Grace, Form and Essence

The grace of God is so overly abundant to us that Christians have always tended toward one of two extremes in their experience of it. On the one hand, they emphasize the unboundedness of God’s grace and disregard limitations and corrections on their experience. On the other, they emphasize the preciousness of God’s grace such that we must limit and correct our experiences so as rightly to receive it. For some we do not chain the whirlwind. For others we do not trample gold under muddy feet. Some Christians primarily seek experience. Some primarily seek rule-keeping. Both lack balance.

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The soul-sickness called modernism runs deep in us. We have become creatures of mind and reason, and we have lost our hearts. Some, reacting to this desiccation of the human soul, have shredded their hearts by giving themselves over to mere feeling and impulse. So we categorize and pigeonhole one another. Or we manipulate and control through a distortion of desire. But the deepest part of the human person is mystery, a deep core that God alone knows. At the center of this mystery lies an image and a freedom. The image bears the immense weight of the divine, the freedom carries a design for creation and love.

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Half-Finished Thoughts on Discerning God’s Will

We often approach the task of discerning God’s will quite dialectically: either this, or that. If we have free will–as I believe we do–we use that will to take one or another course, each of which is in opposition to the other. Some in fact predicate the concept of free will precisely on this dialectic of opposition. For about five years now, I have come to see that free will is not necessitated on such a dialectic, and comments from my priest yesterday gave me an opportunity to think through this less philosophically and more pragmatically.

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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.

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Christmas and the Cross: Distinctions of Faith

While I do not believe that Faith and Reason are opposites, it is the case that Faith is a mystery to Reason. The moment we attempt to analyze faith we lose it, as though attempting to hold still in our peripheral vision that glint of light which flashes and is gone. Despite this, I’m going to attempt the foolish and distinguish between two experiences of faith. So while it seems to me that faith is a unity, and that in distinguishing between different “kinds” of faith, we do so heuristically, nonetheless, in thinking about how we exercise our faith, it seems that there are broadly speaking two ways in which we can do so. Each one challenges us in particular ways.

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The Distinction Between Essence and Energies and its Importance for Theology

I was just reacquainted with this article by Christos Yannaras on Perry’s blog, and recommend it to you: The Distinction Between Essence and Energies and its Importance for Theology.

Yannaras was one of three influential authors I read in 02 and 03 as I began my initial exploration into the Orthodox Church. I started with, not surprisingly, Zizioulas’ Being and Communion, continued with Panayiotis Nellas’ Deification in Christ, and rounded out with Yannaras’ The Freedom of Morality. This trifecta gave me the conceptual framework to engage Orthodoxy on its own terms instead of trying to “translate” it into Protestant categories (and thus distort it). Once I was able to investigate Orthodoxy within its own framework, it’s internal coherence became obvious and many things that would otherwise have been “problems” for me just wafted away.

Given my personal context, academic and religious upbringing and experience, I think it was probably necessary that my introduction to Orthodox thought be in an almost exclusively intellectual vein. However, knowing what I now know, if I were to devise a “program” of introduction for myself (this is idiosyncratic and not for everyone), I think I would have focused far more exclusively on the lives of the desert fathers and saints, on practicing various prayers, and only later, perhaps about now, get into the head stuff.

But God’s providence is over all. One can’t go back and undo the past.

An Answer Seeking an Articulation

For me, 2005 was a watershed year in much of my thinking both in terms of philosophy and theology. In 2005 I solidified my understanding of why it was that I was attracted to and felt it utterly important to promote so-called “ancient philosophy” (in part through a couple of books by Pierre Hadot, as well as in clarifying my thinking on the “problem” of free will). It was also in 2005 that I finally came to understand that the theology of the ancient (indeed New Testament) Church was not simply a collection of doctrine or a set of principles, but an embodied way of life.

It was also in 2005 that Perry Robinson sent me a copy of his essay “Anglicans in Exile,” which helped me address the criticism that I was choosing to become Orthodox on the basis of mere preference. Some of that criticism would have at the time appeared to have been justified. After all, hadn’t I gone from the Stone-Campbell/Restoration Movement Churches to the Episcopal Church/Anglican tradition and was (then) looking at moving to Orthodoxy? Wasn’t this simply changing churches again? For me the answer was always no. I was not then becoming, and I am not now, Orthodox simply because I liked it better than all the alternatives, or because it has far more points of attraction to me than anything else. If that were my only attraction to Orthodoxy–the liturgy, the “ancient-ness,” the “this-isn’t-lowest-common-denominator” religion, or whatever–then as soon as I was more strongly attracted to something else (even to nothing), I would simply migrate away from Orthodoxy. Once the gravitational attraction was less than that necessary to keep me in orbit, I would just float away to be captured by something else.

My move to Anglicanism (in the Episcopal Church) was not a move from attraction to Anglicanism per se. Which is why I later moved out of Anglicanism. I was searching for something far deeper. But it was hard, in 2005, to articulate positive reasons for moving to Orthodoxy aside from I preferred it. I wasn’t a consumer shopping about for my latest sustained impulse. I was, at the risk of coming off as melodramatic, a drowning man looking for his salvation.

Perry’s article, now posted on his blog, helped me to articulate substantive and positive reasons for becoming Orthodox that went beyond mere preference and helped me to defend against what appeared externally to be church-shopping.

I commend the article to you, but caution that it will not be for the faint of heart nor for those who haven’t some background in broad historical and theological matters.

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On the Priesthood of All Believers

I’d seen in my blog’s tracking stats, that a three-year-old post, Open Theism and the Essence-Energy Distinction, has been getting a bit of traffic recently, so I re-read it, and while doing so it occurred to me that definitional divine simplicity impacts the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers creating a distortion that rejects the Church’s traditional understanding of that doctrine, and resulting, in some cases, in a radical egalitarianism which distorts the doctrine it seeks to preserve.

The general Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers seeks to correct a clericalism which divides the Body of Christ into subsets of the empowered and disempowered. Anywhere such a clericalism arises it should be most vigorously resisted. It should go without saying that the Church’s traditional understanding of the sacramental priesthood is not this sort of clericalism, but is, in fact, precisely the fulfillment of the priesthood of all believers. But while it should go without saying, unfortunately it cannot, for the reaction to clericalism which is the Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers unfortunately starts from and reinforces the very distortion it seeks to correct.

Let me attempt to explain what I mean.

The Protestant critique starts with an understanding that arises from a distortion (clericalism), from a dialectic of opposition: the two subsets, clerical and lay members, of the Body of Christ, are conceptually opposed to one another, one is either a priest (clerical) or one is not (lay). The two cannot be the same thing. Further, the priest (clerical) has the sacramental power (to bind and to loose), to which the lay person is subject. Other binary oppositional modes can be added: a priest can only be male (and in the West unmarried).

But unfortunately, the Protestant critique does not overcome the distortion. Rather than reject the dialectic of opposition, it continues it by then rejecting all distinctions. The priesthood of all believers then becomes the absolute sameness of all believers. Galatians 3:28 is not far behind. In other words, one of the problems with this Protestant view of the priesthood of all believers is something like definitional divine simplicity: there is only one essence (the priesthood of all believers), with no distinctions (office, sex, and so forth).

Unfortunately, rather than resolving the problem of clericalism, it raises new issues. A creeping reductionism begins to take over, which ultimately resorts in minimally a distortion of, and maximally an eradication of, personhood. Being a priest among other same priests funnels into a focus on functionality: who does what. And that distorts vocation into a reflection of qualities rather than a reflection of personhood. What are we to do, rather than who are we to be?

To speak a little more technically: this distorted resolution of a distortion is a failure to distinguish between essence and person, a failure to make distinctions (or, rather, distinctions become merely nominal). To say it in perhaps more familiar terms: just as we distinguish between the Persons of the Trinity (and they are real distinctions, not just modal names) but assert one and the same essence, just as we distinguish between God’s creating and God’s being Creator, so, too, the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers asserts a common “essence” if you will (priesthood), but also asserts real distinctions (laity, deacons, priests, bishops, monastics, married, male and female, and so forth). This is why, in traditional Christianity, a husband and wife are priests in their own home, but do not serve the Eucharist in the gathered assembly. This is why, in traditional Christianity, the sacramental priesthood offers the Eucharist, but does not do so without the prayers of the laity.

This radical egalitarianism, which a distorted emphasis on the priesthood of all believers brings, also demeans and diminishes the priesthood of all believers by failing to account for the Holy Spirit distributed gifts of the Body: it makes the ministry of Christ’s Body all one thing. But such reductionism is pagan, not Christian.

This is also why, in traditional Christianity, some ministries are limited to some members of the Body: only males may be Eucharistic priests. Though from a distorted perspective, this appears to diminish and demean: and if all were of one essence without distinction it would indeed be so. But because we do have distinctions which matter, this limitation becomes not something that diminishes and demeans but something that actually preserves personhood. The reductionism that is radical egalitarianism always ultimately diminishes the person, because it fails to account for or preserve the important distinctions which God has created and which distinctions themselves have been redeemed. One does not perserve the personhood of woman by denying to her the important distinction of gestation and childbirth. Indeed, the radicalism that diminishes this unique and important creational and specifically redeemed distinction ultimately depersonalizes each woman in particular, and womanhood as an aspect of personhood. That only males may serve as priests is not, ultimately, a diminishing of women, but is, rather an elevation of them as persons, just as it is also an elevation of men as persons. The Virgin Mary could not as a woman offer the Eucharist in any of our Liturgies, but one hardly considers the Mother of God diminished by that distinction: from her womb by the Holy Spirit she gave us Him who is our Eucharist. Indeed, her motherhood elevates us all.

The fundamental concept of divine definitional simplicity is more than just a philosopher’s or theologian’s game. It is a radical distortion of the understanding of God, and therefore of all reality. It not only impacts our Trinitarian understandings, it impacts our Christological understandings, our understandings of ministry, and, ultimately our understandings of what it means to be persons. It is perhaps not too bold to say that traditional Christianity starts from Persons and then moves to essences. It starts from the Person, Jesus of Nazareth, and then moves to wills and natures. It starts from believers in particular, saved as persons, and then moves to the priesthood of them all.

The Incarnation puts the exclamation point on the assertion that Christianity is an embodied Faith. Any model of ministry which cannot handle the distinctions inherent in an embodied Faith cannot be, it seems to me, a Christian understanding of the priesthood of all believers.