Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Justification....

Snow days make you stir crazy.  I spent much of my third one going through some old bookmarks, and one of them was Dan Woodring's conversion story (to Roman Catholicism).  In it, he reminisced about reading Father John Neuhaus' conversion story (also to Roman Catholicism) years ago, and a complaint resonated a bit with me.   Woodring recalled that when he first heard the story, he lamented that Father Neuhaus did not spend enough time talking about justification.

This is a common complaint among Lutherans (Woodring was a Lutheran when he first voiced the complaint), and one I used to frequently voice when I heard conversion stories -- why don't they ever address justification?  After all, it's the chief article of the Christian faith, the article on which the entire Gospel rises or falls!  I recall wondering whether these new converts had just abandoned this important article of faith and didn't want to talk about it.

So it is that I begin this latest post.  I have no intention here to try to espouse an Orthodox understanding of justification, nor to try to write a polemic against a Lutheran understanding of justification.  For one, I'm not so convinced the two traditions are that far apart -- I'll say directly that I have not embraced a doctrine of justification that can fairly be viewed as "salvation by works."  For another, that's just not the purpose of this blog.  For a third, as you will see by reading on, I think it would be impossible to do.  What I would like to talk about, however, is my opinion about why this topic comes up so seldom in conversion stories, particularly to the Orthodox Church.

First, the Orthodox Church doesn't really view the article of justification as the "chief article of the Christian faith."  That's probably not something that hits converts immediately, but it was pretty apparent to me up front.  It's not that justification is not important -- it is.  It's more that it's not any more important than, say, the incarnation, or the sacraments, or ecclesiology.  The Orthodox tend to view salvation as a more organic whole.  Instead of saying "well, if you get this wrong, you get all the rest wrong, too," we tend to see it as "if you get ANY of it wrong, you get it all wrong."  We view all of doctrine in a very interdependent way.  There is no article of faith that can be segregated out and set above all others.  There can be starting points, but there can be no heirarchy of importance.  It's all important.

Second, and this is probably more pertinent, the view of justification held by the Orthodox relies upon other Orthodox views that are largely foreign to Protestants.  One cannot understand an Orthodox view of salvation without also understanding the Orthodox view of anthropology, person and nature, essence and energies, and numerous other understandings of the person, nature and work of Christ and the nature of humanity and what it means to live out salvation as a human person.  Trying to explain Orthodox soteriology to Protestants without first laying this groundwork is fruitless.  It will result in the Protestant believing the Orthodox has "abandoned the Gospel," and the Orthodox being hopelessly frustrated with the discussion since the Protestant will be hearing Orthodox words with "Protestant ears."  And laying this groundwork takes time, and, more than that, patience on the part of the one hearing the conversion story.

Finally, newly chrismated Orthodox are rarely in a position to be espousing doctrines they themselves have just learned.  We can say why we believe what we believe, and we can usually say why we left, what the differences are, etc.  But it is neither wise nor appropriate for a student to put himself in a position as teacher.  We are still learning.  That is one reason I try to avoid polemics on this blog.  I am very comfortable discussing Christian "issues."  I am less comfortable getting into deep theological discussions, since I have so much yet to learn myself.

For a more in-depth treatment of Orthodox-Lutheran discussions on justification and sanctification, I recommend to your attention this excellent post from my friends at "Orthodoxy for Lutherans."


joel in ga said...


thanks for at least bringing up the subject. I had been wondering. I think that, for Lutherans, limiting the discussion of justification to the question of God's forgiveness will satisfy Lutherans. Otherwise the discussion is apt to drift into other areas.

Does or may an Orthodox Christian believe his sins are forgiven? If so, on what basis are they forgiven--God's mercy in Christ, his own good deeds, or both?

My impression from reading Orthodox literature--and in terms of spirituality I lean more Orthodox than Lutheran in some respects--is that in general Orthodox are like Roman Catholics: always in a state of uncertainty about whether they are forgiven and in a state of grace. Is that impression mistaken?

David Garner said...

Hi, Joel! Where in Georgia are you, if I may ask?

Your questions beg others, I fear, but the short answers are yes, we believe our sins are forgiven, and that is based on God's mercy in Christ -- God's love for mankind and His desire that our sins be forgiven.

I'll try to give a longer response in another blog post, because both your question and your last paragraph require a bit of fleshing out.