A couple of years ago I came across an article written by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian theologian and writer. The article was about Gregory of Nyssa (or another of the Greek Fathers) but it wasn’t the article itself that stayed with me. For some reason, what struck me wasn’t anything about the article itself. Instead it was the sudden realization that I knew almost nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy. Of the over 1 billion or so people living on planet Earth that profess Christianity, well over 300 million of them belong to one form or another of the Eastern Orthodox Church. So I was almost offended at myself that I knew next to nothing about a faith tradition that encompassed ~30% of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I responded to this in a way that is quite typical of me. I started reading books about Eastern Orthodoxy. Well, to be more precise, I have read two books. They were both written by Bishop Timothy Ware, an English convert to Orthodoxy who spent 35 years as a lecturer of Eastern Orthodox studies at Oxford. The first book, “The Orthodox Church” is a very straightforward introduction to the history and theology of Orthodoxy. It could very easily be re-titled, “Orthodoxy for Dummies”, which suited me quite well. The second, “The Orthodox Way” was a more difficult read. It covered more of the devotional practices and mystical theological currents of Orthodoxy. It very much illustrates the broad cultural differences that make Orthodoxy seem quite unusual to a Westerner like myself. Often it seemed as if I were reading a foreign language but at the same time I enjoyed the read a great deal.
One of the differences that was noted was the language that is used in describing the relationship between God and humanity. In Western Christianity this relationship is very often in described in legal terms. The problem that humanity faces is described in terms of sin as offending the demands of a just and holy God. Correspondingly, salvation is described in terms of the work of Jesus on the cross satisfying these demands on behalf of humanity and thereby justifying those who receive this work by faith. This is certainly quite Scriptural and accurately describes a great deal of the dynamic of sin, atonement and salvation. Eastern Christianity, however, very rarely uses this kind of language. For Eastern Christianity, the emphasis is much more on creation and re-creation. Sin is described much less in terms of offending the demands of a just and holy God as it is in marring the image of God that is humanity’s created nature and reducing the likeness of God that is found therein. Salvation is then described as the restoration of the divine image and likeness as a new creation via the agency of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is presented much more in terms of healing and forgiveness, while present, is not emphasized to near the same degree. Again, this is certainly Scriptural and an accurate description of much of the dynamic of sin, salvation and atonement. I am struck by the difference in emphasis.
The purpose of this post isn’t to choose sides in some sort of salvation debate or even to simply point out differences in language. It is to consider whether I have missed something important about God’s work in my life. I don’t often think about what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. I have often thought about being born-again and being a new creation in Christ, but I don’t tend to make the connection between the two. N.T. Wright famously talks about salvation in terms of participating in the New Creation. This rightly points out the continuing work of God in the world “setting things to right” as well as our part in co-laboring with God in this work. But for some reason I have left a gap in my understanding of what that looks like in my own life. Salvation is not a mere transaction, it is a way. There is an exchange taking place, but it is continual. There is a great juxtaposition of images between Genesis 2:7, where God breathes into Adam (face-to-face) the breath of life and 2nd Corinthians 3:18, where we with unveiled face (translated sometimes as face-to-face) are beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into that same image (there’s that word again) by the Spirit (breath) of the Lord.
It would do me well to hold that image in my mind. Each day as I pray, worship or engage the presence of the Lord in any way a transformation is taking place whether I see it or not. Something precious is being exchanged in that engagement. Something living and eternal. Something that has been lost, wounded, marred or damaged is being healed and restored.