January 18, 2021

Fr. Ernesto on Liturgy


Thanks to our dear friend, Fr. Ernesto Obregon for contributing his insights on liturgy from the Orthodox perspective today.

I encourage you to read his blog, Orthocuban.

* * *

Liturgy is not simply what we habitually do

It is common to speak of liturgy as though it is little more than what we habitually do, thus on a comment on another website, someone commented:

And: is liturgy the same as “form?” Would a Baptist church that still plays hymns and has a set format still be liturgical? I think the answer is yes.

But, when we—meaning Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, etc–speak of Liturgy, that is not simply what we mean. We also do not simply mean that Liturgy is only the work of the people, as though by doing a linguistic analysis of ancient Greek we can ignore the later use of the word in its Hebrew context.

What do I mean by its Hebrew context? — after all it is GREEK! Well, let us look at a quote about the use of the word liturgy in its Greek/Hebrew context:

Liturgy (leitourgia) is a Greek composite word meaning originally a public duty, a service to the state undertaken by a citizen. Its elements are leitos (from leos = laos, people) meaning public, and ergo (obsolete in the present stem, used in future erxo, etc.), to do. From this we have leitourgos, “a man who performs a public duty”, “a public servant”, often used as equivalent to the Roman lictor; then leitourgeo, “to do such a duty”, leitourgema, its performance, and leitourgia, the public duty itself.

At Athens the leitourgia was the public service performed by the wealthier citizens at their own expense, such as the office of gymnasiarch, who superintended the gymnasium, that of choregus, who paid the singers of a chorus in the theatre, that of the hestiator, who gave a banquet to his tribe, of the trierarchus, who provided a warship for the state. The meaning of the word liturgy is then extended to cover any general service of a public kind. In the Septuagint it (and the verb leitourgeo) is used for the public service of the temple (e.g., Exodus 38:27; 39:12, etc.). Thence it comes to have a religious sense as the function of the priests, the ritual service of the temple (e.g., Joel 1:9, 2:17, etc.). In the New Testament this religious meaning has become definitely established. In Luke 1:23, Zachary goes home when “the days of his liturgy” (ai hemerai tes leitourgias autou) are over. In Hebrews 8:6, the high priest of the New Law “has obtained a better liturgy”, that is a better kind of public religious service than that of the Temple.

So in Christian use liturgy meant the public official service of the Church, that corresponded to the official service of the Temple in the Old Law.

Let me note several points.

First, it is common in various circles to speak of liturgy as the “work of the people.” However, note that the classical Greek usage was not of the work of the people, but the contributions of those who were well-off who supported public works. Note that though one could argue from its component parts that leitourgia meant the “work of the people,” the actual usage of the word in classical Greek was not that of the “work of the people,” but the work of some, and the compound words derived from that spoke not of the public, but actually of a personal duty rendered on behalf of or for the public, in the form of the State.

This points out the problem of using merely linguistic etymology to decide the meaning of words. It can be every bit as misleading as saying that the word “handsome” means that it fits well in the hand. That was its original meaning, after all. But to try to claim that a handsome man fits well in the hand (yes I can hear the horrible puns coming) is as ludicrous as claiming that somehow the Church of the New Testament understood the word liturgy as meaning merely the “work of the people.”

Second, whatever the meaning of the word “liturgy” in classical Greek, it is irrelevant. When a word crosses over from one culture into another culture, the important point is how the receiving culture views that word, not how the contributing culture used to view it. This is where many make a serious mistake; this is where Strong’s concordance has some serious limits; this is where philological studies can lead people very much astray.

The word liturgy crossed over from Greek culture to Hebrew culture, and then the Hebrew understanding of the word crossed back into Church culture — whether Middle Eastern, Greek, or Roman. So, what was the Hebrew understanding of the Greek word, “liturgy”? The place to look is the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. You see, when a translation is done, the translators choose the words in the guest language that they think best represent the concept in the original language. Thus the important definition is NOT the definition in the guest language or even the philological definition. The only relevant definition is the definition in the original language, and the concept of why the translators used the word in the guest language to translate the concept from the original language.

It is in not understanding that the only relevant definition is the definition in the original language that so many make a mistake. So, what is the relevant definition of leitourgia in the Hebrew culture of the Septuagint? And, what does that tell us about the Church’s concept of the word liturgy?

orthodox_worshipLiturgy is not simply the work of the people

In the first part, I said that we cannot simply look at the linguistic roots of a word in order to understand its current meaning, particularly if the word is a loan word from one language to another language. “Liturgy” is one such example, as I pointed out that we get the word “liturgy” not from its use in classical Greek but from its use by the Jewish translators of the Old Testament. As they translated from Hebrew to Greek, they picked the word “liturgy” not for its exact meaning in Greek, but rather because its meaning in Greek approximated what they wished to convey about the Hebrew word it translated.

And what they wished to convey was not the “work of the people” but the work of the priest on behalf of the people. As I pointed out in the quote I cited, the usage of the word is that of the public service of a private individual. That service was given to the State in order that the people might have a chorus, might have a new warship, might have a gymnasium, etc. It is no surprise that this is the word chosen by the Hebrew translators to convey the idea of the priest doing his public service to God on behalf of the people.

This is the meaning when the noun liturgy, or its verb form, is used in the Old Testament in Greek (the Septuagint), and then in the New Testament. For instance, Joel 1:9 says, “… ye priests that serve at the altar of the Lord.” oi iereis oi leitourgountes. Literally that means something closer to, “you priests that are liturgicizing …” or performing their public service for the people (or on behalf of the people). When an ancient Greek engaged in his liturgy, his public service, the people received the benefit of the choir or the warship or the gymnasium. In the same way, when the priest of the Old Testament performed his public service, the people received the benefits of his prayer and sacrifice.

In the New Testament, that same idea crosses over. We can tell that because the same concept is used in the same way. Thus, in the Gospel of Luke 1:23, Zacharias goes home when “the days of his liturgy” (ai hemerai tes leitourgias autou) are over. That is, Zacharias goes home when his public service on behalf (or for) the people is done. He performs his service so that the people might receive the benefit of it. This is not the work of the people, but the work for the people.

This idea goes on and, in a sense, reaches its peak in the Book of Hebrews. As I cited yesterday, “In Hebrews 8:6, the high priest of the New Law ‘has obtained a better liturgy,’ that is a better kind of public religious service than that of the Temple.” Here you see the concept of liturgy now having taken on the shades of meaning that we are accustomed to hearing. This Scripture now speaks of a “better liturgy” with the implication that there is a right way to celebrate a liturgy and a not as good way, or even potentially a wrong way. But, it goes farther and begins to use the word “liturgy” more as “Liturgy,” as we do when we speak about the Divine Liturgy, as something that has been passed on to our Great High Priest (by God the Father) and something that we are supposed to keep as it was passed on to us by Our Lord Jesus Christ.

No, I am not in any way claiming that Our Lord gave us the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, or of Peter, or of Saint Basil, etc. But, Saint Paul makes it very clear to the Corinthians that:

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

Saint Paul’s whole point in most of 1 Corinthians 11 is that we have received directions that ought to be kept in the way in which they were delivered. So, this idea of getting drunk at the Liturgy is wrong, etc. Notice that his emphasis in this chapter is on the Liturgy. It is a powerful work of God, and he treats it in the same way that the Ark of the Covenant is treated in the Old Testament. He neither speaks about the elders nor about the people, other than to chastise them.

orthodoxworkshipRather, his entire point is that if you misjudge this Liturgy, you may end up sick, or even sleep. This is now clearly the worship service, the Liturgy, as its own thing, and something that is much more than simply people gathering to worship. It is connected to the Liturgy of the Heavens so strongly that it is powerful, just like the Ark of the Covenant was powerful, and just like the person who touched the Ark of the Covenant inappropriately died, so could those who misjudge the Liturgy of the New Testament. Here you can see the link between the better Liturgy of Hebrews and the teachings that Saint Paul received, which he felt constrained to pass on, and the power of God manifested just like it manifested with the Ark of the Covenant and with the Temple after it was built, during its dedication.

One final note: the verb form of liturgy is found in the calling of Saints Barnabas and Paul to be missionaries. As they were liturgicizing, as they were performing their public duty on behalf of the people, they were called. Here you see the same power of God at work as in 1 Corinthians 11. The difference is that since they judged the Body and Blood of Christ correctly, they received a blessing, instead of the curse that those who misjudged received in Corinthians. This again points to the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper as being its own powerful thing and not merely whatever habits of worship people fall into.

Liturgy is not simply the work of the people. It is something else. The priest is the individual who performs a public service on behalf of the people, and the people receive a benefit because of his service. And he does it using the “better Liturgy” which our Great High Priest received. The people join in the Liturgy, together with their priest. We offer ourselves to the Lord through the Liturgy. But, the Liturgy is not simply and merely whatever habits of worship people fall into. The Liturgy offers life through the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.


  1. Good to see a post from you, Father Ernesto! I always struggled with liturgy as “the work of the people”. In many evangelical settings, worship is made to seem like a work, i.e. singing and worshiping as loudly and enthusiastically enough to make God happy. I appreciate your explanation, especially in putting it in the pro!per Hebrew context. Even with my limited knowledge of and experience with the the Divine Liturgy, this especially makes perfect sense. It restores the sacramental aspect of liturgy lost by merely referring to it as “The work of the people”.

    “(yes I can hear the horrible puns coming)”
    From this crowd? PShaw! 😉

  2. Very good to hear from you, Fr. Ernesto. Thank you for making this distinction clear – that the liturgy is not “the work OF the people” but “the work FOR the people” and that it is not just a recital of a form of words, that actions are involved too.

  3. Father E~your insight here illustrates my reasons (in yesterday’s post) for why I am Catholic. More than a decade of Catholic education and your lesson here is still news to me….because men [and women] like you dedicate their lives to understanding the Church and educating the rest of us.

    Thank you for your service and ministry….and most of all, for your teaching!

  4. A excellent post, Fr. Ernesto! And of course, it’s always good to hear from the Orthodox about liturgy, a topic about which you all have an enormous wealth of wisdom!

  5. Matt Purdum says

    Wow, sorry, as a member of the NAACP (Not Attending Anywhere Christian Potsmokers), this whole post is to me just entirely irrelevant. I believe in Christ and somehow He lives in my heart. Like circumcision, church going and liturgy are entirely meaningless outward signs. Millions who’ve never been part of a liturgy will live neternally with Christ, and the there’s any kind of hell, plenty of liturgy participants will be there.

    It’s a whole lot simpler than all this. It’s in the heart.

    • Matt Purdum says

      Sorry. That’s “eternally” and “any kind of hell.” First-thing-in-morning post.

    • It’s all about respecting and learning from other traditions in the family, Matt. Doesn’t the fact that this kind of liturgical practice and thinking has been going on for over 2000 years give you pause in just throwing it out like that and saying, “It’s in the heart?” One could argue that that kind of statement would have been looked at with the same incredulity in early Christianity.

      • MattPurdum says

        I appreciate your charity, Chaplain Mike, but I’m pretty sure my arithmetic is correct.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “It’s in the Heart”?

        Is that anything like the Burning in the Bosom testiflying to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon?

        Or that Certain Special Shiver in the Liver from the Water Tower Monster?

    • “(Not Attending Anywhere Christian Potsmokers)”

      Is that the Rastafarian branch of Christianity? 😮

      FWIW, the well-known “potsmoker” Bob Marley became an [Ethiopian] Orthodox Christian before his death – and quite well knew and participated in the kind of Liturgy Fr. Ernesto has been discussing here. 🙂


      • Robert F says

        I did not know that about Bob Marley. I have to say that I’m very glad he became a Christian; I always loved his music and felt if had a redemptive function in my life, even as I felt a little guilty enjoying the music of a man who practiced a religion involving the “sacramental” use of marijuana (I myself never inhaled, of course). In some quarters of the Anglican Communion that would mean that in my own private devotions it would not be inappropriate for me to both seek the prayers of and offer prayers for Bob Marley. And if miracles started occurring, who know, some day it might even be “Saint Bob.” Imagine that: Bob Marley joining in singing the heavenly liturgy with the saints and angels.

        In the words of Marley that Jurgen Moltmann quotes at the end of his “The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation”:

        “Let’s get together and be alright,
        one love, one heart.
        Give thanks and praise to the Lord
        and be alright.”

      • MattPurdum says

        It’s really quite contemporary American, but I do have plenty of respect for Marley. Just convinced that church going and liturgy are, in the end, “works.”

        • So, the author of the Book of Hebrews believed in works for salvation? “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. … Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.”

          When one has a definition of works that prevents them from going to church regularly, serving the poor regularly, committing themselves to regular service to others, even if one does not feel like it on a particular day, then one most certainly has a rather odd, and non-Biblical, definition of works.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            More like sitting on your ass 24/7 patting yourself on the back for your Faith Faith Faith Faith Faith.

        • Whenever someone complains about “works” I always ask them to let me know the one place in scripture where we find the term “faith alone.” Of course, that would be James 2:24 where St. James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

          Thanks for the great post Fr. Ernesto! I loved it and was most excited to see a post on IM from an Orthodox priest.

      • Josh in FW says

        I love all the fun trivia that I glean from the comments here at imonk.

    • Matt, that is exactly what liturgy is – Christ working in you. The Holy Spirit performing the work willed by the Father. Christ within your heart making a new creation of you is a “public servant” performing a “public service”.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Not sure what your experience was with Christian institutions, Matt Purdum, but circumcision, churchgoing, and liturgy are loaded with meaning; the fact that you don’t recognize its meaning is irrelevant. Other cultures might not recognize fireworks on the Fourth of July or turkey dinner on Thanksgiving as symbols with meaning, but the people who engage in that ritual, year after year, do. At no time are the meaning of these symbols dependent on their existence being acknowledged by someone outside of their respective culture. Likewise, the symbols/liturgies you describe are not reliant on your acknowledgment that they have meaning; their meaning is created within the church.

      Before asserting that symbols do not have meaning, maybe it would behoove you to take a closer look at the culture in which those symbols are used. If the culture in which those symbols were created still recognizes and affirms those symbols, then they have meaning, regardless of your personal opinion.

      I should also point out that the phrase “he [Jesus] lives in my heart” is a symbol, too, used within a specific culture to describe an abstract concept.

    • I dunno Matt.

      Christianity is not a solo event. I don’t think the adage ‘me and God got our own thing going’ is anyway near the truth. One of the grand themes of scripture beginning to end is that God is raising up a people, that means a community.

      Of course Americans disagree with that because we have placed the individual as the center of the universe and everyone knows if it comes down to a tussle between scripture and culture that culture trumps.

      The argument that liturgy and church going are meaningless because truth is ‘what is in the heart’ is weak. Often it is a cover up. Many of us here have been in places where we have just done ‘whatever is in the heart’ and have seen that it can quickly lead to nonsense.

      After 30 years of evangelical tradition I now worship in a liturgical church. And it is from my heart and is deeply meaningful.

    • “It’s a whole lot simpler than all this. It’s in the heart.”

      Yeah, right…..

      Mark 7:21
      For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries

  6. Robert F says

    Father Ernesto,
    Thank you for this thoughtful, gentle and scholarly post. I have a question or two. What would you have to say to those who, on the basis of New Testament texts, assert that the priesthood of all Christian believers has fundamentally altered the nature of priesthood, so that the strict distinctions between priests and laity that existed in the Old Testament should no longer obtain? And further, what would you say to those who, in support of the assertion contained in my previous question, highlight the point that the Priesthood of Jesus Christ included a fundamental alteration of the definition of priesthood, illustrated by the fact that his offering was made not in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, but in the profane context of Golgotha and by the death of one labeled a criminal, thereby fundamentally altering the relationship between the holy and the profane, and by extension erasing the distinction between priest and laity?
    As an Episcopalian who participates in liturgy that is informed by much of the traditional understanding that you present, and who finds it spiritually meaningful, but who also sits uneasy with the Protestant hesitations in my spirit (even as a former Roman Catholic), I look forward to your reply with the hope that you might be able to help me navigate some of my turbulent waters.

  7. Robert F says

    Father Ernesto,
    My previous question failed to provide the link with your post; this is it: if the distinction between laity and priest has been abolished in the New Testament by the new idea of the priesthood of all believers. then the word liturgy is given a new meaning as service performed by all the people of God who are all priests, and not simply by a special class of believers who are the only true priests.

    • Look back at my last paragraph, when I switch to using the word “we.” “The people join in the Liturgy … We offer ourselves.” Only a priest can offer. We area able to offer ourselves precisely because we are priests. In Romans, Saint Paul says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” Note, however, that the word for “service” in the Greek of this phrase is not liturgy, but that of a personal religious service, rather than that of offering a public service that benefits others. Nevertheless, here is a priestly service performed by all of us. There are many other New Testament Scriptures that speak of our offering sacrifices.

      In Eastern Orthodoxy, a priest cannot celebrate a Divine Liturgy by himself. This is not merely a rule, the Divine Liturgy would not even be considered to have been celebrated! Because the Liturgy is the community’s offering, if there is no community, there is no Divine Liturgy. So, though the priest may be the liturgist (public service on behalf of the people), it is the whole community that is gathering to offer themselves and an offering of bread and wine that it might become the Body and Blood of Christ.

      Yet, the priesthood of the believer is not a New Testament concept, contrary to popular belief. When Saint Peter, in 1 Peter 2, calls us a nation of priests, he is actually emphasizing that we are the New Israel! In Exodus 19:5-6 it says, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” You see, Israel was a nation of priests also! There is no doubt that the nature of the priesthood has changed, you see it in Hebrews. But, the idea of the priesthood of the believer is something that God spoke to Moses!

      Israel failed to exercise their priesthood of the believer appropriately. It was their failure that led to the inclusion of us Gentiles and to our becoming the New Israel, see Romans 11. But, just like God chose some from among the people of Israel to be priests, in a liturgical and sacramental sense, so does that continue today.

      • Father Ernesto,
        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I will think about what you’ve written. One observation: the passage you quote from Exodus could be interpreted to make the priesthood of Israel a future possibility contingent on obedience not yet given. “And” (then, not now) “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
        If that is the proper interpretation of the text, it is arguable the Israel never me this goal of obedience as a people, and so never became the nation of priests that God told them they could be; but through the obedience of Jesus Christ, the Christian church, Jew and gentile alike, have been made into this royal priesthood. In that case, Israel would not serve as the model for what it means to be a nation of priests, because it was not obedient.
        The Episcopal church also prevents any priest from celebrating the Eucharist apart from the presence of the whole Body of Christ, represented by at least one other Christian participating.
        Once again, thank you for your thoughts.
        God bless you.

      • Great thoughts! It is my understanding that confessional Lutheranism believes much the same thing about the Divine Liturgy (we call it the Divine Service), only we tend to emphasize primarily Christ’s offering of Himself for us and giving Himself to us more than our offering ourselves back to him. Proclamation precedes and causes response, you might say.

    • Sorry, I forgot to mention. Look again at the Scripture that you used to say that Jesus was crucified outside the gates. Look up a couple of verses to a verse that is most often skipped when this Scripture is quoted. It says that “we have an altar ….” that the Old Testament Israel cannot access. The whole context of the “outside the gates” Scripture is actually a priestly context! They had an altar but we have a better altar. They had priests, we have a better priest. They kept to the temple, we go outside to the whole world. The contrast is between priestly things.

      But, do not miss what it says because it actually is a key Scripture for us sacramental types. “We have an altar …” And, in a mystery that altar is found in each and every parish throughout the world. It is an icon of the heavenly altar, but it is an altar.

      • Father Ernesto,
        Thanks again. I do appreciate the deep and connected reading of Scriptural texts that I often hear from representatives of Eastern Orthodoxy and nowhere else; it comes from sitting with the Bible, reading it, reflecting on it, and loving it for a very long time.

      • Garry Wills critiques the priesthood, liturgy, and specifically PROS HEBRAIOUS (The so-called Epistle to the Hebrews) in his new book Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition (though it’s from a Roman Catholic and not an Eastern Orthodox perspective). Interesting reading, though I’m not sure I’m as willing as he seems to be to question the canonicity of Hebrews: http://www.amazon.com/Why-Priests-A-Failed-Tradition/dp/0670024872/

        (There are lots of reviews of the book online, some by persons which credentials in history/church history.)

        • “with credentials”

        • Fr. Robert Barron does a pretty good job of demolishing Wills’ book:


          • Ryan M.:

            I bought and have read Wills’ book (except for the last chapter, which is his translation of the “Letter to the Hebrews”), and have now listened to/watched Fr. Robert Barron’s critique per your link.

            Rather than “demolishing Wills’ book,” I’d say that Fr. Robert is misrepresenting or under-representing Wills’ points in several ways. Read Wills’ book (Amazon is cheap), including his references, and then re-listen to Fr. Robert’s “review.”

          • EricW:

            In fairness, I have not read Wills’ book. But I’ve seen interviews that he’s given while promoting it, and I have to say, Fr. Barron’s descriptions are not at all inconsistent with what Wills himself has said about his own viewpoint.

            And what he says about his own viewpoints makes me shrug my shoulders and say “meh, ok, so you’re a liberal protestant at heart, without anything new to say. Why not be more consistent and just go to an Episcopalian church, and I’ll keep the $15.98 that Amazon charges for your book, and we’ll both be happier…”

          • Ryan M.:

            I suspect you would probably agree with me that Mr. Wills is being disingenuous to call himself a Roman Catholic. If one rejects the priesthood and the priest-overseen-and/or-effected change of the bread and wine of the Eucharist into Christ’s Real Body and Blood, one has rejected a – perhaps THE – center of the Roman Catholic Church and faith. To reject these things and call oneself a Roman Catholic is to me like calling oneself a Christian while rejecting belief in Jesus’ Messiahship or His resurrection. IMO he has de facto excommunicated himself even if his priest or bishop hasn’t excommunicated him.

            I’ve never been Roman Catholic, but I participated in the Eastern Orthodox Church for 3+ years (2005-2008), so I understand the concepts of liturgy, priesthood, Real Presence, change in the elements of the Eucharist, etc., that Mr. Wills argues against, as the EOC holds beliefs similar to the RCC (I understand the differences as well).

          • EricW, I would indeed agree that it’s disingenuous. But there’s a certain amount of shock value/cool factor associated with claiming to be a part of a group, but rejecting one of its central beliefs, right? And nothing sells books like shock value…

            And I agree with your statement about the place of the Eucharist in the RCC–Vatican II called the Eucharist “the source and summit” of Christian life. A rejection of “Eucharistic Realism” is, for all intents and purposes, a rejection of Catholicism in its entirety (and by the way, having read a substantial amount of Henri de Lubac in my day, I found Wills’ claims about him to be among his more dishonest statements).

      • Josh in FW says

        Thank you for sharing the Orthodox perspective with us, Fr. Ernesto.

  8. Robert F says

    Chaplain Mike,
    I have a question for you: given what I have experienced as a definite critical view generally taken in this blog by yourself and many commentators toward the kind of over-strenuous, over-active hyper- Christianity that is often found in Evangelical Churches, where commitment to projects of holiness and discipleship are said to obscure the primary importance of being in Christ rather than doing for the church, and people are stretched beyond human limits in search of a holiness that is unrealistic, how do you not find a parallel between what you are criticizing in the Evangelical world and the very strenuous form of Christianity that Eastern Orthodoxy exhorts its people (I think somewhat unsuccessfully) to undertake in fasting, prayer, confession, purification, theosis, etc., which, if actually undertaken by believers in the pews, would seem to me to lead to the same kind of overcommitment to attaining an unrealistic degree of perfection (sorry for the run-on question/paragraph, which continues to be a besetting sin and stylistic deficiency of mine, although I sometimes falsely flatter myself that I’m reaching a creative and whimsical stream-of-consciousness thereby vainly striving to turn a vice into a virtue)?

    • Robert, I’m not sure how much you know about the EO Church, so I’m going to be a bit bold here and suggest that perhaps you don’t know one of the chief understandings of the EO Church. Forgive me if you already know this. I would offer that the “over strenuous, over active, hyper- C” (your term) in the Evangelical churches and the O approach to fasting, praying, etc are two totally different things. First, let’s look at the Evangelical Church. My background there came from the Calvinist side. Frankly, I reached the point where I wondered why I should do anything at all. After all, my pastor taught me that I was one of the elect and nothing else that ever happened could change that. Since it’s all by God’s grace and I was in the elect, then why do anything at all?

      The O have a totally different understanding. One that revolves around the idea of theosis (union with God). I know that Evangelicals in particular and probably most Protestants in general get squirmish when they hear that term, but it comes from 2 Peter 1:4. The general idea is that the goal of my life is to subdue the passions of my flesh, so that I can enter deeper into union with God. Fasting, praying, etc help to put the passions to death.


      • Alan F,
        Thanks for addressing my question. I am aware of the idea of theosis, but I have another concern regarding that which I’ve posted in another question in this thread, having to do precisely with how the Reformation idea of grace differs from the EO idea, based on different readings of Scripture. You see, as a former Roman Catholic who could never quite make adequate sacramental confession nor purify my will in the ways that moral doctrine in the Roman church requires, I came to appreciate the Reformation discovery of radical and reckless grace base not on my obedience but God’s prodigal love. It seems to me that the EO idea of theosis places an enormous burden on Christians to meet undefined and hard to attain goals of holiness and perfection that has some similarity to the Roman Catholic system of sanctification that I never felt able to attain. Theosis in fact seems to privilege the cloistered life above all others as the most holy. So I continue to have questions. I do, however, appreciate your words. Thanks.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The general idea is that the goal of my life is to subdue the passions of my flesh, so that I can enter deeper into union with God. Fasting, praying, etc help to put the passions to death.

        So what keeps you from gargling lye alongside St Rose of Lima? She was into “putting the passions to death” to such an extreme the abuse to her body to purify her Soul ended up killing her. To this day I don’t know if she was canonized in spite of her self-destructiveness or because of it (mistaken for Holiness in a time when “Mortification” was a sign of Radical Christianity).

        • HUG,
          Well, to temporarily take the side of a position I don’t completely agree with, if self-destruction is understood as a passion of the flesh (and I think there is psychological justification for doing so), then subduing the flesh would involve taking a sober and nurturing approach to our own well-being and health; it would be a question of balance, and of course there would be no way to completely prevent abuses. But then historical Calvinism involved self-punitive spiritual practices even though it had had no doctrine of theosis, so you have to blame the psychology of unbalanced individuals wrongly interpreting and using an otherwise salutary spiritual practice.

        • HUG, I’m a bit befuddled by your question. When I refer to subduing the passions of the flesh, I’m mosting talking about going against the grain of the American church culture (which is really the same thing as the American secular culture these days). The American church culture doesn’t even begin to comprehend the idea that one would deny oneself anything (isn’t self control still one of the fruits of the spirit??).

          Specifically, I’m talking about fasting and not giving in to the passions of my stomach (interesting that the church fathers wrote as much on eating as they did on any other subject), spending time in silence and solitude, and even (shudder) not giving in to my every sexual urge. To compare those things to killing yourself is, to me, so far out of left field that I’m not even sure how to respond.

        • Well, HUG, the Orthodox answer would be twofold. On the one hand, we would simply says that what she did (and grosser things than you mentioned) were simply not approved ascetical practices. But, the stronger thing we would say is that she needed to have had a spiritual father (or probably mother in her case) to guide her in her asceticism to keep her from going to inappropriate extremes.

    • Robert, a fair question, and one that exposes my own limitations and parochial opinions. The simple fact is that I came from the world of evangelicalism and know enough and have experienced enough to feel capable of critiquing it within a broader understanding of Church history, theology, and Biblical knowledge that I have gained over the years.

      One of evangelicalism’s most glaring weaknesses is its ignorance and dismissal of other Christian traditions. Therefore, one of my goals at Internet Monk (and in my own life) is to help us all understand our heritage and other Christian traditions better and learn to appreciate them as members of the same Christian family. That does not mean I endorse everything in those other traditions — it is more likely that I am learning right along with everyone else and don’t know enough to be able to critique with any credibility.

      As for the specific area of concern you express, it seems to me that no one tradition has a monopoly on trusting in religious practices rather than in Christ. I had a good discussion with my Lutheran pastor the other day about many of the ways Lutherans today are trying to justify themselves and our particular church tradition by an emphasis on various works and programs.

      • Chaplain Mike,
        Thanks. We are all on a voyage of discovery. And I’ve now come to understand myself as someone who is sojourning through the post-Roman Catholic wilderness, where I’ve happened to make traveling company with a bunch of people who experience it as the post-evangelical wilderness. I just hope we’re not traveling in opposite directions.

  9. Father Ernesto,

    Thanks for the great post. Orthodoxy continues to intrigue me. I am ignorant in many ways when it comes to Orthodox practices. Are there any lay led “offices” in the Orthodox tradition? I’m thinking here of something similar to the Anglican Daily Office where a priest is not necessary.

    And if such services exist are they called “liturgies?” Or do they go by some other name?


    • Your “daily office” is our “daily cycle”. There are differences between say, vespers with a priest, and vespers without one, but we can and do serve vespers either way.

      All of the services with the word “liturgy” in the name, in my experience, are the ones that include communion. Even the service we substitute for the Divine Liturgy when a priest is not present doesn’t get the word liturgy in the name, it is called instead “typika”.

  10. Father Ernesto,
    Please forgive me for taking advantage of your presence here to ask a question that is not directly connected to the subject of your post but is a question that has some import for me: The concept of theosis, and the need for believers to attain a certain level of perfection to be ready for the power of the revealed love of the Lord when he returns to us in his Glory, seems to me to put enormous burdens of striving for perfectionism on the believer, and it seems to privilege the life of priests and especially monks and nuns as those who, given the often sticky moral compromises that those who live out a secular life must inevitably make both consciously and unconsciously, are leading the most holy life and most likely to achieve sanctity. It almost seems to create two separate classes of believers, not too different from the kind of class separation that some historical forms of gnosticism and manichaeism embodied. Most significantly, it seems to omit the keynote of reckless grace that the Protestant Reformation discovered in the Biblical texts: that God graciously accepts me and my obedience is not based on the need to meet some abstract and hard to define standard of holiness or perfection but rather on gratitude for the gift that he freely and without contingency gives. I would appreciate it if you could address my concerns. Thanks.

    • I’m sure Father will answer your question much better than I can, but I thought I would offer some thoughts based on my observations as a relatively new Orthodox Christian. You are right that the call to strive for holiness is a big part of the Orthodox life. We try to bring our passions under control by fasting, which makes room for the Holy Spirit to sanctify us. But I see “reckless grace”, as you term it, also in Orthodoxy. Just read the Paschal (Easter) sermon of St. John Chrysostom, which is read every Pascha in every Orthodox parish (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Paschal_Homily). I see this duality also in Scripture, as Jesus call us to take up our cross and follow him, but also promises that His burden is light and His yoke easy. We are all in different places in our spiritual progression and are all called to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to the best of our ability, knowing that we will fail but that forgiveness awaits the repentant heart.

  11. I’m sure Father will answer your question much better than I can, but I thought I would offer some thoughts based on my observations as a relatively new Orthodox Christian. You are right that the call to strive for holiness is a big part of the Orthodox life. We try to bring our passions under control by fasting, which makes room for the Holy Spirit to sanctify us. But I see “reckless grace”, as you term it, also in Orthodoxy. Just read the Paschal (Easter) sermon of St. John Chrysostom, which is read every Pascha in every Orthodox parish (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Paschal_Homily). I see this duality also in Scripture, as Jesus call us to take up our cross and follow him, but also promises that His burden is light and His yoke easy. We are all in different places in our spiritual progression and are all called to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to the best of our ability, knowing that we will fail but that forgiveness awaits the repentant heart.

  12. Father Ernesto, thank you for taking the time to educate us on the Orthodox perspective. As one whose only experience with church has been suburban “mega” churches, your tradition has seemed very foreign to me. My gut reaction has been somewhat “negative”… similar to ones posted above. But information like this helps us to learn that we are really one body of Christ. Thank you.

  13. Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied, “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils?” They replied, “We do not sleep.” “Is it separation from the world?” “We live in the deserts.” “Then what power sends you away?” They said, “Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.” Amma Theodora concluded by saying, “Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?”

    Abba Xanthias said, “The thief was on the cross and he was justified by a single word; and Judas who was counted in the number of the apostles lost all his labor in one single night and descended from heaven to hell. Therefore let no one boast of his good works, for all those who trust in themselves fall.”

    Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride, but if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and to glorify himself.”

    To uproot sin and the evil that is so imbedded in our sinning can be done only by divine power, for it is impossible and outside man’s competence to uproot sin. To struggle, yes, to continue to fight, to inflict blows, and to receive setbacks is in your power. To uproot, however, belongs to God alone. If you could have done it on your own, what would have been the need for the coming of the Lord? For just as an eye cannot see without light, nor can one speak without a tongue, nor hear without ears, nor walk without feet, nor carry on works without hands, so you cannot be saved without Jesus nor enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. St, Macarius, Homily 3.4

    • Father Ernesto,
      Thank you for your reply. I’m still stuck on the difference in the doctrine of grace that an Orthodox reading yields from a Reformation reading of the Scriptures; I’m not at all sure I’m capable of truly having humility, though I’m sure the Lord can make me humble. But I will weigh your words, and no matter where I wind up in my thinking and life, I will hope that God’s grace is wide enough to embrace us both.

      • One over-simplification of the difference between the East and the West is the difference between transformation and transaction. The West, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, functions by transaction.

        In the case of Protestants, a holy transaction happened by which Jesus exchanged (transaction) his righteousness for our righteousness. Since his righteousness is perfect, the Father sees us as perfectly righteous; since our righteousness is as filthy rags, Our Lord freely chose to go to the Cross. But, in one sense, we have not actually changed, it is simply that the Father now treats us as changed. He and the Son do give us the Holy Spirit to help us to change, but–in some of the Evangelical theologies–it matters little how much we change since the Father is not treating us according to our righteousness, but according to Jesus’ righteousness. I should note that Calvin had the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints because he could not reconcile the Scriptures having to do with change unless we actually change. However, the change in the believer, in Calvin’s theology, was the result of election. And the change proved that the person had been elected.

        In the case of Roman Catholics, that idea is also somewhat present, but the idea of transaction was carried over into sanctification. So, medieval indulgences could even become a financial transaction that ensured some measure of God’s grace. Those medieval misconceptions were clearly corrected at the Council of Trent, nevertheless, the idea of the merits of the saints piling up grace is still a transactional idea.

        Eastern Orthodoxy thinks of salvation as being worked out in terms of transformation, or transfiguration. We are to be transfigured, just like Christ was transfigured. Yes, as the quotes from the Desert Fathers show, we need to realize that this is a work of God. Our concept of synergy means that we cooperate with God, but it does not mean that we are working out our salvation. Our good works avail nothing, for all who trust in themselves fail, as the quote from the Desert Father said.

        As to the wild and reckless grace, it is in reading the stories of the Desert Fathers that it becomes most clear. See how often there is wild forgiveness and an insistence that we should not judge in the Desert Fathers. That is, the forgiveness they advocate is so strong precisely because the grace we have received is so large. If we are to imitate the Lord, then we must forgive as he forgave. In the midst of our necessities in the world (to have a government with laws, to have a church with structure, etc.), the Desert Fathers remind us that God’s ways are often not our ways, and to keep ourselves open enough to God to learn how to overflow with his grace even in our more structured settings.

        We strongly believe in free will. The transformation in us happens with our cooperation because God created us with free will and desires us to continue to express it. Nevertheless, we must never allow ourselves to believe that we could extirpate sin. He must do that, not us.

        Does this help?

        • “Reckless grace” is also seen in the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which is read each Pasha (Easter) in every Orthodox Parish. I tried posting a link to the sermon in an earlier post, but a quick google search will turn it up.

        • Robert F says

          Father Ernesto,
          Thank you for your gracious and extensive response(s); I think it does help to clarify the differences of an Eastern Orthodox understanding of the nature of salvation from a Reformed understanding. I think I have a fairly good grip on those differences already, but your explications help to highlight the important areas of distinction and agreement. I guess I’m really seeking help in determining which approach is more true, and I’m not sure that anyone ultimately can help me with that but God himself. The Western approach seems to involve, as you said, a transaction around the poles of sin/grace while the Eastern approach involves a transformation around the poles of natural/supernatural, neither approach completely excluding the other; Western Christianity seems primarily concerned with making human beings worthy of redemption through legally attributed grace, while Eastern Christianity seems most concerned with elevating the human natural state to a supernatural state which would make human nature able to not only endure but partake by adoption in the Divine Nature. Although I’m not sure to what extent the concept of free will must be different in each approach (and I do think it must be different), I cannot go along with the Calvinistic reduction of free will to a practically non-existent reality with no motive power of its own apart from God, because it seems to me that the very act of Creation requires that God impart some measure of freedom to every facet of Creation if it is truly to exist apart form him and not be merely a pantheistic emanation of his divine will, and the appropriate kind of freedom for humanity is free will. But when it comes to a plain reading of the Bible (as problematic as that can be given human subjectivity, I think it is possible to make such a reading, and certainly making a responsible reading from within a conciliar context would not necessarily render a more responsible reading than an individual reading, once again given human subjectivity) to discern what it says for itself (and given my Protestant bias toward giving the Bible priority [ontologically, not chronologically, because I do not give chronology precedence in determining authenticity] in forming the belief and practice of the church, and disciplining the church’s tradition, that’s what I tend to do), I find the Reformed position more compelling and natural as a reader. That may well be an unwarranted bias of mine, but I’m not sure how I would decide that question definitively. What continues to be central to the discussion that lands me on the Reformation side of the argument is that I do not believe my free will can lead me to state of humility that in one of your above comments you indicated is so essential to being saved. As I said before, God can certainly humble me, and my free will makes it possible for me to recognize that God is humbling me and surrender to that truth, but it’s not MY humility, and whenever I become conscious that I am humble, rather than being humbled, humility automatically evaporates behind the pride of being humble. So, if humility is a state necessary to attain for salvation, and whenever I’m seemingly aware of being humble it’s actually a form of disguised pride, then in the Orthodox approach I can never rest in God’s grace and know myself as one of his beloved and chosen, because that awareness can only come when I know I’ve achieved humility, and that is impossible to do. So I can never have a simple, totally childlike abandonment to an Abba who accepts me DESPITE my pride, which raises its ugly head every time I think I’m achieving a virtue, and I have to believe, given what I know about myself and my advanced years, that this stubborn pride will dog me the rest of this earthly existence, making any a advanced state of holiness for myself impossible to consider. To quote a favorite sinner of mine with whom I have a love/hate relationship, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” But I confess that this is the position I’m driven to, not the one I would choose if I could make things otherwise. Thanks, once again, Father Ernesto, for your generous dialogue with me; please remember to pray for me, and I certainly will pray for you.

          I guess I’ve shown enough of my soul for the day.

          • Josh in FW says

            Thank for all the questions you asked Fr. Ernesto. I found your back and forth to be helpful in organizing my own thoughts. I’m thinking that the answer to transaction and transformation view is somehow “both and”. But I’m not sure how the two concepts fit together. One of the things that investigation E.O. has taught me is how thoroughly Western my thought processes are. Before the exposure to E.O. Christians I was unaware of how many and how deep my cultural biases are.

          • Dana Ames says

            thank you for being willing to show your soul.

            I’d like to take a stab at interacting with a couple of things you wrote. I hope I can make myself clear. I sense some frustration or fatigue or something in what you wrote, and my heart goes out to you. I know how it feels to really want to understand something that is so important.

            You wrote,
            “The Western approach seems to involve, as you said, a transaction around the poles of sin/grace while the Eastern approach involves a transformation around the poles of natural/supernatural, neither approach completely excluding the other.”

            In EO thought, there are no “poles”; there is no division between “natural” and “supernatural” – there is only one Reality. Fr Stephen Freeman calls it the One Storey Universe (and thanks F. Schaeffer for the term).

            Thus, this:
            “Eastern Christianity seems most concerned with elevating the human natural state to a supernatural state which would make human nature able to not only endure but partake by adoption in the Divine Nature.”

            is a misunderstanding in that God does not need to “elevate” the natural state (if what you mean by that is our bare human-ness) – he condescended, “came down to our level,” to become united with it in the Incarnation. So on the level of “nature” the Divine and Human are already united by means of the hypostatic union (there’s your 50 cent theological phrase for the day). And the union also happens on a Personal level, as a human Person is united to the Person of Christ in Baptism, and by the union of Persons transformation also takes place through the work of God’s energies in and through the sacramental life of the church, as a human Person encounters the Persons of the Trinity, most especially in the Eucharist. What you do understand is that partaking in the Divine Nature happens by adoption; it’s God’s work and nothing any human could ever accomplish on his/her own, though we do participate in the process as we keep turning to God for healing and deliverance (the primary meanings of soteria).

            It sounds like “rest[ing] in God’s grace and know[ing] myself as one of his beloved and chosen” is very important for you. The reason I left RC (yes, I also grew up Catholic, as did Fr Ernesto, who was later an Anglican priest and missionary, in case you didn’t know…) was that I really, really needed that assurance, and I couldn’t find in in RC. The thing is, the basic “stance” of God toward humanity in EO is not that of some distant divinity on a different plane, bound by his will/law/holiness/righteousness/whatever to not accept us because we transgressed, and similarly bound, by a transaction, to accept us.

            Rather, God is merciful, meeting us where we are, always at work in the one reality which includes history to heal and save humans, not willing that any should perish, calling us back to life, in order to become the ‘adam we were meant to be, collectively and in each unique human, in the New Adam. All of that previous sentence could be included in the EO understanding of “grace” as the actual action of God the Holy Spirit (not some thing other than God that God doles out). Everything is seen through the lens of the Cross (not so much as the “instrument” of God’s forgiveness as the *display* of it) and the Resurrection (the defeat of death and the inauguration of the New Creation). As Fr Stephen says, “Christ did not come to make bad men good; he came to make dead men live.” Having “put on Christ,” and in as much humility and repentance/turning as I can enter into in any given moment, I am held in the Life of the God who is Good and Loves Mankind. For me, this goes way, way, way beyond assurance.

            Thanks for your forbearance in reading through all of this. I’m sure Fr Ernesto would correspond with you through his email at orthocuban, if you found what he wrote to be helpful; I hope that if he stops by again, he will correct anything I wrote that needs correction. Let me again recommend Fr Stephen’s blog, www dot glory2godforallthings dot com. I think the latest entry on koinonia, along with the comments, would be of interest to you.

            Your ramblings are pretty coherent 🙂 It helps to make paragraphs shorter.

            In friendship-

          • Robert F says

            Thanks for your thoughts and input. I will respond to it on this thread when I get a chance later, hopefully.

            I hope you saw my apology in the previous post, the Can of Worms title. If you haven’t, please do read it and know that it was heartfelt.

          • Robert F says

            Dana Ames,
            I did not mean to suggest that EO theology posits a multilevel creation; the pole would be one entity with two ends and a continuum between. I was just trying to get at the idea that in EOdoxy when Christ descends in his Incarnation it is with the intention of lifting humanity up into a glorified state with him so that human being may participate in the life of God, the life of the Trinity. The process of that lifting is theosis, which obviously requires the power of Jesus to achieve, but also seems to require a contribution from the believers side. For instance, Father Ernesto in one of his comments states that humility is essential to salvation, and this would be something that I, for instance, would have to contribute to the process of theosis. But knowing myself, I can tell you that I possess no humility to give to such a process. If I display any humility, it’s the result of an alien work of God in me, wherein he humbles me despite my pride and even against my will. I do not know where to look for the repository of virtues that theosis seems to require from the human side, because whenever I find any good virtue in me, I always find that God was behind its presence there, not me. It doesn’t belong to me. I’m full of pride, not humility.

            My thoughts naturally run together, and though at one time I knew how to make pretty good paragraph breaks, I’ve sort of surrendered to my stylistic weakness. But thanks for the tip.

            Peace in Christ,
            Robert F

          • Dana Ames says

            Meh, nothing to forgive, and thank you – We’re all in the same boat.

            No hurry – I’m not trying to argue, as I said before, or “convert” you – just want to make sure that if you don’t agree, you at least know what you’re not agreeing with – and if you have questions, that you get steered toward folks who capable of this kind of discussion, and who are not on the “fringe”…

            I too am not interested in defending or placing my faith in any institution.

            Have a good evening-

          • Dana Ames,
            Also there are passages in the New Testament that strongly suggest that the Atonement was more than just a display, that in Jesus Christ God himself was meeting the demands of his own righteousness and judgement against sin. You can call it a transaction, but its far more personal than that. On the Cross Jesus bore the full brunt of God’s wrath against sin for humanity, a wrath rooted in God’s love of justice, not hatred of humanity. Which is not to say that it was not also a display. The Cross of Christ fulfilled multiple purposes. In it the flesh, the world and the devil were defeated; my sin, the fallen Creation it is embedded in, and the curse of malicious spirits that cling both to my sin and the fallen Creation were overcome. I think the theologically of Atonement needs to be multi-faceted to do justice to a thorough reading of the New Testament. In my view, sticking to only an exemplary theory of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross does not deal with the whole proclamation of the New Testament.

            Peace in Christ,
            Robert F

          • Dana Ames says

            quick note before bed.

            What you articulate is a Reformed view, (“On the Cross Jesus bore the full brunt of God’s wrath against sin for humanity, a wrath rooted in God’s love of justice.”) and earlier you said it is that to which you are committed. That’s the hermeneutic that makes sense to you. It quit making sense to me about 10 years ago, for various reasons.

            As far as I understand the EO view, expressed in its worship hymnography especially during Holy Week, the Cross is about 1) the display of God’s forgiveness in the face of his enemies (all of us complicit) doing their worst to him, 2) identification with humanity even to the depths of death, 3) the means by which the Godman dies and enters death and blasts it apart from the inside out. The Passion of Christ (death + resurrection) is a whole within the whole of the Christ Event – and the emphasis is decidedly on the resurrection. For EO, our problem is not forensic; it is ontologic. Do read Fr Stephen if you want to get at the meat of this. Better yet, since the calendar is so weird this year, with Orth Easter being 5 weeks later than western Easter, find an EO church in your vicinity and experience Holy Week and Pascha there. If you give me your general whereabouts, I’d be happy to recommend one.

            I don’t believe God changes; he’s not “schizophrenic,” loving and pouring out wrath at the same time. I don’t believe “justice” or any other attribute forces God to do anything; if that were the case, then that attribute would be “bigger” than God! I don’t believe the Son somehow “twisted the Father’s arm” and made him forgive us, or that the Trinity was in any way at cross-purposes, or that when the Father looks at me what he sees is not me, but rather the blood of Christ – still all this distance! To me, that’s all crazy-making and I can’t live there. I don’t believe PSA is an improvement over what Christians believed at the beginning, which was that God in Christ freed us from slavery to the fear of death, Heb 2.14-15. That’s Real Good News!!! We will probably have to agree to disagree on this; that’s ok with me. You seem to want to know and love and be faithful to God, and that is what’s important – and that is what he sees. He sees YOU and knows your struggles.

            One place where we might agree is that “whenever I find any good virtue in me, I always find that God was behind its presence there.” I would say that this is not an “alien” work of God, but rather the work of God consistent with our humanness as the way we were created to be.

            The Incarnation wasn’t “plan B” – it was God’s intention to be united with humanity from the beginning, because Love seeks union with the beloved while maintaining the distinction between the two and the freedom of each. God created a humanity into which he could, in the fullness of time, become incarnate, and it is in the image of Christ himself that we are created. In that fullness of time, Christ rose from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life – the Life of the Age to Come, the Life for which we were created.

            Glory to Jesus Christ – Glory Forever!


          • Dana,
            Thanks again for your thoughts. Your correct, I am engaged in a kind of wrestling match involving existential desperation. Your prayers and well wishes are appreciated.

            Regarding your assertion that God does not change, I wonder if this is not an unwarranted insertion of Greek philosophical concepts about the impassablity of God into theology that are not consistent with the Biblical testimony. When the Bible asserts that God does not change, I think it is referring to God’s character; but the living God of the Bible is not the static unmoved mover that philosophers in the ancient classical world posited; the fact that God, in the Incarnation, could assume something new, a human nature, illustrates how problematic it is to assert that God cannot change. Living realities change, and God is living, maximally living, you might say.

            I do not suggest that in the Passion of Christ, the Father did not suffer as well. I believe that the entire Trinity was involved in the work of the Cross, and each Person suffered in relationship in the way appropriate to his Person. I agree with you, there was no “schizophrenia” involved; after all, the Son was showing the heart of the Father.

            Thanks again and Peace in Christ,
            Robert F

          • Dana Ames,
            And of course, though we have differences in theological understanding, neither am I trying to convert or convince you. I am trying to work something out for myself, and I appreciate the help you’ve given me in that.

            I of course recognize you as a sister in Christ, because I recognize in what you say the presence of what Rowan Williams calls the “grammar of obedience,” and a spirit of charity that I know to be from the Lord.

            Have a blessed Lenten journey and a joyful Pascha at it’s end.

            Robert F

          • Robert-
            final word from me, again for clarification.

            It’s easy to blame things we don’t understand on “constantinism” or “importation of Greek philosophy” into Christianity; in my ignorance I have done this, but thinks aren’t that simplistic. I’m not that well versed in Greek philosophy, but I find a whole lot of Aristotle in the west; the Greek fathers knew Plato had some things right, but they weren’t platonic dualists. In addition, in order to meet the questions of their day, the great Christian theologians of the 4th century – who were Greek and schooled in the best Greek education available – used some of the philosophical vocabulary, but with explanations that bent the meanings of those words that left them understandable in the conversations, but also taking on Christian connotations. It took Greek philosophical vocabulary to enable those theologians to articulate ideas about, for example, the Trinity – Hebrew was not sufficient at that point (nor was Classical Greek, nor koine- I understand that in the 4th century Middle Greek was used, which builds on the others and is much more difficult). That doesn’t mean those words necessarily had the same Greek philosophical connotations.

            Finally, the notion of “impassability” as understood in EO is not that of “unmoved mover” as in the west. It’s not about having and expressing emotions, or not. It is basically about not being forced to do anything. So God being impassible means that nothing can “force his hand” (not even any of his own attributes). In the east, God as concept is very much resisted.

            Thank you for your kindness and your good wishes – more appreciated knowing you are in the midst of wrestling. I think in these matters just about everything is existential. (It is just these things that Fr Stephen Freeman discusses – forgive me if I sound like a broken record, it’s just that his writing was a great help to me in my wrestling, and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be helpful for anyone who is serious about this stuff. )

            I hope you will meet the Living Christ in the remainder of your communal and private prayer and worship as you head toward Holy Week and Easter.


        • Josh in FW says

          That description was very helpful, THANKS!

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

      Y’know, those quotes from (I assume) the Desert Fathers and Mothers take me back to the style of writing in Pirkei Avot (i.e. the “Ethics of the Fathers”) from the Jewish Mishna. We used to read a chapter of Avot each Sabbath during the summer after Torah study to pass the long summer days easier. Great stuff! The thing that brought me to liturgical traditional Christianity out of Messianic Judaism was that it had all the stuff I loved from those days, but with Christ at the center. I think there’s something in Hebrews about that concept…

      • Well, since the Desert Fathers were found in the Middle East, and Christianity is grafted onto the roots of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel), should it be any surprise that the Desert Fathers sound like Mishna?

        • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

          True enough! I understand that there are some Orthodox and Eastern Catholic communities in the Middle East that still use Aramaic for their Liturgical language, albeit transliterated with Arabic characters rather than the Hebrew ones used in the Talmud and Mishna.

    • Recently finished reading Merton’s collection of sayings from the Desert Fathers and Mothers–“The Wisdom of the Desert”. Some of the stories were very amusing, but there is definitely a strong strain of humility throughout the collection. Time and again one brother tells another to forgive!


  14. Danielle says

    Thanks Robert F. and Father Ernesto for the dialog you started above. This touches on outstanding questions I have. I’ve read germaine material, here and there, but it is always hard to know if one is understanding the EO teaching correctly, when one is primarily familiar with western theology.

    On a related note, I’ve been meaning to read “Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther,” which argues for some kind of similiarity between Luther and EO based on the notion that for Luther Christ is present in faith. Anyone read it?

    • I have not read it yet, Danielle, but am intrigued by it. There are passages in early Luther that strongly support the idea that he was not so much concerned about “forensic” righteousness (a legal declaration) as he was by the fact that through union with Christ we share his actual righteousness, as a bride her husband’s person and possessions.

      The one who advanced this thesis is Tuomo Mannermaa in his book, “Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification.” The book you reference is a book which considers Mannermaa’s perspective.

  15. Oh, the Orthodox are great at coming up with these fancy, highfallutin justifications for themselves. Equally erudite explanations can be found for all kinds of nonsense. (Fr. Ernesto once complained about another blogger’s explanation for why women should not enter church during their periods, but this is in fact a known tradition, like the babushka headscarves.) They go to all this trouble to reconstruct the forms of ancient Christianity, but there’s no real ethical tradition. Back in “the old country,” their clergy support the most right-wing elements of society, and have been known to lead mobs and foment massacres.

    On the priest issue–as in Catholicism, Orthodox clergy are by no means chosen by the people (except formally, by calling “axios”), but are a self-perpetuating group. In Russia, the sons of priests went to special schools where they would learn to become priests, so they could make money by charging fees for baptisms and so forth. Naturally they guarded their privileges from people outside their group. All this has broken down by now, but it’s still a very feudal system–not so much ancient as medieval–in which church leaders are rich and corrupt, and doing their best to stay that way.

    • There is no doubt that there are horrific chapters in Orthodox history. Our priests have indeed led mobs and fomented massacres. At least one of our Patriarchs warned the Emperor that if he did not start caring for the widow and the orphan that the Empire would not stand. And, it certainly did not.

      But, those horrific chapters are there for every Christian group, nay for every human group, except maybe for the Quakers and the Salvation Army and maybe a couple of other groups. Thus, Baptist pastors were known to ride with the KKK back when. Luther approved of the horrific treatment that the Anabaptists received. Calvin’s Geneva certainly had its shocking side.

      Among the non-Christians, atheists under many Communist regimes killed tens of thousands for their faith, and certainly killed millions for many reasons. Hindus have rioted against Christian and Muslim. Muslims have engaged in jihad, etc., etc.

      It is part of being fallen and damaged human beings that we inevitably twist every belief into darkness, sooner or later. This does not invalidate the belief per se. There are un-Christian Orthodox, un-Christian Baptists, un-Christian Lutherans, un-Muslim jihadists, un-Hindu rioters, un-humanistic atheists, etc., etc. If there is a human belief, sooner or later some significant group within it will twist it into darkness.

      The problem, as with so many problems, is the sin that indwells us rather than the belief that is proclaimed. I am convinced that Hindus, atheists, humanists, etc., are very wrong. But, I will argue the points against them based on the best examples of their beliefs rather than on the worst examples. It is all too easy to knock down their worst examples. It is much harder, but much more honest, to knock down their best examples.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

        Our assistant pastor (a newly-Anglican Calvinist scholarly type) taught me this Latin phrase that seems to fit here:

        abusus non tollit usum or “abuse is no argument against proper use”

        How many times in the history of the greater Church (especially here in the West) have we gone to sinful excess in our efforts to reform because we don’t get this? As an example in my own tradition, I think of the 18th-Century Puritans who hated the Church of England over four things that most of us would find silly: wedding rings, kneeling to receive communion, signing the cross over newly-baptized folks, and wearing surplices. To them, the potential symbolism behind these things was a first-order issue in the Church and they were willing to have ecclesiastical schism and temporal rebellion over it. Not to mention that the 18th Century Anglican divines were adamant that the feared symbolism wasn’t what the CoE was intending. I mean, I can think of many, many things we’ve done in our tradition that are more worthy of protest than that!

Speak Your Mind