Please note: these posts are a bit longer and contain high-octane theological reflection meant to spur on constructive dialogue with Eastern Orthodox Christians. If you can make it through post I of IV, I think there is a good chance you can make it through all of them. If you are Lutheran, please note that in these posts – for the sake of making conversation – I am trying to “speak Eastern Orthodox” to some degree while being faithful to Lutheran theology.
Lately in the blogosphere, I have noted some conversations that might be of some real interest to both Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran Christians. Al KImel, an Eastern Orthodox convert, has just finished a series trying to introduce the importance of Martin Luther to Eastern Orthodox Christians. On the other hand, in response to calls to commune infants from some Lutherans, other Lutherans have been re-visiting what the 16th c. reformers had to say about the topic (see here).
There are no doubt very real differences. That said, it still make sense to me that Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox (EO) Christians might try and explore more deeply what they have in common. From what I understand, most high level Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic dialogue consists not so much in efforts to understand the Scriptures and the early Church Fathers, but rather efforts to harmonize Thomas Aquinas and Gregaory Palamas, as well as the notions of essence/energies and nature/grace. Any Eastern Orthodox thinkers who are willing to explore a different approach are invited to listen in to what I have to say here (reading this short series I did on the work of John Kleinig might be the best first step). After all, it seems to me that Rome is quite unwilling to re-consider many of the errors that have set or set them at odds with the rest of Christendom (purgatory, indulgences, works of supererogation, masses for the dead, forced divorce of married clergy, communion only in one kind, etc.)… Further, from my perspective, it seems that tying the infallibility of the Church to one office presents the greatest of problems.
I’ve tried doing a bit of dialogue already. I bought my [I know theologically suspect] Orthodox Study Bible way back in 2001, and have been paying some attention to Eastern Christianity ever since. Some time ago, I had an interesting conversation with several EO gentlemen on a well-known EO blog. It was a very helpful and educational conversation for me, and I was surprised at how many things we seemed to agree on. Not too long ago, I revisited that conversation and did some reflecting on it, and this short series of posts are a result of that reflection. Most of the quotations I share below explaining EO perspectives are from the various gentlemen who participated in that conversation, who I am assuming know of what they speak.
When it comes to finding out where the Church is, Lutherans insist that this is done by recognizing where the Word is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered. On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox are more likely to locate the Church in its hierarchical organization (although I have heard Orthodoxy is not an “organization with mystery” but “mystery with organization”) – finding it by locating the Apostolic Ministry specifically as regards its historic “Apostolic Succession”. It seems to me that the impulse to do just this is fully Christian in many ways – good, right and salutary. As I have written elsewhere: “ Ideally, the Church should not only be a vehicle for faith but an object of faith, as Richard John Neuhaus once put it”, even if the EO view simplifies the picture too much (see the two-part series here for more explanation). In any case, I think so long as our Eastern Orthodox brothers would not insist that one must believe the office of bishop is distinct from that of pastor by divine rite, this impulse, again, is wholly commendable.
So what is the core reason I think that we might actually have more in common than we have hitherto supposed? The answer lies in Christology. This is something, through Cyril of Alexandria, I have been informed we share. Especially if “all theology is Christology”, as one of our theologians has said, it seems to me that this demands a closer look..
In addition to concerns about the Eastern Orthodox view of original sin, Lutherans are often critical of the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation, which we see as minimizing the central importance of the sinner’s justification before God – the certainty given in the promise of forgiveness, life and salvation even for those who know themselves to be the enemies of God (see Romans 4:5 and 5:6)! Using a text from the book of Revelation, we like to point out that the Lamb of God was “slain from the foundation of the world”. The Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, want to stress the centrality of the incarnation, and, we aver, take their eyes of the cross of Christ.
At the same time, it does us well to remember that Lutherans were not inattentive to the argument of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, who claimed that “what was not assumed, was not redeemed”. In other words, Christ needed to take on a human nature to the fullest degree, otherwise we could not have been saved. And because the human nature that Christ took on was sinless, in the Formula of Concord it is argued that while our humanity is fallen, strictly speaking, we must say that it is still good – the good creation of God. Talk about man’s “essence being sin” is loose talk, even if given our abject blindness to man’s current spiritual state it is appropriate hyperbolic speech (as I recently pointed out here, “man perpetually underestimates the depth and seriousness of original sin – and his sins to boot. That a ‘Great Divorce’ on God’s part would actually be justice does not even seem to occur for many modern persons claiming Christ”) I also note that for the Eastern Orthodox, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ go hand in hand with his incarnation, and if “penal substitution” should not be understood exactly as Anselm understood it, there certainly is language in the early church fathers that speaks of some kind of atonement for sin being accomplished at the cross (not to mention in the Gospels, Epistles, and book of Isaiah!)
Further, as regards the unity that we share in Christology, I am quite certain that both steadfast Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox would balk at the Roman Catholic insistence that we can’t say that human beings are children or sons of God by nature because that would be pantheism.* In other words, we both have difficulties with the way Rome wields the categories of “nature” and “grace”, thinking that they separate these ideas in ways that create many theological difficulties.** (for example, as I pointed out in my previous series, the category “nature” would not be synonymous with “creation” for the reason that talking about things according to “nature” seems to imply an autonomy of the particulars in the cosmos that is not implied with the term “creation” – likewise “grace” cannot simply be equated with either “supernatural” or “new creation”).
So, what does this mean? As I understand the Eastern Orthodox conception of man in his original state, though his goal was to be unable to sin – to reach the likeness of Christ by actualizing his “participation in God’s incorruptibility” – he was at his creation only able not to sin*** but failed in this task. The background here, according to the Orthodox, is that man only had a “gnomic will” which meant that he was capable of misusing his natural powers (at the same time, this fact does not mean that Adam in his original state would not have been in a “state of grace”), and this gnomic will was only to be a temporary condition. To say all of this in a slightly different way, mankind never reached their goal of a “stable participation in God” from their original state of an “unstable participation in God”, where they could “misuse their natural will and alienate themselves from grace”. With the fall, all persons were infected with the curse of physical death, and were “alienated from the Image of God that was the blueprint for their human nature”. That said, they also insist that man continues to have a free will after the fall – his image or “logoi of creation” remains, as does man’s own “energies or essence”. And yet, in spite of the fact, some Eastern Orthodox Christians seem simultaneously willing to use language like this: “[since our mind has been darkened, man is now] captive to corruption, darkness (ignorance) and death” and “sin is the normal and inescapable condition [of man]”.
Now all of this language seems to make some real sense to me and be acceptable… but am I reading the words the same way that an Eastern Orthodox Christian might read them – or, ever hopeful, attributing a Lutheran meaning to these words? And why do the EO insist that even if Adam and Eve had not sinned the incarnation needed to happen?
There are questions I will be addressing more in future posts in this series.
* I think I have also heard Lutherans say that we can’t call human beings children of God, but from our tradition, it would be because this is reserved for believers, not fallen man in general. Interestingly, the Scriptures go so far as to say we are all not just sons of God, but gods ourselves. But it does not shy away from calling all men sons of God either, as Paul points out to the Athenians in Acts 17:27-29.
**Regarding man’s relationship with God before the fall, I know that St. Athanasius said that we were naturally mortal (not naturally eternal – only God is self-existing!) due to our being brought from nonexistence into existence, but I would ask persons to consider the following: it seems to me that Adam and Eve had “eternal life” at that time even as there was still more of that eternal life to be had – i.e. the goal of not being able to sin – i.e. “becoming like God by grace”, i.e. “incorruptibility”. It seems clear that this is “human nature” as God intends it and planned it to be according to his Image – being created innocent and being with God Adam was not subject to death! The implications of this however seem to be that we cannot say physical death is “natural” to man in any sense – unless we want to define life and humanity apart from God! But is that not what sin is all about – isn’t acting on a definition of this sort the reason we have physical death (little “d”) and spiritual death (big “D”) as well? In other words, in the beginning, Adam and Eve were attendant on God at their creation, and for them not to be would be “unnatural” – rather, they made themselves unnatural. Again, [physical] death is not “natural”, or normal – God did not create us for this reason. This is why, had Adam and Eve constantly looked to the Word, which was the way God intended for events to transpire, i.e. it was to be the “normal or regular course of things” (in other words, it was “natural” in this sense, not in a nature/grace-dichotomy sort of way), they would have not died.
*** Other questions that will eventually arise here: was Christ in the temptation able to sin? Did He limit His divine powers to make this possible? Can we insist otherwise? Can we insist that Satan’s being kept “far from us” is not a contributing factor as to why we will not be able to sin in the next life?
Scaer pic: http://www.ctsfw.edu/page.aspx?pid=386