Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of the British Isles and  Ireland
"the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."

[Acts 11:26] 

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Salvation Worship Life Mission

Salvation History

Christianity is an historical faith. Our faith is rooted in history, past, present and future. Unlike eastern mystical religions that offer an escape from this world and absorption into the divine or the cosmos, Christianity deals with life, creation …. then, now and to come.

Although righteous persons existed in pre-history of which Noah is perhaps the most striking example, arguably, this sense of God active in history first emerges with Abraham. He is our father in the faith. The Patriarch Abraham’s faith, his obedience to the promise of God, formed the basis for his righteous and blessed life. As with Noah before him God instituted a covenant, a relational agreement between Abraham, his numberless descendants and the God who called him from the Ur of the Chaldees.

Thereafter God continued to develop His relationship with His chosen people through a succession of divine acts and covenants. The Exodus led to the Mosaic Covenant and the Law, the Torah. The settlement in the Promised Land led to the covenant with David and his house. The apostasy of the people was met with the thundering reform movement of the Prophets whom God called and used to set forth His Word afresh amongst His people. Although Israel might be chastised by exile into Babylon, yet the prophet Ezekiel prophesied a new covenant whereby the Law of God would be inscribed in peoples’ hearts rather than on blocks of stone. To this end the Jews awaited the promised Messiah, the one who would set Israel free, free to worship and serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with undefiled lips, hearts and lives.

When the Messiah finally came it was to fulfil the promise of God in the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, (Wisdom). To fulfil, yes, but also to extend and deepen. Jesus deepened the Law in the manner the Prophet Ezekiel had prophesied by humanising the letter to the Spirit, by calling all to repentance and faith as the means by which the Law could rightly be upheld; in other words by sacrificial love of God and Man. He extended the Law by the grace of a Love that reached out to all, Jew and Gentile alike, who would embrace it even as it, He, embraced them. This Love died and rose again to open up the new life of God to all.

And so was the Kingdom of God born on earth in the shared lives of a new community called and empowered by the Spirit both from Israel and beyond her boundaries, the Church. (Indeed the word "ecclesia" means, "called out" and has a Semitic root in qahal or assembly). This "Church" gave final and concrete expression to God’s purpose from the foundation of the world. This "Church" embraced the whole of creation, life and humanity in space and time. Nothing and no one fell out of her embrace. Indeed her final triumph could only be manifest in the Last Times, the eschaton, when God would be "all in all." This sense of an impending end in the grand design of the Love of God drove the gospel of Christ outward to reach and convert the whole known world. God was gathering into his Qahal, his Ecclesia, His Church, the whole Universe, past, present and future.

This faith in the ingathering, saving power of God was and is energised in the Church’s Liturgy which being the manifestation of the New Covenant in Christ’s Body and Blood effected what it signified. By the power of the Holy Spirit the Eucharist built and extended the Church. We see this in one of the Church’s most ancient recorded Liturgies, the Didache. The Didache is an ancient eucharistic rite written for the pagan converts of the communities of Antioch. It uses the typology of the feeding of the 5000 to make its point.

"Just as the bread broken was first scattered on the hills, then was gathered and became one, so let your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom, or yours is the glory and power through all ages."

These magnificent themes reinforce two essential Christian convictions: -

· that God works through and within the historical process to save and re-create

· that the people of God are an identifiable in-gathered community for that purpose

God working in history, "salvation history," is the characteristic mark of every aspect of our faith. The Church’s task, therefore, is both to preach and present what God has done, what God is doing and what God will do to save and re-create. The Church, being the Qahal, the Ecclesia, stretching back to the dawn of time, therefore includes all the righteous as saints, both before and after the coming of the Messiah. So, in the Orthodox Church, the patriarchs, prophets, kings and righteous ones of the former covenants are all gloriously commemorated in our Calendar. They also partake of Christ. As Jesus Himself said to his fellow Jews:

"Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad." The Jews said to him, "You are not yet 50 years old, and you have seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." [John 8:56-58]

The Orthodox Church, therefore, includes all the salvation history of the Jews, because this was the Church before Christ. Unlike the west, therefore, we do not say that the Church was born at Pentecost. The Church was born in the Garden of Eden! We recall that St. Irenaeus represented the Fathers generally be saying that in Christ, the whole of Creation has been recapitulated, in-gathered made into the Qahal or Ecclesia of a new humanity which itself prefigures and actualises a new creation.

There is a strange attitude towards this in the west. The churches of the west seem to accept the Old Testament on an equal footing with the New as text but they also appear to mark too great a contrast between the People of God before and after the coming of Christ as Church. For this reason, the churches of the west tend to neglect the standing of the Old Testament saints and this is reflected by their omission from the Calendar. It may even be reflected in the shadow of its ant-Semitism that has also, sadly, affected those parts of the Orthodox Church that have been unduly influenced by the west.

St. Paul as both a Messianic Jew and slave of Christ, totally committed as he was to the Gentile mission, certainly saw the Church as the "Israel of God." [Galatians 6:16]. The only discontinuity in his mind between the Old and New Covenants resided in the inability of the Law to save us. In Galatians he developed an interesting assessment of the purpose of the Law that would appeal to both Jew and Gentile alike without conceding anything of the new insights and life of the gospel. Again in Galatians, he writes: -

" …the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father."

[Galatians 4:1-2]

The guardianship of the Law has now yielded to the maturity of grace and freedom in Christ; freedom that is to be slaves of the truth of God’s death defeating Love.

If salvation history cannot neglect the purpose of God in the old covenant and its relationship to the new, neither can it ignore the position of the Jews then and since who have rejected Christ. Here we must concur with St. Paul that the Jews still have the Mosaic covenant and are they are still God’s People. To this day they live in a different pasture, nonetheless loved by God. They have not entered into the promise of Christ, but one day we pray that they will. St. Paul believed that they would when all the Gentiles had been gathered in, [Romans 11:25-26]. Much profit may be derived by studying the whole of St. Paul’s counsel on this matter in Romans Chapters 11 to 16.

There is of course, one other historical religion of the Semitic type, and that is Islam. Muslims have accepted Christ, but only as prophet, not as the Son of God. Nonetheless, Islam also believes that God is the God of history, of revelation, of mighty deeds, of covenants and laws. Interestingly, St. John of Damascus who lived at the time of the initial expansion of Islam, and indeed served for some time as a civil servant in the court of the caliph of Damascus, referred to Muslims as "Ishmaelites." He seemed to take the view that Islam, (at least in his time), was a well-developed and autonomous heresy of both Christianity and Judaism from which it consciously borrowed.

Islam, of course, is a faith of wisdom and law. The stream of salvation history does not touch it for one essential reason. Salvation is not usually an issue. Islam teaches that Allah made the perfect and final revelation to the prophet Muhammad and that Paradise awaits those who live the Law of God and hell for infidels and idolaters. Occasionally Islam has drifted closer to Christianity, especially when it has both considered and appreciated the humanities, especially historical development within human culture and the liberal arts. It has also inched closer to Christ in the experience of its own Sufi mystics who have variously claimed to have experienced a direct, personal, intimate and unitive relationship with Allah. We can only pray that such traditions strengthen in Islam so as to offer some common ground for dialogue between us. When this happens, perhaps, Christ will be recognised for who He actually is.

The religions of the East: - Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism pose an interesting situation for the Orthodox Church. On the one hand, dialogue is difficult because these are not essentially historical religions nor are some of them theistic, (Budhhism). On the other hand, Orthodoxy stands close in many respects to these traditions because the Orthodox Church as never rejected or marginalized its mystical or sacramental theologies, which see both the human and material worlds as vehicles for the deifying energies of God. The circular nature of these religions’ anthropology and salvation doctrine of course is an issue for us. Christianity can never tolerate the transmigration of souls, reincarnation and mystical absorption into the Infinite. We insist on the radical transcendence of a personal God who is beyond every created thing. Nonetheless we have grounds for hope that if these faiths can find in our faith some resonance of their concern for the freedom and deification of human life, they also might be encouraged to join the great stream of salvation history as well. At least, I believe, Orthodoxy stands best placed to do this missionary work.

The scope of our salvation in Christ within the historical process must always lead us beyond parochialism to the "bigger picture." However, there can be a global parochialism as well. No sooner have we begun to get to grips with preaching the gospel in an increasingly diverse global culture than scientists discover evidence for the past activity of microbes on the planet Mars! Most Christians, strangely prefer not to look at this issue. It is true that we must suspend judgement on "preaching the gospel to aliens" until we have some hard and fast evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the vastness of space. Nonetheless it is a somewhat myopic theology that digs its head in the sand and won’t consider the position and calling of humanity in the wider context of the Universe itself. Salvation history will be carried with us as we journey beyond this planet. What significance will our experience and faith have out there? What shall we say when the "person" who questions us concerning our religious beliefs is not human? Has Christ come just for us or for them as well? Does God have a design not just for this planet earth but for the whole of creation as well? These, I believe will be the exciting questions for the Third Millennium. What we may be sure of is that however far the bread is scattered across the Universe, the returning baskets will be full!

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