Essay / Theology

The Life in Christ, with Careful Distinctions

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In Book 1 of Nicholas Cabasilas’ classic The Life in Christ, he sings the praises of salvation at such a high pitch that you think he’s likely at any moment to say some things that only make sense as ecstatic speech rather than as good theology.

“They are no trifling gifts that God bestows,” says this fourteenth-century Byzantine writer: “He does not merely bestow a crown or give them some share in His glory. He gives them Himself, the Victor who is crowned with glory.” Cabasilas’ theology is a heady mixture of theosis, sacramental realism, and biblical meditation. Readers coming to Cabasilas from other spiritual traditions and ecclesial homes will surely notice his Byzantine accent (though the Palamism remains tacit, and some influence from Anselmian ideas is evident). But The Life in Christ is a good example of an author being so true to his own tradition’s vision that he produces a masterpiece easily usable by fellow Christians far outside that tradition.

For example, right after the effusiveness of the passage just quoted, Cabasilas goes on to say something about union with Christ that is simply good theological reading of the Bible:

One might well marvel that we do not share in His stripes and death also, but that, while He alone underwent that struggle, yet when He was to be crowned He then made us partakers of Himself. This too belongs to his ineffable loving-kindness.

Yet it is not without reason or contrary to it. It was after the cross that we were united to Christ; before He had died we had nothing in common with Him. He was the Son and the beloved One, but we were unclean, slaves, of a hostile mind. It was when He had died and the ransom had been paid and the devil’s prison had been destroyed that we obtained freedom and adoption of sons and became members of that blessed Head.

Here is a precise and penetrating insight into union with  Christ: although salvation flows to us from every aspect of the life of Jesus, from his conception to his ascension, nevertheless it is his death that identifies us with him. Cabasilas is not so inebriated by the incarnation that he loses touch with the singularity of the atoning death of Christ; nor is he so overwhelmed with an abstract motif of participation that he lets the notion of our suffering with Christ overwhelm the central fact of Christ’s suffering for us.

Make these careful distinctions, and praise on in good order, Cabasilas!


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