Thursday, August 17, 2006

Apocalypse and salvation

Now that I've finished Fr. Thomas's series on the Apocalypse, I can confirm Jim's comment in response to my post on salvation. (Actually, I finished it yesterday morning, but I wanted to go over some of it again.) Hopko does address several of the issues I raised in the last half of his last lecture. In particular, he responds to the question of whether only baptized members of the (Orthodox) Church will go to heaven. His answer is affirmative, but with qualifications. Baptism only saves a person if it is real baptism, meaning that it has to be followed up with a changed life. On the other hand, he refers to Gregory the Theologian's homily on baptism, which discusses a baptism of desire (parr. 22-23?), and goes on to talk about how a person who is not part of the Church, who doesn't even want anything to do with being a Christian perhaps, because of the bad testimony of Christians he has encountered, may respond with faith and love when he finally meets Christ face-to-face. He considers the last judgment to be the last chance for repentance and suggests that many who never had a real opportunity to respond to Christ in this life will embrace him at the end, just as many who claimed to be Christians will ultimately reject him. He talks about a lot of associated ideas, for instance the silliness of fixating on what is the minimal standard for getting into heaven, and how our judgment will be based on how we have lived, not whether we went to church or recited a creed.

Naturally, I was interested to find the specific section of St. Gregory's homily that he was talking about. I think I've found the right spot, although it's not as encouraging as Fr. Thomas seems to make it. I suspect the reason is that St. Greogry is mostly interested in persuading those who are inclined to put off getting baptized to get on with it. He talks a lot about various excuses people might make, and it is actually in this context that he brings up the baptism of desire. His argument seems to be, yes--the desire to be baptized is worth something--just as there are different states prior to baptism, some of which are better than others, there are different states apart from baptism, some of which are better than others--but that is not the end of the story. He suggests that a person could be in a situation where they are not subject to punishment but not worthy of glorification either. But it's much better to go all the way. If you want the desire to be baptized to stand in for actual baptism, are you also prepared to accept the desire for glory as a substitute for actual glory? Since his audience is presumably in a place where they have the real option of getting baptized, there is no encouragement here to stay as they are. Nevertheless, there is some hope that a person who lacks the opportunity can be saved. The resulting message is something like the Khomiakov quote that I posted at the beginning of this blog.

Fr. Thomas also mentions that at least two saints of the Church were not themselves members of the Church--Constantine (who famously waited to be baptized on his death bed), and perhaps more significantly, Isaac of Syria. St. Isaac was part of the Nestorian Church of the East, which never fell within the bounds of the Roman Empire and therefore did not participate in the councils. After the condemnation of Nestorianism, many of the heretics fled eastward to avoid imperial persecution. Their ideas took hold in the Church of the East and persist to this day. (This group is distinct from the so-called Monophysite churches, which include the Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches. These groups were generally more involved with the earlier councils and were fully Orthodox until Chalcedon. When they split from the Orthodox churches, the doctrinal division tended to run along political fault lines, with the Orthodox favoring allegiance to the empire and use of the Greek language, while the others preserved a more local identity and language. They seem to have been responding at least in part to pressure from foreign occupation, as the empire receded and they came first under Persian then under Arab domination.) Isaac served a short time as bishop of Nineveh but preferred the life of a simple monk. There is some suggestion that he left his see at least in part over his distaste for Nestorianism. In any case, he lived and died in the East and was never part of the Orthodox Church.

I find St. Isaac's canonization particularly interesting, because it shows not only a recognition that Christians can exist outside the true Church, but an affirmation that at least one who was undeniably a Christian and undeniably went to heaven (which is only 100% assured where saints are concerned) spent his life in a heterodox community. Like most American Protestants, he had little if any contact with the Orthodox Church and lived by what he knew. We might assume that he would have been part of the Orthodox Church if he had had the chance, but there is no way to know. I find that encouraging, because it leaves open the possibility that American Protestants, many of whom I dearly love, are not ultimately lost just because they have never found the Orthodox Church.

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