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Repost — Review: Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis by Norman Russell

I wrote this review about a year and a half ago for a group blog that I’ve discovered has closed up shop. So, here it is again.

There’s a reason I’m a historian and not a theologian – or a philosopher, for that matter.

See, I’m a pretty simple guy at heart – I like narrative. I like characters. I like finding out what happened next. As soon as people start talking about contemplating the Godhead or mystical union or appropriation of the means of production or things like this, my eyes glass over until something shiny crosses my field of vision. Somebody Who Is A Big Name once gave me advice that I should try to figure out how to incorporate Hans Urs von Balthasar into my research interests if I really wanted them to be marketable; I got about thirty pages into the first volume of The Glory of the Lord when I had to put it down and admit I didn’t understand a word.

From that standpoint, I think I’m a member of the target audience for Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). Dr. Peter Bouteneff’s foreword says that the book is the product of “a specialist [who] cares enough to rethink [his] subject in non-specialist terms,” and I am definitely a non-specialist.

So what is this non-specialist’s verdict? Well… I can’t say I know any more about the theology of theosis than I did before I started the book, but that’s not Russell’s fault, that’s just a result of me not being terribly smart. However, as a historian, the book is very useful to me as an outline of the major contributors over the centuries to the understanding of what theosis is, and how they differ from one another.

Or is it? This is the problem with being a non-specialist reviewing a book for a non-specialist. I have to take the book’s word for it, for the most part.

At any rate, the overall project of the book is to be a general resource on theosis – what it is, the history of how Orthodox Christians talk about it, who has clarified which idea, and who agrees with whom and who doesn’t. It also spends time discussing how contemporary Orthodox theologians are looking at the issue, and also at least tries to move theosis out of the theoretical realm and to examine just what it means as a practical matter of day-to-day life.

Russell’s core argument is that theosis was a concept that was not fully articulated until St. Gregory Palamas, it was not fully articulated because it was not a matter of controversy until his time (with Russell arguing that all the elements of theosis were in place as normative for Orthodox Christians by the fourth century), and even so it has only been in the last four decades or so that it has taken center stage as a “common expression summarizing the whole economy [of] salvation.” Within the discussion, from the New Testament to the early Fathers, from them to Palamas, and from Palamas to Metropolitan John (Zizoulas) and Fr. John Behr, while there may be disagreement in the particulars of how theosis is described, Russell nonetheless sees a fundamental conceptual unity and convergence.

The structure of Russell’s presentation appears to be to deal with aspects of theosis in order of increasing complexity, which is perhaps why my copy is underlined less and less in later pages. The first question is, of course, is “what is theosis?” with an implied “why do we care?” Russell’s working definition is as follows:

Theosis is our restoration as persons to integrity and wholeness by participation in Christ through the Holy Spirit, in a process which is initiated in this world through our life of ecclesial communion and moral striving and finds ultimate fulfillment in our union with the Father – all within the broad context of the divine economy.

Okay – my eyes didn’t glass over too badly, so I guess that will work. Why do we care? Well, we care because, as stated above, this is the “ultimate fulfillment in our union with the Father”, our end goal as Christians.

From that starting point, Russell works through reasonably concrete questions of the relationship between theosis and salvation and how this relationship is situated within the divine economy, the scriptural foundations of theosis, and the impact of theosis on notions of Christian anthropology. In the last third of the book or so, Russell turns more to questions of a very speculative nature – self-transcendence, participation in the divine life, and union with God. (And before anybody yells at me for just quoting the last three chapter titles, it’s just about the best I can do with this section of the book. Passages like this one from the chapter on self-transcendence are why I’m not a theologian: “This ultimate unity is unity with the divine and yet it is not a unity with anything outside ourselves. It is when the self knows itself in a direct and immediate way that it ‘sees’ the divine.” Uh, okay.)

Thankfully, the epilogue, titled “Do You Live It?” tries to provide something of a practical framework for the more rarefied speculations:

The face that theosis encompasses the whole of the economy of salvation means that it is intended for all believers without exception. To live theosis, then, means to lead our life in an eschatological perspective within the ecclesial community, striving through prayer, participation in the Eucharist, and the practice of the moral life to attain the divine likeness, being conformed spiritually and corporeally to the body of Christ until we are brought into Christ’s identity and arrive ultimately at union with the Father.

And Russell must have known there would be a none-too-bright historian whose eyebrows would be crinkling with the strain of almost getting it, because he finishes the paragraph by saying:

In simpler terms, it means for an Orthodox Christian to live as a faithful member of the Church, attending the Liturgy, receiving the sacraments and keeping the commandments. Nothing more – or less – than that.

The book has a number of strengths; Russell appears to have a great deal of facility with the relevant authors, ancient and modern, and this combined with his organizational structure makes the book accessible and informative either as a whole or in distinct parts. He is also able to adduce evidence that goes beyond literary sources, iconographic and liturgical evidence for example, in a manner that is convincing and helpful. From that perspective, Fellow Workers With God is a useful quick-and-dirty introduction to the historian who needs a rundown of certain concepts and people without getting too confused by the theology; it does not shy away from the theology, however, so it would also seem appropriate as an introductory text for somebody just getting their feet wet in the world of Orthodox theology.

The prospective reader should be aware that this is certainly a St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press publication, for better or for worse (depending on the reader, of course). Among other things, I suspect that Russell will draw criticism from some circles in how he treats St. Dionysius the Areopagite; he follows academic convention in drawing a distinction between the disciple of St. Paul and the author of Celestial Hierarchies. Perhaps this may be seen as tempered by the amount of ink he gives Fr. Dumitru Staniloe, who evidently argued against the later dating of Celestial Hierarchies. I am also not familiar enough with contemporary theologians to know if those whom Russell examines in taking the present pulse of the question represent a group weighted too far in a particular direction. Certainly the citation of Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos), who has apparently suggested that theosis is “a fundamental human right” which thus “cannot remain the exclusive possession of the Orthodox”, leaves me scratching my head a bit. On the other hand, Russell quickly follows that up by reaffirming that “it is only within the Orthodox perspective… that theosis acquires its full theological, spiritual, and ecclesial dimensions.”

I don’t think that this will be a work that will be altogether convincing to scholars who are not already inclined to be sympathetic to the concept; Russell is rather too up front about the amount of human participation assumed in theosis to be able to assuage Calvinists, for example. In the epilogue, Russell references “Lutherans [who] have studied the notion of theosis closely to see how it can enrich their ideas of sanctification and justification,” but the obvious next two questions – which Lutherans, and how many – aren’t answered with any clarity. From this standpoint, it is unfortunate, if ultimately not problematic from a standpoint of Tradition or even in terms of how Russell handles the matter, that one of the shortest chapters in the body of the book is “The Biblical Foundations of Theosis,” clocking in at a mere sixteen pages.

In conclusion, this is a book that, for my purposes, was quite informative and will bear re-reading as a reference. I still can’t quite engage the guts of the subject matter, and I’m not sure I ever will, but I’m at least more informed than I was. I’m not sure that Russell’s work contributed to my theosis, but perhaps my review may contribute to his.

Recommended.

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