I've billed this blog as "random thoughts on theology, etc." but haven't really written any theology reflections until now. Last night, however, I was reading about the sacrament of baptism in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and I had a brainstorm. So, without further ado, I offer my first theology post.
I used to describe the differences between the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches in terms of number of sacraments observed, the role of tradition, whether or not clergy can marry, and so on. I now think the differences can be summarized far more simply. I now suspect that most of the specific differences between the churches stem from the fact that each tradition emphasizes a different part of the salvation process.
The doctrine of salvation, at least according to the (Protestant) theology textbooks I've read, may be subdivided into three distinct but overlapping processes: justification, sanctification and glorification. Justification is the act of being made (or being declared, according to some denominations) righteous before God. It means that God considers our sins removed or covered with the blood of Jesus' sacrifice. The price has been paid. Sanctification is the process of being made holy (some denominations believe that sanctification is more of a one-time act that happens at a definite moment in time after justification). We learn to be more and more like Christ, and we put sinful ways behind us. Glorification is the consummation of salvation, when all traces of our old self are finally stripped away, and we are perfected in body and spirit, able at last to enter into God's presence.
Since I've been at CUA, I've noticed that when Catholics and Protestants use words like "salvation" or "saved," they have different processes in mind. Protestants almost always are referring exclusively to justification. Forgiveness of sins, for Protestants, at least, is a once-for-all-time deal. When you become a Christian, all the sins you've ever committed or ever will commit are forgiven. So the Protestant can speak of having been "saved" and no longer subject to God's wrath. That's what salvation is, after all: salvation from God's punishment of sin, which is death. Catholics, however, are almost always referring to sanctification. The baptism that initiates one into the Catholic Church removes the original sin that one was born with, but sins committed after baptism also need to be forgiven, and that requires one to "cooperate" with God's grace by showing earnest repentance. This is why the Catholic Church recognizes penance (confession of sin followed by acts of contrition and satisfaction such as prayer or works of charity) as a sacrament and holds to the existence of purgatory. Only after all of one's sins have been atoned for may one enter the presence of the holy God in heaven, and baptism doesn't cover sins committed afterward. This is why Catholics speak of being saved, and it's also why the Catholic Church seems, to most Protestants, to preach a works-based salvation. The focus is on the process rather than on a single moment in time.
What I didn't realize until last night is that Eastern Orthodox Christians focus on the third part of salvation, glorification. Eastern Christians have historically spoken about "divinization," which sounds heretical to Western ears but really means being made more and more like God. Divinization begins with justification and sanctification, but also includes the idea that two of God's fundamental attributes are incorruptibility and immortality. Man was created in God's image and likeness, but these have been tarnished or twisted by sin. Hence he can no longer dwell in God's presence and receive from God the gift of immortality (Eastern theology states the human beings were not created immortal but would have enjoyed eternal life as long as they remained in God's presence). The sacramental life, which begins with baptism and includes reception of the Eucharist (infants in the Eastern Orthodox church receive communion from the day of their baptism on) and frequent confession and penance, is more than the Western "account keeping" model (Eastern Orthodox Christianity believes in penance for post-baptismal sins, but does not believe in purgatory) and consumption of the body and blood of Christ, the sacrificial victim (or hostia, from which we get the word "host" to refer to the blessed communion bread). Participation in the sacraments is participation in the divine life itself, as the sacraments reflect and create heavenly realities in the lives of believers on earth. Perhaps the best example is the Eastern Orthodox marriage ceremony, which includes rituals that recreate the crowning of Adam and Eve as king and queen of their household. As one travels through life and participates in the liturgies, one becomes closer and closer to God and can once dwell in His presence and enjoy His incorruptibility and immortality. Roman Catholicism has these ideas too--and speaking of sanctification as "account keeping" is an oversimplification, to be sure--but in much more of a supporting role.
Now don't get me wrong: the three traditions do have real differences, and different views of where the emphasis is placed in the salvation act or process have led to highly divergent worldviews and practices which may be ultimately insurmountable. But we can't have an informed discussion if we misunderstand the ways we use basic terms like "salvation." So the next time you find yourself having a theological discussion with a Christian from another tradition, don't assume that he or she means the same thing you do by using certain words. We've looked at the key term "salvation" in this post. To summarize: Protestants, even though they don't deny the importance of obedience to God and living an upright life, emphasize God's absolute grace and focus on the doctrine of justification. Roman Catholics believe in grace, too, but believe that Christians must "show willing" in order to be saved. They must cooperate with God's grace by continually repenting of their sins and by actively participating in the sanctification process. Eastern Orthodox Christians, too, speak of grace and acts of repentance, but tend to take a panoramic view of salvation and stress the end goal of participating in the divine life in the presence of God.