On a Tradition Brimming with Confidence, Spiritual Rootage, and Personal Moral Striving

As a Baptist, I find that David Ford’s description of the Orthodox path of following Jesus takes me into largely unfamiliar territory. But that unfamiliarity is welcome. I am determined to learn from it, even as I find myself resisting certain aspects of it. I certainly see major potential correctives here for common patterns in Baptist life.

Professor Ford’s description of the Orthodox tradition rings with high confidence as to its divine inspiration, divine confirmation, historical continuity, and moral productivity. In a time of fading Christian self-confidence, with many notable examples of such among Baptists, I find this Orthodox confidence highly inspiring.

I do wonder whether that confidence, reinforced by centuries of tradition and belief in tradition’s divine inspiration, leaves the Orthodox sufficiently open to the occasional historical reconsideration. I believe in semper reformanda — the church always reforming. I would hope to see Baptists grow in confidence in our version of Christian tradition without losing the ability to change our minds sometimes.

It was interesting to see that Dr. Ford’s description of how the Orthodox follow Jesus was not narrowly confined to the moral arena. In essence, we were treated to a lovely description of an entire way of life, including public worship, home worship, iconography, spiritual direction, prayer, and more. This offers a great reminder that if (as is true, I think) many of us Baptists understand “following Jesus” to be primarily living in a certain morally serious way in the world, that way requires the deepest spiritual sourcing, which is thinning out in many parts of Baptist life. No roots, no fruits. The Orthodox understand this, and provide for it.

I was surprised at the morally perfectionistic notes in Professor Ford’s description of the Orthodox path. The goal, he says, is to move toward a sin-free life, with ever greater faithfulness, fervency, holiness, fruitfulness, moral purity, trust in God, commandment-keeping, surrender of will, virtue, and self-sacrificing service. I found none of the (typically Protestant, and quite common among Baptists) emphasis on the limits of Christian moral capacity and the need to live primarily in gratitude for divine forgiveness — rather than focusing on effortful moral striving.

The problems with focusing on effortful moral striving can include what has been called scrupulosity, an excessively active and mordant conscience and, on the flip side, a tendency toward spiritual pride for those who think they are actually making moral progress.

But the problem with focusing mainly on Christian moral limits and the need for forgiveness can be a relaxing of moral effort and adoption of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer unforgettably and accurately called “cheap grace.” The Baptist world that I know seems much more vulnerable to cheap grace than to scrupulosity.

Finally, I admit to being distressed to see no social-ethical or social-justice dimension in Dr. Ford’s essay other than a welcome mention of living in harmony with Nature and celebrating the goodness of God’s creation. (Also: a traditional posture on marriage.) As a Baptist Christian social ethicist, I cannot conceive of “following Jesus” apart from substantial attention to social justice, social ethics, and social change. On the other hand, sometimes all that some of us Baptists seem to understand of discipleship these days is a social change agenda, either conservative or liberal.

I am deeply grateful for this occasion to encounter Eastern Orthodox thought, and to Dr. Ford for getting our conversation started with such a lovely, lyrical first essay.

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

    Ford, on scrupulosity, moral striving, and synergy

    Dear David,

    Thank you very much for your very thoughtful and appreciative response to my essay, including your frank and open comments on how those in your Baptist tradition might benefit from certain emphases, and perhaps certain practices, prevalent in Orthodoxy.

    You are so right about the danger of over-scrupulosity. I think we’re most vulnerable to this spiritual affliction when we’re focusing too much on our own efforts concerning devotional practices and moral striving, instead of constantly remembering that we constantly need the power and guidance of divine grace to do anything good. Even Jesus Himself said, “I can do nothing by Myself” (John 5:30). There’s a beautiful prayer in the standard Orthodox prayerbook for beginning any task in which we acknowledge our total need to have complete reliance on God’s guidance and assistance. With this attitude, we realize that anything good we accomplish has been only through His help, and so we have no basis for feeling any bit of self-sufficiency or pride for what we’ve done. Rather, we’re thankful to Him for His help.

    As a historical note, I wonder if you would agree that the precise, single trigger leading to the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther’s over-scrupulosity, as he agonized over the question of whether he had ever done enough good works to be saved – or even whether he could ever do enough (the classic Lutheran angst). As I understand it, his spiritual father at the time, the Roman Catholic priest Fr. Johann von Staupitz, warned him against this spiritual danger/trap/misunderstanding. But as we know, the radical solution he came to was to say that salvation does not depend upon one’s good works at all – only upon one’s faith.

    From an Orthodox point of view, this is all a further example of the lack of proper understanding of synergy that has plagued Western Christianity ever since the early 5th century, when Pelagius, the British monk, began over-emphasizing the power of one’s own good works in bringing about one’s salvation (even to the exclusion of any necessity of grace); and St. Augustine, of western North Africa, then over-reacting, going to the opposite extreme, saying that one can do nothing at all in bringing about his or her salvation – it’s entirely accomplished by God, with no participation of man, not even his or her assent to God’s unconditional selection of making him or her one of the elect. And it was this current in the theology of Augustine, which only developed during the last ten years of his life in the heat of his anti-Pelagian polemics, which was so thoroughly picked up by Luther and codified by Calvin, which then heavily influenced every branch of the Protestant Reformation.

    In the entire history of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, there has never been a crisis over the proper understanding of synergy, whereby we understand that man and God work together (which is the meaning of synergia, in Greek) to accomplish one’s salvation. First, of course, Christ makes salvation possible for every single human being – not just the elect – through His salvific crucifixion and resurrection, whereby He conquers sin, death, and the devil. He freely offers this salvation to everyone, but it’s up to each one, through one’s freewill, to freely accept this offer. And yet the very capacity to freely choose to be saved is considered to be a gift from the Lord, given to every human being. Indeed, this freedom of will is part of our being made in the image and likeness of God.

    This, in a nutshell, is the mystery of synergy in the accomplishment of one’s salvation – the mystery which St. Paul summarized in two successive verses in his Epistle to the Philippians, as I mentioned in my essay (Phil. 2:11-12).

    It seems the West has always been afraid that man would become prideful if any role in the accomplishment of one’s salvation is attributed to him. But as I like to say in my classes, can a drowning man take any credit for grabbing onto the rope that’s thrown to him from the ship?

    And as to Luther’s agonizing question, Can I ever do enough to be saved? – the Orthodox would reply, Of course not! But we rely on God’s infinite mercy, knowing of His infinite desire to save us! And at the same time, we try to do what’s good, knowing that “the one who loves Me keeps My commandments” (John 14:15, and 14:21); and we continue to trust that if we want to be saved, He will save us. We’re taught to simply “Do what you can, with God’s help, and leave the rest to Him.” We’re also taught, “Always aspire for moral perfection, to live without sin, since He urges us to be holy and perfect, even as He is holy and perfect. But never despair when you fall short. Instantly call out for the Lord’s mercy, rest in the certainty of His compassion and forgiveness, and keeping trying once again, with His help!”

    Much more could be said on this theme, but I hope this much is helpful!

    You also wondered about my not mentioning in my essay the very important realm of social justice. I addressed this issue in my responses in this Respectful Conversation first to Michael King (representing the Anabaptist tradition), and then to Sarah Lancaster (representing the Wesleyan tradition). So I hope my comments to them will be helpful to you.

    Thanks again for your response to my essay.

    Yours, in Christ,

    David Ford

    • Dr. David Gushee
      Dr. David Gushee says:

      Thank you, David. I just saw this, and apologize for the tardiness. I have always thought the NT taught a pretty clear and obvious synergy between faith and works, and have always wondered why this has been so hard for the church. Now I know to say that it seems to have been much harder for the Western Church. Just one of many helpful insights I have gained from you.


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