The Eastern Orthodox Theology of Grace: An Interview with Fr. Michael Shanbour

Kevin Allen | 07 May 2019

What does the Orthodox Church teach about divine grace? What makes the theology of grace so important to our daily lives? I had the privilege of conversing with the Rev. Fr Michael Shanbour about this aspect of Orthodox theology. Fr. Michael is the priest of Three Hierarchs Orthodox Mission in Wenatchee, Washington. He is the author of the newly-published “Know The Faith: A Handbook For Orthodox Christians And Inquirers” by Ancient Faith Publishing.

Kevin: Why is it important to understand how the early church and the Orthodox Church today understands God’s grace and how we can participate in it?

Fr. Michael: To provide some perspective on your question, perhaps it would be helpful to ask a similar question about a topic that may seem more tangible: “How do we understand marriage?”  Is it something real, or just a legal or civil construct?  Is it simply a relationship of convenience or something greater?  Is it indissoluble, or can it be broken through neglect or betrayal? Is it based on current feelings or on commitment?  Is it a Mystery in which Godacts to unite man and women, or is it a creation of man?

How we answer these and other questions will determine how we understand marriage.  And this will influence our way of life and our attitude in a multitude of areas: spiritual, political, societal, etc.

Something similar is true with regard to the question of grace. But specifically, I would say it is important for several reasons.

First and foremost, it is absolutely essential to our understanding of what salvation is. Saint Paul clearly teaches: “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8).  Grace is inseparable from salvation.  How we understand grace will affect our understanding of salvation.

Secondly, and more importantly, how I understand grace will determine how I live my life.  If grace is essentially a legal declaration of innocence by God, I will live in one way.  If that grace cannot be lost (“once saved, always saved”), I may live differently.  If acquiring grace is a function of my individual relationship with Jesus, unrelated to church or sacrament or doctrine, my approach is affected.  If it is simply an idea, a philosophical concept that presents me with an assurance of forgiveness, the way I live may be functionally irrelevant.  But if grace is a tangible and life-giving gift of divine life, a participation in the life of God, we have something entirely different.

Kevin: Is salvation itself a function of grace?

Fr. Michael: Absolutely!  The Orthodox Church teaches, as do the Holy Scriptures, that we are saved by grace through faith.  The question is, “What is grace and how is it acquired (i.e. what is faith)?”

Kevin: How did the ancient Church and the Orthodox Church today define God’s grace?

Fr. Michael: Simply put, the Church Fathers teach that grace is the very life that flows naturally and eternally from God.  It is the real, life-bestowing power that brings us into communion with Him.

Think back to the story of the woman with the issue of blood.  St. Veronica, as we know her in the Orthodox Church, touched the hem of Christ’s garment in faith.  The Lord knew she touched Him because, as He said, “I perceived power going out from Me” (Lk. 8:46).  This power is none other than His divine grace.

Grace is the energy that allows us to participate in God’s life.  It is as real as (and more real than) the light and warmth of the sun by which we truly experience the sun.  But unlike the created energy of the sun, God’s energies (as grace is called by the Fathers) are uncreated.  God’s uncreated energies (i.e. grace) allow us to partake in Him and to know Him.  St. Basil the Great wrote: “It is by the energies that we can say we know our God.”

All this means that grace is not merely an idea about God’s forgiveness in Christ.  It is not a change in God’s “attitude” toward a person.  It is not a mere release from “guilt.”  It is the very life-giving, transforming, divine power and uncreated energies of God Himself.  It is always received as a gift of God (never “earned”) by those who open their hearts and lives to receive it.  And this grace saves inasmuch as it brings one into intimate union with the One who is Salvation.

Kevin: Was there a common teaching on grace in the East and the West prior to the Great Schism? What teachings in the West changed the understanding of grace?

 Fr. Michael: To my knowledge, yes, as with all doctrines of the faith, there was a common understanding of grace.  Some would say that Saint Augustine opened the door for later, innovative teachings that infiltrated the West.  But this happened gradually.

By the fourteenth century, the Roman Church generally rejected the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas about God’s grace being the uncreated energies of God.  The heretic, Barlaam, who taught that man cannot truly know God except through the intellect and that God’s grace is created, found a home in the Roman Church.

The scholastic theology of the West had adopted a new speculative and philosophical approach that pursued the knowledge of God through reasoning rather than the way of knowing that comes from the experience and revelation of God.  The West adopted Aristotelian logic and lost the patristic distinction between the essence and energies of God; something that has primarily persisted to this day.

Kevin: Could you briefly define the Roman Catholic teaching of grace?

Fr. Michael: What we know as “Western Christendom” today has rarely focused on the question of what grace is. Rome has been most interested in defining and categorizing howgrace acts.  It has defined many “kinds” of grace: actual, habitual or sanctifying, gratuitous, prevenient, etc.

Although the phrase “created grace” has also been used, Catholic apologists today deny that it meant that God’s grace is created.  In general, however, the philosophical approach to defining grace has fallen short and distorted the patristic teaching.  The fact that until very recent times the Roman Church rejected the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas on grace (which is the Orthodox teaching) speaks loudly.

Also, in the West, grace tends to be viewed as something unnatural to human nature, something added or superimposed onto our nature by God in order to allow us to be saved.  In Catholic doctrine, it is called donum superadditum, i.e. a super-added gift.  This suggests that grace might be something created.  In Orthodoxy, grace is our natural condition; grace makes us truly human precisely because it is God’s uncreated energies.  We are only really human as God created us when we participate in His grace.

Kevin: The Reformation teachings of grace from Luther and Calvin were a reaction against the Scholastic teaching of the Catholic Church. What is the Protestant understanding of grace?

Fr. Michael: Martin Luther reacted primarily to the teaching of indulgences, which seemed to imply that one could earn salvation through works.  The Roman Church teaches that it dispenses the infinite merits (grace) of Christ and the unused or leftover merits of the Saints (collectively called “The Treasury of Merits”) to believers in the form of indulgences.  It teaches that indulgences do away with the temporal punishment due to sin, and thus lessens the time one might spend in purgatory after death.

Against this practice Luther began to teach salvation “by grace alone,” another non-biblical teaching.  This teaching was undergirded by both Luther and Calvin’s belief that the image of God in man was obliterated when Adam sinned.  The consequence is that man is incapable of doing good; he can only sin.  If this is true, then salvation is all God’s work.  Man cannot contribute to his salvation.  Grace essentially becomes a juridical release from guilt (which Luther called “justification by faith alone”).

Kevin: So for Protestants, what does being “saved by grace” mean?

Fr. Michael: The most common definition of grace among Protestants is the “unmerited favor of God.”  It depends on the kind of Protestantism, but practically speaking it most often amounts to God changing His mind about an individual because he comes to belief in Jesus.  He no longer sees him as a sinner but rather as righteous, i.e. covered by the righteousness of Christ.

There are at least two fundamental problems with this approach.  First, it implies that God is the problem and obstacle to salvation: God needs to repent!  And second, man’s salvation is not dependent upon his own repentance.

Kevin: I have spoken with evangelicals who may not know classic Reformed theology, but believe they can and have experienced God’s grace inwardly and that it is more than merely “God’s unmerited favor” or a “juridical release from condemnation.” It can mean God’s saving grace; prophecy; inner change; speaking in tongues, ability to heal, etc. What would you say?

Fr. Michael: My first reaction? They’re on the right track!  The redemptive aspect of Protestantism is that you don’t have to believe in what has been passed down or previously taught!  Pentecostals or “charismatic” Christians may be closer to Orthodox Christians on the topic of grace.  In Orthodoxy, grace is associated with the experience of the Holy Spirit.  When St. Seraphim taught that “The goal of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit,” he could have easily substituted the word “grace.”

One other thought….God made us in His image.  That means people often instinctively sense the truth or do so by authentic encounters with the true God.  My guess, however, is that these evangelicals would still have some different or insufficient ideas about what this saving grace is, what justification by faith is, what atonement means, etc.

Kevin: How then do the Orthodox teach that we can participate in God’s grace?

Fr. Michael: I don’t really feel qualified to answer that.  You should ask a Saint!  There is no “system” for acquiring grace because we are dealing with human hearts.  But we might say that God, in and through the Church, has laid out a “recipe.”

We begin by doing the commandments of the Lord – loving God, loving our neighbor, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, seeking the virtues that Christ laid out in the Beatitudes, etc.  This way of life opens the heart to divine grace.  St. Maximos the Confessor actually tells us that the Word of God is “mystically present in each of His commandments” along with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  This is an amazing teaching!  When we follow this way of life, grace, the uncreated energies of God, begins to work in us and penetrate and purify the heart more and more.

We will soon find out that when we try to fulfill the commandments, our flesh and our passions will push back against this.  So we will quickly realize the ascetic nature of the spiritual life, our need to restrain our sinful passions and overcome them with virtue in cooperation with God’s help.  In order to follow Christ, we will have to deny ourselves and take up our cross.

The Saints tell us that this is the first stage of acquiring divine grace, i.e. the purification of the heart.  Ultimately grace comes to dwell in a pure heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).  A pure heart (a heart devoid of sinful passions) can then be fully illumined by God’s grace and light.

Kevin: How is God’s grace, His divine energies, related to baptism and other sacramental mysteries like the Holy Eucharist?

Fr. Michael: The commandments of God also include and point to our participation in the life of the Church, Christ’s Body, the source of grace.  The Lord gave commandments such as “Repent” (Holy Confession) and “Take, eat…” (Holy Communion).  The sacraments or mysteries of the Church are powerful means of divine grace, if they are approached genuinely.  Receiving grace in the sacraments assumes that we are preparing ourselves through ascetic struggle, the Orthodox spiritual life.

Kevin: What is the ultimate goal of the acquisition of divine grace for the Christian?

Fr. Michael: Simply put, it is to become like God; to be saturated with the uncreated grace of God in a permanent and abiding way so that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  This is the condition of the Saints, theosis or deification.

The Fathers use the analogy of iron and fire.  When a rod of iron is placed in fire for a time, it takes on the properties of the fire, i.e. it becomes red hot.  It doesn’t become fire itself, nor does it cease to be iron; rather, the iron participates in the properties of fire.  In a similar way, our humanity can participate in God’s grace (not His essence) because of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.  This is the ultimate “good news” of the Gospel and the goal of Orthodox Christianity.  This is the purpose for which we were created.

There is much more that could be said.  To find out more, read the chapter on Grace in Know The Faith.  It provides a much more extensive explanation.

About Fr. Michael Shanbour

Fr Michael ShanbourThe Rev. Fr. Michael Shanbour is a lifelong Orthodox Christian and pastor of Three Hierarchs Orthodox Mission in Wenatchee, Washington. He received his M.Div. at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in 1989. He has been active in youth, camp, music, and Christian education ministries. Fr. Michael was ordained to the holy priesthood in 2001 and pastored mission parishes in Topeka, Kansas, and Spokane, Washington, before being assigned to Three Hierarchs. He is blessed to live in Wenatchee with his wife, Makrina, and son, Simeon.

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