Trampling Down Death: The fundamental theological difference between Christian East and West

Introduction

For those who are unfamiliar with the Orthodox Church, it is natural to assume her beliefs are similar to other churches; after all, for 1000 years there was only one Church, and many of the terms used are the same. Almost all Christian churches claim to hold to the Nicene Creed (which was written in 325 and 381 by Orthodox bishops). The common beliefs of this creed are:

  • The Oneness of God

  • God as a Trinity of three Persons – Father, Son and

  • Holy Spirit

  • The creation ex-nihilo (from nothing)

  • Jesus Christ as the incarnate, hypostatic God/Man

  • The virgin birth of Christ

  • Christ’s historical death, resurrection and ascension

With different theologies among churches in the West (Catholic and Protestant), the logical question is whether the Orthodox faith is closer to Protestant or Catholic beliefs. From an Orthodox perspective, Protestants and Catholics share more similarities with one another than either do with the Orthodox. Catholics and Protestants may differ on the answers, but they are asking the same questions. Orthodox ask different questions.

Where the Orthodox Church continues to follow the writings of the Early church fathers, Western (Protestant and Roman Catholic) theology has been influenced by two key people, Augustine, bishop of Carthage (354-430), and Anselm bishop of Canterbury (1033-1109).

The Problem: Sin or Death?

For those of us living in the West, it seems self evident that the Bible proclaims sin to be “THE” problem. However, the Early Church, (and the present Orthodox Church) regarded sin as a by-produce rather than the fundamental problem. This difference is in the interpretation of the consequences of the Fall, both to Adam and his descendants.

Both Western theology and Orthodoxy agree that Death is a result of the Fall. The critical issue involves the interpretation of Genesis 2:17.

East: For the Early church fathers, Death is the weapon of Satan intended to destroy God’s creation, which man (Adam) brought upon himself through his choice of disobedience. Adam and Eve introduced Death as a parasite upon all the Creation. Death and Satan together are enemies, which stand against and opposed to Man and God – the source of Life.

Because of the Fall, humanity changed, not just spiritually in relationship to God, but physically. Man’s very existence now becomes dependent upon spreading death: to the animals whose skins now clothe them, to the food they eat. Adam’s descendants are born into this state of corruption and death.

Sin is a problem, but one that must be understood in the context of Death. The church fathers demonstrated a keen understanding of psychology when they recognized that the fear of Death, with its companion Pride, is the motivation behind almost all sinful activity since the Fall. All sin is but an attempt to preserve one’s own life, either physically or emotionally, at the expense of others. From a baby’s cry for food to a tyrant’s genocide – we are all motivated by the perceived necessity to protect our own best interests.

death
The eastern problem

West: Augustine brought a new meaning to Genesis 2:17, when he translated it: “On the day that you eat of the fruit, I will kill you”. Augustine makes God the source and author of Death; it is God’s punishment for disobedience. It followed that since Death came from God, it cannot be evil, or an enemy. Thus the problem (and the only problem) is sin. All writers of theology and theological history agree that the phrase “Original Sin” first appears in the writings of Augustine. The doctrine of original sin attempted to explain how the actions of Adam and Eve could affect all of their descendants. The problem was particularly acute, because the answer had to explain how infants who have not actively and deliberately sinned (as did Adam and Eve) still suffer Death. The simple answer is found in McGuffey’s calvanistic catechetical phrase “In Adam’s Fall, we sinnèd all”. In other words, because we, as the seed of Adam, were present in Adam when he fell, and we inherited his guilt and/or propensity to sin. Hence, we are all subject to Death, which is the punishment of God. Sin is now seen as the barrier that separates us from God.

sin
The western problem

The Solution

East: The Orthodox solution is elegantly summed up in the traditional Paschal hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death; and upon those in the tombs, bestowing everlasting life.”

The problem we have is Death, and it follows that the solution to this problem is the destruction of Death. Out of love, Christ God entered into the creation and through His incarnation, fully became a part of it. Completely identifying himself with fallen mankind, he subjected himself to the same temptations of sin. Death swallowed up Christ, but was unable to contain the very Source of Life. Thus by Christ’s resurrection, he has raised all from Death to Life.

While Death has been defeated, it continues to exist by God’s permission for our benefit. Because Death exists, the corruption and sin in creation are not eternal. With the ‘sting’ of Death removed, it is even possible to be thankful when we watch someone we care for, with a debilitating or painful illness finally die. We know they are now free from the last earthly suffering of Death.

Eternity
The eastern solution

West: The solution in the West has taken several forms, almost all of which are variations of Anselm’s theology of atonement. Anselm, bishop of Canterbury, reasoned that our (Adam’s) sin offended God’s sense of righteousness. Since God is infinite, the offense is infinite; thus, no finite human could give God satisfaction for the offense. God cannot simply ignore or forgive the offense, as that would contradict his sense of justice. The solution was for the infinite Son of God to suffer the punishment of Death, and appease the wrath of God. By faith, we are then considered to have the righteousness of Christ before God (we appear righteous even though we do not change), and are freed from the punishment of Death.

Practically, the problem in the West is not so much sin, but God’s attitude; He is angry with us. We feel a need to placate God’s wrath but are incapable of doing so. It is the loving Jesus who must appease the angry Father.

Cross
The western solution

Starting Over

If this were a movie of Western theology, the credits would probably start rolling at this point. Whether looked at from its positive or negative aspects; in Western theology, once we are saved there is nothing else that we can add to God’s work. God created the universe, mankind fell, Christ died for our sins; and the plot is complete. The lights may fade slowly, and there may be a ‘teaser’ of heaven, but the story is over. For all the good and positive teaching about piety, sanctification, evangelism and charity; theologically these add nothing more to the plot of our salvation.

In an Orthodox movie the plot unfolds differently. The second act would have just completed with a rousing climax (the resurrection), but the main story line will be just re-starting. The sub-plot (Fall and restoration) is over, the main-plot, the disrupted story of Adam’s journey to perfection, is just about to resume again. Everything up to this point has been about how Adam and Eve fell from the path, and have been rescued and restored; however, the journey and goal still lie ahead.

The early church fathers generally understood that while Adam and Eve were complete before the Fall, they were not yet mature. They had been placed in the Garden to grow in understanding and spiritual maturity. Genesis does not state this directly, but there is a hint of this in the Gospel of Luke (2:40). It states that Christ, the ‘Second Adam’, “… grew, and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.” He did not spring from his mother Mary already physically and mentally mature; he came as an infant and grew.

In some ways, we face the same path that was presented to Adam and Eve; in other ways, it is entirely different. Their goal was to remain in Paradise and mature in the image of God; our Goal is to be united in Christ “theosis,” to become a new creation.

The first step in restarting this journey of theosis has two aspects: one negative and one positive. We continually turn away from our past entanglement with sin. We root out the remnant of our fear of death, which manifests itself as pride, anger and the whole host of self-centered desires. Simultaneously, we are learning to be like Christ, learning, by the grace of God, to unselfishly love others, even our enemies. We know now that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and we freely give ourselves and all that we possess to others.

The next step, while we continue with the first, is illumination: we experience the uncreated light of God – we participate in the energies of God, that is to say, in his life, power, grace and glory. Having been sufficiently cleansed from sin, a person is able to have a direct experience of Christ’s kingdom. At this point one enters into the contemplation of God and ceaseless prayer.

The last step in the journey of theosis is enlightenment – to directly know God (through grace, not in God’s unknowable essence). For the rare saints who have experienced enlightenment in this life, the distinction between earth and the heavenly kingdom fades.

Even here the journey is just beginning, for it lasts into all eternity.

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