ORTHODOXY AND ORTHOPRAXY: AN ANABAPTIST-ORTHODOX CONVERSATION ON TRADITION AND THEOSIS by Giacomo Sanfilippo

This paper will be delivered at the 8th Biennial Graduate Student Conference hosted by the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre on June 14-16, 2018.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Good afternoon. I should like to begin by expressing my humble gratitude to the conference committee for accepting me as a participant in this weekend’s proceedings. As an Orthodox Christian I possess no more than the most rudimentary knowledge of Mennonite history and its theological themes from the beginning of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century to the present. Yet I hope to make at least a very small contribution to mutual understanding among friends in Christ. The title of my paper has been inspired by a series of informal conversations over the past fifteen months with colleagues in theological studies at TST who are also associated with the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre. In chronological order I would like to thank the following gentlemen publicly for their interest and especially their guidance: Russ Snyder-Penner, Kyle Gingerich Hiebert, Pablo Kim, and Joshua Loewen-Samuels.

When I call myself Orthodox or speak of the Orthodox Church, I mean what is conventionally known as Eastern Orthodox, the Church that recognizes Seven Ecumenical Councils as authoritative: Nicaea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Constantinople III, and Nicaea II. We also accept the authority of certain local councils held in Constantinople after Nicaea II up to the 19th century, among these the six 14th-century councils which vindicated the orthodoxy of St. Gregory Palamas. As we shall see shortly, Palamas’ articulation of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies—as arcane and esoteric as it may seem—comprises an indispensable aspect of the Orthodox understanding of theosis.  

To the best of my knowledge the first modern Mennonite scholar who attempted to draw positive comparisons between Orthodoxy and Anabaptism was Thomas N. Finger in his 1994 article, “Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy: Some Unexpected Similarities?” At the time he was professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia. A little more recently Ben C. Ollenburger, in his 2005 article, “True Evangelical Faith: The Anabaptists and Christian Confession,” engages with small-o orthodoxy, but identifies themes central to the capital-O Orthodox faith. He was, and I believe remains, professor of biblical theology at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Both Finger and Ollenburger focus some of their attention on the idea of theosis and its importance for such early Anabaptist thinkers as Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and Pilgram Marpeck.

On the Orthodox side, Andrew Klager has written a great deal in conversation with the Mennonite tradition, especially in connection with peacebuilding or peacemaking. He teaches history at Trinity Western University in Langley BC and serves as director of the Institute for Religion, Peace and Justice at St. Stephen’s University in New Brunswick.

Finger, Ollenburger, and Klager have each contributed to the Mennonite-Orthodox conversation by suggesting specific areas of convergence that may exist between us. What I hope to offer this afternoon, however inadequately, is to broaden our conversation by considering the underlying premise which subsumes whatever individual commonalities we may discern. This underlying premise, as you may have guessed from the title of my paper, is Holy Tradition—that which we Orthodox characterize sometimes as capital-T Tradition over against small-t traditions.

Παράδοσις in the Greek New Testament, traditio in the Vulgate, the noun tradition and its associated verb forms occur in the Christian Scriptures—in a positive sense—as both the act of handing down from generation to generation and the content of that which is handed down. This handing down takes place in two ways: by spoken word and by written word. The Holy Apostle Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions—(τὰς παραδόσεις in Greek, traditiones in the Vulgate)—which you were taught by us either by word (of mouth) or by our epistle.”

When the Holy Apostle Jude exhorts us in verse 3 of his epistle “to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints,” the past participle “delivered” translates the Greek παραδοθείσῃ and the Latin traditae: in other words, “the faith which was once for all traditioned to the saints.” It is unfortunate that tradition as a verb is so seldom used in English that most of us have never heard it in that way.

Two more examples:

1 Corinthians 15:3 – “For I traditioned to you—(παρέδωκα in Greek, tradidi in Latin)—as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day….”

And perhaps most dear of all to us Orthodox:

1 Corinthians 11:23-25 – “For I received from the Lord what I also traditioned to you—(once again, παρέδωκα in Greek, tradidi in Latin)—that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is my body’…. In the same way also the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’….”

Significantly, in the Greek original of these two passages from 1 Corinthians, just as the simple verb “to give” is not used, but “to give over,” likewise St. Paul does not use the simple verb “to receive”—λαμβάνω—but more precisely “to receive over”—παραλαμβάνω. The use of the same prefix—παρα—for both the giving and the receiving suggests two things: first, it establishes an exact symmetry between the two simultaneous acts of giving and receiving; and second—if you remember nothing else from my paper, I beg you not to forget this—it establishes the incarnate Son and Word of God Himself as the source of Tradition: St. Paul’s words, “I ‘received over’ from the Lord” can mean nothing else but “the Lord ‘traditioned’ to me….”

I conclude this section of my paper with this observation: In the Orthodox Church we see no juxtaposition of Scripture and Tradition as two separate things placed side by side, much less any opposition of Scripture versus Tradition. We prefer to speak of Scripture within Tradition, Scripture as part of Tradition, Scripture as occupying a preeminent place within Tradition. How can we do otherwise, knowing that the apostles preached the crucified and risen Christ from the Old Testament; that the earliest New Testament book was written around 20 years after Pentecost, and the latest one, around 80 or 90 years after Pentecost; that the canon of the New Testament as we know it was not definitively established until almost 400 years after Pentecost, and after two Ecumenical Councils of what some Mennonites call with no little distaste “the Constantinian Church” had affirmed the full divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit equal to that of the Father; the two Councils that “traditioned” to us the Nicaean—or more precisely, the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan—Creed? 

Now I would like to move on to a few thoughts on theosis, deification, or divinization.

As we noted earlier, both Finger and Ollenburger attest to the acceptance of theosis by Menno Simons and other early Anabaptists as the ultimate goal of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and His sending down of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost—indeed, the very goal of creation itself. Yet it seems, according to Finger, that none of them developed a sustained, systematic articulation of how they understood what theosis means, and we might say just as importantly, what it does not mean.

It was St. Athanasius the Great, 4th-century Archbishop of Alexandria—the champion of Orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea when he was but a mere deacon—who famously wrote, but almost in passing: God became man so that man could become God. Yet this idea neither originated nor ended with Athanasius. In the late 2nd century St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote that the Son of God became the Son of man so that man could become the son of God. In 2 Peter 1:4 we read that we are called to God’s own glory…by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises that…we may become communicants of the divine nature—(θείας κοινωνοὶ φύσεως). The same Gospel of John which puts into the mouth of Christ “I and the Father, we are one” (10:30)—which the Jews correctly understood to mean that “you, being man, make yourself God!”—the same Gospel puts into His mouth this prayer:

…that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in us…. The glory which Thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and Thou in me, that they may be perfected into one…[for] Thou hast loved them even as Thou hast loved me. Father, I desire that they also…may be with me where I am…before the foundation of the world.

Here we have the repeated use of καθώς—which means not only “even as,” not only “just as,” not only “according to the manner of,” but to the same degree as. And what is this “place,” “occupied” before the foundation of the world by the eternal Son of God now made man, if not the “place” of equality with God where the Son “sits” not only in His divine nature—as God—but now in His human nature—as man—at the right hand of the Father? This is where He desires that we be with Him, fully admitted into the perichoresis of the Holy Trinity’s eternal mode of being: we mere creatures are made full communicants and participants in the uncreated life and love of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Recall that St. Paul, when writing of the ascension of Christ in Ephesians 4:8, quotes the Septuagint version of Psalm 68:18: When He ascended on high, He led a host of captives! When, on the 40th day after His resurrection from the dead, Christ ascends as man to the “place” that belongs to Him as God from all eternity, He takes us with Him—us who had been held captive since the beginning of time by sin, corruption, death, decay, and all the frailties and limitations of our fallen human nature.

This compels St. Maximus the Confessor, some 300 years after Athanasius, to make this earthquake of a claim: We become God by grace in our deification to no less a degree than He became man by nature in His incarnation. Let us ponder that for the rest of our life in awe and trembling.

Here it becomes necessary to return briefly to St. Gregory Palamas. You might recall that, a little earlier, I mentioned the need to articulate both what deification means and what it does not mean. The Palamite distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies is just that, a distinction and not a division. It gives us the vocabulary to express—however inadequately, however imperfectly—the Church’s mystical experience of God in one and the same moment as utterly transcendent and intimately immanent; of God as absolutely imparticipable and inexpressibly participable by us mere creatures. How is it that the Transcendent One takes up His abode in our hearts, the Unapproachable One approaches, the Unknowable One makes Himself known? How is it that the unbridgeable chasm between Creator and creation is bridged, the curtain is torn in two, the dividing wall is broken down?

Thus we say, and must say, that we become God by grace, not by nature; that we are deified through participation in the uncreated energies of God, not through participation in the essence of God. God does not become a “Holy Multiplicity” because of our deification, but remains for all eternity the Holy Trinity. And we, becoming God, remain fully human for all eternity, just as the fully divine Son remains fully human for all eternity. Because of the reciprocal movement of the incarnation of God and the deification of man, everything that pertains to the Son now pertains to us, except consubstantiality with the Father.

And yet, He who is fully consubstantial with the Father as regards His divinity has become—and remains for all eternity—fully consubstantial with us as regards His humanity. To say this the other way around, in the incarnation of the eternal Son and Word of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity, we have become fully of one essence with Him who is fully of one essence with the Father; and this, that the words of the Psalmist may be fulfilled in us: You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you! (82:6). The doctrine of theosis sheds an entirely new light on the words of Saint Paul in Romans 8:15-17:

…You have received the Spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God—[we inherit God!]—and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. 

In the Orthodox Liturgy it takes daring to call upon the heavenly God as “Father.” As sons adopted in baptism (and I do mean male sons and female sons!), we inherit all that belongs as a birthright to the Only-Begotten Son by virtue of His timeless birth from the Father. In Psalm 104 we read that God clothes Himself with light as with a garment; in 1 Timothy 6:16, that He dwells in unapproachable light. This is the uncreated light upon which Moses could not gaze directly and live, the light of Tabor which knocked Peter, James, and John to the ground, the light which blinded Paul on the road to Damascus, the light before which even the angels in heaven cover their faces; and yet, in the Orthodox rite of baptism, as the newly illumined put on their white robes, this single line is chanted: Grant unto me the robe of light, O most merciful Christ our God, who clothest Thyself with light as with a garment. Our very bodies become clothed, as it were, with the uncreated light of divinity.     

All of the foregoing has profound implications for how we live our life day to day. Theosis is not about the egocentric individual and God, but about persons transfigured by degrees through ever deeper communion with the tri-personal God and ever deeper communion with everyone whom He places, no matter how transiently, in our path. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” As myself? When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m thirsty, I drink. When I’m cold, I go inside or put on a sweater. When I cut my finger, I rush to wash it off and put a bandage on it. I have to love my neighbour like this? Even my neighbour sleeping barefoot on a sidewalk grate as I rush to catch my train on a frigid January morning? Even my neighbour who is my enemy?

In fact St. Maximus writes that if we do not give money to the poor on the streets—cheerfully, every day—we have not even begun to become God.

We haven’t the time to touch on peacebuilding, and the need to renounce so-called “political Orthodoxy” in certain parts of the world where the Orthodox Church is turned into a weapon of war, colonialism, oppression, geopolitical aggression. Perhaps, when you Mennonites speak to us Orthodox, by the gentle witness of your very lives call us to repentance for our Church’s countless institutional failures to act according to our own doctrine.  

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

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