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Daily Meditations

The Third Tuesday after Pascha. CHRISTOS ANESTI! CHRIST IS RISEN! The Philokalia’s Approach to Salvation

May 14th, 2019

The spiritual teaching of the Fathers of the Holy Mountain is grounded in the Eastern Church’s theological anthropology. The human being is a fundamental unity of body and soul and should be understood as an “embodied soul” or an “ensouled body.” The Eastern spiritual tradition takes our psychosomatic nature quite seriously, so that worship and prayer draw on our body and all its senses. Even the inward act of repentance is expressed outwardly with bows, prostrations, and signs of the cross.

The soul is understood as having more than one faculty. For our purposes, the important distinction to draw is between the faculty of dianoia and that of the nous. The dianoia is understood as being responsible for discursive reasoning, the faculty we use, for instance, in logic and mathematics. But the nous is the spiritual aspect of the psyche, the faculty through which we experience God. Latin theologians such as Thomas Aquinas preserved this distinction, translating dianoia as ratio (“reason”) and nous as intellectus (“intellect”). But since reason and intellect are used almost synonymously these days, it is important to understand how the two terms are used in the Philokalia and other Eastern Christian texts.

The nous is “the eye of the soul,” the very heart of what it means to be a person made in the image and likeness of God. It is the spiritual faculty through which we directly experience God. Darkened by the fall, the nous must be purified through watchfulness, prayer, and other spiritual practices.

It is also important to understand that the Eastern view of humanity is more positive than the traditional Western view. Augustine’s view of original sin, which has been so influential in the West, is largely unknown to Orthodox theology, which prefers to speak of “ancestral sin.” There is no inherited guilt. And, unlike Calvinism, the Eastern tradition does not see the human person as “totally depraved.” While human sin may obscure the image of God within us, it can never erase that image; and while pursuing a life free from sin may inhibit our choices, sin cannot eradicate our fundamental human freedom. While the Orthodox tradition believes that God is utterly transcendent, it “no less insists on His total and ineradicable presence in man and in every other form of created existence.”

Theosis, usually rendered in English as “deification” or “divinization,” is at the core of how Eastern Christians understand salvation. Much of the Christian West seems to understand salvation as salvation from something (hell). In one common view associated with Anselm of Canterbury, who applied medieval social thinking to soteriology (the theology of salvation), the severity of a sin is measured not by the intrinsic quality of the sin, but by the status of the person against whom the sin is committed.

Thus, (according to Anselm) a minor theft against a fellow peasant might not be considered very serious, but the same theft, if it involved a possession of the king, could warrant the death penalty. Applied to soteriology, human sin has caused an infinite violation against God’s justice, because God is infinite. Human beings, who are finite, cannot possibly pay the infinite penalty demanded for our transgression. Therefore, God provides his Son, Jesus (who is also infinite), to pay the penalty for human sin on the cross. The righteousness of Christ is then imputed to humans who, even though nothing has changed for them on this account (they are still miserable sinners), will now be seen by God as if they were Christ. This act of justification is seen as the essential soteriological transaction, although some (such as John and Charles Wesley) will see the process of sanctification as equally essential.

The East, along with many in the West, understands salvation as a sharing in God’s life, a participation in the Divine. One way of saying this would be to say that the East holds both justification (restoration of a right relationship with God) and sanctification (growth in holiness) as two sides of the coin of salvation. But more must be said about how the East understands sanctification, for it has never shied away from the bold language of deification. The Eastern writers, of course, look to the language of the New Testament, particularly 2 Peter 1:4, wherein Peter declares that we are to become “partakers of the divine nature.”

Athanasios of Alexandria…echoed this when he wrote in On the Incarnation that “he (Christ), indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” Basil of Caesarea, also in the fourth century, tells us that the human being is the only creature to have received the order to become a god.

This is the soteriology inherited by the writers of the Philokalia. When this teaching was attacked in the fourteenth century, Gregory Palamas of Mount Athos was called upon to defend its truth. He emphasized the distinction between God’s essence (which is inaccessible) and God’s energies—God’s actions in creation and in human beings (which are truly God but which we can experience). Thus, through the process of theosis, we become by grace what God is by nature.

~Allyne Smith, Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts (Selections Annotated & Explained.  Translation by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware).