Followers of this blog will have noticed that I do not resonate with various of the standard statements of Evangelical theology. In particular I have shown my unease with the standard, and to some, essential explanation of the death of Christ as a substitutionary atonement. My main objection to the doctrine is biblical. Granted that the doctrine can be read out of certain biblical texts, there are also other models. Logically, to be properly ‘biblical’, we should be prepared to hold all the models together and see them as different but complementary attempts to explain something that is by nature beyond explanation. My particular favourite model is that given in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Christ is seen to fulfil the sacrifice of the Day of Atonement. By his sacrificial death, he enters into the Holy of Holies, the actual presence of God. We who are his followers go with him into the heavenly realms. This theology is reflected in the passage in Hebrews 4.14, ‘Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession…..’
A second reason for querying the standard protestant explanation of Jesus’ death is that there is another branch of the church, the Orthodox, that have never given much attention to our Western preoccupation with doctrines that have as their aim the avoidance of Hell. I cannot of course in this short piece, do more than outline these differences but I want to begin with a much overlooked text in 2 Peter 1.4 that has inspired the Orthodox to develop theology in a different direction. The passage reads as follows: ‘Through these (power and knowledge) he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.’ This passage seems to have been unnoticed by the Augustinian/Calvinistic strain of Christianity that wanted all Christians to ‘grovel’ in their utterly depraved wickedness. Instead of being required to wallow in filth and depravity, the Christian is being invited to contemplate the possibility of sharing with Christ the divine nature itself. The same theme was expressed by Athanasius who in around 350 AD summed up the Incarnation in the famous words, ‘God became man so that man might become God.’
The Orthodox have developed a theology that is optimistic and more focused on the potential of human beings on their Christian journey than in emphasising how they are a hair-breadth away from Hell. I am one of many people in the West who appreciate these positive themes within Orthodox theology, while recognising that it has suffered from many reactionary conservative forces over the centuries that sometimes make it difficult for the Westerner to penetrate and properly appreciate it. But I would like to continue with this theme of an optimistic, hopeful theology about humankind that I find in the classic presentations of Eastern Orthodox teaching.
Orthodox theology has never downplayed the fact of Original Sin and indeed the disobedience of Adam is spoken about in many texts in strongly literal way. But although there is agreement with the West over the way that corruption has, through Adam, entered the entire human race, there is a softer tone in this presentation. After the fall, humankind still has some freedom and there is nothing to suggest that total guilt and depravity is what marks the human race. When presenting the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the Orthodox put a greater emphasis on the Resurrection than on the crucifixion. The Resurrection is the climax of his life and the full revelation of the way that God and the human race are joined in a burst of glory. The story of the Transfiguration is also celebrated as an anticipation of this triumphant proclamation that God has broken into our material world. The Crucifixion is also celebrated but it is never allowed, as in the West, to be separated from the Resurrection. The two belong together.
The life of the Christian following the Resurrection can be summed up in this single word implied in the 2 Peter passage, ‘deification’ or participation in the divine nature. The Orthodox point to other New Testament passages that imply this idea, notably the passage from the ‘High Priestly prayer’ in John 17. ‘As thou Father art in me and I in thee, so also may they be in us.’ Deification is a strong theme through the centuries and it undergirds what can be called Orthodox mysticism. The Orthodox also have a strong sense of the way that the human body is to be involved in spiritual practice and the literature is full of accounts of the bodies of saintly people glowing in a physical manner. The tradition of icon painting also shows how the saints and men of prayer possess the radiance of a heavenly light.
The emphasis on ‘deification’ or the transformation of human beings through prayer and attention to the sacraments of the church is a simple one. I cannot of course discuss it in any further detail at this point, but to repeat what I said earlier that it is a hopeful and attractive presentation of the Christian faith. I share it with my readers because it summarises part of the reason why I am so critical of other presentations of the faith that use fear and the threat of deep despair in promoting the Christian faith. Perhaps this short piece will help some of my readers to see that Christians who promote their version as the only version of the faith are simply wrong. There are versions of the Christian faith, far older than our own, that have nothing whatever to do with the squabbles in the West around the time of the Reformation. To breathe Orthodoxy, even if only for a time, is like breathing fresh air, after being for a long time in the fug that we call Western Christianity. From the Orthodox point of view, having never known a Reformation, our theological debates all seem rather petty and provincial!