Friday, September 9, 2011

Grace, Sin and the Theotokos ( A brief sketch on the diversity)


     In the theological instruction that I am involved in I often deal with the differences between East and West. I thought it would be beneficial to share some basic concepts that are employed by the Byzantine and Latin traditions. Concepts that are in many ways different but also give us a vision of God's gift of diversity in the Church. I will attempt to provide a brief sketch at some of the concepts beginning with the Roman Catholic tradition then contrasting it with the Byzantine tradition. This is just a brief sketch for many of the theological concepts set forward go into many levels. What is most noticeable is that the differences stem mainly from how the term grace is defined and used. Both traditions in use of the word come to different conclusions in how humanity relates to God. As a result, the role of Theotokos manifests different expressions in the work of salvation, both of which can be complementary if we let them. My goal is just to provide a simple synopsis of understanding just how we are different when it comes to the mother that we of both traditions love.
     Beginning with the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of Grace we find Grace to be something that is created and added to our nature to enable us to participate in eternal life. The best description that I have heard is the analogy of person getting ready for scuba diving. In order to go into the deep the scuba diver must have the right equipment or they will drown. This description is similar to the Roman teaching because in order to experience the heavenly life to come one must be equipped with the grace that we receive from God.
     From this understanding we find the Original sin of Adam and Eve depriving man of the Original grace that humanity once had. Consequently, every person born into this world is deprived of grace. Being in a state of judgment by God humanity is under the disciplinary hand of God in order to bring them to the place of repentance. It could be said that in a certain sense death, sickness, and disasters all have their roots in the original judgment of God. It is the work of Christ and his Church according to Latin tradition  to provide humanity the means to acquire grace by the merits shared with us from Christ and his saints in order to escape judgment. However, according to the Latin tradition there was one born without being deprived of grace because of the future merits that her son would receive, which of course is the Virgin Mary. She unlike other people received a special dispensation in order for her to be a fitting vessel for her son.
     Based on how the Latin tradition understands Grace we discover a whole spiritual system that is in essence  forensic. Roman Catholics are taught how to acquire and to avoid the loss of grace. Their understanding of the work of Christ focuses on how he fulfilled the requirements of the divine law and how he saves us from the judgment of God to come. From this approach we witness a heavy emphasis on the suffering of Christ and of how our sufferings make grace available for the salvation of all humanity.
     In the Byzantine tradition we find the definition of Grace to be completely different then what developed in the Latin tradition.. Grace in the traditional Byzantine Christian understanding is the very uncreated energies of God. The best description of this that I have heard is in the physical description of the sun. We can't go near the sun but its energy (light, heat) comes down to us. In a similar way God communicates himself to us in his uncreated energy(grace) that descends to us. The energy of God is not created but it is God's communication of his very self to us according to our condition.
     From this understanding the Eastern tradition takes a different approach to the fall of man. Unlike, what we find in the Latin tradition God does not deprive man of 'grace' but rather the communication is obscured on our end from sin. In fact, every person born into this world is not deprived of a relationship with God. Rather, the world they are born into is obscured in relationship to God and this problem continues as the person gives into sin. Instead of understanding death and other consequences of the fall as judgments the Byzantine tradition tends to understand these as consequences of not being in proper communion with God. It is the work of Christ and his Church to remove the obscurities caused by sin so that man can participate in the ongoing presence of God within. The greatest member of the Church to fulfill this mission was the Theotokos.
     Since the Byzantine tradition does not use the same system or terminology when understanding grace there is no Immaculate Conception dogma, all though those of tradition hold her to have lived a pure life. Mary is the Icon of the Church for she represents the fullness of what we are called to become.Based on how the Byzantine tradition understands Grace we discover a whole spiritual system that in essence is therapeutic. Byzantine Christians are taught how to heal their condition in relation to God. Their understanding of salvation focuses on how Christ deprived sin and death of its power over man. From this emphasis there is a heavy focus on the divinity of Christ and how we can participate in it bringing the kingdom of God into world.
     Diversity is a gift of God. We discover in these two traditions unique approaches to the great mysteries of our salvation, which shows one to be forensic and the other therapeutic. At times in the history of the church the theological language used has been a means to cause division. However, these differences can be complimentary if we learn to see diversity as a gift. Employing similar concepts we discover that each tradition goes on in great detail to show how we are made right with God. The bottom line is that these things are great mysteries that we can use to love God and each other.

(note: there are many different versions of "original sin" in the history of the church. What i teach is based mostly in contemporary Eastern Orthodox theology". ).

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