I stumbled upon this post from 2012 on The Old Jamestown Church, a “Classical Anglican” blog, written by an ex-Orthodox, now Anglican, priest on the issues Westerners considering Orthodoxy would need to deal with. I don’t want to stir anything up with my Orthodox friends and readers, but the author made an intriguing point–bolstered by a quotation from the distinguished church historian Alister McGrath–that I wanted to run past you for your thoughts.
He said that the Early Church worked out the important theological foundations of the Trinity and Christology. But the next important question, soteriology–how we are saved–was not, at first, fully resolved in the same way. St. Augustine did the heavy lifting, but the issue was still being worked out through the Middle Ages, culminating in the Reformation. But the Greek churches were already going their own way, mostly rejecting Augustine’s work, and favoring a Hellenized take on the Hebrew Scriptures. As a result, he says, Orthodox soteriology is very different from Western soteriology, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.
Read the excerpt after the jump. Can anyone speak to whether this analysis of church history is valid? Are these differences exaggerated? Is there a way any such differences can be reconciled, such as the effects of Baptism and Holy Communion? Where does the “Finnish School” of Luther studies, which says that Luther advocated a kind of theosis consistent with Orthodoxy, fit into this debate?
While we should certainly be grateful to the Greek Church Fathers for the triadology and christology that became the basis of the Creed, they were not so orthodox when it came to an issue that would come to bear upon the question of soteriology, or salvation:
Part of the fascination of the patristic era to the scholar lies in the efforts of its theologians to express an essentially Hebraic gospel in a Hellenistic milieu: the delights of patristic scholarship must not, however, be permitted to divert our attention from the suspicion voiced by the Liberal school in the last century – that Christ’s teaching was seriously compromised by the Hellenism of its earlier adherents. The history of the development of the Christian doctrine of justification lends support to such a suspicion. In particular, it can be shown that two major distortions were introduced into the corpus of traditional belief within the eastern church at a very early stage, and were subsequently transferred to the emerging western theological tradition. These are:
1. The introduction of the non-biblical, secular Stoic concept of autoexousia or liberum arbitrium in the articulation of the human response to the divine initiative in justification.
2. The implicit equation of tsedaqa, dikaiosune and iustitia, linked with the particular association of the Latin meritum noted earlier (p.15), inevitably suggested a correlation between human moral effort and justification within the western church.
The subsequent development of the western theological tradition, particularly since the time of Augustine, has shown a reaction against both these earlier distortions, and may be regarded as an attempt to recover a more biblically orientated approach to the question of justification. . . .
The emerging patristic understanding of such matters as predestination, grace and free will is somewhat confused, and would remain so until controversy forced full discussion of the issue upon the church. Indeed, by the end of the fourth century, the Greek fathers had formulated a teaching on human free will based upon philosophical rather than biblical foundations. Standing in the great Platonic tradition, heavily influenced by Philo, and reacting against the fatalisms of their day, they taught that man was utterly free in his choice of good or evil. . . . (Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Vol. I, pp.18-19. Emphases mine.)
This sub-biblical notion of free will would later inform the heresies of Pelagianism and Semipelagianism, and would also result in a soteriology in the East that would put a greater stress on theosis – sanctification – than on the atonement, that is on what we do subjectively to accomplish our salvation than on what God has done objectively to accomplish it. Accordingly, Orthodox theology is deficient in its understanding of just how the atonement relates to sanctification. One need only listen to the narrative of this video to see an example of the man-centered nature of theosis. Note the repeated use of “I”, “me” and “my”. I call this the “Little-Christian-Who-Could” model. There is nothing in this video about what God did to effect man’s salvation, aside from a brief and vague reference to the destruction of sin and death at the beginning of the narrative.
Because the Orthodox reject the Augustinian view of original sin, and by implication the Pauline teaching on the inability of man to save himself, and because the Orthodox still labor under pagan notions about “free will”, their soteriology suffers. Frs. Hart and Wells discuss this deficiency at the Continuum, here and here.
Evangelicals are Westerners (and Pauline-Augustinians generally speaking), and **if** they come to a point where they believe they simply must be Catholics, then the Western Catholic tradition is where they’ll more naturally fit in. That essentially means Rome or Anglo-Catholicism. I say “**if**”. Evangelicals who really can’t quite give up the Evangelical ethos have no business considering Orthodoxy, because at the end of the day Orthodoxy has no room for it. If you’re an Evangelical who continues to believe that Luther was essentially right about justification, the primacy of Scripture, etc., but are drawn to the historic church and its liturgical worship, then your true options are basically Anglicanism or Lutheranism.