III. The Significance of Cabasilas’ Response
1. The Spectre of a Truncation of the Divine Œconomy from
Creation-Deification to Fall-Redemption: Eastern and Western
CABASIlAS beheld the spectre of this truncation extending over the West and, in the fourteenth century, reaching the East as well. In the face of this suffocating cloud, he raised up his inspired teaching as a purifying filter.
He did not do this in a contentious spirit: on the one hand because no one had directly attacked the Orthodox teaching on this point, no one had discredited as heretical the saying that “God becometh man, that He might make Adam God,” as Barlaam had done with the uncreated Divine Energies, and on the other hand, because he had not lost hope of the Christian West returning to the Catholic Faith.
He spoke with a Catholic voice, overbalancing Anselm, the starting point of Scholasticism; and, in overbalancing him, he exposed Anselm’s tragic error, at the same time leaving the way open for its amendment. Thus, he proved himself a true ecumenical theologian, and there is hope that once his teaching has been scrutinized and evaluated from a dogmatic perspective, it could become the starting point for a productive dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the other Christian confessions.14
But the West did not pay attention to Nicholas Cabasilas to the extent, and, above all, in the way, that it should have done. It did not push him aside, to be sure; nor did it regard him as a heretic, as it did Palamas. It published his writings, it translated them, but it did not understand them. And it continues to this day to asphyxiate within the narrow confines of the Sin-Redemption axis.
This mutilated understanding of the Divine Œconomy has passed to us, too, as we have already said, as part of the general syndrome of the captivity of Orthodox theology to Scholasticism and its ramifications, and so much so that St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, who spoke the language of the Eastern Fathers, was misunderstood on this point.
He was subjected by certain persons “who devote themselves, in particular, to sacred theology,” as he describes them, to the attack that Cabasilas had escaped. And he responded with a work entitled “A Defense of My Annotation Concerning Our Lady, the Theotokos, in the Book Unseen Warfare,” an exciting text for our subject, in which he poses the problem openly for the first time.15
But what actually is the problem? More precisely, what are the consequences of Anselm’s erroneous answer to the question “Cur Deus homo?” and what is the significance of Cabasilas’ different response? Is the expansion of the axis, from Fall-Redemption to Creation-Deification, really the core of his teaching? In the final part of our study we will be an attempt to answer these questions.
2. Overcoming the Idea that the Mysteries are Mere Religious
Obligations. The Church as the World United with God, and the
World as the House of God.
FIRST, Cabasilas’ teaching on the mysteries and the Church expounds precisely this core theme.
As is well known, the Scholastics, operating on the Sin-Redemption axis, defined the Sacraments (Mysteries) as the visible rites whereby the sacred institution of the Church, in which Divine Grace is in some way stored up, imparts this Grace to the faithful.
And they distinguished two elements in the Sacraments: the sensible signs and their essence, which was the invisible, but not uncreated Divine Grace. The faithful are obliged to have recourse to Sacraments performed by Priests in order to receive Divine Grace from the Church and thus be not in a state of sin but in a state of grace, in other words, a state of redemption. For the Scholastics, and also for many contemporary Eastern theologians and preachers, the sacraments are the quintessential religious obligations of the faithful. The Church is understood, and functions within this perspective as religion.
But Cabasilas, operating on the Creation-Deification axis, views the Mysteries and the Church in an entirely different perspective.
The primary and supreme Mystery of our Faith, which, according to the Apostle Paul, is Christ, the Incarnation and the Divine Œconomy of the Word, is seen by the Byzantine mystic as refracted in such a way that it becomes concrete and active within time through the Mysteries.
Following the Fathers, and in particular St. John Chrysostomos, Cabasilas teaches that there is an inner identity between the historical body of Jesus and the Church, between the energies of the actual body of the Lord and the Mysteries.
The Mysteries extend the functions of that body in a real way and make available its life in very truth. “The rites that are celebrated belong to the Mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation itself” (392D).
Participating in the Bread of the Eucharist, we are grafted into the Body of Christ, and that same Body is the Body of the Church. For this reason, the Church is created, organized, and lives within the Mysteries.
"The Church is represented in the mysteries not as in symbols, but as the members are in the heart and as the branches of a plant are in the root, and, as the Lord has said, as the branches are in the vine. For here there is not merely a commonality of names or an analogy by resemblance, but an actual identity" (452CD).
Cabasilas’ ecclesiology is clearly Mysteriological. In this area, he anticipates the twentieth century, in which Orthodoxy has made its great contribution to Christianity as a whole, the so-called Eucharistic ecclesiology. Indeed, he gives the latter its true foundation: The Body of Christ, grafting into which transforms a social whole, precisely through the Spirit, into the people of God. For it is certainly not the gathering of the people from which the Eucharist derives, but Christ. It is He Who gathers, and He Who celebrates the Eucharist. Contemporary Eucharistic ecclesiology, which perhaps manifests a certain weakness on this point, could gain much from giving due attention to the teaching of Cabasilas, that great Eucharistic theologian of Christianity.
The central ecclesial Mystery, according to Cabasilas, is the Divine Eucharist, which re-presents (i.e., actively presents anew in each specific place and time) the Œconomy of the Savior, the assumption, cleansing, and transfiguration of creation into his Body.
But from the Eucharist flow a multitude of sacred rites, whose purpose is to sanctify life, to transfigure all the actual structural elements in people’s relationship with each other and with the world. The Mysteries are the “gate” and the “way”—elsewhere Cabasilas also calls them
"This way the Lord traced by coming to us, this gate He opened by entering into the world. When He returned to the Father, He did not allow it to be closed, but from Him He comes through it to sojourn among men; or rather, He is constantly present with us and will be forever.... Therefore, ‘This is none other than the house of God....’" (Genesis 28:17; 504CD).
God, Who before the Incarnation was “homeless” in regard to creation, now finds a created place in which to sojourn, a created dwelling.16 Thus, there is now within creation not only the altar at which God is worshipped—a typical feature of religion—but God Himself, and humanity becomes God’s family. The transformation goes even deeper. The Church is not only God’s house and His family, but His Body.
This complete union of created and Uncreated does not destroy the bounds of space and time, but stretches them, makes them transparent, and transfigures them. Creation, reconstituted and restructured through the Mysteries—which is called Church—has new dimensions, functions, and life; the dimensions, functions and life of the Body of the Risen Lord.
Henceforth, everything can be gathered together and can live within creation in a new way; neither human only nor exclusively Divine, but Theanthropic.
The reality of religion, that is, the organization of life in view of or in relation to God, and simple worship of God, is radically transcended; in the Church, we have union with God.
As a genuine Father of the Catholic Church, Cabasilas reveals the entire breadth of Christianity. The exclusiveness which is equally a typical feature of religion is also transcended. Orthodox ecclesiology is shown to be a new, Theanthropic cosmology.
It is obvious how far we are from the Scholastics’ understanding, and what height and depth and breadth we are called to attain once we find our place on the axis of Creation-Deification.
This leads us to the second problem, crucial both for the fourteenth century and for our own—that of the relationship between Church and world, which Cabasilas places on the axis of CreationDeification and solves in a remarkable way.
3. Overcoming the Conflict between Church and World. The
Opposition Between Church and World Ontologically Non-existent on the Unifying Axis of Creation-Deification. The Danger on
the Antithetical Axis of Sin-Redemption of Reducing the Church
to a Mere Religious, Worldly Institution.
THE CHURCH, for Cabasilas, is not in the world simply as an ark. Cosmologically speaking, there is no difference between world and Church. The created nature of the Church is the world. Within the segment of creation that the Word assumed at His Incarnation, sin was crushed and creation realized the purpose for
which it had been created from the beginning. With the hypostatic union, the Word’s creation became His Body; it found its true center, which is external to creation.
Its nature does not alter, but is cleansed and restored, since sin is contrary to nature; and, furthermore, the world in Christ is perfected, it fulfills its destiny.
The Church is the world which has attained to its destiny, fully realized and truly living through the life of the Flesh of the Lord, the life of the Spirit.
The portion of creation initially assumed by Christ became henceforth “chrism” for the rest of creation. The movement is twofold. Christ is extended within time, and the world is assumed.
Christ is extended as He assumes the world. The Church is not a static condition, simply and solely a sacred institution in the world. It is a dynamic, transforming movement.
It is the everlasting marriage within time and space of the Creator with his creation, the enduring mingling of the created with the Uncreated. In this unconfused mingling in Christ of created with uncreated nature, creation is recast within the flesh of the Lord; it is reconstructed Mysteriologically, transfigured without being destroyed—it is sin that is destroyed—and it becomes Body of Christ and lives as such.
Cabasilas can say this because on the axis of Creation-Deification evil does not change creation ontologically, being as it is something relative and accidental. However great may be the Devil’s dominion over creation—and it is great; whatever disfigurement may be caused by sin— and it causes truly tragic distortions; in its innermost, true nature creation remains “very good.”
If we add to this truth the realities of the “garments of skin,” which Cabasilas also talks about, i.e., the fact that even the postlapsarian functioning of the world becomes, through God’s compassionate intervention, a gift and a blessing, despite being the natural consequence of the process of the Fall, and that in this postlapsarian world the Word became incarnate without sin and assumed this world, without confusion, but also without division, then we understand why Orthodox theologians from Paul to the Cappadocians, John of Damascus during the Iconoclast controversy, and Gregory Palamas strove to safeguard against heretics the participation of the body and of matter in the union with God.
On the axis of Creation-Deification, which is not antithetical, but unifying and catholic, the chasm between Church and world is shown to be ontologically non-existent. The problem which has been the scourge of the West for centuries, and for us Easterners in our century, is demonstrated to be, in essence, a pseudo-problem. It remains solely as a moral problem.
Turning to the truncated, radically antithetical axis of Sin-Redemption, here the world is understood within the Fall, and the Church can only function as a religious institution, stronger or weaker according to the circumstances, which tries to impose itself and, when it cannot, to compromise with the world.
Correspondingly, if the Church gives the impression that its sole purpose is the redemption of the world from sin, the world declines this offer, not understanding even what sin is, and sees the Church as one ideology among others, with its own religious presuppositions and aims. It is a fact for historians that this point marks the birth of atheism.
But if the Church sees the world as God’s creation and helps it to correct its orientation and the distortions that evil causes for it, to find its true way of functioning which is fitting to its real nature, and to achieve completeness in Christ, if Christ is presented not as the leader of the Christian faction or of the ideology of Christianity, but as the purpose towards which the world tends—then the attitude of the world may be different.
It was the axis of Creation-Transfiguration of creation, or grafting of all created realities into the Body of Christ, or Deification, that the Fathers of the Church took as their basis; and they achieved the magnificent task of taking up the elements of their age and building up the Church with the same materials that their age offered them, and thus revealed God as truly incarnate within their actual world, as Savior not only of souls but also of bodies, in other words, Savior of life.
This was the task that the Holy Fathers from Thessaloniki, Gregory and Nicholas, accomplished in the fourteenth century. This is what we twentieth-century Christians are called to undertake.
But in order for this to happen, it is clear that we must first of all rid ourselves of the idea that Christ is solely the Redeemer from sin, and see Him once again as Alpha and Omega, as the true Savior, which is to say at once Redeemer and Recapitulator of the entire world. We must restore to the Divine Œconomy all of its breadth and meaning.
4. Overcoming the Fear of Sin as the Central Motive of Spiritual Life. Christ, the Beginning, Middle, and End of Spiritual
BUT Cabasilas’ correct answer to “Cur Deus homo?” also brings the liberation of man from evil and sin. No matter how terrifying evil may be, since it, and not Christ, is merely an episode and an event, it proves, in the final analysis, insignificant. The understanding of man—of salvation, spiritual life, and so forth—is disjoined from evil and joined to Christ.
Ascesis, charity, etc. are not the “good works” that will counterbalance our sins before God’s justice and in that way offer Him satisfaction.
God is not a “sadistic father” who takes satisfaction in torturing his children. Ascesis is a vigorous struggle against evil. And man can throw himself into this struggle much more easily, with hope and joy, if his aim is to develop the seeds of godlikeness that he has within him, a longing for all the elements of his being to be united with Christ, and not simply fear of sin.
The real sin, for Cabasilas, is for man to remain outside Christ, to consider that he is sufficient on his own, i.e., autonomy. Adam’s greatest sin, the sin that engendered all of the others, was that he wanted to live with the life of his nature, to exist independently of God. This led him to death.
Cabasilas is unambiguous on this point. If man is not alive with the life of Christ, he is dead, even if he is a fine and good person socially or religiously, even if he formally observes the prescriptions of the law. On the axis of Fall-Redemption, justice and law are dominant. On the axis of Creation-Deification, sin consists in making oneself autonomous, in self-sufficiency. And this, according to the ascetic Fathers, was the greatest danger lurking even for the redeemed. The dominant figure on this axis is Christ.
Therefore, the ethos of Orthodox believers is not legalistic, but theocentric. Any virtue in man has value to the extent that it is a virtue of Christ, says Cabasilas. For only what is incorporated in Christ and, consequently, spiritual (“born from above”) is able to surmount the biological boundaries of corruption and death. “In this way the Saints are blessed, because of the blessed One Who is with them” (613A).
The holiness of the saints is due to the fact that they have united their will to the will of Christ. The wisdom of the truly wise, those who uncover the truth by Divine inspiration, is due to their having united their mind with the mind of Christ. “From themselves and from human nature and effort there is nothing whatever... Rather, they are holy because of the Holy One, righteous and wise because of the righteous and wise One Who abides with them” (613A).
For this reason, Cabasilas advises, “be merciful” not in a human way “but as your Father is merciful.”
The faithful are called to love “in the love with which Paul ‘yearned with the affection of Jesus Christ’” (Philippians 1:8), and to have the love “with which the Son loved the Father,” and the peace that is not human, but of Christ. For, as the birth is “Divine and preternatural,” so also “the new life, its regime and philosophy, and all these things are new and spiritual” (616A).
This Pauline Christocentricity which places Christ as the beginning, middle, and end of the world and of history is the core of Cabasilas’ work. This is the basis on which he gave a correct answer to the question, “Cur Deus homo?,” confined the Fall-Redemption axis to its proper bounds and revealed the true breadth of the Divine Œconomy, which begins from Creation and reaches to Deification, that extension without end of created man within the uncreated God.
As has become evident from the few examples that we have been able to give within the scope of this study, Cabasilas placed on this axis all the realities of faith, spiritual life, and the Church, and revealed their true nature and their extraordinary transformative dynamism.
5. The Exodus of Today’s Faithful into the Open Horizon of
the Divine Œconomy.
IN AN age when everything was changing, when Byzantium was collapsing, when the modern era was being born, God, through His faithful servant Nicholas, left this great truth as a dowry, we might say, for His people.
And in our own days, when the modern era is showing its true face, it seems that God is moving our theology and our Church to discover and exploit this treasure that He has bequeathed to us.
He is moving us to free ourselves at last from the bonds of the Western Middle Ages and cease to be tormented by their consequences, to escape from the framework of the Sin-Redemption axis, from academicism, from the “religious” conception of the Church, and so much else, and to venture into the open horizon of the Divine Œconomy, to sense its grandeur, and to participate according to our calling in the work that the Father has been accomplishing “until now” for the transfiguration of the world—including our own contemporary world—through the Spirit into the Body of His Son.
14. It is quite literally a shame and an error that in the contemporary dialogue between Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians on a subject which was central for Cabasilas, that of the Mysteries, this great theologian and Church Father has been ignored. In an era not long after the schism, when discussions concerning union were at their height, Cabasilas, certainly not by chance, elaborated an entire theology of the Mysteries. In this theology, which superbly draws together the whole Patristic tradition before him, he also takes into account and adopts organically whatever can be adopted of the inquiries of the early, and not yet completely schematized Scholasticism. It is a purely Orthodox theology, a profound theology, which views the Mysteries at once in their ontological and ethical dimensions. Indeed, since Cabasilas, as an Orthodox, operates on the theological and cosmological-anthropological planes simultaneously, his theology leads clearly to deification, and calls to deification all human beings and all the world. This dimension of good news for the world is yet another reason why Cabasilas is particularly relevant today, quite literally modern. If we add to this the fact that up until now Roman Catholic theologians have not reacted negatively to his theology, we can understand how fruitful it could prove if his teaching were to be taken seriously in the current dialogue concerning the Mysteries.
15. For an English version of this text, see Deification in Christ, pp. 227-237—Trans.
16. “After the Fall and before the Virgin came into existence, God was ‘homeless’ [ἄοικος] (which means without a hearth, one who has no family or fatherland) and it is precisely the Virgin who prepares a place and a dwelling for Him, that is, introduces Him into the human family” (Nellas, Ἡ Θεομήτωρ, p. 128).
* Source: Panagiotes Nellas, “Λύτρωση ἢ Θέωση; Τὸ ἐρώτημα τοῦ ᾿Ανσέλμου ‘Γιατί ὁ Θεὸς ἔγινε ἄνθρωπος’ καὶ ὁ Νικόλαος Καβάσιλας” [Redemption or deification? Anselm’s question, “Why did God become man?” and Nicolas Cabasilas], Σύναξη, No. 6 (Spring 1983), pp. 17-36.