Salvation in a Cloud of Witnesses

florence-baptistry1Perhaps more than any culture in history – America has championed the individual. The context for this cultural development was the nation’s historic resistance to the class structures of 17th and 18th century Europe (and later) as well as a positive response to certain intellectual concepts that were popular at the time of the nation’s independence. The European settlement of America in its early modern history was largely accomplished by individuals or individual families. Later migrations would see the settlement of larger groups – who frequently became part of the greater “melting-pot” in which people saw themselves first as defined by their individual talents and efforts and only secondarily as belonging to an ethnic or religious group.

American religion – first as import from Europe and later with varieties of home-grown denominations – gradually assumed the character of the culture. Salvation (already given an individual cast in some versions of early Protestantism) became viewed as almost exclusively individual in nature. By the late 20th century, Americans had become “consumers” of religion, many denominations and groups having grasped the basics of marketing.

In the face of such developments (which are quickly being exported across the globe), the essential message of the gospel – that salvation is corporate (or collective) in character rather than individual, simply sounds like heresy. At the heart of this discrepancy are two radically different views of what it means to be human – and thus what it means to be whole as a human being. I will offer several observations that seem to be related to these radically different views.

First, salvation understood primarily as individual, is inherently non-Trinitarian. This is not to say that those who teach salvation as individual do not profess faith in a Trinitarian God, but that their doctrine of salvation is divorced from their understanding of God. Trinitarian theology and soteriology have no particular or necessary connection. In such settings, worship will largely be cast in non-Trinitarian language (either emphasizing Jesus or the Holy Spirit, depending on the tradition). In many modern, market-driven models, the language of “God” will trump everything else. The Trinity is too complex and confusing to market easily.

Second, salvation understood primarily as individual, will tend towards the democratization of religion. If an individual can be saved without reference to a corporate body or collective (I’ll come back to these terms), then hierarchy is either useless or worse. The individual has his or her copy of the Scriptures, and, as individual, is seen as  increasingly capable of reading the Word of God without reference outside themselves. “What it says to me,” is seen as the sufficient criteria for interpretation.

But what does this say about the understanding of what it means to be a whole human being? What is a whole individual? Politically, such wholeness has been defined in terms of power and freedom. If an individual is deprived of power, then he cannot fully realize his potential as a human being. If he is deprived of freedom, he is again deprived of his potential to choose and act in such a way as to be whole. These same concerns are easily translated into individual models of salvation. Being empowered to choose and act freely become ever more important. Thus if there is a hierarchy that refuses to ordain women – it is a stumbling block to freedom and power. The same can be said about homosexual unions, etc. Salvation, if understood in a manner that limits empowerment and freedom, will come to be seen as wrong, if only because it is a message that runs against the flow of empowerment and freedom as viewed within the culture.

An excellent example of this occured once in an inquirer’s class I was teaching before I was Orthodox (I was an Anglican priest). I was teaching a class on Christian morality and offered as authoritative the traditional teachings of the Christian faith in matters of sex and marriage, etc. One of the couples in the class seemed upset by my presentation and asked, “What right does the Church have to tell me how to live my life?” I admit that I was stunned by the question, if only because of its honesty. I gave them a short answer, “Because you are raising my children.” The complete answer has more depth, but I thought they might find it helpful to consider that the world included someone other than themselves.

What does it mean to be a human being – such that being a whole human being would be any different than what we now are? In a proper Orthodox understanding, the very conception of the human being as an “individual,” in the modern sense, is itself one of the symptoms of sin. We do not rightly exist as individuals – and fall into sin whenever we act in such a manner. The classical Christian understanding of what it means to be human, created in the image of God, is that we are persons, which is not to be confused with individuals. Personal existence is never to be understood in an isolated, self-referential manner. In Trinitarian theology, we cannot say “Father” in a self-referential manner. The very name “Father” implies another and implies some sort of relationship. The same is true of “Son,” as well as “Spirit.” This is why some Christian modernist attempts to find new expressions for the Persons of the Holy Trinity are so often heretical. “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier,” was a popular usage by liberal Anglicans when I was in seminary – but is heretical because all three Persons of the Trinity can be named by any one of these functions. Christ’s revelation of the Trinity was intensely personal – not only giving us names by which we could refer to the Persons of the Trinity – but ultimately revealing the very reality that God is Personal. The language of Personhood is distinctly Christian and developed only within the context of the Church’s efforts to find proper expressions for what had been revealed in Christ.

To be whole as a human person, is quite distinct from wholeness as an individual. Person carries within it the uniqueness and unrepeatablity that we usually associate with the word individual. However, it also carries within it – at its very root – the understanding that a person properly only exists in communion with another person. It is in this sense that we may say “God is love.” Love is not some abstract essence which may be equated with the being of God. Rather, God is love because the Father loves the Son and the Spirit and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Thus when Christ speaks of the new life given to His disciples He says:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another (John 15:9-17).

This passage would largely be nonsense in an individualistic understanding of the human. The love we are commanded is none other than the love of the Father for the Son. Christ is not offering a moral homily on the advantages of acting in a loving manner. We are commanded to love, indeed to “abide in my love.” These things are for the fullness of our being, “that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” We are transformed from servants into friends – friendship being defined as mutual sacrifice of life. This is the love of God manifest in the “emptying” (kenosis) of Christ on behalf of all creation described in Philippians 2.

It is this image and reality of personhood that is damaged in the fall. Eve eats the fruit in a manner that has no regard for God. Thus she inaugurates the first moment of non-eucharistic behavior. Food is eaten with regard only for oneself and not with regard to God. It is not a communion of life, but a meal of death. Ever after, fallen human beings turned ever inward, away from the love of other. The result is death and murder and every form of brutality. It is betrayal and coldness of heart, greed, envy and lust. These are not moral failings, but existential failings. We do not live as persons, but as mere individuals. As such we could never be saved.

The incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ are the invitation of God to humanity to an existence that is truly personal rather than individualistic. Thus it is that the first act to which a believer submits is Holy Baptism. There the individual ceases to exist as individual and is Baptized into true Personhood. It is the first act of communal existence given to the Christian and is the hallmark of every Christian action to follow. Met. John Zizioulas describes the new birth in Holy Baptistm as the birth of the “ecclesial hypostasis.” (I’ve never used his term in the context of a sermon-and don’t recommend it). But the “ecclesial hypostasis” means simply an existence that is “Churchly” and “Personal” (ecclesia=Church; hypostasis=Person). We are put to death in Baptism, united to Christ in His death, and made alive in His resurrection. The new existence we are given in Holy Baptism is no longer that of an individual (isolated and self-referential) but now of a Person – whose existence is confirmed and fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. These are not moral acts of a new moral code, but life-giving acts that fulfill a new existence.

Thus, to exist as a whole Person is the goal of salvation in Christ. It is for this reason that the place of communion and participation become of primary importance. Koinonia, the NT word for this reality, (often translated poorly as “fellowship”), is the truth of our existence the very mode of our being. The mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist are thus rightly seen as a participation, as is our part in the Body of Christ. Indeed all of life becomes transformed into communion and participation in the life of God. It is the life of the age to come.

Our salvation occurs in a manner that is in no way isolated, but rather in a “Cloud of Witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We are Baptized into a community of existence that is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:23). For this same reason the Church prays as community, the prayers of all generations united in one voice of praise to God. For His life is our life, our salvation and our hope.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


14 responses to “Salvation in a Cloud of Witnesses”

  1. Joseph Hromy Avatar
    Joseph Hromy

    Nice posting Father you are right most people even catholics I am the only orthodox person in my family, think the person comes first then the group or church. I wonder what western society would be like today if it as the other way around!

  2. Barbara Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this explanation. Being lost alone makes sense in the context of individual vs/ person.

  3. Mary Avatar

    Father Stephen is this why our little prayers alone are valuable?

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would think that first and foremost they are of value because prayer is communion with God. He prays in us. The Spirit cries “Abba, Father,” God in communion with God which is the life we step into in prayer.

    And not only the Life of God, but the Life of God shared with the whole Cloud of Witnesses. In that sense, we never pray alone.

    And all of our prayer is powerful, because God is merciful. He delights in our communion with Him.

  5. mic Avatar

    Bless Father in the Name of the Lord!

    This particular paragraph struck deep…

    “It is this image and reality of personhood that is damaged in the fall. Eve eats the fruit in a manner that has no regard for God. Thus she inaugurates the first moment of non-eucharistic behavior. Food is eaten with regard only for oneself and not with regard to God. It is not a communion of life, but a meal of death. Ever after, fallen human beings turned ever inward, away from the love of other. The result is death and murder and every form of brutality. It is betrayal and coldness of heart, greed, envy and lust. These are not moral failings, but existential failings. We do not live as persons, but as mere individuals. As such we could never be saved.”

    Forgive, i can’t say why it struck me so deeply, only that it did! Thank you Fr.


  6. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Great post.
    The issue of individualism in this country also seems to be fused to the way in which some Christian read the Bible. Many Americans claim to read the Bible on a daily basis and in it’s entirety throughout the year but they do not know the culture in which the Scripture has come forth. Reading the Bible is a great thing but when read by an isolated individual it begins to lose it’s meaning. Apparently this makes a huge difference in what one sees when they turn the pages of the Bible. When we read in light of the Church, it becomes literally impossible not to get the message that we are not individuals but rather persons moving towards God and one another, created for communion. This particular country does not make community or communion easy but I believe this is also a larger existential problem of man that has found a nice comfortable resting place in the United States. I recently received the Orthodoxy study Bible and am attempting to read through it in a year. I have quickly realized, if we just read for the sake of reading, moving along with great speed, there is much that will be missed. I think that there is great wisdom in reading slowly absorbing as much as possible rather than reading to extract knowledge. It is amazing to me how many individuals are always trying to find themselves, know themselves better, etc. and somehow interpret the message of Christ about losing life in order to find it, as cryptic. or extreme. What part of “pick up the Cross and follow me” do people not understand. Thank you for the reminders in this post and for the “one sermon”, which is all about the one thing needful. If I had but one sermon to preach, this is the one I would choose. Pray for me a sinner…and to bear my cross with thanksgiving. Lord have mercy.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A reflection: Just one change I would make. Fr. you say the religion followed the culture. I disagree, the culture followed bad theology whether it was belief in the Pope as the Church or the belief that we are each our own popes–add the humanist/scholastic ideas that God is far away and knowable only in thought and you have a real mess.

    Every one of the ‘culture war’ dilemmas from abortion to the abolition of marriage to the corrupt polticial-economy stem from the human being understood as an autonomous individual rather than as a person in community. It started with bad theology which was inclcated into bad philosophy that gave rise to bad science and the twisted use of technology each step further atomizing us, leaving us alone and subject to the merciless purveyors of erstatz community, the tyrants and their muderous collective ideologies.

    I was particularly struck by the statement that these were not moral failings, but existential ones which I translate as meaing that simply following a moral code (the law) is not salvific; merely having a relationship with Jesus is not enough because people in a relationship remain individuals, discreet and the relationship is remains under the control of each participant, breakable at any time–ephemeral. To counter the problem, the Jesus as tyrant idea was born which has now become Jesus as tycoon or self-help guru.

    In the Orthodox setting, these ideas often seem to be translated into the ethnic phyletism (substituting an ethnic group for the individual) we suffer so much from.

    As I’ve read several places lately that the choice between good and evil is a fallen choice, a possibility that only occurs when we divorce ourselves from God, become individuals. In communion with God and therefore in community with each other and the rest of creation we chose, as St. Paul and St. Gregory of Nyssa described, from amongst a plethora of good things, moving from glory to glory.

  8. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, bless! It is intuitively obvious to me that “Father” and “Son” express relationship and, therefore, personhood. Because of the modern uses of the word “spirit,” Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily intuitively evoke the same sense of relationship and personhood for me–outside the context of the Scriptures, that is. I ran into a cult which believed in Father and Son, but believed the Spirit to be merely the expression of God’s power, not the third Person of the Trinity. (Possibly also some of St. Augustine’s thinking about the third Person of the Trinity being the love between the Father and the Son, or something to that effect, is responsible for some of this confusion.) I know why this is not so, given the attributes ascribed to the Holy Spirit in Scripture (i.e., only a Person, not a mere force or power, can be “grieved,” for instance). I’m thinking it might be helpful to me to understand more fully the development of the Church Fathers’ thinking about this as it relates to the revelation of the Trinity and the true nature of Personhood. Possibly the essence/energies distinction made by the Greek Fathers may also be pertinent here? Properly speaking, is it not true that God’s power/energy cannot be thought of as separate from His entire Person, (i.e., His power is not a commodity separate from His Being–I think I’m answering my own question here!)? Any sources you might recommend?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Michael – maybe a chicken or egg thing – culture and religion were working hand in hand very much over those centuries.

    Karen – what does not seem obvious to us (Personhood of the Spirit) is because “Spirit” has changed meaning in our culture – particularly at the hands of some pentecostal and charismatic theology. Spirit/Ruach/Pneuma – has at its root meaning “breath,” though it can also mean “wind.” But as “breath” it is a highly relational name (someone has to do the breathing).

    St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit is the great treatise on the Divinity and Personhood of the Spirit – his work was the foundation for the third paragraph in the Creed completed in 381 at the Second Council.

    Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church has much to say on the subject, as does Met. John Zizioulas – a new work by Papanikolaou, who teaches at Fordham, I think, has a masterful work that looks at both Lossky and Zizioulas. These last three works, however, are difficult reads.

  10. Kevin Isaac Avatar
    Kevin Isaac

    It is once again a blessing, Father, to read your refreshing post. As one raised in western protestant denominations and having, by the grace of God, come to and entered the Orthodox church as an adult, this post resonates deeply. Although I was not fully conscious of it at the time, I have since come to realize that the individualistic teachings and practices that exist in the prot-evang world was a motivating factor behind my unrest in earlier years.

    The term “ecclesial-hypostasis is quite apt, I think. I seem to encounter similiar thinking in the following quote from Khomiakov:

    “the Church is not an authority, just as God is not an authority, just as Christ is not an authority; for an authority is for us something external. Not an authority, I say, but truth, and at the same time the life of a Christian, his inner life; for God, Christ, the Church live in him by a life more real than the heart beating in his breast or the blood flowing in his veins; but they live, inasmuch as he himself lives by the universal life of love and unity, that is, by the life of the Church”

  11. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    I came to the Orthodox Church because I was attracted to her as an abstraction: “the Church that Christ founded; the original church”, etc.

    But the Church that I found is anything but an abstraction.

  12. […] “Salvation in a Cloud of Witnesses” by Fr. Stephen Freeman […]

  13. Mary Avatar

    MuleChewingBriars said:

    I came to the Orthodox Church because I was attracted to her as an abstraction: “the Church that Christ founded; the original church”, etc.

    But the Church that I found is anything but an abstraction.

    Yes – how very true!!! I came to the Church because it was the “original church”, with “right worship” and “right belief”. What I have found is Life Himself!

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