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.
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)