For years, I have been fascinated by Eastern Orthodoxy. Though I initially experienced a spiritual awakening through exposure to the riches of Roman Catholic spirituality, I soon found out the Protestant Church (and its endless variants) and the Roman Catholic Church are very similar, especially when contrasted with Eastern Orthodoxy. Surprisingly, though Protestants and Catholics often have different answers, they both ask the same questions because they share the same fundamental assumptions about God, law, grace, Jesus, salvation, etc. An encounter with Eastern Orthodoxy proves how culturally limited Protestant and Catholic questions and answers actually are. The Orthodox ask completely different questions and arrive at different answers – answers that hold the potential to enlarge our understanding of the breadth and depth of the Christian faith.
History professor James R. Payton Jr. hopes to expand our awareness by introducing us to the riches of Eastern Orthodoxy. Payton’s stated purpose “is to introduce Western Christian readers to some of the distinctive perspectives and emphases of Eastern Orthodoxy in a way that facilitates understanding and appreciation” (15).
Differences Due to Cultural Context
The differences between the Western and Eastern Church can be traced to their respective cultural contexts. Early Christians felt the need to communicate the gospel to all people. In order to make their message understandable, they had to “contextualize” their message, that is, speak in a language that would be understood in their native culture. In the process of contextualizing the Christian message, “different emphases and stresses in teaching and preaching emerged in the two halves of the Roman Empire” (24). The East “sought to demonstrate that Christianity was the culmination of the best that Hellenic and Hellenistic thought had produced” (24), and thus it followed the Greek way and emphasized philosophy and reason. The West followed the Roman legal tradition and viewed “concerns with status before the law, with guilt and justice, and debt and credit” as foundational to the explication of the gospel (25).
The fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century ushered in the “Middle Ages” for the West – “that period between the collapse of Rome and the coming of the European renewal movements of the Renaissance and Reformation” (27). But the trajectory of the East followed a different course. In 330 A.D., Constantine the Great had moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium. After the loss of Rome, Byzantium “continued to rule over a considerable empire – the eastern half of the Roman Empire” (27). A change in the official language from Latin to Greek further decreased the communication between the East and West and advanced the considerable independence of the two regions.
In the late Middle Ages in the West, the recovery of Aristotle’s writings, with their emphasis on categories, clarity, and explanation, led to the rise of scholasticism with its emphasis on reason. This newfound confidence in human reason had immense implications for theology. “With it came the assumption that it should be possible to develop an intellectual expertise in doctrine through the application of the tools of logic and human reason, apart from the necessity of meditation and contemplation” (62). The university, rather than the monastery, became the place where ministers were formed. In the universities “theology was taught as an intellectual discipline rather than as a mystical one” (62). This perspective continues to affect Western theology, making it primarily the domain of academic intellectuals rather than mystic practitioners.
In order to disparage the insights of the Eastern Church, some argue that it is captive to Hellenistic philosophy. Though the early theologians, Clement and Origen may have relied too heavily on Greek categories, the later Cappadocian fathers of the fourth century – St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory Nazianzen were far more critical and cautious, oftentimes completely rejecting Greek presuppositions and redefining terms. The fifth ecumenical council (Constantinople II, 553) actually condemned many of Origen’s views as heretical. This demonstrates the church’s awareness of its need to proclaim its unique message in context but not in captivity to its cultural presuppositions. The fact that the church emphatically proclaimed “the Logos became flesh” – “an affirmation utterly repugnant to the philosophical perspectives of the day” (94) – is proof that the church was not captive to Greek philosophy. In summary,
it needs to be emphasized that Orthodox teaching has been consciously molded in contradistinction to, rather than in continuity with, pagan Greek philosophical thought. Admitting this does not require the conclusion that the Cappadocians or subsequent Orthodox theologians eliminated every trace of pagan thought or achieved a perfect assimilation of what could be utilized from it into Christian teaching. The significant point is that Eastern Christianity, from early in its history, has shown itself to be aware of the danger of uncritical assimilation of pagan thought and has vigorously opposed it. (55)
A Sampling of Differences
After setting out the historical basis for the difference between the Western and Eastern Church, Payton highlights different emphases between the two. Following are a few of the contrasts he develops.
The East and West have a different attitude toward the creeds of the church. Western Christian scholars view the history of Christian doctrine “as the ongoing march toward more precise explanatory statements of doctrine, in which the ancient creeds were the initial steps” (66). “For Orthodoxy, the ecumenical councils were manifestations of a Spirit-inspired unity in the faith, not legal institutions for defining doctrine. The councils met to discern how best to protect the faith, not to explain it” (67). The creed is
not understood as offering maps for those who would wish to explore the doctrines of the Trinity or of the person of Christ. Rather, the creed and the subsequent conciliar decrees function as “No Trespassing” signs, warning against a variety of heresies that would mislead one about who God is and who the Savior is. In the Eastern Christian tradition, the ancient creed and the decrees are not seen as instruction leading to further such elaboration of doctrine, but as ruling out error. Beyond that, they confess the truth but do not attempt to explain it, according to Orthodoxy. The emphasis for Eastern Christianity is not on explanation but on mystery—on adoration of truth rather than its clarification. (67)
The East divides theology into two categories: positive (“cataphatic”) and negative (“apophatic”) theology. In “the Christian West, positive theology has so dominated the theological stage that the adjective is neither necessary nor understood” (72). Positive theology has to do with knowing God through positive affirmations, stating what is true of God. Negative theology has to do with knowing God through negation, stating what is not true of God. Negative theology is profoundly aware that God accommodates Godself to our human limitations. God speaks truly, but not exhaustively. If God spoke exhaustively, we could not possibly understand. Thus it is through negation that we encounter God’s radical transcendence.
However, apophatic theology does not lead to despair, doubt or skepticism. Instead, it allows us to “transcend the limitations of creaturely experience and human thought” (76).
The apophatic way of “unknowing” brings us not to emptiness but to fullness. Our negations are in reality super-affirmations. Destructive in outward form, the apophatic approach is affirmative in its final effects: it helps us to reach out, beyond all statements positive or negative, beyond all language and all thought, towards an immediate experience of the living God. (77)
The Orthodox distinction between “essence” and “energies” articulates a necessary distinction “which honors God’s genuine transcendence while celebrating God’s intimate immanence” (79). God’s essence is beyond knowing, completely transcendent. God’s energies are not God’s influence on the world, but God actually at work in and through the world. This allows for no dualism between nature and grace – categories that continue to hinder theological progress in the Western Church. For the Eastern Church, there is no realm in which God is not at work. “According to Orthodoxy, there is no such supratemporal, immaterial realm of grace. God himself, in his energies, is ever immanent in his creation. Thus, nature is the abode of grace, and grace suffuses nature” (97). Thus, grace is not a substance or influence, but the active presence of God at work! Payton does a fine job in demonstrating how the Western Church rarely, if ever, stops to consider what grace actually is, that is, the active presence of God at work in transforming human lives.
The Western Church often assumes that God made everything “perfect” rather than, as the Biblical account clearly states, “very good.” Orthodoxy teaches that creation is good, but with great potential. “Created reality was not made perfect in the sense of being at its final goal; it still had to develop in the direction of ultimate perfection” (96). Humanity is unique in that it shares in the two realms – the material and immaterial realm. Humanity is thus a microcosm—“the whole of creation in small, the unique partaker of both realms” (103). As the nexus between heaven and earth, humanity stands in a unique position as mediator, microcosm, image-bearer, and persons-made-for-relationship.
Because of humanity’s unique role, humanity’s fall into sin results in tragedy on many levels. Having turned from life, we enter into the “cosmic disease” of death. Though nothing else in creation rebelled against God, it suffers the consequences of its mediator. “Cursed by God for human sin, the rest of creation now endures futility, being kept from purely glorifying its Creator at present, but it eagerly awaits divine restoration (Romans 8:19-21). Until then, it is defiled and suffers because of human sin” (115). We exploit rather than steward creation, abusing it for ourselves. “[I]nstead of manifesting its potentialities for divine glory, we have dealt with it as a resource for our own temporally limited purposes” (115).
Death is not only the consequence of sin, but also provokes our sin. The fleeting transitoriness of life leads us to sin. “Being enmeshed, engulfed and immersed in an existence that bears every indication of being limited and ending in frustration, disappointment and death is a heavy burden for humanity. In that awful situation introduced by Adam’s sin, human beings opt for what may be temporarily satisfying rather than what would be conducive to everlasting life with God, in communion with him” (112).
A different perspective on our condition leads to a different emphasis on salvation:
While Western Christianity typically understands humankind’s problem in terms of our situation (as guilty, depraved, unrighteous before God), Orthodoxy sees the problem in terms of our enemies (sin, death and the devil), who hold us in their tyranny. In Eastern Christian thought, these are the powers which, since the primordial fall, hold humanity in bondage… In Western Christianity, Christ is seen as the one who suffers the punishment human beings deserve for their sin: Christ is seen as victim. By contrast, in Eastern Christian thought, Christ is the victor: he defeats those enemies and frees humanity from their bondage. (122)
Christ, the new Adam, introduces eternal life to human nature through the incarnation. In other words, in the incarnation God unites humanity with deity in Christ. As the new Adam, Jesus “recapitulates” history, that is, he “reverse[s] the course the first Adam had taken and reclaim[s] humanity and rest of creation for their original created purposes” (124). All things are made new in Christ. This recapitulation theory is the oldest way of understanding Christ’s work, first taught by St. Irenaeus in the second century, who himself was taught by Polcarp, a student of the Apostle John. This fact alone makes it a strong contender for our fundamental understanding of what salvation achieves for humanity and creation.
Contrary to the emphasis of the Western Church, particular following the Protestant Reformation, salvation is not limited to justification. Orthodoxy’s emphasis is not on law, merits, and penalties. It’s theology is much more robust and not merely limited to “a ‘bare bones,’ minimalist fixation on justification as the quintessential concern in the application of salvation” (133). Fundamentally, salvation is about union with God – a fact that some Protestants stress, but have little place in their conventional way of speaking of the “order of salvation.”
Orthodoxy’s emphasis on union grants the Transfiguration a much more significant role in human salvation. The Transfiguration of Christ is a pattern for our future. We are presently “children of God” and our future status “has not yet been revealed” but we know that when Christ returns, “we will be like him” (1 John 3:1-3). Jesus’ transfiguration prefigures our future glorification. In every synoptic gospel account, Jesus states that some will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. Peter, John, and James experience this foretaste of the kingdom in Jesus’ transfiguration. “According to Orthodoxy, on Mount Tabor divine glory shone through Christ’s humanity. His humanity, without ceasing to be humanity, was transformed by and suffused with divine glory: Christ’s humanity was deified…However, the glory manifested was not simply the glory he had from eternity as the Son of God; rather, as the last Adam, he had so acquired likeness to God that divine light shone forth through his humanity itself” (141).
Christ’s transfiguration, thus, was the manifestation of who he is, what would be achieved through the salvation he would accomplish, what he will be like when he returns for the ultimate “coming of his kingdom” and what his people will eventually be in the full application of salvation. What Christ is, his people will surely become. (141)
Having been conformed to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29), “[t]he ‘family resemblance’ to be attained on the final day will be all-pervasive” (142). This provides a much more robust perspective on salvation than is generally presented in Western theology.
This deification takes place within the church “through the sacraments, through the church and through ‘synergy’” (146). Both sacraments of the church – baptism and the Eucharist – communicate divine life. Synergy – the cooperation of humans with God – is not an issue in Orthodoxy. “Eastern Christendom has not focused on the issues of guilt, debt, questions of merit and so on, that flowed from the juridical approach of the Christian West and made the monergism/synergism issue a matter of concern” (151). We must freely participate in God if we wish to be saved. Obviously, “the respective contributions are not of equal weight… what God does is incomparably more important than what we humans do; yet our voluntary participation in God’s saving action is altogether indispensable” (151-152).
The distinction between Scripture and tradition, and all the controversy that arises from trying to distinguish or integrate the two, is not found in Eastern Orthodoxy. This distinction arose in view of the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of Roman Catholic tradition and the need to find authority in something other than the church. Since the East never experienced a Reformation, it knows nothing of this bifurcation. The truth is that the church existed prior to the New Testament Scriptures because it held to the apostolic tradition. The Scriptures themselves are part of this Christian tradition. “In reality there is only one source [of the Christian faith], since Scripture exists within Tradition” (201).
For some within Western Christianity, all talk about tradition is suspicious. They supposedly live by the guidance of Scripture alone, under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit. There is an undeniable naivete about this approach, though. Tradition is inescapable in any human society, ecclesiastical or otherwise. Whether we call it custom or habit or whatever, tradition marks human existence. Everyone operates in this world by tradition, to one degree or another. At its barest, one can recognize tradition if one has a predictable bedtime or mealtime or some morning routines. While many churches within Western Christendom claim not to follow tradition, as soon as one tries to change the order of the morning worship service, one will find out just how firmly committed to tradition even such a church is. (204-205)
The Eastern tradition has much to commend it. Certainly, it is not without its own problems, but it does not suffer from many of the problems of Western Christianity. Because it begins with different questions, it has much to offer those willing to wrestle with its answers. In my opinion, we need both lungs of the church – the Western and the Eastern – in order to possess the fullness of the Christian tradition. Payton’s book is a helpful and instructive step in the right direction for those looking for a more hearty and vigorous perspective of the salvation God offers in Christ. May we listen and learn, for the treasures of Orthodoxy are for all Christians, and not just for those in the East.
Quotes excerpted from Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition by James R. Payton, Jr.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007