Christos Yannaras: The God of Orthodoxy Meets the Deity of the West

“For the Church,” avers Christos Yannaras, “sin is not a legal but an existential fact. It is not simply a transgression, but an active refusal on man’s part to be what he truly is: the image and ‘glory,’ or manifestation, of God” (The Freedom of Morality, p. 46). Sin cannot be properly understood through the conceptual lens of the violation of a legal code, for the Father of Jesus Christ is not a moral despot. He is interested neither in rewarding the virtuous nor punishing the wicked. His sole concern is the redemption of sinners and the deification of creation:

The God of the Church as known and proclaimed by Orthodox experience and tradition has never had anything to do with the God of the Roman juridical tradition, the God of Anselm and Abelard; He has never been thought of as a vengeful God who rules by fear, meting out punishments and torment for men. God is not the ‘judge’ of men in the sense of a magistrate who passes sentence and imposes a punishment, testifying to the transgression. He is judge because of what He is: the possibility of life and true existence. When man voluntarily cuts himself off from this possibility of existence, he is automatically “judged.” It is not God’s sentence but His existence that judges him. God is nothing but an ontological fact of love and an outpouring of love: a fulness of good, an ecstasy of loving goodness. (pp. 35-35)

Catholic and Protestant Christians will object to Yannaras’s caricature of Western Christianity, even while acknowledging its validity when addressing specific theologians, preachers, and pastoral practices. The caricature certainly does not decisively touch the two formative doctors of the medieval Church, St Bonaventure and St Thomas Aquinas, while in Martin Luther we encounter a bold attempt to transcend the legalism that had taken hold of the 16th century Church. Yet as simplistic as Yannaras’s anti-Western polemic may be, it cannot be simply dismissed. Something went tragically awry in the 14th century and afterwards, affecting both the Western apprehension of God and the vision of the moral life. His name was William of Ockham.

In his important book The Sources of Christian Ethics, Servais Pinckaers discusses the important changes in the moral theology of the Latin Church introduced by the rise of nominalism and voluntarism. For our purposes, perhaps the most important change was the replacement of the morality of happiness, grounded in the supernatural and natural virtues, with a morality of obligation, grounded in an innovative construal of human freedom. Pinckaers calls this construal the “freedom of indifference,” i.e., the power to choose between contraries. This change goes hand in with a change in the Latin apprehension of Deity, who becomes “the absolute realization of freedom,” transcending all moral norms and laws. The divine will is “the sole cause and origin of the moral law” (p. 252). That which God commands is good; that which he prohibits is evil.  If God were to command someone to hate him, then “hate itself would become good, being an act of obedience to the Creator’s will” (Servais Pinckaers, Morality, p. 72).  The God who wills our good and happiness in loving communion with him becomes the God who delivers the Law and summons humanity to obedience and submission, with heaven and hell in the balance. Morality thus becomes the meeting place between the transcendent agent of absolute freedom and the human agent possessed of libertarian freedom.

Particularly illuminating here is the way the morality of obligation, developed in the 17th through 19th centuries manuals of moral theology, impacted the Sacrament of Penance:

Observing the makeup of the moral textbooks, we are struck by their similarity to the sacrament that has been called the tribunal of penance, at least at this period. For both, everything breathed the atmosphere of a courtroom, with some adaptations. Both moral theology and the sacrament were dominated by law, which expressed the will of God and determined the morality of actions. Conscience, in moral theology, exercised the role of the judge who applied the law by determining what one could or could not, might or might not, do. In the sacrament of penance, the role of conscience was filled by the confessor in regard to the judgment to be made, while conscience itself played the role of prosecutor in regard to freedom, through the confession of sins. Human acts were the subject matter of moral theology insofar as they came under the law, with special attention to sins, which formed the subject matter of penance. In his role as judge, the confessor concluded his judgment by assigning a penance or satisfaction suited to the gravity of the sin, and this corresponded to the remorse of conscience which punished faults. Morality and the sacrament of penance were thus set in a juridical and legal context. We should add that ethicists and confessors often had a great concern for mercy, taking care not to overburden consciences and seeking to favor freedom wherever possible. Confessors were mindful that penance was above all the sacrament of divine mercy. Nevertheless, the attitudes inculcated by the theology of manuals were too juridical to give free scope to mercy, which is so preeminent in the Gospel. (Sources, p. 273)

A conversation between Christos Yannaras and Servais Pinckaers might prove very fruitful.

(Go to “Asceticism as Repentance”)

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24 Responses to Christos Yannaras: The God of Orthodoxy Meets the Deity of the West

  1. Fr. Joseph Bittle says:

    Just adding my “thumbs up” to your characterization of Pinckaers’ book “The Sources of Christian Ethics” as an important book. His “Morality: The Catholic View” is also quite good and more approachable for the average reader, although in the later he obviously doesn’t attempt cover historical background and trends, but is rather giving a summation of his positive teaching.

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  2. brian says:

    There’s no doubt that nominalist and voluntarist notions had a disastrous effect on Western Christian thinking. Much of modern atheism was initially a reaction against the god of very bad theologies that followed in their wake.

    Much of what passes for a Christian sensibility in the modern world is dominated by a moralism of extrinsic obligation and individualism — both indications of the significant ways in which theology continues to carry the weight of such fundamental errors.

    The historical narrative articulated by Radical Orthodoxy has a similar focus, btw.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Okay, Brian, here’s the money question: Are the theologies of Yannaras and Zizioulas, with their emphasis on freedom, influenced by nominalism/voluntarism?

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      • brian says:

        Father,

        It’s a complex question, really, but in the end, I think no.

        One of the chief anthropological results of nominalism was the loss of any sense of an ontological bond between persons. The atomic individual was posited as “natural” and relations were extrinsically added on. Both Zizioulas and Yannaras consciously reject such a concept.

        I think perhaps the worst consequence of voluntarism for theology was the perpetuation of a notion of God’s freedom that was abstracted from God’s goodness. From this one gets a capricious absolutism that one can discern in Calvinism, for instance. None of this is at all evident in Zizioulas and Yannaras. On the contrary, they both stress the ontological consequences of a divinity that is love.

        I do think one could read Yannaras’ notion of freedom as “unhinged from creation,” but I don’t believe that is his ultimate intent. One is left in a kind of apophatic openness towards the eschatological — but just such an awareness of the need for an eschatological healing of temporal wounds takes one away from the kind of “finite moralism” that betokens the bad theology that was nascent in the late medieval era and dominant in modernity.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Thanks, Brian. I thought “no” would be your answer, and I concur. Given the ontology of love that both Yannaras and Zizioulas elaborate, I see a vast difference between them and the disciples of Ockham. The reason I raised the question was because of the the intimation by Yannaras, already discussed, that the Father in some sense freely decides to effect a trinitarian existence.

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  3. alienus dilectus says:

    How fitting that I read this post today! Just last night I went to confession at a local Roman parish. I listed my sins according to number and kind, received no real advice, was told to say seven Hail Marys (without any reason why nor any particular intention), and was given absolution. In and out in two minutes. I walked out in a bit of a stupor, said my seven Aves, added a few Jesus Prayers, tried to pray spontaneously but couldn’t, and then went into the cold, dark night air. Such things make for strange drives back home.

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  4. Jeff says:

    or one can have Chestertons experience :

    Well, when a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world to a Crystal Palace that is really of crystal. He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. He stands, as I said, in the white light at the worthy beginning of the life of a man. The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.

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  5. Karen says:

    In your third paragraph: ” . . . perhaps the most important change was the replacement of the replacement of the morality of happiness, . . . “ needs one of the “replacement of the”s removed.

    You can delete my comment after you see it! 🙂

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Replacement of the replacement”–that’s like the “department of redundancy department.” 🙂 Thanks for catching that.

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  6. Dallas Wolf says:

    When you are speaking of 30,000+ denominations, how do you avoid simplistic generalizations in a summary paragraph? There is nothing in my 60 years of personal experience of a great number of Western Latin denominations that is inconsistent with Yannaras’ characterization of Roman theology.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I suspect that Yannaras has very little acquaintance with Protestantism and its various sects. When he thinks of Western Christianity, he is thinking specifically of Catholicism.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Does Yannaras know Kierkegaard?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          One would think that he must, but I do not recall him mentioning him. But perhaps those who have read more widely in Yannaras can help here.

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          • brian says:

            Hi Father,

            I just quickly looked through the index of eight of my Yannaras books. There isn’t a single reference to Kierkegaard.

            Oh, and Jonathan, thanks to you I had to order the Jean Grenier you referenced and three RA Lafferty works.

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          • Jonathan says:

            Brian,

            I’m delighted to have directed you to Grenier and Lafferty. I hope very much and doubt very little that you will enjoy them. May they not have put you too much out of pocket. You have, for you part, influenced me to get my hands on (I pilfer by means of my wife’s access to a research university’s library) a number of works, including Yannaras’ Variations on the Song of Songs. I’ve just started reading that book and for good or for ill I will not be able to go to bed tonight until I have finished it. But I never did count sleep for much. I’ve also added Peake’s unfinished masterpiece, a long-standing gap in my reading, to my 2015 list. I’m looking forward especially to figuring out why everyone disdains the last part.

            More apropos, I have to say that if Yannaras has not mastered Kierkegaard then shame on him. The thing about this “West” that certain rhetoricians (and let me say I have nothing against rhetoric) like to pillory is that it has always contained, or, if you like, generated its own best critique and dissent. One cannot be more protestant or personalist, in the most stringent sense of the terms, than the Danish philosopher — who was really a poet-theologian, as I’m sure all of us reading here know. If I had to make a list of worldwide uncanonized saints, Sk would be at the top. I cannot think of another single human being who has done more to impress upon me the urgency, the contemporaneity, of the Gospel. At any rate, his project seems to be proximate to Yannaras’.

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    • AR says:

      Protestants rejected a lot of this in its more obvious forms. For instance, in the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement, which most Protestants consider to be the substance of the gospel, God is not free to forgive sinners simply on the basis of repentance. He must punish someone – it can be you or Jesus, but it has to be in blood. So much for God as the absolute realization of freedom.

      However I think most converts from Protestantism to Orthodoxy see this as a development rather than an about-face. God is not concerned with rewarding the righteous, because there is no such thing. He is only concerned with punishing the wicked – because logically, we are all the wicked. And this concern, first revealed by God’s freedom, now overshadows and truncates his freedom.

      Now it’s true that in the Protestant scheme, no one has to actually suffer any judicial penalties for their sin in God’s courtroom. Faith is enough to activate Jesus’ substitutionary punishment in our place. Again, we see the rejection of the Roman doctrine in form and in practice. But once again the moral heart of the teaching is still present.

      Because in this scheme of things you are never truly forgiven by God – never truly absolved. Instead what happens to you is that your sin-debt is compounded by a debt of gratitude to a man who suffered unimaginable agonies so you wouldn’t have to. Whether you feel doubly obligated to walk in righteousness now, or whether your life motto is to walk in grace because it’s all taken care of, the one thing that never changes is that every transgression of the moral rules you commit was taken out on Jesus by an angry God.

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      • AR says:

        Or maybe a grieved and disappointed God absolutely consistent in his intolerance of sin, but definitely someone had to pay.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    How would you see Richard Hooker in this ‘picture’? I am thinking (to start with) of Laws I.ii.5, which begins, “They err therefore who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason beside his will.” Isn’t this ‘classic, orthodox, Western’ anti-voluntarism?

    On what seems a justifiable tangent, can you recommend any resources (online or off) on Orthodoxy and auricular Confession (and Absolution)?

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  8. AR says:

    “The God who wills our good and happiness in loving communion with him becomes the God who delivers the Law and summons humanity to obedience and submission, with heaven and hell in the balance. Morality thus becomes the meeting place between the transcendent agent of absolute freedom and the human agent possessed of libertarian freedom.”

    I can’t help noticing that Islam went there first. I wonder if there are any theological histories tracing the influence of Islam on Christian ethics/theology.

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  9. brian says:

    Jonathan,

    I also have a high appreciation of Kierkegaard. Christopher Ben Simpson’s The Truth is the Way is a nice, short work on him that has not gotten a lot of scholarly attention — mostly because it makes it crystal clear that the inscrutable Kierkegaard is pretty much an orthodox Christian and that Christ is the key to his mysteries.

    Further, I agree that Yannaras would find in him a brother voice.

    Yannaras is very selective in the way he reads the West, but I forgive him because he’s so interesting and insightful. Variations is really one of my favorite books. In general, I am disappointed with the way Christianity addresses sexuality. Yannaras gets it right.

    Peake suffered from Parkinson’s disease and it prematurely ended his life and before that damaged his literary and artistic creativity. The third volume of the Gormenghast trilogy was left unfinished and it shows signs of the weakening of Peake’s powers. The first two books take place in the vast, gloomy precincts of Gormenghast. The last is a kind of picaresque novel that is somewhat stiffly allegorical.

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  10. Wow!! What a blog! These are questions I have been wrestling with for years now, especially as I have come to understand God as love.

    Bookmarked. Looking forward to wonderful reading!

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