by Matt Ferdelman
The further I dive into Orthodox life, doxology, and theology, the more strongly I get the impression I have always done and believed these things and worshipped in this way. Or, at least, I have always attempted to worship in this way. Orthodoxy for me was like a light switch going off, illuminating parts of my faith which had been dark since the beginning. A candle had been lit and burned, but it not yet become a lamp. With a great many topics of Orthodox theology, as I began to study I realized Orthodoxy said what I had been trying to articulate for years. I see in my past clear signs of God’s work to prepare me for the Orthodox faith, in prayers he placed in my heart and desires that developed within me.
Let me walk you through some of these developments.
I remember from my early teen years thinking often on the doctrine of Sanctification. In Sanctification we become more and more like God, forsaking sin and attaining to his level of righteousness. Really, this idea is quite incredible. As time goes on, we start to look more and more like the risen Son. We forsake idols and seek him and, like Moses, our faces begin to shine from the close encounters we have with God. The more sanctified we become, the closer we get to God.
At some point I began to consider the implications and limits of Sanctification. All the teachers I listened to seemed to have this idea that Sanctification ends when you die. After death, we are made perfect and there is no need for us to become more like God. Once the death of our physical body occurs, we are free from sin, which is perfection. I fully believed we would be without sin once we died, but I wasn’t so sure that we would stop becoming like God. I mean, God is infinitely perfect, right? That means he’s not just free from sin. Being free from sin would just be tabula rasa – it would make you a blank slate. But being free from sin is not the same thing as having righteousness. In life we are not called to just stop sinning; we are called from that to the act of love for God and man. If we are to seek to be like God in this life, why not in the next also? I reasoned that God would want us to become more and more like him after we are with him too. Because God is infinite there would never be an end to us becoming like him. There would always be some level of perfection above and beyond the level we had already achieved. One can understand this partially by comparison to technology. Personal computers currently are very powerful machines. They crunch numbers for us, help us communicate with each other, and serve as centers for entertainment. But every month better and technology is developed. Better processors are built. Clearer screens are made. Lighter laptops are tested in the field. There is no foreseeable end to the improvements we could make through technology. Becoming like God is similar in this way.
I thought like this and rigorously checked my logic through most of my teenage years. In my junior year of high school I solidified my claim to this doctrine. At that time I bought my first ipod. When you order from the Apple store, you have the option to inscribe something on the back of your ipod. After much deliberation, I chose these words:
I have been humbled by The Art of Becoming God.
At first, the words felt like blasphemy, but I couldn’t escape the thought that we were meant to become like God, and that we were meant to do so for eternity. Becoming like God forever logically seemed to follow from the doctrine of Sanctification. But I also knew I couldn’t say that we actually became God. That would obviously be heresy. Still, I chose these words to express the mystery to which I joined myself, hoping that its meaning would one day become clear to me … And so it has.
What I did not realize at the time was that I had inadvertently expressed the Orthodox doctrine of Theosis. Theosis for the Orthodox is the very purpose of salvation. Jesus came to earth to take away our sins, free us from death, and build a bridge that we could take to be unified with God. Theosis is that process by which we are unified to God. It is the everlasting deification of man into the likeness of God. The part about this that simply confounds me is that I had never heard the doctrine of Theosis before I had its meaning engraved on my ipod. The only exposure I had to Orthodoxy prior to that was a minimal coverage in history class. At the time I was not drawn to Orthodoxy at all, and only had a vague impression that it was a form of Christianity that had been overly-influenced by Buddhism and had lost the faith. I think I might I have gotten this idea from my history class, but I am not entirely certain. In any case, I had not studied anything about Orthodoxy, and yet their doctrine was engraved upon my life.
The reason I thought my extrapolation on Sanctification might be heresy is because at that time I was not aware of the Essence vs. Energy distinction. God in his Essence is unknowable. But God’s Energies are knowable and we can relate to them. Theosis is the process of unifying ourselves to the Energies of God. To help explain this, think of your relationship with your spouse or a really good friend. You do not know their heart. No one knows a man’s heart except the spirit within that man. But we do know what that person is like based on how they act, what they do, and what they say. We experience their emotions because they express them. The essence of a human is their heart, to which no other human can be united. But their actions are knowable and other humans can relate using actions. In the same way, we can understand God by his actions, his Energies, and seek to become like him in every way possible. We become gods by grace, but not by nature.
I find it most interesting that the teachers I was drawn to most in the Protestant church were those that expounded one or more Orthodox-leaning views. At times I was enthralled by teachers that taught doctrines opposed to those of the Orthodox Church but, as time went on, I steadily stopped listening to these preachers, finding the goal of their teaching to be unedifying. The teachers to whom I was most drawn and still am were C.S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, and N.T. Wright. All these teachers have expressed views of either the atonement or hell which are similar in some regards to Orthodoxy theology.
C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller espouse views of hell that are quite different from those most often taught in the Protestant church. Both Lewis and Keller have explained that hell is a place locked from the inside. Hell is, in their view, not a prison system to which God sends those whom he dislikes to be tortured for eternity, but a state of mind in which a human chooses some good thing above God. That good thing ultimately cannot satisfy, and yet the human that clings to it keeps looking to that good thing to fulfill his deepest desires. In our own lives we see this in things like the worship of spouses and drugs. When we look to our spouses for our sense of meaning, as a sort of god, we grow impatient when they fail our expectations. We continually desire they replace God in our lives, and we are continually disappointed, since they cannot. Every time they fail some standard we have set, we make another loop in the cycle of expectation and disappointment. This cycle, if left unchecked, can go on for eternity and lead to insanity. Likewise with drug addictions, the addict seeks more and more pleasure from increasingly high doses of substances. Every time a high is reached, chemical changes in the brain make a larger dosage in the future necessary to achieve the same level of euphoria. Eventually, there won’t be enough of that substance on the planet to satiate one’s desire. A infinite cycle has been started. And the only end it to which it leads is dissatisfaction and turmoil.
I am reminded also of the character Ungoliant in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. For those who have read or watched tales of Middle Earth, Shelob and the spiders of Mirkwood are descendents of Ungoliant. Tolkein, a personal friend of Lewis, describes Ungoliant as a giant venomous spider that teamed up with Melchor, a Satanic archetype, to destroy the tree of life at the center of the city of the Valor. Ungoliant pounced upon the tree and sucked it dry, gorging herself upon its life, but receiving no life thereby. She became so large, in fact, that she frightened the powerful Melchor, who in his might had known little fear prior to that day. Later in the story, Melchor steals three of the most precious gems on earth out of jealousy for their glory. Ungoliant demands he give the diamonds to her that she might consume them. Unwillingly, he delivers two of them into her maw. But even after swallowing such beauty, she is unsatisfied. In the end, Ungoliant prowls the earth, seeking whom she may devour. But her hunger becomes so great that no food or glory or weight on earth can fill her. So, at the last, she consumes herself.
This is the view of hell espoused by Lewis and Keller, and one to which I was drawn as soon as I heard it. It made a lot more sense than the view of hell as a place where God is actively involved in torturing unrepentant sinners. Because, though I tried very hard over many years, and with a sincere heart, I simply couldn’t bring myself to love a god that would do that. Whenever I dwelt on a punitive idea of hell, I could no longer approach God by faith within my heart. I was separated.
What I did not realize at that time was that the view of hell to which I had ascribed through Keller was inconsistent with my belief in Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). See, if God doesn’t torture anyone for eternity in hell against their will, then he didn’t need to stop himself from doing so by placing all that misery on Jesus at the cross. Jesus’ work saves us from hell. In PSA, Jesus went through hell so we wouldn’t have to. But if hell is not punitive, neither was the cross. Because Orthodoxy denies PSA, it likewise denies a penal view of hell. My beliefs from long ago were inconsistent with PSA, though at the time I did not take my belief about hell and apply it logically to my beliefs concerning the atonement. But God in his mercy helped me in his good timing.
I likewise have been drawn toward the teachings of N.T. Wright for many years. Both he and Keller explain Jesus’ salvific work in a more holistic manner than do the teachings of most others I knew at the time. They both explain salvation as a cosmic restoration of creation – all of it – and a reunification of the created order to God. (Just listen to how many times either of them uses the word “cosmic” in a sermon. It’s quite amusing actually.) Because of this, I was most intrigued to learn N.T. Wright denies Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I was not aware of this until I started studying PSA just a few months ago. But given Wright’s studies on the history of the Church and his cosmic view of salvation, his denial of PSA shouldn’t be surprising.
Now, I know there is some confusion as to what precisely Wright believes. While I have not read extensively on Wright’s musings on the atonement, I did see one video where he explained his view that I believe makes his doctrine clear. In that video the interviewer asked point blank “Do you deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement?” Wright responded by saying “Yes, I believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but I deny the Anselmian view of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” He then went on to explain that the Jews of Jesus’ time were under punishment from God in the form of Roman rule. Jesus was killed by the Romans using crucifixion, thus bearing the wrath of God toward the Jews and, by extension, everyone who would believe in Jesus. But this view is entirely different from the view of PSA currently held. The Anselmian view explains that Jesus suffered an infinite punishment from the Father at the cross. But Wright’s explanation says Jesus suffered a finite amount of punishment. Really, the idea Wright is expressing is entirely different from what Anselm and Calvin taught and what most Protestants have believed for centuries. Though I do not know his heart, I would guess Wright believes PSA is false, but realizes that if he just comes out and says that point blank, he will lose a great part of his audience, and have less opportunity to help people understand why he denies it. So, for the time being, he has masked part of his belief for the benefit of others.
Interestingly, Wright and Keller appear to hold the opposite sides of the same coin. Wright denies PSA. Keller denies the hell that results from PSA. Yet I have never heard Wright say that he denies a punitive view of hell. Nor have I heard Keller says he denies PSA. To be logically consistent, though, these men must hold to the other’s belief. I look forward to seeing how their theology develops and/or is revealed in the future.
I have always been fascinated by mystery. Whenever I have run across a theological concept that baffles me, I study and study it and soak in its ideas and implications. I can’t get enough of it. The Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, the Virgin Birth, the Eternity of God, the Omnipresence of God – I ate up these doctrines. After watching the Fellowship of the Ring in my teenage years I started reading Tolkein and Lewis extensively. I have loved all of Tolkein’s works, especially the Silmarillion, and greatly enjoyed Lewis’ Space Trilogy. These books and my love for the unknowable developed in me an appreciation of Mystery. I tried to understand the greatest concepts and ideas I could find. But when I did so I did not begin to think I was something special or that I had attained some level of knowledge beyond my fellow man. Actually, the opposite happened. I realized rather quickly in dwelling on these things in my teenage years that I simply couldn’t get it. My logic could only take me so far. There was an end to reason, and I had reached it. I took the road as far it went. I found myself consistently saying “I don’t know.”
Scripture and other forms of revelation only show us part of the picture of creation and of God’s nature. But even if God had written down for us every scientific detail and description of who he is and what he’s been doing for eternity, we still could not understand. As Jesus said to his disciples “I have many things to tell you, but you are not yet ready for them.” So too no human can ascend to God by his own will and understanding. God doesn’t leave us in the dark on purpose, but is patient, waiting until we are ready to receive more of who he is.
From these musings I realized I couldn’t expect to figure out how God did everything. I could at least understand part of how it worked. But for now I only see through a glass darkly. I do not yet know fully as I have been fully known.
When I began to study Orthodox theology, I soon came across their apophatic approach to explaining who God is. In this method, they say what God is not, as opposed to what Heis. So while it is true to say God is love, the Orthodox will often respond by saying it is more accurate to say God is not evil. Speaking of God in positive terms is called cataphatic theology. Speaking of God in negative terms (saying what God is not) is called apophatic theology. This apophatic approach comes from the realization that there is much that has not been revealed to us and that there is much we simply cannot understand. Apophatic theology is a humble acquiescence to the mystery of God’s existence and ways, a form of divine worship in which we bow to the unknowable essence of the I Am.
This mystery is extended by the Orthodox to their understanding of the sacraments. They believe, contrary to Protestant belief, that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. How does this happen? They don’t have an answer. They recognize that Christ told us Communion was his body and blood, but they don’t know exactly how God accomplishes this. Unlike the Roman Catholic church, they do not hold strictly to the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Likewise, they recognize Baptism is not just a token of one’s faith in Jesus, but a participation in the death and resurrection of our Lord, a Pascha of the future and the past brought into the present.
In all of these things, the Orthodox recognize that we cannot approach God by rationalistic logic. Logic and reason only take us so far. The reduction of the Sacraments by the reformers to mere tokens or symbols was based in part on the Scholastic reasoning that had developed through the Medieval period. Today that rationalism is seen in naturalistic science which seeks to explain the entire created order through observation and reason. Science has provided us with many wonderful things. But naturalistic science assumes the natural, observable world is all that exists. It assumes only the material exists. It cannot, by its own definition, observe or experiment upon other dimensions or modes of being. It is limited. Much of the reductionism applied to the sacraments and the mysteries of God, however, is due to this rationalistic approach.
The Orthodox Church recognizes the mystery of God’s ways and worship him for it. They teach the Theosis of man into the image of God. They proclaim the doctrines to which I have held, though I did so then in an incomplete manner.
In my studies on Orthodoxy I keep finding myself saying “But this is what I always believed.” Orthodoxy is the full revelation of the partial faith I had in some areas and is the explanation to the questions with which I struggled with in others. In fact, the more I think about it the more I begin to see my journey parallel that of Israel. Under Moses, God gave his chosen nation a partial revelation of his will and character. He gave Moses the law to keep the people until the time of full revelation should come and to train them to recognize the Messiah when he appeared. In many ways, this describes my life in the Protestant church. I will be forever grateful to my shepherds there, but from it I did not receive a full revelation of God. There I was first taught how to begin to know God. I began to see his works in all of creation. I learned in part how to worship. I learned in part how to believe and trust him.
But when the fullness of time came God gave to me the fullness of his revelation. When once I understood in part, God in Christ demonstrated to me the entirety of whom he was and the intentions behind his actions. While I used to approach God with uncertainty, now I approach with full confidence in the knowledge of the Son. While I understood God wanted to save humanity, now I see he wishes to restore all things. While I used to offer the sacrifice of guilt, I now offer my very self. While I used to worship in part, now I worship in spirit and in truth. What I knew was like a tutor preparing me for the coming of the Messiah. But when the new comes, the old passes away.
Really, the Orthodox Church is God’s answer to every prayer I have ever prayed – my desire to be like God, my desire to seek him, my desire to know his love, my desire to understand his intentions, my desire to be united with him. In his mercy and perfect timing, he has delivered to me true faith and understanding and enlightenment in the knowledge of his Son, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Now I say with peace that I am not a stranger to God. I know him because he has shown himself to me. He is merciful to those that seek him. I am no longer a sojourner. I am home.