"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Orthodox Church - Byzantium, Fighting for God, Theosis, Trinity

I eagerly began reading the chapter on Byzantium thinking I would make faster progress, but soon found myself amazed enough by what I was reading that I felt compelled to make note of it. After all I wanted not merely to see how fast I could get through this first book of 2011, but actually learn from it. Orthodoxy is quite a new world for me so why not record notes?  (I find I remember information better if I take time to write about it.)

Just as I read the Quran and books about Islam through my own Western, Baptist, Christian lenses, I find I am doing the same with this book. Yes, it's Christianity, however, it is hard for me to come at it completely without thinking of and comparing it to what I've believed all these years. I wish I could approach new topics as a blank slate and read them without biases already in place, but I'm not really good at forgetting all I've known. I hope that makes sense and you keep this in mind as I critique this new (to me) faith. Please don't take it personally.  That said, let's proceed through chapter 2 ... or at least the first part.  I couldn't even finish the chapter I had so many notes to write!

So I read about Constantine's vision of the cross: in this sign conquer, the inscription supposedly read. Being able to look back at history and knowing how often Christians did use the cross as a reason for and rallying point in their battles, I had to take seriously and mull over this supposed sign from God.  I like to compare things to Jesus in the Bible and have a hard time seeing him rallying his followers around the same cross and telling them to conquer in his name.  Yes, Jesus spoke of the division between family members because some would reject him while others accepted his message of salvation, but never did I get an impression that Jesus wanted us to pick up swords to kill opponents of his way.

Christianity in Rome went from being a persecuted religion to a tolerated faith (thanks to the Edict of Milan) to a favored religion and then, compliments of Theodosius, fifty years after Constantine's death Christianity was the only officially recognized religion of the Empire!  The tables were turned: now it was paganism that was suppressed.

Additionally the capital of the Roman Empire was moved from Italy to the Greek city of Byzantium. Constantine named the city after himself and after its "solemn inauguration" he declared that "no pagan rites should ever be performed" in Constantinople.  I couldn't help but think of Mecca when I read this.  In no way should this holiest city of Islam be stained by a nonMuslim entering it.

The author notes the first council of Nicea clearly demonstrated the new Church and State alliance with one observer reporting that the Emperor presided as if he were "some heavenly messenger of God."  (pg. 19)  (Muhammad anyone?)


The next section discussed the first six councils. As I read about the Church's attempts to explain the nature of Christ, our relationship with God through Christ, theosis, homoousios, hypostasis, Theotokos,  Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism and such things I was starting to have such heretical thoughts of does all this really matter? and does God truly care that we fully grasp these things about Jesus?  Again I thought back to Scripture and Jesus' words to follow him and he would make us fishers of men.  His way seemed much simpler ("my yoke is easy and my burden is light") compared to all these theologians' debates and these various schools of thought. 

Is it absolutely essential that we understand the nature of Christ, his relationship to God?  I suppose the answer is yes and someone can tell me why, but, goodness, I think of Jesus' words about coming to God with childlike faith and, yes, children question, but do they always fully grasp and understand our answers?  Even the book admits the Church didn't intend to explain God for how can God be explained by mere man?  So the Church dealt with fencing in the Mystery, that is excluding false facts that would lead people into error and heresy.  Part of this is dealing with those Greek words mentioned above.

Theosis is the one that gave me the most pause.  I thought I took the Bible literally until I read where the Greek Fathers thought Paul and John were speaking of our (humanity's) 'deification'!  "If humans are to share in God's glory, they argued, if they are to be 'perfectly one' with God, this means in effect that humans must be 'deified': they are called to become by grace what God is by nature."  That part about "by grace" was extremely helpful in curbing my rising alarm, but then I read St. Athanasius' summary of the purpose of Incarnation: "'God became human that we might be made god'" and couldn't help that Mormon belief of our becoming gods of our own planets came to mind!  Also thoughts of the beginning - Garden of Eden, Genesis 3 and Satan tempting Eve and throwing in:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (vs. 5, emphasis mine)


I think theosis by far was the most troubling part although I couldn't quite grasp why balancing the nature of Christ was of such supreme importance. Then again, I'm not a theologian so ...

Re: the Trinity, I stopped to mull over the classic summary: three persons in one essence recalling how the Old Testament stressed God is one and Jesus said God is spirit and how did those things fit into this Trinitarian summary.  Here is something of how my brain reasoned it:

God is One -- but the OT didn't say one what.  Jesus said God is spirit so we can't think of God as one person such as we are.  So God can be one spirit (essence) but three persons (Father, Son, Spirit) if He chooses.  (He could be more than three persons in reality.)  Throwing in a healthy dose of "this is a mystery" and "God can't be fully explained by my little mind," I could appreciate the summary.


(This book has over 300 pages and these notes cover the first 23. At this rate, still reading this book in October is entirely possible!) 

Thoughts?

13 comments:

mrlood1000 said...

This is Islam:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GikqA0ZBpOI

Lat said...

I still cannot make of trinity!lol!

I really enjoyed your reviews so far of the book and I bet you'll run out of pages and need another notebook!ha!:)

Besides Arianism and Nestorianism,the other words are new to me.And the Mormons comparison was interesting too.

"If humans are to share in God's glory, they argued, if they are to be 'perfectly one' with God, this means in effect that humans must be 'deified': they are called to become by grace what God is by nature."
Very interesting.It sorts of sounds like the Sufi concept of having union of God,refering to the 'prefectly one' mentioned above. And that's why they are called heretics by other hardlined Muslims who chose to read texts literaly.

Can't wait to read more!

Amber said...

I think it's important that we understand as much about the Incarnation as we can. We'll never understand it all, of course, but the Incarnation, Christ's nature impacts our salvation. Was He wholly God and wholly Man? Only the seeming of a man? A man who was 'possessed' by the Son? The answers to those questions can change how we view salvation, how we view the world around us, everything. If we don't have a proper understanding of Christ it becomes very very easy to fall away from God.

As for theosis. I remember when I first ran into the concept. It's definitely different from anything I'd ever heard before:

http://littlestepshome.blogspot.com/2009/05/deification.html

Suroor said...

I loved this post!

"Christianity in Rome went from being a persecuted religion to a tolerated faith (thanks to the Edict of Milan) to a favored religion and then, compliments of Theodosius, fifty years after Constantine's death Christianity was the only officially recognized religion of the Empire! The tables were turned: now it was paganism that was suppressed."

You could say the same about Islam:

"Islam in Arabia went from being a persecuted religion to a tolerated faith (thanks to the Ansar of Medina) to a favored religion and then, within the lifetime of the Prophet Islam was the only officially recognized religion of Arabia! The tables were turned: now it was paganism that was suppressed."

The only difference is that Christianity was established and grew after Christ's death and Islam was established by Muhammad and grew rapidly within his lifetime.

I guess it is unrelated but that was my first thought.

The book I am reading again these days - A Chosen Faith has a lot to say about trinity, but not in the same ways you understand it :)

Anonymous God-blogger said...

Theosis is portrayed really well in Ware's book THE ORTHODOX WAY (a much easier read than the one you're working through now!)--I know it sounds weird but it's really what we're created for, though not in the Mormon sense.

Anonymous God-blogger said...

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/october/36.66.html

Also the above link--very clear essay!

Joni said...

"The next section discussed the first six councils. As I read about the Church's attempts to explain the nature of Christ, our relationship with God through Christ, theosis, homoousios, hypostasis, Theotokos, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism and such things I was starting to have such heretical thoughts of does all this really matter? and does God truly care that we fully grasp these things about Jesus?" yes, I think that this does matter because (as I understand it) they were hammering out just what they believed. Was Jesus a man, a god or both? Do we become gods or like god? If so, in what way? Did Jesus die and was he really resurrected? It seems to me that these are the very basic elements of our faith and that they are very important.

Regarding theosis, I am not familiar with this out side of what you wrote, so forgive me if I am totally off base. What if rather than becoming a God, they were talking about becoming godly in character? Not that we would gain all the abilities of God (being all knowing, all powerful etc) but rather putting on the holiness of Christ we become holy?

There is a more current example of this doctrine that came out of the 1800's (well, it had a revival then anyway) call the Holiness Movement. ("The movement is distinguished by its emphasis on John Wesley's doctrine of "Christian perfection" - the belief that it is possible to live free of voluntary sin - and particularly by the belief that this may be accomplished instantaneously through a second work of grace." Thank you wikipedia.) The idea is that because we are in Christ, part of him, that we can live as He did - wholly sinless on a day to day basis.

"I think of Jesus' words about coming to God with childlike faith and, yes, children question, but do they always fully grasp and understand our answers?" Yes, it's important. It's part of maturing in our faith. Remember, wise as a serpant, harmless as a dove. If we do not grow in our understanding, they we would fall prey to false teachings and be lead astray. That doesn't certainly mean that we all can understand everything at once, but that we grown and learn to digest new things.

It sure is a good think that learning to be like Christ is a work of justification and sanctification - otherwise how would we ever live up to it? Praise you Jesus for your work on the Cross!

Joni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Herman said...

Firstly allow me to address the issue of the sometimes violent history that we read about. I would submit that these incidents are not the faith at all, but are instead the actions of the fallen humanity that comprises the Church here on earth. Being baptised into the faith does not make one a supernatural star, not does it necessarily impart immediate moral perfection and understanding. God has handed us the Faith, and with His help we will grow in the Faith and become more and more Christ-like, but that does not mean that we won't make mistakes. The key is that the failings of Christians can in no sense be conflated with the Faith itself. Over the centuries mistakes have been made by many, and all have fallen short in many things, but even in these things God's will is done - as in Constantine's vision. God does not want slaughter, but the power of God is such that even this travesty can be used for a greater good, which in this case of course was aiding in the spread of Christianity and the conversion of Constantine (who I think may have been somewhat unjustly maligned by historians over the years)!

As a second point, this might help a little towards understanding Theosis..

http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theosis

As for the councils and the statements of faith, I think they are very important. This is the most important thing in our lives - ever! It is therefore important to understand as much as is humanly possible, with the caveat that in the end much is a mystery. Much of our understanding will of necessity be a shadow of the truth, but we still have room for a lot of learning! One thing to note, however, is that Orthodox Christianity is not dictatorial in nature. The history of the councils is rather one of clarification in reaction to some heresy or other odd idea that threatens the very fabric of our belief. Many of the ideas were also presented to refute anti-Christian rhetoric and to counter anti-Christian or opposing philosophies over the centuries, but in no case that I am aware of did the Fathers and Mothers of the Church just define doctrine for the sake of making a rule. The councils and other theological developments over the centuries have rather been presented with the ultimate aim of protecting and preserving the true faith that was handed down to us by Christ and the Apostles. The Orthodox Church has preserved those original beliefs since the very beginning, and only set out to 'codify' them when the faith itself was threatened.

In the comments I see that Orthodoxy is compared to Islam, Sufism, etc, but nothing could be further from the truth! I mean no disprespect to those who hold other beliefs, but there never has been anything like the true, original Orthodox Christian faith! Christianity is not a religion, but is rather life itself. Christianity is in fact the end of all religion! It is not a system of man-made ideas, philosophies, and theories, but is a true revelation handed to us by God Himself, Who loved us so much that He was incarnate and died on the Cross for us in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, His Son. In my own quest prior to being led to the Orthodox faith I investigated many religions and 'systems', and in none other have I found the love, truth, wholeness, and purpose that God freely offers rebellious humanity in Orthodox Christianity. When investigating the Faith it may be inevitable that it is compared and contrasted as yet another system of beliefs relative to any other, but this is far from truth. Of course this sea change of thought comes only by the Grace of God in time, and most who start down the path to Orthodoxy do not start our with this mindset. Rather, diligent and open-minded study, meditation, and prayer inevitably leads to the logical conclusion, and eventually to the conviction of the heart as well (although I suppose not necessarily in that order!).

Herman said...

(I ran out of room!)

We usually tell someone who would like to know more about Orthodox Christianity to 'come and see' (in addition to reading great books like this one!), and I would invite you to do the same. We are preparing to celebrate the Feast of Theophany, which is the revelation of the Holy Trinity to the world (see more at http://ocafs.oca.org/FeastSaintsLife.asp?FSID=100106), and the services of this time are beautiful illustrations of the faith! Parish listings are available at http://www.oca.org/DIRlists.parish.asp?SID=9 and I would recommend it highly!

Susanne said...

mrlood1000, thank you! I had not seen that video before and it had a lot of nice quotes. :)


Lat, yeah, Trinity boggles the mind and indeed I may need more paper before this book ends! :)

I enjoy your comparison of this post to Sufism. I wonder if this is more characteristic of "eastern" religion...then again, you said most Muslims consider Sufism heretical so I guess not. I appreciate your comment!


Amber, thanks for posing some questions concerning whey Incarnation is important. I need to ponder those, but I can see how "is Christ God" is especially important since we don't want to worship a mere man. Hmmmm.

Oh, fantastic post! I remember reading it before, but wasn't studying this myself back then so it was good to reread it now that I am. Also I found your posts on icons helpful!



Suroor, I hope you blog about how your latest book talks of Trinity...sounds intriguing!

I like how you related what I wrote to Islam and its spread! Interesting!

Susanne said...

Anonymous God Blogger, that article was VERY helpful and easy to read! It even explained the Genesis 3 verse I mentioned above. Yes, I know we were created to be like Christ. I have always known God wanted to make us into His image, however, seeing it written so boldly made me cringe. My dad said this sounded like humanism. But the article you sent and Amber's post helped tons! Thanks so much! I added it to my helpful links Orthodox post! :)



Joni, I appreciate you telling me why those questions were important. Sometimes I just wonder if the nitty gritty details -- like how much God and how much human and all is mind-boggling. But I'm sure as you said, it's important stuff.

Wow,thanks for sharing that John Wesley info! I wasn't familiar with that...hmmmm. Very very interesting thoughts. I wonder what Orthodox think of this...maybe Wesley got it from them??


Thanks much for all you added! I enjoyed it!

Susanne said...

Herman, glad to see your comment and reminder of our fallen natures.You are so right. I need to keep this in mind and stop expecting Jesus' perfection all over again!

"but in no case that I am aware of did the Fathers and Mothers of the Church just define doctrine for the sake of making a rule."

I really love that! Actually I really love your whole comment..you are great at explaining!

" The Orthodox Church has preserved those original beliefs since the very beginning, and only set out to 'codify' them when the faith itself was threatened."

I recall someone writing a couple of years ago when questioned why the Church had a statement about Jesus...why it was necessary to define him and the person replied that the nature of Christ was being debated throughout the area. They were not debating Adam or there would have been a creed about him. But because Jesus was being discussed, the Church needed to set down what and who He was. I think that's what you are saying except in a better way.

"Christianity is not a religion, but is rather life itself. Christianity is in fact the end of all religion!"

Wow, that's so interesting! I often hear Islam is a "way of life" and I often say I prefer relationship (with God through Jesus) than religion so your comment was ... wow. Thanks for sharing your point of view on that and a little about your search.

I greatly enjoyed what you had to say in your whole comment - thank you!