Posts Tagged 'theosis'

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.



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

I would like to note that I participated in what was originally going to be a group book review of Owen the Ochlophobist’s, but which ultimately because a review symposium hosted by Unmercenary Readers. We all read Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers With God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, and the reviews are being posted this week. Mine is now up.

I had to get a bit tough with them; they tried to force me to use a pseudonym. I pointed out that article #8 of their own manifesto encourages, but expressly does not require, pseudonyms, but suggested “Vassilis Taraxopoios” if they had to use something (a literal translation of the meaning of “Richard Barrett” into Greek — “King Troublemaker”). They were somewhat abashed at having their own manifesto used against them and consequently left it up to me. I had always intended to run it under my own name, and said so. I will be curious to see if I am the only one who does so, and further curious to see if the exercise causes them to revise their manifesto.

Things you think about when you’re trying not to fall

This morning was the first frost in Bloomington, Indiana — or, at the very least, the first at our house. This is a relatively early first frost; I’m more accustomed to it staying hot until sometime in November, at some point during which God hits a switch and the temperature drops fifty degrees in a week. Given that my ancestors, centuries ago, were roaming the frozen wastes of Scandinavia wearing fur loincloths and swinging battleaxes, and that I’ve inherited their programming to stay perfectly comfortable in cold temperatures while wearing shorts and a t-shirt, as well as having to face the unpleasant corollary that above 75 degrees Fahrenheit I tend to be very uncomfortable no matter how little I’m wearing, I am very, very, very much okay with an early frost. The nice thing about cold weather is that you can always put more on. Hot weather… well, not so much. There’s only so much you can take off. (And trust me, you’re thankful for that — very very very thankful.)

What I emphatically don’t like is getting to the top step of my front porch on my way out to the car and realizing, in rapid succession, a) the first frost has arrived very much unannounced and b) I need to grab onto something very quickly. I am not one normally given to quoting John Mayer, but gravity, stay the hell away from me. Otherwise, I will be in repair (again).

For those who have asked — I do not, as of yet, have any information on the outcome of Fr. John Peck’s 16 October meeting with Metropolitan Gerasimos. All I know is that Fr. John is still listed here on the Prescott Orthodox Church website as the priest. Once I hear something I will post it (if I can).

A couple of links to pass along — Anna passed along the article “Keeping the End in View” by James R. Payton, Jr., over at Christianity Today. Prof. Payton, a Protestant, is also the author of Light From the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition, a book which I have not yet read myself, but I have heard Orthodox say that it is a better introduction to Orthodoxy than some books by Orthodox authors. (One hopes that he has less in common with Daniel Clendenin than with, say, Met. Kallistos Ware.) The article is an examination of the Orthodox Christian understanding of “theosis,” comparing it to how Protestants understand conversion, justification, and sanctification as “phases” of salvation. In general, Prof. Payton treats the Orthodox position quite favorably, but there are two points I’d like to mention.

In Orthodox teaching, “image” and “likeness” are not the same: the first is gift, the second, goal.

This is a matter of some imprecision; it’s not called “Orthodox teaching,” it’s called “the Greek language.” εἰκών and ὁμοίωσις are the words in question, and as even a cursory examination of their entries in either Liddell-Scott or BDAG shows pretty quickly, these are different words with related-but-different meanings, and authors do not use them interchangeably. This has nothing to do with “Orthodox teaching” except insofar as Orthodox teaching reflects how the Greek Fathers use the words. “Policy” and “law” are English words which have related but ultimately different meanings, for example. If a German author wrote that “In American politics, ‘law’ and ‘policy’ are not the same…” it would be a similar situation. It’s an issue of what the words mean, not an issue of how they’re treated by a particular group of people.

While evangelicals can learn from the Orthodox, it is fair to note that Orthodox believers can learn from us, too. The Eastern presentation of salvation can smudge the distinct steps of salvation. Justification and sanctification often get folded into the broader concept of theosis, and they become so blurred that Orthodox believers often don’t know what to make of the terms. They would be well served by an explanation of how the steps of salvation as presented in apostolic teaching fit into the larger package of divinization.

While appreciating Prof. Payton’s open-minded, open-armed approach and thus being willing to lay aside concerns about how patronizing this paragraph might be, I will suggest that he fails to mention that the issues he brings up are addressed by the participation of the Orthodox Christian in the sacramental life of the Church. I assume he knows this, and that this is a concept which probably will sail right over the heads of most CT readers, so I can understand why he doesn’t go there, but ultimately the picture he paints is misleading.

I would also direct your attention to the paper, “Approaching the Educated Person in the Post-Christian Era” by Abp. Lazar Puhalo (ret., OCA). I don’t necessarily agree with every point, but I think it’s worth reading and discussing. I might have more to say about it later.

Current reading: The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, by George H. Nash. Whether one agrees with everybody he describes or not, the story he tells is fascinating. I may have more to say about this later.

By the way, I’m considering participating in NaNoWriMo for purposes of finishing a first draft of a particular writing project of mine. I’m not sure I’d quite hit 50,000 words, but I’d have a draft finished finally, after four years of picking away at something.

I’ll wrap this up for now by saying that my application for West European Studies has been submitted, and that now it’s just a matter of my letters of recommendation rolling in. Hopefully I’ll know something soon. In the meantime, another option has come up in terms of a departmental home, and the person who suggested it did so unprompted. I don’t want to say much more about it for the time being. For right now I’ll just say that I’m flipping two coins, West European Studies and this other possibility, and we’ll see what comes up. Maybe both will come up heads, in which case I’m decidedly not opposed to leaving IU with more rather than less. Maybe both will come up tails, and I really will have to leave here with 30+ worthless graduate credits. We’ll see. Meanwhile, a near-annual conversation with a particular faculty member about said options has led to this person dubbing me a “professional applicant.” I suppose he/she isn’t wrong.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be prepared for the frost.

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