by Benedict Seraphim
One does not normally associate theoretical or intellectual rigor with Orthodoxy. By that I don’t mean that Orthodoxy is incoherent, or doesn’t stand up to rigorous philosophical inquiry. After all, among the most brilliant of thinkers in the history of the Church are the Cappadocians, St. Maximus, and St. Gregory Palamas (who, I hasten to say aren’t Orthodoxy’s unique property, but are nonetheless integral to Orthodoxy in the way St. Augustine is to the West). But Orthodoxy is not a tight, architectonic system like Calvinism, nor does it have the sort of Aristotelian philosophical grid that Roman Catholicism post-Aquinas has. Orthodoxy’s greatest thinkers share no such system or grid.
No, in fact, Orthodoxy has, as Vladimir Lossky’s book title puts it, a mystical theology. Which simply means that Orthodoxy thinks in terms of her experience of the revelation of God in Christ. Orthodoxy is quintessentially an experiential religion. She thinks with her mind, but with a mind that has descended into her heart.
This is why, when I have spoken about my reasons for attraction to the Orthodox Church in the past, those reasons derived from the experience of the Faith. In December 2003, I finished up a nine-part post on the reasons I was attracted to Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church honors the past, respects the present, has a consistent theology, has the fullness of the Christian faith, has both an existential and objective worship and askesis, makes claims that are historically and objectively verifiable and theologically valid, and unites the home and family in the Church. Six months later, I added an additional post on my relief that Orthodoxy not only tells me what salvation is, but shows me how to acquire it. Today, nearly a year after that last post, and more than a year and a half since the last post of the original series, I want to add yet one more post answering,
And today I want to talk about Orthodoxy in terms of intellectual consistency.
Let me say it clearly and starkly: Orthodoxy has a purity of thought unmatched by the Roman Catholic Church and by all of Protestantism. I don’t mean Orthodoxy has never had heretics. No, in fact, some of Orthodoxy’s heretics were the most highly-placed of her hierarchy. Rather, I mean that if one conforms one’s mind to Orthodoxy one will quite literally never go wrong.
Of course, this might seem tautological. After all, Orthodoxy is right belief. It also might seem to beg the question. After all, if one assumes Orthodoxy to be true, then of course anything that doesn’t match up is false. But then: Is Orthodoxy true? That’s the question being begged.
Although I won’t offer an apologetic for the Orthodox Church here, let me say that such an apologetic is not hard to come by on the net, and there are a plethora of books one can consult. One will find that Orthodoxy’s claims are historically verifiable and logically valid. Furthermore, experience will also bear out the claims of the Orthodox Church to be the Church.
But one can also think through some of Orthdoxy’s claims and show their internal consistency and coherence, and also show how the opposing beliefs of other churches are internally inconsistent and/or logically invalid. A couple of examples should suffice.
Take the filioque of the Western churches’ Creed.
Applied to the essential nature of the Godhead, the filioque falls apart. If, for the Son to be of one essence with the Father, it is necessary that He share in the eternal procession of the Spirit, then the Spirit cannot be of the same essence of the Father and the Son. Nor does this work if one posits that the Spirit is the hypostatic love between Father and Son, for this also fails to establish one essence of the Holy Spirit with the Father. In other words, the filioque fails to properly establish the hypostasis of the Holy Spirit. In all configurations, the Holy Spirit must be of a composite nature of that of the Father and the Son, and different than that of both of Them.
In short, the Holy Spirit becomes an attenuated appendage to the bi-unity of the Father and the Son.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I do recognize that Western churches who have adopted the filioque explicitly reject these entailments. Indeed, they must do so if they would continue to claim the name of Christ. But it doesn’t erase the fact that their adoption of the filioque places their theology in a fundamentally compromised light. Indeed, for the reasons noted above (as well as because the filioque was never accepted by the whole Church), the filioque itself is heresy. And if one admits heresy into one’s theology, one will continually be shoring up that theology to keep the heresy from rotting things out from the inside. And one can’t get any more inside Christianity’s core beliefs than the Trinity.
The Orthodox Church avoids these problems by teaching that the unity of the Trinity is preserved in the monarche of the Father. In that the Father causes the Son and causes the Holy Spirit, both Son and Holy Spirit share in the nature of the Father and are of the same essence. Orthodoxy never had a Pentecostal or Charismatic movement as the West did, because for more than fifteen hundred years it had a robust theology of the Holy Spirit, having rejected the filioque.
But it’s not just the filioque. The Western understanding of original sin brings the same heretical entailments. Orthodoxy, of course, believes in original sin–but not the sort that arose out of Augustinianism in the West. In the West, through the development of St. Augustine’s teachings, original sin is not just understood in the corruptibility and mortality to which human nature was subjected via Adam’s sin, but is understood as the moral guilt and sin which is inherited with that corruptibility and mortality through the concupiscence of the sexual act of procreation. This results in a view of human nature, willing and personhood which entails that all human willing must ultimately be sinful (since the very nature from which that will operates is itself sinful, and a will cannot become something that it’s nature is not), and that necessitates an identification of person with nature. This results in a soft determinism (compatibilism) in which humans always choose their strongest inclination at the moment of willing, which for sinful humanity will always entail sin, since the strongest inclination of human natures is always sin. Even good acts–giving alms, prayer–are ultimately suffused with sin, since pride and the self are at the core of their intentions.
There are a host of problems with this. First and foremost, the Western understanding of original sin fails to account for how Adam, who was created with a sinless nature, but capable of sin, did, in fact, sin. For even if sin was possible to Adam, it was not necessary, and given Adam’s uncorrupt nature at the moment of his willing to sin, his greatest inclination, according to his nature, should have been for God. But it wasn’t. This soft determinism doesn’t explain Adam’s sin.
To explain that sin, under the Western rubric, free will can only be actualized in a choice involving opposition (good vs. evil). Adam, from a sinless nature, indeterminately chose sin (since there would have been no necessary cause in his nature that would have moved his will to sin), in which case, free will is predicated upon a relation of opposition thus making free will the necessary cause for evil. Indeed, it also requires that there necessarily not be free will in the eschaton, for if there were, then God, to make possible free will’s actuality, will necessarily have to make possible a choice between good and evil, and this will ultimately result in an endless chain of potential Falls. So the only way to guard against sin in the eschaton is to take away any opportunity for the exercise in free will, which is the same thing as eliminating free will.
Compatibilists will argue that free will is compatible with natural determination of the will, that is to say, the will always freely wills in the direction of its strongest inclination; but this only strengthens the problems in Christology. For if Christ’s human nature was free of original sin for Christ to be sinless (which it would have to be, according to the Western understanding of original sin), then for Christ’s will to be truly free, he would have to be given the opportunity to choose between good and evil, else he could never have been tempted in all way such as we are.
But since such free will must be indeterminate, then either we have the case that it will always remain possible for Christ’s human will to sin (which means that Christ’s human nature is not fixed in virtue), or Christ did not have human free will (in the libertarian sense that Adam had free will), or Christ’s divine will subsumed his human will (in the compatibilist sense of human free will). The first option is a problem, because this calls into question the union of the human and divine natures in Christ’s person. The second option is a problem because Christ could not have undone the consequences of Adam’s Fall apart from free will. And the third option results in the heresy of monothelitism.
In fact, under the Western rubric of original sin, eternal destinies are decided by God alone in his inscrutable decrees. The logical entailment is as stark as it is intuitively horrifying: God creates some persons for heaven and some persons for hell.
Orthodoxy, however, avoids these problems altogether, by understanding that all that God creates is good, including human nature and free will. Though postlapsarian humans are born with original sin, this original sin is the capacity for corruption and mortality that is part of unredeemed human nature. Though human nature has been compromised by Adam’s fall, that nature in no way necessitates that we sin. That humans do sin, then, is not directly a result of their fallen human nature, but is rather the direct result of the failure of their deliberative will.
That is to say, as a result of deliberation humans take an apparent good for a real good, and mistakenly choose the apparent good. Free will, then, does not necessitate a relation of opposition, but only a deliberation among multiple goods. In a fallen world, apparent goods ultimately entail sin, since they are a rejection of the real good. But in the eschaton all goods will be real, and there will be no need for deliberation. So, in orthodoxy, free will is good, but the deliberative use of that will can be either good or evil–the use being completely up to the person so willing.
Christ, however, did not need the deliberative will. Like all humans, he had a human nature and a human will, and like all humans, his will was free to choose among different acts. The difference however, which results from his mode of existence as the incarnate God-man, is that Christ’s human nature and will were deified in the union with his divine nature and will and he had no need to deliberate between apparent and real goods. His personal choice to act made use of his human will such that he always chose the real goods available to him. Unlike Adam and unlike humans prior to the eschaton, in his Person, Christ was fixed in virtue: all his thoughts and acts were good. His divine nature had deified his human nature. But like Christ, regenerated humans in the eschaton will be fixed in virtue, we will be deified through our hypostatic union with God in Christ. Thus all our willing will be according to our natures, which natures are divinized, and our wills will freely choose among multiple goods, about which there will be no need of deliberation.
In other words, in Orthodoxy, the deliberative will is the mode of willing peculiar to the un-deified mode of existence unique to humans prior to the eschaton. Such a deliberative mode of willing is not, in itself, evil, since it was the mode of willing given to Adam in the garden, and through which mode Adam, had he so chosen freely, would have been fixed in virtue and been deified in Christ. Indeed, it is precisely this use of the deliberative will prior to the eschaton which fixes either in virtue or in vice, the humans who make use of it. This explains both why it is possible to fall away from God after regeneration and why it is possible to reach a point in which repentance is no longer possible; i. e., why humans choose hell and remain fixed in that choice for all eternity.
Thus, in Orthodoxy, the cause of sin is properly placed not in God, for all his gifts are good, but in the creatures He has created who use that good gift to reject God, not for another objective evil but for another apparent good. It is also places the responsibility for our personal eternal destinies in our hands, for all our accumulated choices arising from our countless deliberative moments in this life, are ultimately our own authorship of our character and and fate.
These are only two examples–and though it may not seem like it, only the most summarized of examples at that–among many that could be noted. For instance, the consistency in the West on the insistence of the absolute simplicity of God, the doctrine of created grace, and the overemphasis on forensic justification necessitated by original sin.
This is not to say that Orthodoxy smooths out all intellectual difficulties. After all, theodicy is a recalcitrant matter which does not admit of easy resolution. But Orthodox theodicy is able to honestly admit the difficulties without implicating God in them. That, in itself, is a huge advance over the logical entailments of original sin. But it is to say that the difficulties one encounters in Orthodoxy are difficulties that result from the finiteness of human reason in its attempt to understand the divine and not from the arguments of human reason itself.
WOW. That is about all I can say. I am 40 years old and have NEVER heard it so simply put. It was a long read, but still simply put.
Thomas D says
Thank you to the author and to this site for the article. I was raised in the Episcopal Church and sadly remained tethered to that failure – but that’s another story. I used to spout the line that it was a “thinking man’s faith” and that we didn’t have to “leave our brains at the door.” At some point on my outward trajectory it first struck me that I would far prefer to leave my brain at the door than my soul! That was followed by the realization that “leaving your brain at the door” meant you could make up your “faith” any which way you pleased. On the contrary, it takes far more brain power to engage the faith, doctrine and life of the Church, understand it, and conform yourself to it.
Well, wow indeed. Sadly for me, I think I am missing something, perhaps from being a Presbyterian, then Episcopalian. And frankly, I am confused, and just starting on my Orthodox journey — if I could only walk more than one block at a time, but that’s another story. I don’t fully understand the problem with the Western church and the filioque of their creed. I have always understood that Jesus was always and eternal, and that the Holy Spirit had to come form God, with perhaps only a cheering on from Jesus Christ. I do not, and have never believed that the Nicene Creed of the Episcopal Church is entirely correct because the Holy Spirit proceeding from God and Son doesn’t make sense. But, what is the filioque argument all about?
As for original sin, I have never understood Augustine on that either. Why is it that humans cannot ever do an act of good, without having pride or some other sinful emotion, motivation or “something” coming into play? As for Jesus and his temptation, I seem to remember some pretty nice offers from the Dark Side, and He said, “Well no, I’m just not that interested in the offer because you might give me the Earth, but I’ve already got all of Creation” — or something like that. (She wrote, tongue firmly in cheek.) Any reading I can do to understand this?