As I noted above in Three Strange Days the Lutheran radio program, Issues, Etc. had a three day series of programs on Eastern Orthodoxy now about a month ago. Here I wish to go through the programs and address the arguments given by David Jay Webber and Todd Wilken. The programs are divided up into, Orthodoxy: Strength and Weaknesses, Orthodoxy Today, and The Pelagian Controversy.
In the first broadcast that I heard, Strength and Weaknesses there is the usual attempt to tar Orthodoxy with something very much alien to it, namely the Charismatic movement. The criticism made by Webber is that Charismatics and the Orthodox go to worship for the same thing, namely the attainment of a mystical experience rather than to be slain by the law and revived by the gospel. What constitutes “mystical” or “experience is really left undefined. Consequently it is very easy to mash these two bodies together. The term “mystical” is deployed to connote an experience that is irrational or contrary to reason and that the goal is some kind of absorption into God and a loss of one’s identity. The implication is that Orthodoxy and the Charismatics are modern Schwermers and are really peddling Buddhism in Christian garb.
If Webber were being fair, he would note that Charismatics tend to shy away and even despise liturgy or formal structures of worship. It seems on that basis alone a very weak relationship between the two could be posited. Doesn’t it seem strange that the Orthodox see liturgy as very important, if not essential and at the least serving a redemptive purpose in the use of words, bodily action, and earthly objects while the Charismatics tend to see the formal as obstructive and disingenuous while seeing the internal, unembodied and instantaneous experience as appropriate? If the mystical gloss were correct then we’d expect the Orthodox not to care much about the actual words spoken, but such is not the case. Hence the emphasis on Trinitarian language that borders on overkill.
Webber also ignores any historical basis for such a tarring job for the simple reason that there isn’t any. If anything, the history would implicate Lutheran pietism and Reformed Puritanism as the genuine sources for the kind of Charismatic “mysticism” that Webber seems to decry. To wax Freudian, Webber has a bad case of theological transference. It is quite fitting then that the happy-clappy worship, anti-intellectualism, anti-creedalism and anti-sacramentalism that is now running through the LCMS that Webber despises has come home to roost. To follow the line from the Lutheran theologian “Dad” Rod Rosenbladt, if all Protestant heresies go home to Rome to die, then all Pietistic quackadoxy goes home to Wittenberg and Geneva to thrive.
But not all mysticisms are created equal. It is quite true that there is an element of “mysticism” in Orthodox theology and worship (as if these were separate things). But it is not an anti-intellectual drive for a loss of self by an absorption into the see of the divine essence. Orthodoxy is not Buddhism. Probably a better way to gloss mysticism, at least in some respects is to draw on the difference between knowledge by acquaintance rather than propositional knowledge. Orthodoxy favors the former with respect to God over the latter. This doesn’t imply that propositional knowledge is bad, but just inadequate. Reason has a limit.
And it certainly seems strange to me to hear Lutherans like Wilken and Webber wax rationalistic, when Lutherans go out of their way in say discussions with the Reformed to extol and glorify “paradox” particularly in the context of their Eucharistic theology.
Webber misses an opportunity to see the ground of the “mysticism” in Orthodoxy worship. Rather than some kind of Charismatic emotivism or escapism, one of the functions of the liturgy is for the Christian to recapitulate the life of Christ. This is why the church calendar recapitulates the life of Christ. While the OT had its feasts and fasts, the Church’s yearly life is built around the life of Christ as the fulfillment. Any “mysticism” in Orthodox worship is grounded in Christological recapitulation, specifically Pauline theme.
Now that I have dispensed with the tarring of Orthodoxy with contemporary Montanism Webber is also assuming the truth of the Lutheran view with respect to the function of liturgy relative to the law and gospel dialectic. It is true that on a Lutheran show he is entitled to do so, but certainly it terms of argument it is nothing less than question begging. Furthermore, he speaks of the purpose of worship to be slain by the law and resurrected by the gospel. And here seems to me to a case of the pot calling the kettle black. For all the disparagement of a therapeutic approach and a desire for “experience” the Lutheran approach is no less therapeutic and motivated by a recapturing of that “experience” of condemnation and liberation as fostered by their schema. Good Lutheran preaching should use the law to re-create the existential crisis of absolute condemnation by the law that demands all and gives nothing and then supplying the existential release with a gospel that gives all and demands nothing. The value of the gospel lies specifically in its cathartic nature. Here Reformation preaching is no different than what its advocates despise. It is there to create an experience and is evaluated on its ability to do so. It is no small wonder then that the kind of experientialism that we see in say the First Great Awakening with Whitfield and Edwards is manifested in the second, even though it decoupled itself from its theological skeleton.
To change gears, Webber’s main thrust in this particular broadcast is that Lutherans wouldn’t be seeing significant clergy convert to Orthodoxy if Lutherans were more faithful to their Lutheranism. It is due to an infiltration of happy clappy worship and anti-sacramentalism that is its cause. The problem with this approach is that while it may be sufficient to motivate people to look elsewhere it not only ignores and leaves unenganged any particular arguments for Orthodoxy but is insufficient to explain why people choose Orthodoxy. In my own case, the problems that I experienced as an Anglican, were sufficient to motivate me to think about going somewhere else, but they did not count as positive reasons for becoming Orthodox. My reasons for becoming Orthodox stand on their own apart from any problems in Anglicanism such that I would have become Orthodox given those reasons, even if Anglicanism was and continued to be everything I thought it should. Such is the case for many former Lutherans I know. Webber’s approach is therefore inadequate and flawed. Just being more Lutheran will leave untouched Orthodox theological positions and claims. Looking at the doctrine and positive arguments to become Orthodox has significant advantages. First it steers us away from anecdotal evidence and appeals to aesthetical preferences and focuses on official teachings.
Next Webber takes aim at the Orthodox practice of invocation of the saints and argues that it violates the first commandment. The error here is that he collapsing the derivative sense of terms into the non-derivative sense so that one can only say that God saves, renders help, is holy, etc. This is not only question begging but seems to me to ignore proper usage. If the saints save, help or are holy, they do so only in and by divine power. So while we might agree that underivatively speaking only God can save, it is also true that derivatively speaking saints can do so because God can do so. The two are not mutually exclusive. And this is how Orthodox theological sources frame the matter. They make it clear that saints do not have divine power “of themselves” and are not to be considered “gods” in such a sense. If Webber would have engaged the Orthodox position rather than throwing out a prayer to the Theotokos to “save us” for shock value, he might have been able to make an actual argument. The attempt to shock his audience betrays his approach as not only unfair, but as nothing more than a hatchet job.
As I will discuss in more detail later, the fundamental issue is whether human activity can participate in divine activity or rather whether grace is appropriate to nature or alien to it. Given the Lutheran anthropology which ironically follows Pelagius by seeing grace or righteousness as intrinsic to the imago dei and therefore entails the loss of the imago dei in that respect in the fall, there can be no human participation in divine grace and so grace must always be external, indirect, mediated and external to nature. Nature must be passive in the face of grace.
He then continues with the shock material by implying in a vague sort of way that Orthodoxy is becoming theologically liberal. He does so by noting one supposed case where women have been permitted to carry out pastoral duties such as preaching a sermon and refers to one case he claims to know of personally. Well, at best, this is anecdotal evidence, and at worst it is a smear. Last I checked, Lutheranism has been split by theological liberalism, which included the issue of female ministers and not Orthodoxy. (Do the LCMS have altar girls or no?) Second, he gives us no information to evaluate the case and to find out what were the actual facts of the situation. Third, sermons in Orthodox churches usually come after the liturgy has been concluded and so don’t function in quite the same way as they do for Protestants. This is because the sermon was designed to instruct the newly baptized rather than the long standing member. Fourth, while there are members of the Orthodox Church who favor women’s ordination, such members of significant education and background can be counted on one hand and that with the loss of a finger or two. I seriously doubt Lutheranism in America, even in the LCMS, can plausibly make the same claim. Fifth, let us be honest that there are abuses in any tradition, either in kind and/or frequency. If one swallow does not make a spring, then this one case he refers to doesn’t amount to a liberalizing of Orthodox doctrine and practice by any stretch of the imagination. It is nothing more than a scare tactic and Webber should know better. I can’t count the times I have been in Catholic parishes when “Sister Heresia” gave “a talk” and I know that such instances are quite uncanonical in the Roman church. Am I seriously to believe that Rome is going to ordain women any time soon? No.
In Orthodoxy Today Webber continues the howler fest with one right after the other. He glosses the major cause of the rift between East and West, not to the Papacy, the Filioque, the role and nature of Philosophy in relation to theologia, or the Photian/Nicholatian controversy. No, none of that is the epicenter of the rift. It is really the Pelagian controversy!! Here is a howler if ever there was one. I can’t think of how many books I have read on East and West divide and none of the professional literature that I know of puts that as the epicenter. What Webber is doing is being anachronistic in the extreme by reading back the Lutheran protest against the Neo-semi-pelagianism of the Ockhamists back into East/West relations. This move also shows that Webber really isn’t familiar with Orthodox theology since its main focus as determinative is Christology rather than the “soteriological sideshows” that Protestants obsess about. Pelagianism is not at bottom an anthropological mistake, but a Christological one since it turns on a confusion of the categories of person and nature, but more of this later. It is also curious to me that he completely sidesteps the fact that the Lutherans yap after Rome on the Filioque, aping Rome’s arguments to the letter. So much for Sola Scriptura.
Another howler was Webber’s insistence that in Orthodoxy, sin is “not a major problem” or taken seriously. This not only betrays a near complete ignorance of Orthodox theology but of any given liturgy within Orthodoxy. But here is how this trick is played. First, we unproblamatically assume that such and so non-Orthodox view of sin is the “high” view and takes sin “seriously.” Then we erect up some view that somehow resembles the Orthodox view that doesn’t parrot exactly what the non-Orthodox view says and then claim that the Orthodox view doesn’t measure up. Well this is hardly fair.
Then he goes on to say that while the West took sin seriously and answered Pelagianism with the “gospel” the East answered with “mysticism.” Huh?! Webber just isn’t familiar with the “mechanics” of Orthodox soteriology so he continually paints it with this muddled and muddling tag of “mysticism.” One can just hear the gasps of horror! Not only is this historically wrong and simplistic in the extreme, its just plain stupid. Yes, I said stupid.
As he sees it, the East’s answer to Pelagianism was due to a lack of a clear understanding of sin which motivated them to just “skip over” sin and forgiveness an go straight to union with God in terms of some kind of absorption and loss of self in the deity. Even if we entertain this wholly idiotic thesis for the sake of argument, it is just a non-starter in the face of Pelagianism. Certainly plenty of Christians in the East had books like…oh….say the Bible which would have afforded them sufficient material in Greek to come up with something far more persuasive and plausible. Isn’t the Bible sufficiently perspicuous about sin and forgiveness? Perhaps it was reading the NT in Greek that tripped them up? Perhaps in German it is clearer? Certainly the great theological minds of the East as a whole and in the main could avoid from falling into gross heresy of denying the gospel flat out in the way Webber suggests. They weren’t the stupid idol worshipping dolts that Webber makes them out to be. In any case, according to Webber the goal or salvation consisted in “contemplation.”
Here I think he is confused on so many levels. I think he is confusing all kinds of things such as Platonism with Orthodoxy. There also seems to be in back of his comments Lutheran disquiet over Latin Scholsticism’s doctrine of the Beatific Vision. More directly though, doesn’t it seem odd that Orthodoxy would have all these rituals using the body if the goal were contemplation? I mean, just go to a ROCOR parish and if it doesn’t tire you out, you must go to a gym every day. I do plenty of standing, bowing, crossing and other stuff in my GOARCH parish and have grown accustomed to it, but I get tuckered out when I visit the local ROCOR parish. (This is incidentally how I know that the angels in heaven are Russian, since they can pray a lot longer than I am able.) Just ask your friendly neighborhood Ochlophobist when we were worshipping together a year or so ago. The only reason I didn’t sit down after three hours of standing was because I would have looked like a wimp compared to the little girls across the way who stood through the whole thing. In any case, if contemplation were the goal, the body would hardly matter as much as it does in Orthodoxy. And this should have stuck out to Webber if he had any substantial knowledge of Orthodox theology. Just reading Palamas’ Triads would have made the importance of the body in salvation sufficiently clear to him. The mind is important, but the mind isn’t everything and it isn’t the person. Jesus has a human mind, but Jesus isn’t a human person.
Then there is the obvious inconsistency in his criticism. He can’t have it both ways. Either the goal in Orthodoxy is escape from reason into a “mystical experience” (in which case the exact and exacting words of the liturgy shouldn’t matter at all) or the goal is rational contemplation. Which is it? This inconsistency never seems to dawn on Webber.
Then there is the obvious fact that theosis isn’t exclusively union with God via the mind, or primarily through the mind but deification includes the entire human being, including the body and not just a faculty or power of the soul, namely the mind. It is as if Webber isn’t even aware of the fact that the Orthodox think that matter is redeemed.
But where did this “mysticism” come from? Well it seems that by Webber’s reading of ecclesiastical history everything was peachy keen prior to the advent of the evil Dionysius who’s works circulated in the “Greek” church and led to an altering of worship from law and gospel therapy to an escape into “mystical experience.” Uhm, there never was such a thing as the “Greek” church at that time. There were Greek speaking Christians as Greek formed a common language across much of the empire. But the ethnic make up of the empire in the East wasn’t monolithic. Second, Dionysius’ works were influential in East and the West, so much so that one of the flavors of the Latin reading of his apophaticism is found in post Reformation Lutheran Scholasticism in the doctrine of God. Physician, heal thyself.
Webber seems to me to be just flat out wrong. The significance and influence of Dionysius’ works was due two things. First, he was believed to be the disciple of Paul and second, the employment of terms like theanthropos and theandric. This was seized upon by the monophysites as proof of their doctrine. Because many, though not all believed it to be very close to the apostles, it was extremely important to show that Dionysius’ works were consistent with, and in fact taught a Chalcedonian Christology. Dionysius was probably the disciple of Proclus, Damascius who converted to Christianity. The “mysticism” in Orthodox theology that Webber claims was introduced by Dionysius into the liturgy just comes too late. Any perusal of the liturgies at and prior to the fifth century will bear this out. This is not to say that Dionysius’ works had no influence on various liturgies, but it didn’t spark a whole sale liturgical revolution as he seems to suggest and would be necessary to promote the views that Webber attributes to Orthodoxy. I should also note that the same essential apophaticism is found in John Chrysostom’s work on the incomprehensibility of God so that there is no great difference between the two writers and he wasn’t reading Dionysius.
The howlers just keep coming. Next Webber claims that theosis is becoming like God. This depends on what we mean by the term “like.” It is an acceptable usage if we keep in mind that this entails that we become what God in fact is in his energies. But then he says that the Lutherans adhere to the doctrine of theosis, but understand it in terms of “glorification.” In order for this to be the case, Lutheran theologians would have to reject their glosses on divine simplicity as well as rejecting their traditional move of reducing energies to attributions which per Chemnitz and others reduce to the same thing in God.
“But let us now press more closely in order to refute these sophistries. The Scholastics and the other learned men have rightly said that the essential attributes of the Deity are nothing more than the absolute essence of God, since they are one and the same thing. The essence of God considered by itself is undivided, and thus also the essential attributes taken by themselves in an absolute sense are not distinct from one another; for God is not wise in one respect, powerful in another, and just in a third respect. Nor is one quality in God His power, another His wisdom, another life, but the one undivided, irreducible, divine essence is power itself, wisdom itself, life itself.” (Martin Chemnitz, The Two Natures in Christ, p. 306)
A simple word substitution of “glorification” for “theosis” just is not adequate. And unless we are to say that the human essence is transmuted into the divine essence in “glorification” it is not possible for there to be an isomorphic relationship between the Lutheran concept of glorification and the Orthodox teaching of theosis. And I don’t think the Lutherans wish to make that kind of explicit Christological error. Moreover, Lutherans such as Marquart can state
“For Luther, clearly, deification does not mean that God and His uncreated light are directly and experientially accessible by means of devotional exercises.” (Kurt E. Marquart, Luther and Theosis, Concordia Theological Quarterly, 64:3 (July 2000), 195)
Apart from the misreading of Palamas’ teaching where practices convoke divine activity Marquart seems representative of the Lutheran tradition in rejecting the patristic teaching. Even someone as sympathetic as the father of the Finnish interpretation, Mannermaa states that Luthers views may
“”not simply be equated with the patristic-orthodox doctrine of deification.” (“Theosis as a Subject of Finnish Luther Research,” Pro Ecclesia 4, 1 (1995) 7)
Next Webber takes a shot at the iconostasis as a kind of great wall or barrier between God and the people. But this is a mistake for many reasons. First, initially the iconscreens were much smaller. They served a variety of purposes historically. In some churches underground it served the practical purpose of a little fence to keeping dogs from urinating on the altar. More directly, it grew out of the practice of Christians placing relics and pictures of martyrs near and around the altar. This was eventually standardized to include prototypes of martyrdom and the faith, the chief martyr being Christ. The ecclesiastical use was in part as “looking out” at those approaching for the eucharist as a reminder of who they were facing, to take it in seriousness and to ward off those who had not prepared themselves or those who feigned belief. Furthermore, the iconostasis does not function in the same way that the barrier in the temple functioned in the Holy of Holies since there is a clear and open entry way through the royal doors indicating that the way to God has been opened in Christ. This is why the priest alone is permitted to pass through them while the deacons and attending servers enter through the deacon-doors. The iconostasis also represents the Trinitarian processions out into creation and the divine return. Hence it manifests the distinction between the theologia and the economia. Added to this is the fact that most Lutheran churches retain some form of barrier around the altar, in some cases, particularly in Europe a roodscreen.
Then Webber alleges that the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has been so altered as to not be recognizable by its author. In fact while it has been shorted in some places and some prayers and hymns for example were added under Justinian, its fundamental content and structure has remained the same. So much so that anyone familiar with the original would just find Webber’s laughable. And then of course he gives the parting shot that the liturgy is meant to evoke a “mystical feeling” and preaching is diminished.
And of course we have the usual claim that the Orthodox have no systematic theology but are rather contemplative and “mystical.” Well this depends on what we mean by “systematic theology.” If we mean a definite theological model, with attending reasons given for points in the over all constellation of doctrines, then the Orthodox certainly do have a systematic theology. But Webber and Wilken seem to interpret it as meaning a rational schema of any type. They then give the rather childish argument that when you deny that you have a rational and systematic understanding then in fact you do and so have contradicted yourself.
The Orthodox rejection is dual pronged. First it resists any attempt to reduce persons to principles, which most modern “systematic theologies” tend to do. Second, it rejects a dialectical framing of issues. If God is active, man must be passive and such framings depend on a pagan way of looking at reality as a collection of conflicting powers. Athanasius who was quite familiar with the pagan view of the world saw Christianity clearly as something quite different.
“The holy Word of the Father, then, almighty and all-perfect, uniting with the universe and having everywhere unfolded His own powers, and having illumined all, both things seen and things invisible, holds them together and binds them to Himself, having left nothing void of His own power, but on the contrary quickening and sustaining all things everywhere, each severally and all collectively; while He mingles in one the principles of all sensible existence, heat namely and cold and wet and dry, and causes them not to conflict, but to make up one concordant harmony. 2. By reason of Him and His power, fire does not fight with cold nor wet with dry, but principles mutually opposed, as if friendly and brotherly combine together, and give life to the things we see, and form the principles by which bodies exist. Obeying Him, even God the Word, things on earth have life and things in the heaven have their order.” (St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, bk 3, sec. 42.)
Compare with Luther where opposition is central to his theological framing of things.
“[Heb. 11:1] Hence in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it. Thus when God makes alive he does it by killing, when he justifies he does it by making men guilty. . . . Thus God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity. This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many. . . .” (LW 3362)
It should also be noted how dependent Luther is here on the philosophical outlook of Ockhamism, despite all the protestations against scholasticism and philosophy. For Ockham there was no intelligible species in cognition as on the preceding epistemological models. On those models, the form or intelligible species of an object was actually grasped by the mind so that the mind took on or became the form or essence of an object. This incidentally was garnered from Aristotle who thought that the liquid in the eye was clear or translucent to take on all colors and so in a similar way the mind itself is formless. Knowledge was a two-place relation where the knower directly grasps the nature of the object even if there is a great difference in the sensible species or sensible qualities. Not all doors look alike, but they have the same form, which is communicated to and grasped by the mind. For Ockhamists though, there was no intelligible species and knowledge became a three place relation with the knower, the representation and the object. To make matters worse, the causal power of an object was insufficient to necessarily preserve the connection between the representation of itself and the object so that it was now possible that a representation or image could be caused to exist by something else other than that it was an image of. So an image of a palm tree could be produced in you without there being any palm tree present but instead caused in you by say God or the devil. An image then becomes causally diminished such that it can represent something totally opposed to it. This is what licenses Luther’s view that God can label you righteous, even though you are wicked because the imputed label is not caused or grounded in the state of the individual. This is apparent in the citation above. Coupled with voluntarism it becomes obvious that religious propositions are not susceptible to the kind of demonstration previously thought appropriate and legitimate under natural theology. Truths of the Christian religion are a matter of revelation and belief, rather than rational demonstration. Here the basis for Lessing’s ditch and in general the Enlightenment divide between faith and reason become apparent. Can anyone say, Kant? Added to this was the Reformation defective anthropology which tends to view nature as sin and grace as everything so that reason on the side of nature can never supply us with knowledge of things divine. As an aside, my own worries about natural theology are not grounded in this way, but are driven by the belief that all revelation is Trinitarian and in Christ.
In any case, the Orthodox rejection of “systematic theology” is not a rejection of thinking or of being rational. This is a very common stereotype that critics fall into. Rather it is a rejection of a certain view of the world with the world as a conflagration of opposing powers and where persons are a subset of some wider metaphysical set.
Then we have Webber using a scatter shot tactic of tossing out mess of different points. First he says that while under Islamic domination, there wasn’t any “creative theological work” going on. Apart from being ambiguous, this assumes that the purpose of theologians is to be creative, rather than faithfully preserving what he has received. So Webber measures Orthodoxy by an inappropriate standard. Theology is not a constructive practice in Orthodoxy to begin with.
Then he charges that in the home countries most Orthodox are superstitious, ignorant, etc. This is probably true in many cases, but that says little about the truth of Orthodoxy any more than a similar situation in Germany or the US indicates the falsity of Lutheranism. Is this the standard he really wishes to be applied to Lutheranism as well? The spiritual health of Germany, which is nearing legalizing incest if it hasn’t already, isn’t exactly stellar. How many Germans are now to be taken seriously as professing Lutherans? Obviously not enough to repopulate the country. And when we look to the US, American Lutherans are by and large functionally Pelagian. Barna polls indicate that a majority of Lutherans think you get to heaven by good works and by “being a good person.” Only about 21% think that one is saved apart from good works. I can go through the average local LCMS parish and start asking basic questions about Trinitarianism and Christology and we all know what that will reveal. Besides, no one said that the Orthodox Church made every member into an academic theologian. But wasn’t putting the Bible into the hands of every Christian and making his conscience the judge applying the rule of Scripture supposed to have better results than that?
Then Webber proposes that there is some great rift between American Orthodoxy and that found elsewhere, specifically in relation to St. Vlad’s. He claims that St. Vlad’s is seen as too “liberal” and goes after Schmemann in particular. St. Vlad’s is, he says accused of being “too Lutheran.” That may be true of Schmemann but I seriously doubt it is true of the faculty as a whole. And even if some of the faculty there were more left leaning, there is just no real comparison between the liberalism there and liberalism that arose out of and permeates Protestantism. And even if they were comparable, tarring all of American Orthodoxy with liberalism of one seminary is hardly fair. Does he mean to suggest that there are no left leaning professors at LCMS seminaries? Where did all the theological liberals of ELCA come from?
Then there is the usual argument of jurisdictional squabbles amounting to real or essential divisions. Here the pot is calling the kettle black. Are there no such fights among the Lutherans or within the LCMS in particular? If they do not amount to a fundamental theological disunity there, then why think they do so with the Orthodox? Moreover, jurisdictional fights, as bad as they are aren’t exactly new. From the time of the Apostles on down there have been such things but they do not amount to a denial of a common faith. If it did, then Webber would be forced to conclude that there has never been one church.
Then he complains that in the home countries the sermons are very poor, short, moralistic and at best explain some ritual. I suspect that while this is true, I know it is also true here in the US, depending on what parish one is at. Some parishes are better than others. And I seriously doubt, given what I have seen of American Lutheran preaching, that many of the average LCMS parishes are very different. (“Dad” Rod gave me the oraltradition on this point, btw. Lutheran preaching is pretty much moralism. If you don’t know who “Dad” Rod is, well so much the worse for you.) If they were, you’d expect there to be more than 21% of American Lutherans who deny basic Pelagianism. Are we to believe that the preaching in the LCMS is stellar and at the same time these same pastors are proffing happy-clappy worship and anti-sacramentalism? If the latter problem is as widespread and serious as Webber leads us to believe, the two situations cannot both be the case.
Then Wilken asks, why is there an emphasis on the incarnation over the cross. Well there isn’t an emphasis of one over the other. We simply reject the penal model of the atonement. That does not mean that we privilege one over the other since it isn’t a question that requires that kind of dialectical and subordinating relationship. On the contrary, the incarnation serves as the basis and ground for the atoning death of Christ, for in his death he maintains the unity between God and man in the hypostatic union and takes death itself captive, reorienting all of human nature in and through death away from annihilation towards the goal of resurrection. We could also turn the question around. Why among western Christians does the incarnation really have no intrinsic value and perform no real work in salvation? Why is the incarnation merely of instrumental value so as to be practically Adoptionist? You’d think that Jesus just needed a body so he could get killed. When was the last time you heard a sermon on the saving effects of the Incarnation itself?
Then Wilken and Webber posit that there is much less emphasis on the Cross. I simply don’t know what these people are talking about. Any average Sunday liturgy is replete with references to the Cross, not to mention the Good Friday liturgies. And does anyone know of any tradition that makes the sign of the cross more than the Orthodox? We aren’t making some sign representing the virginal conception, I can tell you that much.
Webber says that for the Lutherans, sin is the fundamental problem and whereas for the Orthodox death is the fundamental problem. And that the apostles went around preaching the forgiveness of sins, rather than worries about death. Well, fault us for being scriptural, the sting of death is sin. Strictly speaking, death is the result of sin and the goal of the devils work (Jn 8:44) not the other way around. Moreover, Paul if I recall exclaims “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Forgiveness in Christ is grounded in his victory over death and his ownership of all men by virtue of that victory. (2 Cor 5:14, 2 Pet 2:1) This is why Wilken’s question to the effect of whether the death of Christ is just a means to the resurrection is really based on a confusion. If Webber knew and had communicated the “mechanics” of a Christus Victor model of the atonement his question would not need to be asked. Christ’s death is valuable in itself for it is the means whereby God the Son enters into death itself, takes death captive, making the power of sin of none effect since it can no longer lead to our annihilation. The Resurrection and Ascension are the capstones of Christ’s liberating work. This is why Webber’s comments that the Orthodox can’t really believe that the Cross atones for sins is absurd.
So the issue isn’t whether the cross is soteriologically valuable per se, but whether one endorses a penal model of the atonement. But chiding Orthodoxy for not doing the latter would require a much harder row to hoe since no respectable historical theologian is going to claim that anyone for the first thousand years of Christianity presented such a model but rather proffered some version of the Christus Victor model. And on the contrary, it is the penal model that makes the Cross merely instrumentally valuable, for it is the nexus of an exchange of moral credit. The Cross is just a means, what matters is the exchange.
Then we are treated to the howler that the difference between the pop evangelicals and the Orthodox is in the externals!! I mean, has this person read even Lossky?! Anyone sitting down with Lossky and Chuck Smith will notice quite a bit of difference. If the Lutherans can’t do any better than this, Orthodoxy is going to plunder what’s left of Lutheran gold.
The Pelagian Controversy
I know you are wondering at this point, Perry, isn’t this over kill? We know its bad, but how much more could there be? How many more howlers could there be? They are legion! The last broadcast I listened to was on the Pelagian controversy and as noted previously Webber claims that this is the epicenter of the East/West divide.
He glosses the divide between Pelagius and Augustine as a conflict between the pastoral outlook and the monastic. While there is some truth to this, it is insufficient, since Augustine’s views about human solidarity draw far more from Platonism and Manicheanism than from the pre-existing monasticism. (This is in part apparent in the fact that Pelagius openly attacked Jerome’s monastic asceticism.)
I have saved up some of the best howlers for last. Webber essentially claims that the East is Pelagian and to demonstrate this he attempts to answer an Orthodox rebuttal. The rebuttal is to the effect that Augustine wrote in Latin and the Easterners weren’t privy to his writings until much later. That much is true, but Webber argues, hardly exculpatory since Jerome was familiar with both and at a “council” at which Jerome was present when the “council” defended and vindicated Pelagius. And this “council” is indicative and representative of the teaching of the East. You’d think by listening to him it was practically an ecumenical council.
I don’t know where Webber got his information, but it certainly wasn’t from any reliable source on Jerome or the Pelagian controversy. First, the background information. Jerome and John of Jerusalem had been on the outs for quite some time. There was a veritable ecclesiastical war going on in the 390’s between Epiphanius of Cypress and John of Jerusalem over the Anthropomorphites and Origenism. Epiphanius was highly critical to say the least and not very polite about criticizing Origen and his followers and seemed to demand a condemnation of Origen’s views from John upon visiting him. John would not be moved to do so, not because he personally adhered to the specific objectionable beliefs himself, but because of the serious influence and general good name Origen possessed as a Christian teacher. Jerome, somewhat begrudgingly took the side of Epiphanius which caused a major rift between the two friends and for a long time after that. J.N.D. Kelly has a nice chapter on the whole affair in his work, Jerome chapter 18. Consequently, John’s hand waving on behalf of Pelagius has a lot more to do with revenge against Jerome than with the wholesale eastern approval of Pelagius. Kelly covers the situation in chapter 26.
Oddly enough Jerome’s initial condemnation of Pelagius had more to do with his belief that Pelagius, like Rufinus, was an Origenist. The idea was that Pelagius’s notion of an uncorrupt nature was tantamount to the pagan conception of apatheia where the soul unaided could ascend pass the passions by its own power. Pelagius was all too happy to return the Origenist accusation by noting Jerome’s dependence on Origen’s commentary on Ephesians. By late July 415 John of Jerusalem judged it appropriate to hold “an informal conference” (Kelly, p. 318) to adjudicate the matter. Pelagius came out on the winning side though as Kelly notes it “ reached no decision.” Then at the end of that same year a synod of 14 bishops plus the metropolitan of Palastine met at Diospolis and vindicated Pelagius though he made several crucial concessions and was forced to give rather elongated and confusing answers to inquiries. And of course, “Jerome was not present at either gathering…” Added to this is the fact that Jerome himself judged it “better for me to keep silence than to speak” (Letter 134) since had had no theory of the soul’s origin on hand with which to combat Pelagius. In any case, Praylius, John’s successor eventually joined in the western condemnation of Pelagius.
Now, from hearing the discussion between Webber and Wilken one would think that this “council” spoke for the entire body of Eastern churches and had a normative standing as such among contemporary Orthodoxy. If Webber had done even the slightest bit of research, he would have found that it amounted to a rather “informal conference” of no great consequence in the overall conflict with Pelagianism. It issued no synodal statement of faith, no canons and no decision of any standing whatsoever. Moreover, John’s remarks and decision do not reflect and in fact are so lacking in theological substance that they do not and could not amount to anything like an official statement commending and approving of Pelagianism. Given Pelagius verbal legerdemain his vindication there is no more representative of the teaching of the East than the fact that he was vindicated by the same means by Pope Zosimos in 417 implies the approval of Pelagianism by the church in the west.
Moreover, Wilken and Webber seem either grossly ignorant of or deliberately ignore the well known fact that Pelagianism was condemned in the East at the Third Ecumenical of Ephesus. And that many of the condemnations of Pelagianism from the African Code are found in Trullo and approved by 2nd Nicea in 787. It is quite true that Pelagianism receives no extended treatment or detailed refutation by the council, but this is for the obvious reason that they were more directly concerned with the Nestorian heresy. And the little correspondence between Cyril and Augustine as well as their respective theologies seem to indicate that for Cyril, Pelagianism was in part due to a defective Christology in the first place. It was no great surprise to Cyril to see that the Pelagians snuggled up to the Nestorians, given the latter’s view of theopoesis or seeing the human life of Christ as a rather adoptionistic climbing the ladder of merit. The core idea of Pelagianism, of “natural grace” of an existence where human nature was impervious to sin, never had any substantial or lasting standing in Eastern theology.
Webber defines Pelagianism in rough terms as the idea that humans are conceived as a “morally good person.’ That is true as far as it goes, but Pelagius’ core problem was that he took natural goodness to be personal righteousness. And given the anti-Manichean polemic of the church at the time, it was quite reasonable for him to be worried about any doctrinal gloss that would impugn the goodness of God in creation. God does not create a stuff called evil and there is no evil nature. Where he goes wrong is identifying natural goodness with moral goodness. There is a big difference between the goodness of being and being good. And this confusion ironically pops up again in the Reformers, which is why one of the principle issues in the Reformation was anthropology. The Reformers by and large take personal righteousness to be an aspect of the imago dei such that when it is lost, the image can be said to be lost resulting in a kind of total depravity. It matters not whether this is the Reformed or Lutheran variety since the core error is the same. Take Johann Gerhard’s Loci Theologici IV, 9, sec. 9.5
“But if, according to its scriptural understanding, the image of God refers primarily to that righteousness and holiness, integrity and uprightness of al faculties, in which man was originally created, then it must be sad that the image of God was lost indeed through the fall.”
As I have noted elsewhere the Reformers come out adhering to the core error of Pelagius. The only way to staff off full blown Pelagianism is to say that the imago dei was lost and total depravity results. But the Orthodox do not think that personal righteousness is natural and so we are not Pelagian. Moreover, we have always clearly affirmed that Adam’s fall harms others, including children. And further that grace is not external and alien to nature but comes to it internally. Theologically then is it not possible to gloss the Orthodox as Pelagian. So when Webber says that the East “played around with the idea that Pelagius was never really a heretic at all” nothing could be further from the truth.
The howler fest continues with Webber’s claims that the doctrines of the sin and the fall are more fundamental than the Trinity and worries about the Filioque. And then he supplies is with a narrative of church history which borders on the idea of universal apostasy with the practical loss of the “gospel” because Christians failed to rightly distinguish between law and gospel. He appeals to providence as the backstopper for preserving the almost secret “gospel” throughout time. But Augustine to the rescue! Augustine was a “reformer” who made “loving adjustments” to the weakness in earlier Christian teaching. Well, one of the “loving adjustments” that Webber seems unaware of was to include human co-operation in justification and to affirm that the judicial sentence was grounded on the state of the soul. In essence, Augustine denied Sola Fide and so “the gospel.” So I guess we can toss Augustine overboard with the rest of those who couldn’t properly distinguish law and gospel. And to gloss Augustine as a “reformer” is anachronistic in the extreme. Besides, no one accepts everything out of Augustine, not Rome and not the Lutherans.
Then comes remark about “what the western church teaches.” Well, what “western church” would that be? Rome? The Lutherans? The Calvinists? What exactly constitutes “the western church” and where is the teaching of said body to be located I wonder?
Yet another howler is the assertion that Athanasius was a “reformer” who “reformed” the logos-sarx Christology that came before. And that Athanasius gave a “call of reform” with respect to the doctrine of God. First, Athanasius decidedly didn’t take himself to be a reformer. He never speaks this way. Second, to describe him as such is again anachronistic. Webber glosses the Logos-sarx Christology as actually Modalistic Monarchianism where the Logos is an aspect of God that only becomes instantiated at the incarnation. This all by itself is a major theological and historical goof. This is why he takes the Arian view to be that the Logos comes into existence at creation, which to be fair to Arius, was not Arius view. Arius takes Christ to pre-exist the creation of the world. Further, and more to the point what Athanasius moves away from or corrects found among some advocates of logos-sarx Christology is a specific notion of mediation in the person of the Logos. Athanasius does not reject a logos-sarx Christology as such and in fact goes out of his way to maintain it.
“For since human reason had stooped to sensible things, the Word submitted to appearing through a body in order that he might, as a human being, transfer humanity and turn their senses to himself, and that from then on, although they saw him as a man, he might persuade them through the works he did that he was not merely a man, but God and the Word and Wisdom of the true God.” On the Incarnation, 16
The problematic notion of mediation is taken over from Middle Platonism of the Logos not just as an intermediary between God and the world, but an intermediary that renders God’s access to the world indirect. The worry being that God’s immutability and impassability would be compromised but direct access to and put in relation with the infinite plurality and inherent instability of matter. Added to this was the fact that the philosophical grid did not license nor supply its subscribers with a distinction between person and nature. Consequently, the only way people like Justin, Clement and Origen could distinguish between the Father and the Son was in terms of a subordinated individual being. This is why there was a conceptual slide from the biblical notion of the Son as personally caused, derived from and subject to the Father qua hypostasis to the notion of a subordinated individual being different somehow in essence. The problem was that this put them in the position of having to waffle on monotheism as the later disciples of Lucian, aka the Arians found out.
What Athanasius does is disentangle the Church’s teaching of the Son as the Logos qua intermediary from the notion of an intermediary between God and creation as such. God’s relation to creation is direct and unmediated and any mediating role by the eternal Logos as necessary between God and creation is excluded while permitting the notion of the divine logoi or ideas in Christ to remain.
This is why the Christian doctrine of creation is so important and why a correct reading of Athanasius is crucial. And this is why it seems that Webber is relying on an older misreading of Athanasius as one stage in a line of doctrinal development that thankfully has been corrected specifically in the works of Khalid Anatolios. Anatolios makes it clear that the Logos-sarx Christology is in full swing in Athanasius as the latter is keen to affirm it to show that in Christ, God is revealed and deification is possible. That is for Athanasius, a Logos Christology functions as the basis for revelation and salvation. If you haven’t read Anatolios’, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought, run and buy it.
To add insult to injury, Webber then states that Athanasius was a reformer whose “reforms” were not universally accepted until much later because in some ways his reforms had departed from the previous tradition. Anyone familiar with the Arian controversy knows this to be manifestly false. What is in fact the case is that Athanasius had the brains and faithfulness to the tradition to see quite clearly the ambiguities that Arianism rested on. The whole debate about agenatos and agennatos is a case in point. And more specifically that due to such ambiguities and worries about Sabellianism faithful Christians were moved to adopt some version of subordinationalism and Semi-Arianism. Once in the main, the terminological differences and conceptual ambiguities were cleared up, the homoiousians pretty much saw the light when pressed by Aetius and Eunomius and fell into line.
Moving right along, Webber then makes the laughable gloss of “modern Orthodox theologians who are Pelagian” and who see original sin as “an open question.” Well first, there is no proof mentioned of who such theologians are or what constitutes their supposed Pelagianism. What Webber has incorrectly glossed are statements made by some contemporary Orthodox theologians who do not think that original sin is an open question, but whether and to what extent the Augustinian conception of original sin is compatible and acceptable with Orthodox theology.
He then notes that older Orthodox works spoke in Augustinian terms. This much is true, when the Czars would impose either Lutheran or Jesuit teachers in the seminaries or when Orthodox in non-Orthodox countries went through Catholic seminaries. When such outside influences are either pre-dated or put off Orthodox re-assert their position more clearly. This is why works by Romandies, Lossky and others have such a polemical tone since they are writing in a period or not long after where imposed and alien influences shaped the way many Orthodox thought and spoke about such matters.
Then the really juicy stuff comes in. When querried about what modern Orthodox theologians would advocate Pelagianism, he runs to an article on the Antiochian website entitled, What is Primary to Orthodox Spirituality? by Rick Burns. Webber reads from a section of it and concludes that it is “pure Pelagianism.”
Now let’s begin with the following question. How do you suppose that Webber came across this article? Do you suppose that he pulled out his handy copy of the Rudder? Perhaps he was putzing around the various documents of the seven ecumenical councils? Or maybe he pulled it off of the Lutheran pastor Weedon’s blog here. Of course, if he did so, he certainly did so without looking through the comments there and in particular my most illustrious comments (which are towards the bottom incidentally). I was not alone in explicating the matter correctly.
Now as to analysis, what we are offered was supposed to be an example of a modern theologian who is advocating Pelagianism. I have no way of knowing if Mr. Burns is a theologian or not and Webber gives me no reason to think so. Now I haven’t read everything to be sure, but when I think of Orthodox authors, even modern ones, no offense to Mr. Burns, but his name doesn’t come to mind. And I don’t know anyone else, clergy or laity who thinks so either. I don’t even know if he is clergy or laity, though I suspect he is the latter.
In any case, if you read the text, I can easily see why someone from a Reformation tradition would be offended. I can also see how the document could be easily misleading. I for myself would not make these kind of statements or at least not that way. That said, what we were promised was some representative document and asking questions of casual writing on a topic it was never intended to address in a precise and systematic way certainly doesn’t pass muster. Are we really to believe that this is as representative as someone like Lossky, Staniloe or Meydendorff? I don’t think so. Webber has carelessly made a straw man here to tar the Orthodox with a misrepresentation of their doctrine. Should we start putzing around the internet looking at what average Lutherans have to say or better yet, the sermons of Lutheran pastors, I have no doubt we could have a virtual festival of heresy.
As to the document itself, Burns in denying sin to a newborn seems to me to be denying any personal sin or any inherited or imputed guilt. It does no good to rebut this with the claim that no one thinks that children are born personally guilty, but there is an “analogous” guilt. Even if true, it only convicts Burns of reacting to a strawman. And this conflates the categories of person and nature since natures do not perform acts, persons using natures do and there is no plausible logical space between person and nature for moral blame. And this is why Augustine is clear against the Manicheans that the sin is in the use and not properly in the nature. The idea of an analogous guilt is necessary if one confuses the two categories. Consequently, one can have natural corruption without being personally performing such a sinful acts. Such seems quite possible in the case of children at a very early stage. And this by itself is not what Pelagius taught. His teaching was that children were innocent qua nature where nature is conflated with personal or moral goodness. Guilt in any case accrues to personal actions. Webber just doesn’t know what Pelagianism is.
If Webber really wishes to go to the mat on imputed or inherited guilt, then either we will be forced to say that souls pre-exist and did some action prior to embodiment that was sinful or that moral credit or moral blame can accrue to us apart from any personal act, which sets us up for predestinarianism. And such predestinarianism will include the divine person of Christ, making Christ subject to necessity qua divine person, which is blasphemous. And as I said before, when the Orthodox say that they don’t believe in the papacy, we mean it. Just because some document written by some priest or layman is on an official website and passed whatever muster to be there doesn’t of itself make it the be all and end all of Orthodox teaching or necessarily representative. The upshot is that Webber has performed a bait and switch and pretty much borne false witness.
Of course as providence would have it, Webber supplies us with an opportunity to display some of the more troubling statements from representative Lutheran sources. He remarks at one point that the Lutherans and the Orthodox maintain the same Christology. If that were true, we’d have at least roughly isomorphic soteriologies, but we don’t. Not to mention the fact that the Lutherans like the Reformed are practically monothelites and monoenergists. So let’s take with Chemnitz where he remarks,
“Therefore the person of Christ the Mediator ought to be recognized, invoked and honored because as a result of the hypostatic union of the two natures there comes into being one person consisting of two natures and subsisting in two natures.” The Two Natures in Christ, 68.
“And they have actually boiled it down to this, that the hypostatic union is the highest and most intimate coming together by which the divine nature assumes and the human nature is assumed and made the property of the divine, so that these two natures, apart from all change or comingling, come together, concur, and are united to produce one person in Christ.” The Two Natures in Christ, 69
Now, that is not from some website or from someone obviously untrained in theology so there is no excuse for the kinds of manifest errors here. The divine person of Christ does not become a human person at the incarnation but is a divine person who acts humanly. He is enhypostacized, for his humanity is his own. Secondly, the divine nature does not assume the human nature at all. The divine person takes into his person humanity. And so again, the conjunction of the two natures does not produce the person. Such was the teaching of Calvin and oh…Nestorius.
The point of this is that these seemingly deliberate distortions, outright fabrications and misleading statements by Wilken and Webber testify to the fact that Lutherans like Wilken and Webber have a serious need to paint Orthodoxy in the worst possible light. They would never tolerate this kind of evaluation of Lutheranism nor take such to be a fair methodology. Rather they need to scare people and essentially deceive them. It testifies to the fact that, he’s got issues. I thought the Lutherans could do better than this, but it seems I am mistaken. Of course this makes my job of arguing for Orthodoxy so much the easier. Its like shooting fish in a barrel. Truth be told, I didn’t even break a sweat writing this and had only to confirm one source in my library. Such isn’t intended to show off my abilities, but just the opposite, to show how absolutely easy it is to utterly refute these kinds of hatchet jobs.
In the future, I’d recommend that Mr. Wilken have on more reputable representatives and in fact try reading a few good books. I need a beer.