Being Saved – The Ontological Approach


I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself. For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons. Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”). There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures. It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being. But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence. The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin. When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic). It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.” The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it. The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…” Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken. The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins. If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha:

“Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems. It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church. It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity. I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


128 responses to “Being Saved – The Ontological Approach”

  1. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    I’m with Paula, who says you’re “one of our own”… Indeed! You are beloved!

    Dean, God grant you many years!!!

    I had a funny conversation with a chemistry class a few months ago. I called my students “spring chickens”. They balked and asked me what I meant by that. (I too was bewildered that they didn’t understand) So I explained, and then they asked me, so what are you?!! I answered, “I’m a ‘toasted chicken’”.

  2. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    On further thought, perhaps I should have said, toasted, but not done yet!

    please forgive my silliness.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paula, I am a member of a large parish (for Orthodox), a cathedral parish in fact with a Bishop in residence. Our size and our Bishop enables us and requires us to do many things such as help the smaller mission parishes around us. We have a Classical School heading to a K-12 school and many other significant works by the Grace of God. We are also blessed with a temple that is gradually filling with painted icons. Is it extravagant? Only if we allow it to be.

    I would theoretically prefer a small parish but they can be quite difficult to live in at least for me.

  4. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Michael…brother, the small couldn’t live without the big 🙂 We are a diverse people!

    Dee…funny! I use that phrase too. Many times we use idioms and don’t even realize they are outdated. This happens when we have become “toasted chickens”!
    Listen…this spring one of my “old hens”, who they say are “no good” after about five years (she is much older), just hatched three chicks! I’m with Father…the elder years “are something to be cherished”!

  5. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Michael, I’m excited that your school is expanding the offering to a k-11 school. Glory to God! Next a post secondary school— God willing. I can appreciate the advantages of the big parish.

    Our church building is small and humble (which I love) but the size of the membership is growing and outgrowing the church building. We pray to find a larger place.

    Paula, yeah for your old hen!!! I think of the Theotokos parents, Joachim and Anna. God blessed their physical and spiritual love for each other in their ‘old age’ with a glorious child.

  6. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Sorry for typo—K-12

  7. Dean Avatar

    Thanks Jeff, Paula, Dee.
    Speaking of extravagant….Some of the sports stadiums built here, in Canada and elsewhere cost 1.5 Billion to build. They are the new cathedrals of this world. Many of these were built with tax-payer money. At least our churches are built with the tithes, offerings, and sacrifices of the parishioners…hopefully out of love for God.
    We are not Puritans. I think of the instructions God gave for the building of the tabernacle in the desert. It was built of the finest materials, very costly and beautifully adorned by the most talented craftsmen. My heart broke at the burning of Notre Dame in Paris. Yet, few tears would be split over the burning of a gym/church (if no one was injured and it was insured). Beauty trumps utilitarian every time.

  8. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    I am extraordinarily blessed to belong to a large parish with a Cathedral Church filled with incredible frescos and icons and a magnificent choir. Because of the wealth in our community, we are able to do this, as well as support the less financially fortunate members of our parish in addition to other Orthodox charities and local monasteries. All giving is good as long as we give for the Glory of God as Christ explained after the woman poured a very expensive bottle of precious oil over his head instead of selling it and giving the money to the poor.

  9. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Great post. I’m sure you will remember my Romanides tendencies, but I think you’re saying a lot of what he was saying as he was very against moralism. You nailed the confusion, “we don’t say Christ was incarnate to pay…” – that’s what the incarnation is for, for Westerners.

    I feel, this is where to begin with reaching out to Westerners. Start with soteriology and everything falls into place, start with history and it may take years before they reach soteriology – or worse, they may just incorporate Western soteriology into their understanding of Orthodoxy.

    I firmly believe new, numerous books should be written as introductions to Orthodoxy that start with the soteriology of the Church – then with a little logic and thought everything will fall into place – then the historical arguments and others make sense. I really hope Priests like you think about this advice when approaching Westerners. You have to answer endless questions on Eucharist, Icons, Mary etc. – and often no one stops the conversation and says, “these are all confusing to you because of your soteriology, lets start there”. Then most of the questions will go away because it will be natural, normal, the what seemed like “extra pieces to the puzzle that don’t fit” are actually essential pieces.

    God bless you!

  10. Dino Avatar

    Father, Paula, Michael, Scott,

    One notable thing regularly omitted from universalism discussions –not even discussed in that comprehensive conversation link above (from Fr Aidan’s site) – is that every authority who maintained a ‘Universal Apokatastasis’ speculation (as an inevitability for all hypostatic beings in order for God to be God), from Origen, Nyssa, Isaac the Syrian, to the present day ones, spoke of a purifying/purgatorial Gehenna that is in no way (other than the theoretical concept of an “indefinable time” vs an “infinity”) any less unbearable than the ‘classical model’ (of everlasting ‘immutability’).

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For what its worth, I know that Fr. Aidan understands that and does not say otherwise.

  12. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “One notable thing regularly omitted…is [that the]purifying/purgatorial Gehenna {God’s love as “a consuming Fire”] that is in no way…any less unbearable than the ‘classical model…”

    Dino…you make a good point, if it indeed true that this is “regularly omitted”.

    I certainly can not say whether the belief of purifying fire is “regularly” omitted, because I have not read every single point and counterpoint about “universalism” . A word, btw, which I do not think Fr Aidan uses. I believe he uses instead, universal salvation. Classic universal *ism* is not his conviction.
    Somewhere in my readings on that subject, and I think it was from Fr Aidan’s site, there is mention of the purgatorial cleansing, which classic universalism omits, and why he avoids such constraining labels.
    I personally do not spend an extraordinary amount of time on this subject. We are familiar with the Fathers you mention, and the teaching of the Church. We are not given a definitive answer. My hope and prayer is that it is “yes”. So much so that I have difficulty accepting the possibility that it may not be so. That is not my experience the love and mercy of God.

  13. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father…just saw your response. That’s what I thought…

  14. Dino Avatar

    I am not pointing out to any omissions on Fr Aidan’s speculation. Rather I find that the “severity” of hell (while not infinite) in universal apokatastasis (as spoken of by its saintly proponents) often escapes our attention – in our understandable focus on the final victory of goodness that drives it.
    Unless one speculates on a more controvertible forced ‘free pass for all now’ version.

  15. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “forced ‘free pass for all now’ version.”
    I think this is the fear, if you will, of those who oppose “universal salvation”.
    I do not assume that those who hope for it look at it as a “free pass” and I question that it “escapes our attention”. I think most of us are quite aware of the “severity”, the cleansing Fire. To formulate it into words for the sake of discussion, takes time and not all of us are gifted to do this. But we do understand…
    Plus there is a range of focus between His mercy and “severity” in our discussions about God. Some have a problem with “hearing” severity because even if it is “evened out” with the edifying words of love, our pain and suffering has been enough “severity” to have handled.
    These things take time to heal and should be approached with a view to each persons spiritual maturity. Because of that, I am very reluctant to speak of God’s severity, although I fully understand the point you are making. But I don’t think there is such a thing as speaking “too much” about God’s love.

  16. Dino Avatar

    Based on the foundation of a traditional Orthodox, ascetical background, with the all-consuming experience of God’s love, the saints who spoke of this universal apokatastasis (like St Isaac the Syrian) were never tempted to doubt God’s mercy in the way that western reasoning might do… So the emphasis in that expression is not on “forced free pass”, but on “forced free pass”…
    I find it is always a discussion on the creatures’ freedom (and freedom’s severe consequences), and never on God’s mercy or ‘severity’.
    For example, Lucifer’s fall (whom St Isaac speculates as eventually reformed-through-Gehenna in the newly found writings attributed to him) is considered in full knowledge, awareness, responsibility and consciousness, in a way that (just as God provides immutability to the Angels after Christ’s Ascension) God agrees to provide immutability – permanence to.
    His being’s essence might be created eternally hypostatic, but his free energies are towards non-hypostatic eternal non-being.
    (to invert Maximian terminology of man’s movement from being to well-being to eternal well-being)

  17. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Ah, a significant turn of phrase: the emphasis not on “forced free pass”, but on “forced free pass”. With a strong emphasis on the individual’s freedom. And the possibility of resulting severity.
    I do remember that line of discussion as well.

    “His being’s essence might be created eternally hypostatic, but his free energies are towards non-hypostatic eternal non-being.
    (to invert Maximian terminology of man’s movement from being to well-being to eternal well-being).”
    Oh you stretch my brain!
    Bear with me one more time! My thoughts:
    Both God’s essence and energies are fully God.
    Our human essence is created. Our energies (freedom love joy peace righteousness etc.) are alive only by the grace of God.
    They became “damaged”.
    Our “human being-ness”, the human essence, is eternal (in Christ).
    Our energies, which animate us as sentient beings, are given to us to be used utterly freely.
    Is that what you are saying?
    I wonder, what here is being saved? Isn’t it both our energies and essence?
    Now here is my burdening question….and why I hope for the salvation of all.
    In our damaged will…free, yes, but damaged…and for so much of humanity, blind and deaf, angry, isolated, alone, continually subject to evil forces…how does that freedom we talk about and God’s mercy/judgement…what does that look like? Seriously, I ask…”how would they know?! Regardless of where the emphasis (above) is placed on freedom. Why it doesn’t even occur to them that there are evil forces whose main objective is to destroy those made in God’s image! How could they who do not know God, or who have a false conception of Him, realize what they are doing?! Does there come a time when they will realize it (every knee will bow) and it is then that they will be free to choose?
    But Jesus cried “Father forgive them for they do not know what they do”!

    I don’t know, Dino. I can only pray…

  18. Dino Avatar

    The above point I made was concerning fallen angels (as entirely, knowledgably, independently, conscious in their fall), whereas the point you are making here now pertains to fallen humans (as manipulated and not fully aware in their movement towards non-being).
    The two are very different, yet both ought to be part of any speculation on universal apokatastasis (of beings rejecting God’s mercy).

  19. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Yes Dino…I took your point about the angels and applied it to us.
    Surely fair enough, that the fall of the angels should be considered in the discussion. Even in the area of angels, there are matters we can only speculate.

    Thanks Dino. Gives me more to ponder!

  20. maria Avatar

    Reese wrote: Jesus spoke of salvation in filial terms (e.g. John 14:6) and Paul seemed to say that being adopted and having a filial relationship with God is the very purpose for which we were created (Eph 1:5). Salvation is coming into communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. We can only come to the Father as children in the Child.
    Father Stephen – This brings up something that isn’t exactly pertinent to this discussion, but i wonder if you could address it. Why does the funeral service (and also the prayers for the departed) refer to the departed as “servant of God”? why not “child of God?” After all, Jesus said we are no longer servants but children of God.

  21. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Hi Maria,
    There may be specific reasons. But during the service of the Eucharist, the words include this term, “servant” as well.

    We are called to “put on Christ” in our Holy Baptism. And to become Christ, in likeness, that is, to give self-emptying love. Included in this orientation is obedience, expressed in the words “Thy will be done”.

    Here are a few verses that I found, below. Perhaps there is more rationale than this. I’ll leave the details for others to provide.

    Mark 10:45
    “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

    Luke 22:24-30
    And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ “But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.
    “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

    I hope this might be helpful.

  22. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Dee for your thoughtful response and Maria for your thoughtful question!

    Along side of Dee’s comment, I have found that the multiple analogies found in scripture (here we address “child” and “servant”) are purposefully given for our benefit. They give us a clearer picture of our approach to God…to trust as a child would trust a loving parent, and to serve as one wants to please the One who has “shown His customary love” for us. The obedience, in a sense, becomes natural. We begin to know more and more why we worship and adore Him. In this life long process we draw closer to Him, and in doing so are becoming that which we truly “are”.
    I have found in Orthodoxy the multiplicity of descriptions contribute to the whole picture, if you will. Over time, it is built upon. In other words, rather than saying “it is thus and so and only this” (as I was previously taught), we are given enriching pieces of information that build upon and shine more light on the “mysteries” God would have us to know. I found it is true that when we seek, God will give us what is needed. The process is repetitive throughout our life.

    I hope as well, Maria, that this is helpful to you!

  23. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    On that note, Paula, another piece of advice that Elder Aimilianos gives in his writings is that when we read Holy Scripture or the writings of the holy Fathers, we should read everything, not just excerpts that someone else selected as being important, and not just the stories or sections we think are important — as that is the only way we can receive the fullness of teachings being offered in the text. Thus, in this case, we are both God’s children AND His servants (as you said), not one or the other.

  24. Reece Avatar

    Hi All- I think this touches on the very root of what I was pondering. Scripture does speak of our interactions with God in many different ways such as servant and child. As to why one is used in one context and not another in the Church, I’m sure those who first used them in that context had good reason to do so?

    What strikes me is that God has various types of servants. But we are the only part of his creation that is designated as children. Even more so, filial language is at the very heart of our understanding of God’s nature, as Trinity. Jesus is, of course, the Only Begotten and we are created/adopted children. Regarding salvation, these are the terms that are used for the kind of relationship Christians now have with God- and it is connected to his very nature. That seems pretty unique compared to the many other types of interactions we have with God, such as serving Him. One can see how the language would develop from there into a concept like theosis- a relational becoming that has to do with one’s very nature and the nature of God.

    John said: Behold what manner of love the Father has given to us that we may be called children of God. And that is what we are!
    I suppose, with my very fragile human heart, I hope that is literally true. I hope that isn’t just a picture for another way I interact with a mysterious Being at times. I hope that through Jesus, God created me in love to be His actual child because He actually wants to be a Father to me in the Spirit. He certainly had that relationship with Jesus in His humanity in the Spirit on earth (and for all eternity), and that gives me hope that this is the kind of relationship He intended to have with humanity all along.
    I have to admit, it’s pretty overwhelming to know I am loved like that.

  25. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “Not just excerpts…”, indeed Esmee.
    It is nice you point out such agreement with Elder Aimilianos’ teachings 🙂

  26. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Reece…just noticed your comment. Nice thoughts…well said!
    I can relate to a fragile heart! and very much with you with being overwhelmed with the love and condescension of God to us that we might be lifted up to Him! I don’t think that awe in us ever stops!
    All the “hopes” you mention…I think it is all that you hope for and more ! So very much more!

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As others have noted – there are a variety of images used in Scripture to describe our relationship with God. The term “servant” translates the Greek word “doulos” (which is more like “slave”). St. Paul used the term for himself “Paul, the slave of Jesus Christ…” St. Paul uses it as a term expressing humility. I assume that the text in the Liturgy, in the giving of the Cup, is a term of humility as well.

  28. Dean Avatar

    I am (was) the son of my father and mother
    (both of blessed memory). That is who I am. I am also husband, father. brother, grandfather. But I fulfill(ed) various roles in life. I was a student, firefighter, teacher, airman, etc. Might this help explain the above? I am a son of God. Yet I must also serve Him and others as servant. This is a role I am expected to fulfill as God’s son. It is part of the cross we willingly bear for His sake. And, as Mary noted, it’s a role at which I oftentimes fail.

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