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.


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.

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12 Responses to Exploring the Twain 2

  1. Kevin Allen says:

    This will be my last intrusion on your blog post- thank you for bearing with me! I am obviously interested in your inquiry and that is why I am investing the time.

    I don’t see the text from Acts or the text from Galations being at odds, in terms of the point I was trying to make, that Paul was a visible and concrete member of a visible and concrete church, connected to the apostles and their doctrine. Despite how many in the West tend to view him, St Paul was not a lone ranger.

    The text from Acts makes clear that St Paul was a missionary under the authority of the elders at Jerusalem. After his conversion, he began immediately to preach Christ in the synagogues, but he also sought to join the disciples in Jerusalem and later was brought to the apostles by Barnabas. His “gospel” and the apostles’ “gospel” was squared (Acts 9) and approved by them. Later, when there was an issue (circumcision) “the apostles and elders (in Jerusalem) came together to consider this matter.” This was really the first “church council”. One of their “decrees” was that circumcision was not necessary, and the faithful were not to eat food offered to idols.

    As Protestants we were formed (spiritually speaking) to reject Roman Church authority and to relocate spiritual authority to the private reading and interpretation of the scriptures. But as I think we both agree, some of the fruit of such a relocation (not all – many good things have come from the West) have produced the “Babel” of denominations, sects, cults and doctrines that we see in Christemdom. Many of them doctrinally (or by way of praxis) look nothing at all like the ‘rule of faith’ of the first or second century Christian church (this we know from history) and, I suspect, from the faith of the apostolic age itself.

    Since there is no longer a consensus on what or who the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” is, there can be no Ecumenical Councils to decide what is truth and what is not, that would be accepted by those outside the apostolic age historic churches (Rome and Constantinople).

    I would argue that Sola Scriptura cannot be a “baseline” from which to judge, because of the epistemological, philosophical and cultural influences you wrote about.

    Where else? I would argue all roads point either to Rome or Constaninople.

  2. me says:

    Galatians, however, seems to show a different side of Paul: “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ…” He then goes on to tell how his Gospel message did not come through the other Apostles, and that they “added nothing” to it, though they did eventually approve Paul’s message and mission.

    I’m very interested in learning more about the early Fathers, and what elements of tradition were handed down. I know some of the basics, but not enough. The NT is very quiet on a number of issues, such as what the “decrees” mentioned in Acts were.

    Kevin, I appreciate your input- I hope you’ll pop in again as I look at various elements of Orthodoxy and Tradition.

  3. Kevin Allen says:

    St Paul, whom you quote, was also a man under authority. He wasn’t simply following his own agenda. He was part of a visible, concrete and hierarchic church, in direct succession to the Risen Lord, through the apostles. Acts records: “And as they (Sts. Paul and Timothy) went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and the elders at Jerusalem.” (Acts 16) Where is that church today? Christ promised that the gates of Hades would not prevail against it.

  4. me says:

    Kevin, you do have a point. However, Paul admonished the Thessalonian Church to “test all things and hold on to what is good,” and this is not an isolated thought in the NT.

    It’s one thing to read the Bible in an historical vacuum, and another to look to the collective wisdom of the church (even some Orthodox – such as Kallistos Ware and Bradley Nassif – have suggested that the Eastern church is missing out on what it could be learning from the West). I am trying to take the latter approach, but yes, I am taking full responsibility for my conclusions. Even if I would assume that the Orthodox Church is the only true church, I am making that decision. So, either way, it seems that the buck stops here.

  5. Fred says:

    “Eastern Orthodox Christianity is a ‘pure expression’ by your (and any) definition”? “Western baggage”? “The Church sucked it up quickly”?

    My goodness, gentlemen. How your wagons are circled! I retreat to the hills with Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, Calvin (not Luther, of course), Wesley, Kierkegaard, Barth, and all the other miscreants who, it seems, have completely missed the boat. Thank goodness we have the East (and you guys, of course) to set us right.

    Sorry for the sarcasm, but it just seemed appropriate in this case. Must be another piece of Western baggage I carry around.

  6. Kevin Allen says:

    The conundrum one gets into with a “post-modern apophatic” approach is that you essentially wind up relying on your own interpretations of what a “pure expression” of Christianity is! That approach is essentially the same as the eclectic Protestant approach you are stuggling with! You become your own guide and teacher; you rely on your own rationality; you decide what is “not pure”, etc. With the greatest of respect, this is how all the denominations and (even) cults and schisms have emerged over two thousand years of Christian history! What is your baseline? If it is your own interpretation of scripture and history- what matters and what doesn’t, according to your own rationality and cultural predilections – you are using a Western Protestant hermeneutic! Sort of an irony!? And what if you manage to cut away everything you believe is “not pure”, where are you then? Either you start a new church, or you live on a spiritual island, as your own spiritual director. At some point – and pardon me, please, for being so bold – you will have to come to trust the holy tradition of Paul, John, Polycarp, Athanathios, Irenaeus, etc. that you acknowledge “is the only theology free from all of the Western baggage”.

  7. me says:

    Kevin, thanks. “Does it matter?” is indeed the question underlying my thinking. I haven’t yet accepted that the Orthodox Church is in fact the pure expression of Christianity, while I have leaned East on many issues for some time. In what is perhaps a “post-modern apophatic” approach, I am ruling out what I can that is not pure, and we’ll see what remains.

  8. me says:

    Plato gave Christians a conceptual framework, not a theology.

    Agreed. However, as I tried to bring out in my post, there is a marked difference as to how it was appropriated by Augustine and other Western thinkers than in the East.

    The Eastern approach is to use it as you state: a model, imagery, or a concept that can express what is already believed. John’s use of “Logos” does that. Augustine, however, actually believed in neo-Platonism, believed in the eternal forms, already believed in a Manichaean dualism, and applied Christianity to these beliefs. Later, of course, Christianity was conformed to other worldly philosophies, including rationalism and existentialism. While the Enlightenment may have been spearheaded by deism, the Church sucked it up quickly. Remember, the RCC was the channel for Plato and Aristotle in the west, and Descartes was himself a Christian. As Luther’s encounter with the RCC shows, the Roman church was “progressive” in the sense that it was quick to forget its own origins, ignoring earlier beliefs in favor of whatever was in vogue at the time.

    But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

    And yes, I have admitted that I do have a thesis, although one that is subject to change.

  9. Kevin Allen says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. After many years of my own study, I agree with the conclusions you reach. Any honest intellectual inquirer would have to conclude there is a great disparity between the “rule of faith” written of by Athanasios and Irenaeus and the myriad forms (no pun on Neo-Platonism!) that have influenced (high- jacked?) Western Christendom, even long before – as you point out, correctly with Augustine – the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

    As one professor of history (early church) and theology at Fuller Theological Seminar acknowledged to me, the real question is not has Western Christianity been changed since the ante-Nicene fathers (because any serious study reveals it has); the question he posed, rather, was “does it matter?”

    Had I been literate enough at the time, I would have quoted Irenaeus to the good professor: “Since, then, the conserver of our salvation is faith, it is necessary to take great care of it, that we may have a true comprehension of what is.”

    I took it as my responsibility (then) to find out what the true, apostolic faith was and began with the ante Nicene fathers, as you undoubtedly have. I discovered a stark contrast – in theology, worldview (pre-modern of course), language and praxis – between what the “early church” viewed as Christian life and faith, and what Western Christianity became. Even Luther – as you correctly point out – held a more “patristic” view of salvation (theosis) than his successors. Luther wrote: “For it is true that a man helped by grace is more than a man; indeed, the grace of God gives him the form of God and deifies him, so that even the Scriptures call him [man] “God” and God’s son”. (Sermon on the day of St. Peter and St. Paul (1519). Where would you hear that — and many other things Luther wrote of — from a Lutheran pulpit today?

    So I had to ask myself: “DOES it matter?” Does discovering and holding to the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” matter?

    For me it did and still does!

    As to Fred’s comment and rhetorical questions: “A ‘pure expression’ of Christianity? Good luck with that. But if you do find one, will they let you in the door?”

    Eastern Orthodox Christianity is a “pure expression” by your (and any) definition; and if they let me in the door (and they did, thankfully 15 years ago) I have no doubt they will let you in, too!

    May God grant you courage and peace in your journey!

  10. Fred says:

    I’m glad for the questions. However, your question, “How can we find a pure expression of Christianity that is unaltered by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or the Enlightenment?” actually begs the question. You have already concluded what I am not ready to accept.

    Plato gave Christians a conceptual framework, not a theology. There are, for example, very strong Platonic elements in Gospel of John. Would you say that John’s gospel has been compromised because of it? In the same way, Aristotle gave to theology a logical method of inquiry, not a theology itself. Why would you reject our of hand tools that help the mind engage faith? The project of Medieval Christian thinkers was faith seeking understanding (not understanding seeking faith, which is how you seem to characterize it).

    The Enlightenment project as most understand it was primarily driven by deism, not Christianity. However, during the Enlightenment there were genuine Christian thinkers who did not accept deism’s propositions. Yet the Enlightenment thinkers’ insistence that faith claims at least acknowledge what science was discovering of the natural world is not only “reasonable,” I think it is spiritually responsible. The current battle over evolution is not some distortion of Christian doctrine; it is a real deal, one which Enlightenment Christians and deists alike would recognize. Yet to assume that the “triumph” of the Enlightenment was a triumph over historical Christianity would be a big mistake.

    Again, I take issue, not with asking questions but with begging them. I simply do not accept the assumption that Christianity would be better off without Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or the Enlightenment. A “pure expression” of Christianity? Good luck with that. But if you do find one, will they let you in the door?

  11. me says:

    To suggest that Augustine somehow poisoned the “true faith” is preposterous—unless we indict with that same count every Christian thinker …

    Not necessarily; I don’t think every Christian thinker could be accused of basing theology on non-Christian philosophy. But, unless we look at a non-Augustinian version of Christianity – either pre-Augustine or the Eastern version – we can’t properly evaluate Augustine (a la Godel). And, I think it’s appropriate – even essential – to question whether Augustine’s innovations were heterodox. His ideas of sin, God and man were certainly major departures from anyone else in the church, and in effect changed Christianity.

    Most in the East still refer to Augustine as “the Blessed Augustine” even though they don’t accept many of his theological innovations. There’s no doubt that he was truly converted and was a great thinker; but that’s not saying that he was necessarily right.

    I’m not sure what you are referring to as the Hellenic Age; it would seem to be critical of the early church is to be critical of the Apostles as well. And, I don’t think you can accuse the Eastern Church of being passive – although they didn’t engage in any Roman-style Crusades…

    Being historically Lutheran, challenging Augustine – especially his concept of grace and justification – is not a comfortable thing, especially since I spent several months finishing a book on the topic. However, I don’t see that as an acceptable reason not to ask the questions.

  12. Fred says:

    I admire Augustine—a lot. His Confessions reveal an honesty unprecedented in Western history and thought. His converion to Christianity was as radical and authentic as they come. He was a thinker of the first order who was committed to the spiritual vitality of his flock. There are some points in his doctrine that are arguable (but find me any theologian or philosopher for whom this is not true—even the Apostle Paul has his questionable moments), but Augustine virtually single-handedly brought the church out of the Hellenic age and established Christianity as THE basis for all philosophic, cultural, and political thought for the next 1300 years.

    Though I myself appreciate many aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy, I’m not sure that its lack of Augustinian influence has born as much fruit as you might imply. Under Augustine’s tutelage the Western Church aggressively looked outward in ways the Eastern Orthodox has not. The Western Church grappled with the world in ways its Eastern sibling would not.

    To suggest that Augustine somehow poisoned the “true faith” is preposterous—unless we indict with that same count every Christian thinker since—and including—the original apostles. Augustine’s explorations of the conversion process, his brilliant harmonizing of human experience with Biblical testimony, and his astonishing meditations on the human mind earn him a place among the very few geniuses of the Christian Age. Augustine a heretic? Perhaps, but only if Luther is the Antichrist.

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