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March 30, 2023

Faith and Works: An Orthodox Philokalic Perspective (4 of 6)

 ... continued from part three.

4. The Negative and Positive Dimension of the Ascetic Struggle

We now continue with the Orthodox position, as it is expressed through the Philokalic experience. Good works or, to express ourselves in the philological idiom, "acts" (praxis) as "work of the commandments" are not meritorious; however, they are certainly not useless or unprofitable. However, the "act" or good works are understood divinely and Christ-centeredly within a charismatic context as manifestations of "faith by grace" (Gregory of Sinai). In fact, Saint Mark appears to recognize a primarily negative function for them, in the sense that every virtue (even the death of the Martyrs!) is understood as a "prison of the purity given to us (meaning in Baptism)" and therefore as a free "abstinence from sin" and certainly not as "an exchange for the Kingdom".

A similar version will be put forward by Saint John of Damascus with the claim that "asceticism and its pains were not designed as a means for our attaining virtue which was foreign to our nature, but to enable us to cast aside the evil that was foreign and contrary to our nature" (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 58; cf. Saint Niketas Stethatos, Philokalia III, 289-290; Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Gregorii Nysseni Opera, IV 198).

This is a powerful theological insight: God is not a merchant or a moneylender, but our Lord Almighty and Savior through His Son in the Holy Spirit. God's saving economy for the redemption of the world from its enemy, the devil and sin, does not obey the rules of natural human logic and ethics. This truth is also summed up in the Apostle Paul's teaching about our justification "by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, nor of works, lest anyone boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).

In the life of grace, which the Lord gives to those baptized in faith through the Cross and His Resurrection and which He always initiates in the Eucharistic Supper, the believer is called to remain by activating his restored freedom. The believer died in Baptism according to the old man and increases in grace in the life of the Mysteries. The struggle to remain in the freedom of grace and to bear fruit in sanctification cannot but be a secret continuation of Baptism, a fruition of baptismal grace, which requires "work of the commandments". This struggle, even if it is described in a negative way by Saint Mark, nevertheless contains something extremely positive and dynamic, since it, like faith, is the fruit of grace and divine power ("Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." Rom. 12:2). However, this does not mean that asceticism and virtues acquire a meritorious character: they are "a work of nature, not an exchange for the Kingdom" and therefore "one cannot be sanctified apart from grace" (Philokalia I, 110).

This teaching acquires an unmistakably biblical and Pauline character: "For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Gal. 5:1).

This concept is at the heart of Orthodox soteriology and anthropology: Human freedom, which cooperates with grace, is not the fallen possibility of choice (the one trapped in the law of sin and death), but the restored freedom that naturally leads to the good (cf. G. D. Panagopoulos, Orthodox Dogma and Theological Modernization, Athens 2017).

The key here is given by the 4th and 6th Ecumenical Synods: Our nature together with our autonomous natural will is not healed through a created supernatural "quality", truly discerned by God, which is injected into our existence to accomplish meritorious wages. In Christ, our autonomous nature was deified "from the end of conception" hypostatically; in us it is healed and deified by an uncreated gift (the mystery of the Cross). In Christ, the communication of the attributes of His two natures is "by hypostasis"; in our own union with God it is per se a "relational exchange" (Maximus the Confessor, Epistle II, To John Koubikoularion).

Especially for the Mosaic Law now, Paul nowhere claims that it is bad, harmful or useless. On the contrary, he explicitly teaches that the Law is good and spiritual (Rom. 7:8: "the law is spiritual"), although it cannot justify, i.e. liberate and enliven the man "under the influence of sin" (Rom. 7:8). In fact, Paul clearly equates "righteousness" with enlivening, when he assures the Galatians that, if the Law had the power to enliven, then indeed righteousness would be of the Law (Gal. 3:21; cf. J. S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, Athens 1989). This became possible only through the whole life in the flesh, but mainly through the Cross and the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, Who thus "redeemed" us from the curse of the Law, not by setting aside or being indifferent to the Law, but by "fulfilling all justice" (cf. Matthew 3:15).

Thus Paul can claim that "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:2-4).

This means that through the Lord's death on the cross, the just demand of the Law ("the right of the law") is fulfilled for those who, through the mystery of Pentecost, in every place and time, reach the participation in the purifying, life-giving and theurgic energy of God in Christ. From this point of view, the Law was abrogated as to the curse under which people lived to the extent that they were unable to fully implement its commands (cf. Deut. 27:28). However, according to its spiritual nature, the Law was fulfilled in Christ and is fulfilled through the mystery of Pentecost in the Church of the incarnate Word to those who "by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body" (Rom. 8:13).

The Law, according to the Lord Himself, is condensed to the perfect love for God and neighbor (Mt 22:9-41, cf. Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). In the body of Christ, in the new Israel of grace, they are thus fulfilled in a new and absolutely real way, i.e. in the life of the Spirit, who bestows on us the vivification flowing from the Cross of the Lord and works on our increase in the fullness of selfless love. St. de Young (The Religion of the Apostles, in toto) inspiredly describes the Spirit fulfilling the Old Testament in the charismatic life of the Orthodox Church! Justification by faith and through grace, namely enlivening, Paul calls "the law of the life of the spirit."

This truth is expressed as the belief of the Orthodox Catholic Church by Patriarch Jeremiah II Tranos, in his Second Answer to the Lutheran theologians of Tübingen in 1579: "We do not merely say that those who obey the law shall be justified, but those who obey the spiritual law, which is understood spiritually and according to the inner man. Indeed, by fulfilling the law of the spirit as much as we are able, we will be justified and we will not fall from grace because the Cleansing Word has passed into the depths of the soul."

This is a Philokalic interpretation of the Pauline passage that we quoted above. Justification does not magically fall from the sky; it is a transfer by faith of those who are cleansed or purified according to the heart (the inner man!) to the grace of the Word through the Holy Spirit who "dwells in us". Therefore, faith cannot be "idle", nor works "without faith". Here the Patriarch, using a classic patristic formulation, aligns Paul with his brother James (cf. James 2:14).


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