Sorry for how long it takes me to get these posts out... I only get a chance to post about once a week (I cannot afford internet at my apartment, and my work, while ok with me viewing forums, frowns on me posting on them)
Here is the second post concerning the Orthodox view on Salvation; post 2a (this one) deals with the Incarnation. Post 2b will consider Christ's Passion, and (hopefully) the role of the Church / the Sacraments + Orthodox views on the judgment, heaven, and hell. Otherwise those topics will have to be post 2c. These things always take more room to explain than I hope for. And I'm not the most concise of writers....
On the Incarnation of Christ:
St. Peter once wrote to the Church: Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2 Pet 1:2-4)
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (mid 2nd c.) once commented that “God became as we are, that we might become as he is”
St. Athanasius (early 4th c.) once commented that “God became man that man might become divine.”
St. Gregory the Theologian (mid 4th c.) said that “Man is the only creature that stands apart from all creation, the only one that can become a god.”
The Orthodox believe these to all be talking about one and the same thing – the possibility which God opened up to humanity in the incarnation. That possibility is nothing less than full participation in the divinity of God, becoming the likeness of God in a very full sense – it is union with God. This goal is called “theosis” or “divinization,” and it requires some serious explanation because it can easily be confused with either Mormon views or New-Age views which sound similar.
To understand this requires explaining some of the theological distinctions the Orthodox have made historically with regards to God’s nature, our nature, and the idea of personhood.
The first observation Orthodoxy makes is to distinguish between God and man – let us be frank, God is completely “other” to us, utterly foreign (though intimately present). He IS (in such a way that He cannot not be), we are contingent and could lose existence; He is infinite, we are finite. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, or “immutable” to use a theological term – He is unchanging (though not static or unmoving). We are changeable, constantly altering our emotions and actions (for better and often for worse). God is, in essence, a mystery to us. We can never comprehend Him.
Isaiah 55:8-9 is a popular verse to illustrate this: For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways, says the Lord, For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.
Orthodoxy, to reflect this fact, uses what is called “apophatic” theology – or theology by negation. Whenever we say something about God, we qualify it, because it always needs to be qualified. This doesn’t mean we never say anything meaningful about God, but like a sculpture which comes into being by chipping away at a block of stone, so does the “image” of God become clearer by saying what He is not (which is easier then saying what He is).
Carlton comments, “This emphasis on apophatic theology is as important in our own day as it was during the time of the great Church councils, for if there is one consistent trait of human nature, it is that we have the tendency to create images of God after our own image and likeness. Indeed, the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said that God was nothing more than a projection of the human mind – a human being idealized with superlative attributes… Imputing human characteristics to God is called ‘anthropomorphizing.’ To be sure, in the Bible all sorts of things are said about God that fall into this category. For example, it is said that God walked in the Garden in the cool of the evening. There are references to His hands and ears and nostrils. However, when we read such things about God we immediately realize that they are not meant to be taken literally. The Scriptures say that God is Spirit (Jn 4:24), so it is obvious that God does not have physical body parts. Thus, these anthropomorphisms are metaphorical. Similarly, God does not have human emotions. He does not change” (The Life, 108-109).
This supreme sense of the mystery of God is, of course, qualified (). God has revealed Himself to us, though we understand this revelation only in a limited capacity. This is the first meaning of the incarnation – by being fully man and fully God, Christ allowed us to see God in a way that was accessible to humanity.
As Christ said, He who sees Me sees Him who sent Me. I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness. (Jn 12:45-46)
Return again to the quote from St. Peter which began this section, His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue…
This, if you think about it, makes intuitive sense. How can one become the likeness of God if one doesn’t know what God is like? It is through knowing Christ that we can begin to become like God, and because Christ is the God-Man, we have a living example to follow on what that likeness of God – that Theosis – looks like.
So we have distinguished between God’s unknowable impassibility, His transcendently mysterious nature, and His imminence, seen primarily in the Incarnation (though also in limited capacity through nature), and how this relates to Theosis.
God’s actions in the world, however, are certainly not limited to the Incarnation. The Orthodox have a second (related) distinction they make, between God’s essence and His energies. This distinction grew out of an attempt to maintain that God created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo) and at a certain time (that is, that there was a beginning).
Carlton explains, “Origen, a third century theologian in Alexandria, Egypt, stated that God was Creator by nature. Since God’s nature cannot change, He must have always been creating. This meant that the world is eternal. This is exactly what the pagan, Greek philosophers believed, but it is not what is revealed in the Bible. To combat this heretical ‘blurring’ of the line between the Creator and creation, St. Athanasius drew a distinction between what God is and what He does. This distinction was further refined by St. Basil the Great (4th c) and St. Gregory Palamas (16th c) among others.
“Had the Fathers not made this distinction, there would be no way to distinguish between the Son of God, Who is ‘begotten of the Father before all worlds,’ and the material creation, which God spoke into existence from nothing. St. Gregory writes:
But if creating is not distinct from generation and procession, then creatures will in no way differ from the One begotten and the One sent forth. And if according to them this is the case, both the Son of God and the Holy Spirit will in no way differ from creatures, all creatures will be begotten and sent forth by God the Father, creation will become divine, and God will share His rank with creatures.”(The Life , 112-113)
So we distinguish between God’s essence – what His nature is, what His self-hood is – and His energies, or His activities in the world. God’s activities are no less God. His grace is Himself – uncreated and divine, but they are not God’s essence. When we participate in God, become His likeness, enter into Theosis, we do not participate in God’s essence. We do not become part of the Trinity (though we do become part of the Trinity’s energies – its love). We do NOT, as the Mormons might say, become God. We become gods – little g – though still very much more than the angels and the animals. We are the pinnacle of God’s creation, but we are still creatures. We participate fully in His uncreated, God-filled energies, making us fully divine, but not His essence, leaving us distinct from the God head. We become God’s likeness, in every sense of the word, since a likeness is not identical to thing to which it is likened. Yet we become a perfect likeness, fully showing forth the activity, the energy, the grace, of God through us.
Christ showed this in its fullness, in particular during the transfiguration. That divine light seen on Mt. Tabor (Matt 17:1-9) is the divine energy of God made visible. Because Christ was man and God, His humanity was uniquely infused with the divine energies, quite literally being fulfilled by them. By entering into Christ’s life (something I’ll get to later), we likewise enter into that fulfillment, that infusion with the divine energies. One can imagine the Incarnation to be like putting a piece of metal inside a red hot fire. The metal will become red, hot, and malleable, but it will stay metal, even though it has taken on the attributes of fire. In the same way was Christ’s humanity infused with the living “fire” of God – taking on its attributes (energies) but not its essence (though Christ, in His divine nature, did participate in the divine essence as a member of the Trinity). So do we, when we enter Christ’s life, take on the energies, the attributes, of God. Unlike Christ, we are not members of the Trinity, so in the analogy we are only metal, where as Christ was both the metal and the fire simultaneously.
We have now seen two reasons for the Incarnation – God became man to reveal the unknowable God to us that by knowing Him we might see what it is to become like Him; and God became man so that human nature might become infused with the divine energies, opening the way to becoming like Him.
One more distinction must be made – between person and nature. This one will be more familiar to the Westerner, since it deals with the Trinity (three persons in one nature) and the Incarnation (two natures undivided in one person).
We all have a nature – human. Yet we all express that nature in a way that is unique. That uniqueness is personhood. Personhood is also relational – no person exists in isolation, but in relation to another. We talked about that a little bit in the first section. Christ, being human, had a human nature – a physical body with human emotions, thoughts, capacities, and needs. Being God, He had a divine nature – immutable, unchanging, unphysical, and without limits to His power. Those two natures expressed themselves simultaneously and in perfect union within His one Person – Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Son of Man. His human nature was not swallowed up in the divine nature, nor was his human will.
In the same way, when we are infused with the uncreated divine energies of God, the Orthodox teach that we are not “swallowed up” in the divine, as some Hindu and New Age philosophies might advocate. Because of the importance of personhood to our understanding of the likeness of God – God being person in His essence (within the Trinity) – we cannot affirm this whitewashing of our personhood into the divine. This is how the Orthodox differ from New Age and its concept of divinization.
To summarize – We are called to be the likeness of God. To do this, we must be given a nature which is in contact with God (in His energies) and have a revealed knowledge of who God is. The Incarnation provides both of these things. We have personhood and nature, as Christ did, which God designed to be infused by His energies. Like Christ’s human will and nature, ours will be fully infused without being destroyed. Therefore we become, as St. Peter said, partakers of the divine. It is because both these things had to come via the Incarnation and were both intended as part of the original plan of creation that the Orthodox affirm the teaching that the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, would have become man even if the fall had never occurred. The fall did not make the Incarnation required, but rather effected the human nature which the Son took on, making it corruptible and dying. So what the fall added to the Son’s Incarnation was the death and resurrection. We shall explore those in the next section.