Change for the better: Ecumenism and the Orthodox concept of salvation.

My title today is ‘Change for the Better’ but when one thinks of the Orthodox Churches perhaps the last thing that comes to mind is the word ‘change’. Orthodoxy seems to be the epitome of that which is changeless and to the visitor orthodox worship probably appears timeless. The Orthodox Liturgy may feel timeless in the sense that it generally continues far longer than most Western church services, but there is also a sense of timelessness in that the ancient liturgical forms are preserved and cherished. A visit to an Orthodox monastery, for example to one of the Coptic monasteries in the Egyptian desert, prompts feelings of going back in time, of nothing really changing, of a deeper more ancient life of prayer and worship.

For many people this perceived timelessness is no doubt attractive. There is security in the unchanging, a sense of knowing where we are, of knowing that ‘God is in his heaven and all is right with the world’. But it doesn’t take much exposure to the Christian faith to realise that this security is an illusion, a comforting one but an illusion nonetheless. Like education, Christianity is all about change. We only have to open our bibles, almost anywhere, to demonstrate this. From Genesis to Revelation change seems to be order of the day. From the Creation, through Abraham’s journeying, to Moses leading the people out of Egypt, all is change. In the New Testament change continues just as dramatically. It is the old order changing, from the Good News of the Incarnation, to John the Baptist’s call to repentance, to the Resurrection, to the day of Pentecost, and on to the conversion of St Paul, all is change. We may get a very real sense that, in the words of the well-known hymn ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’.

This is not to argue that we ourselves must now rush around changing everything; change is not always a good thing. We need to understand where and what change is needed, and how best we can effect it before we get caught up in change for change’s sake, in a mistaken quest to modernise or get up to date. Some things don’t change, or don’t need changing; for others change may be long overdue. The Orthodox churches seem to understand this. If we go back to our visit to a desert monastery we might be surprised to see a black robed monk take a mobile phone out of his pocket, and further surprised to discover that these days most of the monasteries have web sites where we can get up to date information about their work and witness. These changes seem right and necessary. They are the kind of changes that any organisation will make to ensure that it doesn’t become moribund. At the same time the forms of worship in use, both in the desert monastery and in the Diaspora, are little changed over many centuries. Changes of language have been made of course to help those whose linguistic abilities do not include Coptic or even Arabic but the kind of liturgical change undertaken by many western churches is relatively unknown.

What change can we identify that might be required of all Christians? The theme for this year’s week of prayer sets out the premise that I have been alluding to, that ‘change is at the heart of our Christian faith’, and cites St Paul’s argument that ‘anyone who is in Christ is a new creation’. I would like to examine that from an Orthodox perspective and to reflect on how this might help us in our quest towards ecumenism.

An important part of the orthodox theology of salvation is the concept of theosis or ‘deification’. These are very precise theological terms and I use them here with some hesitation as they can be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted, often wilfully so by people intent on causing division and distress. Put simply theosis means that we come to share in the divine nature; as St Athanasius the Apostolic memorably expressed it, ‘For the Word of God became a human being that we might become God . . . .’1 This is the final goal to which all Christians without exception should aspire. It is a constantly recurring theme in the Gospel of St John, where for example in chapter seventeen Our Lord prays, ‘that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us’ (Jn 17:21); in the Epistles of St Paul where in 2 Corinthians Paul writes, ‘we all . . . are being transformed . . . from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3:18); and most notably in the second letter of St Peter, where he writes of, ‘exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature . . . .’ (2 Pt 1:4)

But before turning to the means by which this goal is to be achieved I think it prudent to list some of the caveats, for I am sure that most of you can see already how this concept may be distorted and misunderstood. Our bishops are right to warn us of the inherent dangers of a too facile understanding of this subject and several points need to be made early on so that all misunderstanding is avoided. First, partaking of the divine nature must not be confused with sharing in the divine essence. Again these are very precise theological and philosophical terms which need careful distinction. Sharing in the divine nature means that we share in the divine energies, energies being expressed in a number of different ways in scripture, among others, ‘glory’, ‘life’, ‘love’, light and ‘virtue’. ‘Believe in the light’, says our Lord, ‘that you may become sons of light’. (Jn 12:36) ‘ . . . it is the grace of union with your glory,’ says St John of Dalyatha, ‘and not with your eternal person or essence.’2 If we were to share in the divine essence then that would abolish the distinction between God and Man.

Second, it follows that union with God is not a blurring of the distinctions between Man and God, as some oriental religions argue, that we are eventually going to being swallowed up in the godhead. Nothing could be further from Orthodox Christianity. The anticipated mystical union between God and Man is a genuine union but in it we retain our identity and our integrity. Third, theosis is not anticipated for an exclusive elect but rather for all faithful people, and furthermore it is not a solitary, individual process but a social one: we are transformed in community, we are saved in the Church.3)

These then are some of the warnings that we must heed, almost like the warning labels on a potentially dangerous piece of machinery or equipment. They are not by any means exhaustive although they seem to me to be some of the most important and we are wise not to lose sight of them. But I want to turn to a more positive view, of a consideration of some of the ways in which we are to seek, as we must, this essential union with God our father.

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope and Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has written very extensively on our salvation and he offers clear and reliable guidance.4 I will try briefly to select some of the main points he makes as it affects my topic this afternoon. It’s worth noting in passing that he rarely, if ever, uses the terms theosis or deification, although these are found widely used by many fathers of the church, in particular St Athanasius, who I have already mentioned. ‘For therefore the union was of this kind’, writes St Athanasius in his Second Discourse Against the Arians, ‘that he might unite what is man by nature to him who is in the nature of the godhead, and that his salvation and deification might be sure’.5 But His Holiness prefers instead always to talk of salvation, which he notes is inconceivable apart from our close relationship with God and outside our knowledge of Him, as distinct from merely intellectual knowledge about Him. Crucially the whole argument is founded on love: God’s love for us, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that we might not perish but have everlasting life’ (Jn 3:16). Through the Incarnation and Resurrection of his Son God demonstrates among other things not only his love for us but his willingness to join us with himself (Jn 17:23), to renew our nature in Him, to grant us participation in his divine nature (2 Pet 1:4), and to raise us up to heaven. (Eph 2:6)

Most importantly of all His Holiness makes it very clear that we have a role to play. Our salvation is dependent upon freely given grace but we must choose to accept it and declare our acceptance through practical faith. In other words there can be no separation between faith and works, no priority of one over the other, for ‘faith without works is dead’. (Jas 2:14) ‘Good deeds’ are important to our salvation but we need to be careful once again about how we interpret this precept. We cannot trust in our own strength or our own righteousness as works carried out in this way are ineffective, and those works which stem from a literal following of the law are equally useless. Works cannot be separated from faith but works cannot be effective without the believer asking for the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such works are necessary for our salvation.

It must be clear from even these rather cursory summary remarks that our salvation is not a one-off, once-for-all event but an active on-going lifetime’s commitment. The idea that salvation can be effective in a moment of time is contrary to the Orthodox understanding. Pope Shenouda is especially careful to warn us against putting our trust in a single biblical verse alone and of being misled by the mistaken notion of ‘salvation in a moment.’ Moreover, as I have noted already, salvation is not an isolated individual enterprise. We are saved in community, within the Church, the Body of Christ, for as St Cyprian reminds us there is ‘no salvation outside the church’.6

Here again care is needed. Metropolitan Kallistos of the Greek Orthodox Church provides a helpful and succinct explanation. ‘Does it therefore follow (he asks) that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. While there is no division between a “visible” and an “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say’.7

Pope Shenouda notes that Alexandrian theology stresses that the church is not a political body; it is not a human organisation like a club or a society. He reminds us that the Coptic Orthodox Church has been isolated from politics and from secular political power for twenty centuries and its fathers are men of prayer and contemplation rather than administrators. The church, the Body of Christ, is the means of our salvation and it is ‘through the church that God makes known His redeeming wisdom even to the heavenly hosts’. (Ephesians 3:10) We become members of the church through baptism where we receive rebirth and become a new creation in Christ. We die with Him and are raised with Him. Through baptism we achieve a state of union with God through grace.8 The late Fr Matta El-Meskeen, known in the West as Matthew the Poor, emphasises that ‘this union in its perfect sense of a life with God cannot be fully realised except at the resurrection but we have been granted in this life the means of grace, commandments, and a divine power by which to conquer sin, the world, and the life of this age. We thus have a new door opened before us . . . through which,’ he continues, ‘we can have . . . a foretaste of union with God in communion of love and in obedience’.9

Perhaps I have made it all seem rather complicated but my thesis is the exact opposite – it is all quite simple, in theory if not in practice. The Orthodox understanding of salvation asks us not to see it as a simple one-off event, something that has already happened in the past but rather to see it is an on-going process as well. Furthermore we must get involved ourselves. However contemplative we are by nature or inclination we must collaborate with God. The principal means of doing this is through the church into which we must be baptised and we must build on this sacrament, this means of grace, day by day. So we must be changed and we change ourselves, little by little, through prayer, through study, through sacraments, especially the sacrament of repentance, and through good works. All of these are important and I suggest that we miss the point if we believe that our salvation is already accomplished and we need do nothing further. Yes, of course our salvation is accomplished already through the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ but in terms of the application of that salvation to ourselves it is far from over. Salvation understood as a union with God is the goal of Orthodox Christian faith, the end to which our life of prayer and worship aspires.

The spiritual life that I have tried to describe might, I suggest, be simple in theory but not in practice. It is a counsel of perfection but it is not unrealistic or completely unattainable. It is a life lived in community, in the church, the Body of Christ. I have suggested that it has many facets, including prayer, worship, sacraments, and obedience. All of these are important but one deserves further mention here. Prayer is stressed again and again by the Fathers and by the Saints, by our Bishops and fathers today. It is an important means whereby we might seriously and practically further our desire for that mystical union between God and man. I have referenced Fr Matta, Matthew the Poor, throughout this talk, and his book ‘Orthodox Prayer Life’ gives us many different approaches to and reflections on prayer. One of these, the discipline of continual prayer, is very common throughout the Orthodox churches although its takes subtly different forms at different times and in different places. Most well known perhaps is the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox churches but not confined to them. The Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’ is well known and widely practised. Continual prayer goes back to the very beginnings of the church and in its most ancient form, originating with the Desert Fathers, it is a constant repetition of the first verse of Psalm 70 (Septuagint 69): ‘O God make speed to save me: O Lord make haste to help me’. Fr Matta observes that such a discipline requires much determination, perseverance and commitment but what a wonderful expression of our longing for salvation, for union!

Where does this leave us with regard to ecumenism, to the unity of the church? The theme for this year’s week of prayer for Christian Unity makes the following points.

‘Change is at the heart of our Christian faith. Saint Paul said that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation, and we are called to live as children in the light. . . . . Change is also at the heart of the ecumenical movement. When we pray for the unity of the church we are praying that the churches that we know and which are so familiar to us will change as they conform more closely to Christ. This is an exciting vision, but also a challenging one. Furthermore, when we pray for this transforming unity we are also praying for change in the world.’

I would argue that living as ‘children of light’ and ‘conforming more closely to Christ’ can be interpreted as that sharing in the divine nature that I have tried to outline here. It is indeed an exciting vision and a challenging one. We have to overcome our natural resistance to change and being changed. And we have to persevere. I have many times quoted my favourite aphorism from the lives of the Desert Fathers, of the monk who when asked what he did in his monastery all day replied, ‘we fall down and we get up again, we fall down again and we get up again’. This we must do as well, for we will sin, we will fall down, fall short of what God wants us to become, time and time again. Hence Pope Shenouda’s emphasis among other things of the importance of the sacrament of confession, of repentance and absolution in the presence of a spiritual father.

One important support in our struggle is prayer, and I have suggested that the Orthodox discipline of constant prayer is very appropriate. Our prayers are not only for ourselves, for as our theme suggests ‘when we pray for this transforming unity we are also praying for change in the world’. We are saved in community and our desire for unity with God is a desire for unity with one another, for the salvation in other words of the whole world. What could be more appropriate for Christian unity?

No one should pretend that there are no practical difficulties to overcome but prayer is an ideal place to begin. So too is dialogue and a willingness to share our particular beliefs and understandings. His Holiness Pope Shenouda is very clear on this point as well, and stresses the changed attitude we now share towards dialogue. ‘. . theological dialogue, he writes, is not a matter of fighting as it had been in the past! It is rather a deliberation of love with purpose to reach a common understanding in a spiritual way.’10) It is therefore good and useful to discuss where we stand; the more we learn about each other the better. If we deliberate in love with the shared goal of reaching a common understanding then we shall surely be furthering the purpose of ecumenism.

May our prayers this week and always bring us ever closer to unity, unity with the divine nature and unity with each other, through the intercessions of St Mary the Mother of God and all the Saints. ‘O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us’. Amen

Subdeacon Michael Kennedy

  1. Louth, A. Wisdom of the Greek Fathers. (Oxford, Lion Publishing, 1997) p.26 []
  2. El-Meskeen, Fr M. Orthodox Prayer Life (Crestwood NY, SVS Press, 2003) p.111 []
  3. Ware, T. The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin, 1993 []
  4. Pope Shenouda, H.H. Salvation in the Orthodox Concept (Cairo, COP n.d.) []
  5. Meskeen, op cit. p.106 []
  6. Ware, op cit. p.247 []
  7. Ware, ibid. []
  8. Meskeen, op cit. p.104 []
  9. Meskeen, op cit p. 107 []
  10. Pope Shenouda, H.H. Comparative Theology (Cairo, COP 1996 []
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