Composition, 1916, by Piet Mondrian
There are two stumbling blocks (two which I will discuss briefly today) to our theological terminology and our daily spirituality: (A) whether or not we are to imitate Christ, and (B) whether or not we have a relationship with God. The two troublesome terms for some Eastern Orthodox are imitate
for these are often associated with Roman Catholicism and Protestantism respectively. In the attempt to discern whether these concepts are appropriate to Orthodox thought, we must set aside any phobia of or overreaction to other religions in order to develop right definitions or justifiable rejection.
The term imitate is only sprinkled within Orthodox theological writings, but it’s there. It could be questioned if the translators of patristic works were unknowingly influenced by Catholicism, or if imitate was used as a synonym for abide in or in communion with, or if the translation is indeed accurate. However, if Fr. Thomas Hopko is considered an authoritative educator, then it must be noted that he used imitate in The Orthodox Faith series which provides a basic understanding of Orthodoxy for the average reader.
…to foster imitation of his [a saint’s] virtues in the lives of the hearers and readers.
Thus, among creatures, man alone is empowered to imitate God and to participate in His life. Man has the competence and ability to become a Son of God, mirroring the eternal Son, reflecting the divine nature because he is inspired by the Holy Spirit as is no other creature.
The Orthodox Faith, Vol. I, Doctrine (pp. 27, 43)
1976 Revised Edition
Through the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the believers receive forgiveness of sins and are “made perfect,” being led and disciplined by God Himself Who gives His Holy Spirit that through their sufferings in imitation of Christ, His people “may share in His holiness.”
The first letter of St. Peter is a passionate plea to all of “God’s People” to be strong in their sufferings in imitation of Christ and together with Him…
The third letter of St. John is addressed to a certain Gaius praising him for the “truth of life” and urging him not to “imitate evil but imitate good.”
The Orthodox Faith, Vol. III, Bible and Church History (pp. 50, 54, 59)
Let it also be noted that the Antiochians use this term in “Nine Ways of Being a Credit to Your Church and Parish.” This is an old document but seems still in effect.
Give evidence of the Power of Christ by your Orthodox Christian Life.
Let the imitation of Christ be your guide.
Word Magazine, March 1960, (p. 10)
In Hopko’s work, imitate and participate are connected as qualities or processes, and are perhaps equivalent or complementary. Man is empowered to imitate and participate, and perhaps empowerment refers to grace or theosis. With that in mind, and borrowing from a few more of Hopko’s phrases, to imitate Christ could mean:
- To follow Christ
- To be like Christ
- To witness of Christ
- To be in conformity with Christ
- To share in the holiness of Christ
- To rely upon the presence of Christ
- To stand firm in Christ
- To affirm the Faith
- To live the message of the Gospel
- To keep the commandments
- To be fruitful
- To choose abundant life
- To be in perpetual growth
- To be obedient to God
In the Bible there are several instances of imitate in The New Testament Epistles in the RSV: 1 Corinthians 4: 16, 1 Corinthians 11: 1, Ephesians 5: 1, Philippians 3: 17, 1 Thessalonians 1: 6, 2 Thessalonians 3: 7, Hebrews 6: 12, Hebrews 13: 7, and 3 John 11. The NKJV also uses imitate in 1 Corinthians 4: 16, 1 Corinthians 11: 1, Ephesians 5: 1, and Hebrews 6: 12. In the other instances, the NKJV uses follow. The KJV uses follow in each instance.
If we are to follow Christ, and even to take the Apostle Paul as a model or pattern (because Paul follows Christ as his pattern), then it would seem that imitate is a synonym for follow and does not challenge the concept of theosis (deification or divinization, or partaking of divine grace). We might further say that to imitate or to follow Christ means to submit to His teachings.
It would also seem that the imitation of Christ is not some sort of baby step toward theosis, or something for beginners who have yet to grasp the meaning of theosis or to advance to that stage. Moreover, it would not be the case that the imitation of Christ is outward and therefore inferior, as opposed to grace which is inward and renews man into the image of God. Imitation is outward only inasmuch as it is behavioral. That is, our actions and deeds. But our conduct is based in and is an expression of our inward beliefs. Even if we removed imitation from our terminology, we would still have to understand terms such as follow and take as a pattern.
A Relationship with God
Now, the term relationship is disowned by some Eastern Orthodox who prefer to say that we are in communion with one another as well as with God and the saints. The Protestants emphasize a personal relationship with God, and this has perhaps monopolized the meaning of the word. Let’s look at two instances in the Bible for possible clarification:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Matthew 3: 17 [RSV]
‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
Matthew 25: 40 [RSV]
To be pleased with someone would seem to imply a relationship. And, likewise, to do something for or to someone means to have contact or to have an impact, to have communication, and to influence, inspire, and help. In other words, we have interactions with one another and these interactions form us into relationships. Again, this is not in conflict with the concept of in communion with, and it might be a hypercorrection when the use one term necessarily rules out any proper use of the other.
Father to son is a relationship. Brother to brother is a relationship. Doctor to patient, teacher to student, boss to employee are relationships. We relate to one another within certain roles, and we are all in communion with one another in the Holy Church. We might say that to do the will of God puts us in relationship with Him, or that the Ten Commandments create a relationship. (Hopko speaks of “God’s covenant relationship with His People,” Vol. III, Bible and Church History, p. 7.)
To be human means to have diverse yet coordinated capacities: biological, psychological, social, spiritual. This is not to compartmentalize life, and certainly not to separate spirituality into a distinct or optional category. This is just to say that we see and hear, we read and study, we attend staff meetings and conferences, we say our prayers, we lend a helping hand, we make decisions and solve problems, we write poems and play the piano, we go to lunch with a friend, and we have personalities and emotions. Maybe we imitate Christ even as we are being transformed and deified, and precisely because of that ongoing process. And maybe our relationships facilitate our functioning in society even as we are all one in Christ.