The Church and the Cross

The following article is a series I wrote during the early months of the blog. I think it worth reprinting (surely people aren’t going back to read everything I’ve written). It is also available in the “Pages” section of the blog. If you’ve read it before I hope you enjoy rereading it – if not, I hope you find it useful or worth some thought.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scripturapoor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

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.





59 responses to “The Church and the Cross”

  1. Rhonda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    These were beautiful words when you originally wrote them & they still are. They are also a beautiful follow-up to this morning when we prostrated ourselves before the Cross in the Church. Thank you so very much!

  2. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    Yes: quite beautiful.

  3. Karen Avatar

    Yes, thank you!

  4. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    I have to say, to lay papal infallibility at the feet of “the insanity of modern American Christianity” is rather strange, given that it was championed by Italians and most strongly resisted by Americans.

  5. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Also, you seem to speak dismissively about the invisible Church. But I always thought that Catholics and Orthodox share in common the notion that the Church is both visible and invisible: at once the human, earthly society we see among us and the mystical, heavenly Body of Christ that we know by faith alone.

    I find this in an article at OrthodoxInfo:

    “In our Orthodox Church, however, communion of soul and mind, all our striving, everything is directed to the Heavenly Church, so that it, being invisible, becomes almost visible, and from the distance of the heavenly heights becomes the closest thing to us.”

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I haven’t “laid Papal infallibility at the feet of American culture.” I simply included it in a present-tense list of “excellencies” among American Christian groups. As for orthodoxinfo – it’s not on my list of preferred Orthodox information providers. The language of “invisible” Church is not particularly Orthodox – and is something of an importation even in the description they give. The Church is one, not visible and invisible. As to its invisibility – it all depends on where you’re standing when you say it. The truth of the world described as “visible” is also only known by faith alone. “For we walk by faith and not by sight.” I’m a one-storey kind of guy.

  7. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    I guess I just wonder how the earthly church could be the Body of Christ, since it is sinful and the Lord is sinless.

  8. NW Nikolai Avatar
    NW Nikolai

    …perhaps b/c Christ is continually cleansing her by Himself, the Word, and by His presence in the cup? Forgive… Nikolai

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Since the clearest references to the Church as the body of Christ in the NT are about the Church to whom the letters are addressed (Rome, Corinth, etc.) then it is obvious that the primary reference of the Body of Christ is to the Church to which we now belong. A first rule of interpretation must be that whatever St. Paul means by the “Body of Christ,” it includes this gathering of sinners that stretches across the world. It is a mystery that it is so, but there it is. I am crucified with Christ (another mystery). I am Baptized into His death (another). I am seated with Christ in the heavenly places (another). And so it goes. There are reasons the Eastern Church concentrates on the reality of mystery. It pretty well describes reality as we know it.

  10. simmmo Avatar

    Father, your discussion of imitating God, who is the Holy Trinity, and self-emptying love in Part III was really good.

    I wonder if you could speak to this Reformed/Calvinist notion that love is just one of God’s ”attributes” among others (namely holiness, wrathfulnes, justice etc). God is not only love they would say, he is other things as well.

    But, if I am hearing you correctly, the Orthodox position is that love is not just something God does sometimes, it isn’t just one of his attributes. Rather it is the essense of his very being. Everything God does is motivated by this self-emptying agape love. So when St John says that ”God is love”, he really is talking about the ontological reality that exists in the life of the Trinity. And so Sakharov can say ”I love, therefore I am”.

    The Calvinist understanding of God has to deny the full force of things you are saying here about the self-emptying love of God to make room for their notions of God’s ”justice”, ”vengeance”, ”wrath” and so on (which seem to me to be anthropomorphisms – thwarting onto God human passions). And these other ”attributes” of God are expounded in ways that are quite contrary to self-emptying love. This appears to be a radically different view of God and one that is completely incompatible with the Orthodox understanding of God. It not only affects the doctrine of God, but also the doctrine of hell, doctrine of atonement, the doctrine of salvation and so on. It is, to quote a favourite Reformed verse, ”another gospel”. Your previous blog on ”Calvinism as heresy” comes to mind. True Christian unity can not be built on Calvinism. Calvinism must be renounced as Met. Jonah says. Which brings us back to ecclesiology. I think it raises a very interesting question. Will the Reformed churches who have this rather violent picture of God become another cult that is clearly outside the bounds of both big “0” Orthodoxy and small ”o” orthodox Christianity? And hence they can not be part of any meaningful ecumenical dialogues?

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    St. John’s statement, “God is love,” is fairly clear (it would seem). I cannot imagine saying something like, “God is justice,” or “God is wrath.” The absurdity of such statements is made clear when they are said out loud. That alone should tell us something.
    That God is love is particularly clear if understood within EO teaching of the Trinity. Met. J. Zizioulas does a wonderful job with this. I could never imagine doing that with justice or wrath.
    Your reading of this within the context of ecclesiology is spot on. It’s pretty much the point of my posting. No part of theology should be seen as separate from another. If ecclesiology is not Trinitarian then it is not Christian. I edited an article some years back by the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson in a small (Anglican) book, Shaping Our Future. The article is “The Trinity and Church Structure”. The book is currently listed at such a cheap price, I’m surprised they’re not paying people to get it!

  12. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Is there any equivalent to magisterial infallibility in Orthodoxy? An ecumenical council?


    You wrote, “I wonder if you could speak to this Reformed/Calvinist notion that love is just one of God’s ”attributes” among others (namely holiness, wrathfulnes, justice etc). God is not only love they would say, he is other things as well.”

    I wrestle with this as well. Yes, Saint John says that “God is love,” but Scripture also says that God is holy, just, righteous, wrathful, jealous, and so on. How does one defend privileging love above all these other attributes?

    You also write, “Will the Reformed churches who have this rather violent picture of God become another cult that is clearly outside the bounds of both big “0” Orthodoxy and small ”o” orthodox Christianity?”

    The Reformed are presently saying exactly what they said in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Plus, there are many Arminian Protestants and Catholics who affirm roughly what Calvinists believe about God — that He is jealous, just, wrathful, and so on — while rejecting their strict determinism.

    Nonetheless, that statement “God is love” does stand out, if only because Saint John uses a noun rather than an adjective. That is, Scripture will say “God is just” not “God is justice” and “God is wrathful” not “God is wrath.” This makes Saint John’s statement rather unique. Love seems to go to the very core of God’s being. It is the source of the other attributes.

    “Thou lovest all things that are, and hatest none of the things which Thou hast made” (Wisdom 11:25).

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your grammatical observation is quite the point. A noun is not an adjective. St. John’s statement is thus quite striking, and not coincidentally. As for adjectives, they are always problematic. The adjective cannot define God (since God is undefinable). God defines adjectives. It’s why I prefer an apophatic approach…

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    The only equivalent I can think of is the force of a council that has been universally accepted within the life of the Church. But it does not then function like the Roman magisterium. The idea of taking a given theological definition and then reasoning on that basis to something is somewhat outside the life of Orthodoxy. It can play a part, but everything within the life of the Church (theology, etc.) must be grounded in the living experience of the Church and never abstracted from that experience. This was always the problem with scholasticism, and is “definitively” addressed in the Palamite councils of the 14th century (affirming the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas).

  15. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Is it a noun rather than an adjective in the original Greek?

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes indeed

    Sent from my iPhone

  17. simmmo Avatar

    Father and PJ, thanks for your responses.

    PJ, you said

    ”The Reformed are presently saying exactly what they said in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Plus, there are many Arminian Protestants and Catholics who affirm roughly what Calvinists believe about God — that He is jealous, just, wrathful, and so on — while rejecting their strict determinism.”

    What I would say to this is that if you look at the direction that Arminian Protestant and Roman Catholic theology is going, it is definitely moving away from the medieval theology that the magisterial Reformers seem to have inherited from Catholicism. And so, for example, God’s justice is not being seen as retributive, but rather restorative – similar to the statement made by St Isaac the Syrian “God is not One who requites evil, but who sets evil right.” This understanding of God’s justice is not at all in contradiction to the statement that God is love. I’ve heard the American Roman Catholic theologian, Father Robert Barron, say that God’s wrath is his desire to put things right. This is a very different thing than saying, as do the Calvinists, that God is literally angry at us for breaking laws and therefore must punish. I.e. his wrath and justice. But requires an innocent sacrifice to satisfy his wrath and justice, and those who believe are then loved by God. But those that do not are hated by God. I think in all forms Christianity apart from the Calvinists, there is a definite moving away from the medieval notions of God and salvation that the Reformers inherited.

    This is why I said that, perhaps in some time in the future, the Calvinists will end up as a sect outside orthodoxy. I think the Christianity will simply pass Calvinists by.

    Let me post some videos that clearly bring out the polarisation that is taking place in Christianity – one by a Calvinist, the other by a Roman Catholic.

    Here’s Mark Driscoll saying that “God hates some people”:

    Here’s Father Barron on hell

  18. dinoship Avatar

    Father Stephen and PhilipJude,

    Your very interesting conversation made me realise that the English is lacking quite something still…:

    The statement “God is Love” is actually even MORE striking in the original Greek as it is uniquely worded with the noun Love first rather than second (as can only be done in this language and doesn’t unfortunately function that way in English).
    It says: God “ἀγάπη ἐστίν” (something like: ‘Love is what He really is’) rather than “ἐστίν ἀγάπη” (‘He is Love’) which also could work as a possibility in Greek yet is not used!
    Any other word would sound wrong worded that way in Greek, as Father Stephen said, as it is so strong a statement.
    There are numerous examples where this is not done, even:
    “I am that I am” (Ὁ Ὥν) for instance, (its precise meaning, loosely -forgive the contradiction- approximated as “I am Being”) was not said the other way around, which would make it more like: “It is Being that I am”, as is the case with “ἀγάπη ἐστίν”

  19. Valja Avatar

    Ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστιν is not a marked word order (and the Modern Greek translation, Ο Θεός είναι αγάπη, is also in unmarked or neutral word order) so having ἐστιν in final position does not motivate the translation dinoship offered. Further emphasis could have been given with an extra article (articles are often repeated for this purpose). Ὁ θεὸς ἐστιν ἀγάπη could work here, but it is no more natural than the version we have. (It would have been less likely in Classical Greek, though). (This philologist is just being philological — I don’t wish to downplay the significance of this line).

    I’ve been watching this discussion with interest, as I have had a similar discussion with a staunch Calvinist family member who really does believe that God genuinely hates reprobates and only loves the elect. Lines like this one are lost on him, as is the noun/adjective distinction (he does not read Greek and is not really interested in the original text of the NT — he has his translation and sees no need to go further than that). What saddens me most, though, is to see how his theology justifies his personal grudges and hatreds, which only serves to make him (more) angry and embittered. Calvinism is hurting him. In contrast, I have found Father Stephen’s emphasis on forgiveness and thankfulness, although difficult for me at first — it is a skandalon — truly inspiring. My husband and I are Anglicans who will be received into our local Orthodox church soon, and we have reached that point in part because of this blog. Thank you, Father, for your writings.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Many thanks for your kind words. May God help the staunch Calvinist family member. My experience has been much the same with many who seem to “delight” in the wrath of God (particularly when it’s directed at others). I don’t want to psychologize their position – but I would describe it as something of a spiritual sickness. The lives of the saints and fathers point us toward weeping for the sins of others, and crying out for the salvation of all. Recently, with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross we prayed in the words of the Church for all those who have died from Adam until now (as is done on the Vespers of Pentecost Sunday as well). Abraham argued with God and “bargained” in order to save Sodom and Gomorrah (though it was insufficient). But Abraham was the friend of God. Such prayer is a delight to God because it is how His friends pray. Moses offered himself to be destroyed rather than have God destroy Israel and start all over. The heart is that which truly matters.

    I rejoice at your reception into the Orthodox faith. May God multiply His blessings!

  21. dinoship Avatar

    my linguistics and semantics knowledge is fairly non-existent and I stand corrected. I offered a purely subjective observation (I find it a challenge to express this well in English) as a native Greek speaker who firmly believes nothing is worded by chance in the original scripture.

    As far as the “further emphasis” you might require, it could be provided by Metropolitan J Zizioulas’ “BEING AS COMMUNION” where he clearly and eloquently expounds on this very subject. Even the title itself captures it in a nutshell…

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is an unmatched value in the ear of a native speaker. I think the emphasis you hear is correct. It is a fairly unique construction.

  23. Valja Avatar


    Well, I am a native English speaker who teaches Ancient Greek, but my knowledge of Modern Greek (beyond the basics) is fairly non-existent (I hope to start studying Modern Greek seriously this summer). I was only speaking in terms of word order, but I do agree with you, that line (and the fact that we have a noun rather than an adjective) is significant. (Side note: One of the things that drew me toward Orthodoxy in the first place was the fact that Orthodox clergy are still taught to read the NT in the original, along with the writings of the Church Fathers, etc. While many clergy/pastors of other denominations are often required to study Greek in seminary, it is often just a token class. The ones who are comfortable with the language, I have found, often approach it in a vacuum, which leads to other problems down the road).

    I have seen that book mentioned in other discussions online. Thanks for the recommendation. I am very new to Orthodoxy and have a lot to learn.

  24. dinoship Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    thank you father, however, the translation offered in ‘God is Love’ always struck me as “doing enough justice” to the original, -unlike the (shockingly poor for me) translations of “I am that I am” or ” In the beginning was the Word”…

    Crazy as these sound in their maximalist profoundness, I would have preferred to use poetic license to convey the Greek by translating (very subjectively) something like: “I am Existence itself – or – the only One Who truly Exists”, (for “I am that I am”)
    and “Behind all that exists lies the meaning provided by the relational existence revealed in the second Hypostasis of the Trinity” (for “In the beginning was the Word”) respectively.

    I remember being HUGELY let down the first time I encountered the english translations of these passages

  25. dinoship Avatar

    I meant crazy as my above subjective translations sound in their maximalism…

  26. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Mark Driscoll is on another level altogether. Even many Calvinists find him unpalatable. Not to speak harshly, but he does not appear to have the learning to competently present Reformed theology.

    I do not deny that the last century has seen Catholicism warm to “restorative” understandings of God’s justice and wrath.

    Rigorous Augustinianism has been receding in the Catholic Church since Jansenism was finally condemned in 1715. Three hundred years later, perhaps we are finally ready to strike the proper balance between grace and freedom; justice and mercy; retribution and restoration.

    Nevertheless, this tendency has augmented rather than replaced the older conception. (As for Father Barron, he is a brilliant and interesting and holy fellow, but now and then he tests the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy.)

    Nor is the idea of retributive justice strictly “medieval”: it is present in many of the ancient fathers, especially those of the west. This is natural enough, given that the plain reading of Scripture suggests that God does indeed punish sinners most fearsomely.

    Of course, we know that the plain reading is not always the proper Christian reading, given that the Old Testament is full of “shapes and shadows.” Tricky business, this.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Most English translations are working from the Masoretic (Hebrew) text when translating the OT. The Hebrew in the “I AM THAT I AM” is exceedingly difficult to render (it’s not even all that clear in the Hebrew). The Greek LXX is much more clear, though, “I Am that I Am” is probably one of the least accurate. In the dismissal of Vespers, the text includes reference to the LXX, “Christ our God, the Existing One, is blessed…” I’ve seen this translated any number of ways in English. “He Who Is,” etc. My own preference would be to stay away from static nouns (such as “Existence”) because they fail to do justice to the nature of a verb (even as a participle). “The One Who truly Exists” is good. St. Basil’s phrase (as translated in English), “the only truly existing One” is very good, too. Of course, as a priest, I simply use the text I have in my hand. I resist the temptation to “improvise” on the translation. I feel that, in a service, it is disobedient to change the text.

    There is no substitute for knowing the original and meditating on it – even if one is not fluent.

    I was a classics major in college (Greek and Latin) and the topic is very close to my heart. I always appreciate your thoughts and insights.

  28. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    I didn’t realize you were a classicist. Could you comment on the difference between the gospels and the myths of the Greco-Roman world, in terms of timbre and content? I know that C.S. Lewis, based upon his knowledge of mythology, placed the gospels in a totally different category. What think you?

  29. dinoship Avatar

    Thank you Father,

    St Basil’s expressions in particular, even in the Greek seem to have a special ‘strength’ that tries to convey as clearly as words ever can the depth of his wonder at God’s Otherness – you, our beloved Priests, use them a great deal more in your low voice prayers (on our -lay people’s- behalf), something we must be eternally grateful for.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    Lewis, himself a Classicist, was quite right. They have nothing of the most remote similarity. In writing, they would most bear similarity to a few things coming out of the Graeco-Hebrew world of the period, mostly writings such as “Joseph and Asenath,” a sort of spiritual novel. But the gospels are quite different, in that they incorporate very historical material, and combinations of material that appears to have had an oral tradition prior to the gospels themselves – just as the fathers have always said.

    One of my favorite examples is St. Paul’s knowledge of the institution narrative (“this is my body, etc.”) which has the same shape and very close verbatim content as the synoptics (St. Paul’s writing being earlier but likely not well known (if at all) to the gospel writers. It is a confirmation that the gospels were written as the fathers described.

    The ground of historical studies was long ago ceded to unbelievers (more or less) which has greatly limited conservative scholarship. I do not think that historical studies are the proper source for hermeneutics, but they are far from useless. Kugel has an interesting work How to Read the Bible ( that is very useful. It looks at historical studies but also at ancient readings. Fr. John Behr at St. Vladimir’s will be using it as a textbook next fall, I’ve been told.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Over the years, I think St. Basil has come to be my “favorite” among the fathers. His expressions beg you to stop and listen. In the American Church, many of the “silent” prayers are said aloud, particularly the prayers of the anaphora.

  32. Rhonda Avatar


    Many years to you & your husband upon your reception into the Church 🙂 I am currently reading Being As Communion myself for lent. It is 1 of 5 in a great series of books (Contemporary Greek Theologians). I have read 4 so far & am 1/2 way through Being As Communion. Awesome series & very deep! Enjoy!

  33. simmmo Avatar

    Thanks for your comments PJ.

    On Mark Driscoll, I know he has rubbed some people up the wrong way sometimes. But the fact is that he is very much accepted, even respected(!) among today’s hyper Calvinists. DA Carson, John Piper, Doug Wilson, even JI Packer all do business with Driscoll. For me Driscoll is blatantly wrong and it is simply a tragedy that pepole look up to him as a leader. People who preach hate and wrath might well be leading people to hell. If hell consists in the hatefullness of someone’s heart and the negation of God’s love for others, then hell is a real possibility for people who embrace this kind of message. It makes me very sad to see these evangelicals pass judgement on someone like Gandhi (as Driscoll did in the above video). I’m not sure where this hatred of Gandhi comes from. Perhaps it was his peacefull resistance against empire which is an affront, not only to empire itself, but also to the vigilante justice evangelicals seem to embrace. Perhaps it was because his reading of the Beatitudes in the Gospel inspired much of his work for justice – an affront to those evangelicals who wish to exclude the teachings of our Lord from public life (love thy enemy? they ask. That only means for ”interpersonal” relationships, it’s not for politics). Then they pass judgement on a non-Christian who has done far more good than most evangelicals. I wonder how Driscoll would react if Gandhi had a share in the age to come. Would he rejoice, or would he froth at the mouth with hatred (and therefore be in hell)?

    On Father Barron’s comments on hell, are you saying that these are outside RC orthodoxy? I would say that his comments on hell in the above video are basically mainstream and utterly orthodox. Admittedly not for Calvinists and other American evangelicals who really think that God hates people and actively tortures for eternity. (We should note that the center of Christianity is not Houston Texas, other Christians around the world just don’t do Christianity as Americans do it, in fact we’d say that American Evangelicalism (whether conservative or liberal, whether Calvinist or charismatic etc) is a crude and grave distortion of Christianity) As far as I can tell, Father Barron’s comments on hell fits in well with the Eastern Orthodox understanding of hell. He said the doctrine of hell is a corollary of the doctrines of God’s love and man’s freewill. He said that the church is not obliging anyone to believe that hell is populated, but it must remain a possibility because of man’s freewill. Man is free to reject God’s love, and this is what hell really consists in. This fits in well with what I’ve read in Kallistos Ware’s book, The Orthodox Church, and with the essay, River of Fire, by Kalomiros. Other Christians like C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright have exactly the same understanding of what hell is.

  34. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    You write, “Then they pass judgement on a non-Christian who has done far more good than most evangelicals.”

    Good works are performed by atheists and pagans of all stripes, but what profit are they apart from grace? “He that gathereth not with me, scattereth” (Matthew 12:30). I dare not consider whom God calls to Himself, but Scripture tells us, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:53). Salvation comes through communion with God, not good work in and of itself.

    You write, “I wonder how Driscoll would react if Gandhi had a share in the age to come.”

    Gandhi was familiar with Christianity. He read the Gospels and knew about the teaching of Christ and His Church. That He remained a pagan despite this knowledge is tragic. It is also extremely serious.

    As I said before, I do not guess the fate of souls, but we should not pretend as though Gandhi was some ancient pagan ignorant of the Faith.

    He had every opportunity to embrace the Lord of Life — but he did not. For all her history, the Church has declared the price of rejecting God’s Anointed One: eternal separation from the love of God.

    Although we should not condemn anyone to hell, I think it is incredibly rash and impudent to flirt with the idea that salvation is possible — never mind probable! — for one who refused the Living God.

    I find Driscoll’s presentation of these realities rather simplistic, but he’s not altogether wrong.

    “He said that the church is not obliging anyone to believe that hell is populated”

    This certainly is outside the mainstream of Catholic thought. Numerous saints, as well as the Mother of God herself, has told us otherwise. I don’t think the video you provided contains much besides that that is unorthodox, but he has many others, and now and then he walks the fine line.

  35. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “And to you who are troubled, rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,

    In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:

    Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;

    When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day” (II Thessalonians 1:7-10).

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    PJ and Marc,
    A cautionary note: we speak of mysteries, the love of God, heaven and hell. The Scriptures speak of these matters but we should be careful not to draw hard conclusions too easily – or to speak of something that “must” exist for eternity. We do well to “ponder these things in the heart” but not to move to conclusions. Of greater use in our conversations is the content of our hearts. Our conclusions are often just the content of our heads, and sharing our heads is not a profit to any of us. What is it in our heart that finds 2 Thes. 1:7-10 important (for example). There are certainly answers to that question and we gain something by sharing and hearing it.

    For myself, I struggle not to condemn within my heart and find that much of the notion of wrath and hell have the content of darkness within the heart. I have been moved repeatedly by writings such as St. Isaac’s or the teachings of St. Silouan on the mercy of God towards all (even the demons – as extreme as that thought is), and would that my heart knew such kindness towards all. I haven’t a clue about the final mystery of these things. I know the Scriptures – but I read them in light of the fathers as well – and they caution me to be careful in these matters. Above all, I trust in the goodness of God and His infinite mercy and am wary at any attempt to “balance” anything against His mercy. There is no “Yes, but” in the mercy of God.

    Lastly, PJ, on the matter of Gandhi, we know things about him, but we do not know his heart. God alone does and God alone saves. In the light of Matthew 25:31-46, Gandhi will do far better at the last judgment than I will. St. Paul’s teachings on works apply only to the ritual requirements of ancient Judaism (that was the controversy), not to acts of charity and the like. The distortion of his teaching in reformation thought is tragic and plainly contradicts the fathers and Scripture (Matt. 25 being an example).

    Just some thoughts. Pray for me, I hope to get a new post written today.

  37. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Very well spoken, Fr. Stephen. One additional thought…

    Someone once told me, “Hard cases make bad law.” Gandhi is such a case. While it’s fun for us (in our depravity) to see if we can figure out how God would judge him, it is not our place. Like when the disciples discovered some men casting out demons in His name (Luke 9:49-50), He told them to let those men alone.

    Also, C.S. Lewis’s young Calorman comes to mind. Aslan told him basically that any good done – no matter whose name it was done in – was done for him, and any evil done – again no matter to whom it was attributed – was done for Tash (evil).

    Looking forward to your new post, Father. My prayers are with you.

  38. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    You write, “Lastly, PJ, on the matter of Gandhi, we know things about him, but we do not know his heart. God alone does and God alone saves. In the light of Matthew 25:31-46, Gandhi will do far better at the last judgment than I will. ”

    Your humility is most impressive, but I most respectfully disagree. Unless Gandhi was living a secret life, he neither acknowledged the existence of nor worshiped the One True God. He did not call upon the Holy Name of the Son. He was not infused with the Spirit. He did not know the Father.

    He remained, despite significant exposure to the Faith, an unbaptized and unsealed pagan, however excellent, noble, and virtuous.

    Does this mean he is “damned”? I do not know and I dare not wonder. But I feel deeply uncomfortable with those who would assign Gandhi a throne in heaven simply because he was a mild and charitable ascetic.

    I speak on this matter from experience. I know how hard it is to imagine that “good people” are damned, for I am the only Christian in my family. Many nights I have passed worrying about the souls of my mother and father, sister and brother, all of them fine and gracious human beings.

    If works are all that matter, why did Christ come among us? Why do the Scriptures place so much emphasis not simply on charity but upon faith?

    And why did the martyrs die rather than spread a little blood before a pagan altar? After all, they could have repented later. They could even have abandoned the faith altogether and lived their lives undisturbed as good, virtuous pagans.

    Maybe I am totally confused, my mind and heart darkened with malice. I do not know anymore.

    “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).

  39. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    This is a little off topic, but here goes. It’s clear from what is written in this blog that one cannot “understand” Orthodoxy without participating fully in the life of an Orthodox Church. More narrowly, though, can anyone (Fr Stephen?) recommend a short list that can give an indication to the Orthodox doctrine: not thousands of books, but a top six, say. Saints Isaac, Basil, Ephraim and Sophrony often get a mention: is there a useful compendium of this work. I’ve read Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church, which is interesting, but scholarly rather than devotional. Many thanks.

  40. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand. My point is very simple. Gandhi, and all the rest of us are indeed living a secret life. It’s why I cannot judge. If it is true (and I accept it) that there can be no good works apart from grace, then it is self-evident that grace works in all people everywhere, as mysterious as that may be. It is simply the case that no one can live or breathe without grace. It is great joy when that grace is manifest in someone’s embracing Christ openly and being Baptized into the fullness of the Church. But without grace not even the grass will grow. “In Him we live and move and have our being” (and St. Paul was quoting a pagan poet when he said that – the poet must have spoken by grace). I am not making an argument that everyone is saved – God alone would know such a thing. But grace knows no limits.

    There is a secret life – a life of our own of which we ourselves may often be ignorant.

  41. Valja Avatar

    Rhonda: Thanks very much! That series sounds very good.

    Father Stephen: Do you have any further reading on St. Paul’s teaching on works? I have also had a conversation (with the same family member) about what constitutes “works”. Apparently, to him, at least (and I believe he has been influenced by authors like R. C. Sproul and John Piper on this issue) pretty much anything and everything constitutes “works”, leaving little (indeed, nothing beyond a certain assurance of one’s own status among the ‘elect’) that one can call a Christian life. I however, have always felt, even before becoming one myself, that becoming a Christian must change one’s life in practical ways, that is, change what one does, not simply what one believes about oneself. (The process of becoming Orthodox has, and I believe I am finally starting to get a sense of what a Christian life is). I find that the whole question of “works” in most mainstream (and even less mainstream) Protestant outlets has become absurd and would really appreciate more information on the original context of that teaching. Thanks in advance. Also, I really like the phrase: “There is no “Yes, but” in the mercy of God.” 🙂

    You are in my prayers as well.

  42. dinoship Avatar

    The late Saint Nicholas Velimirovich, friend and huge admirer of Saint Silouan, has written in depth about how Ghandi’s life put to shame his contemporary western so called fervent Christians.

    As the Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra used to often say: “What we know of God’s “Laws” (and what might condemn one) can only ever be applied to ME personally, never to another -or I instantly sever myself from Christ!

  43. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    You write, “I however, have always felt, even before becoming one myself, that becoming a Christian must change one’s life in practical ways, that is, change what one does, not simply what one believes about oneself. ”

    Every Christian believes that, I imagine. Certainly, RC Sproul and John Piper do.

    Piper was saved from the awful bile of racism through his rebirth. (See the documentary “Bloodlines.”) He currently runs an amazing prison ministry, wherein he makes himself a servant of the dregs of society, catering to their spiritual and emotional needs. I have seen his jailhouse sermons, and even the toughest cons have tears in their eyes when he talks about the beauty and sweetness of Christ. He once explained how their captivity meant ultimate freedom in the Lord. It was an exquisite message.

    RC Sproul talks frequently of the importance of sanctification. Sanctification — the purifying fire of the Spirit — was a major theme among the early Reformed (see the likes of Bunyan and John Owen). There was and is a strong pietistic element to Reformed Christianity.

    So, Reformed do not dismiss the importance of good works. They believe them utterly essential to the Christian life. They simply believe that good works flow from justification, rather than vice versa.

  44. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Piper on fire at Angola Prison, the Alcatraz of the South.

    “Your position here, in prison, next stop heaven, makes it easier for you to get this message, than for my people, who are tempted every day to be idolaters with their freedom and their prosperity … Let me sum it up. . . . Jesus did not come into the world mainly to give bread, but to be bread. ‘I am the bread of life.’ . . . Now He is going to give bread, and you can miss it by thinking that’s the main thing He came to do. ‘Gimme the bread.’ But that’s not the main reason why He came! You already had a lot of bread taken out of your hand. . . . He’s got to take a lot of bread out of people’s hands so that they will trust Him as the bread. . . . He did not come to be useful, but to be precious. Oh, how many ‘Christians’ receive Him as ‘useful.’ Or another way to put it is: Jesus Christ did not come into the world to assist you in meeting desires you already had before you were born again. He came into the world to change your desires so that He is the main one!”

  45. simmmo Avatar


    I would concur with Father Stephen has said here. Additionally, it is not me who is certain that Gandhi has a throne in heaven. Recall I used the little word ”if”. Perhaps it is a possibility, but not a certainty. Rather it seems it is the conservative evangelicals who are sure that he is not going to share in the age to come.

    I think much of the problem with fundamentalists is that they have a rather bleak doctrine of man – total depravity. I would think far more bleak than the Scriptures would have it (yes I do know the passages about the heart being desperately wicked and so on, but is this all to be said about fallen humanity?). I remember, when I was flirting with Calvinism, listening to a talk given by John MacArthur. He said that atheists and non-Christians can do ”human good” but they could not please God and that their good works were therefore ”bad good” (yes I do know the argument that Calvinists often give here – that their motivation for doing good must be evil. To this I say: how do you know?). I don’t think these categories are taught in the Bible. D.A. Carson says that when he is talking with non-Christian college students the hardest thing for him to convey is that they are utterly sinful and guilty. The students just don’t buy it, because it is not true. It is an abstraction that finds absolutely no traction in their experience. All humanity, even non-Christians, are made in the image of God. To say that these are totally depraved and completely incapable of good and, worse, that they are themselves totally evil, really has more to do with Gnoticism than it does with Christianity.

  46. simmmo Avatar

    On works in St Paul, I think Father Stephen hit the nail on the head with this: “St. Paul’s teachings on works apply only to the ritual requirements of ancient Judaism (that was the controversy), not to acts of charity and the like. The distortion of his teaching in reformation thought is tragic and plainly contradicts the fathers and Scripture (Matt. 25 being an example).”

    Recall the Galatian controversy was about whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised. Further, St Paul tells how he rebukes St Peter for withdrawing from eating with the Gentiles – again a Jewish requirement. The Jewish Christians wanted to turn the Gentiles into Jews. St Paul’s point was that those works of the law that seperate Jew from Gentile are antithetical to the Gospel. “There is neither Jew nor Greek….. all are in the Messiah”. This is not about moral good works by which the Jews were “earning their salvation”. Or some kind of system of “works-righteousness”.

    The Reformation privileged their reading of Romans and Galatians above other Scriptures. They therefore do not know what to do with the Gospel accounts. To them it seems that Jesus could have simply been born, then crucified as a penal substitution. All that stuff in between is treated as magic tricks Jesus was doing to prove that he was the Son of God. Or they are mined for proof texts that support this or that doctrine found in the Romans-Galatians controlling theory. Nevermind all that stuff Jesus talked about concerning the Kingdom of God being ”at hand” and that the Kingdom of God is coming on ”earth as in heaven”. Just detach Christianity from the narrative of Scripture and replace it with an abstact theory about how one gets to ”go to heaven” and avoids God’s wrath.

  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    Simmo, spot on!

  48. dinoship Avatar

    Expounding on Elder Aimilianos’ saying above, I would add (his words, more or less, from the Greek original):

    ‘The Spirit that makes me understand that I am “utterly sinful and guilty” and all others are saints is most certainly of the Lord.

    The spirit that makes me think others are sinful and I am knowledgeable in matters of the faith and could even instruct, maybe even teach them and “spread the gospel” is, without doubt, of the devious enemy…’

    It is a trap we all fall in, including the orthodox, although it is more widespread in the west, especially when comparing western ‘activism’ against eastern ‘hesychasm’.
    St Isaac’s ‘scandalous’ saying: “don’t even remotely compare the profoundness of solitary stillness with the activism of returning myriads to the faith”, if I remember well, is the same thing from another angle…

  49. simmmo Avatar


    Is Piper profitable in his prison ministries. Perhaps he is. I don’t question the hope his preaching gives these inmates. And I don’t wish to take away from the faith these inmates may have developed as a result of his ministry there. Nor am I saying that all Protestants are hopelessly lost. I’m know there are a great many Evangelicals whose faith would put me to shame – probably even Piper himself.

    Nevertheless I think Piper, Sproul and co are sorely mistaken and that their theology is extremely problematic (to put it lightly). Consider this from Piper:

    ”It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all.…

    Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all. If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it.

    There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired.…

    So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect. (Concerning the Divine Decrees, 528, On page 350 of Desiring God)

    I don’t really think it’s necessary to expand on what is being said here. ”Is God the author of evil?”

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    In a nutshell, simmmo, that quote you’ve offered is simple heresy. Deep heresy.

  51. simmmo Avatar

    I should state that this was actually Piper quoting Jonathon Edwards, albeit approvingly quoting him. And I note that some Edwards enthusiasts point out that this quote is taken from a posthumous collection of Edward’s notes. But still, Piper is quoting this approvingly.

  52. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Though my intellect protests, there’s something about that quote that strikes within me a deep and primordial chord, the vibrations of which force me to my knees in fearful adoration. I cannot believe in a God whose justice is not terrible for sinful man to contemplate. I am a hopeless Jansenist in that respect, I suppose.

  53. John Avatar

    “But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed…”

    “So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world…”

    What, then, was God to do (being incomplete) before the creation of mankind? Sitting around in His finitity (note the purposeful spelling) waiting for something outside Himself to make Him shine forth His glory?

    I don’t know how someone can read this and not cringe. That God is somehow robbed of displaying ALL His glory because someone is not damned and punished…

    God have mercy on those caught in this web of heresy.

  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    The fearful adoration of the wrath of God is a delusion, a projection of our own inner needs. It is more than a heresy – it is blasphemy.

  55. Valja Avatar


    I am aware of the Pietist tradition (I live around the its remains) and know that its modern representatives (such as they are) do not deny that good works, are, well, good. All I meant to convey was the fact that when I suggest that Christians should, for example, fast during Lent, the Calvinist family member to whom I referred would derisively reply: “That’s works!” I can only attribute that attitude to the authors he favors, but in that I could be mistaken. My impression, though, is that some (increasingly influential) modern Calvinists accept that it is good for Christians to do good works, but reject a traditional Christian life (the church calendar, fasts and feasts, etc) as a vehicle of grace because (it seems to me) they are pre-occupied with the notion that grace cannot be earned. (Indeed, grace cannot be earned — but hearts can be softened).

    This family member has exposed me to the writings and podcasts of Sproul, Piper, MacArthur, et al. over the past couple of years. I must admit, although I did my best to be open-minded at the beginning, too much of what I have either heard or read struck me as ill-considered, ill-informed, or just plain troubling. I am willing to admit that some of their views may be similar to traditional Christianity, but I would much rather immerse myself in the Bible, the Fathers, and other Orthodox writings, which have deepened my understanding of Christianity rather than inciting me to debate. After three years of emotionally and intellectually exhausting debates about Calvinism (and Protestantism in general) with this family member, I find peace and healing in Orthodox reflections on theology as direct experience of the divine and the notion of radical forgiveness to which Father Stephen often refers. I have stopped debating with this person and now endeavor only to pray for him. (I doubt our relationship would have survived much longer had I not decided to do so).

  56. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “I would much rather immerse myself in the Bible, the Fathers, and other Orthodox writings”

    I’m with you here.

  57. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for pulling out these old posts. Yes I realize I can search your archives on my own, but frankly the proposition is daunting. I’d get lost and you’d never hear from me again. So thanks for kind of doing a “best of” revival from time to time.

    I’m curious. How do you look at posts from years ago? With regret? Or from a place of higher maturity? Do they age well? Again I’m just being nosy. It is always interesting to me how artists look upon their own work.

  58. fatherstephen Avatar

    Perhaps because I grow so little, earlier posts generally seem to hold up well. Sometimes I can read them as if they were written by someone else, and still like them. Sometimes, I read one and think, “What was I thinking?” But not often. My writing process (which sometimes includes making my wife listen while I read out loud) seems to help. I’m considering doing a “best of” book, to make reading and lending easier for some. Conversation to be had with publisher (Conciliar Press). I’m also looking at doing a book with a look at Scripture and the Major feasts (looking especially at how the liturgical life of the Church “reads” Scripture). There’s a couple of other things knocking around as well.

  59. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    “And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake” (Hebrews 21:21).

    The sort of fear I feel does not preclude love. It is the fear a child has for a parent. Maybe fear is the wrong word. Overwhelmed? Overawed? It is not a grovelling fear, but an awe-struck and wide-eyed fear.

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