Posts Tagged eastern orthodox theology
Kyriacos C. Markides (b. 1942) – Dr. Markides is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine. He has written several books on Christian mysticism including Mountain of Silence (2001), Gifts of the Desert (2005), and Inner River (2012). Dr. Markides is a contributor to Transpersonal Psychology, a sub-field or “school” of psychology that integrates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology. Based on the early works of Carl Jung, William James, and Abraham Maslow, it is also possible to define Transpersonal Psychology as a “spiritual psychology”. Dr. Markides is trying to introduce Eastern Orthodox Mysticism into Western secular Psychology, something that is long overdue and desperately needed.
I attach a paper written by Dr. Markides and published in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, in 2008 (Vol. 40, No. 2). It is entitled, “Eastern Orthodox Mysticism and Transpersonal Theory”. As a “teaser” to the paper, I include Dr. Markides’ abstract:
ABSTRACT: Christianity has remained relatively peripheral to the intellectual processes that shaped transpersonal theory. Eastern religions on the other hand provided the base upon which transpersonal theory was founded and developed. Spiritual traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism paved the way towards the exploration of states of consciousness beyond the rational mind. My basic claim in this paper is that the eastern branch of Christianity, or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has preserved and developed over the centuries a mystical theology and practice that may enrich and perhaps expand what eastern religions have contributed so far to the emergence of transpersonal theory. This paper is an introduction to the mystical pathways of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It is informed by seminal literature and scriptures, several years of participant observation and depth interviews of Eastern Orthodox practitioners (mystics, monks and hermits), and complemented by experiential data related to my own journey of discovery.
Click on the blue hyperlink or the graphic, below, to open Dr. Markides paper:
Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov), (1807–1867) – was a bishop and theologian of the Russian Orthodox Church. His two most important books translated into English are: The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism; and On the Prayer of Jesus.
“The correct practice of the Jesus Prayer proceeds naturally from correct notions about God, about the most holy name of the Lord Jesus, and about man’s relationship to God.
Approach Prayer with Humility
God is an infinitely great and all-perfect being. God is the Creator and Renewer of men, Sovereign Master over men, angels, demons and all created things, both visible and invisible. Such a notion of God teaches us that we ought to stand prayerfully before Him in deepest reverence and in great fear and dread, directing toward Him all our attention, concentrating in our attention all the powers of the reason, heart, and soul, and rejecting distractions and vain imaginings, whereby we diminish alertness and reverence, and violate the correct manner of standing before God, as required by His majesty (John 4:23-24; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27). St. Isaac the Syrian put it marvelously: “When you turn to God in prayer, be in your thoughts as an ant, as a serpent of the earth, like a worm, like a stuttering child. Do not speak to Him something philosophical or high-sounding, but approach Him with a child’s attitude” (Homily 49). Those who have acquired genuine prayer experience an ineffable poverty of the spirit when they stand before the Lord, glorify and praise Him, confess to him, or present to Him their entreaties. They feel as if they had turned to nothing, as if they did not exist. That is natural. For when he who is in prayer experiences the fullness of the divine presence, of Life Itself, of Life abundant and unfathomable, then his own life strikes him as a tiny drop in comparison to the boundless ocean. That is what the righteous and long-suffering Job felt as he attained the height of spiritual perfection. He felt himself to be dust and ashes; he felt that he was melting and vanishing as does snow when struck by the sun’s burning rays (Job 42:6).
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine name. The power and effect of that name are divine, omnipotent and salvific, and transcend our ability to comprehend it. With faith therefore, with confidence and sincerity, and with great piety and fear ought we to proceed to the doing of the great work which God has entrusted to us: to train ourselves in prayer by using the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “The incessant invocation of God’s name,” says Barsanuphius the Great, “is a medicine which mortifies not just the passions, but even their influence. Just as the physician puts medications or dressings on a wound that it might be healed, without the patient even knowing the manner of their operation, so also the name of God, when we invoke it, mortifies all passions, though we do not know how that happens” (421st Answer).
Our ordinary condition, the condition of all mankind, is one of fallenness, of spiritual deception, of perdition. Apprehending—and to the degree that we apprehend, experiencing—that condition, let us cry out from it in prayer, let us cry in spiritual humility, let us cry with wails and sighs, let us cry for clemency! Let us turn away from all spiritual gratifications, let us renounce all lofty states of prayer of which we are unworthy and incapable! It is impossible “to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (Ps. 136:5), in a heart held captive by passions. Should we hear an invitation to sing, we can know surely that it emanates “from them that have taken us captive” (Ps. 136:3). “By the waters of Babylon” tears alone are possible and necessary (Ps. 136:1).
Rule for Practicing the Jesus Prayer
This is the general rule for practicing the Jesus Prayer, derived from the Sacred Scriptures and the works of the Holy Fathers, and from certain conversations with genuine men of prayer. Of the particular rules, especially for novices, I deem the following worthy of mention.
St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it (Step XXVIII, ch. 17). Such a mechanism of prayer is remarkably helpful and suitable. When the mind, in its own manner, acquires attentiveness, then the heart will join it with its own offering— compunction. The heart will empathize with the mind by means of compunction, and the prayer will be said by the mind and heart together.
Do Not Hurry
The words of the prayer ought to be said without the feast hurry. even lingering, so that the mind can lock itself into each word.
Persevere bring attention Back to the Words when the Mind wanders
St. John of the Ladder consoles and instructs the coenobitic… “God does not expect a pure and undistracted prayer. Despair not should inattention come over you! Be of cheerful spirit and constantly compel your mind to return to itself! For the angels alone are not subject to any distraction” (Step IV, ch. 93). “Being enslaved by passions, let us persevere in praying to the Lord: for all those who have reached the state of passionlessness did so with the help of such indomitable prayer. If, therefore, you tirelessly train your mind never to stray from the words of the prayer, it will be there even at mealtime. A great champion of perfect prayer has said: ‘I had rather speak five words with my understanding … than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue’ (I Cor. 14:19). Such prayer,” that is, the grace-given prayer of the mind in the heart, which shuns imaginings, “is not characteristic of children; wherefore we who are like children, being concerned with the perfection of our prayer,” that is, the attentiveness which is acquired by locking the mind into the words of the prayer, “must pray a great deal. Quantity is the cause of quality. The Lord gives pure prayer to him who, eschewing laziness, prays much and regularly in his own manner, even if it is marred by inattention” (The Ladder, Step XXVI11, ch. 21).
It Takes Time
Novices need more time in order to train themselves in prayer… Asceticism needs both time and gradual progress, so that the ascetic can mature for prayer in every respect. In order that a flower might bloom or the fruit grow on a tree, the tree must first be planted and left to develop; thus also does prayer grow out of the soil of other virtues and nowhere else… Pulled hither and thither by its acquired predilections, impressions, memories and worries, the novice’s mind constantly breaks its salvific chains and strays from the narrow to the wide path. It prefers to wander freely, to stroll in the regions of falsehood in association with the fallen spirits, to stray aimlessly and mindlessly over great expanses, though this be damaging to him and cause him great loss. The passions, those moral infirmities of human nature, are the principal cause of inattentiveness and absentmindedness in prayer. The more they are weakened in a man, the less is he distracted in spirit when praying. The passions are brought under control and mortified little by little by means of obedience, as well as by self-reproach and humility—these are the virtues upon which successful prayer is built. Concentration, which is accessible to man, is granted by God in good time to every struggler in piety and asceticism who by persistence and ardor proves the sincerity of his desire to acquire prayer.
Begin by saying the Prayer Aloud
The Russian hieromonk Dorotheus, a great instructor in spiritual asceticism, who was in this respect very much like St. Isaac the Syrian, counsels those who are learning the Jesus Prayer to recite it aloud at first. The vocal prayer, he says, will of itself turn into the mental.
After much vocal prayer there comes Mental Prayer
“Mental prayer,” he continues, “is the result of much vocal prayer, and mental prayer leads to the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer should not be said in a loud voice but quietly, just audibly enough that you can hear yourself.,’ It is particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when assailed by distraction, grief, spiritual despondency and laziness. The vocal Jesus Prayer gradually awakens the soul from the deep moral slumber into which grief and spiritual despair are wont to thrust it. It is also particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when attacked by images, appetites of the flesh, and anger; when their influence causes the blood to boil. It should be practiced when peace and tranquility vanish from the heart, and the mind hesitates, becomes weak, and—so to speak—goes into upheaval because of the multitude of unnecessary thoughts and images. The malicious princes of the air, whose presence is hidden to physical sight but who are felt by the soul through their influences upon it, hearing as they mount their attack the name of the Lord Jesus—which they dread—will become undecided and confused, and will take fright and withdraw immediately from the soul. The method of prayer which the hieromonk suggests is very simple and easy. It should be combined with the method of St. John of the Ladder: the Jesus Prayer should be recited loud enough that you can hear yourself, without any hurry, and by locking the mind into the words of the prayer. This last, the hieromonk enjoins upon all who pray by Jesus’ name….
Establish a Daily Rule for Prostrations
The novice who is studying the Jesus Prayer will advance greatly by observing a daily rule comprising a certain number of full prostrations and bows from the waist, depending upon the strength of each individual. These are all to be performed without any hurry, with a repentant feeling in the soul and with the Jesus Prayer on the lips during each prostration…. Twelve prostrations suffice in the beginning. Depending upon one’s strength, ability and circumstances, that number can be constantly increased. But when the number of prostrations increases, one should be careful to preserve the quality of one’s prayer, so that one not be carried away by a preoccupation with the physical into fruitless, and even harmful, quantity. The bows warm up the body and somewhat exhaust it, and this condition facilitates attention and compunction. But let us be watchful, very watchful, lest the state pass into a bodily preoccupation which is foreign to spiritual sentiments and recalls our fallen nature! Quantity, useful as it is when accompanied by the proper frame of mind and the proper objective, can be just as harmful when it leads to a preoccupation with the physical. The latter is recognized by its fruits which also distinguish it from spiritual ardor. The fruits of physical preoccupation are conceit, self-assurance, intellectual arrogance: in a word, pride in its various forms, all of which are easy prey to spiritual deception. The fruits of spiritual ardor are repentance, humility, weeping and tears. The rule of prostrations is best observed before going to sleep: then, after the cares of the day have passed, it can be practiced longer and with greater concentration…. Prostrations stimulate a prayerful state of the mind and mortify the body as well as support and strengthen fervor in prayer.
These suggestions are, I believe, sufficient for the beginner who is eager to acquire the Jesus Prayer. “Prayer,” said the divine St. Meletius the Confessor, “needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher.” The Holy Fathers, who have written many works on prayer in order to impart correct notions and faithful guidance to those desiring to practice it, propose and decree that one must engage in it actively in order to gain experiential knowledge, without which verbal instruction, though derived from experience, is dead, opaque, incomprehensible and totally inadequate. Conversely, he who is carefully practicing prayer and who is already advanced in it, should refer often to the writings of the Holy Fathers about prayer in order to check and properly direct himself, remembering that even the great Paul, though possessing the highest of all testimonies for his Gospel—that of the Holy Spirit— nevertheless went to Jerusalem where he communicated to the apostles who had gathered there the Gospel that he preached to the gentiles, “lest by any means,” as he said, “I should run, or had run, in vain ” (Gal. 2:2).”
Translated by Stephen Karganovic from The Alphabet of Orthodox Life, Belgrade, 1974. This appeared in Orthodox Life, vol. 28, no. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1978, pp. 9-14. Reprinted with permission.
“Thus, St. Thomas will say, ‘Concerning God, one cannot say what God is, but only what God is not.’ In this manner the apophatic way recalls the transcendence of God, that divine otherness which neither the mind, nor the senses of anything can grasp. […] Apophasis is the direct apprehension of the Real just as it is, without the projections of the discursive mind that distort the Real. It is to see without eyes, to comprehend without the mind.”
“Proceeding directly from this apophatic tradition, hesychasm will be profoundly Christocentric. Without Christ, in fact, divinization is not possible. Christ’s incarnation establishes the full communion between God and humanity. God became human so that humans might become God. ‘God became the bearer of flesh so that humanity might become the bearer of the Spirit’, said Athanasius of Alexandria. […] This paradoxical union, which is realized in the Spirit, recreates us in the image and likeness of the Son of God. Humanity rediscovers the beauty for which it was created.”
“This union also leads the hesychasts to affirm with Gregory of Palamas the reality of the experience of God, while continuing to affirm His transcendence. […] Two affirmations characterize hesychastic experience: the affirmation of divine transcendence, of God’s inaccessible essence, and the nearness of God, God’s immanence and presence in each of us, the divinization of humanity through the energies of the Word and the Spirit.” From, Being Still, pp. 56, 59, 61, 62, 64
Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet (1949-) – is a French Orthodox researcher who is one of the foremost Orthodox Patristics scholars writing today.
“By His Incarnation, Christ has overthrown the barrier which separated our nature from God and has opened that nature once more to the deifying energies of uncreated grace. By his redemptive work, He has freed us from the tyranny of the devil and destroyed the power of sin. By His death, He has triumphed over death and corruption. By His resurrection, He has granted us new and eternal life. And it is not only human nature, but also the creation as a whole which Christ heals and restores, by uniting it in Himself with God the Father, thereby abolishing the divisions and ending the disorders that reigned within it because of sin.” From The Theology of Illness, pp. 40, 41.
Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia – (b. 1934) is a titular metropolitan of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain. From 1966-2001, he was Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford University, and has authored numerous books and articles pertaining to the Orthodox faith.
“The true aim of theology is not rational certainty through abstract arguments, but personal communion with God through prayer.”
– Met. Kallistos Ware
Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) – (1945- ) is a Greek Orthodox metropolitan and theologian. He graduated from the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki and is one of the finest Patristic scholars living.
“Man has two cognitive centers. One is the nous, the organ suited for receiving God’s revelation which is then formulated by our reason, while the other is reason, which knows the tangible world around us. With our nous we acquire knowledge of God, while with our reason we acquire knowledge of the world and the learning offered by the science of sensory things.” From The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, trans by Esther Williams, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1998. p. 28
John Romanides (1927 – 2001) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian theologian, priest, and writer. He was Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, MA and later Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
“The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul. The Church has always considered the soul as the part of the human being that needs healing because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning. They used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know when this change in meaning took place, because we know that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions in the region of the heart.
So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.
We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the Apostle Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit,” he means what the Fathers mean when they say, “I will pray with the nous.” And when he says, “I will pray with the nous,” he means “I will pray with the intellect (dianoia).” When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word “spirit.” When he says “I will pray with the nous, I will pray with the spirit” or when he says “I will chant with the nous, I will chant with the spirit,” and when he says “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” he uses the word “spirit” to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason.
In his phrase, “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” St. Paul speaks about two spirits: the Spirit of God and the human spirit. By some strange turn of events, what St. Paul meant by the human spirit later reappeared during the time of St. Makarios the Egyptian with the name nous, and only the words logos and dianoia continued to refer to man”s rational ability. This is how the nous came to be identified with spirit, that is, with the heart, since according to St. Paul, the heart is the place of man’s spirit.
Thus, for the Apostle Paul reasonable or logical worship takes place by means of the nous (i.e., the reason or the intellect) while noetic prayer occurs through the spirit and is spiritual prayer or prayer of the heart. So when the Apostle Paul says, “I prefer to say five words with my nous in order to instruct others rather than a thousand with my tongue,” he means that he prefers to say five words, in other words to speak a bit, for the instruction of others rather than pray noetically. Some monks interpret what St. Paul says here as a reference to the Prayer of Jesus, which consists of five words, but at this point the Apostle is speaking here about the words he used in instructing others. For how can catechism take place with noetic prayer, since noetic prayer is a person”s inward prayer, and others around him do not hear anything? Catechism, however, takes place with teaching and worship that are cogent and reasonable. We teach and speak by using the reason, which is the usual way that people communicate with each other.
Those who have noetic prayer in their hearts do, however, communicate with one another. In other words, they have the ability to sit together, and communicate with each other noetically, without speaking. That is, they are able to communicate spiritually. Of course, this also occurs even when such people are far apart. They also have the gifts of clairvoyance and foreknowledge. Through clairvoyance, they can sense both other people’s sins and thoughts (logismoi), while foreknowledge enables them to see and talk about subjects, deeds, and events in the future. Such charismatic people really do exist. If you go to them for confession, they know everything that you have done in your life before you open your mouth to tell them.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:5.
- Romans 8:16.
- This means that the Spirit of God speaks to our spirit. In other words, God speaks within our heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory Palamas in his second discourse from “In Behalf of the Sacred Hesychasts” notes that “the heart rules over the whole human organism”. For the nous and all the thoughts (logismoi) of the soul are located there.” From the context of grace-filled prayer, it is clear that the term “heart” does not refer to the physical heart, but to the deep heart, while the term nous does not refer to the intellect (dianoia), but to the energy/activity of the heart, the noetic activity which wells forth from the essence of the nous (i.e., the heart). For this reason, St. Gregory adds that it is necessary for the hesychasts “to bring their nous back and enclose it within their body and particularly within that innermost body, within the body that we call the heart.” The term “spirit” is also identical with the terms nous and “heart.” Philokalia, vol. IV (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p, 334.
- Cf. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, who notes: “Man has two centers of knowing: the nous which is the appropriate organ for receiving the revelation of God that is later put into words through the reason and the reason which knows the sensible world around us.” The Person in Orthodox Tradition, trans. Effie Mavromichali (Levadia: Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 1994), p. 24.
- 1 Corinthians 14:19.
- In Greek, the Prayer of Jesus consists of exactly five words in its simplest form, which in English is translated as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” “TRANS.
- “Thus as Saint John of Damascus puts it, we are led as though up a ladder to the thinking of good thoughts”. Saint Paul also indicates this when he says: “I had rather speak five words with my nous”.” St. Peter of Damascus, “The Third Stage of Contemplation,” in Philokalia, 3, page 42 [my translation: cf. also English Philokalia, vol. XXX, p. 120] and St. Nikitas Stithatos, as cited below.
- With respect to this, Venerable Nikitas Stithatos writes, “If when you pray and psalmodize you speak in a tongue to God in private you edify yourself, as Saint Paul says. ” If it is not in order to edify his flock that the shepherd seeks to be richly endowed with the grace of teaching and the knowledge of the Spirit, he lacks fervor in his quest for God”s gifts. By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue, that is, by praying in the soul ” you edify yourself, but your nous is unproductive [cf. I Corinthians 14:14], for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God”s Church. If Paul, who of all men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have rather spoken from his fertile nous five words in the church for the instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private with a tongue [cf., I Corinthians 14:19], surely those who have responsibility for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd”s ministry solely to psalmody and reading.” St. Nikitas Stithatos, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” in The Philokalia, vol. 4, pp. 169-170.
From “Patristic Theology – The University Lectures of Father John Romanides”, (Thessaloniki, Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008), pp. 19-23.
From “The Writings of Maximus the Confessor” by Saint Maximus –
“Perfect silence alone proclaims Him, and total and transcendent unknowing brings us into His presence.”
The Greek word ἱλαστήριον, transliterated as hilastérion (hil-as-tay’-ree-on) is translated into English as both “propitiation” and “expiation”. Hilastérion and it variants are found in the New Testament rarely, but there are three citings that are particularly important to the topic of atonement: Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10:
(1) Rom 3:25: “…whom God displayed publicly as a/an _____________ in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed”
(2) 1 John 2:2: “…and He Himself is the ______________ for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
(3) 1 Jn 4:10: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an ______________ for our sins.
So what’s the difference between “propitiation” or “expiation”, the English translations of the Greek word hilastérion? A short passage from “Reconciliation,” in Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. III, p. 151 (hereafter referred to as DNTT) summarizes:
“In discussing reconciliation and atonement it has become customary to draw a distinction between propitiation and expiation. In propitiation the action is directed towards God, or some other offended person. The underlying purpose is to change God’s attitude from one of wrath to one of good will and favor. In the case of expiation, on the other hand, the action is directed towards that which has caused the breakdown in the relationship… In short, propitiation is directed towards the offended person, whereas expiation is concerned with nullifying the offensive act” (DNTT, Vol. III, p. 151).
Given the above, “propitiate,” would indicate that God is changed; whereas “expiate” would indicate that the repentant sinner is changed. But, this raises another serious theological question: Does God change? On this question, we will take the traditional classical Christian position that “God does not change”.
Having introduced the question of change, we can now return to the original question at hand: In the New Testament, is the meaning of hilastérion more closely approximated by “propitiation” or “expiation”?
Summarizing the first 1,000 years of Christian patristic theology, Orthodox theologian and Bishop Kallistos Ware insists that Christ did not become incarnate to heal God the Father: He became incarnate to heal us. According to the Orthodox, the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Christ represent the “mercy seat” (Gk. hilastérion/ Heb. kippur) upon which our sins are “wiped away”/”expiated” by God, restoring us to His covenant love. This “expiation”, or removal of sin as an obstacle between man and God, transforms repentant sinners into His divine likeness and nature (2 Cor 3:18; 2 Pet 1:4 etc.). So, it is we who change rather than God. Orthodoxy emphatically supports the divine attribute of constancy of God (Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17).
If we concede the classical Christian position that God never changes and remains ever constant, then we must conclude that divine “propitiation” – a change in attitude from one of wrath to one of good will and favor- cannot be attributed to God; for He is, by definition, changeless. God cannot have been “propitiated” ontologically by having “a change of attitude” unless God Himself changed ontologically.
There is one final point to be made from the perspective of New Testament exegesis. In the case of “expiation”, “the action is directed towards that which has caused the breakdown in the relationship… In short, “propitiation” is directed towards the offended person, whereas “expiation” is concerned with nullifying the offensive act” (DNTT III, 173).
So, to what do the three New Testament passages using hilastérion and variants, cited above, refer to? Do they refer to God (as in God’s wrath being “propitiated”) or to the sins of man being wiped away and removed as an obstacle to union with God (“expiation”)? Clearly, in all three of the passages in question, hilastérion is used directly in reference to humankind’s sins as an obstacle to our union with God. They do not refer to God as an object of “propitiation”. This is not a “propitiation” for the Father,” but rather “expiation” “for our sins.”
In referring to the patristic theology of the first Christian millennium we should emphasize this is not an exclusively patristic or Orthodox view. Some leading academic scholars and some major Protestant scholars have held hilastérion is best understood as “expiation” – a change in man, wiping away his sin; rather than “propitiation” – a change of God, changing His disposition from anger to affection. God is constant and changeless. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is humankind who must be transfigured by the changeless grace and mercy of God.
The Latin Western tradition, by contrast, has insisted since the Middle Ages on defining hilastérion in the sense of “propitiation”, including the traditional Calvinist interpretation. Historically the emphasis upon a change in God’s attitude rather than man’s condition arose from St. Augustine in the 5th century, but reached its zenith in the 11th century with Anselm of Canterbury. According to Anselm, man had broken honor with his liege Lord (God). And because his honor was slighted, “satisfaction” had to be made; in this case, by the death of his own son, (Jesus Christ).
The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition bypassed this particular Western interpretation entirely. They never adopted a soteriology of merit/satisfaction (ala Anselm). To the Orthodox, the atonement is purely grace/gifting from God rather than a merit/earning system imposed on humankind.
Genesis 1:26: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
Every human being is created in the image of God and it is the purpose of each of us to attain to His likeness, that we may be “partakers of the divine nature” (cf. 2 Peter 1:4).
Bishop Kallistos (Ware), in his classic book “The Orthodox Church”, tells us, “According to most of the Greek Fathers, the terms image and likeness do not mean exactly the same thing. ‘The expression according to the image,’ wrote John of Damascus, ‘indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue’ (On the Orthodox Faith, 2, 12 (P.G. 94, 920B)). The image, or to use the Greek term the icon, of God signifies man’s free will, his reason, his sense of moral responsibility — everything, in short, which marks man out from the animal creation and makes him a person. But the image means more than that. It means that we are God’s ‘offspring’ (Acts 27:28), His kin; it means that between us and Him there is a point of contact, an essential similarity. The gulf between creature and Creator is not impassable, for because we are in God’s image we can know God and have communion with Him. And if a man makes proper use of this faculty for communion with God, then he will become ‘like’ God, he will acquire the divine likeness; in the words of John Damascene, he will be ‘assimilated to God through virtue.’”
This “optimistic anthropology” of the Eastern Orthodox with its “original blessing” in the creation of Adam and, by extension, of all humankind, differs markedly from the “pessimistic anthropology” of the Western church with its emphasis on “Original Sin” and its logical extensions. Bishop Kallistos observes, “This picture of Adam before the fall is somewhat different from that presented by Saint Augustine and generally accepted in the west since his time.”
It is not surprising, then, that many Western theologians consider the Hebrew words for image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) to be synonyms; and their use in Gen. 1:26 to be a simple example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism. Eastern Orthodox theologians disagree, citing a distinction in meaning between tselem and demuth.
To the Orthodox, the words, “image and likeness” are used to indicate two different aspects of the “image” of God.
- Image is the Hebrew word tselem, צֶ֫לֶם, and always indicates a “physical” or structural image of some kind.
- Likeness is the Hebrew word demuth, דְּמוּת, and usually refers to some kind of “functional” image, likeness or expression.
There seems to be a clear distinction between the two words tselem and demuth as used in the Hebrew Bible.
- tselem indicates a “physical” image or structure and would refer to the “structural” image of the Godhead
- demuth indicates a “functional” likeness, similitude – the idea of “acts like.”
What do the Greek translations of tselem and demuth in the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Hebrew Bible (ca. 300 BC) tell us about image and likeness in the light of the use of these Greek words later in the New Testament?
In the Septuagint, at Genesis 1:26, the LXX translates tselem as εἰκόνα, eikona
In the 23 New Testament occurrences of eikōna and its derivatives, it appears that there is no clear distinction in what eikōna references regarding the two aspects of God’s image.
At Gen. 1:26, the LXX translates demuth as ὁμοίωσιν, homoiōsin.
Used one time in the New Testament at James 3:9, “men, who have been made in the likeness (homoiōsin) of God.” Indicates the present status of mankind. They were created originally and all men are presently “in” the image of God.
Since homoiōsis is only used one time, we should probably interpret James as focusing on the fact that men have all been created in the “functional” image of God, that is with the purpose of bringing glory to Him.