Legal Problems

raskolnikov_stickers-r9952a0e2fda64e8bb295048b080026b8_v9waf_8byvr_324I find almost nothing as useless when thinking about God or the human condition as legal imagery. Indeed, it is worse than useless – it leads only to wrong conclusions and even produces the wrong questions. That some language within the Scriptures lends itself to legal imagery is undeniable – although modern legal thought bears almost no resemblance to the thoughts surrounding the Law (Torah) in the Old Testament. Legal language is a modern fiction that generally describes only the social contract that governs our societies. It is arbitrary, filled with qualifications, sometimes rendered moot by its own entanglements and bycenturies of relentless legislation by lawyers. There is little content remaining in modern law other than the violence guaranteed by the courts and prison system. That America houses the largest prison population in the world is not a comment on a lawless society – it is an illustration of a society where law has gone insane. To apply the modern sense of “legal” to God, His commandments or our salvation is, again, useless.

The modern concept of law is entirely external. It is an arbitrary rule, established by a legitimate authority (which is considered “legitimate” only according to another set of arbitrary rules), and enforced with various measures, up to and including a lifetime of confinement or even execution. The rules have no independent existence. Guilt and innocence before “the law” imply only the outcomes of a legal proceeding. Americans proudly declare, “He is innocent until proven guilty,” in affirmation of a purely rules-based understanding of the law.

Now this establishment of the law has various things to recommend it. If it is not too encumbered with exceptions and complications and is impartially enforced, it creates a certain order and predictability within a culture. I am utterly opposed to anarchy. But the Law of God has never been an arbitrary set of rules, created by God in a manner similar to an earthly legislature. Nothing in the Old Testament even remotely thinks of the Law in such a manner:

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (Psa 19:7-10)

This is a love poem about something far more profound than a set of rules.

There is a deep distinction which I make at almost every opportunity between things that can be described as ontological, and things that are merely forensic. Ontological means having to do with being. It refers to things that really, truly have existence. A bird is an ontological creature. The office of the President is a legal fiction, a forensic construction.

In modern legal imagery, if a rule is said to be “broken,” nothing is actually “broken.” The rule is the same before and after the break. What has changed is that the person “breaking” the rule is now in danger of being prosecuted, fined, imprisoned or executed. In the Old Testament, to sin against the Law of God was viewed as quite different. Something happened. An individual became unclean, was stained, had become an abomination, etc. In some cases an entire community was somehow stained. Atonement in such a world involved removing an ontological problem, not satisfying a legal concept. Forgiveness was thus the same thing as healing and cleansing.

Imagine standing in a modern court while the Judge says, “You have been charged with driving 60 mph in a 20 mph zone. How do you plead?”

“Your honor! Have mercy on me. I cannot bear the stain of this sin! I am unclean! Have mercy on me and cleanse me from this abomination!”

The result of such an exchange would doubtless be unpleasant. Of course, it is ridiculous, as is the use of modern legal imagery with regard to God.

Theories of atonement that use modern legal imagery remove any ontological content from our situation. We are guilty because God says we are guilty and we deserve punishment much like we deserve punishment within our human legal system. But the Law of God is not a legal instrument; it is more of a diagnostic tool. The Commandments describe the character and details of those things that plunge us into ontological chaos. The most justified executioner in a modern legal system is nevertheless plunged into the morass of human trauma by his act of execution. It does not matter how deserving a prisoner was of death, nor how kind and painless the form of execution. To take the life of another human being severs the communion for which we were all created. We experience that severance (which is ontological in the extreme) in various forms of trauma.

As a child the man who lived next door to my family was a WWII vet (like all of the men of my childhood). He was in the infantry during the Italian campaign. In a village one day, he turned a corner and came face to face with a young German soldier. Both men froze. But my neighbor acted first and killed his adversary. It was a war. Had he not killed he would have been killed. Over a decade later he still awoke in the night tormented with the memory, reliving it every night in his dreams.

Today we would say he was suffering from PTSD. But trauma is more than just an extreme experience, it is the universal experience of soldiers. Some are crippled by it, others find ways to move on. But it is real. It is more than psychological. It is the trauma of broken communion, as substantial and real as any Biblical stain or abomination.

And [the Lord said to Cain], “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you.” (Gen 4:10-12)

In one of the most moving passages in modern literature (Crime and Punishment), Dostoevsky describes the confession of the murderer, Raskolnikov, to his love, Sonya:

“Well, what to do now, tell me!” he said, suddenly raising his head and looking at her, his face hideously distorted by despair.

“What to do!” she exclaimed, suddenly jumping up from her place, and her eyes, still full of tears, suddenly flashed. “Stand up!” (She seized him by the shoulder; he rose, looking at her almost in amazement.) “Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you’ve defiled, then bow to the whole world , on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?” she kept asking him, all trembling as if in a fit, seizing both his hands, squeezing them tightly in her own, and looking at him with fiery eyes. He was amazed and even struck by her sudden ecstasy.

“So it’s hard labor, is it, Sonya? I must go and denounce myself?” he asked gloomily.

“Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.”

Sonya’s instinct is utterly Biblical and Orthodox. The nature of his crime deeply transcends the legal problems of the police and courts. Raskolnikov has “defiled the earth,” and must begin to heal his trauma with the liturgy of confession. Only with the profound liturgical act of repentance can God begin to heal him. His soul would be impervious without it.

Some years back I had the privilege of being part of a Victim Offenders Reconciliation Program. There the victims of crimes (non-violent in most cases) met face-to-face with those who had injured them. The conversation that took place was aided by a mediator. The exact nature of the injury and the trauma that ensued were shared. The trauma of the criminal that led to the action was sometimes shared as well. Terms for restitution and reparation were agreed. The agreement was monitored by the organization. The result was fewer young people in prison and a healing that was utterly beyond the scope of the judicial system.

Our lives, on the very level of our true being and existence, are entwined with those of all others. We cannot be well and live well when those relationships are damaged and traumatized. Our lives may have suffered no legal damage, and yet be malignant in the extreme.

A man injured a young girl in an automobile accident. He was not to blame. And yet, he began losing sleep, was irritable and lost his appetite. He went to see his doctor.

The doctor said, “Have you gone to the young girl and asked her to forgive you?”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong! The police said it wasn’t my fault! My lawyer said that I wasn’t to blame!”

The doctor smiled, “Then legally you should be able to sleep at night.”

The Divine Liturgy is the great enactment of reconciliation. In it, Christ takes into Himself the trauma of our injuries as well as the trauma of our crimes. In the Divine Liturgy, the action of the Cross of Christ and His Descent into Hades, His Resurrection and Ascension, even His glorious Second Coming are all made fully present. The liturgy that is His life becomes the liturgy that is our life. The self-emptying of Christ on our behalf becomes our self-emptying as we offer “our selves, our souls and bodies,” in the sweet words of Thomas Cranmer.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:17-21)


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.



62 responses to “Legal Problems”

  1. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is excellent! The topics of shame and confession have been on my mind for a couple years now and this post seems to be a great enlightenment. I especially appreciate the story of the man who injured the young girl.

    Understanding: Confession isn’t about satisfying anyone’s legal requirement; it’s about healing and restoration. The man with his car had made a dent in his soul that had to be healed. And forgiveness was the key.

    I suspect one of the large barriers to confession is that people think for the most part they’ve done nothing wrong. “I’m not perfect, but who is?” And yet the very fact that they are still not whole points out that there is healing and restoration to be done.

    Thanks again for your wit and wisdom.

  2. Mary Bongiorno Avatar

    I love this is it in one of your books it is the best description of liturgy. Mary

  3. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    If Christian ethics is not juridical in nature, do we still have a concept of obligation/duty (a deontological notion that can range over different domains, including the legal)? (And for that matter, do we have hypological concepts like blameworthiness?)


  4. PJ Avatar


    It seems to me that law and ontology are not mutually exclusive, if correctly understood. Indeed, adopting the language of Torah, the Catholic tradition posits an intimate connection between law and existence: man’s adherence to the moral law is the path to life, while man’s rejection of the moral law is the path to death.

    The Church firmly rejects heteronomy, the idea that the law is an arbitrary set of rules imposed upon man from the outside. Rather, she speaks of “participated theonomy”: the moral law is an expression of divine Wisdom, in which man naturally shares, and through which man finds freedom and fulfillment on account of his creation in the image of God.

    St. John Paul II wrote:

    “The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end: this eternal law is known both by man’s natural reason (hence it is “natural law”), and — in an integral and perfect way — by God’s supernatural Revelation (hence it is called “divine law”). Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness. The first question in the young man’s conversation with Jesus: “What good must I do to have eternal life? ” (Mt 19:6) immediately brings out the essential connection between the moral value of an act and man’s final end. Jesus, in his reply, confirms the young man’s conviction: the performance of good acts, commanded by the One who “alone is good”, constitutes the indispensable condition of and path to eternal blessedness: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). Jesus’ answer and his reference to the commandments also make it clear that the path to that end is marked by respect for the divine laws which safeguard human good. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life.”

    Simply put, morally good action — action in conformity with the law — increases man’s godlikeness, because the law is the expression of God’s Wisdom and Reason, in which man shares by virtue of his nature, and to which man must be conformed if he wishes to achieve ultimate happiness.

    “After saying: ‘Offer right sacrifices’ (Ps 4:5), as if some had then asked him what right works were, the Psalmist adds: ‘There are many who say: Who will make us see good?’ And in reply to the question he says: ‘The light of your face, Lord, is signed upon us,’ thereby implying that the light of natural reason whereby we discern good from evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else but an imprint on us of the divine light” (St. Thomas Aquinas).

  5. Fr. Peter Avatar


    I am sure Fr. Stephen will reply when he has time, but it seems to me that there’s a misunderstanding at play here. As Fr. Stephen quoted from Ps. 19, “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul,” so I do not think he would argue against God’s law. The legal problem in this article is our imposition of the modern understanding of law onto the interaction between God and man.

  6. PJ Avatar

    Fr. Peter,

    I think you’re basically right. I wasn’t arguing, just offering some reflections on the intersection of law and ontology.

  7. Agapoula Avatar

    I am very happy to have found your blog. I look forward to reading more. In Christ, Agapoula.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ethical language is almost never universal – the language of a deontological approach doesn’t work in a utilitarian approach, etc. Inasmuch as certain language and categories are purely “legal” – I find them less than helpful. But many of the concepts can be worked through from a more ontological perspective.

    Virtue-based ethics (Hauerwas comes to mind) is a very important and respected position within ethics that is not legal-based. I also highly recommend Vigen Guroian’s Incarnate Love.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    JPII’s work would be an example of a “weak” ontological approach, in that it could easily be understood as working to conform to an external good.

    It is much stronger when we say categorically that the image in which we are created is clearly reflected in the Divine Law and in conforming to it, we are conforming to our true selves, or something stronger like that.

    The long history of externalized ethical/moral language is hard to overcome. When I read St. Maximus, for example, I find none of the distance. So, “Yes…but”

  10. Mary Bongiorno Avatar
    Mary Bongiorno

    I love the FATHER

  11. PJ Avatar


    You write, “It could easily be understood as working to conform to an external good.” That may be so, apart from his reflections on the New Law, which is not primarily a written text (i.e. the New Testament), but “chiefly the grace of the Holy Ghost” (St. Thomas).

    As the holy father wrote in Veritatis Splendor:

    “In Jesus Christ and in his Spirit, the Christian is a ‘new creation,’ a child of God; by his actions he shows his likeness or unlikeness to the image of the Son who is the first-born among many brethren (cf. Rom 8:29), he lives out his fidelity or infidelity to the gift of the Spirit, and he opens or closes himself to eternal life, to the communion of vision, love and happiness with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    As Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes, Christ ‘forms us according to his image, in such a way that the traits of his divine nature shine forth in us through sanctification and justice and the life which is good and in conformity with virtue… The beauty of this image shines forth in us who are in Christ, when we show ourselves to be good in our works.’

    Consequently the moral life has an essential ‘teleological’ character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man.”

  12. Jeff Avatar

    Papanikalaou uses the same story to illustrate truth telling, and the affected effect that was transformative for Rasolnikov, from Sonya…., yes there was a moral component “You Killed, you killed!”, , but a beautiful transformation emerged. Orthodox also have a non natural law ( vs natural law), common good component , that isn’t framed in the nature- grace theory, which Jacques Maritain came up with for respecting the common good in all cultures of all times , a more divine – human relationary model is where it should go

  13. Brian Avatar


    When you write of the trauma of the soldier who killed ‘the enemy,’ I am reminded of the prayers the Church prescribes for a mother who has miscarried her child. Prayers/treatments of this kind are largely ignored in our time precisely because, it would seem, we have come to view sin and redemption in strictly legal, moralistic, forensic terms.

    These prayers (and others like them), when [mis]understood through the lens of the forensic ‘legal’ paradigm, can make it sound as though a person has committed a grave evil for which he or she is ‘culpable.’ But this is only because the dominate culture has come to understand sin ONLY in terms of transgression, a strictly moral choice between (sometimes artificial) standards of right and wrong for which we are individually culpable and which cause us to incur forensic guilt.

    There are times when there are simply no good choices, but sin is not always a choice. It is a condition shared in common by all humanity, a wound in need of healing. Ask a mother who has endured a miscarriage. Ask parents who have faced the terrible choices involved in pregnancies that have gone awry. Ask a soldier who has been ordered to kill in battle, a civilian who killed in self-defense or in the defense of his loved ones, or a person who caused someone’s death in the course of an accident.

    The Church recognizes these evils as grave (for all such things are grave evils that are the bitter fruit of the sin in which we all share), but she has little or no interest in assigning individual culpability. Her interest is in asking for and sharing God’s infinite mercy. And she has wonderful treatments for these wounds, treatments that actually heal the trauma to the human person. But they are all based upon a far deeper understanding of sin, going far, far beyond concepts of guilt or culpability and allowing for infinitely greater healing than merely saying, “You had no choice. You did nothing wrong.”

    My experience is that some shy away from offering these treatments precisely because we have come to view sin in strictly ‘moral’ terms, fearing that the language of sin they employ, when understood in the shallow ‘moral’ way we have come to view it, may offend those who need it the most. This is very sad and a great loss to the Church. Yet it is something we can recover if we can be freed from the paradigm of understanding sin and its cure in strictly moral, forensic, legal terms.

  14. Jeff Avatar

    Like Zizioulas says ” Greeks could never conceive of being as ultimately perishable : even in the idea of non- being , there is eternal survival of being thnx to the participation in the being of the One” …, ” Did the Greek fathers depart from this principle entirely ?, Had they done so , they would have ceased to be Greek, since the hallmark of Greek thought is concern with the survival of being”…

    There may be other non ontological ways of thinking about it

    Though he ( and fathers ), mention the brilliance of locating the worlds being not in nature but personhood , since being doesn’t emerge from being naturally, but thru the intervention of personal freedom removing the axiom of necessity via nature . ……

  15. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    You make some very interesting points here. I think when we conceive of “sin” only in terms of individual, forensically “wrong” acts, we move ourselves (and others) into (1) an individualistic perspective, that it is my crime and no one else’s, and (2) a view that sin IS a crime that should be punished until paid for.

    I found myself bristling at your reference to women who miscarry – simply because they often experience enough purposeless guilt without their loss being labeled as a “sin”. But, of course, that is your point. Sin viewed as fault vs no fault by an individual robs of us the deeper understanding of sin as disease within all of us that needs healing.

    Physical and mental illness, premature death, etc. are not of God, though He obviously allows them. So if they are not of God, they are of the adversary. Not meaning, of course, that the afflicted individual has gone to the evil one (which would take us back to the forensic model) but rather that we all have – by virtue of our fallen nature.

    So if we all are “guilty” or infected by the disease of sin, then we must all bear it together and bring one another to healing – not in a forensic, judgment model, but in a loving, forgiving embrace through the prayers and sacraments given us by Christ in the Church.

    Understanding this can help us become a healing community for people who are experiencing “irrational” guilt, i.e. who are bearing the pain of something gone terribly wrong, though society would agree that they have no individual culpability.

    While certainly we do have individual transgressions that we need to confess and repent of, even these are part of our community disease. Even when it is another’s transgression, I cannot properly regard it as a completely individual matter. (“Your sins are my sins, my sins are your sins.” – Nikolai Velimirovich)

    In recognizing this, we cultivate true Christian compassion, rather than harsh judgment, for both ourselves and others.

  16. Mary Bongiorno Avatar
    Mary Bongiorno


  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Brian, I agree with what you say but I also see the lack of use
    of the healing prayers as indicative of the dominance of the medical/mechanistic/pharmological model of treatment.(one storey)

    I was reading in Everyday Saints last night, the chapter on exorcism. In pre-revolution Russia doctors had a test for deciding whether to send a psychologically troubled person to a priest or to a psychologist. The had several small glasses of water, one of which was Holy water. If the patient drank all the glasses, they were sent to a doctor. If they refused to drink the Holy water and got agitated, a priest was called.

    In this culture the prayers you mention could be misunderstood unless the person is prepared and taught their meaning, significance and value.

    My wife’s late husband had severe PTSD. He was pumped full of drugs that exacerbated his heart condition that he died from.

    As Dr. Keith Ablow pointed out recently on Fox News–all mental illness is a spiritual illness.

    Legalistic morality assumes we are autonomous beings who need controls to get along with each other.

  18. John Avatar


    Thank you for this beautifully written article. I particularly appreciate the imagery of sin as trauma, and forgiveness as healing.

    A couple questions that arise for me:
    If sin against the Law in the OT created an ontological problem in the sinner – a trauma that needed healing – then why animal sacrifice? What does it do, or why does God ask for it?

    Also, I know that after baptism, the priest says to the newly illumined, “Thou are justified, thou art illumined, thou are sanctified.” The concept of justification is one that is understood very much in a legal sense in the Protestant world. How is justification understood in an Orthodox sense? What does it mean that we are justified?

    Thank you again.

  19. Mit The Destroyer Avatar

    Hi John,
    This article might answers some part of your question regarding how orthodox understand justification:


    P.S. Father Stephen if the above article is not appropriate please remove my comment. But let me know of a better description of the orthodox understanding so I can understand better as well.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not too picky – if the article is helpful, good. Seraphim Hamilton says in the article that St. Paul’s understanding of justification is “thoroughly juridical,” but then goes on to refine it. I wouldn’t give that much of the farm away. I don’t think anything could have been juridical in the modern sense at the time of St. Paul, for reasons I’ve described. The Law was quite ontological for him. It was not a mere mental construct.

  21. […] Problems By fr.Steven freeman Legal Problems*|*Glory to God for All Things I find almost nothing as useless when thinking about God or the human condition as legal imagery. […]

  22. John Kress Avatar
    John Kress

    Thank you for such a thoughtful exposition Father Stephen.

    I have three observations, probably not closely related:

    1. I think many people have a legal or forensic concept of the Christian faith, and find it repellent for that reason. They find it, rightly, to be cold and inhuman.

    2. I think one of the greatest things wrong with modernity is the kind of systematic “ontological blindness” it has fostered. I took your main point to be (terribly oversimplifying it) that modern man no longer understands that sin is on ontological problem, as opposed to a (merely) legal one. Consider these other cases:

    Marriage as an ontological change vs marriage as a mere legal status. One of the least heard but most important objections to “same-sex marriage” is such a thing is simply ontologically impossible. On the other hand, if marriage is just a convention of the state, why not tinker with it?

    Ordination as an ontological change vs a mere ecclesiastical-legal status. Why can’t women be priests? I don’t know. God knows. But I am fairly sure that it is ontologically impossible, in the Christian understanding.

    Motherhood and fatherhood as an ontological change vs a mere legal status. There must be a failure to grasp this distinction somewhere in the chain of a reasoning that allows a woman, upon becoming pregnant (and therefore, ontologically, a mother) to then pose to herself the question of whether or not she wants to be a mother.


  23. Mary Bongiorno Avatar
    Mary Bongiorno

    Happy Fathers Day

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed. Legal forensic accounts are always mere fictions, stories we agree to live in for whatever reason. For example, even the “civil contract” that is the legal state, are rules we tacitly agree to. Of course, if we disagree, the state will do violence to you. So, we agree. It’s generally worth agreeing if the state actually adheres to the contract. When they don’t, I think it was the Declaration of Independence that suggested such states should be overthrown. That only makes sense if the relationship is a fiction. Ontology, rooted in being, is inherently about what is real – what actually exists. A marriage is real. An ordination is real. Motherhood is real. In the modern world, everything is being reduced to a forensic reality – a vast, Potemkin Village that we make change, rearrange, destroy or otherwise distort at the whim of our own fancy. It creates great sadness.

    As I noted in my sermon this morning – it is the abandonment of truth – which leads to the ultimate despair.

  25. John K Avatar
    John K

    It’s no accident that Nietzsche, who announced that death of God — that is, of the Christian God — also staked his entire philosophy on the proposition that “art [fiction] is worth more than truth,” and brought to completion the long, agonizing Western assertion of the priority of the will over the intellect.

    At bottom, truth is either something that doesn’t come from us, something real, something ontological, to which we must conform; or truth is (as Nietzsche says) a kind of fiction, something we make, something we can shape according to our (total, goundless) freedom.

    Modernity has staked everything on the rejection of the idea that “the truth will make you free” in favor of “to be free is to be free of all constraints, even those of reality and truth.”

    Bad bet.

  26. Jeff Avatar

    “to be free is to be free of all constraints, even those of reality and truth.”….., But, it is also the case , theologically , that if God desires a communion as an event of love – as- freedom , then God creates the conditions for the possibility of the rejection of this communion

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I must admit I have a bit of a problem saying that legal is a total fiction. Even Jesus said not to disobey the law but to fulfill it in Him.

    Good law is founded on a reasonably correct understanding of who man is and how he functions in society with other human beings. It is fine as long as there is an adequate ontology underlying it.

    The real trouble with law is when it becomes an idol. A thing-in-itself the purports to tell man who he is and how he should behave and think and believe. Man being conformed to law in the void of any real ontology. Law as idol.

    It leads to the nihilist/Darwinan morality that views law as the will of the strongest. Such an approach crushes humanity.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are describing the Law as though it were legal – and it is not. It is, as I’ve noted, ontological. It is not a social contract (not even a contract between us and God). It has being and substance. As such, it is not a mere mental fiction.

    The laws of the land are a legal fiction, merely contractual. At their best they reflect things that are eternal and true (“thou shalt not kill”), and at their worst they deny them (abortion) or trivialize them and make people into the despisers of the law.

    There is nothing to be fulfilled in the law of the land. It has no ontology. Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law, because He is the Law in human form. He is everything that the Law and the Prophets reflected. He is the Logos of the logoi. He is the inner meaning of every jot and tittle.

    Our society fails because it no longer seeks to discern the eternal law. However flawed the men were who founded America, they still had the eternal law somewhat in mind as they went about their work. I think this is no longer true. We are ruled with “men without chests” in CS Lewis’ phrase.

  29. Matt Avatar


    I can’t help but butt in with an observation of my own, to add to Fr. Stephen’s point about the law not being “legal” in the usual sense.

    I am a lawyer. Day in, day out I am witness and participant to numerous examples of the law being no more than a negotiable, arbitrary compromise of power between parties, backed ultimately by nothing more than the state monopoly on power, and backed immediately by little more than laziness, convention and fear of being sued. I have yet to see a non-criminal matter that is not ultimately resolved by the question, “do you have enough money to fight this?” with the first person to say no (or forced into a position where the only sane, honest answer is no) losing.

    At best there is the occasional lawyer’s or judge’s pride in getting it “right”. (Lay litigants with such an approach are typically dismissed as cranks, implicitly accused of various mental illnesses, and politely ignored.) This is, with the exception of a few judges who take full advantage of their control over the proceedings, always overridden by workloads, considerations respecting billability of hours and client demands.

    Now there are numerous statutes on the books and principles in the cases that are made with the intent of, or have the effect of, furthering the interests of real good, of the genuinely understood Tao of justice and virtue. Generally they are a) enforced only to oppress the poor, with the occasional spectacular case of a wealthy celebrity or businessman being brought to “justice”; or b) something very well incorporated into our capitalist economic machine as to make it unassailable by that machine; or c) under relentless attack by pundits and demagogues looking for a polarizing issue to bait people into voting/consuming in their favour. (Both left and right sides of the culture war are guilty of this last one.)

    It seems you and Fr. Stephen are very close to each other on this point except in how much weight to ascribe to the word “law” being used to describe the Divine Tao and our laws, but I think Fr. Stephen’s framing of the matter is closer to the experienced truth.

    Fr. Stephen:

    My general experience has been that the people who are tasked to deal in our laws do frequently have some very strong (or at least contentful) chests, but they are filled with things that are wrong, diametrically opposed to what’s in others’ chests, or (each person some of the time but not everyone all the time) leave the person beholden to the demands of those who are ruled by the appetites.

    Our professional regulatory body was recently forced to hold a vote of its general members whether to deprive a local law school of accreditation for the sole reason that it had a code of conduct that prohibited sexual activity between legally married couples of the same sex. The general members voted overwhelmingly in favour of depriving, in contrast to an initial vote by the governing benchers who voted overwhelmingly against it in the face of a decision from our highest court that said a similar regulatory body could not use this as grounds for denying accreditation.

    The express reasons of those who voted in favour were that the existing law amounted to an arbitrary fiat that failed to conform to ontological reality. There were extremely strong moral sentiments respecting equality for LGBT persons in play, that effectively overrode any moral sentiment in favour of respecting precedent and caution that we not risk tyranny by calling on our institutions to overstep their bounds. (Some accusations that were made against the school, and the characterization of the law, suggested that moral sentiments respecting due diligence with the actual facts of the case were also low on the list.) I would certainly not call those who voted this way men without chests – I would only say that the priorities within those chests may be misplaced.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Neither of you have understood a word that I said. But it is the best I can do. You just said in your own box and refused to listen

  31. Matt Avatar

    I can’t speak for Fr. Stephen, but I meant what I wrote as a response to this:

    Good law is founded on a reasonably correct understanding of who man is and how he functions in society with other human beings. It is fine as long as there is an adequate ontology underlying it.

    Although I agree with the first part (inasmuch as “good” is an amelioration of evil), I also submit that there is never an adequate ontology underlying our secular laws – the realpolitik of asserting and maintaining a monopoly on violence simply won’t allow it. The line to the idolatry you describe in the next paragraph is pretty straight and short: the creation of the idol is the way of least resistance to effect that monopoly.

    Yes, it is a pretty nihilistic view, and I tend to fall into some extreme cynicism in my work. But it does give a special resonance to those parts of the Psalms and Proverbs about trusting in God and not lawless (or rather Law-less) and deceitful men.

    Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    Guilty. I was simply wanting to press the point about the nature of the OT Law.

  33. Dino Avatar

    The longest of all the Psalms is dedicated to the Law, often personifying it and speaking of the Lord’s statutes almost erotically. I sometimes used to wonder: why?
    Bringing Elder’s Sophrony’s well known statement on God’s law to mind illuminates why. He often used to explain that God’s laws are a projection, (a reflection is also a good term) of God’s life unto our created plane of being. A thoroughly ontological understanding of the law.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    ….and I Father was saying you might have pushed too far. Law, real law, is neither a fiction nor an illusion but an expression of God’s order based on who we are, not on who we can become. It is not sufficient but, like training wheels on bicycles, real as far as it goes.

    Modern jurisprudence is a joke and becoming increasingly demonic it seems to me – a trial by combat to suppress virtue and elevate the passions. It is worse than a fiction, it is a lie. Martyrdom the only path to victory under such “law”. Declaring the truth in the love in the face of such evil and accepting the consequences.

    St Luke of Simferopol can give us guidance here.

    Few people, certainly not me, can live by love alone. I, and others like me need the training wheels.

    Come Lord Jesus.

  35. fatherstephen Avatar

    That clarifies. I was saying (or meant to be saying) that the law in our present modern legal system exists as a “fiction” (much as Matt was describing). But, as you note, law (all law) actually does have an ontological basis in the eternal law of God. With that I agree. The two have become separated in most modern thought. Perhaps I should have argued rather for the healing of our present fiction through its restoration into the eternal. But, barring some new constitutional work that I do not now see, it would be highly theoretical.

    But the eternal law is still discernible in the present structures if we have eyes to see.


  36. Mary Bongiorno Avatar
    Mary Bongiorno

    Amen Amen to Christ

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, it would be exceedingly optimistic for any healing of the law in our present form of government to take place. It is quite likely that it, like all governments will have to end and something new take its place. That “new” is unlikely to be better. Democracy leads inexorably to tyranny with, sometimes, a period of anarchy preceding the tyranny.

    What we have now is not dissimilar to a fascist state. Such states are a great soil for martyrs as St. Alexander Schmorell proves:

  38. Dino Avatar

    Modern jurisprudence is a joke and becoming increasingly demonic it seems to me – a trial by combat to suppress virtue and elevate the passions.

    I think we see this more and more as we learn the ways of the world in our days…
    I do not think that the escalation of the modern ‘debunking’ (lamented by CS Lewis in “Men without chest”) of the eternal law of God -which used to be explicitly considered as the basis of traditional legislation in the Jeudo-Christian tradition- is going to cease until the coming of our Lord.
    In a sense, this conversation illustrates once more that talking on the general topic of law (as with many topics), one cannot evade the pitfalls and misunderstandings of what is evidently an exceptionally delicate and precarious intercommunication between two divergent languages: that of the ‘world’ (especially the modern world) and that of Christianity. As with virtually all concepts and terms, we see an increasingly diverging understanding between the two vocabularies…
    Having some awareness -as Christians- that the world seeks to enslave through the duo of fear and desire, I think that I am even starting to see projections, (a type of “safeguarding”) of that particular dyad of bondage (its ‘status quo’) even in its legislation lately; on the other hand God ultimately liberates starting again with a law, the law of love.
    But this ‘world’ is constantly changing, its anxious mutability being reflected in an almost disposable inconstancy of law in modernity; on the other hand God’s law is eternal, belonging to a different plane of being to what we customarily consider. It is evident in the Prophet’s words:

    thy commandment is exceeding broad. O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day

    which could not be fully understood another way…

  39. guy Avatar


    Should Orthodox Christians take an active political role with a view toward “healing” American law (altering those laws in a way more in accordance with an Orthodox worldview)?

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    guy, given the depth of corruption and secular nihilism that is our current political system, it would be quite difficult to take and active role within the system and remain true to Jesus Christ. Both the seduction to compromise and overt opposition against traditional Christianity would be quite difficult to navigate successfully. Two pertinent examples: When Jesse Jackson and Al Gore began their political careers they were both pro-life. Now, they are pro-abortion because to get and maintain a national voice, they had to give up the pro-life position.

    Our role, in my view, is much more of an active witness for the truth, quietly in our homes, jobs and parish most of the time. Refusing as much as possible to be dragged into the passions of politics. At the same time educating ourselves on the ontological law of the Lord and where it might be reflected in our culture–supporting that as we can.

    Local action in terms of active almsgiving (money, time, prayers) in ministries that actually address real human pain or better yet with specific people who are already in your life.

    I’d suggest reading the book: The Blessed Surgeon: The Life of St. Luke, Archbishop of Simferopol. as a start.

  41. guy Avatar


    i am in deep sympathy with the position you describe. And i find little tidbits here and there within Orthodoxy of this position. And it seems clearly biblical to me. i guess i’m just surprised i don’t see this position voiced among Orthodox Christians/leaders more strongly than it is.

    (i really am glad i found Orthodoxy. So many ‘brain-splinters’ from my Protestant past have finally been removed. But some church/state issues in Orthodox history/practice/teaching make me very nervous and uncomfortable.)

  42. Jeff Avatar

    The Mystical as political by Aristotle Papanikalou is a must read for Orthodox political theology , he’s a theologian.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    guy, the church/state issues make you uncomfortable, in part, because we tend to look at them conditioned by the lies of the current political establishment in the US–a twisted version of a single letter written by Thomas Jefferson.

    There cannot be any separation between church and state in a one-storey universe. The synergy position adopted by the Church in the wake of the legalization of Christianity was similarly conditioned by their political view of “how things must be”.

    The real question is the matter in which the Church and the state interact. I’ve long felt that the Church should be not separated from the state, but there to act as a thorn in the side of the state when the quest for power becomes too strong. We are witnesses to the Truth, often that means martyrdom. Inevitably such a position always brings the Church and the state into conflict as the Church should be ruled by the law of love while the state is inherently ruled by law alone which is easily perverted. Leaders in the Church have all too often fallen prey to the same perversion. That is only to be expected.

    We have often been accused of Caesaropapism but the position in the west could easily have been called Papalcaesarism which, in part, led to the Reformation and the anti-clericalism of the so-called enlightenment.

    It will never be neat and nice. No Platonic ideal here at all.

  44. guy Avatar


    i’m really not sure i follow your comment. Perhaps i am partially motivated by what you say (though i didn’t understand the dialectic of most of it, so if i am, i’ll just have to concede so). [Is there any post on this blog that doesn’t use the one/two story talk? 🙂 Every time i think i get it, it’s never in any explicable way and quickly goes away. At this point, it just seems to me like rhetoric. i’m probably wrong about that, but i’m honestly tired of trying to understand it any more deeply than that.]

    My personal concerns have to do (1) the use or approval of violence by Christians, (2) that the structure of political power often (if not always) seems incompatible with the nature of power as described by Christ, (3) my understanding is that clergy are not supposed to seek political office or involvement, (4) a top-down method of change seems importantly different from the practices of early Christians and the teachings of Christ and just seems ultimately ineffective to me, (5) because the legal is the fictitious entity Father says it is, the legal and the moral simply do not coincide, and trying to make them so is a bad idea for several reasons.

  45. fatherstephen Avatar

    The canons of the Church do not approve of violence, nor killing, even in time of war. That said, the Church tolerates them with conditions for penance and the healing of their trauma. As such, there cannot ever be Church-sanctioned violence. The authority of the state as a “servant” has sometimes been more realized than others. It was not unusual for the Tsars to spend up to 7 hours a day in Church prayers. But, of course, there were plenty of problems. Clergy are not allowed to hold political office according to the canons.

    As to top-down change – some would call it “legislating morality…” Morality is always legislated on one level. Laws against murder and theft are proper For the same reason, many other things (the life of the unborn) should be protected by law as well. The law, when reasonably and well enacted, does have a strong influence on what people think. It should not be neglected, even if it is not the means of bringing in the kingdom. It is a means, however, of restraining evil. We cannot make evil people be good, but we can limit the evil they do, and this is not a bad thing.

    I struggle not to be caught up in the passions of the political process, but I vote. I give money from time to time. And I pray: “Grant them [the government] a secure and lasting peace. Speak good things into their hearts concerning Your Church and all Your people, that we, in their tranquillity, may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness and sanctity.”

  46. guy Avatar


    Re: Clergy and Politics

    Clergy are not allowed to hold political office. Why is this? What is the reasoning behind the canons on this point?

    i guess clergy can vote. Can they lobby a particular politician? Can they encourage parishioners to vote a certain way? Can they participate in political organizations? Can they be advisors to politicians? Could they aid in a campaign? If they can do all these things [perhaps they can’t, i honestly don’t know; you’d have to tell me], then why not just hold an office? What’s the significant difference?

    Re: Law and Morality

    i guess i don’t see that murder and theft are illegal *because* they are immoral–at least not on any of the liberal political theories with which i am acquainted. Sure, many of those theories are rooted in certain ethical views. But many are clearly designed anti-paternalistically–that is, designed such that the persons who would live under such political systems as the theories described would be in no way bound by any purely ethical standards, not even those in which the theory is rooted.

    i’m not saying any of those political theories are right are wrong. i honestly don’t know. i have intuitions all over the map when it comes to that question. My point is that it seems some persons assume the conditional “If X is immoral, then X ought to be illegal” is true. And on that assumption, they participate in the political process in hopes of legislating morality. Well, first, that conditional seems obviously false to me. But second and more importantly, i suppose coercion by law doesn’t seem to me to be a very Christian method of improving a society. Hence, my leeriness over political participation by Christians. (i certainly do not intend to suggest that governments do not keep evil in check and potentially provide a respectable service; only that it seems to me Christianity is a calling to an even higher vocation.)

  47. MichaelT Avatar


    IMHO Here’s a simplistic explanation for one/two story worldviews.

    One Story: “God is everywhere present and fillest all things”
    Two Story: “In the sweet bye and bye we shall meet on that beautiful shore”

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ah. I don’t think the issue re violence, coercion, is “improving” society. That, indeed, is a truly liberal (in the classical sense) thought. Rather, the State has a proper role to restrain evil. It’s pretty simple. Once you start down the road of improving people, then everything becomes utilitarian and the law itself becomes corrupted.

    As to clergy holding political office – it is a distraction from their essential duty of prayer and intercession. Many might make fine office holders, but they will have left their posts. There are also many, many temptations involved – so the canon also protects the clergy. There have been a couple of famous exceptions, but the canon continues to be upheld and observed.

    There’s much to be said on the topic of the State not acting with a goal of “improvement” “progress” “better world” etc. It does all kinds of mischief under that rubric. It would do so much better if it didn’t think so highly of itself.

  49. guy Avatar


    Point well taken about “improvement” as the goal of political action. i thought i meant something much thinner than liberal progress when i said “improving,” but now i don’t think it matters. The church and the state seem to me to have two different social roles/goals. The state (currently a liberal democracy in the West) views itself as having a goal of progress; Paul says it has the role of being the agent of God’s wrath against the evil doer. But this is not the church’s social role/goal, is it?

    If so, then if Christians become deeply involved in state matters whether collectively or individually, is this not a distraction from their own role/goals? You mention holding office is a distraction for clergy in particular. But if a clergy member were to become deeply involved in state affairs but never held office, has he not still violated the ‘spirit’ of that canon? And isn’t this something of concern not just for clergy, but also for all Christians?–that political involvement can be not an aid, but a distraction (and perhaps even a detriment) from prayer, works of mercy, theosis, etc.?

    And as you mention there is temptation in holding office. It seems to me that power struggles, ambition for authority, and a lifestyle of seeking people’s approval are all temptations particularly keen in a system where political leaders are democratically elected. But the taint of these temptations are present even for those who do not hold office, but are simply quite invested in the process, are they not? And that temptation is present not only for clergy, but for all Christians, no?

    Rulers restrain evil by coercion (‘he does not bear the sword in vain’ Paul says). But this is not the way Christians are meant to combat evil. We have higher ways and higher purposes. Don’t we as Christians leave higher things as soon as we start seeking/lobbying for new or different coercions by the state against wrongdoing? Or don’t we at least run the risk of neglecting our own combat against evil?

    Or am i missing something?

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    guy says:

    The church and the state seem to me to have two different social roles/goals. The state (currently a liberal democracy in the West) views itself as having a goal of progress; Paul says it has the role of being the agent of God’s wrath against the evil doer. But this is not the church’s social role/goal, is it?

    guy, yes, but….even when the state is considered the “agent of God’s wrath” there are problems. The state is there to protect and defend and restrain. Sometimes that entails punishment, but it really has no ontological responsibilities at all. That does not mean it is secular though.

    Even in its role to protect and restrain its real authority comes from how well it adheres to God’s will. That is where the Church comes in to be both prophetic in the broadest sense and to remind the state and her peoples of what is appropriate–not to bless its evil.

    The organization of the nation of Israel before the kings I have always liked. A hierarchical confederation with a prophet to call everyone to God. Unfortunately, such a nation (rather than a state) is quite difficult to maintain even when the peoples are relatively homogeneous. The will to power and control is a constant temptation.

    However, the Orthodox Church is organized in that way. It works when we allow it too, even though the world sees it as chaotic and lacking in direction.

    Sin always enters in, however. There is no perfection achievable nor is government salvific.

    The fundamental focus of a Christian life (in the world, but not of it) is to pray, give alms (in the fullest sense of the word), worship God together in communion, live a life of repentance, chastity and asceticism.

    The more people fulfill this life by God’s grace, the less need there is for a coercive state. The less coercive need and the more Christians can participate.

    BTW Father, I would appreciate a full post on almsgiving and all that it entails. The few times you have touched on it have been illuminating and fascinating.

  51. guy Avatar


    It all sounds great. But what i take to be at issue is….

    “That is where the Church comes in to be both prophetic in the broadest sense and to remind the state and her peoples of what is appropriate–not to bless its evil.”

    …precisely how the Church ought to go about accomplishing this.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    guy, how to accomplish it: pretty much like she always has. Issuing the call to repentance in general and for specific situations such as homosexual non-marriage, abortion, etc as they are needed for the faithful and the larger community; serving the sacramental mysteries (all of them), praying and worshiping, giving alms to those in need physically and spiritually (mercy, grace and healing as well as money and goods).

    Taking care of needs that are at hand as best each of us can: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and in prison, etc. Giving to those in need who cross your path personally (this is where my wife and I try to concentrate our resources, small though they are). Give your time, energy, money and prayers to build and support your local parish community by God’s grace. Know and practice your faith.

    Evangelize by the content of one’s life coupled with the ability and willingness to answer any questions or find the answer if the questions are sincere. {My son when asked what he believes recites the Creed. Those that really want to know, listen and ask questions. Those who are playing a game usually cut out about the time he gets to “Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…”}

    The Orthodox community in my town sponsors and largely staffs The Treehouse: Saving the world one diaper at a time. It is a ministry to women who might otherwise abort their babies. We have an incipient local prison ministry and many other avenues of service including working with the Episcopalian and Roman Catholic Social Services where we can. We just started a classical Christian school (K-3 and opening grade 4 this fall). Our bishop through much prayer and years of persistence has established an Orthodox Monastery for men, St. Silouan’s.

    All such ministry must needs involve prayer to the Theotokos and any saints that have a history of working in the same area.

    All of these actions are political in nature in that they involve the proper ordering of the polis. They can seem to be partisan simply because parties are ideologically based and refuse anything that does not fit their ideology. Involvement in this sort of politics is for the few. Vote as your conscience leads you (although I think that is futile at this point, but that is my opinion: example the truly anti-abortion U.S. Congressman for whom I voted wanted to carpet bomb Syria to get Assad out presumably because he believes they are all Muslims so what does it matter. The ignorance/arrogance of people in power is astounding and frightening).

    Do all with as much love of and humility before God as you can. Eschew all ideological commitments but hold fast to the truth. That will guarantee that you will, sooner or later, get in trouble with the law. Ahhh….where is Waylon Jennings when you need him: “Just the good ol’ boys,
    Never meanin’ no harm, Beats all you’ve ever saw, been in trouble with the law since the day they was born.”

    And laugh “…for laughter is surely the surest touch of genius in creation..” But laugh with sobriety and joy never in derision. That will really mess the ideologues minds up. Which gets us back to the title of this web site: Glory to God for All Things.

  53. guy Avatar


    This, too, all sounds really great–sincerely. i guess my concerns are still what form “calls to repentance” should take. i’d still say that a lot of pressure that borders on coercion is done by religious folk under the guise of “calling to repentance.”

  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    If you look at the most recent article “A Generous Repentance” you might find yet another way to think about repentance.

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    i’d still say that a lot of pressure that borders on coercion is done by religious folk under the guise of “calling to repentance.”

    Sure, no disagreement there. Fallen human beings are involved plus when change is asked for it is uncomfortable and people get defensive.

    We fallen humans do almost everything with mixed motives. That is inherent in our brokenness. That does not mean we do nothing. Repentance is fundamental to a Christian life. Jesus began is public ministry with the words: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    Here is a recent example from the Ecumenical Patriarch:

    The Church, my beloved parents and children, and subsequently the family, which consists lawfully and by the command of God of men and women, and the children acquired, is not a foundation or association or a simple organization, but a Body, as it is wonderfully depicted by the Apostle Paul. And this parallelism is accurate and true. Church and marriage. Husband and wife. Body and its members.

    This community, signified in the Mysteries and in the obedience of Faith, both in the Church and in the family, is sanctified and mystagogued through the Mystery of Marriage, which, according to the Fathers, is a mystery of co-creation, and the ontological link of love with the Head of the Body, to ensure health and life, which is salvation and sanctification.

    As in our Orthodox Church, where no member is forgiven to deal with things in a peculiar form and at one’s discretion and to prey on the proper operation and sincere communion of the love and unity of faith of the other members, or despise and ignore them, because they create cancerous disorders, agitations, dissensions, schisms, and heresies. This applies as well to the miniature church, the family, in which is required compassion, love and unity for the structure to be built, in which the father, the mother and the children have a place inter-embracing one another’s gifts, responsibilities and rights, and they are “individually members of it”.

    God blesses our every effort towards the fulfillment of His will, and every struggle in life, according to one’s faithfulness in each and every talent. It suffices to realize in time our given talents and gifts and therefore our obligations for our every personal role, which God expects us to live out in the ecclesiastical and familial body as Orthodox Christians, activating its divine-human nature, within the framework of our God-given limits and conditions. For God created man “male and female”, that we might not imitate those who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised” (Romans 1:24-26).

    To our Lord Jesus Christ, who blessed families through the Mystery of Marriage at Cana of Galilee and changed water into wine, that is, into joy and feasting, and to His Body, the Orthodox Church, the partnering of the same sex is unknown and condemned, and they condemn the contemporary invention of “mutual cohabitation”, which is the result of sin and not the law of joy, and by their actions the “females exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26-28). Let this not also be born in you, Orthodox Estonians, brethren and children.

  56. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and most of Father Stephen’s posts here are calls to repent, to turn back and embrace God rather than the world, like this gem from his most recent post:

    Generosity is not so much what we do for another – it is what we do with what we have. Generosity is repenting from our wealth. Our forensic culture has so poisoned our understanding of repentance that such a statement is interpreted as declaring wealth to be somehow tainted and wrong (for we only “repent” of legal wrongs).

  57. guy Avatar

    i did read the new post on generosity but, frankly, didn’t understand the talk about “repenting from non-being.”

    What i’m hearing from the Ecumenical Patriarch’s letter is a re-affirmation of the Church’s ethical views and thus an exhortation for Orthodox Christians not to practice or approve of same-sex unions. What i’m not hearing though is any encouragement to lobby, run for office, or coerce the government to impose Orthodox views on its populus. Did i miss anything?

  58. fatherstephen Avatar

    “Repenting from non-being” is a bit of a mystical understanding, working primarily from St. Maximus the Confessor. The article linked to this one touches on it a bit. But it’s deeply rooted in the understanding of being and non-being as taught in the fathers – particularly the Cappadocians, Dionysius, and St. Maximus.

    Viz. the letter from the Patriarch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him write about political action. Such actions are generally left in the hands of the faithful. From time to time there are rebukes issued from various Orthodox Synods and the like, admonishing governments or leaders. This has recently been the case from the Pat. of Moscow concerning the violence in Ukraine (both sides). It is highly unusual in my experience to see any particular call to political action. Again, the “how” of such things is generally left in the hands of the faithful.

    This is deeply rooted in a recognition that it is not the task of the Church to improve or fix the world. It exists to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to be the Kingdom. That reality is like leaven in the world. If the leavening has yet to make to dough to rise, then it is rather silly for the leaven to shout to the dough, “Rise, darn it!” The Church exists to be precisely what Christ is in the world – and we can look to the gospels to see what that looks like. The “leavening” of the Church has had profound effects on the world over the centuries. But when the Church has seen itself as just one more lobbying force – therefore making the state the real center of action and reality – it becomes both ineffective and distracted.

  59. Jeff Avatar

    Adding the ascetical to our daily interaction helps;

    Put another way, the event language of eucharistic ecclesiology needs to be tempered with the insights of asceticism that although the material is created to embody the divine, such an embodiment is a never-ending movement realized in and through particular practices. One could say that the ascetical struggle is to exist as eucharistic, that is, to be in such as a way so as to relate to the other in and by giftedness. It is in relating to the other eu- charistically that one has the power to render the other irreducibly unique and free. The ascetical struggle recognizes that humans do not exist in that way, and the movement toward that mode of existence is through practices that allow for the divine presence to be more fully manifested. If through ascetical struggle one realizes that one is more loving and, thus, more eucharistic, then all one has done is allowed the love of God that is already there to manifest itself in the human person more fully. To understand the ascetical life as individualistic and nonrelational is incorrect, the purpose of the ascetical is a relational mode of being that is eucharistic.

  60. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen – Thank you for this well-stated reminder:

    This is deeply rooted in a recognition that it is not the task of the Church to improve or fix the world. It exists to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to be the Kingdom.

    guy – I think the best “call to repentance” offered by the Church is our own repentance as its members (whether Orthodox, or me as RC). Christ certainly alludes to this when He tells us to concentrate on removing the plank in our own eye before we go after the splinter in someone else’s.

    This came to mind not long ago when I was reflecting with a priest-friend about the need to address the many problems in the RC Church – and then realized that I could best change the church by starting with myself.

    While the impact of my individual repentance might seem to be inconsequential, I am struck by the words of Elder Sophrony, “The ontological unity of humanity is such that every separate individual overcoming evil in himself inflicts such a defeat on cosmic evil that its consequences have a beneficial effect on the destinies of the whole world.”

    Hence, it seems that it much more important that I repent than that I run for office or even vote.

  61. guy Avatar


    i love that quote–thank you for sharing!

  62. […] “Theories of atonement that use modern legal imagery remove any ontological content from our situation. We are guilty because God says we are guilty and we deserve punishment much like we deserve punishment within our human legal system. But the Law of God is not a legal instrument; it is more of a diagnostic tool. The Commandments describe the character and details of those things that plunge us into ontological chaos.” – Fr. Stephen Freeman, from “Legal Problems“ […]

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