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.

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