Thursday, June 17, 2010

Theologians of the Cross, Glory, and Orthodoxy

As I said in a previous post, I have on more than one occasion heard the charge leveled against Orthodoxy that it is a theology of glory, especially in connection with its ecclesiology. So I would like to take a quick look at that claim. Since my books are still packed away, I am going to rely on the outline of Luther's Theology of the Cross found on

I. Luther's Theology of the Cross (TotC) begins with a different language than Orthodox theology.

It is easy to talk past one another when our words mean different things and our assumptions are rooted differently. One of the basic differences between the Two Theologies in Luther's TotC is the claim that they work with different epistemologies. The question is whether the epistemology of Glory that Luther describes is the specific 'different epistemology' of the Orthodox Church.

Some observations:
  1. Luther assumes righteousness is that which can merit eternal life.

  2. However, in Orthodoxy righteousness and life are opposite sides of the same coin, received together.

  3. Luther assumes the issue is between the merit of works of the law and the merit of Christ.

  4. Orthodoxy assumes the issue is between man's bondage to sin, death, and the devil and the freedom of life/righteousness in Christ.

  5. The TotC grapples constantly with questions of merit.

  6. In Orthodoxy that Western concept of merit does not exist.

Thus Luther's TotC is insufficient in itself to critique Orthodox Catholic theology, because Luther's theology touches only upon Reformation-era theological problems and does not actually address the epistemological realities of Orthodox theology.

II. Having said that, it may seem still that there is enough in common between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy to level a critique against Orthodoxy using Luther's TotC.

Much of what Martin Luther wishes to discuss with his theses on this subject abides in the theological issues of the Roman Church. Orthodoxy and Rome appear to have much in common according to their theological conclusions, despite some important differences. Is this enough to still accurately and effectively criticize Orthodoxy as a Theology of Glory, that is, something deluded and puffed up with notions of its own righteousness? Let's see:

  1. The Theologian of Glory: humans have the ability to do the good that lies within them.

    Orthodox theology teaches that humans can do the good within them, and that this comes from being made in God's image; it is not lost by the fall. It is pleasing to God when humans do the good within them, for God put it there for that purpose. Orthodox theology does not teach that doing that good within them "saves" a person according to a system of merits. Doing what is good within a person is measured by God on the basis of His mercy in Christ, faith, and acting in accord with God's design for humanity. Lutheranism revolves around passivity; Orthodoxy around activity, for faith is something active through love in works.

  2. The Theologian of Glory: there remains, after the fall, some ability to choose the good.

    Orthodox theology teaches this very thing. Orthodox theology has never come to the conclusions about the Human Will that the Lutherans and Calvinists have; their conclusions are considered a false representation of Scripture derived from over-reliance on St. Augustine's overstatements. However, in the context of Luther's theses, the question is whether or not one has the ability to choose the good in order to supply merit towards his salvation. This concept is not at work in Orthodox theology. Merit in Western theology is a quantitative term denoting what man earns or deserves; in those parts of Orthodoxy where merit shows up it describes the strength of one's relationship with God in terms of repentance, faith, and love.

  3. The Theologian of Glory: humans cannot be saved without participating in or cooperating with the righteousness given by God.

    Orthodoxy says this, but not the way a Lutheran would naturally understand it. Since in Orthodoxy the righteousness given by God is a) not a created grace or habit or characteristic, b) but is itself the living righteousness of Christ shared with the believer through communion with Him, then c) the righteousness of Christ received is meant to be exercised, because it is the Divine Energies of God from outside of us imparted into us, not just a legal status both starting and ending outside of us.

    In Orthodoxy "to be saved" refers to receiving God's righteousness, and also to growing in God's righteousness through the active participation in that righteousness (i.e. faith), and also to being found on Christ's right hand when He comes again in glory, and it means other things, too. Lutheranism uses the term "saved" to refer to being declared not guilty by God, which will then result in the guarantee of eternal life.

III. However, to be fair, let us compare the other side of Luther's theology, namely that of the Theologian of the Cross:

  1. The Theologian of the Cross: humans can in no way earn righteousness.

    Orthodoxy teaches this. The righteousness of God is never earned, but bestowed by God's mercy, forgiveness, and loving-kindness despite our unworthiness and because of God's great love for mankind through Christ in the Holy Spirit. This righteousness is bestowed not like receiving a notice in the mail with presents to follow that help you to believe the notice, but rather like the father embracing his prodigal son in the Gospel and bringing him into to feast.

  2. The Theologian of the Cross: humans cannot add to or increase the righteousness of the cross.

    What is referred to here in the Lutheran context is the work of Christ by which He supplies to man His own righteousness in exchange for the punishment due to sinners. Orthodoxy is uncomfortable with this view of the cross, for Christ did not suffer eternal damnation on the cross, but rather made an end of the sins of the world by death, healed the wound of mortality, and delivered the world from bondage to its Pharaoh (the Devil).

    Having said that, Orthodoxy theology teaches that man is taken up into the self-offering of Christ on the cross through communion, as beneficiaries; we do not apply quantitative merit to Christ's over-abundantly quantitative merit (again, merit is an alien concept here).

  3. The Theologian of the Cross: any righteousness given to humanity comes from outside of us.

    To clarify, by righteousness is meant here that which avails before God for salvation. In Orthodox theology the righteousness within us due to our original creation is never something that can "save" you; only God can do that by healing our nature and freeing us and gathering us back into communion with Him. However that does not mean God is not pleased with a man who lives righteously according to what's in him. It just means, in Orthodoxy, that such works do not equate with going to heaven because a man somehow earned the right. That would be ridiculous. Works done according to the good belonging to our ontological basis in God's image speak to a man's faith and right relationship with God. As the Scripture says, "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe He exists and rewards those who earnestly seek Him" (Heb. 11:6).

    In Orthodoxy "righteousness" that pertains to salvation always comes from outside of man, but it also enters into man as a facet of life in Christ. And the good that belongs to the image and likeness of God did not come from man, but has its source in God, specifically in creation. The issue at hand here is not so much whether man can supply his own good or righteousness - which neither Lutherans nor Orthodox would say - but what the exact nature of the fall is.

To conclude, let us observe the following:

  1. Luther works with a different belief about the effect of the fall upon the human capacities than what is Orthodox.

  2. Luther works with a different set of assumptions about what is needed for man's salvation than what is Orthodox.

  3. Luther works with a different concern than what Orthodoxy typically does, namely that man is seeking to justify himself before God by his own personal deservings.

Throughout Martin Luther's theses there runs a current that is very familiar to Orthodox spirituality, namely the expectation that in whatever good we attempt to do as servants of God we bring with it our sin. This corresponds with the Orthodox concern over the influence of the sinful passions in everything we do. The very aim of Orthodox spiritual warfare is to grow in dislike for oneself - i.e. to recognize more and more in ourselves that which is passionate and opposed to God and to despise that - and to grow in love and reliance on God in all things.

However, beyond this similarity, I must conclude by making an observation. Lutherans who like to levy the charge against Orthodoxy that it is a Theology of Glory are in no way saying anything of substance. Rather, it a way to stop conversation and avoid dealing with very real and important differences between Reformation theology and Orthodox Catholic theology. Orthodox Christians should take great care with Lutherans who try to shut down conversation with this accusation to get into the issues which offend the Lutheran, such as the true nature of the fall (corruption of mortality, not total depravity or its like), free will, God's focus in man's salvation (not His bruised justice, or the requirement of quantitative merits, but man's captivity and hurt and loss from God), the true nature of righteousness, and the role of the cross throughout all aspects of Orthodoxy as a constant dying and rising. This Lutheran critique, using Luther's Theology of the Cross, does not adequately address the epistemological differences between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy to be effective or adequate. However, it can be a good spring-board to further, more charitable and informed conversation.

Lutherans and Orthodox do not need to be enemies, though the Enemy would love to continue to foster hostilities between the two. It will take great care and patience in dealing with Lutherans, many of whom feel threatened by the exodus of their comrades into Holy Orthodoxy. In the end we should not expect to convert all Lutherans - though wouldn't that be a blessing! (a Lutheran would hope for the same toward us) - but we should hope to learn to appreciate each other and work together against our common Enemy with greater charity and understanding.


Jason said...

Benjamin: thanks for this post--I concur fully. I've been Orthodox for three years, and prior to that I spent twenty years in the Reformed Evangelical tradition. I still have a place in my heart for Luther, though would agree that his theology isn't beyond serious criticism, especially as it relates to Christian living (i.e. sanctification).

While Lutherans talk about the need for sanctification it never seems to progress further than tentative language that a saving faith is a passive faith, for fear that any active effort is (mis)understood as somehow earning or achieving something in God's sight. Lutherans seem quite uncomfortable and don't know what to do with sanctification, other than look at it suspiciously as some form of merit or label it a theology of glory.

Also of note, while some Lutherans like to connect Lutheran theology to the Church Fathers (ex, Fr. Weedon, who I'm a fan of by the way) and occasionally quote from them, I find it interesting that they pull only the quotes that seem to support 'faith alone' while totally ignoring all of the other quotes that talk of self denial, asceticism, synergism, etc.

In short, there is more balance in Orthodoxy regarding faith and works (than there is in Lutheranism) and the accusation that Orthodoxy is laced with a theology of glory is a misunderstanding on so many levels.

Congratulations on being received into the Orthodox Church this past Pascha.

Anonymous said...

I read this post via your more recent post that references this post. *Phew!* I agree that within Lutheranism there is massive confusion about the "Sanctified Life," the "3rd function/use of the Law," etc. So much so, our Dogmatics prof, when dismissing us from chapel at Sem, would only say "Go in peace" and leave out the "and serve the Lord" part! Any application of "Law" after the gospel left one back under the crushing weight of human failure and ultimately dispair. Hence, any kind of "growing in faith", "maturation," or spiritual disciplines are left out, and the Lutheran hangs in suspended animation, rationally clinging to forensic justification (God tolerates me because of Christ).

There is much debate about this of course, but the only two options I have seen is 1) Confessional dudes not doing/preaching works, lest we earn our salvation, and 2) Legalists who are basically baptist and have slipped back into Roman "Lets woo God real good" theology.

The Lutheran is left wondering "Now What?" and is puzzled by Jesus' many passages that leave people with "the Law."