Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Response to "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" -- part 5

This is the final portion of my evaluation of Robert Koester's book, "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy." Here I focus on Part Three: Impressions. Since this section, composed of two chapters, is really the author's subjective opinions and not data about Orthodoxy, I will focus less on data and more on particulars that I feel are worthwhile.

May Christ our God lead the readers of this book into all truth through His mercy and love towards mankind.


On page 122 the author seems to have trouble accepting that in Orthodoxy activity - participation and the experience that comes from it - is what is most important, and the application of a systematic (formal) theology really only serves as commentary on what is done and experienced in the Church. He drifts back to suggesting that there is a disconnect between "the church's formal theology" and the practical piety of the laity. Of course he is entitled to his opinion, as am I. It's good to be informed about why we do what we do, but the rites, prayers, and sacraments of the Church are so richly full of Christ in word, deed, and power that the average lay person has full access to the theology of the Church. And if their participation leads them to want to know more, then that is possible too. But you don't have to be even remotely intelligent to apprehend the Orthodox faith. You just have to apply yourself to the sacramental and spiritual life of the Church. I.e. go to the Liturgy, receive the sacraments, pray, repent, forgive, endeavor to love. This is the activity of faith. In Orthodoxy faith is activity, not passivity.

The author approaches the following topics:

Homilies: He identifies Orthodox sermons as all law, lacking in Gospel. This means that the Lutheran belief in satisfying the wrath of God by paying Him in the currency of Christ's suffering and death on the cross is absent, as is the belief in the bondage of the will in spiritual matters. A Lutheran sermon is aimed at sanctifying the human will so that it, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, is changed from unbelieving into believing. There is personal freedom in this to tell God "no," but never to tell God "yes." The manner in which faith is "created" (or coerced in Orthodox language) is to preach the Lutheran message about the cross as noted above, and specifically that because Christ has satisfied the Father's wrath with an eternity's worth of hell and suffering on the cross, now God's heart is changed toward the sinner and he or she is forgiven. All depends on bombarding the heart with this message all the time so that through it the Holy Spirit can create and strengthen (or coerce in Orthodox language) a belief in God. This belief receives a new relationship and status of righteousness and is a person's entire salvation. Good works flow from this reality. So in order to lead people to produce good works you have to make sure their heart believes. Good works naturally follow from faith in this message. Thus the author does not want to hear about how we should keep Christ's commandments, but rather wants to hear a message that guarantees all things are taken care of for him so long as he believes the right things. Forgive me if this is an oversimplification, but as one who was trained to preach this way and has preached this way it seems the most direct description.

In Orthodoxy there is no belief that Christ is paying God in the currency of an eternity's worth of suffering and death in hell on the cross as Luther taught. God does not desire the death of a sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live (i.e. God desires we change). This Lutheran belief is an extrapolation from Scriptural concepts (akin to the philosophizing that Koester accuses Orthodoxy of falling into), but is itself nowhere found in Scripture. There is a heavy misunderstanding of sacrifice, God, and atonement here.

In Orthodoxy it is believed that Christ offers Himself as an obedient and perfect Son and Lamb to take away the sins of the world. Sins are taken away through sanctification. Christ supplies His innocent and righteous blood, and this covers our sins, that is, obliterates them through the blessing of God's own Life (which is located in His Blood). Death is overcome through sanctification. We were held captive by the power of death, but when the One who is Life entered death, then death was sanctified, blessed, and thus overcome by Life. In this way we see the cross is about Christ being our Passover (literally our passing over) from sin and death to righteousness and life - and St. Paul links these terms in the first part of Romans.

So why doesn't the Orthodox preacher usually talk about these things every sermon? First, because he is not out to effect a change in a bound will. Free will never loses its freedom in Orthodoxy, but it does become impaired. But the principle of uncoerced personal choice is never obliterated, otherwise we would cease to be humans. We'd be beasts only. In Orthodoxy God enlightens free will without co-opting a person's freedom to assent to God or reject God. God's sanctifying work is in play upon conversion as is a person's freedom, and no one can tell where one begins and the other ends. It's a mystery. But God forces nothing upon a person, not in conversion, nor in the Christian's growth in the likeness of Christ.

All components of a person's objective salvation are completed by God and perfected by Him in a person's subjected life, but God forces none of it upon a person. A person must freely act upon his or her supposed faith. Faith must be proved by works. It is when a person acts that the one thing God does not do on behalf of the person - i.e. operate his or her personal freedom - happens. When a person gives himself to the commandments of God with all he has (even if that isn't hardly anything!), his will is saying "I believe and I want your salvation; Lord, have mercy!" And that person then experiences that they have no power in themselves to do anything, but that God is the effective power behind whatever is done. All struggling and striving is so that a person's will may more and more die to this world and rise again in Christ. God honors this faith more than we can imagine.

It is the misuse of free will that led to Adam's fall; it is the return of free will - which God strengthens without co-opting - that is asked of us so that we may be saved in every sense. God does all that needs to be done for salvation (which we could never do or earn), and this so happens to isolate what God desired from man in the beginning - that Adam freely love Him and want to live in communion with Him, not because God forced him but because Adam wants it on his end. God helps the will, but does not co-opt its freedom (I keep saying that, don't I. For good reason).

Orthodox preaching is aimed at directing the human will toward the activity that corresponds to the Life that we have been given in Christ so that we may grow in that Life, rather than be found fruitless, lawless, and dead in faith on the Last Day. So if Orthodox preaching sounds like the Law to Lutherans, it is because Lutherans expect something of God that the Orthodox do not, and the Orthodox believe God expects something of us that the Lutherans leave to God, namely the human will.

Children's Books: In this section the author complains that forgiveness of sins is not at the forefront or necessarily mentioned. Again, the issue for the Orthodox is not satisfying the wrath of God, but that God provides the means for our transformation - our Passover - from sin to righteousness, from death to life, and this through the cross and resurrection of Christ.

A Teen Prayer Book: The author notes a couple prayers found in the prayerbook that deal with forgiveness of sins, and includes an encouragement to the Sacrament of Repentance (i.e. Confession). He complains there are not enough prayers focusing on repentance. It is hard to evaluate this criticism not having the book in front of me.

Lay Book on Salvation: This book, called Are You Saved? by Barbara Pappas seems good! Koester doesn't seem to like it, though.

The Orthodox Study Bible: Koester zeros in on the interpretation given to Romans 3:26 in this Bible and rejects it. His conclusion about Orthodoxy cannot be said any better than with his own words, "Scripture's message of God's forgiving grace in Christ has been lost to the people in the Orthodox church" (Page 127).


This chapter focuses on how a Lutheran should talk to an Orthodox friend about their Lutheran faith with the hopes of pulling that person away from Orthodoxy into Lutheranism.

Your Goal
Help an Orthodox person believe that they will get into heaven only because Jesus lived and died in our place. Implicitly this means getting Orthodox Christians to fall away from the belief that salvation is both about communion and transformation, and instead adopt the Protestant instant salvation view.

The Main Challenge
Here Koester identifies the ultimate goal as getting Orthodox faithful to believe that Jesus is our substitute, which we know to mean the Lutheran belief in Substitutionary Atonement, which brings with it the need for Christ to effect a change in God's heart rather than a change in us - the healing of our nature and the transformation of each individual person. He assumes that the Orthodox do not believe that Christ bore our sins in His body as the Scriptures teach. He especially wants Lutherans to convince Orthodox believers that they have no ability to serve God by doing His commandments. He seems to make the mistake of thinking that the Orthodox believe they power their own good works, rather than God powering them by virtue of the communion we have with Him. Either way he encourages Lutherans to turn Orthodox believers away from believing they can serve God.

Koester wants Lutherans to help Orthodox believers to see the law as something that creates guilt and condemns before God, rather than something that guides us in living our lives as God wants. He may not want to negate these Third Use (i.e. guiding) aspects totally, but he wants to shy away from them in order to introduce Lutheran preoccupations into Orthodox believers' minds.

I do congratulate Koester for encouraging Lutherans to turn the matter over to God in prayer. That's the best hope a Lutheran has for helping anyone. The Lutheran may find, though, that God is working on them rather than the Orthodox believer! Still Koester is encouraging the Lutheran to try to make Orthodox believers feel (possibly excessive) guilt, so that they will become needy for the Lutheran message.

Koester does soberly leave room for the possibility that God has cultivated certain Lutheran-friendly outlooks (a feeling of personal guilt and faith in Christ, for instance). I applaud this. He doesn't teach Lutherans to try to do God's work for Him. He even encourages Lutherans to attend an Orthodox service or two as a good gesture. Of course this then puts pressure on the Orthodox friend to go to a Lutheran service.

No matter which way you look at it, Koester is trying to organize a spiritual attack on Christ's sheep in order to lead them away from the fold. This is dangerous for any Lutheran to undertake, because they may find themselves to receive the wolf's portion from the Shepherd on the Last Day (if not before)! That is the point of this chapter. It draws upon all the right and wrong conceptions of Orthodoxy and Christianity that Koester has formed throughout the book to direct Lutherans to lead Orthodox believers away from the Faith of the Apostles and the Fullness of Christ to embrace a different gospel.

I will close my review with a quote from Robert Koester that sums up this whole organized attack against Christ and His Church, followed by the words of the Holy Spirit through St. James:
My other thought is how effectively the forces of evil have used the Orthodox service. It is so ancient, so filled with tradition. Its priests and officiants are garbed in such beautiful vestments. It is filled with so much symbolism. It contains so many sights, sounds, and pleasing smells. The people speak so much about God's mercy; they express themselves in humble ways and are so intent on worshiping God in truth. The cross is displayed so prominently. But the more you understand their teachings, the more you realize that all these elements are only gliding on the rotten wood of a completely work-righteous system of religion. Orthodoxy is an example of how Satan has used religiosity to blind people to true religion. (Koester, p.132)

If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (St. James 1:26-27, NKJV)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Response to "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" -- part 4

This portion of my review focuses on Chapter 7 in the book, "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" by Robert Koester.

Generally the author does a fair job describing what Holy Tradition is in Holy Orthodoxy. I can only take issue with two points. In the first the author offers the following summary definition of Holy Tradition in the Orthodox Church:
Rather, to the Orthodox, tradition is the source of truth. To put it a little differently, the Orthodox believe that if the church has always done something or believed something, God is the one who has led the church to do or believe this or that, and so it is true. To the Orthodox, what the church has always done has the same authority we attach to the Bible.
The author fails to distinguish for the outsider reading about Orthodoxy that there is a difference between Holy Tradition and the traditions of men. Consider the Nikonian reforms cited by the author in a previous chapter. Certain traditions which had been in place seemingly always were changed in Russia in order to match current Greek practices. This resulted in a group of people splitting off from the Church because they could not distinguish between the traditions of men that were changable and Holy Tradition. It is helpful to keep in mind that this distinction does exist in Orthodoxy, even though at times it may be hard to actually make that distinction in practice.

Second the author does not seem to grasp the difference between the terms traditions and Holy Tradition, which may be why he makes the previous overstatement. The data he provides, though, is good and makes the case that needs to be made, whether or not the author himself actually gets it. I especially like that he makes the following quote on page 110 from Norman Russel, "The Orthodox believe that by God's grace they are the true church and that it is only the 'internal witness of the promised Holy Spirit that keeps the church in truth.'" This is so true! Eventually in my personal wrangling and struggling over joining the Orthodox Church I realized that there was this unseen, immovable, definite force and presence that held everything together in Holy Orthodoxy. This quote from Normal Russel explains very well what I came to see by God's Grace in Holy Orthodoxy. Despite man's best efforts to mess it all up, the Holy Spirit has continued to hold together Christ's Church as the presence of Christ's end-time kingdom on earth for the salvation of all people.

The Scriptural Basis for Theosis

I'm glad that the author is finally dealing with where in Scripture the Orthodox find Theosis. I really believe this topic should have been first. He could have gradually introduced Theosis; it would have been more accurate to do so, and he might have made a better presentation of Orthodoxy if he had done so.

On page 111 the author identifies Psalm 82 as the basis for Theosis. The author loses credibility points for quoting from the NIV, but gets some back for pointing out that the NIV's quotation marks around "gods" is not in the original. He also loses credibility points for telling the reader that his interpretation of Psalm 82 is obvious, but that the early Church Fathers ignored this plain meaning in favor of applying to a goal that comes from Philosophy and not Scripture. He also mistakenly tells the reader that the conclusions about Theosis drawn from this passage were not challenged because it was believed that these men were being led by the Holy Spirit, i.e. they could not be wrong.

Actually it has been established throughout Church history that Fathers can be wrong. Notable fathers were wrong about particular things, but being wrong about one or two things did not invalidate what they were right about. Fathers who taught incorrectly were themselves corrected later by the Church. For instance, it is well known that St. Irenaeus taught chiliasm, the belief in a literal 1000 year reign of Christ that would come to pass. Eventually this was deemed a heretical view. St. Irenaeus had already fallen asleep in Christ by the time this conclusion was reached, so he never had a chance to be confronted with the issue. Today it is understood that on this one issue St. Irenaeus does not speak for the Church. There are other examples. The fathers were not considered de facto inspired and inerrant in their day.

Regarding Theosis among the Fathers, this basic understanding of salvation has never been overturned in Orthodoxy. The Ecumenical Councils of the Church have safe-guarded the faithful dogma of the Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ in order to safeguard the salvation of mankind through Theosis. Nearly everything in Orthodoxy supports Theosis, and those that have introduced teachings that would interfere with man's possibility for salvation through union with the God have been rejected time and time again. The issue of Theosis itself, though, has never been challenged but always supported through every other teaching in Orthodoxy from the beginning. So it is incorrect to say that the Church Fathers' interpretation of Theosis and Psalm 82 was accepted because it was assumed they could not err. This is very untrue.

Somehow the author leaves out Christ's own commentary on this passage when talking about it's basis for Theosis. Christ says in John 10:33-36,
The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
Christ Himself interprets this passage. He does not render the Hebrew word for "gods" as judges or mighty ones, which are the suggested interpretations of the psalm's use of "gods" by Protestants. St. John has Christ use the word theoi, which means gods. The Septuagint uses the same word, theoi in the psalm (numbered 81 in the LXX). What Koester calls a figure of speech, our Lord Christ identifies as an intentional emphasis. They were called gods, and the Scripture cannot be broken. So if they were called gods, why should the Jews object to Christ calling Himself the Son of God. Is Christ referring to a figurative God or a figurative sonship here? No, and even Koester should agree with that.

Christ continues by saying,
"If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him." Therefore they sought again to seize Him, but He escaped out of their hand.
Here is the connection with Theosis. Christ does the works of the Father, which testify that the Father is in Him and He in the Father. Likewise the Christian who has come to have Christ dwelling in him or her through communion, and likewise dwells in Christ sets him- or herself to doing the commandments of Christ, which works are the soul of faith (James 2), and the evidence of friendship with Christ (John 15:14). Worth consideration in this context is what our Lord says in John 17:20ff. The author does not fail for omitting this interpretation of Theosis, but for failing to report that the Orthodox valuation of Psalm 81/82 has much to do with Christ's words in the Gospel.

The author also points at 2 Peter 1:4 as a modern passage used to support Theosis. The language is plain, but the author here wishes to insist on an alternative interpretation. Instead of referring to God's nature - what makes God God - he suggests the word phusis refers to God's characteristics (which is a secondary possibility). Yet St. Peter speaks of koinwnos - which the Fathers and the Orthodox Church understand to mean communion. So what is meant is either communion with what makes God God (Orthodox: God's energies) or God's characteristics (Orthodox: God's likeness). Either way it speaks to Theosis, because this sort of communion results in man becoming divine - not in nature but through participation in God. Phusis seems like the operative word here, but we should understand that koinwnos is also.

The Orthodox do not believe in sola scriptura. We believe that the Apostles delivered some things verbally and some things in writing. Both the words of Scripture have been given in the Church, and so has the meaning of Scripture been given. We can trace the interpretation of Scripture through approved teachers. It's important to know both the words of Scripture and the background context - and that in terms of history, spirituality, and interpretative perspective. The author admits this in a basic way, but he has a hard time just throwing that out there. He's clearly squeamish.

God Living in Us

The author goes into detail about what Lutherans believe about having union with God. He speaks against philosophical "speculation" in favor of limiting oneself to what can be found in Scripture. I wonder if the author is aware of how much philosophical "speculation" (read: elaboration) went into the makeup of the Book of Concord, the Nicene Creed, or the doctrine of the Trinity that he holds so dear.

At this point I seriously wonder if the author actually grasps what the Orthodox mean by becoming god (what he terms becoming God). He keeps returning again and again to the words "becoming God" (sic), and complaining that it's different from God living in us and us in Him, from partaking of the divine nature, from putting on the image of God. The point that he is not appreciating is that God's presence in us produces certain results. Some of these results Scripture teaches us to cultivate and/or expect. Some of these results we see as spiritual gifts, given according to God's good pleasure. All of these results coincide with eternal life and the resurrection of Christ, and are tied in with being as Christ is. The complete transformation that awaits us on the Last Day into the likeness of Christ (1 John 3:2) is something that belongs to us now through our communion with Christ. That which determines the nature of our future resurrection is currently at work in us now. The belief in Theosis is as much a teaching from Scripture as it is a description of the entire Life of the Church as observed in Scripture and on from there to this very day. It is a belief in the reality of the Eschaton inaugurated and put into effect through Christ's cross and resurrection, communicated to us in time in the sacramental life in the Church, appropriated by individuals through a living faith.

The author makes the claim that the Orthodox do not believe they receive the whole Christ through faith, but only receive Him incrementally. This is patently false. The whole basis of Theosis is that we enter into communion with the whole Christ, not incrementally but completely. He points out that Scripture teaches that we grow in the image of God as a life-long process. In Orthodoxy that's what Theosis is! For some reason he sees these as two different things. I think this is because he rejects so strongly the Orthodox position that he feels he must show the Lutheran position to be what Scripture says, but the Orthodox position as something that doesn't relate to the words of Scripture. It really isn't a fair assessment. Growing in the image and likeness of God throughout our life is Theosis. Endlessly growing and maturing into the likeness of God - which is Christ, the visible image of the invisible God (Heb 1) - is the same as becoming gods by Grace (i.e. the working of the Holy Spirit). How sad the author will not admit this or cannot see it. He comes so close to accurately representing Orthodoxy but still falls so, so short.

Other Teachings

The Theotokos: Koester says Mary gave Christ His human body. It's better to say human nature, since more is at stake than just having a human body. That's usually a pretty serious thing for Lutherans, so I'm surprised he represents the issue that way. Otherwise he accurately represents Orthodoxy's belief about the Theotokos.

Belief about the saints is also fairly represented.

Icons: He says that he saw a person trying to recharge their copy of a Rublev icon by pressing up against the glass case holding the original. I'm not sure what that person was doing, but it isn't customary for people to run around trying to bless their own icons or "charge them up." He exaggerates the length of time that the Church struggled against opposition to icons, citing at least 400 years (basically since the beginning of the Patristic period). The iconoclastic controversy lasted maybe 150 years before the Seventh Council and 50-60 years after. His distaste for icons is apparent.

Heaven and Hell: The author confuses Hades and Gehenna, or at least doesn't try to explain the difference to the reader. Hades is definitely a downward association, just as Heaven is an upward association. He accurately describes how the Orthodox find the punishments of Gehenna (which he just calls hell) to result from being in God's presence and hating it. But he does not express the reality that Hades is the place where souls that reject Christ go to await the Final Judgment on the Last Day. He also says some Orthodox believe in a sort of purgatory. Still it should be affirmed that the existence of the Roman Catholic purgatory is not an Orthodox belief at all, despite his claim that some hint at it. Who knows what he read that led him to make such a statement.

The Filioque: The author's brief discussion of this topic is okay.

This brings us to the end of Part Two: Teachings. The remainder of the book, Part Three, is about the author's impressions of Orthodoxy. In this section he will give advice to Lutherans for sharing their Lutheran beliefs with Orthodox Christians with the hope of bringing them out of Orthodoxy into Lutheranism. I will discuss the final two chapters of the book in my last segment.

Response to "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" -- part 3

In chapter six the author visits the topics of Creation, Fall, the work of Christ, and the Sacraments that were missing from his presentation on Theosis. This disjointed approach puts the layperson at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding what an Orthodox person believes.

When describing creation the author draws comparisons between Lutheran beliefs and Orthodox beliefs. He seems to go out of his way to make Orthodoxy sound different from Lutheranism, when in fact the two have much in common. He writes:
Scripture teaches, and Lutherans believe, that God created a wonderful world. He planted a garden in Eden and gave this place to Adam and Eve as their home. They were to rule over the earth and live in perfect harmony with God as they fulfilled His will for them.

The Orthodox do not see it this way. ...

This is a scandalously inaccurate thing to say. The Orthodox say exactly this! However, the Orthodox say more too, because the Orthodox rely on the interpretation of Scripture that comes from those who were disciples of the Apostles and those who were their disciples. The WELS rely on the interpretation that comes from their teachers, people who read the Scriptures 1500+ years after they were written. The author focuses on technical explanations of rather simple concepts, which only makes Orthodox belief sound more complex than it is.

It is necessary to explain in a simple way what the author is trying to relate. First, everything the author stated above as the Lutheran position is also the Orthodox position. Second, the Orthodox believe creation was made to grow and mature. This is just part of being alive! The WELS author believes otherwise. Third, it is unnecessary to talk about God's energies in the creation process when speaking to laypeople, because this is technical. God's energies here means that God was active outside Himself, and that creation was fashioned by God Himself so that creation naturally belongs and relates to God. God is life, and apart from God no one and no thing lives! Scripture teaches this. The ultimate point that is to be made is that God made creation as a spiritual-material reality, and Adam and Eve were placed in Paradise as King and Queen with the goal of subduing creation, which means they participated in the process of cultivating creation for growth in union with God.

The author accurately notes that Adam and Eve were created perfect but not complete. This means they should grow and mature in their life, which is a life of union with God. He notes that the Orthodox explain that on one hand we are made after God's image, but on the other hand we are meant to grow into that image, what is often called God's likeness. He correctly identifies this with Theosis. He points out the high priestly role of Adam in Orthodoxy, which is something that is also found in Lutheranism, though I get the impression not among the WELS, if this author is a fair representation of the WELS.

Original Sin and the Fall

The author is clearly reading a lot of information, but he seems unable to discern the elementary from the abstract. He is citing abstract ideas and failing to distill them into elementary and basic truths about Orthodoxy. For instance he cites Alexander Schmemann as defining sin not as disobedience but as losing the hunger for God. This reference depends on a long and richly developed context that is missing in the author's presentation. It's too misleading. Orthodoxy defines sin exactly as disobedience, but the author chose to omit this fact in favor of material that makes less sense out of its original context.

The author incorrectly describes the Fall in Orthodox terms. First he takes up the effects of sin on the universe. This should be a secondary issue. However his quote from James Payton is fair about how creation groans for release from bondage, groans for restoration to God. Again he focuses so much on the technical and abstract that he has missed the simplicity of Orthodox belief on the subject - simplicity that is available in the sources he relies on (like Ware's "The Orthodox Church"). A lay person would find this confusing, and it's needless.

He addresses the image of God in man. Lutherans are actually split on whether or not the image of God remains in man, or if it is destroyed by the Fall. The author takes the position that it is lost (and this as if it were so obvious from Scripture). He accurately identifies that the Orthodox believe the image of God in man is retained. He fails to identify the ramifications of sin on human nature, though, claiming that there is no effect in Orthodox theology. This is untrue. Adam's sin harmed Adam's human nature. Before the Fall we might liken it to a sort of container that held the Grace of God (i.e. the personal presence and working of God in a man). After the Fall it's like the container was cracked and filled with holes; man was unable to retain union with God. Human nature needed to be healed, which is what Christ accomplishes. Healing means reforming the damaged nature into wholeness, and it means being reunited in communion with God.

The author writes:
And so, the meaning of sin, the fact of God's judgment over sin, and the meaning of death are all changed; the idea that the image of God in us remains essentially unimpaired is taught. (Page 90)

This is inaccurate. The image of God is impaired, but not destroyed. If the image of God was destroyed in man, man's soul would cease to exist, his freedom would be like that of animals, his intellect would be no better than that of an elephant or raven, and he would be incapable of knowing God and seeking Him. I noticed the author did not read Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky's "Orthodox Dogmatic Theology." Many of his difficulties could have been avoided if he had read this work in his research. It is a common reference for Orthodox pastors.


The author accurately points out that it is Orthodox belief that Christ came to establish Theosis in Himself, through the Personal Union of the Divine and Human natures. This means that the Second Person of the Trinity, having His own Divine Nature in common with the Father and the Spirit, joined to His Person our human nature. This is the basis for Theosis. The author accurately represents Orthodox thought in the section Why Was Jesus Born?.

At this point the author interrupts the presentation on Orthodox belief to inform the reader how bad this all is. He insists that the real issue at hand should be Jesus putting forgiveness in the bank for everyone to draw from just by believing.

However on page 91 the author accurately describes the framework of Theosis according to the foundation laid in the Incarnation. This is good. He inaccurately describes grace as God's plan, when in fact the Orthodox more often describe Grace as God's energies, that is, the presence of the Holy Spirit at work.

The author claims that the Orthodox deny God's just punishment over sin (page 92). He does not elaborate, so I will. The Orthodox believe that God will justly punish all sin on the Last Day. Until then forgiveness of sins is available through repentance and faith in Christ in the Church. On the Last Day God alone will determine who are His friends and faithful and who are his enemies. Dead faith will save no one on that day, only a living faith. Now is the time to believe, and to believe means to do the commandments of Christ as friends of Christ. Now is also the time to crucify in our flesh the love of sin and through the power of God uproot their holdings in our souls. The Orthodox find sin to be a much more serious problem than just personal guilt. There is guilt, which we pray constantly that God forgives (and He constantly does!), but there is also decay. It is not enough to treat sin as a category that Christ saves from; sin is a power that kills spiritually. On the Last Day we will see the result of sin in people's lives as well as God's Grace in people's lives. Orthodox Christians pray that Grace will heal them and God will forgive them, but we leave the final determination to God. Today we are only given to judge ourselves for today. Our eternal place is left for God alone to judge. It is good to have confidence in God, but not in myself as far as spiritual matters go.

I like how the author describes the relationship of Christ's transfiguration to the transfiguration of believers in eternity (page 92). The quote from St. Gregory Palamas is simply beautiful in the way it connects the Eucharist with Theosis.

In the section about Christ's suffering and death, the author rightly points out that the Orthodox do not believe that Christ suffered God's punishment for our sins. He wrongly states, though, that the Orthodox "simply do not believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world" (page 93). A quote from the esteemed Fr. Pomazansky should suffice to dispel this myth:
Christ took upon Himself the sins of the entire world; He received in Himself the guilt of all men. He is the Lamb slaughtered for the world. (Orthodox Dogmatics, p.197)

"To whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and glorious Blood of our God and High Priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the evil one, sold under sin, and received pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered and for what cause? If to the evil one, fie upon the outrage! The robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask, first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed: and next, on what principle did the Blood of His only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac when he was being offered by his father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice not because He demanded it or because He felt any need for it, but on account of the economy: because humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honor of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things?" (Ibid, pages 209-210, quoting St. Gregory the Theologian, Second Oration on Pascha, chap. 22).
The Orthodox do believe Christ died for the sins of the world, but usually we put the emphasis on Him dying for the LIFE of the world. Christ did not die to pay God anything (the Scriptures say no such thing, but it is commonly inferred upon them by Protestants that Christ is paying God with suffering and death). Christ, in dying supplies to us what we lack. Our lives are corrupted with sin, and we are guilty; Christ is the Life who is pure and innocent. He pours out His Blood to supply it to us, that we may be cleansed/sanctified by His Life (and as the Scripture teaches, life is in the blood!). He gives His Body into death because we were held by death's power and destined for Sheol/Hades (the state or place of being dead). He who is Life enters into death, and this is like a poison to death. The result is not only that Christ rises, but that Hades is despoiled and emptied, and now through Christ death no longer is the dominating power in the universe. Christ risen from the dead has been enthroned victorious and crowned ruler, and His Kingdom is established and holds sway in this world in the Church under the cross borne by all Christians, but on the Last Day will appear for all to see in power and glory and might. How sad that the author missed all this beauty and truth in Orthodoxy!

Because the author completely bungles the cross of Christ, he provides an inadequate depiction of the resurrection. He simply says that the resurrection means that Christ's work is done. How awful! The author clearly doesn't know what he is talking about. The resurrection is the crown of our faith! By the resurrection eternal life is given to us! Our transformation, our personal passing over (Passover) from death to life, and our eternal growth in communion with God by the power of God depends on what Christ has achieved in His resurrection. The resurrection of Christ establishes the following results: victory over death and Hades, the entrance and blessedness of the saints into heaven and the existence of the Heavenly Church (which is united as one reality with the Earthly Church), and Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is sent down and the Earthly Church is created. How sad the author thinks that the resurrection means only that Christ's work is done!!!

On page 94 the author cites a book that cites Bishop Kallistos (Ware) saying "I am being saved" as if that summed it up. How sad that the author does such poor research. As I said in the previous post, an Orthodox person believes he has been saved, is currently saved, and is being saved. The author's credibility has become almost non-existent with me by this point. The author describes the Orthodox faith as a system of works-righteousness, of people who believe that Easter means only that now we can start to earn our salvation. He does not see that in Orthodoxy we rejoice that Christ is risen because it means we have salvation today and right now, and on this basis we strive to battle our own sins and do those things that Christ commands as His friends so that when Christ comes again in glory we will not find ourselves disqualified through lack of faith. He is so against Christians actively doing what Christ says in John 15:14 and Matthew 7:24-27 that it is outright dangerous and delusional.

This is a bad, bad treatment of Orthodox belief. The author has just enough knowledge to be dangerous, but he ultimately mischaracterizes the main focus of Orthodoxy and misses some very important facts. This is not a fair and accurate depiction of Orthodox Christianity.

Appropriating the Gospel

I do congratulate the author for describing the role of human freedom in the life of an Orthodox Christian. He describes our belief in synergy through quotes, and these suffice. Since Lutherans do not believe in human freedom, though, this must be a nasty pill to swallow.

The Church

The brief paragraph on the Church is sufficient. The author does well here.

The Sacraments

This should really be a subset under the Church, but no matter. First comes Baptism. The author falsely indicates that the Orthodox don't believe that Baptism grants the forgiveness of sins. He does not seem to realize that when Grace is given through Baptism, that Grace brings with it the forgiveness of sins. How can we be sanctified, justified, cleansed, and die to sin through Baptism if there is no forgiveness of sins tied with it? It is a primary belief that Baptism grants forgiveness of sins. Good grief, how deep is the darkness?! It is commonly said in Orthodoxy that the sacrament of Repentance (i.e. Private Confession) exists for those sins committed after Baptism.

Next comes Chrismation. Lutherans don't believe in this sacrament. The author correctly identifies this as one's personal Pentecost (reception of the Holy Spirit).

Next is the Lord's Supper. The author wrongly asserts that Christ's Body and Blood are offered to God as a sacrifice. Patriarch Jeremias II clarified this issue with the Lutherans writing to him in the 16th century. The bread and wine are offered as a sacrifice to God. God accepts them and changes them into the Body and Blood of Christ. Because this is the Body and Blood of Christ, viz. the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ offered on the Christ but now made present on the altar, the priest prays for the entire Church. The priest, though, is carrying out Christ's own office in the Church. The offerer is Christ, as is the offering, as is the priestly ministry at work in the congregation. Christ is all in all.

He lumps in the other sacraments together. He mentions the mystery (i.e. sacrament) of Repentance. I don't know how the author thought the Orthodox don't believe in the forgiveness of sins through Baptism, because here he indicates this sacrament is sometimes called a second Baptism, because through it one receives the forgiveness of sins. There are grave consistency problems in this book. Otherwise he gives short satisfactory descriptions of the sacraments of ordination, marriage, and anointing the sick.


I must disagree when the author says "learning" plays a minor role on page 101. It's just that in the author's WELS situation learning is aimed at the head, while in Orthodoxy learning is aimed at the body, mind, and heart. Orthodoxy is a full experience of the fullness of Jesus Christ.

I must strongly disagree with the author when he says on page 101 that there is a difference between how laypeople are divinized from how monks are divinized. He incorrectly states that monks rely on practices of prayer, meditation, silence, etc., while the laity go to church and receiving the Lord's Supper. The Church's Liturgy is the bedrock for ALL Orthodox Christians. And all Orthodox Christians take what goes on in the Liturgy with them in their hearts and live from it at home (or in their cells if monastics). The author is misunderstanding monasticism a great deal.

The author says that the iconostasis symbolizes the division of heaven and earth, and that the entrance and return of the Eucharist symbolizes how Christ unites heaven and earth. While I don't doubt someone somewhere made this illustration, this is not the purpose of the iconostasis. The purpose is to demonstrate the unity, not division, of heaven and earth in Christ's Church. The icons depict those who in heaven who are also currently with us, because heaven and earth unite in the Church, especially in the Liturgy (as the author noted, to my applause).


The author covers this briefly, and to satisfaction.


Here the author picks at the idea held by some that understanding what is said in the Liturgy is not such a big deal. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, this one is rather arbitrary to me.

Next up will be Chapter 7: Orthodox Sources of Truth (it seems the author is working backwards in covering what the Orthodox Church teaches).

Monday, March 5, 2012

Response to "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" -- part 2

This second part of my review of "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" will focus exclusively on Chapter 5, which is the first chapter in Part Two: Teachings.

As with previous chapters the author opens up with his visit to an actual Orthodox parish. This time he visits an Antiochian Orthodox parish. There should not be too much to say about his visits, since these are personal reflections on personal experiences. However the author makes a terrible mistake in his account this time. On page 62 the author mistakes the antidoron with the Body of Christ. He writes:
Congregations members received the wine from a spoon a spoon from the priest, and as they were leaving, they took a piece of bread from a tray held by one of the deacons. Two people offered me a piece of the bread. I thought it was odd that they would have a notice in their bulletin saying that the Lord's Supper was only for people who shared their faith, but yet casually offer a visitor some of the Communion bread.
In previous chapters the author correctly identified the antidoron (the blessed bread used by Orthodox to cleanse the particles of Christ's Body and Blood from their mouth, which is also offered to non-Orthodox visitors as a sign of friendship because they cannot receive the Eucharist). Here, though, he tells the reader that it is the "Communion bread." I think this is a sad editorial mistake. I find it hard to believe that the author can identify the antidoron in his previous visits to Orthodox churches but somehow fail to make that determination here. Perhaps this was the first congregation he had been to (not in the sequence of the chapters, but in the sequence of his research) that offered him the antidoron, and his reflection in the book is what he thought at the time (though no indication is given that here; he only indicates the Antiochians are receiving the Body of Christ from a basket and offering it to non-Orthodox, which is untrue). This is pretty shoddy; this casts a shadow of doubt over the author's credibility.

This Book is Propaganda

In the previous four chapters I noted that the author does not restrict himself to presenting data about Orthodoxy, but mixes in his own opinions with the data. That trend is magnified 100 fold in this chapter. The presentation of the data on Orthodoxy in this chapter is constantly prefaced with extreme judgments against it, so before the reader encounters new information he or she is already told that it is bad, unacceptable, against the Gospel, etc. The belief is constantly driven home that the "true" Gospel of St. Paul fell away right after the Apostles' deaths, and that the early Church formulated its beliefs on un-Scriptural grounds to the point that I began to wonder if the WELS is some sort of cult (or is this just the author). So again, this is not entirely a scholarly book but a personal reflection on the part of the author. The author's opinions are so extreme that this chapter is as much propaganda as it is a presentation on what Orthodox Christians believe.

Summary Evaluation

The author was able to identify data relevant to the topic of Theosis, but in his persistent attempts to convey to the reader that each point was wrong he managed to fall short of presenting the data in context. He focused in right away on the idea of union with God and man's transformation into God's likeness, but he failed to grasp the place of the cross and resurrection in this scheme. In fact he has outright denied that the cross, resurrection, and forgiveness of sins has any meaningful place in Theosis. He also fails to connect God's creation of man to Theosis, which is absolutely critical. Therefore he has utterly failed to represent Orthodoxy's belief about Theosis. He has only presented the data in a fragmented mixture of WELS propaganda.

I will give him credit, though, for identifying key theological ideas such as Theosis/divinization, the exchange formula (God became man so that man might become god), essence vs. energies, and experiencing God in the Church vs. only knowing information about God. However it seems that the things he describes he doesn't understand, but rather has only found the data in various books. Let the reader beware.

It's useful to point out that whenever the author notes the Orthodox belief that our salvation lies in becoming god, the author capitalizes "God." I am used to the word "god" not being capitalized when applied to the deification of men and women in the Church, as a way of showing the difference between the only true God and the creatures who live and grow in communion with Him and through Him.

What Theosis Really Is

The author mixes in so much of his own propaganda that it becomes hard to get an accurate picture of what the Orthodox Church means by Theosis. Really this term is not entirely necessary when we talk about salvation, but it has been useful in the past. Theosis is a simple way to refer to the destiny of mankind. This destiny finds its source in God's creation in Genesis, and it finds its culmination in Jesus Christ. Objectively speaking, God created man in His own image and likeness. God placed man in Eden with the provision that he not eat from one tree, even though that tree was deemed good with the rest of creation. The consensus of early Christian interpretation is that mankind started out new and was meant to mature. Through the intervention of the Serpent man abused his freedom to take what God had not given him, did himself mortal harm in the process, and fell under dominion of the devil, death, and sin.

Christ recapitulates Adam. He enters creation, takes on man's nature without sin and our existence under fallen conditions. He became as we are. He succeeds where Adam failed. In Him we find the fullness of what a human being is supposed to be. His is righteous and without blame. But He is also God, the One Who Is, the One who is Life and Light. He bore our sins in His own flesh on the cross (1Pt 2:24), trampled down death and its power, and in this way disarmed the devil and freed us from his tyranny (compare the Devil to Pharaoh in Exodus here). Death took a Man and was confronted with God. Christ is risen from the dead unto Life, and establishes the reign of Life, righteousness, and peace in the universe. He is our Passover, that is, He is the One who goes before us to bring the entire universe and each of us from death to Life, from sin to righteousness, from slavery to freedom.

The power of Theosis lies in this Passover being applied to each person. This Passover is all about our transformation from a lost and exiled sinner, from a person who takes pleasure in sin, who is dominated by the Enemy to a person who is healed in his or her soul and from there becomes free, becomes a child of God, becomes a co-heir with Christ, a person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, a person who is energized with the working of God Himself in his or her soul, body, and life. Theosis is entirely about passing over from death to life, from sin to righteousness, from the likeness of demons to the likeness of Christ.

In this context we can better understand the importance of communion with Christ. A person's own salvation depends on unity with Christ. Christ united Himself with our nature in order to heal it and free it and propel it forward in the destiny God designed for it. God poured Himself into our nature. Christ saves a person by sharing His healed, deified human nature with that person - think of it like a transfusion but better. This is a communion with the whole Christ - human and divine. Our human nature is healed through communion - that means a change is effected in us, not in God. Our human nature passes over in Christ - a change in us, not in God. We become acceptable to God literally in Christ - a change in us, not in God. We partake of Christ's resurrection through this communion, which transforms us according to the pattern of Christ Himself who is seated in glory and will return on the Last Day. For the believer united to Christ all things are yours, for all things are fulfilled in Christ.

The sacraments are all about this union. Faith is all about this union. Good works are all about this union. Through faith in Christ we have a union with Him that makes Christ both present in each Christian and makes Christ the effective power behind all good that a Christian does. What the author calls "keeping the law" in Orthodoxy takes on the character of performing a sacramental rite, except it is not a rite but it is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, abiding with sick and needy, putting to death the uncleanness that comes from our hearts, etc. And the result of these sacramental acts is similar to those things we normally call sacraments: God works His power to heal from sins, to build up in love, and to further transform the doer and the recipient into the likeness of the God who is Love.

Theosis describes man's destiny to pass over from death to life in Christ. Life is characterized by growth, and Life in Christ is characterized by the nature of the Kingdom that will be revealed when He comes again in glory, but which is here and now revealed in the Church and in each faithful Christian. There is no Theosis without the cross and resurrection, because this defines the Christian's entire existence.

In terms of the word "salvation" we would say the following: in Christ I have been saved, I am now saved, and I hope to be saved. I have been saved because Christ died on the cross and rose again for me. I am now saved because now I believe in Christ and am in communion with Him. I hope to be saved in that He will come again on the Last Day, where some will be surprised to find they are rejected from the Kingdom (Christ will say "I never knew you."). That is a Day of judgment according to our works. We might say that our faith will be established or proven vain in that day by our works.

The Good and the Bad

Since there is so much propaganda involved in this chapter, it seemed best to make a running list of what seemed good and what seemed otherwise.

  • Page 67 - Correct: the author says Theosis lies at the heart of almost everything an Orthodox Christian does. We could go a bit further than that and say that Theosis lies at the heart of everything an Orthodox Christian believes about salvation, too.
  • Page 69 - Correct: the author says that no Orthodox Christian believes he will actually be God in the fullest sense.
  • Page 69 - Incorrect: the author simply says there is no description of clear boundaries as to what a human cannot cross in Theosis. The boundary is God's nature, which is unapproachable to created beings. No human being can come anywhere near turning into God Himself or into a God equal to the only true God. This is actually what the Serpent tempted Eve with in the Garden, in a sense: that she and Adam could become God on their own in their natures.

    On this page the author mentions a second point, namely that the Orthodox hold to a distinction between God's essence (nature) and energies (God's activity outside Himself). Our transformation more and more into the *likeness* of the infinite God occurs on the spectrum of God's activity in us (His energies), and in this respect there is no limit to our growth, because the limit depends on God Himself, and God has established no limits nor is Himself limited. Thus it is better for the author to say there is no further limit than God's nature, which itself is not a limit like a barrier but a limit of category. God enables me to become like what He is, without becoming what He is. Divinity is never mine outright but mine by way of gift and participation in the Grace of the only true God.
  • Pages 69-70 - The conclusion is correct that God makes us divine, but he fails to mention that this is in a relative sense. Man does not become divine in his nature, but only by way of participation through what we call communion and faith. Man always remains man, but through communion with God attains to participation in divinity.
  • Page 71 - He accurately outlines the connection between the Incarnation of Christ and Theosis.
  • Page 72 - He is correct in saying that Theosis determines our whole understanding of salvation and the conduct which flows from it.
  • Page 72 - Incorrect: the author assumes Theosis is hard to relate to the laity. He has already established that the term is not itself used all that much, and that it is more an idea at work behind everything going on in Orthodox Christianity. One only has to examine the sermons of St. John Chrysostom to see how Theosis relates to the laity.
  • Page 72 - Incorrect: the author assumes that the focus shifted from Christ's death and forgiveness to keeping "the law" and on external phenomena that "would display the divine nature within a person."
  • Page 74 - Incorrect: the author says monasticism (monks, monasteries, etc) is a picture of what all Christians will in enjoy in heaven. This is a gross mischaracterization! Monasticism is comparable to the grave, not heaven. The entire purpose of monasticism is to die to the flesh, the world, and the devil in a focused and determined manner. The monk leaves the world behind as one who had died to it, and he or she spends life in prayer for the world and struggle against his or her own sins. The author is overly focusing on those particular instances where some monks have either experienced spiritual phenomena or been given the spiritual gifts of miracles or prophecy. This is not the norm, though, and is by God's choice and gift. It is not the purpose of monasticism.
  • Page 78 - Incorrect: the author says Orthodox theologians are not schooled to present their material logically. Aside from being mean and ill-informed, he is giving the reader the impression that logic is incongruous with experience and illumination. In Orthodoxy we believe God has revealed Himself in the person of His Son, and that each Christian is called to both believe in Christ and enter into a relationship with Him based on faith. As Christ Himself says to the disciples, "You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. Orthodoxy has many logical presentations of the Christian Faith. But Orthodoxy also believes that definition is given only where necessity drives it, and that definition should define boundaries. It is not possible to exhaust the mysteries of the Kingdom. Really the author dislikes the Orthodox belief that one can know God and live in a direct relationship with Him in His Church, a relationship based on Scriptural teaching, sacramental illumination, and personal activity along the lines of what Christ has said in John 15. Unlike the WELS the Orthodox Church has never had to derive Christianity anew from source material (the Scriptures), but has received the Faith from Christ in the Holy Spirit from the beginning (as the history section of the book indicated) and continually lived in it to the present day.
  • Page 78 - Correct: the author points out that Theosis is for all Christians.
  • Page 78 - Correct: the author says the Church is the way to achieve Theosis. I would add that the Church is Christ's institution of the reality of His Kingdom. The very reality that is established by Christ's sacrifice for sin and victory over death, that is the source of the Apostles' preaching and miracle working and evangelizing, has continued down through history to this very day. This is the Orthodox Church. In the Church each person can achieve Theosis, that is, each person dies to this world and rises new in his or her soul in Christ, and through the Grace of God (the energies of God; the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit) grows more and more into the image and likeness of God that man was meant for from Creation. In the Church the power of Christ's death and resurrection is imparted through the Sacraments to the believer, and their effect transforms the participant who lives out their faith in love as Christ's friends.
  • Page 78 - Incorrect: the impression is given that the Church is the way of Theosis for those who are not monks. The Church is the way of Theosis for all, monks and non-monks alike.
  • Page 79 - The author quotes Kharlamov saying, "Kharlamov says that deification 'is really a cluster of related concepts present in Christian theology from the beginning.'" This quote is important and should be stressed. The author has not adequately portrayed this reality in his presentation of Orthodox Theosis.
  • Page 81 - He correctly says that all (read: most) Western Christian denominations are asking the same question: "What must sinners do to satisfy a holy God and bridge the gulf that sin has caused?" He correctly identifies that Orthodox Christians are asking a different question. He oversimplifies the Orthodox question as "What must a person do to achieve union with God?" The question may better be posed as "How does God restore our union with Him that was lost?" The emphasis is on what was lost being found, and on God being the one to reconcile us to Him, not us trying to calm down God toward us.
  • Page 82 - Incorrect: The East is not bothered that the West wants to know how to be saved (so do we in the East), but that the West is fixiated on a God that must be appeased, rather than that God wants to change and transform us for our salvation. The West, especially the WELS and other traditional Lutherans, believes that God's heart must be changed toward sinners for us to be allowed into God's good graces. The Orthodox believe that God's heart toward sinners does not need to be changed, but WE need to be changed. The Lutherans believe the cross is about changing God's heart; the Orthodox believe the cross is about changing us (hence the need for the Sacraments). The problem is bigger than we are, so God provides all that is necessary for our salvation (our change and transformation.
  • Page 84 - Incorrect: the author says guilt and punishment play negligible roles in Orthodoxy. I think the author is looking these emphases in sermons, when Orthodoxy saturates these issues in its prayers and hymnography and Liturgy. Guilt is often expressed in personal terms (viz. I am guilty), as is punishment (viz. I am deserving punishment on the Last Day), which then leads into the Orthodox Christian asking for mercy for Christ's sake. The sin, guilt, punishment, the cross, mercy, resurrection, and the working of God are applied in personal ways instead of general terms (God will punish, God finds us all guilty, God has mercy on us all, etc.) The author is, according to his own expectations, looking for these things in the sermon, when they are instead put into the ear and mouth of the Orthodox believer everywhere else. In Orthodoxy the emphasis is on the individual appropriating these themes to him- or herself through faith's activity in prayer (personal and corporate).
  • Page 84 - Incorrect: the author says Orthodoxy does not give place to the human conscience regarding our sin and God's judgment. Any Orthodox person would be stunned to hear such an accusation. Refer to the previous point for an answer to this ludicrous charge.

Response to "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" -- part 1

A friend of mine from Facebook asked me to read Robert Koester's book "A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" and give it a review from an Orthodox perspective. Specifically he would like me to determine if the book accurately describes Eastern Orthodoxy, as opposed to what many may think Eastern Orthodox Christians believe.

The book is divided into three sections:
  1. History
  2. Teachings
  3. Impressions

In this first part I will review the entirety of Part 1: History.

The Book's Platform

First, though, I would like to quote the stated purpose of the book series "A Lutheran Looks at..." according to what is written on the back cover of the book.
A Lutheran Looks at ... series provides a confessional Lutheran perspective on the teachings and practices of other denominations. The authors all subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions and conduct their evaluation on that basis. Their clear analysis, with gospel emphasis, will help you understand friends or relatives who belong to other denominations and will prepare you to better share your faith with them.

So I will try to keep in perspective that this book is written from a Lutheran perspective. However, it must be pointed out that even among those calling themselves "confessional Lutherans" there is a bit of variation when it comes to evaluating early and medieval history. The author of this book, Robert Koester, is only one voice out of many. He is an editor of the WELS Northwestern Publishing House, a former parish pastor, and an author of books and Bible studies from the WELS perspective. This book reflects that association, which members of the LCMS and ELS may find uncomfortable at times (or may not).

Part I: History

This section is divided into four chapters:
  1. How the Orthodox Church Began
  2. The Great Division
  3. Russian Orthodoxy
  4. Orthodoxy Today
Each section is begun with a first-hand account of the author's visit to an Orthodox Christian parish in his local area. Then he proceeds into the chapter's topic.

Right away it should be pointed out that the author is visiting churches that are not necessarily Eastern Orthodox. In Chapter 1 he visits an Armenian church. He mixes in Oriental Orthodox (like the Armenians) and Eastern Orthodox in his book, despite the title's focus on "Eastern Orthodoxy." What this means is that, even though the title of the book focuses on "Eastern" Orthodoxy, really the Oriental Orthodox are part of that focus. So the book actually deals with a general Orthodoxy.

Generally chapter 1 (How the Orthodox Church Began) is good. Much of his material is familiar, most likely taken from books I myself have read (some of the phraseology matches). It's a nice, simplified account of early Church history for the average layperson.

It should be pointed out that at times the author not only relates objective data but also mixes in his opinions rather than reserving his judgments to a separate section in the chapter. So, for instance, instead of simply describing the relation of the church to the state in this chapter he first tells the reader that the relationship is unhealthy (p.6). This issue intensifies a great deal once we get into the chapters about Teachings. The concern I wish to raise at the outset is that the author makes judgments for the reader without always providing enough information for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. This is not a scholarly book, but a book of data mixed with strong opinions and personal reflections. The opinions are presented as if they were facts in and of themselves, as if they should be accepted outright. I will try to limit my commentary to the author's representation of the data while ignoring as many opinions as I can.

The following areas are worth noting in terms of accuracy:

  • The author accurately identifies the Orthodox Church as the original Church. (Pages 3-4)
  • The author describes the rise of monasticism (viz. monks, monasteries, etc.) as coming from those seeking a higher level of spirituality. It might be better, since this is an Orthodox history, to say they wanted a more focused spirituality. Since monasticism is built on humility, prayer, faith, and love it is misleading to suggest it is about having a higher spirituality (which suggests superiority). The heights of spirituality in the early Church as well as in Orthodoxy today are available to the lay person in the world as well as the monk in isolation or in a monastery, because the spiritual life between the monk and layman are all about the same things. So in this case the author has misstated the point. (Pages 5-6)

Chapter 2 is a fair chapter, too. I disagree that the final nail in the coffin between the Western and Eastern churches was in 1453 when the Orthodox people rejected the union agreement made in Florence by their leadership. It is more accurate to say, as the author does later on, that the real break happened between 1054 and the fourth crusade when Western (Roman) Christians sacked the Eastern capitol of Constantinople. But for the average lay person this is a small issue. It's important to note, though, that usually the split between East and West is tied to the 1054 date.

In this chapter the author tries to explain the difference in approach between East and West, but seems to fail. He writes:
The Eastern Orthodox did not care as much about knowing the details of Christian doctrine (at least beyond the doctrines of the Trinity and Jesus' divine and human natures developed in the first four ecumenical councils) as they did about about experiencing the blessings of union with Christ and creating a heavenly worship experience. The West wanted to know what Scripture taught on all aspects of Christian teaching, which gave rise to debate, discussion and a heavy emphasis on teaching. (Page 20)

This gives the impression that the Orthodox are uninterested in the "details" of the Scriptures. The author seems completely unaware of the significance of the other three Ecumenical Councils, or the role the fathers of the Church play in the teaching and interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps the author is assuming too much because he does not see the intense obsession with defining everything under the theoretical microscope that characterizes the West. The Orthodox Church teaches what Scripture teaches on all counts, and continues to do so. This is one of the great values of the Councils and the Church Fathers and approved great teachers. Perhaps the author comes to this conclusion because he does not see in Orthodoxy the intense in-fighting that ultimately shattered Western Christendom into many factions.

In Orthodoxy a theologian is not one who thinks and defines and narrows, but is one who leads a holy life of repentance, faith, love, and prayer by God's Grace. How can one be fit to handle the divine teachings of our Lord if he or she has not first submitted to them and been transformed by them? A good theologian is one who is him- or herself transformed by Christ's teachings and kingdom, not an academic who comes up with clever questions. Really what is behind this mischaracterization of the East is a difference in methodology, not in goal. The West and East equally want to know God and be faithful to Him.

Orthodox teaching on Scripture is very thorough (consider great teachers like Irenaeus, John of Damascus, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and Maximos the Confessor to name a few). Perhaps it is that we have so many expounders of the holy Scriptures, and so many thorough presentations of divine truth that the author mistook these for relics of the past and not current movers and shakers in Orthodox theology that they are?

Chapter 3 focuses on Russian Orthodoxy. This chapter is decent. I like his impression of the mixture of formality and informality at the Orthodox Liturgy, because I have the same impression. The author spends an inordinate time relating the story of Avvakum, though he admits he does so from personal interest.

Chapter 4 focuses on Orthodoxy today. This chapter seemed relatively fine.

Overall the first four chapters are decent for a layperson to read. Since this is just history (i.e. neutral data) there should not be room for too much error when it comes to accurately representing Orthodoxy. Those areas which actually seemed to represent Orthodoxy inaccurately I have noted above.

Next time I will focus on Section Two, Chapter Five - The Meaning of Salvation: Theosis. This is where things get sticky.