We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.Romans 6:4-11 ESV
I have been learning a lot about Church History lately through reading “2000 Years of Christ in Power” by Nick Needham and listening to Justo L. Gonzalez’s “The Story of Christianity.” As I been making my way through these, I have been pleasantly surprised to learn about Eastern Christianity. I can’t say yet that I fully understand the mindset differences between Eastern and Western Christians, but I am beginning to put together pieces of the puzzle and build a clearer picture of the distinctions. In this piece I want to shine a little light on one of the differences I have been thinking about, which is how the East and West each seem to emphasize certain aspects of Salvation. I expect I will leave out much, so I ask for some grace, and welcome any discussion which will help me to understand the differences better.
Salvation is, generally speaking, the process by which God has delivers us from the powers of darkness and our sin and transforms us into replicas of Jesus Christ who will worship him forever, love each other perfectly, and govern the world with him. Even as I write that, I understand that my words are incomplete. Some will look at my words and unconsciously hone in on a certain part of what I have said or what I have left unsaid, fixating on a particular piece of the process. We all do it. It is not that we don’t consider the whole picture important, but we often focus more deeply on a certain part of the work that God has done in our lives.
Of the various differences between Eastern and Western Christianity (which includes both Protestants and Roman Catholics), one of the most interesting to me is how each has focused on particular aspects of Salvation over and above others. Western Christianity has traditionally focused on salvation as deliverance from sin and evil, whereas Eastern Christianity has focused on salvation as becoming like God, what is often called deification. It is not that either side considers only one of those aspects to be important or relevant, but that these emphases have colored the way each side has approached theology and practice for over a thousand years, even before the Eastern and Western churches split in the Great East West Schism of 1054.
In the West, you can see an emphasis on deliverance from sin and evil in the development of doctrine through the middle ages. Over time concepts developed like the treasury of merits, purgatory and indulgences, and practices emerged like self-flagellation, as an extreme example, which was a means of penance. All of these were developments that tried to deal with the presence and consequences of sin in the life of believers. Protestants (and many of the proto-reformers who lived before the period we call the Reformation) can also be seen as focusing on deliverance from sin and evil with their emphasis on grace and the absolute forgiveness of sin through faith. Much of the core protestant emphasis was a reaction against theological developments that tried to put the power to deal with sin into the hands of people. For the West, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, salvation theology was often reduced to answering the question of what or who will cleanse us of our past and present sin.
The world of Eastern Christianity does not seem to have been quite so fixated on cleansing from sin in their theology of salvation. That is not to say that they have not considered cleansing from sin to be necessary. Rather, instead of looking backward, so to speak, at what we are being delivered from, they have placed more value on looking forward to what we are being made into. I believe this emphasis can be seen in the Mysticism that developed in the Eastern Church. The tradition of Eastern Mysticism has been, as I currently understand it, especially focused on connecting spiritually with God and being, as much as possible, conformed into his image and brought into direct fellowship with him, partaking in what the mystics would describe as his divine energies. Additionally the Eastern Church has emphasized its doctrine of Deification, which describes the glorification of believers through unity with God and our transformation into Christlikeness, not just in our attitudes and behaviors, but in our whole being. Since Christ has become man, he has enabled us to become divine.
Both monasticism and the theological concept of deification can be seen in the writings of St. Athanasius of Alexandria in the 4th century but continued to develop independently in the East after the Great Schism. Athanasius wrote “The Life of Anthony”, a biography of one of the earliest Christian monks who happened to be a close friend. His biography popularized asceticism through Monasticism as a pious alternative to popular Christianity at a time when the popularity of the church was on the rise within the newly tolerant post-Constantine Roman Empire (Needham, Vol 1, 203-4). Athanasius’s concept of deification was articulated in “Against the Arians” as he was defending the full deity of Jesus: “Therefore He was not man, and then became God, but He was God, and then became man, and that to deify us” (Against the Arians 1.11.39). After the Great Schism, Eastern theologians such as Gregory Palamas matured the idea that the monastic lifestyle is a means of deepening ones connection to God’s light which will ultimately deify every believer (Needham, Vol 2, 397-400). In these developments one can start to see the emphasis of salvation within the Eastern Church, not as a looking back to our sin and unrighteousness, but as a looking forward to the glory which believers are to participate in, perhaps in this life, but certainly at the resurrection.
In the Protestant West we often see a dysfunction where people come to Jesus because he is the ticket to Heaven or a get out of Hell free card, since he freely forgives our sin, and then neglect to pursue lives of faithfulness, characterized by repentance and good works. In the Roman Catholic West we often see a dysfunction where people strive by good works and acts of penance to obtain merit that can remit the punishment of their sin, despite the fact that sufficient merit is always provided freely to those who trust Jesus. These dysfunctions make me wonder whether Eastern Christians look at Western Christians and think that we have gotten stuck and forgotten why we are forgiven in the first place.
Like much of the West my own view of salvation has been biased toward what Jesus has done to deal with my sin, so learning more about Eastern Christianity has helped me to step back and consider again what God has saved me for. In that spirit I would encourage all to embrace the forgiveness of sins that God offers us freely through faith in Jesus, but don’t stop there. Realize that those of us who believe are destined to be conformed into the image of Christ and to share in the Holy Spirit forever. In our baptism we die to this world, yet we don’t remain in the water. We are raised to walk in a newness of life, renew our minds daily, and long with eager expectation for the unity we will have with him in the resurrection.
Needham, N. R. (2016). 2000 Years of Christ’s power, Volumes 1-2. Christian Focus.
Athanasius, Against the Arians 1.11.39, vol. 4, p. 329, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 14 vols. (1890–1900; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994).
González Justo L. (2010). The story of Christianity: the early church to the Reformation. HarperOne/HarperCollins.