The Desire for Well-Being

I have been having a friendly discussion (not a debate, thank God) on whether or not the Orthodox teaching on theosis is just another way of talking about the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory. It is sometimes attributed to “Byzantine”/Eastern Rite Catholics that differences on these things are a question of semantics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The problem here is that there are at least two radically fundamental differences with which to begin discussing this topic: the nature of God and, concomitantly, the nature of salvation. Apart from some understanding on what’s at stake with these differences one cannot really begin to address whether or not St Mark of Ephesus’ answer to the Florentine prelates does or does not address whether Orthodox believe in purgatory as Roman Catholics believe in purgatory. Of course, individual persons and scholars will nuance this or that aspect of these concepts, but in general the differences play out along these general lines.

Our reason cannot reach to God’s nature. We can put limits on our ignorance (God is omnipotent–there is no one and nothing more powerful than God; God is omniscient–there is no one and nothing that is unknown to God; God is omnipresent–there is no place where God is not; God is omnibenevolent–there are no words or actions of God except of love; and so forth). But we cannot precisely say what God is, even by his divine revelation (“God is love”), and such revelation only magnifies and intensifies our ignorance. This is especially true when we describe God, rightly, as one.

In the Orthodox understanding of God, what is properly basic to our understanding is the Three Persons of the Godhead. Only in the relations to and with and the activities of these Persons is God known to us (including God’s revelation of himself). Thus, we start with the revelation of the Person of the Father, who begets the Son, and by whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. We are careful to maintain these Personal distinctions, for if we conflate them (say by adding the filioque to the Creed) we distort the revelation of the tri-personality of God.

This is why, in Orthodox living, theology is properly and primarily prayer. God is known first and always through the heart. We do, of course, use reason to articulate the Gospel and our beliefs about God that are true to that Gospel. But such reason is secondary to the experience of the Persons of the Holy Trinity as we pray to God and experience his life.

It is this experience of the life of God that forms the basis of the Orthodox understanding of salvation as well. Orthodox do not, of course, deny that juridical metaphors of legal categories are used in Scripture to describe aspects of our salvation. But we point to the fact that frequently in the Gospels the word for “to save” (sozein) is often also used to describe healings. And for the Orthodox, salvation is fundamentally about the healing of the human person, body and soul, from the ravages of death, mortality, and the personal sins we commmit.

Because we think in these terms, the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory, with its system of merits, superabundance of merits, indulgences of time and so forth–that is to say, with its basis in a metaphor of legal transactions–is foreign to the Orthodox way of understanding. More to the point, foreign to the way of Orthodox living.

But let us first describe more clearly the differences between the understandings of the Godhead. In the Orthodox way of life, the Trinity of Persons is the primary focus of our life and theology, while at the same time confessing these three Persons to be One God. It is the paradox of the union of the many and the one, which has bedeviled pagan philosophy for millennia. However, in the West, while having this inheritance of theological understanding of the Godhead, there was a turn with the filioque toward a focus on the nature of God; i.e., on the oneness of God.

We can appreciate that the filioque was in some ways an attempt to preserve the divinity of Christ against the Arian heresy. The problem is that the filioque did not have the consensual approbation of the entire Church, and lacking such oneness of mind failed to discern the problems with such an assertion. Despite warnings from St. Photios and others, the Western church went forward and insisted on the addition of the filioque to the Creed, and in so doing, conflated the Persons of Father and Son in an act of nature. In so doing, a rift was rent within the Trinity as Father and Son shared an activity that was not shared by the Holy Spirit. If that which is shared by the Persons of the Trinity is common to their nature, then the sharing of the causing of the procession of the Holy Spirit from both Father and Son meant that the Father and Son shared a nature that the Holy Spirit did not. In focusing on the nature of God, albeit in attempting to preserve the divinity of the Son, Rome diminished the Trinitarian understanding of God.

If this is so, if God is ultimately reduced to a single nature, and if God’s nature remains utterly inaccessible to human beings, then, unless God fails to be utterly other than human beings in his nature, God is inaccessible in principle to human nature. God remains ever distant from human fellowship, declaring this or that person righteous, but otherwise removed. This creates significant problems of Christology as well.

Given this, then, in a legal metaphorical framework, whatever activities abound, these are essentially external to God, who through his vicars, pronounces this or that legal indemnity satisfied. But in this process there is no relational communion with God. Indeed, this is quite the point: these sins must be legally purged and satisfied before one can have communion with God. One passes through purgatory before one can enter into the beatific vision. (I’m painting with broad strokes here, so I beg the indulgences of those who may wish rightly to quibble with particulars.)

However, within the Orthodox understanding, salvation (healing) occurs because God gives us his life. We share in the love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity between themselves (cf. John 17:20-26). It is the sharing of this divine life, this co-participation in that life, which heals our mortality and sin. Just as the man of Nain was raised from the dead and Jesus could not be ritually unclean from contamination with the dead (his life gives life), so, too, when we partake of his life that life cleanses us from sin and death. We participate in, as the saint put it, “the medicine of immortality.”

It is here that it is necessary to at least state, if we cannot properly describe, the uniquely Orthodox teaching on the distinction between the essence (nature) of God and the energies (from energeiai or activities or being-at-work) of God. God’s essence is incommunicable to his creatures, we cannot know it, it is ever infinitely beyond our comprehension. But God’s energies are, in a way, super-abundant, and expresses the Person of God to and for his creatures. A crude analogy: as the nature of our husband or wife is eternally mysterious to us (however much we have experienced the unique union of “one-flesh” with them), they are known to us, and we to them, in the expressions of their nature via their personal words and deeds and the manner in which they are in the world. We cannot have access to their essence or nature as we are always ignorant of such. But we can have communion with them in their energies, in the unique ways of living and speaking and moving and being in our worlds. This begins to offer some analogy to what the Orthodox understand of God’s essence and energies.

One may perhaps put it crudely that for Roman Catholic Christians, salvation is the desire for legal satisfaction; while for Orthodox salvation is the desire for well-being. Indeed, eternal well-being.

11 thoughts on “The Desire for Well-Being

  1. Although I always understood the filioque, I never understood the Orthodox objection to purgatory: except for the example of the thief on the cross which would usually be cited as a quick anecdote. But, you have written a thorough piece. I will have to read it a few times to really grasp it. Many thanks for your work.

  2. You have radically misunderstood the nature of the doctrine of purgatory. While “Orthodox” is not in the title of this book, it will nonetheless help you understand the doctrine (rather than simply batting at a strawman): Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment? by Brett Salkeld, Paulist Press, 2001. It’s short and sweet but scholarly, comprehensive, and loving.

  3. Everhopeful:

    Thanks for your comment and the book reference. But for the sake of the comments here, can you point out where I’m in error? I admit to describing these things with “broad strokes” so if you can point out the larger errors, I’d appreciate it.

  4. Benedict, thanks for your response. I was looking specifically at what you wrote here: “the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory, with its system of merits, superabundance of merits, indulgences of time and so forth–that is to say, with its basis in a metaphor of legal transactions …”. Everything in that sentence reflects either an outdated or both an outdated and mistaken understanding of purgatory. Not that I’m blaming you specifically for it, because some Catholics themselves would agree with this characterization of the doctrine. They are wrong, too.

    I wish I had time to address each one of these points myself. Since I’m in the middle of a workday in the middle of a very busy week, I don’t–thus my recommendation of the book instead. I do understand your legitmate desire to know what I’m critiquing, however. I don’t want to be a sort of theological fighter pilot, strafing your comment from out of the blue and then flying off. If I don’t have time to address it fully, perhaps I should have said nothing at all. But I wanted your readers to know that there are much more nuanced understandings of purgatory that not only can speak not only to Evangelicals, but to Orthodox as well.

  5. Everhopeful:

    What is not clear to me from your response is whether I am mistaken on the facts, or whether the Roman Catholic Church has changed its beliefs on purgatory. That is to say, my comments would have been right at a specific point in time earlier than the present, but am wrong now? Or are my comments simply wrong simpliciter?

    Further, in what way are my comments wrong? You say outdated or both mistaken and outdated? But am I partially wrong, or wholly wrong?

    I’m not trying to badger you, so forgive me if my questioning comes of as that way. It does me no good to advance an argument in which the position I ascribe to another party is not in fact their position. I’m trying to understand.

    That said, I do think that what I’m attempting to get at here stems more from the differences in theology proper (and therefore soteriology) than purgatory per se. In other words, purgatory is, if you will, a symptom of deeper matters.

  6. Spend some time in a Western Rite parish, and you’ll find exposure to “possibly” outdated material. I say possibly only because 1) I’m not RC so I don’t know, and 2) from what I hear, the Trads want it all back. All the goofiness (see below).

    One of those “best” RC documents on understanding the traditional liturgical calendar I’ve seen is a reprint of the 1954 St. Andrews Daily Missal with all the theology for the services together with the Latin text and English translation, the Introits, the Collects, the prayers and some of the hymns as well as the Epistles and Gospels. Excellent explanation of the cycle of station churches. Most of this is pretty doggone Orthodox, yet there are some things that differ. Most of these are easy to catch, but some less so. Over-all, a great resource and ripe for mining. Combined with the Monastic Diurnal and Matins Breviary… a pretty awesome set of resources.. and RC’s were blessed to have something like this. Honest. And one of the best uses of $50 I’ve made in a long time.

    Yet the troublesome thing you see at the top of some of the daily services… take Tuesday in Holy Week. Go to this service, and you received and indulgence of 10 years and 10 quarantines. Not sure what the latter is, but folks in the Western Rite get a giggle out of “So it’s not 9 years, not 11 years, but 10 years. How’d they figure that?”

    Maybe this is what Benedict is referring to. What I find the longer I spend in churches is that little things take on a disproportionate meaning to us. In our Eastern Rite services… it’s all the little differences from the West that I love most. By contrast, these indulgence phrases are non-starters.

    I would add that if these have been removed (as part of Vatican II?), I’d be willing to venture that 1900 years with is not overcome – to an Orthodox mind – in the space of the blink-of-an-eye 50 years without. Let’s talk in 300 years. 🙂

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