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Fundamentals of Orthodox anthropology

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Author: Fr. Vasily Zenkovsky

As an example of how Orthodox anthropology differs from that of Western denominations, the different attitudes towards the native language in different denominations can serve us. Linguistic equality has been established in the Roman Catholic world, by virtue of which language has found itself outside the action of the Church. Such an attitude towards language, turning it into a mere natural phenomenon where there is no place for the sanctuary, separates the Church from the basic force with which the development of the human spirit is connected.

We find something else in Protestantism, where the native language is given full space, where there is no restriction to perform services in their own language, but, according to the general view of Protestantism, language is recognized simply as a “natural” phenomenon, in the absence of any to be an idea for the sanctification of language.

For us, the Orthodox, there is a belief that with the consecration of the language in the Church there is a deep penetration into the soul of the church. The fact that in our country the church services are conducted in the native language most closely connects the sphere of the religious with that of the national.

Here we have only one example of how different the relations between the Church and the natural forces of the soul are in the different denominations; the main theme is the question of how the holy fathers understood human nature. The dogma of the Council of Chalcedon should be considered as the basis for the construction of Orthodox anthropology. According to the teaching of this council, there are two natures in the Lord Jesus Christ – in the unity of His person – there are two natures (divine and human). The important thing in this teaching from the point of view of building anthropology is that here the difference between the nature of man and the person in him is given, because in the Lord the same person has both natures. And since, according to the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon, the Lord Jesus Christ was the true God and the true Man, we can say that the mystery of man is revealed only in Christ.

This means that the construction of anthropology must be based on this fundamental distinction between nature and personality, which is the basis of the dogma of Chalcedon, but, in addition, in the Church we have many other data for the construction of Orthodox anthropology, the most important of which is probably what we Orthodox feel when we celebrate Easter. In the Easter services we experience joy for man more than ever; Easter experiences give us faith in man. And this is a real revelation for man that captivates us. And it is important that this gives us not just joy for man, but faith in man, faith in this divine image, which is locked in man and which can not be undone under any circumstances.

It is safe to say that perhaps the most important feature of our anthropology is faith in man. No sins can remove this image from man, destroy our brother in it.

The doctrine of God’s image in man, the action of this image in him, is the basis of our anthropology – the main thing in man is related to those radiations of God’s light, which create the possibility of spiritual life in him, thanks to which in man goes inner life.

The “inner” man of whom St. Apostle speaks. Peter, [1] is the source of his maturation. It is this core in him from which God’s light pours out. Therefore, the teaching of Protestants that the image of God in man seems to have been erased, disappeared, is unacceptable to us. The Roman Catholic doctrine of the image of God in man is closer to us, but it also does not coincide with ours. The difference between us and the Roman Catholics is that in them the image of God is perceived as an “imperfect” principle in man. This is especially evident in the doctrine of “original righteousness” (justitia originalis) of the first people in paradise before the fall.

Roman Catholic theology teaches that the image of God was insufficient for man to develop normally, that “additional grace” – gratia superaddita – was also needed.

Without going into the critique of this doctrine, we must point out that we, the Orthodox, look at the primordial state of man in paradise differently and think differently about the salvation of man – as the restoration of the first created man. Recognizing the full power of the image of God in man, we recognize that there is a conduit of God’s light in us – that from this light of God, which shines in us through the image of God, nourishes the whole inner life of man.

However, it is also understandable that the image of God – as a conductor of God’s light in the human soul – also opens the possibility of bringing the soul closer to God, the possibility of spiritual enlightenment and the immediate perception of the higher world.

Hence the Orthodox doctrine of the relationship between the inner life in man and the ascetic life in him. The whole meaning of the Orthodox understanding of asceticism lies in the fact that oppresses everything that removes spiritual enlightenment to dominate the sensual material in the soul. Here is the meaning of what Rev. Seraphim said, that the task of our life is to acquire the Holy Spirit. [2] The action of the Holy Spirit takes place in the human soul precisely through the image of God. On the other hand, the teaching of the Holy Fathers about deification – as an ideal – is that God’s image should not be obscured by the “lower” movements of the soul, but God’s image and spiritual insights should lead man upwards. This is the significance of Jesus’ prayer for man’s spiritual maturity. But what is this evil in man? First of all, here we cannot agree with the Roman Catholic doctrine that the “animal country” (“animalische Seite”), by limiting man’s spiritual powers, is the source of sin and the conduit of evil. Neither the body (which St. Paul told us was the temple of the Holy Spirit) nor sex are the source of sin.

By its nature, evil is spiritual. One can even talk (although it is difficult to accept immediately) about the possibility of the existence of “dark” spirituality – because evil spirits are still spirits. The spiritual nature of evil means that in man, in addition to the image of God, there is a second center: original sin.

It is now possible to understand why in man original sin is connected with his nature and not with his personality. In his person man is free, but he is narrow in nature – he bears original sin and the whole process of spiritual development is that the dark that is in man – as a sin – to be rejected by him. [4 ] To fully understand this, we need to make one more clarification – that by their nature, in their entirety, people form a kind of unity, ie that we must speak of the unity of humanity (in Adam, “all sinned”). said St. Paul [5]). This is the doctrine of the catholicity of humanity, of the catholic nature of man. What the Savior has healed with His redemptive deed is human nature, but each person must learn for himself the saving power of Christ’s deed.

This is the conclusion of every person’s work – to connect his person with the person of Christ. Which does not remove our mutual love, but each person must personally (especially in his repentance and in his conversion to God) assimilate – through the Church – what God has given us.

Thus, in the distinction between nature and personality, established at the Council of Chalcedon, the key to understanding the mystery of man is given. The fact that we find salvation only in the Church may seem like a paradox. However, the person finds himself only in the Church and only in him can he assimilate what the Lord has given to our nature through the redemptive feat. That is why we can develop human nature – in the sense of its depth – only in the Church. Without it, human nature cannot be freed from the fall. That is why we distinguish the church mind from the individual one, because the individual mind can make a mistake and only in the gracious help of the Church does it receive the necessary strength for itself. This doctrine of ecclesiastical reason underlies the whole doctrine of Orthodoxy (its epistemology). Hence the doctrine of the councils, which are the source of Truth through the action of the Holy Spirit. Without the action of the Holy Spirit, councils, even if they are canonically perfect, are not the source of Truth. However, what has been said about reason also applies to freedom – as a function of the Church. Freedom is given to the Church, not to the individual – in the true sense of the word, we are free only in the Church. And this sheds light on our understanding of freedom as a gift of the Church, on the fact that we can exercise freedom only in the Church, and outside of it we cannot fully master the gift of freedom. The same principle applies to conscience. The individual’s conscience can be constantly in error. (This is well expressed in one of the secret prayers during the Liturgy, where the priest prays to the Lord to deliver him from a “sly conscience.” [6]) This means that the individual conscience is not always a conduit of righteousness, but its power is carried out only in the conscience of the Church.

In the Orthodox understanding, man is revealed only in the Church. This connection of man with the Church is the most essential in our understanding of man, and perhaps it is now becoming clearer why man’s nature is so vividly revealed in the Paschal experiences. In the Paschal experiences, the individual forgets about himself – there we belong more to the Church than to ourselves. Of course, there is a lot in the individual’s attitude toward the Church that is mysterious, and that is something that must not be forgotten. For example, mere outward intimacy with the Church does not yet mean our “churching.” The opposite is also possible: a person who is externally weakly connected with the Church is internally more connected with it than those who are externally closer to the Church. The Church itself is a God-man organism, there is a human side in it, there is also a divine side, which, without merging, remain inseparable. By living in the Church, man is enriched by its powers, by the Holy Sacraments and by all that the Church has as the Body of Christ.

This is precisely the rupture of the inner heart of man – according to the words of St. Apostle Paul.

[1] See: 1 Pet. 3: 4.

[2] The author refers to the following famous words of Rev. Seraphim of Sarov: “The purpose of our life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. The main means of acquiring the Holy Spirit is prayer.

[3] See: 1 Cor. 6:19.

[4] On the great subject and debate on the understanding of the sin of the ancestors in Orthodox theology, see the famous work of Prot. John Sava Romanidis.

[5] See: Rome. 5:12.

[6] From the third secret prayer of the priest from the sequence of the Liturgy of the Faithful.

Source:  Zenkovsky, V. “Fundamentals of Orthodox Anthropology” – In: Vestnykh RSHD, 4, 1949, pp. 11-16; by recording a lecture by Prof. Prot. Vasily Zenkovsky.

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