Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed
The Aim and Means of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)
(2) The Way of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)
A- Starting the Way (See previous part )
B- The grace of God and human will:
As previously mentioned, union with Christ is the only way to reach the goal of Orthodox Spirituality, i.e. the union with God or the partaking of Divine Nature and the heavenly glory. We also stress that incorporation in Christ and union with God require the cooperation of two unequal, but equally necessary, forces: divine grace and human will.
The main human element needed for union with God is the will, not the mind or the emotions. There can be no true and intimate union with God unless our will is completely submitted to the heavenly will and conformed to it. As the bible says: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire … Behold, I have come … to do Your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:5-9, Psalm 40:6-8).
But the present reality declares it loudly and clearly that the human will is powerless unless it is preceded and supported by the grace of God, as the Apostle Peter said: “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved” (Acts 15:11). So, It is the grace of God that achieves in us both the will and the work, even as Saint Paul says: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
The Christian East did not experience the controversies which raged in the West around the notions of grace and predestination (to salvation or to perdition, like in Augustinianism1, Pelagianism, 2, Calvinism3 … etc). The idea of grace in the Orthodox Church has maintained a kind of the spring freshness which the word charis evoked in the Greek minds: an idea of luminous beauty, free gift, condescension and harmony.
The Eastern Orthodox Fathers emphasized human freedom in the work of salvation. This emphasis strikingly contrasts with St. Augustine’s language. St. John Chrysostom writes: ”We must first select good, and then God adds what appertains to His office. God does not act antecedently to our will, so as not to destroy our liberty” 4. Those words have almost a semi-Pelagian flavor 5
But we must remember the Eastern Fathers had not to deal with the Pelagian heresy that denies the grace of God in salvation. On the contrary, their struggle was directed against the Oriental fatalist Gnosticism that denies completely the freedom of choice and believes that man is absolutely led in everything, even the matters in which there is a clear chance for him to choose what suits the conditions of his life.
St. John Chrysostom fully acknowledged the antecedent grace of God and its necessity for salvation. He writes elsewhere: “You do not hold of yourself, but you have received from God. Hence you have received what you posses, and not only this or that, but everything you have. For these are not your own merits, but the grace of God. Although you cite faith, you owe it nevertheless to God’s call.” 6
Longtime before St. Chrysostom, Origen taught that grace reinforces voluntary energy without destroying freedom; and St. Ephraim the Syrian wrote extensively about the necessity and importance of the divine help for the salvation of man.
Clement of Alexandria coined the word “synergy” (cooperation) in order to express the action of these two conjoined energies: the grace of God and the will of man.
This cooperation between the grace of God and the will of man is clearly found in some of the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria. He wrote about Jesus Christ the Son of God and His work in humanity, saying, “Jesus Christ, whom we call Savior and Lord, is the Son of God as the prophetic Scriptures explicitly prove. So the Lord of all – of Greek and Barbarians – persuades those who are willing. For He compels no one to receive salvation from Him, because he (man) is able to choose (with his own free will) and fulfill from himself what pertains to the laying hold of the hope … For Christ is the Savior of all, therefore He doesn’t save some and refuses to save others, but He gives salvation to everyone in proportion to the adaptation possessed by each. Thus He has dispensed His beneficence both to Greeks and Barbarians, even to those of them that were predestined, and in due time called, the faithful and elect … For this was the law from the first, that virtue should be the object of voluntary choice. Wherefore also the commandments, according to the Law (of Moses), and before the Law, not given to the upright (“The law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate” 1st Timothy 1:9) ordained that he should receive eternal life and the blessed prize, who choose them … Everything, then, which did not hinder a man’s choice from being free, He (God the Father) made and rendered auxiliary to virtue, in order that there might be revealed somehow or other, even to those capable of seeing but dimly, the one only almighty, good God – from eternity to eternity, saving by His Son.” 7
This expression, “synergy” (cooperation) that Saint Clement of Alexandria has coined, remained and represent, until today, the doctrine of the Orthodox Church on these matters.
C- Prayer and Contemplation:
Prayer is the main activity in Orthodox Spirituality, and is simply the experience of being in the presence of God. And as St. Basil the Great said, it is the adherence to God in all the moments and incidences of life. In the Tradition of Orthodox Spirituality, prayer is considered a necessary instrument of salvation; and as is well known, prayer is the foundation of all the different aspects of Christian life and its activities, especially in church services and individual worship.
- Augustinianism is the teachings of Augustine the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the first one-third of the fifth century about the absolute choice of God’s grace for man’s salvation. Thus, the goal of the salvation made by Christ was limited to a narrow circle of chosen people and those who were saved were also predestined by God and were absolutely chosen to be saved despite their will. ↩
- Pelagianism in reference to the monk Pelagius who lived at the time of Augustine and his teachings were the opposite of the ideas of Augustine. He emphasized in his teachings on the full freedom of man regarding his salvation and on his own struggle to achieve righteousness and holiness without giving a chance for the divine grace in man’s salvation, but allowing grace to be an outside factor as a helper only. Augustine wrote a whole book on arguments against Pelagianism. ↩
- Calvinism, in reference to John Calvin who is one of the leaders of the Protestant movement in the sixteenth century in Europe. He stressed on the utter choice of God for man’s salvation or his perdition, and he disagreed with other leaders of Protestantism in its early period regarding this issue as well as other issues. ↩
- Hom. XII in Hebr. ↩
- Semi-Pelagianism started in the final years of the life of St. Augustine as an attempt to find common grounds between the thoughts of Augustine and Pelagius. After the death of St. Augustine, semi-Pelagianism became the dominant teaching in the West. It taught that the grace of God and the will of man both together accomplish the sanctification of man; and that man has to take the first step. ↩
- Hom. XII in 1Cor. ↩
- Stromata Book VII: 2 in A.N. Fathers, Vol. II. ↩