Grace, Moralism and Unmoral Christianity

In his recent blog article “The Un-moral Christian,” Fr Stephen Freeman criticizes the tendency to reduce the Christian life to obedience to moral rules. “The nature of the Christian life,” he declares, “is not rightly described as the adherence to an external set of norms and standards, even if those norms and standards are described as being ‘from God.’ The ‘unmoral’ life of Christians is a different mode of existence. The Christian life is not described so much by what it does as by how it does.” I was reminded of a letter C. S. Lewis wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths:

The bad (material) tree cannot produce good fruit. But oddly, it can produce fruits that by all external tests are indistinguishable from the good ones: the act done from one’s own separate and unredeemed, tho’ “moral” will, looks exactly like the act done by Christ in us. And oddly enough it is the tree’s real duty to go on producing these imitation fruits till it recognizes this futility and despairs and is made a new (spiritual) tree. (Quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence, p. 100.)

Two trees that appear identical in every external respect, yet one is is doomed to destruction and death. What is the difference between the redeemed and the unredeemed person? They exist differently. One is alive, the other is walking dead. One has surrendered his will to Christ and been regenerated in the Spirit; the other still lives in the world and abides in a self-chosen mode of damnation. No doubt the latter could, by an exertion of will, produce more good works and become an even better moral person; but unless he is born anew by the Spirit, he will remain incapable of producing the fruit of eternal life. And as our Lord warned us: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 7:19).

How then might we properly describe the unmoral life of the Christian?  Fr Stephen provocatively answers, “It is about being a god“:

This, of course, is shocking language, but it is the Christian faith. The life of a fish is about being a fish. It is not about swimming or breathing water (though these certainly are part of a fish’s life). But a man with a special device can breathe water and swim for days without ever becoming a fish. In the same way, the Christian life is not about improving our human behavior, it is about taking on a new kind of existence. And that existence is nothing less than divine life.

The life of resurrection … life in the Spirit … life in the kingdom … life within the Holy Trinity. Here is the heart of unmoral Christianity—not improved behavior but the freedom of the children of God. We have died with Christ and our life is now hidden with Christ in God. The world worries about morality and teaches the desirability of right behavior. But baptism brings a new mode of existence, a life beyond death in the risen Jesus: “We eat Christ. We drink Christ. We breathe Christ. We do all things in Him and through Him.” As St Seraphim of Sarov memorably taught, prayer, fasting and works of mercy have their essential place in the Christian life; but they do not constitute its goal and end: “the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”

Fr Stephen’s eschatological perspective leads him to an understanding of the Sacrament of Confession that moves beyond moralism. “Confession is the sacrament of repentance, our turning to God,” he writes. “It is not the sacrament of the second chance and the harder try.” I might put it in a somewhat different way: confession is returning to our death in Christ.  We offer to the Lord the corpse that we are and submit to being slain anew by the Spirit. We would prefer to lead a moralistic existence. As the Israelites yearned to return to the flesh-pots of Egypt, so we, despite all we have received, yearn to return to the simple existence of prescription and laws. Yet God will not be satisfied with anything less than our death, for it is in our death that he comes to reside.  As Fr Stephen expresses it in his earlier article “You’re Not Doing Better“:

St. Gregory of Nyssa once stated, “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become a god.” This is not the story of progress. We are not mud that is somehow improving itself towards divinity. There is nothing mud can do to become divine. And if we were honest with ourselves, we don’t even become better mud. … What is happening in our spiritual lives is not the perfecting of a better “me.” It is like a comparison between mud and light. Really great, truly outstanding mud, can only ever be mud. It never becomes more “light-like.” …

“I do unite myself to Christ,” is the statement candidates make at Holy Baptism. These are the words of mud speaking of the most wonderful possible gift. That we should become gods is Christ’s gift to us, not our achievement. It is a reality birthed in our muddy souls at Baptism. And what is birthed in us is a new creation, not really the mud man at all. … The life in Christ is not at all about improvement. It is rather more about failure. … The spiritual life is not an improvement of the moral self, it is the finding and the living into the true self (the New Man), birthed in us through Christ. We lose the moral self in order to find the true self. We confess our moral weakness and there we find the true strength of the New Man. We empty the moral self and understand that even its best effort and performance is but “hay, wood and straw” (1 Cor. 3:12).

Yesterday Dylan Pahman published a respectful critique of Freeman over at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. He finds Fr Stephen’s approach a bit over the top. “To be more than moral, as Fr Stephen is using the term, nevertheless requires first being moral,” he writes. He agrees that the goal of Christian life is love and freedom, but we do not start there. As the Scriptures teach us: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). Only as we mature and gain victory over passions may we one day say with St Antony: “Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear.” Over against the evangelical gospel of the starets of Oak Ridge, Pahman poses the everyday ascetical struggle of repentance, prayer and fasting.

Pahman invokes the wisdom of the spiritual Fathers, yet the eschatological dimension seems to be missing or at least pushed far into the background. Instead of proclaiming our death and resurrection in Christ, he invites us to do the best that we can, in the hope that eventually grace will be fully internalized:

What the Fathers seem to be saying is the following: You would like to be deified but you do not know the way? You wish to love as a true child of God but you cannot? Learn from those who have walked this way before you. They began by fasting and praying and trying to fulfill the commandments, with much fear. Over time, these became a habit, internalized as a second, virtuous nature. Or rather, as the tarnish of passions is more and more cleared away from the image of God within you, your true nature as a child of God will shine through, restored in the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is firstly a matter of his grace, offered to you through the mysteries of the Church, but it is also a matter of synergia—you must cooperate with the work of this grace; you too must act. And in acting moral, you become more than merely moral, transfigured by the grace of God within you.

In his response to Pahman’s article, Fr Stephen says that he finds nothing in the response with which he disagrees and acknowledges that perhaps he did overplay his hand. But I would personally like to encourage Fr Stephen to stand his eschatological ground. We do not just end with theosis, after a lifetime of repentance, hard work, and purification. We begin with theosis; we begin with our death in Christ and our baptismal resurrection; we begin with our re-creation by the Spirit. Life within the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit is not reserved for the spiritual mature who have perfectly purified the passions and achieved impassibility and holiness.  It is given freely and unconditionally to all who have surrendered themselves to Christ Jesus in faith.  The Apostle Paul speaks clearly of this gift in his letters:

For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Col 2:9-14)

We do not become unmoral by first becoming moral, as Pahman suggests.  The dead tree can only produce dead fruit.  We must first be slain by Christ.  The baptismal impartation of the Spirit precedes the fruit of the Spirit. In the Church the kingdom is both here and not yet, yet already we have received, declares the Apostle, the “fullness of life.” Only within the eschatological mode of existence, bestowed in baptism, may we speak of the ascetical struggle in a way that avoids the moralism that flows from death and leads to death.

(Go to “Transcending Moralism and the Freedom of the Spirit“)

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42 Responses to Grace, Moralism and Unmoral Christianity

  1. Dallas Wolf says:

    Wonderful perspective on the difference between the fruit of a transformed life and the fruit of obedience to an external rule set.

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  2. Michael Bauman says:

    The core problem with the moral life is that it is, at best, linear. Mr. Pahman’s comments come at the crux of a years long discussion on Fr. Stephen’s blog that has been rich, deep and challenging.

    Our life in Christ is not linear. As Fr. Kimel points out purification, illumination and theosis all happen at once and in concert with the Holy Trinity.

    Moral actions can be important. Moralism is a rejection of Christ’s life.

    The story in Everyday Saints about the dissipated and immoral monks who were arrested by the Soviets and given the chance to go free if they denied Christ. The Abbott said, “We have not lived as Christians, let as least die like Christians.” And so they did, by moral standards abject failures.

    Moralism is about how we live in the world. Christianity is about how we die to the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Our life in Christ is not linear”—exactly! The irresistible temptation is to reduce the Christian life to a process. Before long we have constructed an ordo salutis, and soon afterwards we have constructed a new and more rigorous moralism, and the eschatological life that Christ has freely given us is lost to sight and experience.

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  3. Michael Bauman says:

    The above being said, anyone who manages to live a truly moral life is a far better person than me.

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  4. Pingback: Eschatological Eloquence - Fr. Aidan Kimel's Response | Glory to God for All Things

  5. brian says:

    You are spot on, father.

    I would personally go even further, but this could easily get too speculative.
    Honestly, I usually keep my deepest ideas to myself, because they are “out there” and it would invite confusion or lots of condemnation from ordinary religious folk. Not that I mind that, necessarily, but as Paul says, one should avoid unnecessary provocation.

    Since I wrote all that, and granted this is guarded and enigmatic, I think that “moralizing Christians” not only miss the fundamental point and fail to recognize that the Gospel is rooted in an ontological change, so any “ethical transformation” that doesn’t go down to the root is basically useless, but they also continue to think and imagine in terms that are fitting for the kind of world we experience here and now.

    A redeemed world with resurrected bodies will be transformed in ways we can only speculate upon. Ethical notions fit only in terms of “euclidean geometry” simply cannot comprehend the realities and possibilities that theosis will bring. Christos Yannaras employs apophatic language to criticize the limits of religion and the kind of eternal realization it is capable of imagining. Moralizing that is too bound to the parameters of this world is almost always lacking in eschatological openness to radically expanded horizons.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Brian, Christos Yannaras’s book The Freedom of Morality has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for years. Does he address these questions in this book? Do you recommend it?

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      • Father, I’m not the original poster, but the book “The Freedom of Morality” has this very issue as its crux, and is the deepest expression of a truly Christian philosophical framework I’ve ever read.

        The Christian life is not an attempt to become a good person, but rather to recognize one’s own spiritual poverty, for Christ says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” I don’t know how anyone can believe in social morality after reading the Sermon on the Mount, much less after reading of the example of the Holy Fools like St. Andrew or St. Feofil, and especially after seeing this idea distilled in the incredibly powerful Russian movie “The Island”.

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  6. Pingback: A long overdue addition | Father Hosea's Concerns

  7. brian says:

    Father,

    He does to some degree. I’ve synthesized from many of his works and I don’t think just one will give one the full picture. He’s got some weighty, but difficult material in Person and Eros and Postmodern Metaphysics.

    On the sort of thing I am adverting to, however, I am drawing mostly from the work you cite as well as Against Religion, Variations on the Song of Songs, an essay collection called The Meaning of Reality, and The Enigma of Evil. (When I find a thinker I like, I tend to read them all . . . )

    Anyway, I do recommend The Freedom of Morality, but one would have to add in insights from the other works to get a fuller sense of where Yannaras is going with all this.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    A comment on the photo: I like how Fr Stephen points to the water with his finger. I imagine him saying something like, “Okay, there’s no way around it. Get yourself into the water!”

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  9. On the question of fruits, I can’t help being reminded of the Desert Fathers’ oft-repeated statement that humility is the only virtue that the demons cannot imitate. And of some of the texts from the first week of Great Lent on the uselessness of asceticism if it does not lead us to true self-knowledge before God. My understanding of the early ascetical Fathers is that the only “progress” in the Christian life is to know oneself ever-more as a sinner and precisely therein to find the joy of the Gospel. It seems to me that there is something truly eschatological about true humility.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Excellent. Thank you.

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    • brian says:

      Nice. And if your humility is not an eschatological marker, it’s the kind of vain egotism practiced by Uriah Heep (or rather, Dickens’ character is a caricature that reveals how a non-eschatological humility is always still self-directed and a form of spiritual judo far distant from love.)

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  10. danaames says:

    Father, I’ll chime in endorsing “Freedom of Morality.” Y. addresses a lot of things in it, but it is held together by how he describes the different “mode of life” we have in Christ. J. Burnett recommended it to me as a new Orthodox Christian; it was a stiff read for me, but helped me a lot. I go back to it from time to time for an ontologic “refresher.” It’s helpful to remember that he is originally addressing the contemporary Greek situation, esp what he writes about toward the end of the book, but the same things apply to us mutatis mutandis.

    Dana

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  11. albion says:

    You two boys have confused me. You are not explaining things in a way that I can grasp, and I’m no neophyte. I have my Christmas confession on Monday, and now I’m not sure what to do when I get there.

    Before, it was clear: I’m as much a piece of s**t now as I was the last time I was here, and the time before, and ….

    So now what?

    As Stephen says, I’m no better; I’m no worse.

    So where is the catharsis, fotisis and theosis?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Albion, in addition to the two blog articles by Fr Stephen in my article, also see his article “Sin is Not a Legal Problem.”

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      There is a prayer that many Antiochians use as part of confession. I offer it here as a hint: O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I confess to thee all the hidden and open sins of my heart and mind, which I have committed unto this present day; wherefore I beg of thee, the righteous and compassionate Judge, remission of sins and the grace to sin no more.

      To me, this prayer directs us to a deeper confession beyond simple moral or spiritual failings.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Albion, you would need to expand further on your confusion before I might venture a response. What precisely troubles you about my article or Fr Stephen’s?

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  12. Michael Bauman says:

    albion what we seek lies deeper under all the accumulating detritus. The problem with a moral approach is that it leaves the darkness untouched, unexamined and unhealed.

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  13. Karen says:

    We do not just end with theosis, after a lifetime of repentance, hard work, and purification. We begin with theosis; we begin with our death in Christ and our baptismal resurrection; we begin with our re-creation by the Spirit. Life within the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit is not reserved for the spiritual mature who have perfectly purified the passions and achieved impassibility and holiness. It is given freely and unconditionally to all who have surrendered themselves to Christ Jesus in faith.

    Amen! Thank you for saying that, Father. This is more a case of grabbing that “mud man” (to use Fr. Stephen’s image) who wants to climb out of the grave and pull himself up by his bootstraps, and plunging him back into the Font (or laying him back on the Altar). We are called to come and die that He might give us His life in return. Our ascesis is nothing if it ultimately does not serve this self-emptying process.

    The linear thinking you describe has only ever served to trap me in despair. Even from a very early age (i.e., grade school), it was the clear vision of Christ in His Self-giving love that made me want to please and serve Him and that transformed the self-interested focus of my heart, not an ever more refined and sophisticated list of dos and don’ts. I think Fr. Stephen is right–we are the most moral we will ever be when we are still children, and we regress from there as we learn ever more sophisticated ways as adolescents and adults to hide our needs, faults and failings from the critical inspection of others. That’s because we generally learn through experience to expect an appeal to the Judge and not the Doctor when such things come to light.

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  14. Mike H says:

    I’ve found the entire set of blog posts (including yours Fr Aiden) to be really challenging & thought provoking. Particularly as it relates to forensic vs ontological models of the Christian faith and how fundamentally different they are.

    Coming from a Protestant/evangelical type background, much of this has been new to me though I’ve sensed that a forensic model doesn’t address reality for quite some time, but haven’t heard the words to articulate it. Of course, this difference (forensic vs ontological) is going to cause many things to be viewed differently, and that’s where I’m getting lost. The Sermon on the Mount ends, for example, with the statement that doing these things is like building your house on rock and not doing them like building a house on sand. I’m not one for getting into cherry picking bible verses to prove a point, but I’m wondering how that relates to the Orthodox view in these matters. It seems that the Orthodox view (much like a Calvinist view) interprets the whole purpose of this sermon being to show people how absolutely terrible they are (whether ontologically or legally). Because of the theological differences, of course, There are differences in the understanding of WHY it isn’t to be done, but the bottom line is the same – it’s meant only to tell you how bad you are. It’s not wisdom or revelation of goodness of God or
    virtue and life that we CAN do (however poorly). I’m left wondering what a person is actually supposed to DO in life.

    This process of “self emptying” – what exactly does that entail? I don’t mean to offend and again, I fully admit that I’m probably misunderstanding, but focusing on what a “miserable vile creature I am” and equating that with “humility” and “self emptying” seems to me like it would naturally lead to becoming incredibly wrapped up in self – always lamenting my failures rather than loving those around me as a response to Gods love. Perhaps doing things, actually living and not just fasting etc, is how one might actually become “self-emptying”, regardless of how poorly it’s done? It’s not done to earn anything, but it’s wisdom. Does that make sense? What am I missing here?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Mike. Thank you for your comment. You write:

      It seems that the Orthodox view (much like a Calvinist view) interprets the whole purpose of this sermon being to show people how absolutely terrible they are (whether ontologically or legally). Because of the theological differences, of course, There are differences in the understanding of WHY it isn’t to be done, but the bottom line is the same – it’s meant only to tell you how bad you are. It’s not wisdom or revelation of goodness of God or
      virtue and life that we CAN do (however poorly). I’m left wondering what a person is actually supposed to DO in life.

      While I understand why you might draw this inference on the basis of my article and the cited articles from Fr Stephen, that is not how I personally would preach the Sermon on the Mount nor, I suspect, would most Orthodox priests. I suspect that most Orthodox priests would, in one way or another, positively commend the Sermon as divine instruction on how the followers of Christ are to live in the power of the Spirit. Not only does Orthodoxy not teach a kind of total depravity that one finds in churches influenced, say, by John Calvin, but it summons the baptized to seek deification, not only in the future life but in our lives today! Take a look at this article, written by an evangelical,that seeks to explicate the Orthodox understanding of theosis: “Partakers of Divinity.” When you reach the end, ask yourself this question: “Does this sound like anything I have heard in evangelical churches?”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, you may also find this video with Fr Thomas Hopko of interest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXQBxqq2RKE#t=1373

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I can’t get your comment off my mind. I feel like it would take my several articles to address it properly, and even then my reflections would probably be inadequate. One more quick thought:

      All Eastern Orthodox agree that the humanity is created in the image of God—or more precisely, in the image of Jesus Christ the Image—and that this image was not lost by humanity’s fall into sin. Hence there should never be in Orthodox preaching a denigration of human nature or of the human person. Human nature is good, though now tragically subjected to the power of corruption and death—hence the necessity of our liberation from death and our rebirth in the Spirit.

      A couple suggestions for reading:

      1) St Athanasius, On the Incarnation. Pay careful note to why repentance is insufficient to save humanity from the dilemma in which it now finds itself.

      2) Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. One of my favorite books on Eastern Orthodoxy. I think it will help you to discern the critical differences between Orthodoxy and the evangelical/Reformed religion in which you were raised.

      3) “Ancestral versus Original Sin.”

      Hope this helps. And hopefully others will chime in with their recommendations and thoughts.

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    • Mike, I fear that I won’t be able to express this properly because there is something terribly paradoxical about it, but, in addition to what Father Aidan has said, and because I’m the one who spoke about humility and knowing oneself as a sinner, I feel I must add that there is *nothing* negative or anti-human about this and, strange as this may seem, it is not telling you how bad you are. The Fathers speak of a joyful sorrow. It is not so much sorrow at how bad you are, but rather at contrast between what you were to created to be and where you now find yourself, and precisely in that realisation lies the possibility of the return to Paradise. But I can’t explain that satisfactorily and suggest that the best thing to do is to attend the services of the first week of Great Lent. Or perhaps read what Father Alexander Schmemann refers to as “Bright Sadness,” – I see that that section of his Great Lent has been posted here: http://www.christthebridegroom.org/2013/02/bright-sadness.html

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      • brian says:

        Hi Mike,

        My little note about Uriah Heep was an attempt to compactly distinguish between a moralist understanding of humility and the kind of eschatological/ontological humility that I think Orthodoxy is aiming at. (I am mainly just agreeing with Father and Macrina here.)

        I should clarify that I am a Western Christian who synthesizes from all over. I am not Orthodox so speak from the outside, as it were. In addition, I grew up in a mixed household of both Catholic and Evangelical faith. I think I have some authentic understanding of how Evangelicals think and feel.

        I don’t think the kind of ontological transformation Yannaras points to implicates one in a Calvinist anthropology. Most Eastern Orthodox are closer to the Catholic view that human nature is wounded, rather than “totally depraved.” The chief point, however, is that one should understand the Sermon on the Mount in the light of Mount Tabor (the Transfiguration.) When Calvin and the reformed tradition point to justification by faith, it is still within the forensic paradigm. The grace that Orthodoxy points to is eschatological and ontological. It’s not that you are declared a criminal who doesn’t have to pay the penalty, you are truly transformed from a worm to a butterfly (yes, this is trite, but the metaphor works somewhat since a kind of piety actually luxuriates in being the worm.)

        In any event, one does not act from within the reserves of the sinner who is trying with the help of grace to improve. One acts from one’s “eschatological being” which lives from Christ. See, this doesn’t imply there is no action; it’s a question of what kind of action and what source. A forensic understanding is conceptualized as an asymptotic approach to Christ through strenuous moral effort that must always conclude in anguish, imperfection, and failure. An ontological understanding may develop, in contrast to moral rigor and solemnity, a certain charitable humor towards “the mud man” and then discover that love is possible because Christ has “always already” joined himself to us; or perhaps better, we discover that our true identity has always been rooted in Christ and thus we can genuinely act from Christ. Obviously, this still remains a mystery and from the perspective of a purely temporal egotism, one can always fall prey to scrupulosity and discern fallenness in all our actions and thoughts.

        It’s not up to us to figure it out. That’s why Christ told his disciples to allow the wheat and the tares to flourish together. (I think the proper interpretation of this parable and the separation of sheep and goats is intrapersonal, rather than what the dominant traditions make of it, but I suppose all this is challenge enough.)

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  15. Where in the Fathers do you find support for your assertion that “we begin with theosis”? If you mean that we begin the process… of course. We certainly do not achieve it right off the bat.

    Also when St. Paul says “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28), he does not say that we are to wait until we are motivated to steal no more by theosis. He says we are to stop doing evil, and and start doing good. When St. Paul says that those who engage in certain sins will not inherit the kingdom of God, he does not say, unless they have transcended morality by theosis.

    Of course we are not saved merely by doing good, and striving to not do evil, but there is no Christian life in which a Christian is not striving to do good, and to not do evil.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Fr John, welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy. I’m afraid that with family starting to arrive for the holidays, I am presently unable to offer the kind of response I would like to. Hopefully I will have an opportunity to do so after the New Year. I offer the following brief thoughts.

      First, I invite you to consider the many texts in the New Testament, particularly in the Letters of the Apostle Paul, that speak of baptism into Christ, baptism in the Holy Spirit, “in Christ,” being a member of the body of Christ, etc. One of my favorites:

      For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12-13)

      Does not this text and others teach us that we are truly incorporated into the incarnate Son and therefore into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. If yes, then is this not theosis?

      I invite you to also consider the texts that teach us that by union with Christ we are made sons of God. My favorite:

      Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

      I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. (Gal 3:23-4:7)

      To be incorporated by faith and baptism into the divine Son is to become, in and through him, sons of the Father. And because we are sons, we are permitted and empowered to address God as our Father, just as Jesus addresses him as Father. We could not do so if we were not sharing in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Is this not theosis?

      Second, you ask for patristic authorities. I mention three in particular: St Athanasius, St Gregory the Theologian, and St Cyril of Alexandria. Each connects baptism with our participation in the divine life of the Trinity. Serendipitously, a three-part article by Matthew Baker was published today on the Orthodox Christian Network on the topic “Deification and Sonship According to St Athanasius”: http://goo.gl/ZV27Df, http://goo.gl/pLGFGS, http://goo.gl/WlSvnt. I also cite the well known passage from St Augustine:

      It is evident, therefore, that He called men gods because they were deified by His grace, and not because they were born of His substance. For He justifies, being just of Himself and not from another; and He deifies, being God of Himself and not by participation in another. But He that justifies does also deify, because by justifying He makes sons of God. For, “He has given them the power to become sons of God.” If we are made sons of God, we are also made gods; but this is by grace adopting, and not by nature begetting. (Ennarationes 49.2)

      Third, I invite you to consider the Divine Liturgy itself. I submit that it presupposes that the baptized who have gathered to offer and celebrate the Liturgy are in truth “in Christ” and therefore “in God.” We gather as the one Body to partake of the one Body.

      When I state that our Christian life begins with theosis, this is precisely what I mean. The believer does not stand outside of Christ and therefore outside of God. He lives and abides in God. He has been united to Christ and the Holy Spirit now indwells him in the depths of his soul. Is he perfectly sanctified and deified? Of course not. But nonetheless he truly participates in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Or to put it in the language I use in my article, he has acquired an eschatological existence.

      Hence I find that the popular language of process can be quite misleading. The language is probably unavoidable, and it does have its uses, as long as it does not obscure the fundamental eschatological truth that by faith and baptism God has graciously brought us into communion with himself, as sons in the Son, as a present and living reality.

      I bid you and yours a most happy Christmas.

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  16. brian says:

    Archpriest John,

    I don’t think anyone is arguing for an antinomian view. It is not a claim that our pilgrimage through time lacks moral struggle. One need only peruse Romans 7 to be disabused of that notion. It is, however, important to discern the difference between a moral striving that is essentially an attempt to raise oneself to Christ via grace and an effort to live out of an already accomplished victory in Christ. The former is based on an illusion and a misunderstanding of the Gospel that can only ever lead to frustration and despair; the latter is the basis for Christian action in the world. If Christ’s ascension doesn’t “always already” include me, then my capacity to achieve holy action here and now is illusory.

    I think paradox is unavoidable in trying to wrestle with time and eternity and the Gospel necessarily draws one into that wrestling. There is something too time-bound, even perhaps Aristotelian and linear in the moralist view of the Gospel.

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    • There is something lacking — like any scriptural or patristic basis — in this aversion to the concept of morality. You simply do not find it in either of them. You may find it in contemporary, more-patristic-than-the-fathers Orthodox writers, but not in the Scriptures, or the Fathers, or the saints of the Church.

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      • brian says:

        Well, Father Kimel gestured towards scriptural and patristic warrant, albeit it’s not a fully developed argument. Neither is what you are writing.

        I find it interesting that there is a similarity between fundamentalist evangelicals and a certain kind of traditionalist orthodox and catholic. They all tend to lack imagination and assume that scripture equates to their particular interpretation of scripture. If one gives an alternate interpretation, one “doesn’t take scripture seriously” or doesn’t have a “high view of scripture” or “ignores patristic teaching” or, in the case of catholics, one is a cafeteria catholic if one doesn’t simply fall in line with common opinion of magisterial teaching.

        In any event, where does scripture or the fathers assert that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has an expiration date? If the early church fathers don’t address something, is it unimportant? Do the patristics close off the depth and breadth of truth? They are helpful guides, but they do not comprehend truth. Regardless, there is certainly scriptural and patristic support for the view that is so gruffly dismissed as neo-patristic, ahem, pseudo-patristic, ahem, not Christianity.

        Fortunately, I am not Orthodox, so you can ignore all this as the exasperation of the unenlightened.

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        • The Holy Spirit is still at work in the life of the Church today, but obviously the Holy Spirit today is not going to contradict what he inspired prior to today. And in fact, in the Ecumenical Canons, one of them tells us that we must interpret the Scriptures in accordance with the interpretation of the Holy Fathers.

          If you read the commentaries of the fathers, you find no aversion to the concept of morality, but on the contrary, they positively reference it with a great deal of frequency. Being moral is not enough to save you, but not being moral is enough to send you to hell.

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  17. A.J. says:

    Archpriest Whiteford,

    I have been interested to see exactly where people are missing one another and talking past one another in many of these exchanges…so I ask you these following questions as a baseline to help me with where you are coming from in relationship to where Fr. Freeman and Fr. Kimel are coming from.

    “Being moral is not enough to save you, but not being moral is enough to send you to hell.”

    What constitutes being moral?

    Who is moral?

    What constitutes not being moral?

    Who is immoral?

    How does one become moral?

    What is moral?

    Does being moral / morality in Orthodox Christianity differ from contemporary Evangelical Christianity?

    Do it differ from postmodern / secular concepts of morality?

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    • 1) What constitutes being moral?

      Keeping the moral law of God.

      “For all things that, according to the Law, went before, whether in the circumcision of the flesh, or in the multitude of victims, or in the keeping of the Sabbath, testified of Christ, and foretold the grace of Christ. And He is “the end of the Law,” not by annulling, but by fulfilling its meanings. For although He is at once the Author of the old and of the new, yet He changed the symbolic rites connected with the promises, because He accomplished the promises and put an end to the announcement by the coming of the Announced. But in the matter of moral precepts, no decrees of the earlier Testament are rejected, but many of them are amplified by the Gospel teaching: so that the things which give salvation are more perfect and clearer than those which promise a Saviour” (Sermon 63:5, St. Leo the Great).

      2). Who is moral?

      A person who keeps the moral law. Few keep the moral law perfectly, but a moral Christian is one who strives to keep the moral law, and who repents immediately when they become aware that they have failed to do so.

      We can also speak of even those who are not Christians as being moral when they strive to keep the moral law. As St. Paul says “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves; which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Romans 2:14-15).

      3). What constitutes not being moral?

      Continuing in things that are contrary to the moral law of God. As St. Paul also says: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

      4). Who is immoral?

      The people who are not being moral. See previous answer.

      5). How does one become moral?

      By being washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11). And as to how a non-Christian might yet live a moral life, that would be a matter between them and God.

      6). What is moral?

      See answer to question #2.

      7). Does being moral / morality in Orthodox Christianity differ from contemporary Evangelical Christianity?

      That would depend quite a bit on which version of contemporary Evangelical Christianity you had in mind.

      8). Do it differ from postmodern / secular concepts of morality?

      In the sense that any view of morality sees being moral as not doing things that are considered to be immoral, and not failing to do those things which one is morally obliged to do, there is a broad similarity. – and so when we speak of Christian morality, they know what we mean by it. But secular ideas of what is moral or immoral are obviously not the same. But such people understand that we do not agree with them in all cases on what is moral or immoral. So when we speak about Christian morality, we do have to inform them on exactly what we believe is moral or immoral and why – which is why attacking the concept of morality in an age in which too many nominal Christians have adopted secular standards of morality is wrong headed. If we lived in a puritanical era, perhaps emphasizing the fact that merely being moral is not enough would make sense. But given that we live in an era far more akin to Sodom and Gomorrah, we need to emphasize the Church’s moral teachings all the more.

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      • AJ says:

        Archpriest Whiteford. Great. Thank you so much. I understand where you are coming from and the concerns you have in a much clearer way now.

        And yet, as I work throught this I am struck by much, and seek to understand your perspective here.

        You say, ” and so when we speak of Christian morality, they know what we mean by it…which is why attacking the concept of morality in an age in which too many nominal Christians have adopted secular standards of morality is wrong headed.”

        It appears to me that the two Father here are trying to break the through those “adopted secular standards of morality” of which you speak….which most have never had challenged in a meaningful way. Fr. freeman staes, “the modern believer struggles with doubts because he struggles with a false consciousness.”. A false worldview which includes false notions of morality which are decidedly unchristian.

        having read carefully much of the back and forth regarding this issue I cannot help but wonder if you agree with or discount the power and reality that the modernist worldview has had on all of us and the powerful grasp it has on the underlying assumptions of American life.

        When we attempt to speak about morality, we have to actually unpack the differences, as you recognize. but this is what i think is trying to be done…attacking wrongheaded secular ideas of morality and showing that there IS A DIFFERENCE…a bigger reality to holiness. perhaps, it would be better if there was a focus on “holiness” as a couterbalance to tired and hijacked notions of “morality?”. Fr. Freeman writes to have us wrestle with the discontinuity between morality as it is perceived popularly, (even popularly within the church) and morality (holiness) as it is in Christ.

        To wit, he says, “my intent is indeed to “unravel” the modernist worldview….I am a cultural observer, and I share my observations here….because I see it tied up in the closed-circuit of modern, secular thought and want to find ways to speak about Gods action in our lives and in the world in a way that breaks out of that language trap.” Etc. etc.

        Would you not agree that sin in our lives, the immorality we display, is a symptom of a deeper root cause…and that to appropriately address symptoms, you attack the cause of an illness. As a paramedic I can tell you that a successful medic ignores symptoms that are non life threatening and attackes the underlying cause. Fighting symptoms is a sure way to worsen the underlying condition of my patient. If you are having a heart attack, my treating your shortness of breath or tachycardia will not address the underlying blockage of blood Flow…and you will die…perhaps with a little less discomfort…but you will still be dead.

        I completely understand and agree with your stance…I see it. It makes sense. It seems to me it might discount the power of the problem we are facing in modern thought and how it is infiltrating our lives at every level.

        Jesus scandalized the Pharisees by telling them that their outward righteousness (morality) was empty without inner righteousness (holiness) calling them whitewashed tombs, “outwardly beautiful…but full of which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.”

        Likewise, Christ continuously emphasized the deeper reality of the law…attacking empty morality by pointing to the core and depth of the law and in this way “amplified” the law. He did not attack the law, but clarified it and emphasized its deeper meaning and the deeper condition of the nous and Karelia that elicited sin. Thus in Matthew 5 he tells us over and over, “you have heard it said….but I tell you.” Was this not seen by the Pharisees as a direct attack on the law? And yet we know it was not so…but an amplification, a revealing, a true understanding of the depth and meaning of the law.

        If the law was meant to be a tutor and a custodian until Christ came, and we are no longer under that tutor (gal 3:24) but under the guidance of the Spirit of Thruth unto good works…then I have difficulty seeing how it is “wrong headed” to show the proper source of Christian Holiness. by pointing out the very things that Christ and the Apostles were pointing out to those in Their generations. “first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also”. And ” there is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. “For each tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they pick grapes from a briar bush.…

        The law is a tutor to lead us to faith in Christ. “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” This knowledge drives us Christ in whom we are crucified, mortified, and resurrected to new life of holiness. Holiness is morality, but morality is not necessarily holiness. Where am I off base?

        Help me out here. I value your response. In Christ. AJ

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  18. I would agree that the non-Orthodox have a different world view than we do, and this has always been true. http://www.orthodox.net/articles/orthodox-mind.html

    However, we are not going to communicate the importance of Christian morality to the non-Orthodox by trashing the word “morality”.

    You wrote: “Would you not agree that sin in our lives, the immorality we display, is a symptom of a deeper root cause…and that to appropriately address symptoms, you attack the cause of an illness. As a paramedic I can tell you that a successful medic ignores symptoms that are non life threatening and attackes the underlying cause.”

    But sins are life threatening symptoms of man’s rebellion against God, which is also sin.

    You wrote: “Jesus scandalized the Pharisees by telling them that their outward righteousness (morality) was empty without inner righteousness (holiness) calling them whitewashed tombs, “outwardly beautiful…but full of which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.””

    Where in the interpretation of the Holy Fathers do you find the hypocrisy of the Pharisees equated with morality?

    “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:1-4).

    That makes it pretty clear that they did not do, even outwardly, what they taught others to do.

    You wrote: “Likewise, Christ continuously emphasized the deeper reality of the law…attacking empty morality by pointing to the core and depth of the law and in this way “amplified” the law.”

    No where do the fathers call what the hypocrisy of the Pharisees “empty morality”.

    You wrote: “The law is a tutor to lead us to faith in Christ. “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” This knowledge drives us Christ in whom we are crucified, mortified, and resurrected to new life of holiness. Holiness is morality, but morality is not necessarily holiness. Where am I off base?”

    It is a mistake to understand the phrase “the works of the Law” to mean the actual fulfilling of the Law:

    http://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2011/11/what-does-st-paul-mean-by-works-of-law.html

    See also:

    http://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2012/12/two-sermons-on-moral-law-of-god.html

    It is true that one can have morality of sort without holiness, but one cannot have holiness without true morality. This especially needs to be emphasized in our time, when we have OCA priests openly advocating for the acceptance of homosexuality, and communing those who are openly in active homosexual relationships. Such people need to understand clearly that this is contrary to the moral law of God, incompatible with God’s holiness, and without holiness no man will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).

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    • jrj1701 says:

      Fr. John Whiteford, with all due respect neither Fr. Stephen, nor Fr. Aidan are advocating that folks continue to sin. Yet I do see them both giving a valid warning against placing man’s understanding of morality as an idol, that focusing more on the method is blinding us from the goal. I see this blindness in you and would advise reading the whole story before casting stones at the work of Fr. Stephen and Fr. Aidan. You are reacting out of fear of the immoral acts that others are advocating, and thus see the enemy in any that would interfere with your fight and the methods that you endorse. Yet your methods ain’t going to carry me all the way home and I see in the teachings of Fr. Stephan and Fr. Aidan those things that will help me in the homestretch. What I am saying is that you need to demonstrate more patience instead of being quick to attack, learn more of what is being said, ask questions instead of condemning.

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  19. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I am going to exercise my blog authority here and bring this discussion to a close. I am presently reading some Christos Yanarras and expect to return to this topic in the near future. Perhaps Dr Yanarras will be able to shed more light on this important theme.

    Thanks all for participating in the discussion.

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