This and the next blog are my attempts to bring some conclusion to the series on “True Spirituality.” I have probably provoked more questions than I have answered but that is the point of the blogs—to write on a variety of theological topics so as to invite the readers to engage them critically with me. So to conclude I want to state and clarify the core of Christian orthodoxy. In this way my aim is to go to the Divine source of authentic human spirituality. This core Christian orthodoxy is not new but so many modern Christians (and theologians!) do not understand its importance.
I will not attempt to defend or elaborate much on the rational of Christian orthodoxy. Rather, I will lay out an outline of the core of Christian orthodoxy and add some minimal comments. The quotations I have cited from other authors will present both the assertions and the arguments that I wish the reader to wrestle with.
To adequately elaborate and clarify why I think the points made in this essay are both right and should be adopted by modern day believers would require another long series of essays on each aspect of those assertions. And more than that this overarching topic of “Spirituality” is impossible to do justice to given the complex nexus of theological and practical matters that are necessarily involved in human spirituality. I will spend the remainder of my life contemplating these truths and their implications. My wish is that the reader will humbly consider these writers’ perspectives.
The first point in the outline is this: True spirituality is rooted in the Incarnation of the Word, who is eternally existent God with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Tri-unity). This is in keeping with the consistent tenor of the Lord’s teaching and the apostles’ declaration and application of the truth of the Gospel. Furthermore, the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) can be cited to give testimony to this theological vision of a plurality within the one God. These assertions are part of the core of the orthodox understanding of God and the source and authority for believing that.
The reason true spirituality is rooted in the Incarnation of the Son is simple: The life of God himself must be given by God to redeemed humans in order for them to practice true spirituality. The depth of our need as creatures and as creatures whose will is inclined toward sin requires this. For we are not inclined to seek or love God wholeheartedly—even those who know and want to honor their Creator.
Irenaeus (130-202 AD), after writing at length about the many heresies which had cropped up after the expansion of Christian faith in the Roman empire, clarified the true purpose God had for human beings in bringing salvation in the Lord Christ. Instead of heeding the erroneous and spiritual deadly alternatives people need to know that authentic spirituality is found in
“…only following the only true and stedfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Preface; cited from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1 [Eerdmans: 1973], p.526)
This theological insight is vital for modern disciples of the Lord Jesus to recover and press into by faith. We who are “evangelical” tend to (rightly) focus on some of the effects of salvation by the “blood of the cross” (forgiveness of sin) or on the resurrection of Christ (the multiple benefits of his life for us). What I think we have missed in our preaching and theological reflection is the end purpose of God’s salvation in Christ—that he wants to fundamentally transform our human nature to permanently reflect his character and power and glory.
The Orthodox Church, following Irenaeus and other early Church Fathers, has developed this theological declaration in ways that other Church traditions have not. I think it is a needed corrective for us Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians in the Western countries. The contemporary Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky stated the following:
“Nevertheless, when the dogma of the redemption is treated in isolation from the general body of Christian teaching, there is always a risk of limiting the tradition by interpreting it exclusively in terms of the work of the Redeemer. Then theological thought develops along three lines: original sin, its reparation of the cross, and the appropriation of the saving results of the work of Christ to Christians. In these constricting perspectives of a theology dominated by the idea of redemption, the patristic sentence, ‘God made Himself man that man might become God,’ seems to be strange and abnormal. The thought of union with God is forgotten because of our preoccupation solely with our own salvation; or, rather, union with God is seen only negatively, in contrast with our present wretchedness.” (Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God [St. Vladirmir’s Press: 2001], p.98-99)
Lossky’s point is vindicated by an analysis of the Protestant Reformers own writings. Luther, Zwingli and Calvin (to name the most well known) certainly were right to point to the Lord Jesus Christ as the object of our faith and hope for our salvation (in every aspect of that) that stems from the cross of Christ. This was a needed corrective to the settled theological equilibrium of the Roman Catholic church at that time. Yet all three of the reformers were influenced by the general assumption of their age and they were seeking theological certainty—and thus they tended to shift more toward rationalist criteria in their interpretations of Scripture and theological reflections.
“In his need for certainty Calvin was a man of his time; Luther too has required, ‘even in matters that are not necessary and external to Scripture, to be absolutely certain, for what is more miserable than uncertainty?’ But unlike Luther, Calvin, in dealing with his uncertainties, sought—at times–for proof and evidence. . . . ‘As faith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion,’ he [Calvin] wrote, ‘so is it not content with an obscure and confused conception but requires full and fixed certainty such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved.’” (William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait [Oxford: 1988], p.101)
I am not Orthodox nor Roman Catholic. Having studied the major strands of Christian traditions I identify the most with the Reformed theological tradition. I have read much of and deeply admire John Calvin’s and Martin Luther’s writings. But as with every theologian and every Church tradition, they have their own “blind spots.” I consider myself to be blessed because I have had the opportunity to read widely among representatives of different Christian traditions. One of the most helpful results of these years of study is that my own theological perspectives have been corrected and amended; for when the different Christian traditions are compared carefully it becomes possible to see the strengths and weaknesses of each one.
I commend this study to anyone who endeavors to be a student of Christian theology. I am convinced that the diversity of theological thought and emphasis can become an asset when approached in this way. For the core of Christian orthodoxy is the key to unity. When we humbly hold that key we can be open to being corrected and come to a more balanced understanding of our doctrine. Furthermore, by being open to valid alternatives for doing the necessary work of engaging one’s mind in interpreting (“mining”) we are more likely expand our understanding of the inexhaustible spiritual wealth God has testified to in Scripture. For God has not given the totality of understanding of his truth to any particular church nor generation of believers.
I think that God has given us Christians in these times a gift in the religious plurality among people and the diversity of theological expressions of faith represented by different Christian traditions. For those willing to do the hard work of careful thought, study and respectful intellectual engagement with others the treasure of God’s revealed truth can be known. Unlike Calvin and Luther, I will not assert that any of us can be certain about all matters—whether they are regarding doctrine or practicing the wisdom of faith or even scientific knowledge about the natural world. But some things we can with assurance and intellectual integrity affirm: Namely, the core of Christian orthodoxy and awesome implications it gives us regarding the Divine will for human beings.