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Person and Personality in Orthodox Teaching

Concerning the Concept of a "Personal Lord and Savior"

I was a little surprised when Archbishop Chrysostomos recently wrote me with some critical words about my experience of Jesus Christ as my personal Savior within the context of the Orthodox witness....It seems to me that accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior is what Christianity is really about....I find Jesus in Orthodoxy and I can find no reason to look at His saving Grace any differently now that I am Orthodox than when I was a Protestant. I am saved in Orthodoxy and rejoice in my Savior (Luke 1:47)....Could you explain why my language was described as missing the mark or off the mark—whichever? (P.L., IL)

We have asked His Eminence to respond to your comments and question:

In corresponding with you some time ago, I had occasion to chastise you for approaching the Orthodox Faith with a certain superficiality and without addressing the wholeness of the salvific experience that one finds in Orthodox theology. I will reiterate and expand on what I told you, hoping that you will reflect on these matters carefully. Firstly, as I pointed out to you earlier, the concepts of personhood and salvation in the Orthodox Church have absolutely nothing to do with these notions as Protestant Evangelicals understand them; and secondly, the separation of human salvation and the witness of the Church into two elements, if not the separation of salvation and personhood themselves, is wholly foreign to Orthodoxy. Salvation is the realization of personhood in Christ, through theosis (divinization by Grace), and Christ is not only the Church itself, as Father Florovsky has so clearly demonstrated from a Patristic standpoint (see, for example, his brilliant essay, Le Corps du Christ vivant: Une Interprtation orthodoxe de l Église Universelle [The Body of the Living Christ: An Orthodox Understanding of the Catholic Church] in the collection, La Saint Église Universelle [The Holy Catholic Church] [Neuchatel-Paris: Delachaux et Niestl, 1948]),1 but the very source, as Perfect God and Perfect man (Teleios Theos kai Teleios Anthropos), of our restoration to the image of God, or salvation.

I have often emphasized this point about the existential and wider dimensions of religious terminology in the Fathers of the Church, by recounting an astonishing incident in one of Father Florovsky's seminars, in 1976, at the Princeton Theological Seminary. In the course of a certain lecture, a seminary student—frustrated, I suspect, at the philosophical depth of Father Florovskys discussion of a certain Patristic point (in fact, he was, as I recall, discussing Origen)—raised his hand and rather boldly asked, What does all of this have to do with accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? There was a long pause, after which Father Georges, with a piercing glance, looked up at the student and said, with the frail voice that in those days betrayed his advanced age: Young man, I was converted to Jesus Christ, not to Protestant Evangelical piety. He then continued his lecture, without another comment. He no doubt thought that the matter was closed; his clumsy student, no doubt, understood nothing of what Father Georges had said.

That one confrontation has always encapsulated, for me, the vast distance which separates the experiential theology of the Fathers and the doctrinaire theology of Christian apologetics (what Father John Romanides, as we shall see below, calls polemical or dogmatic theology, without implying anything pejorative by the former word), if indeed one can dignify pietistic clichés such as the one in question—however sincerely proffered—with the word theology.

Let me elaborate on what I have said, by touching on the Orthodox meaning of the person and the relationship of personhood to salvation within the context of the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas. In this way, you will see vividly what I mean when I refer to your pietistic notion of personal salvation as superficial. It is, in fact, only by carefully defining our terminology in the language used by the Fathers—language rising out of their experience of God and the restoration of human personhood in Christ—that we can fully understand the profound dimensions of Scriptural references to Christ as our personal Savior and the experiential nexus between the person and salvation in Christ. When we turn to the living witness of the Fathers, we capture a fullness of Christian teaching that is neither related to the Evangelical understanding of personal salvation in Christ, nor in any manner captured by that understanding, save in the undoubtedly well-intentioned strivings of those who seek the ineffable within the tragically limited boundaries of an existential mystery reduced to a verbal affirmation.

I will begin my comments by translating and quoting two sections from a number of very insightful passages written by Metropolitan Ierotheos of Nafpaktos about St. Gregory Palamas theology and the theology of the Orthodox Fathers in general, which give us a grounding in understanding the experiential dimensions of true theology. These passages are found in His Eminence's excellent essay, He peri prosopou didaskalia kata ton Hagio Gregorio Palama (St. Gregory Palamas Teaching on the Person),2 in which he approaches the question of personhood somewhat differently—and with a different and more expansive aim—than I, but whose observations are wholly consistent with what I have to say.

Speaking of the theological methodology of St. Gregory Palamas, Metropolitan Ierotheos writes: St. Gregory Palamas was a synthetic theologian, in the sense that he knew all of the theology of the Orthodox Church and unceasingly directed its application to the needs of his age. The Holy Fathers of the Church always theologized in a synthetic and productive manner.3 This means that, having personal experience of God, they confronted the theological currents of their age from within their experience, which was, in actuality, the experience of the Church, employing even the nomenclature of heretics, but endowing it with a different content and a different meaning.4

Addressing directly a theology of experience derived from the vision of God, His Eminence notes that: Theology as a vision of God is one thing, as St. Gregory Palamas indicates in a number of places, and a theology which aims to express this experience in contemporary terms is quite another. Father John Romanides, in order to underscore the difference between these two different theologies, refers to empirical theology [a theology of experience] and dogmatic—polemical—theology. The first entails the vision of the Uncreated Light of God in the human Nature of the Logos, while the second entails the effort to convey this experience in the confrontation of heretics who [merely] philosophized about these serious matters of the Faith.5

Keeping in mind these general principles with regard to the source of genuine theology (empirical theology), let us examine what St. Gregory Palamas says about the person. To begin with, we must say something about the Orthodox understanding of man. Man exists both in essence and in hypostasis (and the word hypostasis is one which Palamas seems to prefer over the word person, having drawn much of his language in this regard from both St. Basil the Great and St. John of Damascus). The essence of man (bear in mind that this word derives ultimately from the verb to be, as Metropolitan Ierotheos reminds us) describes his state of being, which he shares with all others. His hypostasis (person), however, is that which distinguishes him from others. (Needless to say, one should not naïvely confuse the terms used here in describing the human being with the Hypostasis and Essence of God, which have wholly different meanings and which apply to God alone. The Essence of God is ineffable; and the Hypostasis of God is uncreated, while that of man is created.)

The human person is the hypostatic manifestation of the human essence, the realization of who a human being is as an individual: being, again, common in his essence but individual in his hypostasis or person, as St. Gregory Palamas affirms. It is primarily the human person to which the therapeutic and salvific methods of Hesychasm, as the spiritual teachings of Palamas are called, are directed. The cleaning and enlightenment of the individual human mind, the purification of the human heart, and the restoration of the passions (which have been misdirected and perverted, as a result of the Fall) constitute the Hesychastic way of life. And the way of life that effects these things leads to the restoration of the individual, the human person, who freely turns from a life of sin to one of synergy with God. In short, one can say, though risking theological difficulties in overstating this point, that the restoration of the human being in Christ centers on the person, on the restoration of the person, and on the cure of the process of disease which separates the individual from the full realization of his potential in Christ.

In the purest anthropology of the Fathers, expressed perfectly in the Hesychastic teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, we come to understand that the essence of man, his being, has been restored through the divinization of human nature by the Incarnation of Christ, Who, in His Resurrection, lifted human existence above what it was even before the Fall. The personal salvation of the human being lies in his free acceptance of the potential for restoration in Christ, his ascetic struggle to free himself from the taint and illness of sin, and his restoration of the human person, his hypostasis, through the vision of God. And this vision of God, according to St. Gregory Palamas, is communion with God, the divinization of the human person (theosis), and his union in energy with Christ. In this divinization by Grace, man comes to an intimate knowledge of God. His mind cleansed and enlightened, his heart purified, and his passions cleansed and directed towards the love and attainment of holiness, man finds salvation.

And once more, this salvation is personal, centered on the distinct human being who draws on his essence—renewed in Christ—and who, in his person, becomes a small Jesus Christ within Jesus Christ, to quote one Church Father. So it is that Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and our Savior. In this profound sense of the personal, and in an apocalyptic encounter with redemption (for salvation is closely united to spiritual vision and to the noetic revelation and knowledge of God), we find, through experience, what the more fundamentalistic Protestant Evangelicals understand only in empty form. We know through the attainment of true personhood in Christ, which is the enlightenment or salvation of man, what these seekers know only intellectually and in terms of a theology of affirmation and commitment crippled by the unrestored senses and passions.

It behooves me to note, here, that God transcends all human categories of thought, all human conceptualization, and even our understanding of His existence. The personal experience of the redemption of Christ, therefore, occurs beyond the dimensions of the human intellect, as I said above, since the true encounter with Christ is an encounter with God Himself. This encounter is the result of our union with God's Energies, and thus occurs noetically and spiritually, through the mind made new in Christ, the heart transformed by Grace, and the person restored to the image of God in union, by Grace, with the God-Man. Divine vision is, in effect, vision beyond vision, just as personhood in Christ is beyond the personal as we understand it, since the fallen personality is not a true person, but the product of passions and fallen proclivities.

In conclusion, I should emphasize that the therapeutic path towards the restoration of personhood in Christ is, and must be, focused, of course, on the life of the Mysteries, which are the very life of the Church and which cannot be separated from the Church in any manner whatsoever: among other things, the emptying-out (kenosis) of sin through confession and the infusion into our hearts, joints, and reins of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The spiritual faculty of man, the noetic faculty, having been displaced from its natural place in the heart, as St. Gregory Palamas teaches us, must be brought back into the heart, back to its natural place, so that the human person can be restored and, cleansed by the Mysteries, rise above his own nature, attaining what is above nature, transcending human nature through union with Christ. As a result of this, the human being transcends even his own person, his restoration in Christ touching on all mankind. Gaining the gifts of the Spirit, he sees all things clearly, not only for himself, as St. Gregory writes, but revealing what he sees to others, and thus helping them to gain their salvation through the vision of God.6 In this sense, Christ is not only our personal Lord and Savior, but He is also the Universal Person, Who renews us each individually and, so made manifest in us, reveals to us a far greater dimension of personal salvation than we can imagine.


1. I have rendered the French words properly here, and not with their English cognates, as translators far too often do, much to the detriment of their translated texts. This is an especially important issue with the works of Father Florovsky, who developed a very specific vocabulary, and especially in English (the language, incidentally, in which he preferred to write theology, on account of its richness), where he was able to use Greek and Latin freely and to define and employ words in a specifically Orthodox manner.

2. See his book, Metaxy dyo aionon (Between Two Centuries) (Lebadeia, Greece: Hiera Mone Genethliou tes Theotokou, 2000). This book contains, in addition to some superb essays on the theology of St. Gregory Palamas, a number of excellent essays on pastoral issues (some of which have appeared in other publications), as well as a series of essays on the contrasting political, social, and religious ideas and values that have formed the contemporary West and the Orthodox East. Drawing largely on the historiographical presuppositions of Father John Romanides and the idea that Roman Hellenism (Romiosyne) sharply separates the cultural and spiritual experience of the Orthodox East from that of the West, these latter essays entail, in some way, a deviation from the clear thought and precision that mark so many of Metropolitan Ierotheos works.

Romiosyne, the image of the Mediterranean hegemony which underlies the creation of modern European civilization and its scions in the New World (which are, however politically incorrect it may be to say so, European societies), is for me a concept that calls the East and West to commonality, not one which serves to alienate them, spawning unwise talk about two ways of life that somehow impinge on the very access of the human soul to the restorative qualities of Christian catholicism. A renewed view of the common heritage of the Christian East and West should not lead us to emphasize, as Metropolitan Ierotheos does in the essays in question, the separateness of the Eastern and Western experience, but to seek those ways in which Western Christianity, especially, may restore to the sometimes superficial shell of its Christian confessions the essence of Christianity which has been preserved within Orthodoxy. And in all humility, the Orthodox themselves, who are fiddling much of their time away in the pursuit of ecumenical contacts that do more, in the context of simplistic religious syncretism, to denigrate Orthodoxy than to rehabilitate Western Christianity, have much to do to restore their own understanding of the treasure of the Apostolic Church that they hold in their hands. Romiosyne provides us with an opportunity to discover, East and West together, a diamond that adorns the common crown of Christian civilization and which the Orthodox East has simply held in trust.

In support of my view, Father Florovsky has called the idea of a separated East and West an historical myth. Though political ecumenists have misinterpreted, misused, and exploited his statement in this respect, he emphasizes that the broken unity of Christianity cannot justify a notion of self-sufficiency on the part of the Orthodox East. (See Father Georges essay on this subject in his Collected Works [Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishers, 1985-], Vol. XIV, p. 210.) While the Church is not divided, Christendom has certainly been divided by the falling-away of the West. This is undeniable. It is incumbent upon us Orthodox, then, to call the lost sheep of the heterodox confessions to Orthodoxy, a task at which political ecumenism, by compromising the very self-identity of the Orthodox Church, has failed miserably and lamentably and a task little served by overstatements of that which divides the East and the West.

Certainly, Metropolitan Ierotheos agrees with, and has encouraged, the more enlightened and informed kind of vision that I have described, here. But it is this which makes all the more tragic some of the heavy wording in his essays on the Western Enlightenment and the Orthodox East, which seem to reflect something other than the universal, catholic experience of Romiosyne (which, after all, brought about the very cultures that we now separate into East and West with such unfounded facility).

3. The word synthetic is used here, of course, in its strict theological sense. His Eminence makes a very important point, since a number of contemporary theologians, and especially Russian theologians still under the influence of the Western Scholastic tradition, have suggested that St. Gregory Palamas theology represents a sudden deviation from traditional Orthodox theology. This accusation is, of course, without substance, both on the basis of an historical and theological analysis; but it is important, in response to this contention, that we emphasize that the Hesychastic tradition is nothing more than a synthesis (a collective integration), by Palamas, of what were the extant spiritual teachings of his age. Moreover, he expresses the timeless and ageless experience of the Eternal, as it is contained in the theological corpus of the Orthodox Church.

By productive theology, His Eminence is referring, as he indicates, to a theology which addresses the needs of any particular age. This creative process does not involve a new set of theological principles, but the expression of theological truths by the creative use of contemporary language, expressing what is ancient in new and contemporary words.

4. See Metaxy dyo Aionon, op. cit., pp. 217-218. By the nomenclature of heretics, His Eminence means the categories and terminology of classical Greek philosophies, which the Fathers baptized and adopted in their attempts to express the mysteries of the Christian Faith in the categories of human thought (e.g., the philosophical principles and language of Aristotelianism, Platonism, and so on).

5. Ibid., p. 219.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVII, Nos. 2 & 3 (2000), pp. 28-34.