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?