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.

Conclusion?

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.


Nov 23 2009

Exploring the Twain 2

In the first post in this series, I introduced my thesis that Western theology is so tainted by a number of influences that did not affect the Eastern Church that the best way to evaluate Western theology is to start at the beginning, exploring where the West diverted from the East. I also proposed that the true “great schism” was a worldview split, and without understanding this aspect we can’t really appreciate the theological issues.

Father Michael Azkoul (an Orthodox Priest) appears to be a contemporary authority on this issue. He writes in a 1994 article:

Following the Holy Fathers, Orthodoxy uses science and philosophy to defend and explain her Faith. Unlike Roman Catholicism, she does not build on the results of philosophy and science. The Church does not seek to reconcile faith and reason. She makes no effort to prove by logic or science what Christ gave His followers to believe. If physics or biology or chemistry or philosophy lends support to the teachings of the Church, she does not refuse them. However, Orthodoxy is not intimidated by man’s intellectual accomplishments. She does not bow to them and change the Christian Faith to make it consistent with the results of human thought and science.

Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, places a high value on human reason. Its history shows the consequence of that trust. For example, in the Latin Middle Ages, the 13th century, the theologian-philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, joined “Christianity” with the philosophy of Aristotle. From that period til now, the Latins have never wavered in their respect for human wisdom; and it has radically altered the theology, mysteries and institutions of the Christian religion.

This difference of “philosophy of philosophy” explains much of the difference between East and West.  While Eastern scholars will make references to Plato, etc. (as does the Gospel of John with its discussion of the logos), it only borrows concepts as illustrations.  Augustine, who belonged to the Latin side, not the Greek, took a different approach.

Augustine – Saint or Heretic?

Augustine was a Manichaean as well as a neo-Platonist before he was a Christian, and a major focus of his thinking was merging his philosophical ideas with Christianity – ideas which included a continued belief in the eternal forms of Plato as existing alongside God, dualism, and the fallen man.  Augustine, who was largely unknown in the Eastern Church until the 14th Century or so, is the major shaper of Western Christianity, introducing – I’ll even say inventing – concepts like the doctrine of original sin and the total depravity of man.  His views not only heavily influenced the Roman Catholic Church, but also is the foundation for Reformed theology (Calvinism).

While accepted as a saint by the Orthodox, his ideas are largely rejected by them, with some recent Orthodox scholars taking the position that he was a heretic, and see him (rightly, I believe) as a major cause of the East-West schism.  Of course, the Orthodox don’t consider the Church Fathers to be inerrant, and some are more inerrant than others.  Augustine is seen as being in the “more” category.

What this means is, of course, that many of the doctrines and concepts that we take for granted, such as original sin, inherited guilt, total depravity, penal atonement, dualism, a Roman judicial interpretation of justification, and the concept of the “angry God” do not exist in the early church or in the Eastern church.  Furthermore many of these concepts are not Biblical or derived from Apostolic tradition, but began as philosophical beliefs that Augustine felt needed to be reconciled with Christianity.

Aquinas to Ockham to Luther

Thus began a Western tradition of basing theology on philosophy.  Subsequent to Augustine was Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle instead of Plato.  Aquinas’ shift away from Plato caused a bit of strife in the Roman church, but eventually the majority of the church adopted his rationalistic approach. While Thomas still believed in a God limited by the eternal forms, he further altered Christian thought by basing all revelation on our 5 senses.

It wasn’t until William of Ockham (or Occam) – one of my heroes – that we got rid of the eternal forms, and finally back to a Biblical concept of God who actually had free will, who was not limited by some external ideals of “good,” “just,” and so on.   This is what Occam’s Razer was all about, but that’s another topic.  It was this school of thought – away from the limitations of Plato and Aristotle, and Augustine – that provided the backdrop for Martin Luther’s theology.  As I stated in my prior post, Luther also saw the error of basing theology on reason.   Luther also saw the error of Augustine’s concept of the angry God, instead finding that the Bible taught a loving God.  While Luther inherited much from Augustine – as did everyone – his theology was a major correction in a number of areas, and is probably the closest to the Eastern church than any other major Western theologian, even teaching the concept of theosis.  Calvin, however, is another story, and I’ll get to him soon.

So?

We now have a Western church tradition that has been tossed to and fro by every wind of philosophy.  Meanwhile, back East, nothing has changed.  They’ve had 7 major church councils to deal with some issues, but essentially nothing’s changed.  No new theories about the nature of God, no new theories about justification, and no need for a reformation.

My original question was, how can we find a pure expression of Christianity that is unaltered by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or the Enlightenment?  Especially after Descartes, in the west, we’re pretty much toast.  Our worldview – our entire context for understanding the Bible and early church teaching – has been hijacked not once, but several times.  In this context, it seems that to even try to discuss evangelical theology is pretty much a bust.  Even if the church is semper reformanda (always reforming), it’s reforming into what? To the 1800’s?  The Reformation?  Augustine?  It seems to me that the only way to evaluate theology is to compare it to that of the Eastern Church; even if you don’t accept that as “true,” you have to admit it is the only theology free from all of the Western baggage.

Again, I’m still a rationalist.  But, God does call for us to think, just not to let our ability to understand control our belief.

NOTE:  A friend on Facebook questioned my comment, “I’m still a rationalist.”  It was a poor choice of words, or at least not adequately explained.  What I meant was that I’ve been steeped in Western rationalism, and still naturally think like a rationalist.  However, I am not a rationalist in the sense that I don’t limit my ability to believe on my – or someone else’s – ability to understand or explain something.