[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.
In this reflection, I will first quote an extensive section from the dialogue—the thought of which, once I began to grasp the distinctions, forcefully revealed to me that Orthodoxy is the truth. My fumbling grasping of this one truth is what solidified my conversion to Orthodoxy.
XXV. . . . [Orthodox] So we venerate one divinity with three hypostases but not as if it would be devoid of grace and power and activity, so that which does not proceed from God is the same as and similar to that which proceeds from God and that manifests itself is the same as that which remains hidden. For such is the talk of idiots. And just as we say that power and wisdom are common to the Father, the Son and the Spirit, and contend also that the Son is the power and the wisdom of the Father [1 Corinthians 1:24], but existing independently [authupostaton], and nevertheless venerate wisdom and power as one in the highest and venerate trinity—for the enhypostatic [enupostatos] power and wisdom of God is one; and when you speak about the common power and wisdom of the three hypostases, that one is also one—in the same way we honor the divinity of the three (hypostases) as one. For which one you speak about, the three have only one. The essence is existing independently [authuparktos] and is, in all respects, unthinkable; but the power which is around it in a physical way [phusikos] and which is understood by us according to our faculties on the basis of the creatures and which is named and praised appropriately on the basis of those things which are created from non-beings and which are composed and improved in agreement with that (essence), as foreseeing, creative and theurgic, is contemplating and directing everything. “For,” the great Basil says, “the creatures demonstrate the power and wisdom and skill, but not the essence itself.” [Against Eunomius 2, 32]
XXVI. B[arlaamite]. But you say that also that common theurgic power and grace are enhypostatic [enupostaton].
O[rthodox]. But not in the sense of independent [authupostaton]. Come on! In that respect too we once again follow the fathers. For they say that the light of the deifying grace is enhypostatic [enupostaton], but not in the sense you wrongly understand it. But since “enhypostatic” [enhupostaton] has many meanings, just as “anhypostatic” [anupostaton], they believe that the grace of deification is enhypostatic [enupostaton], not in the sense that it is completely independent (authypostatic), but that it remains together with the persons in which it comes; it is not, like lightning and thunder, born at the moment of passing away, and abolished together with its manifestation in the objects. “For,” he (Basil) says, “the light works in those for whom it shines, continuously and uninterruptedly.” But let us add a few words more to the unicity of the divinity. What do you think? Is the Spirit, one part of the trinity, not to be venerated by us? But we also call the grace of the Spirit which is a common characteristic of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, “spirit.” And God Himself, too, who is worshipped in the trinity, is spirit. Will we, on that account, be hindered from worshipping one spirit? And will someone because of that accuse us of saying that there are many spirits to be venerated?
XXVII. B. Not at all.
O. So then we know that both God’s essence and His activity are called divinity and nevertheless we are worshippers of one divinity. For Isaiah also said there are seven spirits which another prophet (Zechariah) called the seven eyes of God. [Isaiah 11:2; Zechariah 3:9; 4:10] And the divine Maximus says that these exist in a physical way [phusikos] in God the Son and Word of God. [Against Thalassius 63] Just as the seven spirits do not take away the oneness of the spirit—for they are the emanations and manifestations and powers and activities of the one holy spirit—so the oneness of the divinity is not annihilated by its manifoldness. For the divinity of the three hypostases is one, namely a superessential nature and essence, simple, invisible, imparticipable, in all respects unthinkable. . . . All these things, then, are emanations and manifestations and powers and activities of that one divinity; they are with that divinity in a physical [phusikos] and inseparable fashion. The person who separates them from it and drags them down to make them creatures also drags the divinity down along with them . . . .
It is not easy to overestimate what the concepts the Saint presents here did, and have done, for the theology I now espouse and the life in which I strive. I can, without hesitation, affirm that my beliefs about God have changed in light of the things the saint here presents. These changes are not mere fashions, or affectations, but are, indeed, such that I cannot return to previous mores without a change in identity. And the differences between the former and the present are not subtle.
I will be speaking of my experience, and will be critical of it. I am well aware that those who identify themselves by that which I criticize may think that my criticisms of my former beliefs, with which they may identify, are rightly called “straw man” and “unfair.” In another context, they may well be right so to do. But here I wish to trace the differences in my own thoughts, and, more importantly, the effects on my living.
When I was a Protestant, I could not but help think of salvation in dialectical terms. Either God alone accomplished my salvation, or I in some way had a real affect, by my own acts, on my salvation. Even though as a Restoration Movement Christian, I did not in any way buy into the heresy of monergism, which does its violent best to the text in James to explain away the relation between faith and works, and was in a movement that was strongly oriented to explicating biblical doctrines and eschewed systematic theologies—still, it was hard to escape a dialectical paradigm. If God alone did not accomplish my salvation, if my own works played some part, then what basis for assurance did I have of salvation? Further, If I had a real effect by my own acts, in some way, on my salvation, then how was that not, in some way, salvation by works?
Since I implicitly took in the dialectic of salvation as a (Protestant) Restoration Movement Christian, I found myself forced to accept prima facie readings of the biblical texts which really stretched that dialectic to the breaking point, and left one such as myself rather anxious.
The anxiety, of course, stemmed from the fact that my soteriological dialectic fed a dialectical theology. In other words, the God of my theology was made up of a lot of binary concepts: one, not many; simple, not partioned. But that led to significant impasses: how could a just God remain just while applying mercy? Indeed, how could an utterly simple God have more than one attribute? If God loved all men, why did he save only the few? If God was all-sovereign, how could man have free will? I was left to assert these contradictions (or, as I called them, paradoxes) without any clear rational argument. I asserted them on fideistic grounds alone.
What I did not then possess was the framework both to see the problems of this dialectic and to see through them. I would not have been able to articulate these problems as stemming from the paradigm of absolute (or definitional) divine simplicity. But even if I had the terminology, I would not have had the capacity to resolve the impasses.
What I needed, and what the Orthodox Faith gave me, was the classic Christian understanding (documented in part at the Energetic Procession blog, but see also here) of God that has become formulated in the essence/energies distinction, the distinction noted by the Saint in the citation above. It is a distinction which links God’s Persons, attributes and essence. And because Orthodoxy (being this classic Christian Faith) gave me this understanding of God, it also gave me the experience of God.
One of the problems I had as a Protestant is that God always remained external to me as a person. Oh sure I would talk about God living in me, about Jesus sitting on the throne of my heart, and so forth, but I could not, and often did not, mean such words except in a figurative or, at most, a spiritual (that is to say, nonphysical) way. And even then, if I would have examined my thought a bit, I would have seen that my theology would not have allowed such participation. Specifically: God was truly and really holy, I was not. That is to say, my holiness was mostly nominalistic: God declared me holy, but I still sinned. Justification was primarily about (if I may say it this way) God faking himself out. I was taught quite explicitly that my justification was God viewing me “just as if I’d” never sinned. “As if.” My holiness and forgiveness was dependent upon God’s ability to deny my sinful reality. And its effect was negligible: I continued to sin every day. But if God was holy and my holiness was nominal, then how could God and I relate? Adding Jesus to the mix (God the Father sees me through Jesus-colored glasses) only complicated matters: God was split against himself, and it still didn’t answer the question of my relationship to a holy God (whether the Person of the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit–for talk of the Spirit taking up residence in my heart simply moved the problem).
The Orthodox understanding of God, however, resolved these dilemmas. It answered the philosophical and theological problem of the one and the many. It answered how it was that a simple God could have distinguishable attributes. It answered how my participation in God, and my attendent holiness, could be more than metaphorical, and how soteriology was necessarily synergistic. As the Saint writes:
Just as the seven spirits do not take away the oneness of the spirit—for they are the emanations and manifestations and powers and activities of the one holy spirit—so the oneness of the divinity is not annihilated by its manifoldness. For the divinity of the three hypostases is one, namely a superessential nature and essence, simple, invisible, imparticipable, in all respects unthinkable. . . . All these things, then, are emanations and manifestations and powers and activities of that one divinity . . . .
God’s being transcends any binary categorizations. His essence superabounds and is dynamic. To the degree that we can say anything about God’s essence, we know that it expresses itself enhypostatically–not hypostatically (as in its tri-Personality), but in a matter that, like the Persons are distinguished from God’s essence, and yet are unutterably one with that essence, so God’s attributes are distinguishable from God’s essence and yet are ineffably one with that essence. So that experience of God’s energies provides a unified experience of God, not simply of some quality external to himself, his essence. And yet, since that expressed activity of his essence is distinguishable from that essence, and not simply a nominal distinction from that essence, we maintain the utter unknowability of God as he is in his essence.
As Jesus says: God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. A holy God has real relationship with his fallen creatures, even those who sin. His energies (those divine activities expressing the divine essence) bring, in love, all his creation into his manifold grace. A grace that is, in certain ways, saving, without denying the freedom of creatures whose volition also allows them to resist that grace. And for those of us initiated into the union with Christ via the Sacraments, that saving grace accomplishes that union in a real participation that involes the whole of the human person, body and soul. The Spirit really does take up residence in one’s heart, both the physical and the metaphysical heart; really does seal the believe with a spiritual reality of pervasive personal effect.
Only the Orthodox Faith offers a particpation that matters, a real participation in God that is transformative precisely because it is real.
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