Turning Our Hearts to the Cross
A Response to Metropolitan Maximos
by Addison H. Hart
I regard it an honor to be asked to respond to the address of Metropolitan Maximos, a hierarch who is widely respected for both his graciousness and his learning.
I must begin by stating that on most of the points made and issues raised by Metropolitan Maximos I find myself in full agreement, especially in his conviction that a return to the Fathers is imperative for Christians of all stripes, and also in his concern for the contemporary “culture wars” in which we find ourselves engaged. Nonetheless, I think it important to offer two points of difference with comments made in the otherwise fine talk we have heard.
The Understanding of Grace
My first disagreement has to do with the persistent Eastern Orthodox misunderstanding of what the Western Church means by “Created Grace.” Admittedly, this is an ambiguous term, open to misunderstanding, so I cannot fault Metropolitan Maximos for unintentionally misrepresenting the concept when he stated the following:
Unfortunately, there is a great difference in the understanding of this mystery of grace between the Eastern and Western Churches. In the Eastern Church, in following the Fathers, theologians understand “grace” as “relation”. . . .
In contrast, the West speaks of grace in “essentialistic” terms, that is, a “created reality,” when it speaks of “created grace” (gratia creata), a reality allegedly created by God to connect human and divine reality. The Christian East finds it impossible to understand grace in any way other than relational; it is a “relational entity” which enables humans to participate in the life of God. The image used by the Greek Fathers (such as St. Basil) is that of iron in the fire: in the same way in which iron gains the properties of the fire while in it, man, in the life of grace, acquires the spiritual qualities of God’s Holy Spirit in whom he lives.
Now, the irony is that what Metropolitan Maximos here contends to be the uniquely Eastern understanding of grace, “greatly different” from and “in contrast” to the Western teaching, is exactly the meaning of the Western doctrine of “Created Grace” (gratia creata). There is no great difference or contrast on this point, only a difference of language (Latin) and theological terminology (what we would call “Thomistic” or “Scholastic”). When it comes to the understanding of grace itself, Western theologians are in virtual agreement with their Eastern counterparts—employing, in fact, the same analogies from the Fathers (e.g., that of the iron in the fire). In addition, no Western theologian worth his salt would ever regard Created Grace as anything other than essentially “relational.”
The term, though, requires some explaining. “Created Grace” is also called “Habitual Grace” (from habitus—an endowment) and “Sanctifying Grace.” The central theological issue is one with which we are all familiar: How do we, who are creatures, become (as 2 Pet. 1:4 puts it) “partakers of the divine nature”? When King Charles I proclaimed from the scaffold that “a subject and a sovereign are clean different things,” he was tragically mistaken. But when we finite mortals speak of God—infinite, immortal, invisible, incomprehensible, uncreated—we are speaking of One clean different from us. Yet, we are told, it is his intention that we human creatures, through Christ, are meant to participate in the inner life of the Holy Trinity. How can such a deification of human nature be accomplished? In what terms can our human minds even grasp it? Obviously, this is a mystery to human thought. Still, some definitions and distinctions must be made, precisely to protect the mystery and revelation from real error.
The Western Church has used the phrase “Beatific Vision” to express the ultimate joy of heaven and deification, based on the apostolic witness of 1 John 3:2—“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” In this foundational testimony, we should note three important truths.
First, by grace we creatures are made “God’s children”—in other words, this grace is unquestionably relational.
Second, this relational grace is “the seed of glory”: “We shall see [God] as he is,” and thus discover in that Beatific Vision that we have been transformed, glorified, deified, made “like him.” As the great Sulpician theologian Fr. Adolphe Tanquerey (1854–1932) put it: “Habitual [created] grace and the Beatific Vision are . . . one in kind and one in nature.”1 If these are indeed “one in nature,” then it should go without saying that grace cannot be a created substance—cannot be (in Metropolitan Maximos’s phrase) “essentialistic.”
Third, put in the vitally important terms of dogmatic theology, ours is not a “hypostatic union,” as is the uniting of human nature to the Divine Person of the Son. Our creaturely partaking of the divine nature can only, ever be a relation of likeness, and thus it must be acknowledged that infinite grace can only be operative in us as befits finite creatures. Unlike Christ, we have no substantial union with the divine nature—we are human persons, not divine persons. We need to be made capable of the Beatific Vision—we cannot possess it by nature. On the other hand, deification is not assimilation into the Godhead (a creature can never become uncreated in substance!). “God-likeness” is the most we can hope for—but that’s quite a hope! Our union with God is therefore what is called, in Latin theology, accidental.
St. Thomas Aquinas gets to the heart of what this means when he quotes the words of an unknown ancient Christian writer (he ascribes the words—wrongly—to Boethius): “Accidentis esse est inesse”—“The being of an accident is to be-in.”2 To be-in what, exactly? To be in a substance, obviously. And the substance in which grace ultimately is is the uncreated essence of God himself.
The Eastern Church, whether speaking of the original creation or the work of regeneration and deification in Christ, uses the time-honored language of “essence” and “energies” to make the necessary distinction between God in himself and God in his operations in the created order. Western, Latin-language theology has used the term gratia creata in its own attempt to make the same necessary distinction. The word “created” refers not to the substance of grace (which is God himself), but to that same grace as it is infused and at work in our created natures accidentally. The Thomist scholar, Timothy McDermott, is therefore surely correct in rendering, if a bit loosely, the words of the Angelic Doctor on this matter in the following way: “Strictly speaking, a supervening quality is not so much in existence itself, as a way in which something else exists; and so grace is not created, but men are created in it, established in a new existence out of nothing, without earning it.”3
Far from this constituting some great divergence of West from East, I think it is safe to say that here we have—potentially, at least—a real point of doctrinal convergence, despite our differing terminologies.
The Cross as an End in Itself?
My other concern is perhaps not so much a disagreement with Metropolitan Maximos as merely a matter of differing emphases and therefore complementary to his own observations.
I appreciated the Metropolitan’s remarks concerning the meaning of the Cross of Christ in Eastern Christianity. However, I was somewhat surprised by his perception of the Cross in Western theology. Here are his words:
In the West, the Cross of Christ seems to be an end in itself.
How does he support this statement? He continues:
I remember the vacuum that I felt in my soul when watching Godspell a few years ago. The play ended with the Cross and Burial of Christ. It seems that the play Jesus Christ Superstar was conceived in a similar way. This treatment is inconceivable in the spirituality of the East.
I sincerely regret that the rich Christian Tradition of the West is seemingly confused here with Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar—examples merely of desiccated modernism. The Western Church does not regard the Cross of Christ as “an end in itself.” It does not forget the glory and triumph of the Resurrection as it looks upon “the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:18) of Christ’s love revealed on the Cross. In God’s wisdom, the Cross can only be seen clearly in the splendor of the Resurrection, and yet the joy of the Resurrection can only be known by passing through the dark doorway of the Cross.
It is possible that the particular stress on the Resurrection that took shape in Greek Christianity was the outcome of the church’s apologetics during the earliest centuries. Cardinal Jean Daniélou suggested as much in his book, Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture.4 He wrote:
Of all the dogmas of Christianity, that of the resurrection was without doubt the most difficult for a Greek to accept—a fact which is already apparent in the account of St. Paul’s Areopagus speech. Hence it is understandable that it should be this doctrine for which we find the earliest justifications in apologetic writing.
The West, in comparison, has tended to emphasize the centrality of the Cross in its homiletics, liturgy, and piety. The roots of this can already be found in the New Testament: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2); also, “Far be it from me to glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). Biblical references could be multiplied, each indicating how the Cross, always viewed in the radiance of the Resurrection, is forever placed before our eyes by the apostles: “Before your eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed (prosgraphe) as crucified” (Gal. 3:1).
The Only True Standard
Metropolitan Maximos has reminded us of the extent of the culture wars in which we are presently engaged. This is now compounded by the reality of terrorism at home and a war of civilizations abroad. In addition, we Christians still must face with dismay the fact of our scandalous ecclesiastical divisions before a world that judges our faith in relation to that fact.
With such things in mind, I am reminded of a sermon of John Henry Newman, preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford, before his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. It can be found in volume VI of his Parochial and Plain Sermons, and its very title is worth pondering in light of the matters just enumerated: “The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World.” I want to conclude by reflecting on a few lines from this sermon of Newman’s, not to address issues associated with the doctrine of the Cross, such as the Atonement and Justification, but as a reminder to us of how the Cross is our standard above all else.
Newman begins his sermon by positing that the world we inhabit is a perplexity to the human mind, requiring an interpretation—a disclosure of meaning. He then moves to what he knows to be that means by which the Christian alone is able to begin to see the truth behind “all that smiles and glitters around us” in this world:
What is given us by revelation to estimate and measure this world by? . . . [T]he crucifixion of the Son of God.
It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man.
The Cross, as Newman goes on to say, is that which weighs man’s politics, governments, sciences, arts, and miseries: “It is their center,” he claims, “and their interpretation.” Furthermore—
If we will not acknowledge that this world has been made miserable by sin, from the sight of Him on whom our sins were laid, we shall experience it to be miserable by the recoil of those sins upon ourselves.
It may be granted, then, that the doctrine of the Cross is not on the surface of the world . . . for truth is not on the surface of things, but in the depths.
The Cross is both the hidden heart of the world and the revealed heart of Christianity, leading us inexorably into all the truths of the faith. “The sacred doctrine of Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice,” says Newman, “is the vital principle on which the Christian lives, and without which Christianity is not.”
[The gospel] bids us begin with the Cross of Christ [which], telling us of our redemption as well as of his sufferings, wounds us indeed, but so wounds as to heal [us] also.
And thus, too, [through the Cross] all that is bright and beautiful, even on the surface of this world . . . is a figure and promise of that true joy which issues out of the Atonement . . . the true victory to come . . . the true joy which comes with Easter-Day.
Newman’s sermon is an example to us both of a Western “public portrayal of Christ crucified” and how this is definitely not “an end in itself.” It shows us another sort of “end,” though, an end indicated by the words of Christ: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” ( John 12:31). As “the measure of the world,” it is the already accomplished endpoint of human history, and—through the Resurrection—an end of evil yet to be realized. Its shadow is permanently cast over our contemporary culture wars, and all our wars and ills. Most crucial to our concerns, and why we are gathered here—literally crucial for us—is that we divided Christians cannot possibly look together upon Christ crucified and, measured by that only true standard, sustain our divisions.
3. Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation (Westminster Maryland: Christian Classics, 1989). This is a rendering of Summa, Ia 2ae. 110, 3, the original of which is: Et secundum hoc etiam gratia dicitur creari ex eo quod homines secundum ipsam creantur, idest in novo esse constituuntur ex nihilo, idest, non ex meritus.
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.