What is an Orthodox view of Christ's kenosis? Obviously it goes beyond a moral act of selflessness, and involves the power of God to raise up humanity, but I think there are still things that are not sliding into place.
I think we might be underestimating the power of Christ’s “moral act of selflessness,” perhaps because we are still thinking of His example in Western terms, as mere model of good behavior and not as a revelation about God and man — perhaps also because, with the West, we are not putting the Incarnation into historical perspective and are therefore missing what it meant “in the fullness of time” — both at that time and for all time.
Please forgive the length of the following. It’s an excerpt from the final chapter of a book I am finishing on salvation, which seems especially relevant to the issue at hand:
Christianity is a historical religion, a faith based on actual historical events, and yet none of these [Western] doctrines of divine atonement for human sin makes any attempt to explain the Gospel of Christ within its historical context. They all regard Christ’s saving work as a cosmic event, without reference to the hopelessness of the ancients, the failure of their philosophy, or the work of early Christian apologists in relating the Incarnation to the predicament of their day.
Before the preaching of the Gospel, the ancients felt entrapped both within and without by forces beyond their control. Externally, they were subjects of fate, pawns to the unseen, unknowable, unsympathetic powers of the universe; internally, they were slaves to the body, dominated by its desires, persecuted by its passions, and frighted by its fears. The leading philosophies of the era were of little comfort. Platonism held out only the slightest hope that through supreme effort a man might eventually escape the slavery of the body, though perhaps only after many incarnations, while Stoicism sought only relief from perplexity and strife through hopeless resignation to whatever happens — and if that failed, suicide. Neither of these alternatives provided much support for enduring pain and death for the sake of goodness and truth. Neither, in fact, provided much sense of what goodness and truth are and mean to mortal men.
In contrast, early Christian apologists confidently proclaimed the optimism of natural goodness and freedom of will. St. Ignatius, martyred in 107, writes in his epistle to the Magnesians, “If anyone is truly religious, he is a man of God; but if he is irreligious, he is a man of the devil, made such, not by nature, but by his own choice.” St. Justin the Philosopher, martyred in 166, writes that “unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be.” St. Irenaeus writes around 180: “But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for they were created that way. Nor would the former be reprehensible, for that is how they were made. However, all men are of the same nature. They are all able to hold fast and to do what is good. On the other hand, they have the power to cast good from them and not to do it.” Clement of Alexandria writes around 195, “It is by one’s own fault that he does not choose what is best. God is free of blame.” Tertullian writes around 210, “As to fortune, it is man’s freedom of will.” Origen writes around 245, “The Scriptures. . . emphasize the freedom of the will. They condemn those who sin, and approve those who do right. . . . For it is not the nature in us that is the cause of the evil; rather, it is the voluntary choice that works evil.” Likewise all true teachers of the Gospel have maintained in every age that man is not bad by nature or doomed by fate, but free to sin or not sin.
The choice to sin, however, carries consequences. In choosing to sin, man turns his back on God, willfully separating himself from his source of light and life, the objective Other to whom he owes his being. Thus separated, man withers and dies. Thus separated, man can no longer see things rightly and often mistakes evil for good. He loses sight of spiritual reality and is left with only the material reality of the five senses, which can only tell him of his own pain and pleasure. The free-willing man who wishes not to sin must therefore struggle against his senses to do good. The Apostle Paul speaks of this struggle as a conflict between the flesh and the spirit pitting his mind against his members: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” (Romans 7:22-24) In contrast, the free-willing man who wishes to sin relies solely on his senses to direct him and acts against his higher nature to obtain what he wrongly thinks is good. He lives in fear of pain and death and strives against his brother to escape them, inflicting upon his brother the pain and death he himself fears. He makes a habit of his bad behavior, accustoming himself to his errors while ignoring other options, thereby becoming a slave to sin. Then, feeling that he has no choice but to sin, he blames nature, fate, his fellow man, or God.
But God is not to blame, for God has made man good. God indeed has made man very
good. (Gen. 1:31) Man alone has made a mess of things. Man alone is responsible for his fallen situation and sinful condition — the anti-natural consequences of his freely chosen isolation.
The empirical proof of this is Jesus Christ. Only in Christ does man again catch a glimpse of God and of his own true nature. For Christ was fully human, sharing with us the same human nature and enduring like us the needs and desires of both mind and body, knowing pain and pleasure as well as joy and fear. He was a man in all respects like us, with one exception: He was not estranged from God. In Him, one personal instance of human being kept its proper place next to God and so became all that it was meant to be — sinless, immortal, and divine. Nothing human held Him back. Nothing that we are by nature — and therefore cannot help but be — kept Him from living perfectly and sinlessly. What is more, nothing Christ did is beyond human nature when the person bearing that nature it is likewise one with God.
In uniting divine nature with human nature, Christ reconciles God with man — divinity with humanity — actually in Himself and potentially in every man. For every man who so chooses can regain a knowledge of God through the preaching of the Gospel and the sharing of Christian communion. Only with that knowledge can any one of us become what we were meant by nature to be, for by nature we were meant to live with God and like God. Thus we may say with St. Maximus the Confessor that Christ “reestablished human nature in conformity with itself,” this time with a fuller knowledge of God informed by the revelation of God’s own self-giving nature, a glory withheld from all the saints who came before Christ. For only after the Incarnation could the living and the dead know the self-giving God; only then could the faithful patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament be “made perfect.” (Heb. 11:40) “For in no other way,” St. Irenaeus writes, “could we have learned the things of God, unless our Master, existing as the Word, had become man. For no other being had the power of revealing to us the things of the Father, except His own proper Word.”
The revelation is both theological and anthropological: Man is shown a sight of the self-giving God, who does not demand sacrifice but gives of Himself not only to redeem the world, but also to create and perfect it; at the same time, man is shown a sight of a truly holy and Godlike man — man as he is meant to be.
For the revelation to work, Christ had to be both fully God and fully man. He had to be fully God for God to be revealed as self-giving; He had to be fully man for man to be revealed as capable of God-likeness. If Christ were not fully God, God would still appear to man as a distant deity who demands obedience and requires propitiation; if He were not fully man, man would still appear incapable of holiness and not called to Godlike self-giving. For this reason, the Church has jealously guarded both Christ’s divinity and Christ’s humanity, as any compromise on either point would cripple the Christian Gospel:
1. If Christ is not God, then God is an unknowable Other who demands of us what he himself does not do.
2. If Christ is not God, then goodness is purely arbitrary — a mere matter of obedience to God’s arbitrary will.
3. If Christ is not God, then God himself is not good because he obeys no one, humbles himself before no one, gives of himself to no one.
4. If Christ is not God, then to be godlike is to be aloof, imperious, and unloving.
Many gods men have worshiped are just such gods — distant, unknowable, inhuman, arbitrary, handing down laws for men to obey, demanding sacrifice but never demonstrating it. The Allah of Islam is such a god. He is utterly unlike man. He deals with man only through his prophet, who passes on his edicts. What Allah wants from us is not love for each other or imitation of him; what Allah wants from us is submission. The word Islam
means just that — submission. Allah doesn’t set an example for us to follow; he creates creatures and expects them to suffer and die for him, but he never returns the favor. That’s the god you get if Christ is not God.
Equally important to the ancients was the man you get if Christ is not man. The more pious, more moral, more philosophical pagans were greatly tempted to despise material existence, embarrassed as they were by the body’s irrational impulses and physical weakness. Their piety, morality, and reason could have been forces for good in the world, but their contempt for the material inclined them toward a fatalistic detachment from the world and a selfish focus on their own spiritual escape. At the same time, less pious, less moral, less philosophical pagans believed that goodness was for the gods and that man could hardly resist much less be blamed for doing what comes naturally to the body. To both, it therefore mattered whether Christ was also fully man:
1. If Christ is not man, then man can blame human nature, human genetics, human hormones, human frailty, human disease, or the human predicament for his sinfulness, as people today very often do.
2. If Christ is not man, then man can still complain that human weakness makes following Christ’s example impossible and “what would Jesus do” irrelevant.
3. If Christ is not man, then man is but a beast, barely above other beasts despite his superior intelligence and hardly worthy of divine adoption as a co-heir with Christ.
4. If Christ is not man, then His Resurrection was just what we might expect from God, but not something we should expect for man.
Other religions have their avatars. Even the gods of the Greeks and Romans were said to sometimes walk about in human guise. But no mere appearance of a god in human guise can reveal anything about what it means to actually be human or inspire in humans a life that we can fairly call divine. In all such religions, there remains a great divide between the spiritual and the material, with dispassionate divinity on one side and passionate humanity on the other. Only the Incarnation of Christ bridges that divide, revealing that neither the body nor human nature nor the material world are unfit habitations for God. Christ’s demonstration of divine approval sanctifies human nature and the material world in the minds of men, preparing them for salvation not, says St. Irenaeus, “by a casting away of the flesh, but by the impartation of the Spirit.”
That’s the best answer I can give at the moment to the question of salvation and theosis. Your thoughts are welcome.
In Christ, Dn. Patrick