Exploring the Twain 7: Eastern Orthodoxy and Universalism

This is not one of the issues on my list, but I have run across a couple of articles and podcasts concerning the issue of universalism, so I thought I’d talk about it while I was in the mood. Universalism is essentially the belief that when it’s all over, everyone will end up saved (to use Western vernacular).

Universalism is a concept that has popped up time and again over Christianity’s history, and sometimes it is thought that the idea has some relationship to Eastern Orthodoxy as some of the Church Fathers (many of whom are not unique to the Eastern Church) seem to lean in that direction. However, one doesn’t have to subscribe to any Eastern theology in order to believe in universalism.  C.S. Lewis, for example, dealt with the possibility in his story The Great Divorce, at the point the George MacDonald character is introduced (it is the MacDonald character who espouses universalism; Lewis was not a universalist).

The question of “will everyone be saved” is very closely related to the question of man’s free will (and I’m not talking Arminianism vs. Calvinism here), especially in an Eastern context.  Contrary to the Augustinian/Dantean concept of Hell (to which most in the West subscribe), the Eastern Church believes that eternal punishment as well as eternal reward are both found in God’s love.  That is, God himself is both Heaven and Hell, light and darkness. To grasp this you must also understand the Orthodox concept of theosis, the process of becoming united with God.  All men are destined to find themselves eventually in God’s presence; whether they will find paradise or torment is their response to God’s love.  (Lewis’ concept in The Great Divorce was that hell was a place created out of mercy, as it would be worse for some to find themselves forced to be in God’s presence.)

One of the Church Fathers who is often seen as leaning toward universalism is Origen (185-254 A.D.), as he proposed that no one could refuse God’s love forever:

Stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him, and this healing He applies, according to the will of God, to everyman. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil…to quote Zephaniah: “My determination to gather the nations, that I am assemble the kings, to pour upon them mine indignation, even say all my fierce anger, for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy. For then will I turn to the people a pure language that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent”…Consider carefully the promise, that all shall call upon the Name of the Lord, and serve him with one consent.

This, however, was eventually condemned by the Orthodox Church (5th Ecumenical Council?) as not allowing for man’s free will; for if God is not resistible, then man truly does not have free will. As the Eastern Church has strongly affirmed a belief in free will, any sort of universalism has been rejected.

That being said, various Orthodox theologians (in the Western sense) still sound as if they are leaning toward universalism, including Bartholomew, the current Ecumenical Patriarch. Bartholomew’s recent book Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today contains a number of comments that, while not specifically supporting universalism, certainly makes a person wonder.  I should mention that he does specifically support the concept of free will, so presumably he resists the irresistibility of God’s love.

A Preview of Theosis

I will talk about theosis in a different post, but here it is in a nutshell: Theosis is similar to the Western concept of sanctification, that we are being not only drawn toward God, but are becoming Christlike – actually becoming like God (but not in essence).  Bartholomew makes the point in his book (p.143) that all men are being drawn to God (not just all Christians) along with the entire cosmos. If this is the case, then all men will eventually be faced with God’s love (I totally reject the whole Calvinist, God’s-wrath thing, so don’t bother going there).  At this point, the Orthodox – if I understand it correctly – believe that all men will either respond affirmatively to God’s love, or be hardened (finding their own hell in the presence of God).

Simply Irresistible

Personally, I am fairly impressed with the argument that God’s love may be irresistible; while certainly we can resist the dim reflection of reality that we presently have, can we resist seeing God’s love first-hand?  Does man’s free will have to be an equal match for the attractiveness of God’s love?

The Orthodox, more than any tradition, uphold a belief in the absolute free will of man; obviously the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions don’t, if they believe man cannot withstand the power of evil (e.g Luther’s Bondage of the Will).  If God’s love is more powerful than evil, then it goes without saying that in at least the Calvinist tradition, God must choose to withhold his love in order for man to be damned. I will point out the obvious contradiction here that God has stated specifically that it is his “will that all men be saved.”  Luther finally realized that God must approach us out of love, not wrath, and also began to grasp the concept of theosis, although he didn’t have a clearly defined theology of such.

No, the only way I can think of to completely rule out the possibility of universal salvation is the position that man has been given a unique, equal-to-God free will, or that God’s own grace empowers man to resist God.  It is interesting that no matter how you approach it, it seems that if man can resist God, it turns out that God’s wrath is actually his mercy, a la The Great Divorce.  Mercy!  However, this still does not explain the promise that one day “every knee shall bow” (Romans 14:11) or Origen’s Zephaniah passage.

Other Questions Relating to Universalism

Reading Bartholomew’s book raised other questions that relate to the concept of universalism, though perhaps not in the ultimate sense.  For one thing, Bartholomew hints that people of other other religions – especially Jews and Muslims – are responding to the revelation of God in their own way. In a section where he is discussing the things we hold in common with the other monotheistic religions he writes:

… we are obligated humbly to demonstrate a profound mutual respect, which allows our fellow human beings to journey on their own personal path to God, as they understand the will of God, without interfering with the journey of anyone else. (p.189)

After quoting from the Koran (“Truth emanates from God”), he states that “God first chooses to open dialogue with us … in many different and unique ways.” (p.190) What he means by this is not entirely clear; on one hand he is talking about the peaceful coexistence of the different religions, but on the other, he seems to be saying more.

While he says that the Orthodox invite everyone into one faith, he is against proselytizing, end of story.  To him, the Orthodox witness is to continue doing the liturgy and being silent:

Such faith can never be propagated or proselytized. … The only viable means of spreading the Gospel, at least in the Orthodox Christian view, is the cultivation of one’s own soul in order to become sufficiently spacious to embrace all people. (p. 142)

This approach, however, seems to differ quite significantly from many of the American Orthodox teachers I have heard, who are more mission oriented, as well as from the Apostolic witness we have in both the New Testament and elsewhere.

Bartholomew is totally sold on the apophatic way of life, which seems to have some negative consequences.  The failure to define Christianity in a positive (cataphatic) sense leaves so much open that Orthodoxy – while strongly preserving their Tradition – seems at times to sound almost Buddhist, or at least Unitarian.  At least, this is my impression from reading Bartholomew.  I will deal more specifically with some of these issues at a later time.


While Orthodoxy hints at times at universal salvation, they officially reject it, although certainly seem to allow for some type of conversion process (they would not use that term) after death.  The key point for the Orthodox is that man is given the final opportunity to reject God’s love.

As always, I admit a flawed understanding, and welcome comments, corrections, and so on.

Exploring the Twain 6: Tradition revisited

One of the primary differences between Eastern and Western Christianity concerns the nature of authority in the church.  I’ve already explored this issue here, so I won’t repeat myself.  However, I will mention a few points that I may have missed.

  1. The Eastern Orthodox concept of Tradition is quite difficult for the Western mind to get around, as it really fails to fall in any Western category.
  2. The Church Fathers, whose teaching is part of the Orthodox Tradition, are not considered infallible; that is, even highly respected Fathers had some teachings which have been rejected as being heterodox.
  3. The Church Fathers are respected not because of their historical proximity to the Apostles, but because their revelation and teaching is seen as apostolic.
  4. Revelation is seen as continuing. Not that it is progressive, but that God continues to reveal Himself as he always has.
  5. The liturgy is also authoritative, as it reflects apostolic teaching.
  6. Tradition guides the church, however it is the church – not the leaders – who decides what is Tradition.
  7. The authoritative teachings of the later Fathers and the decisions of the Seven Councils – such as the decision concerning the veneration of Icons, or the incorporation of apophatic theology – is said not to be anything new, but to be what the Church has always believed.

As suggested in #6, to the West, the Eastern concept of Tradition appears somewhat circular: Tradition controls or guides the Church, but is also decided – or perhaps revealed – through the Church.   There also seems – to Western eyes, anyway – that there is a presumption that whatever the Orthodox Church currently believes is what the Church has always believed, and is therefore in line with the Apostolic Tradition.  For example, take the veneration of Icons, which was debated at the 7th Ecumenical Council, I believe.  The Orthodox Church has not always venerated icons, and it certainly isn’t found in Scripture.  However, once it was settled in favor of icons, it became Tradition.

It is also interesting that certain teachings of certain Church Fathers have at been accepted at certain times, and not accepted at other times. For example, if I recall correctly, the teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius were not really accepted until St. Gregory Palamas, who referred to him as “an unerring beholder of divine things.” It seems, then, that Tradition is hardly a straight line.

I’m sure that my Orthodox friends can bring some clarification on this point, which would be welcomed.

Next in the Series: More thoughts on items from my list of East-West differences.

Exploring the Twain 5 – Major issues between East and West

Today I started making a list of the various differences I’ve come across between the Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical theology (I am ignoring the RCC at this point, as it has its own issues, and it’s my blog).   Here’s the list, in quasi-random order:

  1. The interpretation of the phrase “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” from the Nicene Creed.
  2. Tradition and authority
  3. The acceptance of the “filioque” clause in the Nicene Creed by the RCC and Protestant churches
  4. Views of the Atonement: Christus Victor vs. Substitutionary or Penal theories
  5. Soteriology: Theosis/deification vs. a forensic view of justification
  6. Apophatic vs. Capophatic theology
  7. Mystical v Rational theology
  8. The nature of sin

I quite possibly have left out something important, and reserve the right to add to this list.  Also, there is a bit of overlap in my list.   On some items in the list, I tend to agree with the Orthodox view (3, 4, 8); on others, I disagree (1, 6), and on the rest I either am “agnostic” or would take an inclusive or MOR position.  In the next few posts I will discuss each of these, in probably another quasi-random order.

One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

It probably has not occurred to many people that churches who confess the Nicene Creed (including Orthodox, RCC, Lutheran, Anglican and many others) disagree on the meaning of “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  Most of us who were raised Protestant understand this to mean that we believe in the invisible church, inclusive of all believers regardless of denomination.  The Orthodox, however, do not believe in this “invisible” church; to the East, this statement refers to the various churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, exclusive of the Roman and Protestant churches.

When this creed was developed in the 4th Century, there was only one church; the Roman church, while divided by language and politics, was still joined to the Eastern church.  So, this was not an issue until the Great Schism of 1054 (if I recall correctly) at which time the Roman church excommunicated the Orthodox, and the Eastern church “wrote off” the RCC.  Both factions laid claim to the Creed, believing that they were the “one” visible church.  When Luther & Co. began the Reformation, the phrase was reinterpreted to refer to the global, “invisible” church.

It is also interesting to note that some Protestant churches disagree with this line of the Nicene Creed (the Orthodox refer to the creed as the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed” as it was finalized in the later Ecumenical Council), as they refuse to accept the Orthodox and RCC churches.  How ironic.

Because the Eastern church believes salvation as flowing from the Church, this has obvious implications in the Eastern view of the Western churches.  While most do not say that there are no non-Orthodox Christians, they will not go so far as to say that salvation is possible outside of the Church.  One really has to better understand the Orthodox view of salvation to understand this issue, but I confess that so far, I don’t have that level of understanding.

If any of my 11 readers has some thoughts on this issue, I’d love to hear them.  I am on a fact-finding mission here, rather than being pedantic.

Exploring the Twain 4 – Neo-Platonism and Eastern Orthodoxy

In my last post in this series, I promised to examine the neo-Platonist influences in Eastern Orthodoxy.  If I knew then what I knew now – or didn’t know then what I don’t know now, I wouldn’t have made such a promise.  As it turns out, trying to pin this issue down has a number of problems.  While there are a great many sources discussing Augustine’s neo-Platonist orientation, there are very few – that I have found – discussing in any specificity the neo-Platonist influence on the Eastern Church.  And, of the sources I did find, I found a great deal of disagreement.

What I will do in this post is lay out a sketch of the issue as I currently understand it, which if nothing else will show what I don’t know, hopefully inviting input from others.

First, neo-Platonism refers to the 3rd century revival of Platonism, mainly as taught by Plotinus, who apparently was trying to clarify some misunderstood elements of Plato’s writings.  Just as contemporary philosophy has impacted Western theology, neo-Platonism also had an influence on some of the Greek-speaking early theologians, as well as on such Western theologians as Augustine.

Many of the Church Fathers showed signs of neo-Platonist thinking, including Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Maximus the Confessor, and the most-often connected with neo-Platonism, the fellow known as Pseudo-Dionysius, also known for developing the Eastern Church’s Apophatic approach to theology.

The Orthodox, however, reject the notion that any Platonist or neo-Platonist philosophy made its way into their theology. Rather, they say that Gregory, et al., only used neo-Platonist terms to explain what the Church always believed. For example, Gregory of Nyssa used neo-Platonic language to argue for the infinity of God (contrary to the teaching of Origen, who held to the earlier Platonic concept that God was finite, as He could be known).  (The concept of the infinity of God is a key element in the later development of Apophaticism.)

While there are certainly neo-Platonic concepts used in the Eastern church, I can’t say at this time whether the church was influenced by the neo-Platonists, or whether they are correct in that they only used those concepts to convey a pre-existing theology.

This Eastern way of looking at the development of theology – that the formation of Orthodox theology and Tradition only clarified the Apostolic faith that the church always believed – is if nothing else, convenient.  It also appears somewhat circular, based on the belief that the Orthodox Church is the one and only true church and the belief that God is preserving in the church the Apostolic faith.  It seems to assume that anything the Orthodox Church believes is necessarily Apostolic and correct, even though there have been a number of disagreements over the years.

The belief that the Eastern Church is the one true church also appears somewhat circular; they have the Apostolic faith because they are the one true church, and they are the one true church because they have preserved the Apostolic faith.  Of course, if they are correct, they don’t need a better argument.

While I am obviously impressed by much in the Eastern traditions, there are elements of Orthodoxy that I have a hard time with, which I will try to outline in coming posts.