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A famous story is told in the Russian Primary Chronicle how, in the tenth century, Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent representatives to the various countries of the world in search of the true religion for his people. After going to the Muslims in the Volga, the envoys observed that there was no joy among them, and so they left. Next they traveled to Germany and Rome, where the worship was more pleasing. But the services were said to have lacked beauty. Finally the messengers journeyed to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. As they observed the Divine Liturgy in the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, they discovered what they had longed for. "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported to Prince Vladimir, "for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you. All that we know is that God dwells there and their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty."
In this story, Bishop Kallistos Ware finds three characteristics of Orthodox Christianity that are particularly relevant to our essay. There is first the emphasis on spiritual beauty: "We cannot forget that beauty," declared the envoys. The power of perceiving the beauty and mystery of the spiritual world, and expressing that beauty in worship, seems to be the particular gift of the Orthodox Church. Second, Orthodox worship embraces two worlds at once: "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth." The liturgy is the place where heaven and earth join in common worship of the triune God. The third principle this story illustrates is that "the rule of prayer is the rule of faith" (lex orandi lex est credendi). True prayer reveals the true God. The very word orthodox signifies correct belief as well as correct worship. Doctrine is doxological. Truth is understood in the context of worship. Prayer and theology are inseparable and interdependent. When the Russians wanted to discover the true faith, they did not ask about moral principles or a rational defense of doctrine, important though they are. Instead, they observed the different nations at prayer. They saw how the Orthodox approach to faith is fundamentally a liturgical approach.
This story sets the tone for our essay. Our task is to describe Orthodox spirituality in terms of its key emphases, disciplines, and goals as they relate to the role of the church, Christ, and the Spirit in the life of the believer. Posing the task in this way is understandably necessary for the overall unity of this book. However, it presents us with a challenge. First, the Orthodox tradition is so vast that in order to achieve this goal, we must necessarily limit ourselves only to a selection of the most essential and abiding features of its spiritual life. This essay can offer no more than an overture to the larger score of the church's spiritual life. Our approach must also avoid describing Orthodox spirituality in a strictly systematic or scholastic way that might lead readers to think it can be reduced to a set of emphases and practices each believer is to follow. The nature of communion with God cannot be reduced to a list of propositions or spiritual practices that will automatically bring about the desired closeness to God and others. On the contrary, Orthodox spirituality is caught more than it is taught. It is relational more than it is legal. It is experienced more than it is analyzed. So the best we can do is to describe what spiritual life is all about as it is experienced within the total life of the church. Finally, although our essay will not be a "history of spirituality," we will draw our answers largely, though not exclusively, from the early and Byzantine church of the first fifteen centuries of Christian history. That is because the Orthodox Church today is thoroughly grounded in the classic expressions of Christian faith. The church sees herself as heir to a unified, consistent, and continuous tradition of faith that has been handed down from Jesus Christ to the apostles and church fathers through successive centuries.
The procedure will be as follows: We will start by defining "the gospel" as it has been understood in the Orthodox tradition. That definition is important because Orthodox spirituality is above all else a gospel spirituality. The gospel is like a mountain on which all the trees of the forest are planted. The individual trees of Orthodox spirituality—such as worship, sacraments, doctrine, and the like—must be rooted in the soil that gives them their life, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Too often we see the trees but overlook the mountain on which they rest. After describing the centrality of the gospel, we will turn next to the trees. The trees are the emphases and practices that have manifested that gospel within the life of the church (its liturgy, sacraments, doctrine, monastic life, and missions). Each tree will be examined in relation to the gospel and its contribution to spiritual formation. Finally, we will conclude by describing the ultimate goal to which all of Orthodox spirituality leads, namely, the deification or glorification of the believer. Together, the mountain and trees are the means by which our humanity is renewed and transfigured into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
The Centrality of the Gospel in Orthodox Spirituality
My friend and colleague, Scot McKnight, is an evangelical Christian. He is widely recognized as one of the top gospel scholars in the world today on the life of Jesus. In his new book The King Jesus Gospel, Scot critiques contemporary evangelicals as being "soterians" for reducing the gospel to the "gospel plan of salvation." By "soterians," he means those evangelicals who limit the gospel to what God has done for us on the cross and how we are to respond if we want to get saved. He believes evangelicals have reduced the life of Jesus to Good Friday and therefore reduced the gospel to the crucifixion and transactions of a Savior. McKnight believes this is the wrong definition of the gospel. Rather, the gospel is the whole life of Jesus, not just a part of it. The gospel writers were themselves "gospeling" through the retelling of the whole story of Jesus. And the story of Jesus, the second Adam, is about Jesus' kingdom vision and how he fulfilled the stories of Israel and creation. Thus, in Peter's sermon in the book of Acts,
Peter's gospeling ... involved telling the full Story of Jesus Christ, including his life, his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, his second coming, and the wrapping up of history so that God would be all in all. The reason we have to say this is because too often we have ...
reduced the life of Jesus to Good Friday, and therefore reduced the gospel to the crucifixion, and then soterians have reduced Jesus to transactions of a Savior.
Not so in the early gospeling, for in those early apostolic sermons we see the whole life of Jesus. In fact, if they gave an emphasis to one dimension of the life of Jesus, it was the resurrection ... The clearest example of Peter's whole-life-of-Jesus with an emphasis on cross-leading-to-resurrection gospel is seen at Acts 10:3642, and I would urge you to read this entirely and slowly.
McKnight's definition of the gospel comports well with the Orthodox vision. In Orthodoxy, the gospel is the saving message of the Bible as a whole. It is the whole story of Jesus and not just a part of it. The gospel includes Christ's connection with creation, with Adam, and with Israel. The good news of salvation comes from his eternal Trinitarian relations, his life, his death, his resurrection, his exaltation, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church at Pentecost, his ascension, his intercession, and his second coming. As Messiah and Savior, he is preeminently the crucified and risen Lord and Son of God. These are the many streams of the gospel that flow into the spiritual lives of Orthodox Christians.
Put succinctly, Orthodox spirituality is defined by the center of its faith, and that center is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why a book called the Book of the Gospels rests on the center of the altars of every Orthodox Church in the world. Its contents and location in the sanctuary bear witness to the church's priorities and focus. It is worth noticing that the Book of the Gospels does not contain the Old Testament or the epistles of the New Testament, but only the four gospels. On one side of the cover is an engraving of the crucifixion, and on the other side is the resurrection. The pages in between the two covers contain the story of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Book of the Gospels proclaims the centrality of the gospel as the heart of the Orthodox faith while emphasizing the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climactic events of his saving work.
It is correct, therefore, to describe Orthodox spirituality as thoroughly evangelical. Why? Because the gospel of Christ is the soul of the church. Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos, a senior professor of New Testament and Orthodox Spirituality at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary, is convinced that "at the core of the Orthodox tradition, whether we turn to the Eucharist or the lives of the great saints, the same truth has primacy, namely, Christ and the gospel ... The challenge of rediscovering the centrality of the gospel, as well as of energizing the evangelical ethos deeply enshrined in the Orthodox tradition, [is our highest task]." This is reinforced by a well-known but anonymous author simply named "A Monk of the Eastern Church":
There can be noticed all through Orthodox history the existence of a spirituality which we might call "evangelical." This spirituality takes care to identify Christian life neither with the rigorous asceticism of the desert nor with ritual worship; it lays stress on the spirit and virtues of the gospel, on the necessity of following Christ, on charity toward the poor and afflicted. St. John Chrysostom is the most eminent representative of this trend.
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, a nineteenth-century bishop of Russia, also makes an impassioned plea to monks, and to all Christians, to keep the gospel clear and central in all they do. It is the fundamental principle that is to guide their reading of the church fathers, saints, canons, and rules for worship. The gospel opposes legalism, rigidity, narrowness, and barren ritualism. Failure to follow this basic rule was the cause of the bishop's own problems given to him by "spiritual directors suffering from blindness and self-delusion."
Thus we see from the church's Book of the Gospels and the writings of its bishops, monks, and scholars that the gospel is the centerpiece of the Orthodox faith. If we lose sight of the gospel, we lose sight of everything the church has to offer.
Gospel Emphases and Spiritual Practices
Orthodox spirituality is above all else a gospel spirituality that is centered on Jesus Christ in his Trinitarian relations. By that I mean Orthodox spirituality can only be understood in the context of how Jesus Christ relates to the other members of the Trinity, namely, the Father and the Spirit. Christ, in his Trinitarian relations, is the focus of our life in God. As one of the Holy Trinity, Christ is the unifying medium through which the church interprets the whole range of Christian doctrine, worship, and spiritual life. This incarnational Trinitarian spirituality is expressed most fully in the church's liturgy, sacraments, dogmas, monastic life, and mission. Starting with the liturgy, we will now highlight some of the distinctive features within each of these areas to see how they work together in Orthodox spiritual formation.
Gospel Liturgies: A Paschal Spirituality that Celebrates the Victory of Christ over Sin, Death, and the Demonic
Liturgies are simply worship services of the church. They are the rituals that comprise preaching, prayer, and celebration of the sacraments. The centrality of the gospel in the worshiping life of the church is best summed up in the word pascha or Easter. Pascha is a Greek term that means "Passover." It emphasizes Jesus' completion of Israel's story by dying on the cross and rising victoriously from the grave in order to deliver humanity and all of creation from bondage to sin, death, and Satan. Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos sees the gospel in numerous hymnological passages of the New Testament, such as John 1:118; Philippians 2:611; and the doxologies of the book of Revelation. Liturgical confessions of faith pertaining to the good news of God's saving work through Christ are also seen in the sacramental passages of John 6:2570; Romans 6:112; and 1 Corinthians 10 and 11.
In subsequent centuries after the apostolic age, the gospel continued to be presented through ancient hymns, some of which are still used in Orthodox worship today, such as the doxological song to the Holy Trinity known as the Trisagion Prayer: "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One: have mercy on us." Another hymn titled "Only-Begotten Son" proclaims the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and exalts him as "one of the Holy Trinity." Then there is the hymnographical cycle in church worship (the eight tones) that has developed over the centuries. The weekly hymns for Saturday vespers and Sunday matins are heavily resurrectional in emphasis as they set forth the gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ that goes back to the apostle Paul (for example, 1 Corinthians 15:1–8). An excerpt from the lyrics of the Matins hymn praises the death and resurrection of Christ:
Though the tomb was sealed by a stone and soldiers guarded Your pure body, You arose, O Savior, on the third day, giving life to the world. Therefore, O Giver of life, the heavenly powers praise You: glory to Your resurrection, O Christ, glory to Your kingdom, glory to Your plan of redemption, O loving God.
You were nailed upon the cross willingly, O Merciful One, and were placed in a grave as dead, O Giver of life. You trampled the power of death by Your death, O Mighty One. The gates of hell trembled before You and You raised with You those who were dead for ages, O loving God.
Stylianopoulos goes on to note:
Sometimes one hears or reads about a false generalization that Eastern Orthodoxy features a "theology of the resurrection" as compared to the "theology of the cross" of the Western Christian tradition. In fact Orthodoxy has a profound vision of the cross both in worship and spirituality. Orthodoxy knows no resurrection without the cross and no cross without resurrection, vieweing these redemptive events as inseparable.
Excerpted from Four Views on Christian Spirituality Copyright © 2012 by Bruce Demarest, Bradley Nassif, Scott Hahn, Joseph Driskill, and Evan Howard. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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