Justification as Eschatological Existence

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).

(Return to first article)

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10 Responses to Justification as Eschatological Existence

  1. Fr Hermogen Holste says:

    Dear Fr Aidan,
    Christ is risen!

    In a similar vein, I noticed some time ago that Dionysius speaks of deification not so much as process but as the gift of God that has been given to us already in baptism. The same language is found throughout the service books. We have already been deified, because we have been made the sons of God. Therefore, I would certainly agree that any attempt to separate justification and deification, as though they were different stages in the work of our salvation, is highly problematic. Justification is theosis.

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    • Thank you, Father, for your comment. You might appreciate the title of the article that I’m not yet, and perhaps never will be, competent to write–“Justification as Theosis”! My thesis is precisely the point you make–deification is our adoption as sons of God and thus incorporation into the trinitarian life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Isn’t this what we celebrate and enact at every Divine Liturgy? Isn’t this how we pray? Forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, union, adoption, theosis–all must be thought together. At least that has been my thinking for three decades now. Jeesh, that sure makes me sound old, doesn’t it? 🙂

      It’s possible that I have read Dr Turtescu’s proposal too schematically, but if so, he left himself vulnerable to my interpretation by his proposal of a two-step process of salvation.

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      • Fr Hermogen Holste says:

        You should write it, Father! I’d like to read it.

        Who amongst us knows anything as he ought to know it? All we can do is say what God gives us to say, and hope that He uses it for someone’s edification, if only our own.

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    • Rhonda says:

      Frs. Aidan & Hermogen,

      Thank you both for your thoughts. As an Orthodox, I resist the “neat & clean” separation of all of the “-ations” as I call them (reconciliation, justification, sanctification & etc…) when particularly dealing with Protestants regards salvation. Any ideas how to present salvation (with all of its “-ations”) as on-going without falling back into process terminology? I tend to use the imagery of journey myself. I have had the question thrown at me that if all of these things take place at the same time, then how can salvation be termed on-going? Are we always being justified, always being reconciled & etc. My answer has been yes which causes furrowed brows & frowns. Am I on the right track?

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      • Rhonda, I personally don’t think it’s possible to avoid process language and perhaps we shouldn’t try, just as long as we are ready to balance it in the ways that you suggest, as we as with status/state language. This is all part of the now but not yet situation in which we live. I think it all depends on the situation, on what needs to be said at the time.

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    • After ruminating a bit over the comments, I made a couple minor changes to my article. It needs to be said: “Justification is theosis.”

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  2. Rhonda says:

    Situation dependent…very true, especially when dealing with instant reconciliation, instant justification & instant salvation! Thanks 🙂

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  3. Fr. Aidan,
    Yes, indeed. I think that anything that relegates the eschaton to a result of process has missed everything. The Holy Spirit is always fullness and never process. I’ll hope to have to say later. Wonderful article!

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Fr Hermogen and all, today I remembered a wonderful citation from St Augustine:

    It is evident, therefore, that He called men gods because they were deified by His grace, and not because they were born of His substance. For He justifies, being just of Himself and not from another; and He deifies, being God of Himself and not by participation in another. But He that justifies does also deify, because by justifying He makes sons of God. For, “He has given them the power to become sons of God.” If we are made sons of God, we are also made gods; but this is by grace adopting, and not by nature begetting. (Enarrationes in Psalmos 49, 2)

    Here he brings together the important salvific themes–justification, adoption, deification.

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