[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]
These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.
The one thing that Orthodoxy has given to me, that I did not have in the Restoration Movement churches, or in the Anglican churches, was a means to, as St. Peter puts it, become a partaker of the divine nature. That is to say, my notion of salvation was that of being in a right relationship with God, with being declared righteous, with becoming able to consistently do good works. My understanding of union with God was one of externals: he had a favorable disposition towards me, I had been given the label of righteous, and through his Holy Spirit I was going to become more and more righteous in my actions. It was my conformity to God’s norm of holiness, a norm external to myself, however, that was the paradigm.
But through the Orthodox Church I was given back such Scriptures as 1 Corinthians 10:16-17–“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”–and 2 Peter 1:3-4–“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” I now understand that this transformation is radically deep within me, and not just external. True, there is that relational aspect, but more than that God, by grace, allows my participation in himself, my union with him. And from that union flows my transfiguration.
VII. . . . . [Orthodox] For God has created us for that purpose, he says, to make us partake in His own divinity [2 Peter 1:4] and for that purpose he came on earth. And as the divine Gregory of Nyssa says to Harmonius, Christ put on our nature for the reason that “He received the rejected into sonship and the enemies of God into partnership with His divinity.” [On Perfection 280B] And again, “the purity which we see in Christ and in the person who has part in Him is by nature one. But Christ is the source and he who takes part draws the water.” [ibid. 284D] And again, “Christ will bring each one to union with the divinity; if he carries nothing unworthy of the kinship with the divine.” [ibid. 277CD] For the divinity of him who has truly been divinized belongs to God to whom he has been united and by whom he has been divinized in grace; he has not thrown away his own nature but by that grace he has transcended nature. . . .
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, 7 (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).
The thing that distinguishes other Eastern forms—and their American bastardizations in the so-called “New Age” movement—of union with the divine from the Orthodox understanding is that in Orthodoxy the union is one of persons, not of natures. In other Eastern forms of union with the divine, not only is the person as such annihilated in the union, but, more pertinently, there is no such thing as personhood. Such notions are maya, illusion. Christianity rejects that conception utterly. The union does not, as St. Gregory says, throw away the human nature (human nature is transcended), and such a union is accomplished by and in Christ for “each one” (the divinity of him who is divinized belongs to the One divinizing). We have, in other words, a transfiguration of the human nature and of the person.
St. Gregory continues:
VIII. Concerning the glory which appeared on Thabor, the divine Damascene says: “From the divinity the glory came forth physically [phusikos] and was also joined to the body by the sameness of the substance.” [On the Orthodox Faith 3,15] That human part of the Lord possessed that glory completely and did not dimly partake in it. But the participation of others is different; it is as if they draw (water from Him) as from a cistern: “from His fulness we have all received,” he says. [John 1:16] And “the righteous will shine like the sun” [Matthew 13:43] (which is the same as saying that Christ shone on the mountain) when He will appear in His future unspeakable revelation [cf. Colossians 3:4], of which He showed a preview by a dim light on Thabor [Vespers of 7 August] where, in fact, in a mystical way He unfolded the future. That that light does not simply belong to the venerable body, but is the brightness of the divinity, is demonstrated not only by the other theologians but also by Kosmas, the divine poet of the Church. He sang about it in his verses for Christ: “You made the nature which was obscured in Adam shine forth again by transforming it into Your glory and brightness of the divinity.” [Vespers of the Transfiguration] And that we must believe that that divinity also belongs to the Father and the Spirit is taught to us not only by the other theologians but by Damascene as well, a poet of the Church no less divine than Kosmas. He sings of it: “Come hither, believe me, my people, let us climb the holy mountain and contemplate with our mind the immaterial divinity of the Father and the Spirit which shines forth in the only-begotten Son.” [Matutinae of the Transfiguration]
IX. . . . The real difference with us is clearly this: we say that the divine grace is uncreated while you call it created. Since, then, the Lord has come on earth and has made those who, according to the Scriptures, were worthy of it, partakers in His own divinity, you who say that that grace of the divinity which was added to the saints say that the divine grace is uncreated while you call it created. Since, then, the Lord has come on earth and has made those who, according to the Scriptures, were worthy of it, partakers in His own divinity, you who say that the grace of the divinity which was added to the saints is created, either deny the participation and union of the saints with God, or you think that God’s divinity (in which they partake out of grace), is created; in this manner you make God a creature.
St. Gregory here touches on the central conflict between the hesychasts and the Barlaamites: what is the nature of the grace which we experience and which deifies us? The pericope of the disciples on Mt. Tabor, the occasion of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13//Mark 9:2-13), formed the biblical point of contention. Since the apostles saw the light of God’s glory surrounding Jesus, and since God’s essence cannot be known or experienced by creatures, then it must be, so the Barlaamites argued, that the light was created by God. But if such was the case, rejoindered the hesychasts, and if such a light was still truly divine in some way, then you make the Creator a creature, and, worse, you destroy the divine simplicity and unity—now God has parts, a divine uncreated part and a divine created part.
No, said the hesychasts, the light is uncreated, it partakes in ineffable union with God’s essence, and the Apostles truly experienced that light, they truly saw God’s glory—as the Orthodox hymn puts it, “insofar as they were able.”
(I should insert here that the linguistical terminology by which to speak about the realities that St. Paul and St. Peter developed over time to avoid falsely communicating a heresy. Thus it is now proper to speak of God in terms of energies and essence. And our participation in God’s nature, as St. Peter puts it, is now terminologically referred to as a participation in God’s energies.)
Perhaps more scandalously, the hesychasts claimed that precisely because the humanity of Jesus partook of his divinity, body, soul, mind and heart, then so, too, can we partake. The difference however, being that we partake as those drawing water from the well, whereas he, himself, is that well. That is to say, the deification of the human nature of Jesus is whole and complete, without failure or stain. And in his Person as the Son of the Father, that deification obtains, if you will, “naturally.” Our deification, on the other hand, is one that must be accomplished in and through Christ. Just as in Adam, human nature was stained with mortality, so in the Second Adam human nature is deified. But such a deification is realized fully on on the personal level. We, as persons having the human nature, draw water from the well that is Christ. And note the active nature of such a transformation: we draw. Our deification is by grace, to be sure, but it is an ascetical grace, a grace in which we participate by labor. Faith is fundamental, to be sure, but such a faith is one that struggles, or, as James puts it: works.
While my Restoration Movement background cemented a pretty hearty synergist understanding of soteriology, this notion that salvation is one of labor for the Christian strikes many Protestants as heresy. There is a perception (whether or not a misperception I cannot say) of Roman Catholic soteriology among Protestants such that they see Roman Catholic salvation as tantamount to earning one’s way to heaven by one’s works. For many Protestants, salvation is pretty much up to God. We’re supposed to evidence that salvation with good works, of course, but those good works have no essential impact upon our salvation. Or so goes the popular thinking. Protestants of course believe in sanctification, but sanctification, in much popular Protestant soteriology, is sort of an addendum to salvation. And in any case, it’s what the Holy Spirit does for us.
In Orthodoxy, salvation is necessarily ascetical. We draw water from the well of deification. We do so, because that is the nature of our salvation. We are not saved all at once, but are given our entire lives, of whatever duration, to be saved. We are called to a life, not a moment, of repentance. That life, however, is not one of external conformity, or one that keeps God at a Barlaamite’s arm’s length. It is a life that is deified, by grace, a life in which we are united personally, through and in the Person of Jesus, to God.