“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.