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

04 Oct
Salvation, understood in its broad sense, also consists of the sanctification, or what Lutheran theologian Jordan Cooper is calling "Christification", of the Christian man.  That said, Lutherans do insist on distinguishing, not separating, justification and sanctification.  Picture is from the paper located here.

Salvation, understood in its broad sense, also consists of the sanctification, or what Lutheran theologian Jordan Cooper is calling “Christification”, of the Christian man. That said, Lutherans do insist on distinguishing, not separating, justification and sanctification. For more about this picture and sanctification, see here.

Part I

Part II

Before launching into this post, let me quickly deal with some common questions and misapprehensions about confessional Lutherans:  while Lutherans do accept theosis, we are nevertheless eager to make some important distinctions (see this post from Jordan Cooper and this paper from Kurt Marquart for more).  And yet while we do make these distinctions, note that Lutherans do not believe that any human being will be finally justified who has not begun to be sanctified (see my post here – “Lutherans as weaker brethren?” – for more that helps explain this).  Finally, realize that Lutherans did not fight against monasticism per se, but monasticism of a particular kind (see here for more of my thoughts on this).

With that behind us, let us take a look at some words that the Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Aidan Kimel recently wrote:

Paul can even include faith in the list of the fruit that is borne by the Spirit of Christ (5:22), suggesting that the act of trust does not have its origin in the human being… that act springs from the proclamation of the risen Lord. It is incited by the preached message (Gal 3:2; Rom 10:17)….so faith itself is existentially impossible for a humanity enslaved by the powers of sin and death. Trust, too, is a grace of the apocalyptic invasion. If we think that we have believed in Christ by our own power and autonomous decision, then perhaps we have attended one too many revivalist tent meetings. We are not righteoused by our faith in Christ; we are righteoused by the faith of Christ… I am reminded of St Gregory of Nazianzen’s famous saying “For that which he has not assumed he has not healed.” Surely this assumption must include the diseased human will, which is healed, purified, liberated, and sanctified through our Lord’s obedience unto death.

(yes, there are many ellipses here!  Please go to the entire post to read these words more in the context Father Kimel wants you to read them in)

Now, with those words ringing in our ears, let us go forward…

I have heard EO Christians say that “the divine power of incorruptibility is present within the image of God”.  I have also heard the words “’grace’ is God’s own life manifested and active in creation”.  Another person said that “to-day [Christ’s divinized body] is mingled with us, it dwells in us and, naturally, it enlightens our souls from within” (see here)  Finally, a well-known Eastern Orthodox convert named Perry Robinson told me once that “Christ gathers together all of creation into himself in the Incarnation and fills all things”.  While with the EO, Lutherans reject the strict dichotomy of “nature” and “grace” promulgated by Rome – that certainly has relevance as regards statements like these – I must admit that all of these ideas prompt me to ask “what does this mean – especially right now?”  As regards Adam and Eve before the fall, it seems I can easily comprehend what is being said here.  That said, do these words simply mean that God puts the salvation in us which we consequently – in, with, and through Christ – “work out”?  Does it mean that we, from our hearts can assert with the Apostle Paul – without any qualification – “what do we have that we have not received”?    

For the Lutheran’s part, our confessional documents quote Martin Luther saying the following:

“When the Fathers defend free will, they are speaking of this: it is capable of freedom in this sense, that by God’s grace it can be converted to do good and become truly free, for which it was created in the beginning. (WA 2:647, quoted in Article II, Free Will, 23)

There is more to be said about the Lutheran view here, but I would like to focus on the Eastern Orthodox viewpoint regarding these things.  In attempting to do so, I know that the following barrage of questions might seem a bit of excessive, but I question the way I do because I do not want to carelessly dismiss the EO viewpoint based on a misunderstanding.  From what I think I do know about it, it seems to me that it is difficult to grasp and easy to caricature.  I know many persons miss the full picture of the confessional Lutheran viewpoint and its subtle nuances.

What do the EO believe about this issue of free will and the unbeliever’s conversion to God?  While all persons in this world certainly live and move and have their being in God and cannot operate apart from His power, do they believe that all of the persons following Adam and Eve that want to choose what is good do so because, by God’s grace, their free will has been led and enabled to do so?  Is this fundamentally why they, led by the Spirit, choose to grow in fear, love and trust in God with their own free powers?  In other words, do they do what they do because they have already been given a measure of Christ’s salvation (see John 17:3), i.e. “graced” with some kind of implicit or explicit knowledge that lives – eternally lives! – in, with and through Christ alone?*   Note that by stating things in this way, I do not mean to imply that they could not have – incomprehensibly! – rejected this gift at the time it was given to them or that it could not also be subsequently lost.  Even if it were possible that grace might conceivably be irresistible in this or that circumstance, it is certainly not irresistible throughout the whole of any Christian’s life.

If you are EO, how does this sound so far?  I ask all these questions because I wonder if the spiritual power provided by the promise of God’s incarnate Messiah – and this promise’s actual fulfillment in time – is the power that must be behind – the source of – all man’s spiritual powers.  Is the promise of the Christ – that event in which human nature would be and was taken up into the Son of God, the second member of the Trinity – somehow already the possession of the person who subsequently chooses the good?  Or, alternatively, did all those following Adam and Eve have the ability to choose to grow in salvation because they had already chosen it previously – without any divine assistance to get them started – when it had hitherto been offered?  In other words, even though some EO talk about how the “inescapable condition” of natural man is that he is “captive”  to sin, corruption, disintegration, darkness (ignorance) and death, the fall was not really quite as drastic as this language might suggest to some of us?  Is the key simply that an unbelieving person may want to choose the true God and all those things that come with Him but he is not able to complete this action without God’s help?  In other words, when it comes to man’s initial conversion to God – his “regeneration” – do we ultimately say that the human soul’s own powers are able to produce [what would seem to amount to] a good choice that wins God’s acceptance – albeit only with His assistance?

If this latter formulation does not sound as good to the former one, then I think there may be room to do some business (and yes, if you think the way I have framed this whole issue is unfair please say so!).  I say this because in that first case we seem to be talking about salvation by Christ alone – due to His incarnation and all that flowed from that – as the “justifying factor” – where He “frees us from death and corruption and justifies our life and existence” as one commentator told me.**  Here further questions will certainly arise though, and some of those questions would be the following: What role does faith in Christ – whether it be implicit or explicit – have in all of this and what, fundamentally, is this faith that is the power unto salvation (Rom. 1:17)?  Or is faith in Christ not an absolute necessity for salvation?  If it is not, why is it not?  If it is, what is the nature of this divinely-given faith in Christ required for all of this, whether we speak of pre-incarnation or post-incarnation human beings?  Again, to emphasize, in what way does the life the EO speak of here relate to the faith that Paul talks about as the power unto salvation for all who believe?  Is it through faith in God’s promises and their effects that our will is animated and energized to work out the salvation God has already worked in us?

To approach this from a different angle: Truly if the Holy Spirit convicts all people of sin for not believing in Jesus Christ (John 16:8) this presumes them having some knowledge of God’s acting in the world through His Son.  But how?   Do the Orthodox insist that there is some kind of knowledge all men must have of Christ apart from hearing the oral communication about Jesus?  Or, are persons simply responsible (and perhaps culpable!) upon their hearing of the self-authenticating word of God, when His Spirit testifies in their hearts that it is true?  In what way are the oral and written forms of God’s words “living and active” – “spirit and life” – in Orthodoxy – especially as regards the issue of initially turning persons from darkness to light?

Again, on the other hand, perhaps my asking questions like this is not the way to go if we are to better understand one another.  Perhaps what is simply being said here is that Christians need to talk about how this genuine spiritual life – this life of divine power and pardon – can simply be obtained by the powers of free will present in the unbaptized and/or unbelieving.  If you are EO and that is what you think Christians should believe, I wonder whether you can nevertheless identify to some degree with what I have written with here at all…

Or perhaps in all of this there is something else I should consider that I am missing entirely.  If so, please raise your voice!

In the next post we will try to wrap up some of the things we have discussed in this series.


*There are those who have a lot of knowledge of the Bible and even its salvation narrative, but not a living knowledge, formed by trust. In other words, having the most basic outlines of this knowledge in embryonic form is necessary but not sufficient – the component of personal trust in another must be present.

**Of course this point is critical for Lutherans, because although sin does not destroy our good nature, it does infect it such that we not only “cannot do what is natural for us” but we don’t want to!  “Willing” is still natural for us of course, but the poison of sin affects us such that fallen man does not desire or will to desire or desire to will (etc.) what is good and right and true, namely trusting, loving and fearing God as He created us to!  It really is a “captive” and “inescapable” condition in just this way.  As such fallen man, or “Old Adam”, can only be contained – and increasingly killed spiritually – by the Word of God that is Spirit and life.  This is the Word Paul talks about in Romans 10:17 that creates faith.

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