Today I want to wrap up the discussion of Eastern Orthodox spirituality in Four Views on Christian Spirituality. Bradley Nassif sees the goal of spirituality as transfigured humanity. The Orthodox call this deification. It is based on scripture. Explicitly, it comes from 2 Peter 1:4 where that epistle talks about becoming “partakers in the divine nature.” There are also passages in John’s gospel about participating in the life of the Father and the Son (Jesus’ discourse in John 13-17).
The Church Father, Athanasius said, “God became humanized so that humans might become divinized.” The Incarnation and the reality of our being caught up in the love of the Triune God are again important here. There is something here different from the theology many of us learned:
“Unlike an Augustinian interpretation of Adam and Eve, our first parents were not created in a full-grown state of physical and spiritual perfection in complete communion with God. Rather, humanity was more like a developing young child who was charged with growing ever more deeply into the divine likeness through the process of deification.” (Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 873-875). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
So there is a big difference between this and the idea of the Fall and Original Sin so focal in both Catholic and Protestant theology. Our spiritual life isn’t just a matter of being in recovery. It isn’t just a matter of being saved from sin. Although Nassif doesn’t mention this, Orthodoxy here is closer to Jewish spirituality.
In Orthodox lore, deification was an idea achieved by many saints through fasting, contemplation, and spiritual reading, works of love, suffering, and martyrdom.
The first response to Nassif is by Roman Catholic, Scott Hahn. Of course, there is a lot in common between Catholic and Orthodox spirituality. Hahn affirm the emphasis on the Incarnation and the Trinity. He says that, although the vocabulary used by Orthodox and Catholic many vary, ideas like deification have their Catholic counterpart.
The only point of difference he really points up is that the Orthodox don’t stress catholicity, the universal nature of the Church. He doesn’t really explain, though, how this affects spirituality.
The next response come from progressive Protestant, Joseph Driskill. He acknowledges that mainline Protestant spirituality is looking to recover a sense of balance after having stressed things like rationality and action over mysticism and prayer. In these areas, it can learn from the Orthodox.
One of the differences he highlights is the Orthodox concern to identify and address heresy. Driskill admits that, when studying church history, he often identified with the heretics rather than the orthodox. He says that progressive Protestants care more about racism, sexism, and such than about doctrinal conformity. There seems to be a limit to what he can take from Orthodox spirituality, because he would have to “suspend [his] postmodern worldview and enter the Orthodox framework. . .”
The final response is from Evan Howard, an Evangelical. He appreciates Nassif’s putting the gospel at the center of Orthodox spirituality. Yet Howard claims that Nassif is practically unique among Orthodox writers in making this emphasis. Apparently Nassif is trying to claim more of a similarity with evangelicalism than Howard can accept.
Orthodox spirituality centers on liturgy and sacrament. But liturgy and sacrament can be hindrances as well as a helps to spirituality. Howard claims that the gospel emphasis gets easily lost when mediated through the institutional church.
I wish these counterpoints had dealt with spirituality more than they did. The original essay tied Orthodox spirituality to Orthodox doctrines. But it showed how these doctrines take on life in Orthodox worship and practice. The Orthodox don’t really write systematic theology. But it seemed to me that some of the responses were trying to take on Orthodox life as though it were an ideology rather than–what word can I use?– a doxology.