For in Christ Jesus the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2:9-12)
As noted in a previous article, Lucian Turcescu has proposed that Orthodoxy should explicitly integrate justification as the first step in its ordo salutis, with deification being the second and final step. I criticized Turcescu’s reduction of justification to forgiveness or reconciliation. Justification must also be simultaneously understood as regeneration into an eschatological mode of existence. I had hoped to elaborate further on this in some depth, but I realize now that I have a lot more reading to do, both on the Apostle Paul and on the Finnish Orthodox-Lutheran dialogues, about which I know very little, except what I have read in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s excellent little book One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification. But I’d like to reflect a little bit regarding my unease with Turcescu’s proposal. It comes down to the use of the language of “process.”
On multiple occasions in his essay, Turcescu speaks of “the process of salvation.” This way of speaking, of course, is not unique to Turscescu. Just about everyone speaks this way. We speak of ascending into God. We speak of growing in the Spirit. Salvation is pictured as a movement away from sin toward holiness, ultimately consummated in theosis. Given our temporal existence, how can we not speak of process? This is the language of Scripture and the Fathers.
Yet I direct our attention to the above citation from the Apostle Paul. Right there smack dab in the middle of the process is our death, and whatever else death is, it is the end of process. In baptism we are buried with Christ Jesus. The old Adam has been crucified. The font is our tomb. And from that tomb emerges a new person who has been reborn in the Holy Spirit and united in the most intimate way with the risen Lord. The baptized now live the life of the coming kingdom; they have been given an eschatological mode of existence. This existence is not yet ours as possession. It will become so only at the general resurrection. This side of the grave, it can only be received and lived by faith.
But what does it mean to live the future life now? If we have died with Christ and been translated into the life of the kingdom, how can we speak of process? At the very least we need to recognize the oddity of our language:
What is this life that we propose to form and nurture in the Christian church? There can be only one possible answer—that life that emerges from the waters of baptism. That is the only answer that anybody has ever seriously given in the whole long history of the church. Now notice the language I used: “emerges.” For baptism is itself the casting of the old into the waters and the appearance of the new. Not just in Luther but in the whole tradition, baptism has never been understood as merely the beginning of new life. Baptism is that ending of the old and beginning of the new which is life, and which here is the specific new life we want to nurture. … So aware of this was the New Testament church and the ancient church, that the very occurrence of any time after baptism was a problem for them: Do we not emerge straight from the water into the kingdom of God? Why this sad waste of time in between? The old life ends when I submit myself to the waters, and the new self is an eschatological self, a self in the Spirit. And this ending and this beginning, this baptism, are the life of God’s saints. So how come all that space—for most of us anyway—between the bath and the kingdom? If there is a space there, it seems one ought to move on from baptism to something else to occupy it. But what would that something else be?
It is not too much to say that this question has been the tormenting question of western theological and liturgical history, the question upon which the geniuses of western civilization have beaten their heads until, as far as I am concerned, Luther answered it. What we do between baptism and the kingdom, said Luther, is not to march forward from baptism to something else but rather again and again to return to baptism—indeed, to “creep back into” it. Once it has been said, it is clear that this is the only answer Christianity can give. The only thing that one can say is to occupy the space between the bath and the kingdom, is that one lives in the bath, one returns to it. (Robert W. Jenson, “The Return to Baptism,” in Encounters with Luther: 1975-1979, pp. 217-218)
I do not know how Orthodox theologians might respond to Jenson’s construal of life after baptism as a continual return to baptism; but it’s the only answer that has made sense to me since I first encountered Jenson’s writings on the sacraments some thirty years ago. Note how Jenson’s proposal rhymes with St Paul’s use of baptism in Romans 6 & 8: the Apostle invokes the one baptism to remind his readers that because they have died with Christ and have been raised with him to new life in the Spirit, they can no longer entertain a life of sin and disobedience. Their eschatological mode of existence excludes living “according to the flesh.” The baptized are now free to live according to the Spirit.
I have wondered how Met John Zizioulas might receive Jenson’s proposal. Are there not similarities here between Jenson’s “eschatological self” and Zizioulas’s “ecclesial hypostasis” (Being as Communion, p. 56)?
St Ambrose speaks of Holy Baptism as the “sacrament of justification.” May I suggest that here is where we need to begin. Perhaps with Turcescu we may and should speak of justification as initiating the process of salvation; but this event of justification needs to be explicitly and firmly anchored in baptism and the eschatological existence that it bestows and grounds. Justification is not just a moment that happened to us in the past: to be incorporated into Christ and to share in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to be justified. Justification is theosis.
And the question remains: What is life in the Spirit of the kingdom? In what sense may it be described as a “process”? Our baptismal life is a journey to the kingdom, yet the kingdom is rushing upon us. “The end is where we start from” (T. S. Elliot).