The Greek Fathers and the Righteousness of God

Here is the last part of the current “Life in Christ” column, written, as usual, by the Orthodox priest John Breck. Of course, he is discussing a rather complicated and sensitive subject in the space of a column. We can discuss his exegesis, whether his charactererization of Western views is accurate, and other issues in the comments box, if you wish. But I very much appreciated reading Fr Breck’s response when, as he says, “a Roman Catholic friend (and a good theologian) recently asked me whether the Greek Fathers of the Church understand the term ‘righteousness’ in a forensic sense,” meaning by “forensic” that “God does not ‘make’ us righteous” but declares us so:

To the Greek Fathers, what we inherit from Adam is not his sin and consequent guilt, but mortality. From Adam (understood, really, as an archetype), we “inherit” the sting of death. Death has spread to all of humanity, as an inevitable consequence of our fallen nature; yet each of us, under the threat of death, rebels personally against God, the Author of Life. This means that our guilt is our own; we bring it upon ourselves. (A sign in our local marina declares: “You are responsible for your wake!” How true…)

Greek patristic tradition generally interprets the Pauline notion of dikaiosyne as “righteousness,” rather than as “justice” in the forensic sense. That is, the term refers first to God’s own quality of righteousness, understood more as an expression of love and mercy than as one of divine justice that must be “satisfied.” Through the indwelling Holy Spirit, followers of Christ are capable of receiving that divine righteousness as a gift – one that can actually work a transformation in human life by enabling us to pray, to wage spiritual warfare against the passions, and to love both God and other people. Human nature (ousia ) remains “fallen”; but the human person (hypostasis) is led by the Spirit on a pathway of sanctification.

In the Eastern perspective, there is no thought that we must accumulate merits in order to justify ourselves before God, although our faithful often seem (as evidenced in Confession) to feel that if we are to be saved, our good works must outweigh our sins. Nor, on the other hand, is there a denial of the place and importance of good works in Christian life (Ephesians 2:8-10!). Salvation is accomplished by grace in response to faith. But that faith cannot be passive; it must express itself, not merely by confessing Jesus as “personal Lord and Savior,” but by feeding, clothing, visiting and otherwise caring for the “least” of Jesus’ brethren (Mt 25).

What we are saved from is the key issue here. Rather than view salvation primarily as a forensic liberation from guilt through imputed or imparted righteousness, we should see it as incorporation, by baptism, into Christ’s death and resurrection, such that we “die and rise” with Him. Thus we are saved from Death. We are freed from this ultimate consequence of sin and guilt – but only as a divinely bestowed gift of God’s ineffable love, expressed in the suffering death of His Son, a gift to which we respond with faith that issues in love. That response, through the action of the indwelling Spirit, enables us finally to share in Christ’s own resurrection and glorification, attaining what the Greek Fathers call theôsis or “deification” (which means existential participation in God’s life, and not ontological confusion between God and His human creatures).

Good works should thus be understood to be a response rather than a means to salvation. And God’s righteousness should be seen as a gift of loving, merciful, saving grace, rather than as a forensic tool, wielded in the service of divine judgment.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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