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Church Theology: The East and West Approaches to Church Theology

Article ID: DE177 | By: Paul Negrut
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The following is an excerpt of article DE177 from the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be downloaded by clicking the link below the excerpt.


As early as the second century, East and West developed distinct approaches to theology. The Western theological paradigm is creation-fall-redemption, while the Eastern is creation-deification, or theosis.

Under the influence of Augustine’s interpretation of the apostle Paul, the West developed its theology on the legal relationship between God and humankind. This underlines the doctrine of justification with its implications for the Catholic doctrines of church, ministry, and canon law.33

Moreover, the Protestant Reformation emphasized the legal (forensic) aspect of humanity’s relationship with God in its doctrines of the Fall and sin (transgression of God’s law) and salvation (Christ’s fulfilling the law in place of sinners and taking upon Himself its just penalty in their behalf so His own righteousness could be legally transferred [imputed] to them). Salvation cannot be earned or merited but is received by faith apart from good works. In order to be saved, each person needs to repent and trust in Christ.34

Alternatively, the East developed a mystical approach to theology: God cannot be known intellectually but only experientially. This approach to theology, known as the negative way, affirms that God is above human language and reason. “The negative way of the knowledge of God is an ascendant undertaking of the mind that progressively eliminates all positive attributes of the object it wishes to attain, in order to culminate finally in a kind of apprehension by supreme ignorance of Him who cannot be an object of knowledge.”35

In other words, God is a mystery. This means that He is beyond our intellectual comprehension. He is totally and “wholly other,” not only invisible but inconceivable.36 Pseudo-Dionysius (c.late fifth, early sixth centuries), the father of the negative way, explains it by pointing to Moses’ ascent on the mountain in order to meet God:

It is not for nothing that the blessed Moses is commanded first to purification and then to depart from those who have not undergone this. When every purification is complete, he hears the many-voiced trumpets. He sees the many lights, pure and with the rays streaming abundantly. Then, standing apart from the crowds and accompanied by the chosen priests, he pushes ahead to the summit of the divine ascent. And yet he does not meet God himself, but contemplates, not him who is invisible, but rather where he dwells….Here renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united by a completely unknowing inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.37

Here, the emphasis lies not on developing theological systems but on the mystical union between God and the believer in the absence of all intellectual knowledge.38 The purpose of theological knowledge and church practice (e.g., the sacraments) is to help the faithful attain mystical union with God or deification (theosis).

Church Theology- The Doctrine of God

In Orthodoxy, God is absolutely transcendent. This means God alone has existence in Himself, and He is separated from everything that exists outside Himself. Moreover, whatever exists “outside” God has not eternally co-existed with God as in monistic emanationist and dualistic philosophies, but has its existence in God’s free will act of creation and providence. Ware argues that this absolute transcendence of God is affirmed by the “way of negation.” Positive statements about God — such as God is good, wise, and just — are true as far as they go; yet they cannot adequately describe the inner nature of the deity.39 Although it is clear that God does exist, the mystery of His essence is beyond our intellectual capacities. Yet the Orthodox also believe God acts and intervenes directly in concrete historical situations.

In order to safeguard the absolute transcendence and the immanence of God, Orthodox theology distinguishes three aspects of God’s being: (1)the indescribable and inaccessible divine essence (ousia); (2)the three divine Persons (hypostases); and (3)the uncreated energies (energeiai) inseparable from God’s essence (as are the rays of the sun from the sun itself) in which He manifests, communicates, and gives Himself.40

Comparing this with other Christian traditions, Ware concludes, “Those brought up in other traditions have sometimes found it difficult to accept the Orthodox emphasis on the apophatic [negative] theology and the distinction between essence and energies. Yet apart from these two matters, Orthodox agree with the overwhelming majority of all who call themselves Christians. Monophysites and Lutherans, Restrains and Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Orthodox: All alike worship one God in Three Persons and confess Christ as Incarnate Son of God.”41 Nevertheless, these differences have significant implications for the doctrines of creation, sin, and salvation.

Church Theology- The Doctrine of Creation

The Orthodox church believes in creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing); that is, God alone has existence in Himself; everything else has its existence through Him. Eastern Christianity believes the whole creation came into existence because of a free and loving act of the Triune God. Despite the fact that the Orthodox church never systematized its doctrine of the relationship between the Creator and creation, it seems the views of Athanasius and Maximus the Confessor42 are generally endorsed.

Athanasius distinguished between the will of God and the nature of God. Creation is an act of His will. God is free to create or not to create, and He remains transcendent to the world. By nature the Father generates the Son, who is not a creature but shares the same nature (ousia) with the Father.43

Divine nature and created nature are separate and dissimilar modes of existence. Creatures exist “by the grace of His grace, His will, and His word…so that they even cease to exist if the Creator so wishes.”44 The doctrine of Creation as expressed by Athanasius leads to a distinction in God between His transcendent essence and His properties, such as power or goodness. As Meyendorff puts it, “Because God is what he is, He is not determined or in any way limited in what He does, not even by His own essence and being.”45 God’s creative act brought into being another nature distinct from His own and worthy of God’s love and concern and fundamentally “very good.”

To express the relationship between the Creator and creation, Maximus borrowed the Neo-Platonic46 concepts of logos and logoi. The divine Logos (Reason) is the center and the living unity of the logoi (reasons) of creation. The temporal existence of created beings centers in the one Logos. Every created thing is endowed with its “energy” or movement. Meyendorff asserts, “The proper movement of nature, however, can be fully itself only if [it] follows its proper goal (skopos), which consists in striving for God, entering into communion with Him, and thus fulfilling the logos, or divine purpose, through which and for which it is created.”47

Creatures do not simply receive their form and diversity from God; He has also given them an energy of their own. This leads to the theory of the “double movement,” that is, through the Divine Logos the Creator moves toward creation and through its logoi creation moves toward its Creator. In its natural condition creation is not opposed to God, but moves toward Him in order to participate in God’s uncreated energies; that is, to be deified or to attain to its perfection. This co-operation reaches a special level in man, who was created in the image of God.

Church Theology- Was Adam a Child or a Perfect Man?

The presupposition underlying the Orthodox doctrine of man is that man was made for “participation” in God. The biblical account of creation of man after the image and the likeness of God is interpreted within Orthodoxy as indicating two different aspects of human beings. John of Damascus believed “the expression according to the image indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue.”48

The image (Greek: icon) of God signifies everything (free will, reason, moral responsibility) that separates man out from the animal creation and makes him a person. Moreover, Ware argues that the image means that “we are God’s ‘offspring’ (Acts17:28), His kin; it means that between us and Him there is a point of contact, an essential similarity.”49 The gulf between Creator and creation can thus be bridged. Proper use of this faculty for communion with God leads to deification.

Image, then, refers to that aspect God placed in people from the beginning. Likeness, on the other hand, is a goal toward which they must aim. Ware concludes, “However sinful a man may be, he never loses the image; but the likeness depends upon our moral choice, upon our ‘virtue,’ and so it is destroyed by sin.”50

Orthodoxy follows the third-century father Irenaeus, who believed that Adam “was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected. It was necessary that he should grow and so come to his perfection.”51 In other words, Adam was not a perfect human being but was endowed with the potential for perfection. Consequently, the doctrine of the Fall into sin is not as dramatic in Orthodoxy as in the Western tradition.

In order to explain their minimalist view of sin, Orthodox theologians distinguish between nature and person. Man’s participation in God is always in accord with his nature. According to Maximus, man had to follow only the law of his own nature because it conforms to his true destiny to be in communion with God. As person, man has the freedom of moral choice, and this is the seat of the potential for sinning.52

According to Maximus, when man fell, Adam abandoned what was natural. Instead, under the devil’s influence, man completely gave himself to his senses (freedom of choice) and consequently his relationship with God was affected. From here stem the first three capital evils: reason (logos) perverted into “ignorance” because man is isolated from God; desire perverted into sensual “self-love”; and temper perverted into hatred against one’s neighbor.53 The negative consequences of sin are many, including mortality.54 Yet Maximus argues that sin does not corrupt nature (and natural will), although he admits a sort of contamination of the natural will, which could will only good before the Fall.

The rebellion of Adam and Eve against God was their personal sin. This resulted in no inherited guilt for their descendants. Although the Orthodox emphasize the unity of humankind, this unity includes only hereditary death and not inherited guilt. Sinfulness is a consequence of mortality. By becoming mortal, man acquired a greater urge to sin because he is subject to the needs of the body (food, drink, etc.) which are absent in immortal beings.55 Byzantine tradition views mortality as a cosmic disease that holds humanity under its sway. Death makes sin inevitable and in this sense “corrupts” nature. But Meyendorff argues that “neither original sin nor salvation can be realized in an individual’s life without involving his personal and free responsibility.”56

Church Theology- Not Justification by Faith but Deification through the Energies

Adam started like a child who was supposed to grow and become perfect.57 God set Adam on the right path, but Adam’s fall essentially consisted in his disobedience to the will of God. Adam’s sin set up a barrier that man could never break down by his own efforts (not so much the legal barrier of sin as the existential barrier of mortality). Since man could not come to God, God came to man in the incarnation of Christ. The Incarnation (more so than the Atonement) reopened for man the path to God. Building upon Athanasius’s statement that “God became man that we might be made god,”58 the Orthodox church explains salvation not in terms of justification but as mystical union with God.

Since God is transcendent, one might ask how union with God is possible. According to the Orthodox doctrine of salvation, union with God according to essence (nature, ousia) is impossible. Only the three Persons of the Godhead are united to each other in the divine essence. If such a union were possible, God would no longer be Trinity, but myriads of persons (hypostases) since there would be many persons participating in His essence.59 Furthermore, the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky argues that although we share the same human nature as Christ and receive in Him the name of sons of God, we do not ourselves become the Son. Consequently, we cannot be part of the Holy Trinity.60 Union with God is proper to the Son alone.

The energies or divine operations, on the other hand, are forces inseparable from God’s essence in which He manifests Himself and communicates. Mystical union with God, therefore, is man’s way of participating in the divine energies.61

Lossky asserts that the divine energies are outpourings of the divine nature.62 The energies represent God’s mode of existence outside His inaccessible essence. According to this view, God has two modes of being — in His essence and outside His essence. The uncreated energies proceed from His nature and are inseparable, just as the rays of sun would shine out from the solar disk whether or not there were any beings capable of receiving its light.63

The means whereby human beings participate in the divine energies are the sacraments and human effort.64 The Orthodox stress on the sacraments as the means of deification (theosis) leads to the logical conclusion that theosis is impossible outside the church. Coniaris writes, “From the Church, Christ reaches out to us with the Sacraments to bring to us His grace and love. Every sacrament puts us in touch with Christ and applies to us the power of the Cross and the Resurrection. St.Leo the Great said, ‘He who was visible as our Redeemer has now passed into the Sacraments.’…The Sacraments are the way to theosis.”65 Thus salvation or deification is possible only in and through the church, because “the Church and the Sacraments are the way to God, for the Church is in absolute reality the Body of Christ.”66

One is not supposed to try to understand the mode in which the sacraments mediate the divine energies because they are mysteries. Consequently, the emphasis is laid upon participation in the sacraments and not upon a personal relationship with Christ mediated through the study of Scripture.67

Because the sacraments are mysteries, the Orthodox see no problem in the fact that during the patristic period the Eastern Fathers disagreed among themselves on the number and role of sacraments. Thus Theodore the Studite in the ninth century gives a list of six sacraments (baptism, the Eucharist, chrismation [the anointing of the newly baptized baby or convert], ordination, monastic tonsure, and the service of burial); Gregory Palamas named two (baptism and the Eucharist); and Nicholas Cabasilas listed three (baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist). The “seven sacraments” appear in the Middle Ages under the Roman Catholic influence and include baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, holy orders, matrimony, penance, and the anointing of the sick.68

When confronted with these discrepancies, the Orthodox take refuge in the belief that what matters is that God’s saving energies are mediated to man in the church. It is enough for the faithful to know that the church mediates the energies and that outside it there is no salvation.69

Some Orthodox theologians lean toward the double-movement theory of Maximus and assert that the sacraments are not administered in a passive way: as God moves toward man, so man moves toward God. Man responds to the divine energies with his own energy. Between the two energies there is a “synergy.”70 The Orthodox reject any doctrine of grace that might infringe on man’s freedom. Man cannot achieve full fellowship with God without God’s help; yet he must also play his part. The path to deification includes asceticism, prayer, contemplation, and good works. The Orthodox believe the faithful are further helped along the way by icons, relics, saints, and above all by the Virgin Mary. When asked about the biblical grounds for this doctrine, the Orthodox respond that these teachings were received from the Tradition.