Knowing the Truth

This Sunday in the Orthodox Church commemorates St. Gregory Palamas. His work represents the triumph of reality over theory – of true knowledge of God versus scholasticism. This is an article written in 2008, following my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.


From the book, The Enlargement of the Heart, by Archimandrite Zacharias:

For Elder Sophrony [Sakharov], theology was the state of being in God….theology was for him the description of the event of his meeting with Christ when he was caught up and saw the divine Light. [as described earlier in the text]. (For him theology was the narration of an event.) According to his writings, authentic theology consists not in the conjectures of man’s reason or the results of critical research, but in the state of the life into which man is brought by the action of the Holy Spirit. Theology is then a grace of the Holy Spirit which rekindles the heart of man. Whoever has acquired this gift becomes as a light in the world, holding forth the word of life.

The Archimandrite’s description of the Elder Sophrony’s understanding of theology is similar to the well-known saying in Orthodoxy that “he who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” At its very heart there is a steadfast allegiance to the traditional stream of Hesychast theology (as taught by St. Gregory Palamas) which insists that theology must be grounded in reality – in the experience of the Divine reality – and not simply in the creations and syllogisms of human reason. The point of theology is not to speak about God, but to speak with God.

This is always the difficult (and even frustrating) aspect of Orthodoxy. Unlike the inventions of the human imagination it is, instead, the gift of God, and therefore not under our control. Thus we are counseled to pray, fast, repent, forgive, give alms – all in the context of the remembrance of God. The Liturgy is a mystery in which God is truly among us and truly gives Himself to us – and yet we struggle even there to give ourselves to Him.

St. John in the beginning of his Revelation greets his fellow believers with these words:

I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

In a very few words he sums up the common experience of the Christian life: “to share in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” Our individual circumstances can differ greatly – but none of us escape the “tribulation” [he is here referring to the trials we all suffer and not the dispensationalist notion of a “great tribulation”], none of us are excluded from the Kingdom except by our own choosing, and for all of us there is the daily life of patient endurance.

I thought much about this during my pilgrimage in the holy land. Some places are more interesting than others for someone nurtured in a modern environment. My visit to the monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert, carved and perched on the sides of a sheer cliff, in a sun and heat that clearly belonged in a desert – with a landscape which, though beautiful, is still largely uninterrupted rock and sky – was thrilling for the hour or so we were there. But the American monk with whom I had conversation had been there for 15 years. I found myself thinking back over the previous 15 years of my life – 15 years of serious change – 15 years, busy enough in “God’s service” that you can ignore prayer and forget that you are ignoring it.

In the desert and monastic rule of Mar Saba there is prayer, and the chores of the day – but mostly prayer. It is unavoidably part of the “patient endurance.”

For many of us in our contemporary settings, we find it difficult to stay put long enough to have “patient endurance.” I think the length of Orthodox services is one of the first experiences many people have of Christ saying to us, “Slow down.” Or in Biblical terms, “Be still, and know that I am the Lord.” There is a “patient endurance” that is an inherent part of Orthodox prayer. Some days we endure more patiently than others.

But the faith does not ask patient endurance of us, or tribulation itself, except for the sake of the Kingdom. God is not a taskmaster – we have been freed from the slave masters of Egypt. But just as the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness for two generations in order to become the people of Israel – so we travel in patient endurance, the Kingdom and the tribulation in order to become conformed to the image of Christ.

Standing on a ledge of Mar Saba, it is easy to feel the romance of the caves. But the reality of the caves bears more similarity to whatever it is in our lives that we must endure than it does to any romantic fantasy. Saints are real and are forged in reality by the Spirit of God. There is nothing that separates our lives from that of the saints – for we are one body. Their endurance is part of our inheritance as our endurance must become the inheritance of generations to come.

It is in that day to day remembrance of God that becomes our patient endurance that we ourselves become theologians, or at least catch a glimpse of true theology from time to time.

I was not surprised to hear from the monk who had endured 15 years in the desert, “I have no enemies,” (as I shared in an earlier post). He is a theologian and knows the truth.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





57 responses to “Knowing the Truth”

  1. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Thank you for this, Father – it’s good to read some of the former posts from time to time. All I can add is that even the most minor experience of God confirms the truth of hesychasm.

  2. Henry Avatar

    If you will forgive a unspiritual questions from your old friend the pragmatic American Protestant, how long are services at St. Anne’s?

  3. dee Avatar

    Thank you Father for this invaluable post! I believe this one is crucial in making sense of most of the others.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    It depends on the service. Great Vespers on Sat. Evening is usually an hour and 15 minutes. Sunday Divine Liturgy is an hour and a half (at least). Vigils before a feast run two hours or more in length. We advise removing watches. 🙂

    On a weekday morning, it is not unusual for the Divine Liturgy to be less than an hour (barely).

  5. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Correct me if I’m wrong. Hesychasm proposes that one can experience the energy of God, but not His essence. Is this the case after death, too? And if so, do we ever really know God?

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    The mystery of God’s essence and energies is a distinction within the theology of Holy Orthodoxy that allows us to speak both of how we know God while He remains unknowable (for He is truly God). We do not know Him as an object, ever, for this is of no benefit or significance. We know God by participation. The mystery as defined in Orthodoxy is that God in His essence and in His energies is one. To know Him in His energies is to know Him truly. But He remains unknowable in His essence. It’s a bit like the distinction between immanence and transcendence. To know God in His essence, as Orthodoxy understands the term, would be to actually participate in the essence of God, which would be to become God fully as God alone is God, and this is not possible. The distinction with the energies allows us to speak of true participation.

    These sorts of terms are part of the “grammar of theology,” or the “regula fidei.” Such terms do not seek to define (even as the terms “Hypostasis” and “ousia” do not define). They set the guides and parameter for speech and thought so that we may engage and speak of these things in a correct manner. The heart of the essence/energies distinction is to establish that we truly know God (for His energies and essence are one) while God still remains God alone (in His essence). It is not something to be understood so much as a language to be used.

    The RC contention that we behold God’s essence in the Beatific Vision does not protect the distinction sufficiently (from the perspective of the Orthodox). Oddly, Orthodoxy holds the possibility of true knowledge of God in this life (through participation in the Divine Energies) in a manner that, as far as I understand, is not embraced in RC theology. But I am not sufficiently conversant in RC theology to be expert in the matter. I can gladly be corrected.

  7. Nicholas Avatar


    You can only know an Essence through Energies, period. That’s the whole point of the distinction. It’s an Aristotelian thing.

    The idea that what we encounter of God, or each other, isn’t “the real thing” is totally opposed to Christian cosmology, which is why St. Palamas fought it so hard.

  8. Micah Avatar

    Philip, if I may:

    We ought to be content with circumlocution.

    Like the ancient “shamanistic” cave painting of Chauvet, France (figure of a man, head of a bison), modern man is tempted to change the icon of God (i.e. man) into something that is imaginary and temporary. When the icon itself ascended into fullness – then and only then could it speak of what it truly represented and be understood fully.

    God is also in the detail. 🙂

  9. Darlene Avatar

    “We do not know Him as an object, ever, for this is of no benefit or significance. We know God by participation.”

    Father Stephen,

    What you said here jumped out at me. There is something of this mindset within Protestantism, Reformed theology in particular. That is, the Reformed teaching on Imputed Righteousness, sometimes referred to as alien righteousness. In sum, it is an understanding that when God looks upon a believer, He sees Christ because the believer is clothed in a righteousness not his own. This alien righteousness covers the believer’s sin so that God can accept the Christian because of Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice.

    I suppose you are familiar with this teaching having encountered all sorts of Christians on your blog. This teaching of alien righteousness was and is disturbing to me, because it negates participation in God’s energies, don’t you think? So much so, that Reformed Christians will say that even their good works are as filthy rags. In other words, everything they do (even as believers in Christ) is more than likely tainted by sin. How then can one reconcile what our Lord said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God?”

    I have a particular concern in being able to communicate with Calvinists because certain close friends of mine are in that tradition, and I attended a Reformed church for a decade. Some time ago my dear friend said to me, “We cannot please God.” She regarded her depravity so great that it incapacitated her ability to do anything that would be acceptable to God. Monergism seems to negate our participation in God’s energies, thus being able to have communion with Christ and become like Him by grace what He is by nature. There is no co-operating with God – synergism is considered a false concept that strips God of His glory. Salvation is all and only of God from beginning to end and not one iota of it is of man, so Reformed thought goes. To say we can do anything toward our salvation is blasphemous in their eyes. I think we Orthodox would say that we can do nothing apart from God that is pleasing to Him, but when we are filled with and led by His Spirit we can do many good deeds and please our Heavenly Father.

    Have you addressed Reformed theology in particular in any of your posts? I would like to be able to articulate more clearly the Orthodox teaching on participation in God’s energies, synergism, theosis, etc., and how it differs from Reformed theology.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    What you’ve said makes sense – I agree. I’m not sufficiently conversant with Reform theology to take it on in any larger manner. Point by point, as it may raise questions relevant to Orthodoxy, is about the best I can do. I’m sure that there are others who are better suited to this challenge.

  11. Micah Avatar

    Thus we are counseled to pray, fast, repent, forgive, give alms – all in the context of the remembrance of God.


  12. deanofschools Avatar

    We had someone attend our church for a while, a great guy, whose father had been the Dean at St. Tikhons Seminary. I once asked him, “When does Matins end?”

    “That’s easy,” he said. “Matins never ends.”

  13. Karen Avatar


    There’s a podcast series at Ancient Faith Radio by Fr. Andrew Damick entitled “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” that might be helpful. Also Fr. Josiah Trenham is a convert to Orthodoxy from the Reformed tradition and also does some podcasts for AFR. Some of his material may be helpful (or you could probably get his contact info. and email him). Here’s Fr. Josiah’s parish web site:

  14. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    You write, “There is no co-operating with God – synergism is considered a false concept that strips God of His glory. Salvation is all and only of God from beginning to end and not one iota of it is of man, so Reformed thought goes. To say we can do anything toward our salvation is blasphemous in their eyes.”

    This is not exactly true. The Reformed believe that justification is monergistic, but that sanctification is synergistic. God breaks the chains of sin by Himself: once liberated, man pursues perfection with the aid of the Spirit.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    That is interesting. Of course, the distinction between justification and sanctification is not present in Orthodoxy (and seems to be relatively modern, unless it was a category of Augustine, et al). The Orthodox service of Baptism, says to the Baptizand (while sprinkling the child with water and wiping the Holy Chrism away), “You are justified; you are illumined.You are baptized; you are illumined; you are anointed with the Holy Chrism, you are sanctified; you are washed clean, in the Name of Father, and of Son, and of Holy Spirit. Amen.”

    Baptism, properly, is theosis, though it must be fully lived in to.

    It has always seemed to me that human beings are great mysteries. Those verses such as “not of works lest any man should boast” are often maximalized to the detriment of understanding and create a distorted image of the human. We can do nothing, and yet we must do something. But this is truly a mystery (which is why it is synergistic). And the mystery is such that we cannot see clearly enough to make the proper distinction.

    The will is like that. When does a choice actually begin? We can speak of a “snapshot” view of a choice, but it is like a shapshot of the Grand Canyon. You can never really get enough picture into the frame to do it justice.

    The monergistic idea is one that describes an ideological commitment, but fails to describe the existential reality. Or so it seems.

  16. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    As far as I know, the distinction between justification and sanctification is rather novel, a product of the Reformation, though it has roots in Augustinian thought.

    Catholicism stakes out the middle ground between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Justification is begun, sustained, and completed by God. Man must cooperate with God, but his cooperation is itself a gift of grace.

    “The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what He has begun” (Catechism 2001).

    As St. Augustine wrote, “Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for His mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing” (On the Nature of Grace).

    Nonetheless, the human element is real and present: “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man. He has placed in man a longing for truth and goodness that only he can satisfy. The promises of “eternal life” respond, beyond all hope, to this desire” (Catechism 2002).

    I think St. Thomas sums it up nicely, “God does not justify us without ourselves, because whilst we are being justified we consent to God’s justification by a movement of our free-will. Nevertheless this movement is not the cause of grace, but the effect; hence the whole operation pertains to grace” (Summa Theologica I-II, 111, 2, ad. 2).

    Catholics consider sanctification a component of justification, which is an ongoing process of love and healing through which a Christian deepens his participation in the Triune life of God.

    Catholic anthropology is not so grim as Reformed anthropology nor as optimistic as Orthodox anthropology. Read the Canons of the Council of Orange. They don’t paint a pretty picture of man.

    Because of our view of man, our understanding of justification is more monergistic than that of the Orthodox yet more synergistic than that of the Reformed.

  17. Karen Avatar

    Father, my understanding of the teaching of Orthodoxy is not much different than what Philip states is the Catholic teaching. That is, it seems to me Orthodox also would acknowledge that everything we have is a gift of God’s grace–even the capacity to respond in faith to the gospel teachings and to exercise virtue, even the capacity to put forth effort. It’s just that, unlike (some?) Calvinists, we acknowledge this grace is impartially made available to ALL, but it is not irresistible–one can refuse grace. The proper exercise of our free will is in greater and greater assent to the entrance of that Grace (which is God’s Presence) into our own will and hearts.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    I have probably overstated the optimism of Orthodox anthropology. Orthodoxy would not imagine anything “good” happening apart from grace, because God alone is good, and grace is understood as the Divine Energies. Why would we want to do anything apart from grace (other than sin)?

    Aquinas’ statement seemed quite compatible.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Me, too. I think it would be correct to say that to be truly fully human, is to live in union with God’s grace. To live otherwise is to have turned away from our nature.

  20. Dean Arnold Avatar

    As a Freshman at a Christian College, I took Epistemology because it sounded interesting. I presented my class paper on the idea that true knowledge ought to be based in prayer, a direct relational connection to God, rather than thoughts about God or reason,etc.

    I kind of got laughed out of class. Of course, I didn’t know much, and still don’t. But it sounds like had I been in a more Orthodox friendly environment, someone might have told me about Gregory Palamas.

  21. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    You write, “[Grace] is not irresistible–one can refuse grace.”

    Many Catholics would disagree with this. Thomists believe that all men receive sufficient grace, but some receive efficacious grace. Efficacious grace is irresistible.

    As the saint wrote, “God’s intention cannot fail… Hence if God intends, while moving it, that the one whose heart he moves should attain to grace, he will infallibly attain to it, according to John 6:45, ‘Everyone that has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.’”

    This explains why Saint Thomas, after Saint Augustine, embraced predestination, passive reprobation, and perseverance of the saints.

    Of course, the great Doctor did not deny the will of man, he just understood that it could only truly be called “free” when it was lead by grace.

    This does not sound like freedom to us because we associate freedom with choice. To the ancients and medievals, however, freedom was not the ability to do what one wants, but what one ought. A “free will,” in this paradigm, is a will enthralled by God and guided by the Spirit.

    This helps explain Saint Augustine’s curious statement, “The will is not destroyed through grace, but is established, since grace cures the will so that righteousness is freely loved.”

    Then again, those Catholics influenced by Molina would agree with you. But I am more influenced by Saints Augustine and Thomas.

  22. John Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    First, thank you for your participation on this blog. I have learned much from your sincere and well-articulated posts and the discussions they’ve generated.

    My question on this topic is: How do you reconcile Aquinas’ understanding that “if God intends, while moving it, that the one whose heart he moves should attain to grace, he will infallibly attain to it” with 1 Timothy 2:4, through which is revealed that God wills for all men to be saved? Aquinas’ understanding seems to me to imply the contrary: that God is more interested in some being saved than He is in others, and thus “moves” some men’s hearts and not others. I find this difficult to accept, so assume I’m missing something (I am, in fact, well over my head in these discussions).

  23. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Thank you for your kind words.

    Saint Thomas presents the question you ask, complete with Scriptural quotation, in the Summa:

    “Objection 3. Further, election implies some discrimination. Now God “wills all men to be saved” (I Timothy 2:4). Therefore, predestination which ordains men towards eternal salvation, is without election” (Part 1, Question 23, Article 4).

    He goes on to answer: “Reply to Objection 3. God wills all men to be saved by His antecedent will, which is to will not simply but relatively; and not by His consequent will, which is to will simply.

    The distinction between antecedent and consequent will he explores in Part 1, Question 19, Article 6.

    “Objection 1. It seems that the will of God is not always fulfilled. For the Apostle says (1 Timothy 2:4): “God will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” But this does not happen. Therefore the will of God is not always fulfilled.”

    “Reply to Objection 1. The words of the Apostle, “God will have all men to be saved,” etc. can be understood in three ways.

    “First, by a restricted application, in which case they would mean, as Augustine says (De praed. sanct. i, 8: Enchiridion 103), “God wills all men to be saved that are saved, not because there is no man whom He does not wish saved, but because there is no man saved whose salvation He does not will.”

    Secondly, they can be understood as applying to every class of individuals, not to every individual of each class; in which case they mean that God wills some men of every class and condition to be saved, males and females, Jews and Gentiles, great and small, but not all of every condition.

    Thirdly, according to Damascene (De Fide Orth. ii, 29), they are understood of the antecedent will of God; not of the consequent will. This distinction must not be taken as applying to the divine will itself, in which there is nothing antecedent nor consequent, but to the things willed.

    To understand this we must consider that everything, in so far as it is good, is willed by God. A thing taken in its primary sense, and absolutely considered, may be good or evil, and yet when some additional circumstances are taken into account, by a consequent consideration may be changed into the contrary. Thus that a man should live is good; and that a man should be killed is evil, absolutely considered. But if in a particular case we add that a man is a murderer or dangerous to society, to kill him is a good; that he live is an evil. Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently wills the murderer to be hanged. In the same way God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned, as His justice exacts. Nor do we will simply, what we will antecedently, but rather we will it in a qualified manner; for the will is directed to things as they are in themselves, and in themselves they exist under particular qualifications. Hence we will a thing simply inasmuch as we will it when all particular circumstances are considered; and this is what is meant by willing consequently. Thus it may be said that a just judge wills simply the hanging of a murderer, but in a qualified manner he would will him to live, to wit, inasmuch as he is a man. Such a qualified will may be called a willingness rather than an absolute will. Thus it is clear that whatever God simply wills takes place; although what He wills antecedently may not take place.”

  24. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Saint Thomas, like so many Latin theologians of yesteryear, is difficult to understand unless you realize that they were utterly God-focused.

    When they recognized that some were damned and some saved, they did not see the discrepancy as unfair. Rather, they reasoned that the damned souls glorified God’s justice and the saved souls glorified God’s mercy. Had nobody been damned, God’s justice would not have been displayed to His greater glory.

    Sunny Latin theology, eh?

  25. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “Then shall be made clear much that is now dark. For example, when of two infants, whose cases seem in all respects alike, one by the mercy of God chosen to Himself, and the other is by His justice abandoned (wherein the one who is chosen may recognize what was of justice due to himself, had not mercy intervened); why, of these two, the one should have been chosen rather than the other, is to us an insoluble problem. And again, why miracles were not wrought in the presence of men who would have repented at the working of the miracles, while they were wrought in the presence of others who, it was known, would not repent. For our Lord says most distinctly: “Woe unto you, Chorazin! Woe unto you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” And assuredly there was no injustice in God’s not willing that they should be saved, though they could have been saved had He so willed it. Then shall be seen in the clearest light of wisdom what with the pious is now a faith, though it is not yet a matter of certain knowledge, how sure, how unchangeable, and how effectual is the will of God; how many things He can do which He does not will to do, though willing nothing which He cannot perform; and how true is the song of the psalmist, “But our God is in the heavens; He has done whatsoever He has pleased.” And this certainly is not true, if God has ever willed anything that He has not performed; and, still worse, if it was the will of man that hindered the Omnipotent from doing what He pleased. Nothing, therefore, happens but by the will of the Omnipotent, He either permitting it to be done, or Himself doing it” (Saint Augustine, Enchiridion).

  26. Karen Avatar

    Philip Jude, thanks. I have to admit I recoil at Thomas Aquinas’ understanding, but that line of thought in St. Thomas and St. Augustine makes it easy to understand why Reformed and Calvinist theology went where it did. Talking about “sufficient” vs. “efficacious” grace sounds like a very Scholastic distinction to me and not one I’m comfortable making as an Orthodox Christian. I’m comforted, though, by the story about St. Thomas’ epiphany at the Feast of the Nativity near the end of his life where (if the story is true) he had an encounter with Christ that made all his writings look like so much straw to him! 🙂

    Reasoning that God’s allowing some to perish (though, they might have repented with sufficient light, e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah) displays God’s “justice” sounds like a very human rationalization, (though this is true on a level as far as it goes). I would rather leave it to the mystery of God’s ways and thoughts being infinitely higher than mine and add that to the mix with the reality of human free will. One would be hard pressed, I believe, to find a Saint more “God-focused” than St. Isaac the Syrian, yet he obviously didn’t go where St. Augustine and St. Thomas did, and his theological method (i.e., asceticism/theosis, not Scholasticism) was completely Orthodox. With St. Isaac, and because of the descent of Christ into Hades and His proclamation of the gospel even there, I hope for the ultimate redemption/repentance even of some of these.

    That God’s grace is “irresistible” is a given if you really believe that God restrains Himself from forcing His will on anyone. If you’ve never read David Bentley Hart’s little book The Doors of the Sea, I highly recommend it. It is one of the best Orthodox treatments of the question of suffering and evil I’ve ever read.

  27. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    I admit that I also once recoiled at these very elements of the Augustinian-Thomistic tradition. Then I reread the Confessions with the eyes of faith and I understood that since I truly believe that God is all-powerful and all-loving, I need not fret. I trust that His sovereignty works all things for good. I do not understand His wisdom, but I am confident that He knows best.

    That said, I’m not sure that I find letting men “choose” damnation any more palatable. Either way, the punishment hardly seems to fit the crime. Whether men choose their damnation or not, one must contend with the reality that some souls are forever excluded from God, or at very least forever experience His love as pain. Forever is a long time! Was even Hitler so vile as to deserve eternal torment, be it the work of His own hand or the providence of God?

    Yet Christian orthodoxy affirms the reality of such tragic and terrible punishment. Both monergists and synergists can ultimately only throw up their hands and rely, as I said, on the fact that God knows best and works all things for good.

  28. John Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    You write: “Forever is a long time! Was even Hitler so vile as to deserve eternal torment, be it the work of His own hand or the providence of God? Yet Christian orthodoxy affirms the reality of such tragic and terrible punishment.”

    I agree that such punishment seems unequal to the crime, but would also be uneasy with citing the satisfaction of Divine “justice” as the reason such punishment exists. I have read your comments in previous posts that discuss the necessity of emphasizing God’s wrath/justice and, while I’ve benefited greatly from them and Fr. Stephen’s responses, I do not want to reopen the same argument here.

    Instead, I would ask two further questions (and I admit I address these more to Fr. Stephen): (1) What do the Fathers teach about the nature of eternal bliss or punishment? Personally, I’ve always found comments about “What I’m going to ask Jesus when I get to heaven” to be rather misguided at best as they seem to imply an eternal existence that is not too much different from the one we have now (i.e., an existence that includes speech, reasoning, pleasurable sensual experience, conversation, and other elements of being seemingly tied to time. Indeed, how would speech be possible in eternity, as the differentiation between the beginning of a spoken word and its ending is dependent on the linear passage of time between the two?). I know nothing about the nature of eternity, but I find it more comforting to think that any “experiences” I have in life after death will be incomprehensibly different than the “experiences” I have in this temporal life. If I am correct to think this way, then perhaps it would be comforting to think of the “eternal torment” as incomprehensibly different from the temporal experience of torment. Would this make the fact (if it is a fact) of the existence of eternal torment slightly easier to swallow?

    (2) Don’t Aquinas’ three explanations of God’s willing the salvation of all, including the business of antecedent and consequent will, leave out a fourth possible option (the simplest reading of the text) – that God wills (i.e., desires) the salvation (i.e., eternal life in communion with Himself) of ALL human beings, particularly in their sinful (i.e., “consequent”) state? Why could we not say that this is the case, and then say that men by their choice reject God’s salvific desire?

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, this is all such a mystery. What we know (or can know) is God. What we don’t know are some eternal questions about ourselves and others. I believe can know the goodness of God and His mercy. I do not think we can know anything of His justice and I am loathe to base anything on such posited knowledge. What we are describing as “torment” is simply the love of God. Thus, does Hitler deserve the eternal love of God? Apparently no more than I do. Will such love change him? I have no idea and no way to know. None of us do. I do believe that if someone can be changed then the love of God will change them. It is a transforming love.
    As to choice – I’m just not sure anymore. Choosing (and the will) seem so insignificant to me sometimes. I am where I am, and choices have certainly played a role in my being here, by I did not choose to be here. How could I? I have no power over the “here.” I made some choices. So much of life is not a choice – rather more of a given. Some days it’s chickens – some days it’s feathers. It’s like saying, “I chose the universe.” Of course I didn’t. I can make a choice at this very moment – but the moment remains and so do I. So what’s the choosing? Mostly I think I can choose to be here right now (which is really more like accepting a reality that I can pretend is not real)…just some thoughts.

  30. John Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Your words seem to me a reminder of “the one thing needed” – neither perfect understanding of eternity nor of free will and its consequences, but love of God. How difficult to keep this focus, but how simple and beautiful it is!

  31. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    You write, “What do the Fathers teach about the nature of eternal bliss or punishment?”

    I don’t know that the fathers are united in their understanding of the afterlife. Certainly, the patristic consensus favors the existence of eternal punishment.

    Saint Irenaeus wrote, “Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord (as David also says, “But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth” ), entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it—the elders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, [arguing] from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavour to bring in another Father, setting over against [these punishments] what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment; and all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not, and that it were better for them if they had not been born, Matthew 26:24 and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the judgment than for that city which did not receive the word of His disciples. Matthew 10:15

    2. For as, in the New Testament, that faith of men [to be placed] in God has been increased, receiving in addition [to what was already revealed] the Son of God, that man too might be a partaker of God; so is also our walk in life required to be more circumspect, when we are directed not merely to abstain from evil actions, but even from evil thoughts, and from idle words, and empty talk, and scurrilous language: thus also the punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal. For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire,” Matthew 25:41 these shall be damned for ever; and to whomsoever He shall say, “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for eternity,” Matthew 25:34 these do receive the kingdom for ever, and make constant advance in it; since there is one and the same God the Father, and His Word, who has been always present with the human race, by means indeed of various dispensations, and has wrought out many things, and saved from the beginning those who are saved, (for these are they who love God, and follow the Word of God according to the class to which they belong,) and has judged those who are judged, that is, those who forget God, and are blasphemous, and transgressors of His word” (Against Heresies, 4:28:2).

    Saint Cyprian of Carthage provided a grim and chilling vision of damnation:

    “What glory of the faith will there be then, what punishment for perfidy, when the day of judgment shall come! What joy for believers, what sorrow for unbelievers, that they were unwilling before to believe here and cannot now return to believe! An ever burning Gehenna and a devouring punishment of lively flames will consume the condemned, and there will be no means
    whereby the torments can at any time have respite and end. Souls with their bodies will be reserved in infinite tortures for suffering. There he will be seen always by us, who here saw us for a time, and the brief of cruel eyes in the persecutions that took place will be compensated by a perpetual spectacle according to the faith of holy Scripture which says: “Their worm
    shall not die and their fire shall not be extinguished, and they shall be for a spectacle for all flesh.’ And again: ‘Then shall the just stand with great constancy against those that have afflicted them and taken away their labors. These seeing it shall be troubled with great fear, and shall be amazed at the suddenness of their unexpected salvation, saying within themselves, repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit: “These are they
    whom we had some time in derision, and for a parable of reproach” We fools esteemed their life madness and their end without honor. How are they numbered among the sons of God and their lot is among the saints? Therefore, we have erred from the way of truth, and the light of justice hath not shined unto us, and the sun hath not risen upon us. We wearied
    ourselves in the way of iniquity and destruction and have walked through hard ways, but the way of the Lord we have not known. What hath pride profited us? Or, what advantage hath the boasting of riches brought us? All those things are passed away like a shadow.’ Then there will be the pain of punishment without the fruit of repentance, useless weeping, and ineffectual prayer. Too late do they believe in eternal punishment who were
    unwilling to believe in eternal life” (To Demetrian, 24).

    I think it’s important to realize that these saints wrote in the context of persecution. They are only men and so possess the passions of men, which include the tendency toward vengeance. It must be considered that this colored their writings.

    Nonetheless, from the very start, Christian orthodoxy seems to have affirmed that damnation is real and terrible and eternal. The few fathers who were universalists or annhilationists or probationists are decidedly in the minority.

    You also write, “(2) Don’t Aquinas’ three explanations of God’s willing the salvation of all … leave out a fourth possible option … that God wills … the salvation … of ALL human beings, particularly in their sinful state? Why could we not say that this is the case, and then say that men by their choice reject God’s salvific desire?”

    If what you suggest is the case, it means that God can be frustrated, His will denied, His wishes unfulfilled. For the fathers, at least the Latin fathers, this is entirely unacceptable. I tend to agree with them.

    Ultimately, I rely first and foremost on Scripture, which tells us that God chose us from all eternity:

    “He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Ephesians 1:4).

    “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Ephesians 1:11).

    “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).

    “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).

    “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure” (Isaiah 46:9-10).

    “He who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (II Timothy 1:9).

    “And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed” (I Peter 2:8).

    These are among the verses often called upon by Augustinians and Thomists, and I find them quite compelling.

    As I said earlier, God’s sovereignty is only palatable if one surrenders and puts one’s entire trust in the goodness, wisdom, mercy, love, and justice of the Thrice Holy. He is not a petulant child playing with puppets, but a kind and sage parent, who leads His children to the spring of eternal life.

    Again, this goes back to how we understand “freedom.” According to the Latin Christian tradition, only God is free. Therefore, we can only say that our will is free if our will is totally possessed by the Spirit. The ability to choose between God and Satan is not freedom but lack thereof. The will is either enslaved by sin, which leads to damnation, or it is possessed by the Spirit, which leads to salvation. The former is coercion, the latter is liberation.

  32. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    This discussion makes clear why the denial of purgatory is such a grievous heresy. I realize that Orthodox and Catholics differ on the exact nature of this state, but certainly we both believe in a state of purification after death. Purgatory is great evidence of God’s charity. I am inclined to think that purgatory is the “place” wherein noble pagans and virtuous atheists are made lovers and friends of God. It softens the harsh either/or of damnation and salvation that is typical of Protestantism.

  33. Drewster2000 Avatar

    In following this discussion, I find that we’re on the border of so many things that we simply cannot know. And this is where theologians get a bad name – and deserve it. While exploring these things are certainly fun, we have to know when to say when. Here are a few examples:

    1. Eternity: Someone said that this is a long time. But of course this is known to be false. As eternity steps outside of time and space, there is no way for us to comprehend what eternity to means – especially not be judging it with our measurements of chronological time!

    2. God’s Justice & Mercy: We’ve had lots of good discussions on this one, but I think we’re reaching our limits. The only thing we can base our ideas off of in this area is our experience. We back those up with quotes from the Fathers, etc., but as it has been pointed out, even they are not united AND have their own limits that they often reach.

    It’s WAY too easy to start with how WE have experienced justice & mercy in our lives, and then build a case from there. And our own personal experiences are extremely subjective.

    3. Purgatory: This is an invention to address our hearts’ claim that physical death cannot represent the last word on the judgement of a human soul. Tollhouses could also be put in this category, or the Grey Town mentioned in Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”. But it’s important that we treat them like Lewis did his invention: a way of thinking about, but without the force of reality. There might be a Purgatory or there might not. All we know is that God is merciful such that He continues our conversation with Him even after death.

    Things like the scriptures (1 Peter 3:19) are reality, but one can only infer so far – and then the rest must be left to “O Great Mystery”.


    I’m not suggesting we should stop talking about them, but when we start saying things like “the denial of purgatory is such a grievous heresy”, then we’ve taken something we can’t know (purgatory), set it up as dogma, and then started toward the next logical step, which would be excommunicating anyone who doesn’t adhere to it.

    I guess it all comes back to the first sin in the Garden: the desire to play God. It is good to discuss – but as students, novices, children. There is much that CAN be known, but I think it’s important for us to tread lightly when we reach the borders of that.

    done ranting, drew

  34. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Your point that we must tread lightly is well taken. It is always good to remember that our ways are not God’s ways. The danger of Scholasticism, so prevalent in Latin Christianity, is that one reduces the mystery of faith to a project of taxonomy.

    That said, Christianity is not a subjective experience (though there is an inner, mystical dimension). The faith has an objective component. That is the beauty of catholicism (small “c”): the faithful can rely on the inspired instruction of the Church, the Body of Christ, the pillar and ground of truth.

    Take purgatory. Purgatory is not an “invention,” as you say, but a divine truth revealed by the Spirit to the Church. I would dishonor Catholicism and my own integrity if I did not plainly state what the Church teaches. The reality of purgatory — a state of purification — has been authenticated by many saints and also by Marian apparitions. To compare the teaching of the Church to an allegory crafted by Lewis is to compare apples and oranges.

    As for heresy and excommunication: The Church has been entrusted with the Truth and she must guard it carefully. Granted, she has been overzealous at points in history, but today perhaps she is lacking in zeal.

    After all, Saint Paul exhorts the Corinthians to “purge out therefore the old leaven.” He condemns them for not excluding from the Body of Christ a man guilty of incest: “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you” (I Corinthians 5:1-2).

    John writes, “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an Antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward. Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (II John 1:7-11).

    He is writing about those deny the Incarnation, but the Church has always understood his words to apply to anyone who denies divine truth.

    You write, “It’s WAY too easy to start with how WE have experienced justice & mercy in our lives, and then build a case from there. And our own personal experiences are extremely subjective.”

    I totally agree. This is why we do not cobble together our faith based purely upon subjective experience. Rather, we receive the faith through Scripture and Tradition. This is not to say that personal encounters with the Lord are not crucial to our communion with Him. Just that, when it comes to purgatory or the attributes of God, we look beyond ourselves, to objective Revelation.

    Once more, let me say that I appreciate your gentle chiding. Too often the head races ahead of the heart. O wicked pride and vanity!

  35. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    By the way, your point about eternity is crucial for understanding the sovereignty of God, especially as it relates to predestination.

    Too often, we choke upon predestination because we imagine God deciding in the past what occurs in the future. Of course, this is not so. As you note, God is eternal, and eternity is not a long time but rather no time (so to speak).

    Still, we cannot escape our perception of the “arrow of time.” Thus we confuse the Sovereign Lord of Israel, who is timeless and unchangeable, with the plotting and meddling Moirae of Greece, the Fates who set the inescapable destiny of mortals.

  36. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    Thanks for your words. I would however bring one point back to you at this time: Purgatory.

    You hold it as a truth of Catholicism (I acknowledge that) and say that you would be dishonoring it if you did not hold to it – and all the truths of your faith.

    However, I have listened in on many of your discussions on this blog. You are one of the last people who I would call unquestioning. Your middle name could be “Challenger”. (grin) I submit that it is not in your nature to accept something simply “because that’s what I have been told/taught”. This is not the time to start doing so.

    I submit that those things we must cling to, that affect our integrity and salvation, are limited. I will not try to exhaust the list but will stick to the Nicene Creed as an easy way to sum it up in two words. Things like Tollhouses and Purgatory are not a part of this body of truths. Perhaps we could put them into the same category as the Apocrypha – very good and instructive, but not required for admission to the Kingdom.

    And this is important. When people question things like the Resurrection, I can talk to them about it but in the end I will walk away still holding to that belief as if my life depended on it (because it does). If they question things like Purgatory, I am open to being convince or dissuaded. I can give on those subjects.

    Much more could be said, but I think it’s important to keep the distinction between what is and is not crucial to our salvation.

  37. Joel Haas Avatar
    Joel Haas

    I have been taught that eternity as ‘no time’ is a pagan Greek (gnostic/platonic) concept foreign to the deposit of faith – at least as far as our ‘eternal’ state goes. Rather, the Hebrew and Christian concept of ‘eternity’ *is* actually ‘a long time’ (“ages upon ages”). This is why the Church will glorify to the Holy Trinity *now and ever and unto the ages of ages.* And this is why our Lord, even in his resurrected body (which, according to the views just espoused in this thread, would be non-sensical according to our time/place universe) can appear to the disciples and *eat and drink* with them in time and place. God’s redemption of creation precisely covers *all* of creation including its temporal and placial/spacial aspects.

    But please correct me if I am wrong.

  38. Joel Haas Avatar
    Joel Haas

    It seems to me like a christological issue: does Christ truly assume *and redeem* ALL of human life…or not?

  39. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    God is eternal: He has neither beginning nor end, nor is He bound by time. To deny this is to succumb to the newfangled error of “Open Theism,” which denies many of the “classical” attributes of God (such as immutability and timelessness).

    Man, however, is not eternal in the true sense of that word: he has a beginning, but no end, and he is (at least for a while) subject to the flow of time.

    If or how we experience time in the next world is beyond me.

  40. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Obviously this is a huge topic. I’m not nearly as well read as someone like Philip Jude or Fr. Stephen, but the Orthodox understanding is that Heaven and Hell are outside of time and space. This is how:

    –Jesus’s descent into Hell applies to all the captives of Hell, no matter when they arrive.

    –When people like Moses and Abraham met with God, they most likely met Christ in his glorified form.

    –The high priest Melchizedek was likely Christ Himself.

    –Jesus can be born at a certain time in a certain place and yet accomplish all these things in our history.

    The mental picture I use is God holding a shoestring stretched out between His hands. This is the timeline we call human history.

    I know this gets into the topics of predestination and free will and all that mess. That wasn’t my intention and I certainly don’t have all the answers; I simply wanted to point out that we who are limited by time and space need to acknowledge how little we can comprehend of the rest of God’s world – which is not a part of that chronology.

    hope this helps

  41. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “I simply wanted to point out that we who are limited by time and space need to acknowledge how little we can comprehend of the rest of God’s world.”


  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    The simple answer is, “Yes.” However, the appropriation of that redemption is a free act of the human person, thus introducing the problematic questions.

  43. Joel Haas Avatar
    Joel Haas

    Philip Jude: Don’t worry, I’m not an open theist.

    Drewster: I hear you with regards to Christ not being bound by time. I guess I’m wondering if “outside” is the correct word to use – because it seems to attempt to explicitly describe an aspect of what you want to remain a mystery. What about ‘exist and operate much differently in relation to’, or something more nuanced?

    Forgive me. I won’t push it any farther. I just wanted some clarification…

  44. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “Those who say these things do not as yet understand Thee, O Thou Wisdom of God, Thou light of souls; not as yet do they understand how these things be made which are made by and in Thee. They even endeavour to comprehend things eternal; but as yet their heart flieth about in the past and future motions of things, and is still wavering. Who shall hold it and fix it, that it may rest a little, and by degrees catch the glory of that everstanding eternity, and compare it with the times which never stand, and see that it is incomparable; and that a long time cannot become long, save from the many motions that pass by, which cannot at the same instant be prolonged; but that in the Eternal nothing passeth away, but that the whole is present; but no time is wholly present; and let him see that all time past is forced on by the future, and that all the future followeth from the past, and that all, both past and future, is created and issues from that which is always present? Who will hold the heart of man, that it may stand still, and see how the still- standing eternity, itself neither future nor past, uttereth the times future and past? Can my hand accomplish this, or the hand of my mouth by persuasion bring about a thing so great?

    Behold, I answer to him who asks, “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), “He was preparing hell,” saith he, “for those who pry into mysteries.” It is one thing to perceive, another to laugh, — these things I answer not. For more willingly would I have answered, “I know not what I know not,” than that I should make him a laughing-stock who asketh deep things, and gain praise as one who answereth false things. But I say that Thou, our God, art the Creator of every creature; and if by the term “heaven and earth” every creature is understood, I boldly say, “That before God made heaven and earth, He made not anything. For if He did, what did He make unless the creature?” And would that I knew whatever I desire to know to my advantage, as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made” (The Confessions, Chapter XII:13-14).

    “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. Yet I say with confidence that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were still coming, there would be no future time; and if there were nothing at all, there would be no present time” (The Confessions, Chapter XV:17).

  45. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Philip Jude: Thank you for those great quotes. Through you, I will soon have read all of The Confessions. (grin)

    Joel: (hahaha) You are correct. It is a misnomer to talk about being “outside” of time and space. And yet, how else are we to speak of such things.

    To draw a poor parallel, we insist on talking about the sun rising and setting – even though we fully understand that in fact our planet has spun on its axis once more. Science revealed this to us, but we have no body of knowledge that reveals to us what happens outside our dimensions of time and space.

    We are God’s children. It is more important that we talk about the sun and moon in their courses, and God not being bound by our limitations, than for us futily attempt to define what we know not.

    Here is a picture of what we believe: A teacher told me once to visualize time and eternity as 2 different circles that touch at one point – inside a man’s soul – right now.

    It is the present moment that we posses. It is the present moment where our clock-managed lives touch eternity. In eternity, all moments are now.

    I don’t fully understand this; I suspect I stop understanding where I touch upon the eternal. There are many lessons one can draw from this, but in the end one of the best is what St. Theophan said:

    “All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.”

  46. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    I love this bit, “Behold, I answer to him who asks, “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” I answer not, as a certain person is reported to have done facetiously (avoiding the pressure of the question), “He was preparing hell,” saith he, “for those who pry into mysteries.”

    Old Gloom and Doom had a sense of humor!

  47. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Amen! Thank God for a sense of humor in this life!

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    Drewster and all,
    I will be so bold as to add a nuance to the idea of being “outside” of space and time. We say this as a sort of shorthand. More accurately, we do not ever stand outside space and time – they are the place in which we are created (for they are themselves created things). Rather, we created things are united with the uncreated (God). This is discussed at some length in St. Maximus (who else?). Thus there’s something of a both/and about all of it.

    Our science fiction stuff has taught us to think of “outside space and time.” It’s very useful – the new physics is helping many people to begin to think in a more properly theological manner. Many lacked the imagination. But when we speak of a new creation, it’s the union of heaven and earth (uncreated and created) that we anticipate. This, of course, is just “place-holder” language. It refers to something we do not yet know and cannot imagine.

  49. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Thank you for your words, Fr. Stephen. I couldn’t have said it better. And thanks to the theologians (in whatever form) who have come up with this crutch so that people like me may join in the conversation.

  50. Eric Kyte Avatar

    ‘theology must be grounded in reality’
    Good to read someone who understands that the Eternal God constitutes Reality.. Thank you so much for this post

  51. Dean Arnold Avatar

    “the new physics is helping many people to begin to think in a more properly theological manner.”

    Have you written a post about this yet? Could be interesting.

  52. fatherstephen Avatar

    Not yet. The physics part is over my head – no sooner would I write it than I’d look like an idiot (or simply be revealed as one). I’m aware of how it’s helping some people think better – in that the new physics is “less literal” in a sense. Moving away from Newtonian thought also makes the strict causational versions of theology less plausible, it would seem. I’ll see what I can do…

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The following link is just one book that explores the issue, there are others. One I read back in the 1970’s was “The Tao of Physics”

    It is fascinating and quite Trinitarian.

  54. simmmo Avatar

    Father this is an interesting conversation – i.e. justification, sanctification categories in Western Christianity that aren’t treated as so in the East.

    I think I’ve mentioned the in the comments on other posts that there is whole contoversy in Protestantism concerning the meaning of the Pauline letters Romans and Galatians, and in particular Pauline statements like the one you highlighted above: “not of works lest any man should boast”. What is the nature of ”justification” in Paul? Is it the Reformation understanding that we are all utterly sinful (e.g. Romans 1-3) and that we can’t “save” or ”justify” by our moral efforts – i.e. by ”works of the law”?

    There is another reading of Romans and Galatians now emerging in Protestant circles which is far more compatible with RC and Orthodoxy – reading “justification” in St Paul as being declared a member of the people of God. The people of God are not defined by circumcision, as in the Old Covenant, but by faith in the Messiah. So the ”justification” language in Paul has ecclesiastical overtones (as well as soteriological, but not exclusively so as in Reformation theology – you could see why the Reformation would want to screen out a high ecclesiology in Paul because it undermines what they have said).

    When you said that at Orthodox baptisms the phrase ”You are justified…” is stated, this fits in very well with the ”new perspectives on Paul” with its high ecclesiology. Baptism, the entering into God’s family – no longer by circumcision, food laws, Sabbaths or other “works of the law” that marked out Israel, so that they would ”boast”. The people of God are marked out by faith in the Messiah, they are therefore justified (declared in the right as a people) on this basis. I would highly recommend you read some of NT Wright’s material on justication. He speaks in Western categories, because this is how the debate has been defined since St Augustine, but his conclusions seem compatible with EO theology, as far as I can tell anyway. I am still a beginner so I could be very wrong… It was just very interesting that the Orthodox use the term “justification” in relation to baptism, although they don’t have a developed theology in this area. This is very much in line with the “new” wave of Pauline scholarship in Protestantism…

  55. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think one of the most obvious things overlooked by many Reform thinkers is that St. Paul never read Calvin, Luther or other Protestant thinkers. The categorization of St. Paul’s thought (as well as developments of “systems”) absurdly thinks that St. Paul had a system (at least it seems an absurd assumption to me). The question that has interested me over the years has been to look for St. Paul’s “root metaphors.” What images lie behind his thoughts? Are there common images that seem to undergird various writings?
    The Orthodox treatment of St. Paul makes far more sense when such questions are asked. The image of union with Christ, it seems to me, is far more than one of several categories (such as justification, sanctification, etc.). It is a picture that can be found within any number of Pauline passages. For instance, what imagery does one have to have in mind to say, “As many as have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death”? Or, what imagery is required by the statement, “For He made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God”? It is possible to see both statements as expressing an underlying understanding of union – that Christ became what we are that we might become what He is. Indeed, it is pretty much the only image that would do such duty when looking at most Pauline thought. Other models tend to require a very complicated system – that would seem to be the product of scholastic imagination rather than the plausible work of a single author.
    As strange as it seems (I’m being sarcastic), St. Paul’s thought is pretty much the same as that found in 2nd century writers (such as Irenaeus) who actually had a very close proximity to the world in which he lived and people he knew and taught. It would seem that there is no break between the NT Church and the Church of the Apostolic Fathers (or the Church that came after them – until the present). St. Paul was (and is) an Orthodox author.
    By dropping the scholasticism of the reformation, NT Wright and others are actually working at reading St. Paul, rather than arguing amongst themselves over the imaginations of the reformers.

  56. simmmo Avatar


    Yes the point has been made by the so -called “new perspective” theologians that the controversies that Augustine had with Pelagius and Luther had with Rome were not the controversies St Paul was dealing with in his time. Trying the thwart Luther onto Paul simply doesn’t work – you just end up with some slogans ”saved by grace”, “works righteousness” etc while simultaneously sweeping much of what St Paul says in these two great letters under the table. What do we do with statements like “the doers of the law will be justified” as in Romans 2?

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  1. As a total aside: Henry Adams practically invented Social History with his efforts almost 200 years ago. A magnificent book…

  2. Sorry for typos. Meant to say nothing pollutes more than warfare, etc , and don’t want to tread over the…

  3. Regarding “green” policies and the discussion here, I want to add that nothing polltes more han warfare, weapons, and to…

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