembling a mosaic). Such a hypothesis seems to be the divinely energized content of Christ’s conversation with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

    St. Athanasius is a good read. There’s a couple of good lectures by Fr. John Behr on the topic that I recommend. https://youtu.be/QmqWdq-eznY

  39. Fr. Freeman,

    It seems to me, that we have received a categorial error handed down to us from Western theology, that equates elohim with Elohim, morning stars with Morning star, etc. I’ve said it before to you, but I think doubling down on Creation out of Nothing, I see why it’s so important. The liberal take, and we have theologians who have gone much further than the liberal Protestants, is that the polytheism wasn’t sufficiently scrubbed from the Scriptures post-exile. This is completely illogical to me, especially if it went under the revisions they believe to have taken place, and I don’t deny some revision, or even with the compilation of the Psalms (and I have no idea of the dating, but I believe the whole process was Providential) it’s totally Messianic. If, elohim is more a distinction between earthly and heavenly existence, then, the Creator/creature distinction is never endangered and you can have a Council which in no way threatens Christian monotheistic Trinitarianism. I’m not disputing starting with Christ as the methodology for interpretation, but at the same time, there was a theological world already in existence that Christ comes into, much of which He restores where it went wrong, instead of starting out from scratch. When you read someone like St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the story of Enoch, watchers, it’s just taken for granted in the catechetical lectures. The distinctiveness of the Jewish and Christian story, is not that the ancients were wrong about everything, but that idolatry arose, gods arose, and they were bad, Satan was bad, whereas the nations, and often Israel, worshipped gods who were not God, or mixed worship of God with created things/demons. The corrective was to put the world back, right side up. And this plays directly into Christus Victor. The story flows, climaxes with Christ, but then looking back, the details are filled in, not that they were totally clueless beforehand. We have OT Saints who saw Christ before the Incarnation. This explains why, early apologists were a real threat to existing Jewish theology and why, there would be an attempt in Rabbinic Judaism, to avoid the Christian argumentation. Oddly enough, beliefs in Judaism, like that the Angel of the Lord was a personification of Yahweh, a second visible Yahweh (and we call Christ Yahweh) were later deemed to be heresies. What I think odd, because I was raised outside the world of Scripture and in the Reformers’ imaginations, is the Scriptural references used by the apologists. I mean, you figure Isaiah’s going to get a lot of coverage, etc. – but Psalm 82 and others, you just wouldn’t expect these after being shaped by Western theology.

    I am very convinced, as I have converted to Orthodoxy by first believing Orthodox were the only Christian group to demonstrably believe the same soteriology as Jesus and the first Christians, that these things comprise a very sturdy ground for continuity, more so in my estimation than any other Orthodox argument, and actually form the basis for criticism towards the false soteriologies and anthropologies of the West, and that when someone understands in general, what the Gospel is, and if they ask, did anyone keep believing this, Orthodoxy will be commended to them as a great hope, and from there, they can start working with God for their salvation, the last part being the real motivation for interest in such things.

    It’s not for me, some fun endeavor reading Enoch or early apologists, except that, I believe some of this existing theological imagination at the time of Christ, shows a basis for continuity in the Gospel for Orthodoxy, and why, in part, the West lost the same imagination. Fr. John Strickland’s Podcasts and books, his phrase, “The Anthropological Pessimism of the West,” is spot on I think, but, where did the pessimism come from? A substituted soteriology. My guess is, this information will slowly or rapidly, increase catechumens in the near future if not already as it did for me 6 years ago. When we quote regularly, “God became man that men might become gods,” or something to that effect, that imagination preceded the Incarnation, and the Incarnation filled the definition of God, and deified man, in complete detail.

    Last, I think there is good evidence in the Bible, that in Jesus’s own self-awareness, He was to undo all the falls in the OT, to renew the Edenic vision. I know this doesn’t always take, but if Hermon was the site of the Transfiguration, it would have been quite intentional on the part of Christ, and considering that everything speeds toward the Passion after this, the bait set, seems to totally line up with early Fathers seeing Jesus tricking the Devil.

    Sometimes I wonder, is this all too weird for us, is that our issue? But yes, St. Athanasius would have been starting with Christ, but also the Christ who made powerless the devil, the archons, etc.

  40. Matthew,
    I have no particular arguments in this. It’s simply that I’m not terribly sympathetic to the current project of OT reading. It is likely much more interesting to many others. Christ confronts the powers has always been quite essential and obvious to me. I’m less interested in a systematic treatment of all that. In a few places, I’ve seem tendencies that trouble me. But it is not something I wish to go into.

    Christ does indeed come into a world that already has a “theological imagination” ( a great deal of which was wrong). Most historical constructions leave me somewhat empty. They frequently make historical assertions that are flimsy to my mind. They are, in my experience, the least reliable grounds for making theological assertions. The fact is that our theology precedes our exegesis. Always has and always will.

    There is, in Orthodox dogmatic thought, something of a “hellenistic synthesis” that cannot be overlooked or dismissed. Some Western scholars have tended to disparage it, as though it were a “Platonizing” tendency. In light of that synthesis, I’m never quite sure whether to treat things like “watchers,” much less the whole of the Book of Enoch (non-canonical for good reasons) as something to be read allegorically or not. Exactly how “historical” our treatment of such things is problematic thing for me…all of which is a different conversation. It seems to me that many make historical assumptions about parts of the OT that may be nothing of the sort. Of course, I’ve found that when you say things like that you make yourself an object of attack, all of which reminds me of modern Protestant arguments…all of which leave me cold.

    Which is to say…this is really not a conversation that holds great interest for me.

  41. Matthew,
    if you have not already listened to it, you may be interested in listening to, The Lord of Spirits podcast, by Fr’s Andrew Stephen Damick and Stephen De Young, on Ancient Faith Radio.

  42. Fr. Freeman,

    Thanks for the exchange. I understand your position. It’s more that I am coming to appreciate that theology is based on direct vision of Christ, and He is there in the OT. One of the biggest correctives for me, again this was before I was Orthodox and was confirmed by our practice, was the realization that what made a prophet a prophet, was not the Protestant assumption of Inspiration – where God either overcomes/overrides/takes over the mind (or incorporates the mind or experience of the person) and you get a text that is authoritative. It’s not the community that makes it authoritative either, though of course you need a recipient. Instead, the vision itself, in every instance of the Bible, establishes the prophet, the disciple, the apostle, the believer in many ways. I think I’m safe saying our epistemology starts with vision of Christ. So, yes, the Holy Spirit does inspire Scripture, but before there was a text, there was the experience of Christ. This experience precedes Scripture and the NT, as Moses saw His glory (the God-seer), saw His Day, etc. This was the criteria for the NT Canon as well, that the authors either saw Christ or were close associates of those who did, at least that is commonly believed. Christ’s choice of the disciples, went with the experience of Him. The reason we see Christ in the OT is because He was there. Yes, it may not have been plain until after the Resurrection, but, He was there all along whether or not we happened upon it. So when you get to Paul, having to restate his qualifications all of the time, what does he appeal to, the Damascus Road/third heaven – the vision. He places himself squarely in the prophetic tradition and at least he believes it’s the marker of authority. Succession seems to be based on this. It’s not just prophet in the sense of repeating something, but having the experience of vision. All I just said is actually obvious without the standard Protestant assumption of Inspiration, or, the liberal Protestant evolutionary view (and these I blame on Original Sin again as you need a surer method of delivery of “Thus saith the Lord” than a depraved mind or someone where their noetic faculty is basically faulty). And when you get to Orthodoxy, you can see this truth on the walls of every Church. This I believe is the excitement I feel and Fr. Stephen DeYoung (I think), etc., although his own enthusiasm may not always have the practical application I feel. And again, while I make no plugs for Fr. Romanides, this was the exact same thing he was pointing out in Ancestral Sin. So, I’m coming around to learning my OT for once as it was basically ruined for me due to my soteriology, and then I’m seeing Romanides say that a large amount of the basis for our theology depends on Angel of the Lord being Christ, I’m connecting the dots and saying, here’s another reason to be Orthodox, which is really just that Orthodox were faithful. But then, the whole heyschast tradition is based on this vision as well. But, this entire idea of direct vision of Yahweh incarnate, is basically impossible outside of Orthodoxy. Maybe I’m just detailing my own conversion, but when you combine these things, and this is where I think Romanides had his finger on the pulse, with Original Sin, and more, eventually you get an – alone God, monergism, an alone energy.

    I take a generic view of Enoch and other influential books, where instead of taking the thing as a whole, if it is distilled into, “something really bad happened here, it involves the demonic, it is a cause for human depravity” then I don’t really care so much about the details. Personally, I think, the issue is that it is a fall, it is a reason in part for why the world is the way it is, and whether the Nephilim are born from women and angels, not my interest. It’s more, the interest in, where do/does the Bible and the Fathers and Orthodoxy trace depravity. And since we have solid anchor lines in a story that does not include the OS/OG/Total Depravity hogwash, we have an answer or at least, the conceptual imagination, for free will, for cooperation, for union, for synergy, etc. And it’s found in part, in the motifs, which influenced the OT and NT. The problems Christ comes to solve are all different problems than what the Protestant world takes them to be.

    I’m keeping you while you say you’re not all that interested, so my apologies, but rather than seeing this as a systematic treatment, I think it fills in the problems already present in the text, that were hidden from us due to a false soteriology. For instance, until 6-7 years ago, I never knew not one OT sacrifice was punished for the sins of the person. I only believed it due to PSA, but I only believed that, due to Original Sin, and then I knew that “works of the law” was Jewish self-righteous due to OS, etc. That’s how you ruin the OT in a few quick steps. Where was the blood which adds back to your death? Death and uncleanness instead of uncleanness=moral sinfulness? Gone. When someone comes into Orthodoxy, if PSA was true, why keep sacrificing or repeating the once for all sacrifice? The logic is there in the OT, but it’s hidden for the person carrying PSA in their back pocket. For one, the Eucharist is for eternal life. I guess, if it were me, and a catechumen asked a question like this, I would go into why anyone believed PSA in the first place and it’s logical connection to Original Sin, but when you get around finally to saying why we don’t believe in Original Sin – and I’m done after this – it’s because – the reasons there for depravity in the Bible, in our Tradition, in the multiple falls of the Bible (where God was not alone) have totally sufficient explanatory power to ditch the impostor OS/OG. I could have said it much shorter, the reason this information is important to me, is because it is a death kneel to PSA, to Calvinism, to monergism, to determinism, and upholds free will, and makes Orthodoxy make a lot of sense.

    Thanks Father,
    Mathew Lyon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *