A Lutheran Celebration of Orthodox Liturgical and Sacramental Spirituality: Some Inquiries About How Much Freedom the Orthodox Tradition Sanctions

In view of Martin Luther’s appreciation of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, p.81), and the outreach Luther theologians later in the 16th century made to the Ecumenical Patriarch, it should not be surprising that a modern Lutheran theologian would find much to endorse in this thoughtful presentation of the Orthodox heritage.  The liturgical orientation of its spirituality, the stress on the community of saints’ role in nurturing spirituality, and the Sacraments’ role in spiritual formation is right in line with Confessional Lutheran thinking (though Lutheran Pietist elements and Lutheran members reflecting a modernist piety might object).  Indeed Lutherans have a view of the Sacraments virtually identical with the Orthodox heritage (not rejecting the possibility of there being seven [Apology of the The Augsburg Confession, XIII.2]) and are open to venerating and being inspired by saints as long as such activities do not entail earning Indulgences for the faithful (Smalcald Articles, II.22-23,26). 

      The paper did not expressly endorse the concept of theosis as part of Orthodox spirituality, but I wonder if references to being cleansed from all stain, endeavoring to live without sin, and being united with Christ were intended to suggest it.  Thus I ask our esteemed author (David, if I might), if there was a reason for this lack of explicit endorsement of the concept in the paper we are considering?  The endorsement of this concept would raise no problems from the Evangelical Catholic wing of Lutheranism, as Luther himself seems sometimes to have endorsed theosis (Complete Sermons, Vol.4/2, pp.279-280).  And the theme of being united with Christ affirmed in the paper, a theme also typical of Mysticism, is prominent of much Lutheran literature, though not widely known in the pews (Smalcald Articles, III.13;  Apology of  The Augsburg Confession, IV.72 ). 

      Many of the other characteristic Orthodox themes noted have affinities to the Pietist strand of Lutheranism and also in some cases to Lutheranism’s Dogmatic Orthodox strands.  There is place in the Lutheran heritage for something like Orthodox rules of prayer (as long as they are not the basis for salvation (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XVII.17), the stress on keeping the Commandments (Formula of Concord SD VII; Large Catechism, I.Con), and measuring growth in the Christian life this way (Formula of Concord, SD IV.31-33).  Even the idea of striving for perfection (implied in striving to live in purity and in accord with the process of theosis) is embraced in segments of Lutheran Pietism (Philip Spener, Pia Desideria, 2) and with warnings also the affirmation of a synergistic joining of our will with God’s grace is not rejected (Formula of Concord, SD II.90).  In fact, a 2017 Pew poll and earlier ones on the subject of how we think we are saved found that most Americans, Lutherans included, endorse this synergism.   

      Regarding the “awe-filled harmony with Nature” posited by in the paper, I ask you, Professor Ford (David), whether the Lutheran appreciation that creation reminds us that all we have is from God (another testimony to justification by faith alone [Large Catechism, II]) harmonizes at this point with Orthodox spirituality.  Given the appreciation of flexibility noted in the Orthodox heritage, I raise the big Lutheran question, asking how free we can be in the Orthodox church, whether characteristic Lutheran emphases could have a legitimate place and if not, why not?  Could an Orthodox Christian legitimately embrace with Luther and Paul a commitment to the centrality of justification by faith and prevenient grace (the belief that grace precedes any synergistic cooperation), even giving the Holy Spirit credit for our faith and for the surrender of the will to God (Romans 3:21-28; Galatians 3:10-14; Luther’s Works, Vo.26, p.106; Small CatechismII.6)? 

      I have the impression that you, David, seem to concede that the Orthodox heritage embraces something like the Lutheran simul iustus et peccator – the belief that we are simultaneously saints and sinners (Romans  7:14-18; Luther’s Works, Vol.32, p.111; Ibid., Vol.27, p.230).  Though I would not expect to receive affirmative answers, would it then be possible to concede with the first Reformer that the best we can do in the Christian life is sin bravely – for we sin in all we do (1 Timothy 1:13; Luther’s Works., Vol.48, pp.281-282)?  How about freedom from the Law (Galatians 3:13; 5:1; Romans 7:4ff; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.333-377), the spontaneity of good works (Ephesians 2:10; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.367-368; Complete Sermons, Vol.1/2, p.316), and a Situational Ethic (Genesis 22; Luther’s Works, Vol.5, p.150; Complete Sermons, Vol.3/1, p.61)?  If these are not affirmations which the Orthodox tradition can embrace, I’ll bet we could learn a lot about both of our traditions if together we could figure out why not.       

     The helpful presentation of the Orthodox heritage put before us envisages a role for Bible study which certainly resonates with Lutheran Pietism.  But given my amateur’s knowledge of the Orthodox tradition, I was not surprised that no reference is made in the paper to the role of preaching in enhancing the following of Jesus (Augsburg Confession, XXVIII.8-9), the Priesthood of All Believers (Luther’s Works, Vol.20, pp.82,95; Ibid., Vol.35, pp.40-41,100-101), and to how following Jesus includes a social concern about justice for the poor (Ibid., Vol.9, p.19;  Large Catechism, I.7; Amos 8:4ff.).  Are there reasons why the Orthodox heritage has not made much of these convictions?  Would it be possible given Orthodox flexibility/freedom for members of the Church to follow Jesus in these ways?  Is Orthodox-Lutheran convergence about following Jesus possible?           

2 replies
  1. David C. Ford
    David C. Ford says:

    Ford, Possibility of sinlessness

    Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your very detailed, insightful, and stimulating response to my essay. It’s wonderful to hear from you that “a modern Lutheran theologian would find much to endorse in this thoughtful presentation of the Orthodox heritage.” Your affirmation of a Lutheran affinity to striving for perfection, of essentially a sacramental world-view, and for striving for mystical union/communion with God, which you rightly call theosis, or deification, was all quite a nice surprise, I must say.

    My exposure to Luther has been primarily through his Commentary on Galatians, in which I remember finding virtually all of the classic features of five-point Calvinism, though not presented as a rigid system as Calvin later would do, while Orthodoxy theology and praxis very strongly reject total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.

    My other main source for understanding Luther is his Bondage of the Will, written in direct refutation of Erasmus’s Freedom of the Will, as you know; and similarly, the Orthodox would find themselves very much closer to Erasmus’s thought than Luther’s regarding the role of freewill in the Christian life. Instead of being in bondage, always bound to sin, the Orthodox understand the human will to be free to choose between good and evil, between right and wrong. To think otherwise, to the Orthodox, is to allow too great a victory to the devil at the Fall; whereas for the Orthodox, the human will, a very important aspect of the image of God in man, is damaged but does not become totally depraved at the Fall. For the Orthodox, strong proof of this is the existence of many Old Testament Saints who reached great heights of holiness even before Christ comes to conquer sin and death. Enoch (who “walked with God, and was no more, for God took him”; Gen. 5:24), Elijah (who also never died), and Job (“a man who was perfect and upright, who feared God and eschewed evil”; Job 1:1) are three of the greatest examples of holy living in Old Testament times.

    You do seem to allow a place within Lutheranism to speak of the synergy of human freewill working together with God cooperatively and harmoniously, through aligning our will with His, in all we do for the good. This would seem to be in contradiction to the idea of man’s total depravity.

    Your reference to prevenient grace is something I think the Orthodox can basically affirm, as we fully understand that we can do absolutely nothing without the Lord’s grace sustaining us in every moment and aspect of our existence. And yet we understand that His grace is not a domineering power determining our thoughts and actions, but rather a kind of enabling, empowering energy that we are always free to cooperate with or not. When we merge our will with His grace, we can have moments, at least, of thinking and doing that are indeed without sin. So this brings us to a clear rejection of Luther’s claim, which you seem to quote approvingly, that “we sin in all we do.”

    So while, as you suggest, the Orthodox would most likely have an understanding similar to Luther’s of our being simultaneous saints and sinners, we would not take the fact that we are sinners (for we pray so often, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!”) to an ontological level and claim, as you say Luther does, that we can never act or think totally without sin. We would emphasize that Christ would not summon us to “Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), if this were not somehow possible, always only with His help, at least at certain moments! In Orthodoxy, as a general principle, we always maintain and extol the highest standards for purity in thought and life, while at the same providing compassionate pastoral care in light of human weakness when those standards are not met.

    You also raise the issue of preaching in the Orthodox tradition. Certainly good preaching is prized in our Church, which certainly includes encouraging exhortations to follow Jesus as closely as one can possibly try to do.

    You also mention the realm of social concern about justice for the poor. I’ve given some thoughts about this in my reply to Michael King’s (Anabaptist/Mennonite) response to my essay. I could add to what I said there that the three classic ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are deeply embedded in the Orthodox tradition and consciousness. They are especially emphasized during Great Lent and the other periods of communal fasting (usually meaning not total fasting, but abstinence from meat and dairy products) during the Church Year. Many Orthodox parishes are involved with reaching out to the poor through food pantries and soup kitchens, and the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) is an important international pan-Orthodox humanitarian ministry functioning under the direction of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States, and serving not only Orthodox, but also non-Orthodox people in need.

    Thanks again, Mark, for your very meaningful response to my posting. I hope my comments here will be helpful.

    Yours, in Christ,


  2. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    David, Great to be in dialogue about the convergences between our traditions. I am excited to learn that prevenient grace is a legitimately Orthodox point of view. That brings our heritages even closer together. But prevenient grace is not consistently taught in your tradition, is it? The writings of Luther you cited clearly do not endorse the typically Orthodox themes we have been discusseing. To make my points about overlaps between our traditions, I was drawing on strands in the Lutheran heritage and in Luther himself which are in some tension with the Luther texts you cited, themes not widely known even by many Lutherans. As an ecumenist I try to help my dialogue partners see that the Lutheran tradition is not really Protestant, not aiming at systematic consistency, but is a a catholic heritage, like Orthodoxy, committed to affirming everything the Church has agreed to over the centuries (consensus fidelium).

    I close by noting just two points: First, with regard to your perceived inconsistency in the Lutheran teaching of simul iustus et peccator and an openness in Lutheran Pietism to striving for perfection, I agree. But again I contend that the Bible and the Tradition are not always logically consistent either. Perhaps I can soften a bit of this tension (apparent inconsistency) by noting that Lutherans do not teach “total depravity.” We believe humans are still created good even though they sin all the time on this side of the eschaton. My other point pertains to my question about whether I could teach what Lutherans affirm about freedom from the Law, the spontaneity of good works, and a Situational Ethic (commitments which do reflect in the Luther texts you have considered) in an Orthodox setting, and if not, why not. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m pessimistic about your tradition’s allowing for these affirmations. But I do believe that a dialogue between us on these matters can further unravel what is at the heart differences in our respective traditions’ visions of what is involved in following Jesus.

    Enjoying the dialogue,


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