It is common to answer the question “What makes Orthodox Christianity different?” by giving a list of particulars:
- We have bishops, but not a pope
- Our priests are married
- We are the Church that gave you the Bible
However, I find that such lists are not as useful as looking at the assumptions behind these issues. Orthodox do not necessarily have different assumptions, but the emphasis is often placed differently. For example, all churches struggle with how physical reality relates to spiritual reality, especially when it comes to sacraments. Are these realms totally separated with God being “up there” and we exist “down here”, or do we inter-penetrate as a single reality? Are sacraments merely a sign that ‘points to’ something in another reality, or does the spiritual replaces the physical in all but appearance (transubstantiation), or something else? Do the sacraments spiritually lift us up to heaven, or does Christ come down to be present in the Eucharist? All of these are ways we struggle to understand the relation of spirit and matter, and discussions about icons, miracles, relics and sacraments are based on our underlying assumptions even if we are not consciously aware of making these assumptions.
Taking this approach, I see two main areas where Eastern Orthodox tend to be diverge from other more Western Christians:
- How we “do” theology
- How we understand salvation
Before getting into details, I first want to stress that this is not an absolute difference; the same theological issues are found in almost all Christian thinking, but Orthodox tend to emphasis different perspectives.
In the East, theology is an attempt to explain experience; it is not a philosophical exercise through which truth is reasoned. It is less like philosophy and more like science where experience is modeled (theologized) and understanding of the model is validated against experience. The East follows the Patristic Fathers who have a continuity with the prophets and apostles in sharing the same experience of God. A person opens themselves to the experience of God by purifying oneself from the passions (freeing oneself from vices and acquiring virtues), then experiencing illumination and enlightenment – encountering the uncreated light of God. The Patristic Fathers differ from each other in using the the language of their particular time to express a common experience. For all of them, it is this process of sanctification and purification of the ‘nous’ that makes one a theologian.
After the 7th Ecumenical Council (787) the West started departing from Patristic theology and moved toward scholastic theology (particularly after the founding of the University of Paris around 1208). The scholastic methodology believed in the rational – human wisdom was sufficient to explore the natural world (physics), and the same methodology was extended to God (meta-physics). This methodology dominated Western theology till the time of the reformation; and even then the basic questions did not change (though there were different answers. It was not till Kierkegaard that the West started asking new theological questions (but this was limited to the more liberal streams of theology).
This difference in methodologies can be seen in atonement theology (why Christ died for our sins). Gregory of Nazianzis in the East understands that the normal definition of ‘ransom’ means a payment to someone, but he cannot reason how Christ’s death is a payment to anyone (Matthew 20:28); either to Satan or to God the Father. While he develops a ‘rescue’ model of redemption, it is not penal substitution; ultimately he sees it as a mystery which cannot be fathomed. This is much different from the later Western scholastics like Anselm of Canterbury who envisions God as a middle-ages king who’s dignity has been offended (by our sin) and requires ‘satisfaction’ in order to be appeased , and works out how this transaction is transacted. A significant shift has taken place here, between theology constrained by the experience of God’s love and leaving what is not understood to mystery; and a theology that wants everything in its logical place.
This difference is at the root of the controversy between Gregory of Palamas and Barlam. Palamas is defending the illiterate monks on Mt Athos who claim an imminent knowledge God (even though they cannot explain it); and Barlam who takes an Aristotilian approach and claims no one cannot directly know the transcendent God, as the highest anyone can achieve is the contemplation of the intellectual concepts about God (a position held by Aristotle), in addition to which these monks are too illiterate to understand the concepts. While these monks may not have been able to explain what they were doing (‘doing theology’), they were achieving the goal of knowing God.
Theology in this sense is more of a scientific process than philosophy. This is the creating of mental models to abstract and explain a phenomena. The models help to explore and understand new areas of study. The danger is to confuse the model with reality, or to trust the model without verification; which will lead one into error or heresy. The history of science has many such examples: for a long time there was a search for ‘aether‘, the substance in space that propagated light waves. Since light exhibited the characteristics of waves, and waves needed some medium through which they could move; therefore there had to be medium in space (other than vacuum) in order for light from the sun and stars to be seen on earth. It was only when light was understood as photons that science realized light could travel in a vacuum, and there was no need for aether. This is what we find in the early Ecumenical Councils, the heresies were logical truths; but taken to the extreme of denying other truths – ie. if there is one God, then Jesus cannot be fully god, along with the Father. The theology of the councils was not accepted because it was logical, but because the theology match the experience of knowing God.
When the Church Fathers talk about God being ‘trinity’ and are describing the distinctions between God’s essence and personhood, they are not saying this is what God ‘is’ but what God is ‘like’; they are giving us a model. They are trying to make sense of Judeao-Christian monotheism, while also experiencing Jesus (and the Spirit) as claiming divine prerogatives. They are pointing toward something that is beyond full comprehension, but capable of being faithfully (but not exhaustively) modeled. The model is accurate but limited; hence why all the negative language in theology (apophatic theology): one God but not three Gods. They are giving their logical understanding, and also what must not be logically concluded. The end result is not a philosophical understanding but worship and mystery.
East and West both agree that the creator God made a good creation, but somehow (something having to do with Adam, Eve, Satan and some fruit) things went terribly wrong. Both East and West agree theologically that there was a Fall, but we have different views regarding the consequences, particularly the nature of death. Augustine interpreted Genesis 2:17 as “on the day that you eat of it I will kill you”. Death was not a direct consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, but a judicial punishment dispensed by God. This interpretation, that death is a punishment from God became the dominant understanding in the West (“original sin”), as witnessed by both the Presbyterian Westminster Confession (question 28) and by the Catholic Baltimore Catechism (question 253).
There is an older view, still held by the Eastern Church, that death and corruption were ‘natural’ consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, they cut themselves off from the source of life; and if permanent, Satan would have succeeded in destroying God’s creation. God’s declaration “you will die” was a statement of fact, like saying “If you hit your thumb with a hammer, it will hurt”; rather than a declaration of what God would do.
These two different interpretations represent two different major paradigms about the fall and salvation: one forensic or legal, and the other medical. There are many paradigms about salvation (washing, adoption, faith, lost and found, light and dark), but these two are the predominant themes. To not understand which frame of reference someone is using can (and has) lead to major confusion. To mix legal and medical paradigms is like asking a lawyer for an injunction against a viral illness, or to ask a doctor for medication to cure a law suite; the statement is not wrong, but it doesn’t make logical sense. Understanding the paradigms is important, and they influence patterns of thinking and behavior.
Both East and West agree that Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection are the means of our salvation (primarily defined as forgiveness); but there is significant difference in understanding how this is brought about, and the emphasis on which of these actions is most significant. The Scholastics in the West used feudal society as their primary model, with a hierarchy of Kings, Barons and peasants. The emphasis was on the class hierarchy, with the worst ‘sin’ being to offend the king by stepping out of one’s place (see Lucifer’s sin in Isaiah 14:12..). In a legal paradigm, the focus of change is with the court (judge), the judge is the one who declares guilt or innocence; the accused party is basically a passive by-stander to the process. If God (or his justice, honor or dignity) has been offended and invoked the punishment, then it is God who needs to change to withdraw the punishment and forgive us. This assumption frames the major discussions about salvation, whether we can do anything to influence God’s decision (salvation by ‘works’) or whether Christ alone is able to ‘satisfy’ God and we passively receive the benefit (salvation by ‘faith’). Both Catholics and Protestants agree that Jesus satisfied God the Father, but they have different emphasis of what this is. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ illustrates the classic Catholic position that it is the suffering of Christ that appeases the wrath of God. The Reformed position focuses more on Christ’s death, that he is the sacrificial lamb who atones for our sins and satisfies God’s justice. In both cases there is an external righteousness (how God perceives us), and no actual change to us. The resurrection is little more than a footnote, it barely appears in Mel Gibson’s movie, and some evangelicals consider the resurrection little more than an apologetic that demonstrated God the Father was satisfied with Jesus’ sacrifice.
The Eastern approach is primarily medical, with God being a loving Father or loving physician. We are ‘sick unto death’ and in need of a cure which will restore us to life. God is not a judge who is in opposition to us, but a loving physician who seeks our healing. Though God has to change (incarnation, death and resurrection) there is never a change in God’s attitude – he is always and only loving and caring for us. The problem is within us, we are sick with death and in need of a cure and healing. Christ dies to enter into death (hades) so that the immortal God can destroy death once and for all by means of the resurrection. This is most clearly heard in the Eastern Paschal (Easter) service, where over and over the phrase is shouted out: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.” We are the ones who are fundamentally changed, receiving resurrection, and in need of uniting ourselves with Christ to have his life in us.
In this medical paradigm, the discussion of ‘faith’ vs ‘works’ has no place; there is no need to persuade God to change his attitude, and no one thinks that we can overcome death by our actions. Justification (the receiving of spiritual life) can only be an act of faith, accepting the cure that Christ has accomplished. The medical paradigm has further consequences though, the goal is not simply ‘life’ but a full restoration to ‘health’ (theosis, or becoming like God). Just as someone who has had a major illness needs strengthening and recovery after the disease has been wiped out, so too we need ‘therapy’ after death has been cured – this is the role of sanctification and the spiritual life. Ascetical efforts (prayer, fasting, vigils, charity) are the ‘physical therapy’ by which we overcome our hypochondriacal tendencies to live a sick lifestyle and learn to become like Christ. This is the setting aside of vices (pride, greed, anger, ..) and acquiring virtues (humility, charity, patience and love). The sacraments (especially the Eucharistic body and blood of Christ) are the spiritual food that sustains us and infuses us with Christ. These ascetical practices are to change ourselves, it is only when mistakenly placed in the context of a legal paradigm that they are thought of as ‘works righteousness’ or attempts to appease God.
The East agrees with Evangelicals that justification is by faith, though they often forget this. Three times in the baptismal service the candidate is asked “Do you believe in Christ?” (to which the affirmative is expected), and three times it is declared “You have been justified in Christ”. Because most Orthodox are baptized as infants, they spend their lives focusing on sanctification and forget that they have received justification. Orthodox would also say that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:26) and that we are saved by faith and works; but this is because Eastern Orthodox think of salvation as including both justification and sanctification (and often don’t make a distinction between the two).
There are more similarities between the East and West than differences, but the different approach to theology, and the difference of paradigms means that we ask different questions with different outcomes.