If all theology is Christology, how wide the divide? A reflection on Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy (part I of IV)

30 Sep
Cyril of Alexandria: Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, or both?

Cyril of Alexandria: Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, or both?

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. 

Lutheran theologian David Scaer: "All theology is Christology".

Lutheran theologian David Scaer: “All theology is Christology”.

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.

Part II


* 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?

Cyril pic:

Scaer pic:


Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Uncategorized


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11 responses to “If all theology is Christology, how wide the divide? A reflection on Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy (part I of IV)

  1. Dominic

    October 1, 2013 at 5:12 am

    On the ecclesiological front, I don’t think the Eastern Orthodox tradition is as wielded to the idea of clerical monopoly on sacramental dispensation as it is in Roman Catholicism. You may want check out one of their saints St Symeon the New Theologian, who explicitly taught that Christian with a genuine experience of Christ had the power and right to pronounce absolution contra the notion of a purely organisational tactile laying of apostolic hands as the necessary prerequisite to the exercise of valid sacraments.

  2. Nathan

    October 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    Father Kimel,

    Thank you so much for the link to the post. I only hope and pray that those coming here would find it to be worth their time and effort. Welcome to those of you who are reading this.


    Thank you for the comment. That is very interesting. In Lutheranism, laypersons baptize in the case of emergency but do not administer the Lord’s Supper. Absolution is something that all persons can announce to a fellow sinner, but pastors will often say “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I absolve you of all your sins”… As I understand it as a lay person, the idea here is that the pastor is the primary one that Christians are to confess to, both for good order and that believers may be truly confident that their sins are forgiven (having Christ’s officially appointed deputy doing this will help them more if they experiences doubt that God really would forgive their sins). But yes – this does not prevent any layperson from doing this as well, for if anyone speaks, let Him speak the very words of God, as Peter says. And Christ is eager to have His 70×7 forgiveness proclaimed, that His forgiveness, life, and salvation would take hold in power more and more.


  3. whitefrozen

    October 1, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    Are you familiar with St. Maximos the Confessor? He develped the natural/gnomic distinction in the will quite brilliantly, and is essential reading if you want to engage that concept. It’s quite a subtle idea, but basically the gnomic will is how we misuse our natural will – our natural will strives for God, as it were. Our gnomic will is more or less that part of us that chooses things other than God and in so doing confers upon us a kind of prison – because volitional willing of X over Y leads to less freedom in the future, because choosing X over Y means that I choose X at the expense of Y, which means later on my future choices will be that much more limited. It goes on and on – fewer and fewer choices can be made the more we excercise our gnomic will. Our natural will’s orientation is to God. Bonhoeffer kind of built on this concept in his creation lectures.

    Regarding the atonement – the EO affirm the christus victor atonement model – and while Christ did die as a ransom and substitute, they don’t see it in the penal substitutional sense that a lot of contemporary protestant theology does (ie most forms of calvinism, etc). We needed to be healed from our condition – not God. So the atonement is seen much less in terms of a perfect sacrifice to satisfy God’s infinite justice and all that and way more in terms of a total victory over death and the powers. ‘Death by death undone.’ Trampling upon death and bestowing life on those in the tombs. That sort of thing.

    The reason the EO believe that the incarnation would have still happened is that even if there was no sin, Christ still would have been incarnated so that we could become partakers of the divine nature – that’s a rough and crude answer. Hopefully the EO can correct/expound that a bit.

    • infanttheology

      October 2, 2013 at 12:24 pm


      Thanks for the comments. What is interesting to me is the question of whether there is a any real distinction of the “gnomic will” before and after the fall into sin. Perhaps someone can speak to that.

      As for the atonement, that is my understanding as well. I do think within the Protestant tradition there are better and worse ways of talking about this however.

      Incarnation: right, and this is what I try to unpack in much more detail in post #2, which I just put up.


      • whitefrozen

        October 2, 2013 at 4:21 pm

        My understanding (and I may need to be corrected as I’m not an expert on St. Maximos or his ideas) is that man in his natural state did not have a gnomic wil. Basically, true human nature is divine and not sinful, so the gnomic is a product of fallen hypostases. There is the natural will that has personal/particular/volitional aspects – the gnomic will is the product of those fallen aspects. I’m kind of rambling in a hurry, but if i get time ill try and do a bit of reading and see if i can break it down a bit better.

  4. Nathan

    October 2, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    If that is true, than I was wrong here:

    “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.”

    Maybe some EO folks can help us out.

    • whitefrozen

      October 2, 2013 at 11:55 pm

      My very good EO friend, whom I consulted about this discussion, replied ‘Human nature is Christ. True human nature is divine, not sinful. True human nature is union with God, not seperation.’ Salvation is meant to restore us to this natural state. I haven’t researched the official dogmatic position of the Orthodox Church on this matter though.

  5. whitefrozen

    October 2, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    Here is my friends full reply to my question about the natural gnomic/natural will:

    ‘The gnomic refers to the manner in which we exercise or misuse our natural will (it is a use of the will rather than a separate, distinct will). Gnomic is related to the concept of opinionated action; as you might know the word heresy is similarly translatable as opinion). It is a function of fallen hypostases.

    Genesis proclaimed all things created by God to be good. A question being pressed hard during St. Maximos’s generation was how man, if man’s nature (Gk. ousia/essence) was created good by God, could have ever fallen. In answering this question St. Maximos distinguished between natural (re. ousia/essence) and personal (hypostatic) aspects of the will. The latter is grounded in the former, but is the particular, personal expression; the fall does not imply any “created evil/privation” of the good of the natural will created by God. This was an expression of the universal conviction of the fathers that all things created by God were good (vs. e.g. Gnostics and Manichaeans) and the capacity of mankind to sin presupposing freedom of the will (all the early fathers held tenaciously to both of these views).

    Christ, according to St. Maximos, did not have a gnomic will, but a natural will. Quoting a cyber-friend of mine, John Sanidopoulos (who I do not always agree with, but who I do fully concur with on the following), “Despite what many Orthodox theologians say who have been influenced by Karl Barth, Christ did not assume a fallen human nature, but received the entirety of humanity in a pre-fallen state as a new Adam restoring fallen man to Paradise… There was never a time when Christ in his flesh was in a fallen state, because there was never a point in his humanity that he was ever separated from his divinity. This is basic Chalcedonian Christology… Taking on our humanity in its pre-fallen state, he took on the whole of human nature and only in this way could he restore mankind from a state condemned to death through sin.”

    To avoid confusion it is important to realize the manner in which the East and Latin West were diverging even at an early stage in using overlapping terms for paradigmatically quite different realities, especially per created/uncreated vs. nature/grace (cf. brackets below; we might recall the Hebrews lacked even a name for nature but spoke rather of creation): “Maximos calls the logoi and virtues natural only insofar as the type of participation that man has in them, and not the notion of grace = nature as the Pelagians held. Neither is Maximos semi-Pelagian, for the uncreated logoi being uncreated have no similarity whatsoever with created essences. This is a strong metaphysical distinction between nature and grace from this perspective [note: Orthodox see a more critical distinction in created/uncreated as opposed to the Latin nature/grace]. In regard to man’s abilities after the Fall, man’s ignorance of whether or not acts end in good or an evil act becomes increasingly worse, and his ability to actualize the divine energy is only buttressed by the Incarnation itself.”

    Athanasius had also insisted, as did Cyril, that human nature can be divinized: not ceasing to be human, but nevertheless taking on divine nature in some manner, like the elements in the Eucharist, so that it is transformed. At the Eucharist the priest prays, “Send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon this offering of bread and wine…” It is a transfiguration of people as well as bread and wine. So the Body is also the people, who are being transfigured into the likeness of Christ.

    What is the true human nature? Human nature is Christ. True human nature is divine, not sinful. True human nature is not separate from God, but in union with God. What we see as “human” is actually distorted humanity, a distorted image. Salvation is to be restored to true humanity, through Christ, who is the second Adam. In Orthodoxy, then, salvation is granted already in the Incarnation and not simply through the suffering on the cross.

    in the West, we think of human and divine as opposites, whereas in the East, to be truly human is to be divine, and the Divinity chose not to exist without becoming human. So while the natures did not mix or change (“without change becoming man”), nevertheless each was manifested in the other in a mysterious manner.

    I believe this image came from Athanasius: pour a glass of wine into a glass of water. It becomes “all wine.” However, we know that the properties of wine (alcohol) and water are quite different. Each does not *become* the other, but they commune. If the wine represents divinity and the water humanity, then we have the idea of divinized humanity (during the Proskomide prayers, the priest pours water into the wine, symbolizing the human and divine natures together).

    However Athanasius pointed out that the metaphor is not perfect. For one thing, he did not want to say that the water/wine mixture (divine/human) is a new thing. It is a *unique* thing, the God-Man, but it is not an admixture or a monster (which Nestorius later implied), but a communion of natures. For another thing, in this example the wine adds to the volume of the water–whereas in the case of the incarnation, it would be like wine being poured into water without adding any volume to the total, but coexisting perfectly, in perfect communion.

    Contemporary physics presents another (imperfect) analogy (I believe this originates from T. F. Torrance, who the Ecumenical Patriarch actually confirmed by economy as an “honorary protopresbyter” -whatever that is!): subatomic particles seem to occupy the same space without interfering with one another, without becoming one another, and without separating from one another.’

    My friend, as you can see, has an infinitely better grasp on this subject than I do- hopefully this is of some help 🙂

  6. Nathan

    October 3, 2013 at 1:22 pm


    Thanks for the comments. Will read when I have more time (hopefully before tomorrow’s post!) and comment as I can. Really appreciate your work on this.


  7. Nathan

    October 4, 2013 at 12:31 pm


    Great stuff. Very helpful and thank you for leaving it here. What sticks out to me is this:

    “in the West, we think of human and divine as opposites, whereas in the East, to be truly human is to be divine, and the Divinity chose not to exist without becoming human. So while the natures did not mix or change (“without change becoming man”), nevertheless each was manifested in the other in a mysterious manner…. I believe this image came from Athanasius: pour a glass of wine into a glass of water. It becomes “all wine.” However, we know that the properties of wine (alcohol) and water are quite different. Each does not *become* the other, but they commune….”

    I would be interested in knowing what kind of Scriptural support EO would use for this. It seems that even the analogy of the iron in the fire used to explain who Jesus Christ in (explaining on how the divine nature took on a human nature as well) does not go this far!

    “You will be like God”. But we already were! But what does “like” mean?



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