A Comparison of Christian Paradigms: Differences between the East and West

Paradigms & the Difference They Make

With over 1,000 years of common history, many elements are still held in common between the East and West: the Trinity, the deity of Christ and the belief in a historical resurrection. There is also a common understanding that the fundamental problem of humanity (actually of all creation) is tied up with three things: Satan, sin and death. The differences are often more over the paradigms (i.e. framework or mind-set) used to explain this problem rather than the words and issues.

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward, … or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes, … together with death itself.

Westminster Confession

Answer to question 29

If any man does not confess that the first man, Adam…through his transgression suffered the wrath and indignation of God and, because of this, death, let him be anathema.

Council of Trent

(1546, First Canon, Fifth Session)

At the risk of over-simplification (for both sides share the same stories), the West (whether Catholic or Protestant) has a more juridical or forensic paradigm for theology than the Eastern organic approach. Theology in the West tends to be explained in terms of law, with words such as guilt, innocence, justice and forgiveness. The East is more comfortable with an organic paradigm, using words such as life, death, light and darkness. To assume the wrong paradigm as the context of a discussion can lead to confusion and chaos. Christ can be described as a Judge or the Great Physician, but we get into trouble if we speak about a judge ordering a cease-and-desist order to a virus, or a doctor prescribing antibiotics for a lawsuit – neither one makes sense. In a similar way, the difference of paradigms used by the East and West often sound confusing to each other.

I – Different views of the Problem

This difference in paradigm can be traced back to Augustine (354-430, bishop of Hippo), and his interpretation of the effects of Adam’s Fall. Prior to Augustine, Genesis 2:17 (“for in the day that you eat thereof you will surely die”) was normally interpreted in the Christian East as to mean that death was the means by which Satan attempted to destroy God’s creation, or was a natural (organic) consequence of Adam’s disobedience. Disobedience separates one from God (the source of life), and produces the state of corruption and death. This approach interprets the Fall as a medical problem (for both God and man), with the solution involving the restoration of creation to a state of life and health.

Augustine gave a new, more legal, interpretation to the passage; rendering it “for in the day that you eat thereof, I will kill you”. Death became God’s determined punishment for sin. Instead of Death, personified as the enemy of God and man, God and death (which God creates) stand over against man. For Augustine, the restoration of the relationship with God becomes more a legal problem of sin and forgiveness. This view of Augustine becomes the basis for many Western confessions.

 II – Different views of the Solution

The second point is to look at the difference in emphasis regarding Salvation. With a difference in understanding the problem (the Fall), it is not surprising that there is a difference in the perspectives regarding the solution. Protestant theology talks about salvation (in technical terms) as spanning Justification, Sanctification and Glorification. While this language is foreign to most Orthodox writings, the distinctions fit rather well, and are useful for this discussion.

Western theology (particularly Evangelical) can skip into equating salvation with justification. To “be saved” is equated with having one’s sins forgiven. The “means” is by way of Christ’s suffering and death (propitiatory atonement), bearing God’s punishment (death) to satisfy the justice and wrath of Godi. This is a legal transaction between Jesus and the Father, to which we can contribute nothing, but by which we benefit by being declared (extrinsically) righteous in Christ (through faith). In the West, the focus is on the suffering and death of Christ on the cross as the payment for sin. The resurrection is not necessary for this satisfaction, and may become little more than a footnote, as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ”, or when the resurrection is reduced to a proof that the Father was satisfied by Jesus’ death. Equating salvation to justification can make any human effort questionable. While Western Christianity has been incredibly generous in obedience to the Gospel’s call for charity and missions, it has struggled to justify the necessity of any action in light of justification. What does it add to what Christ has already given us? If anything, there is at times a fear that charity will be seen as a ‘works righteousness’ associated with trying to appease God’s justice by our own merit (leaning toward Pelagian or semi-Pelagian theology).

Anyone who has been to an Orthodox Pascha (Easter) service cannot miss where the Eastern emphasis is placed: we sing “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life”. For the East, the primary problem is death. The solution is Jesus’ entering into the human condition (via the Incarnation) and partaking of death. However, being the Undying Divinity, Jesus’ resurrection destroys death, and so destroys the power of sin. This is a medical solution, not a legal solution. As with a medical condition, it is not sufficient to simply destroy the disease, it is also necessary to restore health.

It is here that Orthodoxy often (unintentionally) thoroughly confuses people from a Western tradition. We freely talk about achieving our salvation by overcoming sin through our fasting and other ascetical efforts. To the Western ear (assuming the context of justification), this sounds like works righteousness. What is usually missed (by both sides – yes, sometimes even by the Orthodox), is that this is a statement about sanctification, which assumes a previous justification (previously having died with Christ, and resurrected to a new life at baptism). Technically, this is not the overcoming of sin (which Christ did on the cross), but the purging of the remnant effects of sin still in our lives (old habits are hard to change). In the medical analogy, this is not the destruction of the virus which ravaged our body, but the physical therapy (after the cure) to restore full health and perfection (Matthew 5:48). The goal of this sanctification is called theosis (II Peter 1:3-4). This usually comes in stages:

  1. Purification – overcoming the passions (selfishness, pride, etc.), and acquiring virtue (love and humility).
  2. Illumination – seeing reality in light of grace (Philippians 2:5)
  3. Enlightenment – directly experiencing the uncreated light of God (as Moses on Mt Sinai, or the apostles at the Transfiguration).

In this way we become like Christ, we become one with Christ (by grace, not in essence). Few of us will attain this state before our death, but we are all called to strive toward it in this lifeii.

Once theosis is understood, many other aspects of Orthodoxy fall into place. Worship is not an ‘extra’, but the primary means of learning how to live as a citizen in the Kingdom of God. We learn by doing: confessing our sins, talking with God and interceding for others; and, especially by receiving the food and gifts of the Kingdom (the Eucharist and the other sacraments). We are to take the message (and actions) of the Kingdom into all of creation. If sanctification makes a real difference (an intrinsic righteousness), making a person more the likeness of God, then there are differences among us, differences that affect a person spiritually and physically. These different people are called saints. The halo depicted in a saint’s icon is a representation of this person surrounded by the uncreated light of God. Miracles are not exceptions, but the Kingdom breaking through into a transformed creation.

 III – Different ways to do Theology

The third difference is how to do theology. There are two ways to do theology: through reason and speculation; and by direct revelation.

Reason and speculation tends to be the predominate method in the West; this is the methodology used by classic philosophy. It is found in Origen (c.185–254), but first became popular (in the West) through Augustine (who is venerated in the East, but not usually considered a ‘Church Father’). Thomas Aquinas’s (ca. 1225-1274) “Summa Theologica” is considered the best example of this style. The goal is often considered to be an increase in knowledge (Augustine’s, “I believe that I may know”).

Contrasted to this, in the East, theology is considered the attempt to explain the direct experience of God, which is explained in order to help other people achieve the same theosis experience. This is why the Church calls (the Apostle) St. John The Theologian, this book of Revelation (like the Old Testament prophets) is the recording of a revealed vision, not a reasoned speculation. St. Paul’s experience (Galatians 1:12) is considered normative; though rare, it is not exceptional. Academic understanding, and the knowledge of philosophy did not give them a better experience of God; but it allowed some of them to articulate their experience better than others. Theology is also usually limited to that which affects our salvation. While theology may be written down in an organized, systematic way, it is more often embodied in the practices of the Church. As Fr.  Menas (who became Coptic Patriarch Kyrillos VI) saidiii “You must find the answer to any doctrinal question you have in the services, in the liturgical prayers of the Church. If it’s not there, think about it, read the Fathers, but if it isn’t in the services, this could be a matter of speculation.”

iAnselm of Canterbury wrote the classical formulation of this position.

iiFor further explanation: http://www.antiochian.org/node/16916, 2010 Deification as the Purpose of Man’s Life, Archimandrite George: http://www.greekorthodoxchurch.org/theosis_contents.html, 2010

iiiRoad To Emmaus Vol X No 3, p. 6


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