Thursday, 26 September 2013

Orthodox Christology

The Orthodox Church is formally committed to the Christology (doctrine of Christ) that was defined by the councils of the first eight centuries. Together with the Latin Church of the West, it has rejected Arianism (a belief in the subordination of the Son to the Father) at Nicaea (325), Nestorianism (a belief that stresses the independence of the divine and human natures of Christ) at Ephesus (431), and Monophysitism (a belief that Christ had only one divine nature) at Chalcedon (451). The Eastern and Western churches still formally share the tradition of subsequent Christological developments, even though the famous formula of Chalcedon, "one person in two natures," is given different emphases in the East and West. The stress on Christ's identity with the preexistent Son of God, the Logos (Word) of the Gospel According to John, characterizes Orthodox Christology. On Byzantine icons, around the face of Jesus, the Greek letters '' —the equivalent of the Jewish Tetragrammaton YHWH, the name of God in the Old Testament—are often depicted. Jesus is thus always seen in his divine identity. Similarly, the liturgy consistently addresses the Virgin Mary as Theotokos (the "one who gave birth to God"), and this term, formally admitted as a criterion of orthodoxy at Ephesus, is actually the only "Mariological" (doctrine of Mary) dogma accepted in the Orthodox Church. It reflects the doctrine of Christ's unique divine Person, and Mary is thus venerated only because she is his mother "according to the flesh."

This emphasis on the personal divine identity of Christ, based on the doctrine of St. Cyril of Alexandria (5th century), does not imply the denial of his humanity. The anthropology (doctrine of man) of the Eastern Fathers does not view man as an autonomous being but rather implies that communion with God makes man fully human. Thus the human nature of Jesus Christ, fully assumed by the divine Word, is indeed the "new Adam" in whom the whole of humanity receives again its original glory. Christ's humanity is fully "ours"; it possessed all the characteristics of the human being—"each nature (of Christ) acts according to its properties," Chalcedon proclaimed, following Pope Leo—without separating itself from the divine Word. Thus, in death itself—for Jesus' death was indeed a fully human death—the Son of God was the "subject" of the Passion. The theopaschite formula ("God suffered in the flesh") became, together with the Theotokos formula, a standard of orthodoxy in the Eastern Church, especially after the second Council of Constantinople (553). It implied that Christ's humanity was indeed real not only in itself but also for God, since it brought him to death on the cross, and that the salvation and redemption of humanity can be accomplished by God alone—hence the necessity for him to condescend to death, which held humanity captive.

This theology of redemption and salvation is best expressed in the Byzantine liturgical hymns of Holy Week and Easter: Christ is the one who "tramples down death by death," and, on the evening of Good Friday, the hymns already exalt his victory. Salvation is conceived not in terms of satisfaction of divine justice, through paying the debt for the sin of Adam—as the medieval West understood it—but in terms of uniting the human and the divine with the divine overcoming human mortality and weakness and, finally, exalting man to divine life.

What Christ accomplished once and for all must be appropriated freely by those who are "in Christ"; their goal is "deification," which does not mean dehumanization but the exaltation of man to the dignity prepared for him at creation. Such feasts as the Transfiguration or the Ascension are extremely popular in the East precisely because they celebrate humanity glorified in Christ—a glorification that anticipates the coming of the Kingdom of God, when God will be "all in all."

Participation in the already deified humanity of Christ is the true goal of Christian life, and it is accomplished through the Holy Spirit.

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