One of the primary defining characteristics of Eastern Orthodox theology is the emphasis on the personhood of the Trinity and the potential for an intimate relationship with this God. Orthodoxy is not unique in believing the doctrine of the Trinity (three persons of one essence), or in seeking a personal relationship with God, but it is unique in the emphasis and approach that it takes. Differences do make a difference, and the differences between the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Churches of the West (both Catholic and Protestan) lead to a different practice and a different experience.
There are three distinguishing differences between the East and the West, where the Western position weakens the theology that supports an intimate relationship with God.
A Weakened God:
It is impossible to come away from an Orthodox service without hearing Trinitarian references – “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, “Holy, Holy, Holy”; few are the references to “God”. For the Early Church Fathers of the East, the essence of God was an unknowable mystery, something that was beyond reason and comprehension; reason and speculation could never lead to a knowledge of God. However the persons of God, through their actions and in the incarnation could be experienced, seen and touched, and therefore clearly known (though not exhaustively known). God as three persons of one essence exists in an eternal intimate relationship of love, of which through the incarnation and works of Christ we are invited to partake, not in a pantheistic merging of essence and the loss of individual personhood, but through partaking in the Body of Christ as true persons.
While the West holds to this same Trinitarian theology, it is often weakened in practice. There is a desire to combine the Hebrew God of revelation with the Greek gods of philosophy (“natural theology”). There is a long tradition in the West (epitomized by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) of following Aristotle’s proofs for the existence of God, but the final results of these arguments are an impersonal concept to be contemplated, not a person to be known.
This difference and tension came to a head in the debates between Gregory Palamas (Eastern Orthodox bishop of Thessalonica, 1296–1359) and Barlaam (Calabrian monk from Italy, 1290-1348). Barlaam denied the ability to truly and directly know God (since God’s essence was unknownable, and His manifestations were creations), and stated that the highest level of spirituality was intellectual contemplation. By contrast Palamas defended the hesachyst practices as a path to directly experiencing the uncreated energy of God. While many in the West would deny the Aristotelian extremes of Barlaam and Aquinas, the desire to be ‘reasonable’ and maintain natural theology permeates Western apologetics and theology. The Eastern Orthodox Churches proclaimed Palamas as a ‘theologian’, and continue to follow the practices for knowing God which he defended.
A Weakened Salvation:
Both East and West characterize salvation as a process, consisting of justification, sanctification and glorification. The West has a strong focus on justification (“Are you saved?”), almost to the exclusion of sanctification. By contract, Eastern Orthodoxy clearly teaches a need for justification, but places much more emphasis on sanctification.
In general, the West tends to define salvation in juridical terms, while the East uses medical terms. In the West I am primarily concerned with guilt and innocence, being just or unjust. There is often (a rather unfair characterization) of God as the old man who is staring down at us from the judge’s bench, deciding to reward us with heaven or condemn us to punishment in hell. Formally, both Catholic and Protestant theology follow Augustine who considered death as a punishment from God for Adam’s disobedience, and due to Adam’s fall we are under the wrath and judgment of God.
The juridical view has the danger of seeming to place us in an advocacy over against a wrathful God. The goal is more to achieve heaven and avoid His angry punishment in the other place, than building a relationship with the judge. Legal relationships are not known for their intimacy and warmth, as illustrated by how few lawyer jokes are complimentary of the lawyers, or depict lawyers as people with whom we desire to be emotionally close.
In contrast to this forensic view, Orthodoxy is more organic or ‘medical’. For Orthodox, the fall has made us ‘sick unto death’, in need of being saved from death (through justification) and restored to health (through sanctification). Our brokenness is a brokenness of relationships: within ourselves, between ourselves and others, between us and God, and between us and the rest of creation. Salvation is a restoration of relations, brought about by a restoration with the Christ who brings all things together. Health is to have life in Christ, where Christ is both the goal and means. For the East, death was not a punishment from God, but an enemy which Christ overcomes by his death and resurrection: “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life” (Paschal hymn). Christ becomes the physician who becomes one with us, not to just restore us to our prior state, but to unite us with him in the Trinity. The ultimate goal of salvation (what Orthodoxy calls ‘theosis’) is not a place or thing, but a person. We are to relate to God as Father, in the same manner as Christ relates to Him. We are to be one with Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit in an intimacy of which marriage is only a reflection. It doesn’t get much more personal than this.
The distinction between East and West is not absolute. I like N.T. Wright’s (Anglican bishop of Durham, 1948-) rethinking of Paul’s theology, he is moving the West toward a more Eastern way of thinking when he re-frames justification away from an individual juridical decree, to the entering into a new covenantal relationship with God, that includes a larger community of covenantal believers.
If salvation is limited to receiving a declaration of innocence, there is no need to return again to the courthouse (or the need to ever go to church in the first place). What more can be added, either by God or by other people? Western ecclesiology (theology of the church) has been weakened through the neglect of sanctification, with the traditional prayers of the hours and liturgical worship often reduced to praise bands and entertainment. Worship is no longer the means for bringing about the fullness of salvation. Western churches often have a wonderful sensitivity for to the human condition (sometimes better in practice than the Orthodox), and deliberatively work at building relationships through small group and ministry, but these successes are often not connected to the fundamental theology.
In contract, Orthodox churches still follow traditional ascetical and sacramental practices, and regularly use the liturgy (worship service) compiled by St. John Chrysostom (archbishop of Constantinople, 349–407). Because the East sees the Church as a hospital for sinners, worship is a primary means for instruction about a ‘healthy lifestyle’ and dispensing of the life giving medicine (sacraments). Church is not an option, and becomes the place to learn and practice the healing of relationships, where we learn to become the Body of Christ, and to be of one mind. The developing of a relationship with God (like any good medicine) has been carefully studied and documented in many writings. The classic ascetical works like John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent, the writings of St. Simeon ‘the New Theologian’, Gregory Palamas’s Triads (and subsequent Hagioritic Tome), or the collection of writings known as The Philokalia are still treated as spiritual-medical text-books by both monastics and lay people (note: these can read like medical text books, and are not ‘do it yourself’ handbooks).
This Orthodox view is well expressed by Dorotheus of Gaza (505-565) who compares spiritual growth to spoke wheel. God is at the hub, and we are on the spokes. We can only get closer to God when we are willing to get closer to each other, and as we get closer to each other we become closer to God.