The Body and Therapeutic Salvation

For an evangelical Christian (and many other Protestants), and even perhaps a Roman Catholic to some degree, coming to the Orthodox Church, it can be somewhat jarring to encounter the emphasis on the bodily dimension of an Orthodox way of life. The worship involves the bodily senses in major ways: the bright colors of the icons, the gold on the vestments and the instruments of worship (cup, paten, censer, candelabra); the strange tonic system of the Byzantine chant which fills the hearing; the rich smells of the incense and interwoven with honeyed nuances of the beeswax candles; the taste of Holy Communion and of the antidoron; the feel of the one’s body, bowing, prostrating, making the sign of the cross, embracing fellow worshippers and one’s family, even how one’s body feels while others are moving around during the service and while one stands. An evangelical is used to much more sitting and listening, perhaps standing and joining in during the praise music part of the service. There may well be bright colors and images in visual presentations and posting of hymn lyrics, perhaps some candles. Roman Catholics (and Anglicans) will be used to some kneeling, and occasional use of incense as well as the images of crucifixes and statues and paintings of saints, perhaps a few icons. But among all these, the Orthodox experience is, if I may dare to say it this way, very sensual.

This can feel rather uncomfortable for one coming outside that way of life. Part of this is a result of the way the understanding of salvation developed in and among the Reformers and their historical descendants. I don’t want to paint with too large a brush here, but in general, evangelical, Protestant and Roman Catholic understandings of salvation focus on a juridical framework. Salvation is about moral guilt and how to deal with that guilt. The images used are often that of the law court. God transfers our rightful punishment onto his Son. We are declared not guilty. The transformative aspects of salvation (sanctification as distinguished from the more juridical justification) are pushed to a subsequent aspect of Christian living, and are primarily understood in moral terms: we do righteous acts instead of sinful acts. Further, given this juridical focus on salvation, then only the righteous Judge can declare someone not guilty, can set aside the indictment. The condemned cannot justify himself. One cannot work to earn one’s salvation.

In principle, the Orthodox do not deny this juridical aspect of salvation, nor that God alone is the source of our salvation. But the Orthodox understand salvation as larger than merely dealing with personal guilt. For Orthodox, salvation is also salvation from death. Christ’s resurrection did not just ratify his saving work, it also accomplished the defeat of death. Thus salvation is the remission of personal guilt and the salvation of the soul, it is also the defeat of death and the salvation of the body. We see this very clearly in Luke 24 (as well as the other Gospel accounts of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus). Jesus appears in the self-same body in which he died. The same scars that marked his body at death, remained with him after his Resurrection. In Luke 24 he emphasizes that he has flesh and bones, he is not a ghost or disembodied spirit. Yes, in light of 1 Corinthians 15, we understand that this flesh and bone body can in some way walk through locked doors, we understand that his bodily existence is very different from the pre-Resurrection bodily existence. But it is still very much a bodily existence, and still very much the same body with which he was born.

It is this good news that Orthodoxy emphasizes in ways which may seem strange to other Christians. Orthodox make good use of the double-meaning of the Greek sozo, which is translated “save” but is also translated “heal” in many of the healing miracles where sozo is the word used for the action Jesus does. If non-Orthodox Christians use a primarily juridical image when talking about salvation, Orthodox use primarily a therepeutic one. An evangelical will talk about God as righteous judge (and he is, of course), while Orthodox will talk about God as Physician.

It is because Christ’s Resurrection was a bodily, flesh-and-bones Resurrection that Orthodox make use of the body in salvation. It is because salvation is seen as therapeutic that Orthodox make use of the healing process as a metaphor for Christian living.

So what looks like “works righteousness” to non-Orthodox Christians–all those “rules” about fasting, about prayer practices, and so on–is actually the medicines Orthodox apply to their lives so that they can experience God’s transformative healing of their entire persons, body and soul. The sinful inclinations (what Orthodox call “passions”; those tendencies we have to lie, steal, hate, cheat, etc.) that infect us are healed through the “antibiotics” of fasting, prayer, worship, the sacraments and the entire healing regimen of the Orthodox way of life. The Orthodox do not deny the moral aspect of living, but we understand that moral aspect in a deeply integrated way. There is a significant connection between sin and sickness and death. It’s not that every cold is a result of adultery, but rather, the cumulative effects of sinful actions is bodily illness because it is soul illness and soul and body impact each other. So when we fast we struggle against sin, and we deny power to the sinful inclinations within us–that may be as direct as applying medicine to our sinful inclination to gluttony and overindulgence by denying ourselves, or more indirect in denying our general selfishness, because if we can give up the food that we rightly want, we may also be strengthened to give up the selfish control and manipulation of others that we also want.

The other aspect that Orthodox stress is the fundamentally central existence of bodily persons who depend upon the bodily existence and presence of other persons. Medicine can never be practiced alone, in isolation. It is always practiced in community. Similarly the medicines of fasting and prayer, among the rest, also must be practiced in community. Fasting is not some individual athletic achievement. It is communal medicine. We fast together, we give to the poor as we fast. It is a hospital to which we’ve come. There are others here with us. All of us participate in and share the therapy given us in Christ.

This change in perspective, from a juridical to a therapeutic model of salvation, can be disorienting. A juridical understanding cannot be mapped on to the therapeutic one, or it will result in legalism. Both are true. Both emphasize particular and important aspects of salvation. There are aspects of each in all Christian groups. But the views are complementary and distinte. And for Orthodox the therapeutic understanding is the dominant and central one.

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