Orthodox -- Unification Dialogue -- Constantine N. Tsirpanlis Editor 1981


Dr. Matczak: I would like to know something about the role of Jesus in the Orthodox Church. It seemed to me you spoke more about the role of the Holy Spirit. Does the Orthodox Church emphasize somehow the role of Jesus?

Dr. Cavarnos: Jesus, I would say, is of central importance. I did mention Jesus in my paper when giving the very definition, so to speak, of salvation. As given by Saint Symeon the New Theologian, it is that salvation is to be one "in Christ" and through Christ. I sought to make it clear that salvation is a life in Christ brought to its fullness and greatest clarity. The Holy Spirit works through Christ, so Christ is involved from beginning to end in salvation.

I also spoke of mental prayer and meditation -- one could give a lecture on each of these topics. I cannot expect people to understand too well what is meant by these things, but mental prayer is, for the Orthodox, the highest form of prayer -- complete concentration, turning inwards into the heart, uniting thought with feeling, the heart with intellect. That is the most effective form of prayer. There is a classical formula for prayer which is used by the great mystics of the Church, and the common people are encouraged to practice it unceasingly, as far as possible. It assumes this form: "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me," repeated incessantly. Those who cultivate this prayer reach a stage where it goes on, so to speak, automatically, whether the person is talking, doing physical work, or whatever. These people attain a kind of real union with the Divine Being. But it takes an enormous amount of preparation to reach that stage and receive the help of Divine grace through Christ which strengthens us and makes the activity much more continuous.

Dr. Matczak: Is the concept of salvation in the Orthodox Church connected to a treatment of the problem of who Jesus is?

Dr. Cavarnos: I would refer you to the very beginning, when I quoted the hymn of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, that Jesus is the Second Hypostasis in the Trinity. The Orthodox Church believes -- it has a trinitarian conception of the Godhead -- that God is three distinct persons ineffably united in one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Son is the Logos, the Reason of God, and is begotten of the Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. There is one essence, one glory, one God, but nevertheless three distinct Hypostases or Persons. And God became Incarnate. The Second Hypostasis became Incarnate, assumed the nature of man so that man himself might become God. This is the formula which you find from the time of the early Fathers. The Incarnation is of central importance here -- the coming of God, teaching us by word and deed the way of salvation; and that is of greatest importance. Let me read this hymn. I think when you hear it again, it will be of great help in understanding what is meant here by the Orthodox view of salvation.

Those who are from here united with God will then also be mystically united with Him and will genuinely exist in inseparable participation with Him. Christ has said that those alone will be saved who participate in His divinity as He, the Creator of all things, came to participate in our nature. Assuredly, Paradise -- and the bosom of Abraham and every place of repose is for the saved, and all the saved are assuredly saints, as all Divine Scripture testifies and teaches -- for Paradise, and the Holy City, and every place of repose is in God alone...

It goes on like that. At the beginning is the very idea of the Incarnation -- God becoming man, and thereby enabling man to become God through union, through participation.

Dr. Matczak: I would still like to know one thing. You mentioned uncreated energy. What is this uncreated energy? Does the Orthodox Church define what this energy is?

Dr. Cavarnos: The best description, of course, is to be found in the accounts of the personal experience of the Orthodox mystic. The great mystics of the Church like Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, and others have said that this is something that you experience, especially through the practice of mental prayer. You see with your spiritual eyes the Divine light, one of the uncreated energies of God -- experienced as ineffable light, and joy and fragrance, and so forth. This was seen by the Disciples of Christ on Mt. Tabor, at the Transfiguration of Christ. And in every age the Saints see it. Saint Seraphim of Sarov once had an interesting talk with one of his disciples, Nicholas Motovilov. He was seen by this disciple -- his whole face and figure -- in dazzling light. This was, he said, the light of God, the uncreated energy of God, manifesting itself in this way, and Nicholas Motovilov was asked: "What do you experience besides the vision of this unearthly, supernatural light?" And Motovilov said, "I feel inexpressible joy, such as you cannot describe, overwhelming joy." "What else?" Motovilov said: "I experience a fragrance such as I never smelled anywhere, a fragrance of another kind, an overwhelming fragrance, and great peace, which I cannot express -- peace, as the Gospel says, that surpasses all understanding."

This is the experience of the Divine light that the Eastern Church emphasizes.

Dr. Matczak: It seems to me from your description that it cannot be identified with sanctifying grace as this is defined by the Council of Trent.

Dr. Cavarnos: It is grace. It is one of the manifestations of grace, definitely. It is the Holy Spirit manifesting Himself, God Himself manifesting Himself. The Holy Spirit is coming from the Father, through the Son, to find His way to man.

Dr. Matczak: Still one more question. About Penance. I think the Orthodox Church accepts Penance as a Sacrament, and I think you did mention that.

Dr. Cavarnos: I did mention that when I said that Holy Communion should be received as frequently as possible, provided one is duly prepared through repentance and confession to receive it. We call it metanoia, and it is one of the Sacraments. And most important, it is called by the Fathers "the second Baptism." Through repentance one prepares oneself, through confession to the priest, to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Repentance is given enormous importance, because it is essentially related to the Eucharist. There's no real participation in the Eucharist if a person is not repentant, if he has not confessed, if he has not undergone the Sacrament of Penance, as you call it.

Dr. Matczak: Yes, but it seems to me that it is not practiced so much in the Orthodox Church -- Penance as a Sacrament...

Dr. Cavarnos: In the present day, that is true. In the present day, especially in this country, I would say, it's not practiced to the extent that it should be -- it's a kind of neglected thing, and the Church now is making efforts to revive that practice and lead people to confessors. The priests are very much aware of the problem. We recently had a discussion of the subject, a whole session in the Orthodox Theological Society in America. People must be awakened to the need -- people have simply lost the sense of the great importance of this Sacrament, and efforts are being made now to lead them to the realization that this is an essential. Going to the Eucharist without repentance is useless; so one has to be brought to this realization. In the older countries this is still practiced -- although, again, not to the extent that it should be -- because there are monasteries there, experienced confessors who have the charisma for this and to whom people flock, especially during the Lent periods, to confess and receive Communion. So we are very much in need of duly trained and experienced confessors to bring it back to full practice.

Dr. Matczak: And still one last question. You mentioned apocatastasis. I'm still not sure exactly what it means in the Orthodox Church.

Dr. Cavarnos: It is accepted in the Orthodox Church in the sense of fallen man being restored to the state in which the first men were created. They were created in the image and likeness of God. Apocatastasis is restoration to this state. It has reference to the individuals who have undergone repentance and have applied themselves to practices through which they can acquire likeness. I did not make any reference to universal apocatastasis, which is not a doctrine accepted by the Church. The whole conception of salvation is a conception of apocatastasis. Man being restored to likeness and union with God. That's apocatastasis of the individual man; but the Church does not assert that this will be attained by every fallen human being or by the fallen angels. So there are two distinct senses of apocatastasis. I had mentioned only the first.

Franz Feige: Dr. Cavarnos, you described salvation, according to my understanding, as a process, a way of salvation, which we won't be able to obtain during our life to the fullest degree, but only in the afterlife, or at the time of the coming of the Lord of the Second Advent. Am I right?

Dr. Cavarnos: Yes. I spoke at the beginning of what Saint Symeon the New Theologian meant by salvation -- what is it to be saved? I tried to explain it as well as I could through the statements from Saint Symeon, and then to describe the ways by which one moves from a fallen state to a state of salvation, which is to be obtained in its fullness, as I said, in the life to come, especially after the Second Advent. But one obtains a measure of it in this life -- what is called theosis is a portion of salvation. More strictly, in its fullness, salvation is when one has obtained a complete state of deliverance from all evils and is sharing fully in the blessings of God. That's the full sense, but we obtain a measure of salvation in this life. So in a sense, theosis is salvation, obtained in this life but partially, to be obtained in fullness in the life to come.

Franz Feige: As I understand it, salvation in a complete sense, to the fullest degree, is still a mystery, because it has never been obtained on earth so far, so we don't really know what real salvation means.

Dr. Cavarnos: We can mentally grasp it though. If a person has experienced the joy of God in this life, then he can see that this joy can be maximized. So it's not just an empty term. People in this life can experience the joy of God and the perfection of God and the glory of God, up to a point. Therefore, they can visualize a state where this is maximized. They still feel here a certain amount of evil in their lives, because they live in fallen society and they have experiences which are distracting. Still, they can visualize a state where this evil is done away with completely. So I would not say that salvation is just a notion, empty of content for us here and now, but it's an ideal toward which we can work and which will be obtained fully in the life to come.

Franz Feige: But yet we don't know in a complete sense how the true joy, complete joy, will be obtained. What does it mean to be "one in Christ and through Christ"? What is a real life-style in the life after this -- to come to true joy, to live a saved life, a complete life? We only have an abstract notion.

Dr. Cavarnos: Why are you calling it abstract? If a person in this life has experienced the joy of God and the glory of God and the goodness of God and the love of God, why should you call it an abstract notion?

Franz Feige: I mean in terms of knowing concretely how -- not the experience of the state, but the concrete life-style...

Dr. Cavarnos: Well, the life-style is one I've described -- the stages of what you practice, the acquisition of the virtues, the practices, bodily and mental, and so forth -- this is the life-style, these things taken together, constitute the life-style that leads more and more to that goal.

Franz Feige: I mean what action -- in the life after this?

Dr. Cavarnos: According to the Orthodox Church, this world is the arena of action. This is a place of contest, and you win or lose here. That's why I said that unless you have already obtained theosis in this life, then you've "not made it." You must make good progress, attaining theosis in this life in order to attain salvation in its fullest measure later. The arena of action is here. At the Second Coming we human beings can do nothing about salvation. The Orthodox stress the importance of time -- all important in this life. We strive for the crown, and that's why we must do everything possible -- work strenuously with all our might and zeal for our theosis. The other life is not an arena of striving, but that does not mean that a person remains fixed -- a person who has made progress becomes sanctified. According to many of the Saints, in the life to come those who have attained theosis in this life will grow to greater and greater love and glory.

Tom Carter: I'd like to know the Orthodox view of the relationship of salvation to resurrection, particularly pertaining to the time Christ returns.

Dr. Cavarnos: I made brief reference to it, the question is that of the body being restored. The body is restored as a spiritual body. Then we have the complete human being, and salvation has reached its fullness at that stage of the Second Advent for those who have attained deification, divinization in this life -- then we can speak of salvation in its fullest measure.

Tom Carter: So on this earth there is no perfect salvation attainable, even at the time of the Second Advent?

Dr. Cavarnos: The teaching of the Church is that here one may attain relative perfection, but not absolute perfection. Relative perfection is a very high degree of perfection, but not quite absolute perfection. Relative perfection means perfection to ensure that we are in a safe place after this life, that we are in the hands of God, and we are fully in the love and protection of God.

Franz Feige: What is the Greek Orthodox view concerning the fall of man, particularly the relationship of original sin to salvation? What is the view of salvation in light of the fall?

Dr. Cavarnos: I did not dwell upon that. I said that man has fallen, according to the Orthodox Church, but he's not in a hopeless state. He has enough goodness in him and the power of free choice, so that he can begin the process of salvation, and that is essential. God cannot violate our remaining freedom and save us against our will. We must have God in mind and say, "Yes, I want this thing called salvation -- I choose this life and I pray for God's help." That's called repentance in the first sense that you make a decision, make the choice, you make the resolve. Despite the fall you are still left with the power to do it. You still have enough goodness to know what good is, to feel it. You have enough freedom left to make a choice and to resolve to pursue the life that leads to salvation. You can draw God's grace, because, as it is recorded in Zechariah, God says: "Turn ye unto Me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you." (1:3, KJV) That is the view. The fall has not destroyed God's image in man: man has enough resources, despite the fall, to pursue salvation. He can pursue this course beginning with conversion. Of course we bring in the Sacraments here also: Baptism, the Eucharist, and so forth. Through Baptism one is purified of the taint left by ancestral sin, so it is important.

Unidentified speaker: There is a concept that man fell because of disobedience; will man then attain salvation by becoming absolutely obedient, or is there still a trace of sin left over after salvation?

Dr. Cavarnos: After one's decisive choice and after one's Baptism, we need prayer, we need all the practices that I mentioned.

Dr. Tsirpanlis: I think that I should comment on that. The Orthodox view of sin is not inherited guilt. In other words, the guilt of Adam and Eve is not inherited by us, their posterity. Only the results of the original sin, which are death and corruptibility, are inherited. That's why the emphasis is on the death and resurrection of Christ as His triumph over death. Satan is the embodiment and personification of death. Therefore, Jesus Christ had to come, the Son of God who had all the powers to defeat death. This is a great difference between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity. Roman Catholicism emphasizes legal obedience. Eastern Christianity or Eastern Orthodoxy emphasizes the triumph over death, the resurrection of Jesus and His triumph over death. The defeat of death is the divinized humanity of Christ, the enhypostasized humanity of Christ, in the terms of Saint Maximos the Confessor. In other words, death becomes defeated only by the Divinity of Jesus, not by the humanity of Jesus, not even by the perfected manhood of Jesus, but only by his Divinity, as the Son of God, not as the Son of man. This is a very important point in understanding Orthodox theology.

This is a very central point for Athanasius the Great, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, Maximos the Confessor, John of Damascus. According to all these great Church Fathers, Jesus Christ did not incarnate to deliver man from guilt, because there is no guilt in posterity. There is no such pessimism in Eastern Orthodoxy. Eastern Orthodoxy is a theology of optimism, and I think it has an approach to universal salvation which has been neglected to a certain extent by Dr. Cavarnos' explanation. I think the Eastern Orthodox Church believes in the salvation of non-Christians. Why? Well, remember that Jesus Christ said: "the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21, KJV). Dr. Cavarnos pointed out rightly that right knowledge is the basis of right action. And understanding knowledge as the presupposition or basis of right action shows us that God is related to non-Christians. Confucius, who was a contemporary of Socrates, said practically the same things as Socrates. Now, they did not know Jesus Christ because they lived in the fifth century B.C. Jesus Christ came in the first century A.D., but these two great men of intellectual history strove for right understanding and right action without Jesus Christ -- is it a mystery? No! It is not a mystery, because there is a revelation also in pagan philosophy. Perhaps it is limited, not the fulfillment of revelation, as in Jesus' revelation, but Socrates and Confucius had great hearts and minds. Jesus Christ fulfilled the Divine revelation. He was victorious. He is the Son of God and that's why he fulfilled the Divine revelation, but there is a progressive revelation throughout history. According to Clement of Alexandria, history is theatrum providentiae divinae or the theater of Divine providence. I think this progressive revelation begins from 5000 B.C. The first written documents of history that we have were from the Mesopotamian civilization, Hammurabi's Code, 2500 B.C. It was quite primitive, but still there is some Divine revelation. Divine revelation never ends; it goes on outside the Christian Church. What has happened to Plato and Socrates? I'm sure they are in Paradise. And perhaps some bishops and priests are below them. (Laughter) Plato and Socrates did not know Jesus Christ, but still they lived better than some of our contemporary Christians. They were saints before Jesus. Shouldn't they receive salvation through Jesus' victory?

Dr. Cavarnos: You are asking me to say "yes" to a number of things. Let's begin at the beginning. I did not say anything about Plato because my topic was not Plato's view of salvation, but the Orthodox view of salvation. Obviously I couldn't bring in Socrates or a whole lot of other figures. Of course, I do not deny that there's a great deal in common between the Orthodox view of salvation and the Platonic view -- both emphasize the decisiveness of free choice. Plato says in the tenth book of The Republic that choice will lead to the adoption of a certain type of life-style, and that type of life-style will lead to the formation of a certain kind of character, and that will lead us to the ideal life; and this is what Christianity says. However, Plato was a pagan philosopher and he did not have the Sacraments and the dogmas of the Church. But the Church has a high esteem for Plato, and Socrates, asserts that there were moments when they said things that were inspired by God, by the Holy Spirit, that they became vehicles of grace. Some Church writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, said that God used these philosophers, including Aristotle, the way He used Jewish prophets; that ancient Greek philosophy at its best is, for the Greeks, what the Old Testament was for the Jews -- a kind of preparation to receive the Gospel. In the narthex of many old Greek churches one will see painted on the walls the figures of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They were depicted there because it was believed that they foresaw the coming of Christ. They were believed to have been illumined by God, so they're not considered to be in hell. Saint Justin the Martyr and Philosopher says that Socrates was a Christian before Christ.

Still, we must see what the doctrines of the Eastern Church itself are, before we begin relating them to other things. Then the audience is to take the teaching and relate it to their experiences, relate it to their beliefs, and see if they can identify with certain of these things, and whether these help them understand better certain things within their own orientation. My talk is not intended to put an end to thinking, but simply to stimulate further thinking. Thinking here means an endeavor to understand, and understanding is through relating. That is your own inner activity that must take place. You must go through the intellectual effort of relating things with one another, and the more you can relate things, the more breadth and depth of understanding you gain. 

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