Ecumenism VI

[Please note: The following are personal musings and not to be construed as *the* Orthodox understanding. If anything here contradicts the received teaching and way of life of the (Orthodox) Church, please correct me. As always: check with your priest or spiritual father.]

The Church Is Holy

In the Creed we confess our belief in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” in the same way that we confess our belief “in one God the Father Almighty,” “in one Lord Jesus Christ,” and “in the Holy Spirit the Lord, and Giver of life.” But my good friend Tripp has asked me several times, how is it that the Church does not sin when those who are members of the Church do, indeed, sin?

While it is tempting to respond by saying: We believe the Church is holy, that She does not sin. What else is there to say?–I rather suppose I owe my friend a bit more than that.

It must first be remembered that the Church is a theandric institution, at once both human and divine. The Church is Christ’s Body, and just as the communication of the divine and human in the Person of Christ was, as Chalcedon affirms, “without change, separation, confusion or division,” so, too, the union of the human and the divine in the Church is not some hybrid different in kind than either the divine or the human, yet is not separable in that either can be considered (as the Church) apart from one another or delineable into a human part here or a divine part there, nor does not the union alter either the divine or human natures. And if this be true, then if Christ the head be holy and sinless, so, too, must His Body be holy and sinless.

Yet, Christians sin. And if being Christian is only possible insofar as one is a member of the Church, then how is it that the Church is not in sin when the members are?

If I may say so, first of all, the question betrays the failure of perspective. When viewed from the vantage point of human sinfulness it is almost axiomatic to suppose that we would bring our sins into the Church, infecting it from within. But this is a view of the Church that fails, significantly, to take into account the divine nature of the Church. The Church was not adopted by God. He did not wait for the right human society to flower and then take that group under his wing. This is the adoptionist Christological heresy applied to the Church. No, God himself built the Church on those whom He himself called (prophets and apostles), with His Son being the Head that gives the Church its very life. The Church is holy, therefore, not because humans do holy things more or less consistently, but because Christ Himself is Holy.

This failure of perspective must be corrected by viewing the Church from its source in Christ. Indeed, the Church participates in the holiness of the Trinity in that God calls the Church into being, through the life and work of His Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church is wholly indwelt by the Trinity–it is the house of God (1 Timothy 3:15), where God lives–and therefore is holy, for otherwise God could not indwell the Church (cf. Hebrews 12:14). In Christ the fullness of God dwelt bodily, says St. Paul, and the Church is complete in Him (Colossians 2:9-10). God is greater than human sin, and his holiness drives out our corruption.

That is to say, salvation according to the Christian faith is that union with God which divinizes human nature. But that deification happens only in and through the Church. Like Christ, the Church’s humanity is deified through the communication with the divine that God accomplishes in uniting human nature with Himself in Christ. Just as Christ’s human nature was deified from the moment of conception, so, too, is the human nature of the Church deified and made holy from its inception. Just as in Christ there was no sin to be found, nor did he ever sin, so, too, in the Church there is no sin to be found, nor does she sin. Like Christ, the human nature of the Church is deified by communion with the divine, which is Christ Himself, Her Head.

However, we must make an important and fundamental distinction between human nature and our own personal mode of existence. That is to say, human nature is not replaced but restored by way of our incorporation into the Church. Our personal mode of existence, however, has been in bondage to sin, through a human nature that has been corrupted in the Fall. When human nature is brought into union with God, and therefore deified, we are made free from our bondage to sin and our personal mode of existence–where we exercise our will, or one might say, what use we make of our human nature–must be brought into conformity with God’s transfiguration of human nature. And it is precisely our union with the Church that brings about our sanctification. We are saved not as individuals and then incorporated into Christ’s Body, rather we are saved through the divine energies manifested in Christ’s Body. Because the Church is completely holy, Her individual members, who are brought into union with Christ and therefore with the Trinity by way of incorporation into the Church, are made holy by being the Church. What must happen on the personal level, then, is for the personal mode of existence to be united with deified humanity. This is done by way of repentance and the Mysteries of the Church.

So, when members sin, they are not, as it were, legal representatives of the Church, whose sin and guilt are then reckoned to the Church. Rather, they are engaging in actions which are wholly their own moral responsibility by way of their personal mode of existence. These sinful acts, which are not of the Church, orient them away from the Life of Christ in the Church. Since deification is an organic process, however, and not a fundamentally juridical one, each sin act does not necessarily completely sever members from the Church, with a requisite and proportionate act of repentance necessary to restore them to the Church (though of course such a sin is possible; cf. 1 John 5:16-17). One does not, as it were, jump in and out of salvation. But sin acts left unrepented do lead toward a disposition in one’s personal mode of existence that can, ultimately, sever one from the Church, and therefore from salvation.

So it is that the Church can be completely holy and without stain, and yet Her members commit personal sin.

[This is another in a handful of reflections I want to make on the matter of Church unity.
Previous posts:
Ecumenism I
Ecumenism II
Ecumenism III]
Ecumenism IV
Ecumenism V]

15 thoughts on “Ecumenism VI

  1. So, I *understand* what you are saying, but I am trying to get it. Does this make sense? You use English. This helps. Thank you. But the thinking is hard to follow. The logic is, um, circuitous. That does not mean that I disagree with it. Not hardly. But it seems…I don’t know…unnecessary?

    I do not mean to demeant it at all. I think it is wondrous stuff allowing for grace, free will, and the divinity of the Trinity revealed in the Church to all play happily together. But from here I am either a lazy thinker or just too damn Baptist.

    I like that I can screw up and that God redeems it. And I do not think that you believe otherwise except for the liking part. And maybe we are saying the same thing differently.

    I need to know that we flounder. And as members of the Body, it flounders. Why? Because it is human. Somehow our humanity is only valued when we do rightly or follow God’s will. This is the trend that bothers me at least. I try to think that our humanity, fallen, twisted and messy, is always valued. This does not make sin a good thing. No. Sin is sin. But as we are forever in grace through God, we are also forever in sin through the Fall. Our sinfulness is redeemed…it is the fuel for our redemption. It gives cause for forgiveness which is God’s out pouring grace.

    The Church is a confessional and a “school for prayer.” Through prayer and confession we are sanctified, made holy.

    I think we are speaking about the same things.

    So, where ecumenism is concerned specifically, the sinfulness that we both describe is manifested in denominationalism. So, the presence of sin within the lives of those claiming Christ, those within the Church, manifests itself as schism. Humanity is divided…as it always is when sin prevails…but the church is not.

    Or something like that.

  2. “You use English. This helps. Thank you.”

    Every time I pick up Lossky or Zizioulas I want to sarcastically say the same thing!

    But I think Clifton’s posts aren’t quite as difficult to understand. Accept and implement in one’s life? Well, that’s a harder pill to swallow of course….

  3. It strikes me what what you’re talking about here, Clifton, is a bit like the Protestant idea of imputed righteousness. The Church is holy not by virtue of the holiness of her members, but because She has been washed by the blood of Christ and infused with the Holy Spirit. She has been declared and caused to be righteous. We the members of the Church likewise participate in the holiness of the Church, which manifests itself in our lives as we participate in the life of the Church and the Sacraments.

    So the idea of imputation may provide the bridge to help Protestants understand the holiness of the Church. Keep in mind the differences however: the Church is the primary recipient of this “imputation”, and individuals only insofar as they participate in the Church; and we’re not *just* talking about an extrinsic declaration, but something that must be worked out in action as well.

    Disclaimer: I’m just beginning my journey into Orthodoxy, so I don’t vouch for the orthodoxy of anything I’ve said here.

  4. Clifton, as someone who seems to be on the path toward Orthodoxy, but is not there yet, I appreciated your post. It raised more questions for me than it answered. Don’t take that negatively — it’s actually a blessing for me to get my questions delineated better.

    1. I think your thesis would be easier for me to grasp if it were accompanied by some examples — if it were a little more concrete. I would think the topic lends itself to concreteness. One of the things I find attractive about Orthodoxy is that it seems to take a concrete approach (perhaps as well as an abstract approach) to the concept of sin. As individuals, we sin concretely and specifically. We are therefore able to confess our concrete, specific sins.

    2. So, concretely, what does it mean to say that an organization or an institution is without sin? For that matter, what does it mean to say an organizaiton or institution acts *with* sin? For reference, to aid our understanding, what would be some examples of sins that an organization or institution might commit? What are examples of organizations or institutions that have been sinful?

    3. You seem to be making “holy” identical to (or at least imply) “without sin.” I don’t dispute this use of words. I just invite you to consider, and let us know, whether this is what you intend, because the logical structure of your post seems to depend on it.

    4. This brings up the question of whether either (or both) of the attributes of “holy” and “without sin” are identical to (or at least imply) the attrribute of “inerrant.” In other words, do we take “holy” imply “doctrinally correct?”

    5. Let me assume for a moment that when we confess belief in “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” we are confessing belief that the Church is doctrinally correct. OK, are there any limits on that belief or that correctness? Are we talking about pronouncements of the ecumenical councils only? Are we talking about more? If more, then what?

    6. Even though I didn’t intend it, I’ve moved toward the general question of whether there are well-established limits to what the people who speak for the Church may demand of communicants in belief, practice, and expression. I guess anyone contemplating affiliation with a religious organization would do well to wonder about this. When you think about it, this is one of the main issues in the history of Christianity. Even though I’ve read a fair bit about Orthodoxy, I don’t have a good picture of whether those limits exist or what they are. Do you have any thoughts about this?

  5. Tripp:

    I need to know that we flounder. And as members of the Body, it flounders. Why? Because it is human. Somehow our humanity is only valued when we do rightly or follow God’s will. This is the trend that bothers me at least. I try to think that our humanity, fallen, twisted and messy, is always valued. This does not make sin a good thing. No. Sin is sin. But as we are forever in grace through God, we are also forever in sin through the Fall. Our sinfulness is redeemed…it is the fuel for our redemption. It gives cause for forgiveness which is God’s out pouring grace.

    To which I reply:

    What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! We died to sin–How shall we live any longer in it? (Romans 6:1-2)

    I’m not sure if it’s seminary that so royally screwed up your soteriology or what, but brother you need to read a bit more o’ the Good Book!

    We cannot forever be in sin, otherwise we will never see God.

    Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14)

    Indeed, Christ himself calls us to perfection.

    You therefore be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

    Obviously we cannot do this in our own strength and yes we will fall into sin. But sin and Christ can not cooexist.

  6. Robert:

    Thanks for commenting, and for your kind words.

    1. I think your thesis would be easier for me to grasp if it were accompanied by some examples — if it were a little more concrete. I would think the topic lends itself to concreteness. One of the things I find attractive about Orthodoxy is that it seems to take a concrete approach (perhaps as well as an abstract approach) to the concept of sin. As individuals, we sin concretely and specifically. We are therefore able to confess our concrete, specific sins.

    2. So, concretely, what does it mean to say that an organization or an institution is without sin? For that matter, what does it mean to say an organizaiton or institution acts *with* sin? For reference, to aid our understanding, what would be some examples of sins that an organization or institution might commit? What are examples of organizations or institutions that have been sinful?

    Well, in a very real sense no institution or organization can sin; only angels and human beings have the capacity to sin. So, quite frankly, there can be no example of an institution or organization that has sinned. And this is a partial answer to how it is that there is no sin in the Church.

    But of course, it is human beings who are incorporated into the Church and human beings sin. Further, the Church is not an institution or an organization; it is the Body of Christ and hypostatically united to the Holy Trinity. So that is why the question does not revolve institutional or organizational sin, but around the true ecclesiology revealed in and through Christ.

    So, in terms of examples of this ecclesiology, we must look to the saints. A very good recent example is that of St. John the Wonderworker.

    3. You seem to be making “holy” identical to (or at least imply) “without sin.” I don’t dispute this use of words. I just invite you to consider, and let us know, whether this is what you intend, because the logical structure of your post seems to depend on it.

    Yes. But that is not to deny its other connotations of being dedicated and set apart.

    4. This brings up the question of whether either (or both) of the attributes of “holy” and “without sin” are identical to (or at least imply) the attrribute of “inerrant.” In other words, do we take “holy” imply “doctrinally correct?”

    They are related, but my own understanding is not settled on whether or not they are necessarily reciprocal to one another. I think that they are (i.e., that holiness necessitates inerrancy and vice-versa), but am not prepared to argue for that. I need to think about it more.

    5. Let me assume for a moment that when we confess belief in “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” we are confessing belief that the Church is doctrinally correct. OK, are there any limits on that belief or that correctness? Are we talking about pronouncements of the ecumenical councils only? Are we talking about more? If more, then what?

    6. Even though I didn’t intend it, I’ve moved toward the general question of whether there are well-established limits to what the people who speak for the Church may demand of communicants in belief, practice, and expression. I guess anyone contemplating affiliation with a religious organization would do well to wonder about this. When you think about it, this is one of the main issues in the history of Christianity. Even though I’ve read a fair bit about Orthodoxy, I don’t have a good picture of whether those limits exist or what they are. Do you have any thoughts about this?

    Surely the Church cannot ask anyone to sin. But since the Church has the mind of Christ, the limits of the conformity of human thought to the Church’s thought would be the full content of the Church’s faith, including disciplinary canons and so forth.

    That being said, the Church has not adjudictated every moral dispute. For example the Church does not require either that her children must be pacifists or just warriors. And she has explicated that she both has the authority to require obedience to specific canons as well as can pronounce oikonomia, or relaxation, of those canons as pastoral provisions for specific peoples (as is the case in terms of fasting during Great and Holy Lent).

    But this, too, is the content of the Church’s faith, so one’s mind should be conformed to it–which is to say, one should not dogmatize about that which the Church has not settled definitively.

  7. “I’m not sure if it’s seminary that so royally screwed up your soteriology or what, but brother you need to read a bit more o’ the Good Book!”

    Oy veh! Gimme a break. Thanks for the teasing, but we read teh same book, and I recognize the scripture you site. And I do not refute it. And I would like to remind yo that the epistle writer is also credited with saying that he is chief among sinners. Somehow the “both/and” needs greater articulation in your post. I do not see it. The greatest sinner is sanctified by his own realization that he is always in sin and forever in need of grace so that sin may abound no more. This is theosis, no?

    And though we are to be perfect, Matthew expresses clearly how we are all constantly wrestling with our own imperfections. He illustrates the idiocies and foibles of the disciples as they gradually come to an understanding of who the Christ is.

    And how often have we witnessed the healing of believers not because of sinlessness, but because of their faith? One does not exclude the other. You know this. The centurion, the woman with the flow of blood? Yes, discipleship is a discipline. Yes, it engages repenting from sin. You bet!

    But the constant understanding that we are never done sinning is why Matthew explains how to deal with sinners…it is why Paul reminds us of his own sin and need for grace as he explains that our own sin has no place in the Church.

  8. I am confused Tripp. Okay, maybe not confused; just baffled. Are you saying that there is no way we can ever be done sinning? That forever, “until Jesus comes back,” we will be sinning? If that’s the case, then — to use the example of one Orthodox priest from around here — salvation seems like Lucy holding out the football, only to pull it away when we run up to kick it. That is, theosis is a target that can never be reached in this lifetime, a goal that will elude us until we die. How pointless is that?

  9. Tripp:

    David has gotten at the point of my reply. I will simply say then that the notion that somehow we are never done with sinning is, at best, an imprecise way to put it. St. Paul is sanctified by his union with God, not by the realization of his quintessential sinfulness that he will never be done doing.

  10. Yeah, its the chicpeas again.

    I agree totally. We are not made perfect when we stop sinning or even by virtue of doing everything rightly.

    It is through God that we are made perfect. Thus, Paul can claim to be the greatest of sinners and be made perfect through God’s grace…even while he sins.

  11. Clifton, thanks for the timely response. What I’m struggling with is the question of how I can recognize when the people who speak for the Church speak with the full, formal authority of the Holy Spirit, versus when they speak as fallible human beings. In the former case, I assume they should be given obedience and agreement. In the latter, I would suppose, they should be given great respect for their position and their calling, but not unquestioning obedience or agreement. Does the Orthodox Church make this distinction?

    Thanks, all the best to you.

  12. Robert:

    Yes, there’s a standard. It’s called the Tradition. And it’s not always clear–sometimes till later–whether someone’s teaching is consonant with the Tradition or not.

    But the Church will always discern the Truth.

  13. I will post on frijoles today.

    Also, sin is bad. Humanity is good…well…at least loved even when sinful.

    It is the fruit of confessed sin and ensuing repentance that is good.

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