The True Beauty of Romans 9

August 2, 2012

By Thomas Seraphim Hamilton

Romans 9 has confused many Western interpreters, especially since the era of the Reformation. Calvinists point to it as a plain example of the Apostle Paul teaching “double predestination” that is, the idea that God, from all eternity, has chosen (on no condition of faith or works) a certain number of individuals to be saved, and has condemned the rest (again, on no prior condition of faith or works) to eternal damnation. Non-Calvinist interpreters generally see Romans 9 as primarily a discussion of national election, concerning the fate of Israel, the Church, and the Gentile nations, rather than any specific individuals. While this reading has merit, it is incomplete and does not explain the entirety of the passage. What I seek to do, then, is to walk through Romans 9, verse by verse, paying attention to every word that the Apostle writes, and show that it does not, in fact, support Reformed theology.

Before we begin, we must establish an important principle of Pauline exegesis. The Holy Apostle Paul was a devout Jew. He had studied under masterful scholars of Torah (notably Rabbi Gamaliel) and had a firm belief that the one creator God had chosen Israel, the Family of Abraham, to be His special people. To this end, he spent his life studying Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. His understanding of them was not confined to a few select proof-texts. He understood each book, and each passage within each book, in the context of the whole sweep of Scripture. The revelation that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and that the redemption of Israel took place through the death and resurrection of Jesus fundamentally reshaped Paul’s entire outlook, but it did not make him think any less of the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, it forced him to search them all the more and find out what he had missed. Let us be very careful, then, not to assert that Paul takes select texts from the Old Testament and uses them without regard to the surrounding context.

Romans 9 is absolutely drenched with Old Testament Scripture. In order to discover how carefully Paul used the Old Testament, we will take a look at a single passage before moving step by step through the entire argument. In Romans 9:27, St. Paul quotes the Prophet Isaiah as saying, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved.” This is a quotation from Isaiah 10:22. The immediately preceding verse says that “A remnant, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God.” This title for God, “Mighty God” is used only three times in the entire Hebrew Bible, two of them in the Book of Isaiah. The one other use in Isaiah is found in 9:6, where the Prophet writes, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Father Forever, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” The point being made here is that “mighty God” is a title for the Son of David, the Messiah of Israel. This same title is then used to describe the one to whom a remnant of Jacob will hearken to. In other words, only a remnant of Jacob will believe in the Messianic King of Israel. Paul’s selection of Isaiah 10:22 to make his point is well made indeed.

Now that we have established that Paul uses the Old Testament with regard to both the narrow and broad context of the verses quoted, let us look at Romans 9 within its own context. The Letter to the Romans is a symphony in four parts. The first part is Romans 1-3. In Romans 1, Paul demonstrates that the nations of the world are deep in sin, and the wrath of God is poured out on them all. Interestingly, Paul understands the wrath of God to be the natural degeneracy of human society due to sin, the loss of the Divine Image in man. In Romans 2, Paul answers the claim of the Jew. The Jews know that the people of Israel was the people through whom God promised to heal the world, but Paul answers them back. They too, are in Adam. Indeed, the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of them. How then can God’s single plan to redeem the world go forward? How can God be righteous if His plan has failed? It hasn’t failed, says Paul. It is going forward, but in a way that is unexpected. In Romans 3, Paul says that the righteousness of God (by which he means the faithfulness of God to his single plan to redeem the world through Israel) has been unveiled in the faithfulness of the Messiah, Jesus, whom God set forth as the mercy seat of faithfulness (the place where God and man meet and man is cleansed of sin) in His blood. This is how God’s plan through Israel for the world has been revealed. This is the way that it goes forward. God has not healed the world through Torah, but through the faithfulness of the Messiah. Now, all who are obedient to the Messiah are renewed in knowledge after the Image of their Creator, which is the meaning of the word “justified.” Justification takes place not through Torah, but through faith in Messiah Jesus.

Paul then retells the entire history of Israel through the lens of the Messianic work of Jesus. He looks at Abraham, the Father of the Covenant People. Abraham himself, when God promised him a great worldwide family, was not made righteous by Torah (indeed, Torah had not been given yet!), but by faith in God. At the very moment when the family was promised, the benefits of the family (understand here that the Family of Abraham was to be a family which bore the Divine Image corrupted by Adam) were realized not through the Torah, but through Abraham’s unyielding trust in God. How then could membership in the family be defined by works of Torah? Indeed, all people, Jew and Gentile, may become members of the Abrahamic Family by following in the footsteps of Abraham.  In Romans 5, Paul moves from Abraham to the next stage in Israel’s history- bondage. The true bondage, though, is not physical labor in Egypt, but bondage in Adam. All men are “in Adam” and are enslaved to sin. The Messiah is the true Moses, the true liberator, because through Messiah, we are liberated from bondage to sin (which is enforced by personal, malevolent forces known as the powers and authorities) and made slaves to righteousness. In Romans 6, Paul looks at this Messianic Liberation, seeing Baptism as that which fulfilled the crossing of the Red Sea. It is through Baptism, teaches the Apostle, that we are liberated from slavery to sin. In Romans 7, Paul then looks at what was given after Israel crossed the Red Sea- Torah. What is the purpose of the Torah? What does it do in the new covenant? The Apostle carefully weaves his argument, demonstrating that Torah was never intended to mark out the people of God or lead them to realize the benefits of the Abrahamic Family. Rather, Torah was given so that Israel might know sin and the depth of her sinfulness. Then, in Romans 8, Paul looks at the glorious entrance of the people of Israel into the Promised Land, led by the Spirit of God, who enables them to obey. This time, however, it is not a tiny strip of land in the Middle East entered by a single race. Rather, it is the single Family of Abraham, comprising Jews and Gentiles, renewed in Baptism, filled with the Spirit, obeying in joy, that enters the true promised Land. The true land of Promise is the entire Creation, the whole cosmos, renewed and transfigured by the grace of God, inhabited by the Family of God, living in bodies redeemed after the likeness of the resurrection of the Messiah.

Romans 9-11 is the third act of the symphony. It is the Apostle’s scriptural defense of the above. “That’s all well and good, Paul”, says the interlocutor. “But is that really God’s plan? If Jews and Gentiles are now equal members of the family of God, it seems to me that God has not fulfilled, but broken His covenant with Israel.” And this is where the argument begins.

(Romans 9:6-9)  But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son.”

One of the earliest icons of St. Paul from a cave in Ephesus, Asia Minor.

God has been faithful to Israel, but you don’t know what Israel is, argues the Apostle. Not all who claim physical descent from Israel are really members of Israel. In order to prove this, Paul shows that Abraham’s true offspring were not named through Ishmael, but through Isaac. It is important to note here that Paul is not talking about the personal election of Ishmael or Isaac to salvation, damnation, or even covenant membership. Indeed, Ishmael was circumcised, demonstrating Abraham’s understanding that he was a member of the covenant. No, this is talking particularly about the election of their offspring. The promise of Israel was to go through Isaac. Let us not forget the purpose of Abraham’s calling. Abraham was called so that “all the families of the Earth” would be blessed in him. (Genesis 12:3) Paul understood this to be the very substance of the gospel, calling this proclamation in Genesis 12 “the gospel preached beforehand.” (Galatians 3:8) The promise was going through the family of Isaac, not the family of Ishmael. The last time that Paul used this word “counted” (9:8) was in Romans 4, where Paul teaches that Abraham was counted as righteous through his faith, so that all who are of the faith of Abraham would be counted righteous along with him. This is a return to that theme. The genuine sons of Abraham are the ones through whom and in whom the promise of Abraham would be fulfilled. Not all who come from Abraham’s flesh are genuinely his children. Rather, it is those who are of the promise who are the genuine children.

(Romans 9:10-13)  And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call– she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

This is where it becomes very important to examine the contexts of the Old Testament citations used by the Apostle Paul. First, the Apostle cites a passage from Genesis 25. The text says, “And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23) The discussion here is of the election of the nation coming from Jacob and the nation coming from Esau. Esau, in his own life, did not personally serve Jacob. The sons of Esau, the nation of Edom, was however subordinated to the sons of Jacob, the nation of Israel. This demonstrates yet again that Paul is not discussing the personal election to salvation or damnation of Jacob or Esau, but is rather discussing which family the promise will pass through. The “purpose of election” is that purpose discussed in Genesis 12:3, that God would bless and redeem the whole world through Israel. God had chosen to bless the world through the family of Jacob, rather than the family of Esau. The context of the other quotation of Scripture confirms this point. Paul is quoting from Malachi 1, which says, “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ ‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.'” (Malachi 1:2-3) Here, it is evident that God is not discussing the fates of Jacob and Esau as individuals, but is rather using them as figures representing the nations which they bore- Israel and Edom. The meaning of the words “love” and “hate” then become plain. By “love”, God means that He has covenanted with Israel, and by “hate” God means that He has not covenanted with Esau. The broader context of this passage provides additional support to the idea that the Apostle is not discussing personal salvation, but the choice of which family to pass the promise through. Malachi writes “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts.” (1:6-8) In the very context where God discusses His election of Jacob’s family rather than Esau’s, He accuses Israel of being unfaithful to her God! To read Romans 9:10-13, then, as “Jacob I have saved, but Esau I have damned” is utterly unwarranted by the text of Scripture.

(Romans 9:14-15)  What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

The question of “injustice” does not mean “Is God unjust to unconditionally elect some to salvation and unconditionally condemn others to damnation?” It means “Is God unfaithful, then, to His covenant with Abraham?” This can be understood by looking at the context of the passage quoted by the Apostle. Moses records, “‘For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?’ And the Lord said to Moses, ‘This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.’ Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.'” Moses asks God to confirm that Israel is truly His people by the display of the Divine Glory. The Lord God obliges, confirming that He is faithful to His covenant with Israel. The point, then, is this. Even as God chose to pass the promise through Isaac’s family, not Ishmael’s, and even as He chose Jacob’s family, not Esau’s, He is still faithful to that original covenant with Abraham. His choice to pass the promise through particular families does not detract from His covenant faithfulness. The point is certainly not “God is free to unconditionally elect some individuals and unconditionally damn others.” The point is that the covenant has never been broken, even as all the physical sons of Abraham have not inherited the covenant. Furthermore, this quotation of Exodus 33 actually looks forward to Romans 11:32, where the Apostle writes, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all.” The point of this whole argument is precisely not the limitation of God’s mercy. It is that God is merciful towards all! The promise looked forward to the day when both Jews and Gentiles would freely benefit from the covenant with Abraham.

(Romans 9:16) So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

This text has often been used to prove monergism over and against synergism, because it allegedly demonstrates that human freedom has absolutely no role in salvation. Actually, this constitutes a failure to read Paul as a Jew. There was a common idiom in the Hebrew Scriptures known as the “negation idiom.” This meant that when one aspect of something was to be emphasized, it would be phrased as a “this, not this”, even though both components were actually present. For example, God says through the Prophet Hosea, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) We know, in fact, that both love and sacrifice are essential, for the Apostle Paul himself affirms that there is no forgiveness apart from the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). Or note what God said through Jeremiah, “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.'” (Jeremiah 7:22-23)  We know that God in fact did both. These are “negation idioms” and they are peculiar to Hebrew thought. Paul, as a Jew writing against the backdrop of the Jewish Scriptures, follows this precise format in Romans 9:16. The passage fails as a proof for absolute monergism.

(Romans 9:17-21)  For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?

Let us take this passage one bit at a time. First, the example of Pharaoh is brought forth. What must be recognized here is that Pharaoh is the quintissential example of the person who attacks the covenant people and resists the purposes of the covenant God. What happens to the person who resists the purposes of the covenant God? They are hardened. This pattern has already been discussed in Romans 1. The Apostle writes first of the sin of the nations (1:21-23) and then says “therefore God gave them up” (1:24) The resistance is logically prior to the hardening. The hardening is not unconditional, as the Calvinist would claim. This pattern also appears in the Exodus narrative itself. In Exodus 8:15 and 8:32, Pharaoh is the one who hardens his own heart. It is only from 9:12 onwards that God is described as hardening Pharaoh’s heart. This pattern is confirmed by the Old Testament allusion that Paul is using. When Paul describes the potter and the clay, he is alluding to Jeremiah 18, which says “So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.'” (Jeremiah 18:3-6) Note here that the potter is working the clay for His own purposes, and the clay is then “spoiled in the potter’s hand.” It not that the potter has purposed from the very beginning to destroy the clay. It is instead that the potter is forming the clay, but the clay is resistant. Because it is spoiled in the potter’s hand, he reworks it for another purpose. It is then made clear that the “clay” is not assorted individual Jews and Gentiles. It is instead the “house of Israel” which has spoiled and been reworked. The point, then, is that the Jewish people have become like Pharaoh. They have spoiled in the potter’s hand and resisted the purposes of the covenant God. God then uses them for another purpose. Like Pharaoh was used to make the name of Israel’s God known to the nations, so also the Jewish rejection of God is used to bring the Gentiles into covenant relationship with God. This is why Paul later says, “So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.” (Romans 11:11)

(Romans 9:22-23) Although God desired to show his wrath and to make known his power, he endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– [translation of Dr. Ben Witherington]

This passage makes perfect sense in light of everything that has come before. God chose to bless the world through Abraham’s family. He then determined that the promise to bless the world would pass through Isaac’s family, then Jacob’s family. Throughout history, Jacob’s family resisted the purposes of the covenant God, yet the Lord endured them and did not destroy them, in order to bring His purposes to pass. His purpose was to “make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy.” The “vessels of wrath” are not individual reprobates, but the unfaithful Jewish people. The word “vessel” is lifted from Jeremiah 18, which is discussing the unfaithfulness and reworking of the house of Israel. God endured their unfaithfulness to make known His faithfulness. Through the family of Jacob, He brought forth the son of Israel, Jesus the Messiah, and the promise is realized in the Messiah. As the promise has been realized through Him, all who are loyal to Him now constitute the “children of the promise” the true people of Israel.

(Romans 9:24-28)  even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.'” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.'” And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.”

These two texts are woven together very carefully. The first text from Hosea is a quotation from Hosea 2:23. It is prophesying the coming redemption of Israel, when God will renew the covenant and render Israel His people again. This is because in Hosea 1:9-10 (the second text quoted by Paul), God declared that Israel is “not my people” because of their unfaithfulness. One day, says Hosea, Israel will be God’s people again. the Apostle juxtaposes this with a citation from Isaiah 10, where the Prophet says, “A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness.” (Isaiah 10:21-22)  It was acceptable in antiquity to slightly alter the quotation of a text so as to make clearer the point you are making (there was no such thing as a quotation mark, after all.) Where Isaiah says “your people Israel”, the Apostle Paul says “the sons of Israel.” This hearkens back to what St. Paul wrote in Romans 9:6: “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” The point is that when God renews His covenant with Israel, only a remnant of Jacob’s ethnic descendants will hearken to the “mighty God”, who, remember, has been defined in Isaiah 9:6-7 as the Messianic Son of David. When God redeems Israel, it won’t be only Jews who are called “sons of the living God.” When God judges the Earth, many of those physically descended from Israel will not inherit the kingdom of God.

(Romans 9:29)  And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.”

The citation here is from Isaiah 1:9, where the Prophet writes, “Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.” (Isaiah 1:7-9)  This is a continuation of Paul’s discussion of when the Lord carries out His sentence on the Earth. The Apostle modifies “survivors” to become “offspring.” God is faithful, says Paul, because there are still genuine Israelites among the Jewish people. There is still a righteous remnant. (9:27, 11:5) The others, those who sought righteousness by the Torah, have been left desolate, estranged from the covenant, judged along with Sodom and Gomorrah.

(Romans 9:30-33)  What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

This brings Romans 9 to a close, though the argument continues to press on in 10-11. For now, however, we will conclude here. The “righteousness” is that same righteousness that was counted to Abraham when he believed that God would create a massive family through his own offspring. (Genesis 15:1-6, Romans 4:1-4) God had chosen to renew the Divine Image in man through the Family of Abraham (as is recognized in Jewish texts like Jubilees), and he does this through inspiring a man to “live by faith.” (Habbakuk 2:4, Romans 1:17-18) It is this life of faith that marks a person out as a son of Israel, a genuine child of promise, an heir to the covenant with Abraham. Even though the nations were worshiping idols, God has redeemed them by bringing forth the perfect Image of God from among the sons of Abraham. Now lifted up, the Messiah draws all men to Himself (John 12:32), and the people of God live not by the bondage of Torah, but by faith in the Son of God. (Romans 7, Galatians 2:17-20) Those who seek to be children of Abraham by Torah will inevitably fail, but those who seek it by faith will have God’s righteousness established in their hearts. To wrap this up, St. Paul draws together two texts from the Hebrew Bible. First, he alludes to Psalm 118 which says, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”(Psalm 118:19-23)  He links this with Isaiah 28, which says “therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.” Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be beaten down by it.” (Isaiah 28:16-18) When God annuls the grave, when God destroys death, this will be through a stone laid in Zion, and everyone who puts their trust in it will find redemption. But the builders of the house have rejected this stone, and are thus put to shame.

Romans 9 is not an isolated discussion about double predestination. It is the natural answer to all the questions raised in Romans 1-8. It is not about the restriction of God’s mercy to a select few. It is about how God has worked all things together for good. Even as the Jewish people were unfaithful, God has been faithful. God has used their unfaithfulness to make His name known throughout all the Earth, to bring many nations to the throne of the God of Israel. Though they stumble, their stumbling was not for damnation, but for the salvation of the nations. Indeed, not even their stumbling is permanent. As St. Paul writes, “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15)

Understanding these things, we are inspired to look to Heaven and cry out with the blessed Apostle in Romans 11:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”

“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things.

To him be glory unto the ages of ages.


For further reading:

Understanding and Refuting Justification by Faith Alone: A Case Study

A Case Study of Common Evangelical Objections to Orthodoxy

May 28, 2012

By Thomas Seraphim Hamilton

Some time ago, an organization called “The Gospel Coalition” did two interviews. One of them was with a man born into an Orthodox family who then converted to evangelicalism. The other one was with a man born into an Evangelical family who had gone the other way. We have decided to critique the interviewee who left the Orthodox Church, not because he makes arguments that are particularly new or troubling, but because he serves as an excellent case study of common Evangelical objections to Orthodoxy. By answering his arguments, we cover much of the ground that Evangelicals seek to cover with Orthodox.


John is a Romanian man in his late fifties who is no stranger to the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was born into a family of Orthodox Christians, in a society where church and state often mix in unhealthy ways.

While we will refrain from commenting on Romania in particular at this moment, it is necessary to explain the Orthodox Christian understanding of Church and State. Westerners, especially Americans, tend to view Church and State as entirely separate entities, which should function independently. Different positions are generally considered extreme, radical, or silly. While this may be the view of most Americans, it is not the view of the Orthodox Church. Countries that model their society on the Church’s understanding of church-state relations cannot be labeled “unhealthy” simply because they do not agree with the Enlightenment understanding of Church and State.

The Orthodox Church views the Church and State as working in concert. The Church is the hospital of the society. In a Christian society, there will be no separation between “religious life” and “secular life.” Every part of one’s life is necessarily involved with the therapy prescribed by the Church. A Christian society will understand that divinization is the purpose of the human life, and will orient everything it does towards that end. The Church, as Christ’s body, is the means by which we are divinized. To split the Church and the State into two unrelated entities is to say that the purpose of some lives is divinization, but it is not essential. It creates an unhealthy divide between “religious” and “secular” life. Ideally, the State will be the patron of the Church, assisting it wherever it can.

Just as there is a hierarchy of primacy among the clergy ( bishop, archbishop, patriarch, etc.), there is also a hierarchy of primacy among the laity. This normally goes by date of Baptism. In an Orthodox Christian society, there is another layer of primacy. The civil authorities have primacy among the laity. Just as the Patriarch of Constantinople is the primate of the clergy, so also the Emperor, in the ancient Orthodox Christian Empire, was the primate of the laity, serving as their chief representative. This is why Emperors were not allowed to be ordained.


“I usually went to the midnight Easter vigil,” he recalls. “A few days before Easter, I would go confess my sins to the local priest. But this had no effect on me. When I walked out of a church service, I was the same as before.”

Certainly, if one goes through the rote form of the Sacraments without joining that to a living faith, then one’s soul will be dead. Nominalism is not uncommon in the Church. To take one’s nominal practice of the faith and assume that this means that Orthodoxy cannot cure the human soul is a non-sequitur. The Church points to its Saints- such as St. John Maximovitch, as proof that the Church, when its treasures are taken advantage of, is the Ark of Salvation and the Body of Christ.

Additionally, the Church is not magic. One cannot expect to be baptized as an infant, commune a few times a year, and confess once or twice a year and be redeemed. The Lord Jesus Christ said that salvation is a “narrow gate” that we must “strive” to enter. (St. Luke 13:24)

“The priest never confronted us in our sins,” he says, with a mixture of grief and anger. “I didn’t have a Bible, but no one encouraged me to read one anyway.”

If what John says is true, then his priest has not taken seriously his responsibility as a worker in Christ’s Vineyard. This is a serious offense indeed. The faith and life of the Orthodox Church is expressed par excellence by its Saints. Whatever the failings of individual Orthodox Christians, these failings cannot be generalized to the Church itself unless this failing is expressed as good by its Saints. St. John, Hieromartyr of Santa Cruz, was said to regularly make his parishioners uncomfortable by calling them to repent daily of their sins.


“I didn’t have a Bible, but no one encouraged me to read one anyway.”

St. Innocent of Alaska beautifully expressed the Orthodox teaching on Scripture when he wrote: “First of all, a Christian must thoroughly study the foundations of the Christian faith. To that end, you must read and reread the Holy Scriptures on a regular basis, especially the books of the New Testament. You must not only learn their contents but also develop an interest in their origin, who wrote them and when, how they were preserved and have been handed down to us, and why they are called Divine and Sacred. You must study the Holy Books with simplicity of heart, without prejudice or excessive inquisitiveness, not trying to discover hidden mysteries but trying to learn that which leads us to self-improvement.”

St. Justin Popovich says likewise:”The more one reads and studies the Bible, the more he finds reasons to study it as often and as frequently as he can.”


 I realized that the Orthodox church was a societal organization that had taught me nothing.” So John decided to “follow Jesus” and turn away from his sinful past.

The pressure from all sides to give up his new identity was overwhelming. “I would have caved had I not begun reading the Bible the Baptists had given me,” John says with a smile. “As I began reading Scripture, I understood Jesus to be the only way to God. I realized I did not need the Orthodox church or even a priest to be my mediator, for Jesus was the mediator between me and the Father.”

Christ is indeed the only way to the Father – the Church would never think of denying that. What John has missed, however, is the doctrine, equally biblical, that we participate in Christ through participation in the sacramental life of the Church. St. Paul writes for this reason:

(1 Corinthians 10:16-17)  The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

Baptists, because of their low view of the Sacraments, often do not even partake of the Eucharist more than quarterly, and when they do, it is considered to be a mere “memorial” of Christ’s work on the Cross, without any special presence of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul, by contrast, says that the Church’s very character as Christ’s Body is actualized in the Holy Eucharist. The Church is Christ’s Body because it eats Christ’s body.

John has also confused the understanding of the priesthood in the Orthodox Church. The Church’s priests are not “mediators” in opposition to Jesus. Indeed, Christ is the only real priest in the Church. He perpetually celebrates the Divine Liturgy of Heaven. The role of the earthly priest is only to be the vessel by which Christ manifests Himself and brings His Heavenly Worship to Earth. Earthly priests are only the means by which Christ makes Himself present to us.


Though John does not use the term, it is clear from his testimony that he had acquired an unshakable belief in the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. “I realized that the Bible was the authority, even over the Church. 

John, unfortunately, does not explain why he believes this to be so. The Bible is not the authority over the Church. The Bible is an important voice of the Church. The Lord said:

(John 16:13) When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

The Bible was produced by men who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the new covenant, the Spirit actually indwells the Christian. The New Testament was therefore produced by men who had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit and were deeply indwelt by Him. The Spirit inspired the words that they wrote. What is important is that this gift of the Holy Spirit did not cease after the Apostolic Era. While the fullness of doctrinal revelation had been bestowed upon the Apostles, Christ promised to ensure that His Church would not be overcome (cf. St. Matthew 16:18). He fulfills this Promise by continuing to fill men and women with the Holy Spirit. The person deeply indwelt by the Spirit is a Saint. All of the good works they do are done by the power of the Divine Spirit. Just as the Spirit inspires them to do good, He also inspires them to teach Truth. He reorients the person away from evil and falsehood, and towards good and truth. For this reason, it is the consensus of the Saints that is the rule of faith for an Orthodox Christian. The Church is the authority because the Saints are the authority. The Church is the body of Christ and it is the Saints who are supremely the body of Christ by means of their union with Him. St. Paul said:

(1 Timothy 3:15)  If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth.

St. Paul is discussing St. Timothy’s behavior in the local Church. The Orthodox Church teaches that the entirety of the People of God is mystically present in every local Church. Hence, the local Church, as a Catholic (that is: whole) manifestation of the reality of the Church, serves as a the pillar of Truth. It was not the Scriptures, but the Church, which was identified by the Apostle as the pillar of Truth. This is because the Scriptures are a voice of the Church. The Saints are a voice of the Church. The Divine Services are a voice of the Church. The Church speaks with a symphony of voices, and they are all in complete harmony. Just as one uses “Scripture to interpret Scripture”, so also one uses the Apostolic Tradition expressed by the Saints to interpret the Scripture. Both are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit. John’s fundamental error is in splitting the Bible away from the Church. The Bible was produced by members of the Church and was entrusted to the Church. It cannot be understood apart from the living tradition of this same Church.

A final problem with John’s understanding of the Bible and the Church is the obvious fact that the Bible is not self-attesting. Many books in the New Testament do not claim to be Scripture. No passage in the entire Bible tells us which books are Scripture. Thus, one cannot understand what Scripture is by Scripture alone- making the entire position of Sola Scriptura self-refuting. God had inspired twenty-seven writings to be Scripture. He revealed to men what books He intended to be Scripture by indwelling and inspiring the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church. The Church knows what is Scripture because the Spirit worked in the body of the Church to manifest this truth through its Saints, through its liturgical readings, and through its Synods. To deny the authority of these things is to deny that we have a Scriptural canon in the first place- and therefore to deny the very thing required for Sola Scriptura.

The Bible was true, and the Church with all its traditions and rituals was wrong.”

One notices two things here. First, for John, “tradition” has become a bad word. For the biblical authors, it most certainly was not. Consider what St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Thessalonica:

(2 Thessalonians 2:15)  So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

St. Paul commands Christians to remain faithful to Tradition, and identifies two means of transmitting that Tradition. It is transmitted both by writing and by spoken word. This is why Orthodox Christians understand the written word (Scripture) in the context of the entire living Tradition of the Church. The Pharisees who were condemned by Christ were not condemned by holding to tradition per se. They were condemned for holding to the wrong kind of tradition- tradition invented by man. There is only one Person who can ensure that men do not make up their own traditions- and that is the Holy Spirit.

In fact, as much as Evangelicals would like to deny it, they have a tradition. There is not a single person on this planet who picked up a Bible with nothing but a knowledge of the language and then discerned their doctrines from there. The Reformers created a new way of understanding justification, the Cross, and salvation and passed this Biblical hermeunetic on to their communities. These communities begat other communities, which slightly altered the original Reformed doctrine. As Protestant denominations multiplied, they passed on their own hermeneutics to their daughter communities. Some people encounter the Protestant hermeneutic and choose to accept it. But we must not pretend that Protestants operate by the Bible alone. Protestants operate by the Bible as understood by the Reformers and their successors.

Second, one notices that “ritual” is a bad word for John. One only needs to read the Book of Revelation to find clerical vestments, incense, altars, and sacrifice spoken of in the context of the New Covenant. God ordered the Jerusalem Temple to be sacramental and “ritualistic” (in a good way.) The Church is the fullfillment of what the Temple pointed towards (Eph 2:21-22.) John’s dislike for rituals has nothing to do with Biblical revelation.


The intercession of the saints and Mary on behalf of Christians on earth was easily rejected. “That isn’t in the Bible,” he says, without further elaboration.

In saying this, John actually posits a fundamental distinction that is unbiblical. It is clear that living believers are to pray for each other:

(1 Timothy 2:1)  First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,

It is also clear that the prayer of righteous people is powerful:

(James 5:16)  Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

In order to say that the Saints cannot pray for us, one must argue that (1) They are totally dead and unconscious or at least (2) They are alive in Christ but are unaware of what is happening on Earth.

The first point (known as soul sleep, held to by Jehovah’s Witnesses and a minority of Protestants) is easily rejected. The Lord says:

(John 11:25-26)  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

St. Paul speaks of his state after death and before the resurrection on the Last Day in this fashion:

(Philippians 1:23) My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

We know then, that the Saints are conscious. The question is whether they are conscious of what we are doing on Earth. St. Paul seems to answer in the affirmative:

(Hebrews 12:1)  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

The great “witnesses” of the faith “surround” us and encourage us to run the Christian race. This is inexplicable if the Saints are not aware of our progress in the Christian race. St. John in his Apocalypse records:

(Revelation 6:9-10)  When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

If the martyrs are aware of the judgments being poured out on Earth, then they must be aware of the business of Earth.

So, if (1) We are to pray for one another, (2) The prayers of righteous people are effectual in a special manner, (3) and those “with Christ” in Heaven are conscious of our progress in the Christian race and know what we are doing, then why would we not ask for their prayers as well? Why would we split the Body of Christ into two? In fact, when the Book of Revelation shows us what the Saints seem to be doing in Heaven, it accords perfectly with the Orthodox practice.

(Revelation 5:8)  And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. [saints, in this context, means all Christians]

All prayer, even that offered through a Saint, is ultimately offered to God. A Saint can do nothing of his or her own power, but only by the power of God. We ask for the intercession of the Saints. In this passage, we see “the prayers of the saints” being offered to God is offered by the twenty-four elders, understood by most exegetes to be the Twelve Patriarchs of the Old Covenant and the Twelve Apostles of the New. Revelation then says:

(Revelation 8:3)  And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne,

Hence, we see what the Church teaches: The Saints of both Covenants, along with the Angels, offer the prayers of Christians on Earth to God.


Shortly thereafter, he rejected the Orthodox doctrine of infant baptism. “My baptism when I was 6 weeks old was not a true baptism. Scripture teaches that the one who believes is the one who should be baptized.”

Baptism is the means by which God creates faith in an infant. If an infant is incapable of having faith in his own way, then what did the Prophet-King David mean when he wrote this:

(Psalm 22:9-10)  Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

St. Peter, when preaching the gospel, said this:

(Acts 2:38-39)  And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

St. Paul compares circumcision (which was given to infants born into the covenant community) with Baptism:

(Colossians 2:11-12)  In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

John’s understanding of Baptism results from a shallow reading of Scripture and a failure to truly appreciate the typological significance of Baptism and the reality of the Church as a covenant community.


John’s view of salvation changed dramatically as well. As he delved into Paul’s epistles, primarily to the Romans and Ephesians, John came to understand salvation as a gift from God through faith alone, not through good deeds.

The Apostle Paul never once says that a man is saved by faith alone. Indeed, he teaches the opposite:

(Romans 2:6-10)  He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

(Romans 2:13)  For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be shown to be righteous.

(Romans 6:22)  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

(Romans 8:13)  For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

How then, are we to understand Paul’s doctrine of justification (making righteous) by faith? St. Paul begins Romans by identifying the key point as a “life lived by faith.” (Romans 1:17) Faith is a lifestyle. It is the foundation upon which all truly good deeds are based. While we do not have the space to go into depth about St. Paul’s understanding of salvation here, we may summarize it in this fashion.

1. One has faith.

2. If one acts consistently with that faith, then one is baptized, washing the person of their sins and uniting them to Christ. (Rom 6:1-4, Col 2:12)

3. One receives the Spirit. (Rom 5:5)

4. By the Spirit and living by faith, one puts to death the deeds of the body (Rom 8:13)

5. Having put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit in faith, one is sanctified (Rom 6:22)

6. Because of the above, one is judged aright on the Last Day (Rom 2:6-7)

Paul’s condemnation of works is not a condemnation of all works. It is a condemnation of a particular type of work, the work of the law. Works of the law are not only works of the Jewish law. This is an overly simplistic reading of St. Paul that does not match the fullness of what he said. Works of the law are defined by Paul in Romans 4:

(Romans 4:4)  Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his payment.

Works of the law are works which attempt to obligate God to provide a payment of salvation. We cannot obligate God. He does not owe us anything. One must work not under the principle of law, but under the principle of faith. This is why Paul says:

(Romans 3:27)  Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.

It is then in “living by faith” that one “upholds the law.”

(Romans 3:31)  Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

God does not pay man for his works. God owes man nothing. Yet, looking at man through the eyes of grace, God may justly reward man for his works. As St. Paul says:

(Hebrews 11:6)  And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Note here that faith is not seen as the sole means of salvation in this passage. Rather, faith is the orientation by which one operates. It is only useful if one chooses, by the Spirit, to use that faith in order to perform works of love. While works of the law are condemned by St. Paul and juxtaposed against faith, other types of works are actually joined inseparably with faith:

(Galatians 5:6)  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

For the Apostle Paul, “faith working through love” is equivalent to “keeping the commandments of God”, as can be seen by the parallel wording in this passage:

(1 Corinthians 7:19)  For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping thse commandments of God.

St. James utterly rejects the idea that man can be saved by faith alone, writing:

(James 2:24)  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

For a more extensive explanation of the Orthodox understanding of salvation, see the article: “The Gospel as Understood by the Orthodox Church.”

In short, John has seriously erred in his interpretation of the Orthodox doctrine and of the Biblical doctrine.

“Paul said we are dead in sins. So I began to ask myself, ‘How can a dead person do good works?’”

By the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ promised to sent the Spirit to minister to all men (John 12:32) and it is in this fashion that man can believe and do good.


I am totally sure [that the Orthodox Church is wrong], based on the authority of God’s Word alone,” he replies firmly, again appealing to the sola scriptura principle.

Note how John has subtly equated “God’s Word” with “the Bible” in a classic example of a begged question. St. Paul, however, teaches:

(1 Thessalonians 2:13)  And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

The Word of God is not confined to the written alone. It is manifested in the entirety of the Church’s life. John, by equating the written Word alone with the Word of God, has stacked the deck in favor of Sola Scriptura in advance.

If Orthodox believers would read Scripture without it being interpreted for them by the Church, they would discover the truth,” he adds.

What John is failing to realize is that Scripture is always interpreted by someone. John doesn’t interpret the Scripture by himself- he interprets it through the eyes of the Reformers. Orthodox interpret the Scriptures through the eyes of the Saints- men and women who have been visibly and obviously indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, so that the Spirit is guiding them in all things, both their actions and their understanding of the Spirit-inspired Scripture.


I thank John for his time, and then ask him to sum up the biggest difference between Orthodox Christians and Baptists. He pauses for a moment, looks at me intently, and says, “Baptists preach that ‘You must be born again.’”

This is nonsense. Baptists preach a Gnostic understanding of the phrase “born again.” Orthodox, understanding the physical and the spiritual as two fundamentally good creations of God, do not exclude the physical from salvation. The Sacraments are theandric extensions of the Incarnation. They therefore are both physical and spiritual. This is what Christ says when He spoke of the Christian rebirth:

(John 3:5)  Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Being “born again” is a matter of being born by “water and the Spirit.” The Fathers of the Church, from the earliest days, have interpreted this to be a prophecy of Christian Baptism. One is immersed into water, which the Spirit works through to effect regeneration by union with Christ. Baptists, in their understanding of rebirth, have completely ignored Christ’s reference to water.

Published here with permission of the author. Source.

Ancestral Sin vs. Original Sin

October 10, 2011

H/T: Preachers Institute

By Fr. Antony Hughes

This excellent essay details the vast divergence between western/Scholastic theology and Orthodox Patristic theology with regard to the sin of Adam.

Pastor of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fr. Anthony has also served as Orthodox Chaplain at Harvard University.

A young man called me recently to discuss his family’s movement toward the Orthodox Church. He told me a priceless story about how his seven-year old daughter helped him and his wife understand an Orthodox practice that is often a hindrance to inquirers. Although the family had icons in their home they could not grasp the reason for the practice of venerating (kissing) them. One evening after prayers with his daughter she looked at the icon in her room and asked,

“Who is on those pictures, Daddy?”

He replied,

“The Virgin Mary and Jesus.”

She picked up the icon, kissed it and hugged it to her chest exclaiming,

“Oh, daddy, they love you so much!”

“Then,” he told me, “We understood. It’s all about affection.”

Love, in fact, is the heart and soul of the theology of the early Church Fathers and of the Orthodox Church. The Fathers of the Church — East and West — in the early centuries shared the same perspective: humanity longs for liberation from the tyranny of death, sin, corruption and the devil which is only possible through the Life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only the compassionate advent of God in the flesh could accomplish our salvation, because only He could conquer these enemies of humanity.

It is impossible for Orthodoxy to imagine life outside the all-encompassing love and grace of the God who came Himself to rescue His fallen creation.

Theology is, for the Fathers of the Orthodox Church, all about love.

The Approach of the Orthodox Fathers

As pervasive as the term original sin has become, it may come as a surprise to some that it was unknown in both the Eastern and Western Church until Augustine (c. 354-430). The concept may have arisen in the writings of Tertullian, but the expression seems to have appeared first in Augustine’s works. Prior to this the theologians of the early church used different terminology indicating a contrasting way of thinking about the fall, its effects and God’s response to it. The phrase the Greek Fathers used to describe the tragedy in the Garden was ancestral sin.

Ancestral sin has a specific meaning. The Greek word for sin in this case, amartema, refers to an individual act indicating that the Eastern Fathers assigned full responsibility for the sin in the Garden to Adam and Eve alone. The word amartia, the more familiar term for sin which literally means “missing the mark”, is used to refer to the condition common to all humanity (Romanides, 2002).

The Eastern Church, unlike its Western counterpart, never speaks of guilt being passed from Adam and Eve to their progeny, as did Augustine. Instead, it is posited that each person bears the guilt of his or her own sin. The question becomes, “What then is the inheritance of humanity from Adam and Eve if it is not guilt?” The Orthodox Fathers answer as one: death. (I Corinthians 15:21)

“Man is born with the parasitic power of death within him,” writes Fr. Romanides (2002, p. 161).

Our nature, teaches Cyril of Alexandria, became

“diseased… through the sin of one” (Migne, 1857-1866a).

It is not guilt that is passed on, for the Orthodox fathers; it is a condition, a disease.

In Orthodox thought Adam and Eve were created with a vocation: to become one with God gradually increasing in their capacity to share in His divine life — deification2 (Romanides, 2002, p. 76-77).

“They needed to mature, to grow to awareness by willing detachment and faith, a loving trust in a personal God” (Clement, 1993, p. 84).

Theophilus of Antioch (2nd Century) posits that Adam and Eve were created neither immortal nor mortal. They were created with the potential to become either through obedience or disobedience (Romanides, 2002).

The freedom to obey or disobey belonged to our first parents,

“For God made man free and sovereign” (Romanides, 2002, p. 32).

To embrace their God-given vocation would bring life, to reject it would bring death, but not at God’s hands. Theophilus continues,

“… should he keep the commandment of God he would be rewarded with immortality… if, however, he should turn to things of death by disobeying God, he would be the cause of death to himself” (Romanides, 2002, p. 32)

Adam and Eve failed to obey the commandment not to eat from the forbidden tree thus rejecting God and their vocation to manifest the fullness of human existence (Yannaras, 1984). Death and corruption began to reign over the creation.

“Sin reigned through death.” (Romans 5:21)

In this view death and corruption do not originate with God; he neither created nor intended them. God cannot be the Author of evil. Death is the natural result of turning aside from God.

Adam and Eve were overcome with the same temptation that afflicts all humanity: to be autonomous, to go their own way, to realize the fullness of human existence without God. According to the Orthodox fathers sin is not a violation of an impersonal law or code of behavior, but a rejection of the life offered by God (Yannaras, 1984). This is the mark, to which the word amartia refers. Fallen human life is above all else the failure to realize the God-given potential of human existence, which is, as St. Peter writes, to

“become partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).

St. Basil writes:

“Humanity is an animal who has received the vocation to become God” (Clement, 1993, p. 76).

In Orthodox thought God did not threaten Adam and Eve with punishment nor was He angered or offended by their sin; He was moved to compassion.3 The expulsion from the Garden and from the Tree of Life was an act of love and not vengeance so that humanity would not

“become immortal in sin” (Romanides, 2002, p. 32).

Thus began the preparation for the Incarnation of the Son of God and the solution that alone could rectify the situation: the destruction of the enemies of humanity and God, death (I Corinthians 15:26, 56), sin, corruption and the devil (Romanides, 2002).

It is important to note that salvation as deification is not pantheism because the Orthodox Fathers insist on the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (Athanasius, 1981). Human beings, along with all created things, have come into being from nothing. Created beings will always remain created and God will always remain Uncreated. The Son of God in the Incarnation crossed the unbridgeable chasm between them.

Orthodox hymnography frequently speaks of the paradox of the Uncreated and created uniting without mixture or confusion in the wondrous hypostatic union. The Nativity of Christ, for example, is interpreted as “a secret re-creation, by which human nature was assumed and restored to its original state” (Clement, 1993, p. 41). God and human nature, separated by the Fall, are reunited in the Person of the Incarnate Christ and redeemed through His victory on the Cross and in the Resurrection by which death is destroyed (I Corinthians 15:54-55).

In this way the Second Adam fulfills the original vocation and reverses the tragedy of the fallen First Adam opening the way of salvation for all.

The Fall could not destroy the image of God; the great gift given to humanity remained intact, but damaged (Romanides, 2002). Origen speaks of the image buried as in a well choked with debris (Clement, 1993). While the work of salvation was accomplished by God through Jesus Christ the removal of the debris that hides the image in us calls for free and voluntary cooperation. St. Paul uses the word synergy, or “co-workers”, (I Corinthians 3:9) to describe the cooperation between Divine Grace and human freedom.

For the Orthodox Fathers this means asceticism (prayer, fasting, charity and keeping vigil) relating to St. Paul’s image of the spiritual athlete (I Corinthians 9:24-27). This is the working out of salvation

“with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

Salvation is a process involving faith, freedom and personal effort to fulfill the commandment of Christ to

“love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

The great Orthodox hymn of Holy Pascha (Easter) captures in a few words the essence of the Orthodox understanding of the Atonement:

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs bestowing life”

(The Liturgikon, Paschal services, 1989).

Because of the victory of Christ on the Cross and in the Tomb humanity has been set free, the curse of the law has been broken, death is slain, life has dawned for all. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 – 662) writes that “Christ’s death on the Cross is the judgment of judgment” (Clement, 1993, p. 49) and because of this we can rejoice in the conclusion stated so beautifully by Olivier Clement: “In the crucified Christ forgiveness is offered and life is given. For humanity it is no longer a matter of fearing judgment or of meriting salvation, but of welcoming love in trust and humility” (Clement, 1993, p. 49).

Augustine’s Legacy

The piety and devotion of Augustine is largely unquestioned by Orthodox theologians, but his conclusions on the Atonement are (Romanides, 2002). Augustine, by his own admission, did not properly learn to read Greek and this was a liability for him. He seems to have relied mostly on Latin translations of Greek texts (Augustine, 1956a, p. 9). His misinterpretation of a key scriptural reference, Romans 5:12, is a case in point (Meyendorff, 1979).

In Latin the Greek idiom eph ho which means because of was translated as in whom. Saying that all have sinned in Adam is quite different than saying that all sinned because of him. Augustine believed and taught that all humanity has sinned in Adam (Meyendorff, 1979, p. 144). The result is that guilt replaces death as the ancestral inheritance (Augustine, 1956b) Therefore the term original sin conveys the belief that Adam and Eve’s sin is the first and universal transgression in which all humanity participates.

Augustine famously debated Pelagius (c. 354-418) over the place the human will could play in salvation. Augustine took the position against him that only grace is able to save, sola gratis (Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, 7)4. From this a doctrine of predestination developed (God gives grace to whom He will) which hardened in the 16th and 17th centuries into the doctrine of two-fold predestination (God in His sovereignty saves some and condemns others). The position of the Church of the first two centuries concerning the image and human freedom was abandoned.

The Roman idea of justice found prominence in Augustinian and later Western theology. The idea that Adam and Eve offended God’s infinite justice and honor made of death God’s method of retribution (Romanides, 2002). But this idea of justice deviates from Biblical thought. Kalomiros (1980) explains the meaning of justice in the original Greek of the New Testament:

The Greek word dikaiosuni ‘justice’, is a translation of the Hebrew word tsedaka. The word means ‘the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation.’ It is parallel and almost synonymous with the word hesed which means ‘mercy’, ‘compassion’, ‘love’, and to the word emeth which means ‘fidelity’, ‘truth’. This is entirely different from the juridical understanding of ‘justice’. (p. 31)

The juridical view of justice generates two problems for Augustine. One: how can one say that the attitude of the immutable God’s toward His creation changes from love to wrath? Two: how can God, who is good, be the author of such an evil as death (Romanides, 1992)?

The only way to answer this is to say, as Augustine did to the young Bishop, Julian of Eclanum (d. 454), that God’s justice is inscrutable (Cahill, 1995, p. 65).

Logically, then, justice provides proof of inherited guilt for Augustine, because since all humanity suffers the punishment of death and since God who is just cannot punish the innocent, then all must be guilty in Adam. Also, by similar reasoning, justice appears as a standard to which even God must adhere (Kalomiris, 1980). Can God change or be subject to any kind of standard or necessity?

By contrast the Orthodox father, Basil the Great, attributes the change in attitude to humanity rather than to God (Migne, 1857-1866b). Because of the theological foundation laid by Augustine and taken up by his heirs, the conclusion seems unavoidable that a significant change occurs in the West making the wrath of God and not death the problem facing humanity (Romanides, 1992, p. 155-156).

How then could God’s anger be assuaged? The position of the ancient Church had no answer because its proponents did not see wrath as the problem. The Satisfaction Theory proposed by Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) in his work Why the God-Man? provides the most predominant answer in the West5.

The sin of Adam offended and angered God making the punishment of death upon all guilty humanity justified.

The antidote to this situation is the crucifixion of the Incarnate Son of God because only the suffering and death of an equally eternal being could ever satisfy the infinite offense of the infinitely dishonored God and assuage His wrath (Williams, 2002; Yannaras, 1984, p. 152). God sacrifices His Son to restore His honor and pronounces the sacrifice sufficient. The idea of imputed righteousness rises from this. The Orthodox understanding that

“the resurrection…through Christ, opens for humanity the way of love that is stronger than death” (Clement, 1993, p. 87)

is replaced by a juridical theory of courtrooms and verdicts.

The image of an angry, vengeful God haunts the West where a basic insecurity and guilt seem to exist. Many appear to hold that sickness, suffering and death are God’s will. Why? I suspect one reason is that down deep the belief persists that God is still angry and must be appeased. Yes, sickness, suffering and death come and when they do God’s grace is able to transform them into life-bearing trials, but are they God’s will? Does God punish us when the mood strikes, when our behavior displeases Him or for no reason at all? Are the ills that afflict creation on account of God?

For example, could the loving Father really be said to enjoy the sufferings of His Son or of the damned in hell (Yannaras, 1984)? Freud rebelled against these ideas calling the God inherent in them the sadistic Father (Yannaras, 1984, p. 153). Could it be as Yannaras, Clement and Kalomiris propose that modern atheism is a healthy rebellion against a terrorist deity (Clement, 2000)? Kalomiris (1980) writes that there are no atheists, just people who hate the God in whom they have been taught to believe.

Orthodoxy agrees that grace is a gift, but one that is given to all not to a chosen few.

For Grace is an uncreated energy of God sustaining all creation apart from which nothing can exist (Psalm 104:29). What is more, though grace sustains humanity, salvation cannot be forced upon us (or withheld) by divine decree. Clement points out that the “Greek fathers (and some of the Latin Fathers), according to whom the creation of humanity entailed a real risk on God’s part, laid the emphasis on salvation through love: ‘God can do anything except force a man to love him’. The gift of grace saves, but only in an encounter of love” (Clement, 1993, p. 81). Orthodox theology holds that divine grace must be joined with human volition.

Pastoral Practice East and West

In simple terms, we can say that the Eastern Church tends towards a therapeutic model which sees sin as illness, while the Western Church tends towards a juridical model seeing sin as moral failure. For the former the Church is the hospital of souls, the arena of salvation where, through the grace of God, the faithful ascend from

“glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

into union with God in a joining together of grace and human volition.

The choice offered to Adam and Eve remains our choice: to ascend to life or descend into corruption. For the latter, whether the Church is viewed as essential, important or arbitrary, the model of sin as moral failing rests on divine election and adherence to moral, ethical codes as both the cure for sin and guarantor of fidelity. Whether ecclesial authority or individual conscience imposes the code the result is the same.

Admittedly, the idea of salvation as process is not absent in the West. (One can call to mind the Western mystics and the Wesleyan movement as examples.) However, the underlying theological foundations of Eastern Church and Western Church in regard to ancestral or original sin are dramatically opposed.

The difference is apparent when looking at the understanding of ethics itself. For the Western Church ethics often seems to imply exclusively adherence to an external code; for the Eastern Church ethics implies

“the restoration of life to the fullness of freedom and love” (Yannaras, 1984, p. 143).

Modern psychology has encouraged most Christian caregivers to view sin as illness so that, in practice, the juridical approach is often mitigated. The willingness to refer to mental health providers when necessary implies an expansion of the definition of sin from moral infraction to human condition. This is a happy development. Recognizing sin as disease helps us to understand that the problem of the human condition operates on many levels and may even have a genetic component.

It is interesting that Christians from a broad spectrum have rediscovered the psychology of spiritual writers of the ancient Church. I discovered this in an Oral Roberts University Seminary classroom twenty-five years ago through a reading of “The Life of St. Pelagia the Harlot.” My journey into Orthodoxy and the priesthood began at that point. These pastors and teachers of the ancient Church were inspired by the Orthodox perspective enunciated in this paper: death as the problem, sin as disease, salvation as process and Christ as Victor.

Sin as missing the mark or, put another way, as the failure to realize the full potential of the gift of human life, calls for a gradual approach to pastoral care. The goal is nothing less than an existential transformation from within through growth in communion with God. Daily sins are more than moral infractions; they are revelations of the brokenness of human life and evidence of personal struggle.

“Repentance means rejecting death and uniting ourselves to life” (Yannaras, 1984, 147-148).

In Orthodoxy we tend to dwell on the process and the goal more than the sin. A wise Serbian Orthodox priest once commented that God is more concerned about the direction of our lives than He is about the specifics. Indeed, the Scriptures point to the wondrous truth that,

“If thou, O God, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand, but with Thee there is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:3-4).

The way is open for all who desire to take it. A young monk was once asked,

“What do you do all day in the monastery?”

He replied,

“We fall and rise, fall and rise.”

The sacramental approach in the Eastern Church is an integral part of pastoral care.

The therapeutic view frees the sacrament of Confession in the Orthodox Church from the tendency to take on a juridical character resulting in proscribed, impersonal penances. In Orthodoxy sacraments are seen as a means of revealing the truth about humanity and also about God (Yannaras, 1984, p. 143). After Holy Baptism we often fail in our work of fulfilling the vocation to unbury the image within.

Seventy times seven we return to the sacrament not as an easy way out (confess today, sin tomorrow), but because humility is a hard lesson to learn, real transformation is not instantaneous and we are in need of God’s help. Healing takes time. Sacraments are far from magical or automatic rituals (Yannaras, 1984, p. 144).

They are personal, grace-filled events in which our free response to God’s grace is acknowledged and sanctified. Even in evangelical circles where Confession as sacrament is rejected the altar call often plays a similar role. It is telling that the Orthodox Sacrament of Confession always takes place face to face and never in the kind of confessional that appeared in the West. Sin is personal and healing must be equally personal.

Therefore nothing in authentic pastoral care can be impersonal, automatic or pre-planned. In Orthodoxy the prescription is tailored for the patient as he or she is, not as he or she ought to be.

The juridical approach that has predominated in the West can make pastoral practice seem cold and automatic. Neither a focus on good works nor faith alone are sufficient to transform the human heart. Do positive, external criteria signify inner transformation in all cases? Some branches of Christian counseling too often rely on the application of seemingly relevant verses of Scripture to effect changes in behavior as if convincing one of the truth of Holy Scripture is enough. Belief in Scripture may be a beginning, but real transformation is not just a matter of thinking.

First and foremost it is a matter of an existential transformation. It is a matter of a shift in the very mode of life itself: from autonomy to communion. Allow me to explain.

Death has caused a change in the way we relate to God, to one another and to the world. Our lives are dominated by the struggle to survive. Yannaras writes that we see ourselves not as persons sharing a common nature and purpose, but as autonomous individuals who live to survive in competition with one another. Thus, set adrift by death, we are alienated from God, from others and also from our true selves (Yannaras, 1984). The Lord Jesus speaks to this saying,

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew16:26).

Salvation is a transformation from the tragic state of alienation and autonomy that ends in death into a state of communion with God and one another that ends in eternal life. So, in the Orthodox view, a transformation in this mode of existence must occur. If the chosen are saved by decree and not by choice such an emphasis is irrelevant. The courtroom seems insufficient as an arena for healing or transformation.

Great flexibility needs to exist in pastoral care if it is to promote authentic transformation. We need to take people as they are and not as they ought to be. Moral and ethical codes are references, certainly, but not ends in themselves. As a pastor entrusted with personal knowledge of people’s lives, I know that moving people from point A to Z is impossible. If, by the grace of God, step B can be discovered, then real progress can often be made.

Every step is a real step. If we can be faithful in small things the Lord will grant us bigger ones later (Matthew 25:21). There need be no rush in this intimate process of real transformation that has no end. As a priest and confessor I tell those who come to me,

“I do not know exactly what is ahead on this spiritual adventure. That is between you and God, but if you will allow me, we will take the road together.”

A Romanian priest found himself overhearing the confession of a hardened criminal to an old priest-monk in a crowded Communist prison cell. As he listened he noticed the priest-monk begin to cry. He did not say a word through his tears until the man had finished at which time he replied,

“My son, try to do better next time.”

Yannaras writes that the message of the Church for humanity wounded and degraded by the ‘terrorist God of juridical ethics’ is precisely this: “what God really asks of man is neither individual feats nor works of merit, but a cry of trust and love from the depths” (Yannaras, 1984, p. 47). The cry comes from the depth of our need to the unfathomable depth of God’s love; the Prodigal Son crying out, “I want to go home” to the Father who, seeing his advance from a distance, runs to meet him. (Luke 15:11-32)

What this divine/human relationship will produce God knows, but we place ourselves in His loving hands and not without some trepidation because

“God is a loving fire… for all: good or bad.” (Kalomiris, 1980, p. 19)

The knowledge that salvation is a process makes our failures understandable. The illness that afflicts us demands access to the grace of God often and repeatedly. We offer to Him the only things that we have, our weakened condition and will. Joined with God’s love and grace it is the fuel that breathed upon by the Spirit of God, breaks the soul into flame.

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do? Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said:

If you wish you can become all flame. (Nomura, 2001, p. 92)

As we have seen, for the early Church Fathers and the Orthodox Church the Atonement is much more than a divine exercise in jurisprudence; it is the event of the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God that sets us free from the Ancestral Sin and its effects. Our slavery to death, sin, corruption and the devil are destroyed through the Cross and Resurrection and our hopeless adventure in autonomy is revealed to be what it is: a dead end.

Salvation is much more than a verdict from above; it is an endless process of transformation from autonomy to communion, a gradual ascent from glory to glory as we take up once again our original vocation now fulfilled in Christ. The way to the Tree of Life at long last revealed to be the Cross is reopened and its fruit, the Body and Blood of God, offered to all.

The goal is far greater than a change in behavior; we are meant to become divine.


1 Editor’s Note: Some within modern evangelicalism (Oden 2003, Packer and Oden 2004) have begun to examine the writings of the Patristics in an attempt to inspire unity within the Christian church. While somewhat controversial, the present article was invited in hope of beginning dialogue among the tributaries of Christian spirituality on a topic of great importance to a spiritually sensitive psychotherapy — sin.

2 A reference to movement toward union with God.

3 Orthodox theology recognizes that all human language, concepts and analogies fail to describe God in His essence. True knowledge of God demands that we proceed apophatically, that is, with the stripping away of human concepts, for God is infinitely beyond them all.

4 Pelagius is regarded as a heretic in the East (as is the case in the West). He elevated the human will and the expense of divine grace. In fairness, however, the Orthodox position is expressed best by John Cassian — who is often regarded as “semi-Pelagian” in the West. The problem — to the Orthodox perspective — is that both Pelagius and Augustine set the categories in the extreme — freedom of the will with nothing left for God versus complete sovereignty of God, with nothing left to human will. The Fathers argued instead for “synergy,” a mystery of God’s grace being given with the cooperation of the human heart.

5 It would perhaps be more precise to say the Latin West. The most prominent Reformed view seems to be a modification of Anselm’s emphasis on vicarious satisfaction, in which more emphasis is placed on penal substitution.


* Athanasius (1981). On the incarnation: The treatise de incarnatione verbi dei. (P. Lawson, Trans.). Crestwood: NY: St. Validimir’s Seminary Press.

* Augustine (1956a). Nicene and post nicene fathers: Four anti-pelagian writings, vol. 1, Grand Rapids , Michigan: Eerdmans.

* Augustine (1956b). Nicene and post nicene fathers: Four anti-pelagian writings, vol. 5,Grand Rapids , Michigan: Eerdmans.

* Cahill, T. (1995). How the irish saved civilization. New York: Doubleday.

* Clement, O. (1993). The roots of Christian mysticism. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press.

* Clement, O. (2000). On human being. New York: New City Press.

* Kalomiris, A. (1980). The river of fire. Retrieved April, 20, 2004,

* Migne, J. P. (Ed.). (1857-1866a). The patrologiae curus completes, seris graeca. (Vols. 1-161), 74, 788-789. Paris: Parisorium.

* Migne, J. P. (Ed.). (1857-1866b). The patrologiae curus completes, seris graeca. (Vols. 1-161), 31, 345. Paris: Parisorium.

* Meyendorff, J. (1979). Byzantine theology. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

* Nomura, Yushi, trans. (2001). Desert wisdom: Sayings from the desert fathers, Marynoll, New York: Orbis Books.

* Oden, T. C. (2003). The rebirth of orthodoxy: Signs of new life in Christianity. New York: Harper Collins.

* Packer, J. I. & Oden, T. C. (2004). One faith: The evangelical consensus. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.

* Romanides, J. (1992). The ancestral sin. Ridgewood, NJ: Zephyr Publishing.

* The Liturgikon: The book of divine services for the priest and deacon (1989). New York: Athens Printing Co.

* Williams, T. “Saint Anselm”, Retrieved April 21, 2004. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=

* Yannaras, C. (1984). The freedom of morality. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

The Orthodox View of Salvation

February 20, 2011

H/T: Pithless Thoughts

A very impressive first vlog by Steve Robinson, who also does two series of podcats at Ancient Faith RadioOur Life in Christ and Steve the Builder.

As Steve says, this presentation could be subtitled, “The Gospel in Chairs.” Take a few minutes to see why.

Please post any comments at the source above. Thanks!

Metropolitan KALLISTOS Ware: Salvation in Christ – The Orthodox Approach

December 18, 2009

Lecture delivered at Seattle Pacific University on March 4, 2008.