Tuesday, March 6, 2012

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).


Jake said...

I wonder if the author is confused about Baptism as it relates to forgiveness of sin because of Orthodox teaching on Original Sin. Also, I know that I once read on antiochian.org that infants aren't baptized for the forgiveness of sin. What you wrote about Baptism I can heartily agree to, I just can't say I have read a consistent message from Orthodoxy on the issue of Baptism and sin.

Deacon Benjamin Harju said...


I was reading that article on antiochian.org recently. It made more sense to me now than when I first read it a few years ago. What has changed for me is that I've had time to get used to how Orthodox Christian minds approach guilt and sin and forgiveness. In Orthodoxy forgiveness is granted to those who bear guilt. A person bears guilt for misusing their freedom. Forgiveness absolves this guilt. As far as infants go, they have not entered into the realm of freedom to choose yet. They can have no guilt, hence no sin (i.e. Actual Sin).

All of this avoids the topic of corruption, though, which is the result of Adam's sin upon all who come after him, and is the effect of our personal sins upon ourselves. Baptism saves from corruption. Babies are saved from corruption through baptism. A child who receives baptism receives death to the old - a share in Christ's death - and receives new birth through participation in Christ's Divine-Human Life. An infant may not have any personal freedom to be held accountable for, but he or she does have the nature inherited from Adam. Baptism causes him or her to inherit the human nature rescued by Christ in His own Incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection.

In Lutheranism forgiveness is applied to the guilt from actual sins as well as the assumption of an original guilt inherited from Adam. This traces a path back to a conception of God where God blames each person for being born in sin, and must have that blame addressed. This changes the focus of the cross tangentially from Christ simply supplying righteousness, Life, and rescue to those who lacked it in/of themselves (i.e. Christ sanctifying us) to Christ becoming one who is blamed by God, punished by God for it, and who suffers a literal eternity's worth of hell on the cross to pay off the blame. In this scheme forgiveness is the antidote to EVERYTHING because the principle issue being addressed is the blame God holds against each person. Only as the blame is alleviated on a personal level through believing this message is a person able to receive the good things of the kingdom. Believing alone allows a person to escape blame, and so all focuses on this faith so that through Christ one is no longer blamed (i.e. he or she is forgiven). Thus a baby needs to be forgiven, because God (in Lutheranism) blames the child for his or her sinful condition.

Jake said...


I still wonder when the infant enters the realm of capability for Actual Sin. At what temporal point does an infant become able to sin through it's actions? How do the Orthodox answer this question? In this way I'm reminded of conversations with dear southern Baptist friends of mine about Baptism. Of course, the Orthodox rightly Baptize infants and Baptists don't, but similarity of Orthodox thought about Sin on this point makes it easier to understand why so many from Baptist/evangelical churches fly over Wittenberg (and at times Rome) only to land in Constantinople.

Deacon Benjamin Harju said...

That's a fair question. It is addressed in Orthodoxy by sending our children to Confession. When do they go? Around age seven. Does that mean the "personal accountability switch" is turned on at seven? No. It means that as a person grows toward adolescence and adulthood one's capacity for spiritual accountability grows and grows. Confession from this age (or thereabout) allows a person to grow up under the tutelage and blessings of the Church's sacramental life and spiritual direction. In this way the power of sin in a person's life is countered with the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit from a young age throughout the developmental process. This is a wonderful blessing!

You may notice in my explanation that no place is given to pin down an answer to your question. This is because there is no need to answer it beyond sending children to confession around age seven, depending on a particular child's ability to participate.

Deacon Benjamin Harju said...

And just to be clear, since the context is baptism, an infant who is baptized spiritually participates in Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. In this way the infant receives the remission (ἄφεσις) of sins. The Greek word ἄφεσις means release, but figuratively it means forgiveness. The infant is released from the curse of ancestral sin.

An adult receives these blessings, too, but also the release from (i.e. forgiveness of) any and all actual, personal sins.