Jan 16 2010

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.

Jan 4 2010

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.

Nov 18 2009

Exploring the Twain

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  – Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-room Ballads

Years ago, I got to know a Greek Orthodox Priest (who was, in fact, from Greece) who tried to explain to me the difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches; to me, both the RCC and the EO were quite similar.  However, to him, the RCC was closer to evangelicalism than it was to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I didn’t quite understand it then.  Now, 30 years later, I find myself considering the issue once again.  This time, however, I am beginning to understand.  Besides reading some Orthodox theology, I’ve also been trying to catch up on 1500 years of Western theology by reading summaries of the major theologians, and I’ve been listening to a great series from The Teaching Company called Philosophy and Religion in the West by Phillip Cary.

Western theology: Fundamentally Flawed?

As I learn more about the history of Western theology, I am finding I have more and more problems with the theological and philosophical direction taken by the Western theologians (as I have dealt with a bit in my Webber series and elsewhere).  In fact, I am finding that it is fundamentally flawed, and that it is very, very difficult to filter out potentially errant presuppositions, as I am so saturated in them I don’t even recognize them.  Such is the problem of worldviews.  My theory, then, is that by understanding the differences between East and West, I may be more able to find a more pure theology.  Even writing this, however, I am aware that this is a purely Western approach to the problem; but, I have to accept that I am rooted in the West, even while I look to the East.

Understanding the Schism: A little history

Even trying to understand the Great Schism, as the split between the Eastern and Western church is known, is difficult.  I have decided that the best way to approach it is by favoring the Eastern interpretation, while not ignoring the Western; reading Western points of view merely tends to reinforce the problem.  However, both sides do point to a number of political, cultural, philosophical and theological issues that contributed to the Schism.  Constantine perhaps set the stage for the split by establishing a 2nd capital city in Constantinople. This, I think, made it easier for the Eastern Church to eventually ignore Rome.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, of course, is  a major factor.  Many people are perhaps unaware that in the East, the Roman (Byzantine) Empire lasted for about 1,000 years, which contributed to more stability in the Eastern church.  The Roman Bishop (Pope), with Europe in chaos, turned to the Franks (Charlemagne) for support (which led to other problems). Besides these political differences, there was a language barrier, with the East speaking Greek and the West speaking Latin, and both churches insisting the other should convert.

Eventually, as we know, the Pope took on a quasi-political role in Europe.  While this did have a stabilizing effect on the region, it didn’t do the church any favors.  Soon the Pope was considered to be the highest source of spiritual authority in the West; the Eastern church, however, maintained a flatter church structure with a plurality of leadership among the patriarchs.  Today the Ecumenical Patriarch is still considered “first among equals” in the Eastern church.

The issues between East and West grew over several hundred years.  Possibly the biggest factor in the increasing schism was the role Charlemagne played in the late 8th and early 9th Centuries.  At this time what is known as the “Filioque Clause” was being added to the Nicene Creed in various places in the Western church.  The clause changes the nature of the Holy Spirit’s role in the Trinity, adding that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father “and the Son.”  While debated even in the West (Pope Leo III disagreed with the addition), it was Charlemagne who adopted it and subsequently accused the Eastern Church of heresy for failure to use it. Charlemagne had no authority in the East, and I suspect he thought that he could use the Church to extend his political clout.

The final straw came in 1054 with the Roman church “excommunicating” the entire Eastern church.  The Eastern church to my knowledge never officially broke ties with the West (although they finally realized that the Roman Church had, by their own actions, left Orthodoxy). Relations, however, got even worse when the Romans sacked Constantinople on the Fourth Crusade in 1204.  As one could expect, things have never been the same.

Theological Aspects of the Schism

While these issues are important in understanding the Schism, I’d like to focus on the philosophical and theological differences.  Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, an evangelical-turned-Orthodox theologian, writes this concerning the theological split:

In the early Church there had been unity in the faith, but a diversity of theological schools. From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the east, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But now that the two sides were becoming strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – there was a danger that each side would follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.

Ware, I think, does a pretty even-handed job in his analysis, and also points out in this chapter that while the contributing causes to the Schism were many, it was really the theological differences that divided the church, and which still divide it today.  The 2 primary issues that he sees are Papal authority, and the Filioque Clause. However, the issues he mentions above show a more fundamental difference which, I think, resulted in more than just a church schism; what developed seems to be more of a philosophical or worldview schism, which I will discuss in my next post.

Aug 16 2009

A Tale of Two Churches

I went to two churches this morning, one at 9:00 and the other at 11.  One was a typical contemporary evangelical service, not unlike many others I’ve been to over the years. The other was the Episcopal church I’ve been attending for several months.  There was a vast difference in style, as one would expect. However, today I became aware of one distinction in particular which bears some reflection.

Church #1

First, I want to be clear that I am not saying church #1 is in any way a bad church, as evangelical churches go.  On the positive side, they really understand how to be welcoming.  We were very warmly greeted by people who seemed genuinely happy to see us (granted, one greeter was someone I happened to know).  Second, they started precisely at 9am.  They even had a TV screen in the lobby counting down the seconds until church started.  Even though most people were late, that didn’t stop the worship team.

Here’s the thing with church #1: The service, which was 90 minutes long, consisted of only two items, worship (that is, singing about 4 worship songs) and the sermon.  As far as the worship portion went, the band was very good (and loud), and the songs were for the most part well-chosen, including 2 contemporary versions of older hymns (including Amazing Grace, always a winner).  The pastor was a fair speaker, but talked way too long, and said virtually nothing that couldn’t have been said in under 10 minutes.  Then they did a quick offering during a reprise of one of the worship choruses.

Church #2

On the other hand, at St. Paul’s Episcopal we sang about the same number of hymns, not counting various liturgical choruses and a responsive chant of Psalm 111.  They read selections from the Old Testament, the Epistles, the Gospels, and of course the chanted Psalm.  There was a sermon – barely 10 minutes, but well thought-out and providing food for thought (a little pun… the text was John 6:51-58) on a very difficult text.

We also publicly confessed sin, received an affirmation of forgiveness, spent time in intercessory prayer, proclaimed our faith in reciting the Nicene Creed, corporately prayed the Lord’s Prayer, heard some amazing special music and celebrated the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist).

All that, in under one hour.

Food for thought

Again, I did not particularly dislike church #1.  But again, the contrast between my 2 church experiences this morning reveals something, I think, about evangelical Christianity.  I keep coming back to Marshall McLuhan’s concept “the medium is the message,” because I think it’s directly applicable to church. What we do – or not do – and how we do it reveal both our priorities and our beliefs.

It is easy to see in the Episcopal worship service what they believe and what they value: Scripture, worship of the Trinity, a commitment to the historic faith and the ever-present work of Christ as celebrated in the Eucharist.

In church #1, it was not so easy to discover what they believed. I presume – because I know the denomination – they are Trinitarians and believe in the authority of Scripture, but I wouldn’t know this from the service. It was evident that they valued contemporary music and a quality sound system, and that they valued the perspective of the pastor (the sermon took the majority of the service).  But, what does what is lacking in the service say about their beliefs and values?

I am not blaming church #1 for their rather featureless service; I believe they inherited a contemporary, anti-liturgical and anti-historical form and have taken it for granted. It possibly has not occurred to most of them that they leave the service with relatively little, and having done very little.  Fellowship, corporate singing and some teaching are, of course, not without value; the question is, is it enough?