What can God Redeem?
It’s fortunate that this ambitious ecumenical conversation begins with David Ford’s contribution from the Orthodox tradition. In my view, the Reformed family has paid the least attention to the Orthodox among the major Christian traditions. But we probably have the most to learn from the Orthodox, as well as from the Pentecostal expressions of the church. Beginning with the Orthodox seems right. A true Reformed person might even say that it’s providential.
First, I’ll identify points of disagreement, at least from my perspective as one from the Reformed tradition; others of course will see it differently. Reformed theological antennae go up immediately at the mention of the Virgin Mary and the saints. The differences in understanding the role of Mary need little elaboration. But it’s the Orthodox appeal to follow the lives of saints, and the process of holiness which they are seen to achieve, that tends to raise the hackles of Calvinists.
Whenever a tradition appeals to the example of how “holy” people have become, Reformed folk squirm. Our beginning point is total depravity. And when someone thinks he or she is making great progress being liberated from its effects, we tend to see this as another sign of total depravity. Therefore, looking to those who have become so purified and holy as examples strikes Reformed people as dangerous and deceptive. We don’t follow Jesus by following others. We follow Jesus by following Jesus.
Most Reformed folk have little understanding of how deeply the Orthodox tradition believes in the potential transforming power of holiness. I was once privileged to be on an ecumenical visit to the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). We had lunch with His Holiness Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and then visited St. George’s Church. An Orthodox priest explained all that it holds, including relics and the coffins, enclosed in glass, of certain saints. As he directed our gaze to one saint, he assured us that if that coffin were opened, it would emit the sweet smell of flowers—I think he said roses—because the result of his holiness and sanctification had transformed not just his spirit, but also his physical body.
A solid Reformed view would regard that as incomprehensible, bordering on a form of heresy. But to the Orthodox, physicality is intended to be fused with spirituality, and transformed in the process. Such a wedding of spirituality united to the essence of matter and physical life, experienced this side of eternity, always makes the Reformed mind nervous. The effects of sin and the Fall are far too pervasive and should never be underestimated.
David Ford’s helpful explanation of the Orthodox tradition retains an almost exclusive focus on the practices of personal spiritual devotion and participation in the Liturgy and Eucharist as the pathways for following Jesus. While having a different view of the sacraments, Reformed perspectives would respect the appeal to prayer and the devotional life, while being circumspect, as just noted, about its potential effects. However, the Reformed tradition takes very seriously what is often called a “world and life view.” It holds that Christian faith beckons us to seek justice in the world, and the transformation of institutions—education, labor, government, health, etc.—to reflect the values of God’s kingdom.
Beyond doubt, within the diversity of the global Reformed community, its understanding and witness around the causes of justice take many different forms. But one only need to look at the agenda and programs of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the global body encompassing the vast majority of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the world, to see the unrelenting, consistent commitment to addressing economic injustice, gender injustice, violence against women, the destruction of God’s creation, the marginalization and historic genocide of indigenous peoples, pervasive racism, and much else, all calling for a Christian response if we are to faithfully follow Jesus.
Even with differences about the particulars between various Reformed voices, this prophetic dimension of the gospel finds a firm foundation within this tradition. But such an unambiguous witness is far more difficult to locate within Orthodoxy. Understandably, it is notably absent in David Ford’s presentation. The reasons are complex. In part, the affirmation of specific cultures in Orthodoxy’s approach can lead to forms of religious nationalism which obviate the space for prophetic witness. The Orthodox tradition is embodied in national churches—the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, etc. A largely uncritical alliance between church and state can often result.
Of course, we can note exceptions. We see these, for example, in the Oriental Orthodox Churches, consisting of Orthodox Churches primarily in Africa, the Middle East, Armenia, and India, which split from the other “Eastern” Orthodox Churches in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Yes, the Orthodox have long memories. Most Oriental Orthodox Churches are in a minority position within their settings, often suffering marginalization and in some cases persecution. Yet, Reformed voices would say that throughout most of the Orthodox Churches, despite differing relationships to the established power of their nations, the Bible’s prophetic critique of corporate sin and the thirst for God’s desired justice in the world seems blurred.
One area, however, is strikingly different in the public witness of the Orthodox tradition—the commitment to care for and preserve the gift of God’s creation. And that commitment could not be timelier; and it can enrich those in the Reformed tradition. Like so much else in the Orthodox tradition, a bedrock theological foundation undergirds this commitment. This is found, not so much in the doctrine of God as the Creator, but in the understanding of God’s work of redemption in Jesus Christ. For the Orthodox, this always has a cosmic dimension.
The Orthodox tradition believes that all of material creation is open to being transfigured and redeemed. This is rooted in the incarnation and grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ. This redeeming work of God is not focused solely on humanity but embraces the whole cosmos. New Testament references to the “cosmic Christ” underscore this understanding. This stands in contrast to most traditional Reformed understandings of redemption, which focus on humanity’s fall into sin and the opportunity for personal redemption offered through Christ. The creation is simply the stage on which this redemptive drama takes place, and not a subject of it.
In my personal theological journey, I discovered the powerful impact of the Orthodox understanding of incarnation and redemption in a direct way. In the 1980’s, my wife and I moved to Missoula, Montana, and my attention was drawn to the environmental crisis. To my dismay, I found hardly any theological approaches from evangelical and mainline Protestantism to understand the threats to God’s creation and undergird a well-grounded biblical witness. But the Orthodox tradition was illuminating and immensely helpful. The Human Presence, a small book by Orthodox theologian Paulos Mar Gregorios, who later became one of the Presidents of the World Council of Churches, first unlocked an understanding of the incarnation and redemption which encompassed the whole created order, and humanity’s role within it. As Gregorios states, “Human redemption is inseparable from the redemption of time and space as well as ‘things.’” A book which I subsequently wrote, A Worldly Spirituality: The Call to Take Care of the Earth was indebted to such theological understandings.
When I joined the staff of the World Council of Churches a few years later, with a responsibility to gather ecumenical commitment around “the integrity of creation,” the contribution of Orthodox voices to that process was indispensable. This ancient tradition, rooted in rich and weighty theological reflections of the Church “Fathers,” proved to be far ahead of its time, and so relevant to our time with the earth in an existential crisis. His Holiness Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch, is a global leader defending the environment, often called the “Green Bishop.” Today, rich theological resources and practical actions to preserve the integrity of God’s creation are found throughout Protestant and Catholic circles. But the Orthodox were the theological pioneers here, and their cosmic understanding of the incarnation and redemption still have much to teach the Reformed tradition.
Those Orthodox perspectives extend to “theosis,” the bold Orthodox teaching that our unity with God means that in following Christ, we can participate in God’s nature. This is also called deification. It holds forth the radical promise that as we are perfected in grace, selfishness and ego can nearly disappear as we empty ourselves and come to reflect Divine light. I still remember that disparaging comments of my theology professor at a Reformed seminary about such views. But today I’m convinced that the Reformed tradition, so thoroughly immersed in the pervasive grip of total depravity on the human soul, has much to learn, and self-correct, from Orthodox understandings which don’t compromise on the potential effects in this life of our calling, reflected in Scripture, to participate and partake in Divine life, reaching to redeem all things.