Icon of the Nativity of Christ

The Concept of the Person in Orthodox Theology 

Since I am speak­ing at an Ortho­dox monastery and sem­i­nary, I will not pre­tend to teach you about asceti­cism. I hope, through your prayers, that God will teach me. I will sim­ply men­tion one prin­ci­ple from the writ­ings of our ascetic fathers that strikes me as impor­tant in the con­text of this talk. When some mod­ern Ortho­dox the­olo­gians speak of asceti­cism in the con­text of per­son­hood, they often say very lit­tle or remain rather abstract. They talk some­times rather gener­i­cal­ly of love and eros, but with­out unpack­ing the theme. One rea­son for this ret­i­cence regard­ing asceti­cism among these writ­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Greek ones, is the threat of pietism or sal­va­tion through moral­i­ty. Asceti­cism is per­ceived as poten­tial­ly fos­ter­ing a self-right­eous and Phar­i­sa­ic atti­tude which for­gets “the gift of God” and thinks that sal­va­tion is earned through one’s ascetic feats. This, of course, is indeed a dan­ger, and has sur­faced as a prob­lem sev­er­al times in the his­to­ry of the Church. But to make the anom­alies a rule is unfortunate. 

The prin­ci­ple, then, I would like to men­tion, is that true Chris­t­ian asceti­cism is insep­a­ra­ble from the com­mand­ments of Christ. Union with the per­son of Christ is the sin­gle goal of every Chris­t­ian life. But such union does not take place abstract­ly or intel­lec­tu­al­ly. It occurs through the prac­tice of His com­mand­ments. St. Mark the Ascetic writes per­cep­tive­ly regard­ing this: “the Lord is hid­den in His own com­mand­ments, and He is to be found there in the mea­sure that He is sought.” We find Christ in His com­mand­ments, whether to love, to be mer­ci­ful, to be hum­ble, to pray, to repent. The com­mand­ments of Christ are the mode of per­son­hood, and they thus must become the focal point and con­tent of all Chris­t­ian asceti­cism. I should add that we can only ful­fill the com­mand­ments, to quote St Mark again, “by the mer­cies of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is, our ascetic strug­gle from begin­ning to end revolves around, is depen­dent upon, and is ful­filled through, the per­son of Christ. With­out a Christ-cen­tered ori­en­ta­tion, every form of asceti­cism, as well as every con­cept of the per­son, los­es worth. 


Dr Alex­is Tor­rance is the Arch­bish­op Demetrios Col­lege Chair of Byzan­tine The­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame. He pre­vi­ous­ly taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Thes­sa­loni­ki, Greece. His work con­cen­trates on monas­tic the­ol­o­gy, sanc­ti­ty, and the his­to­ry of doc­trine. He holds a D.Phil. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford.