Category Archives: The Freedom of Morality

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

The words of this post title, spoken by Christ, have always caused some confusion for me. If He didn’t come to abolish the law, then why don’t we still follow it? If not even the smallest character would pass away, where is it now? And what did He mean that he came to fulfill it? Well, I think I finally understand it.

The Jewish Law was the result of sin. It is a manifestation of, and a witness to, our sinful nature. What I mean is that if human nature had never fallen, there never would have been any need for the Law. It was a way for man to attempt to reunite with God by following certain prescription of behavior. Even if someone were to follow the Law exactly for the whole of their life however, this would not get rid of sin, there would still be an existential chasm between man and God (which, again, was proven by the existence of the Law).

When Christ came however, when the incarnate Word was united with carnal flesh, when the divine Trinitarian nature was united to our fallen human nature, Christ made it possible for man to once again return to the state of human nature before the fall. Christ did not abolish the Law by his incarnation because sin still exists and we have not been healed automatically. “Natural” human nature still exists with a large chasm between it and God. However, Christ fulfilled the law by making it possible to achieve the “end result” of it, communion with God. The coming of Christ was like the laying down of a bridge between our nature and God’s.

So no, Christ didn’t abolish the Law because we still possess sinful natures,¬† instead he fulfilled it by making it possible for our nature to be cured of the sickness of sin.

I probably didn’t do a very good job of explaining, so I now quote Christos Yannaras in The Freedom of Morality:

Christ alone is the end of the Law (Rom 10:4) and freedom from the Law (Rom 8:2), precisely because He did away with the precondition for its existence when, in His theanthropic flesh, He destroyed the “middle wall of partition” (Eph 2:14), the existential distance between man and God. Thus the Law is not annulled but “fulfilled,” in the sense that it finds it fullness in love (Rom 13:10). The Law continues to manifest and affirm sin, but now the acknowledgment of sin is not proof of condemnation and death, not a “curse,” but a measure of acceptance of God’s love: the Law reveals God’s “frenzied eros” for man.


Orthodox Personhood, Sin and Salvation

Before one understand morality from an Orthodox point of view, one must first understand how Orthodoxy views the person, sin and salvation. In The Freedom of Morality, Christos Yannaras says:

The person is the hypostasis of the human essence or nature. He sums up in his existence the universality of human nature, but at the same time surpasses it, because his mode of existence is freedom and distinctiveness.

This mode of existence which is personal distinctiveness forms the image of God in man, making man a partaker in being. It is not as nature that man constitutes an image of God: it is not because he has natural attributes in common with God, or analogous to His. Man constitutes an image of God as an ontological hypostasis free from space, time and natural necessity….

Personal distinctiveness forms the image of God in man. It is the mode of existence shared by God and man, the ethos of trinitarian life imprinted upon the human being. In the Orthodox Church and its theology, we study man as an image of God, not God as the image of man exalted into an absolute. The revelation of the personal God in history manifests to us the truth about man, his ethos and the nobility of his descent.

…In the historical revelation of God, we study true personal existence free from any constraint — from the constraint imposed on man by his own nature after his fall, which was the free subjection of his personal distinctiveness to the necessities and dictates of nature individuality…

In other words, it our free will and our relationship to God which defines us in the Orthodox church. Before the Fall, man was free from the exaggerated expression of our passions — greed, pride, selfishness, ego, etc. — and those passions were directed towards growing closer to God, growing more and more like Him. Our end was to reach theosis or deification, to unite our will, thoughts and actions to those of God and to become as like him as is possible.

God gave us free will however, and with it came the possibility to deviate from the course which God had created us for. The “original sin” was when man used his free will in just such a way; to pursue something other than the will of God.

Sin, in Orthodoxy, is not some concrete act, nor is it something that can be defined into laws, rules or regulations. The Greek word for sin, and the word which appeared in the New Testament, is”amartias,” which is defined as missing the mark:

The patristic tradition insists on this interpretation of sin as failure and “missing the mark,” as the loss of that “end” or aim which for human nature is its existential self-transcendence, taking it into the limitless realm of personal distinctiveness and freedom.

There is nothing God’s creation which is hypostatically¬† and naturally evil, not even the devil himself. Sin is failure, a failure as to existence and life: it is the failure of persons to realize their existential “end,” to confirm and conserve the uniqueness of their hypostasis through love.

To sin then is to not attempt to live up to our full potential in Christ, to not live in the manner which God created us for and to not attempt to correct the distorted image of God which we bear. This sin is understood to be a result of the breaking away of our will from the will of God in order to focus on our own individual needs and wants.

In the West, repentance is largely seen as a recognition of guilt, and this view comes from the legalistic, juridical view of sin which was developed in this part of the world. This isn’t the way that it was originally — and continues to be in the Orthodox East — seen. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia” and it translates into “change of mind.” This is so much more than just a change of attitude; it refers to a complete change in a persons way of thought, in their outlook.

Repentance is the recognition that¬† man’s self-sufficiency is inadequate; it is a search for the life which is realized in personal relationship with God, a thirst for personal communion with Him.

Repentance does not mean simply the “improvement” or even “perfection” of individual behavior and individual psychological feelings, or the strengthening of the individual will. All these can come about while a man still remains a prisoner in his autonomous individuality, unable to love or to participate in the communion of love which is true life. Repentance is a change in our mode of existence: man cease to trust in his own individuality. He realizes that existing as an individual, even a virtuous individual, does not save him from corruption and death, from his agonizing existential thirst for life.

Repentance then isn’t asking God to forgive us for acting “badly” and vowing that we will live “better lives,” it is recognizing that the way we have been living is focusing on ourselves and then trying to fundamentally alter our world-view. Our salvation comes through this whole-hearted attempt to live the way which God wants for us, which we were created for. Salvation comes from recognizing that our individual efforts are not enough, that our individuality is a lie told to us by the world and that is symptom of a mis-directed will.

This is what I’m learning as I read through this amazing book. I’ll continue to post my thoughts and reactions and hope to read some of yours as well!

The Freedom of Morality

The Freedom of MoralityI am reading a new, and so far very interesting, book called “The Freedom of Morality” by the Greek lay theologian Christos Yannaras. In it, the author lays out the Orthodox understanding of morality as the evaluation of man’s striving to become complete by fulfilling his potential as an image of God. Though I have only read the forward and the first chapter so far, this somewhat philosophically dense book like it will be very beneficial to me in acquiring a true Orthodox mindset. I hope to share here quotes from the book and my own thoughts that they raise, as well as hopefully pique the interest of you, the reader, to explore this area of theology which is intrinsically important to an understand of Orthodox theology and the salvation which we are offered.

Both the forward and in the first chapter it is made clear that the author is very hesitant to use word the “ethics.” This is because ‘ethics,’ as it is commonly understood, refers to a system of objective rules, laws or guidelines which determine how a person ought or ought not to act. Orthodox morality on the other hand is the expression of person’s free will and the relationship of that with the proper thusness of the person.

From the forward:

In the book’s title, The Freedom of Morality, the Greek word translated as “morality” is ithos, a term signifying “ethics,” but also meaning “ethos,” distinctive character, the “thusness” or the “Ah!’ of a person or thing. When using ithos, the author has in view both these senses. Morality, “theics” is nothing more or less than the expression of the person’s proper “ethos.” It is not to obey external rules but to become as person that which one truly is. By the same token, sin is not the transgression of some impersonal law, but “missing the mark,” the failure to become oneself.

It is this understanding of morality and sin that sets the Christian East and West apart in their theology. Where in the West, and exemplified in the lists of “mortal” and “venial” sins of the Roman Catholic Church, human behaviour has been relegated to a list of “do and do nots,” Orthodoxy in the East has retained a view of human beings as persons, rather than individuals, who share a common nature but who, by virtue of our freedom, have a certain distinctiveness which is apart from their nature.

The person is the hypostasis of the human essence or nature. He sums up in his existence the universality of human nature, but at the same time surpasses it, because his mode of existence is freedom and distinctiveness. This mode of existence which is personal distinctiveness forms the image of God in man, making man a partaker in being. It is not as nature that man constitutes an image of God: it is not because he has natural attributes in common with God, or analogous to His. Man constitutes an image of God as an ontological hypostatsis free from space, time and necessity.

It will be fun to see how Yannaras further develops this line of thinking, and fun to acquaint myself with this ancient and Orthodox understanding of morality.