How Does Orthodoxy Differ From the Western Denominations?
Orthodox Christianity is an ascetic religion
How Does Orthodoxy Differ From the Western Denominations?
By Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev and Galich
Orthodox Life magazine 1970 (2)
To such a question many educated Russians will answer — in rites. The absurdity of such an answer is so obvious that it does not even deserve attention. However a few, closer to the truth, have a different judgment, which is characteristic of theologically enlightened people. They will tell us about the filioque, about Papal supremacy and other dogmas which are denied by Orthodoxy, and about those dogmas, common to Orthodoxy and Latinism, which the Protestants deny. The result is that Orthodoxy is deprived of the content which constitutes its exclusive possession and which is equally foreign to the European denominations. By the way, the historical development of the latter, one having been generated from another, forces us to think that they are all equally foreign to one or another of the treasures of Christian truth, since it is dubious to assume that one heresy can be generated from another without preserving in itself a certain portion of the first, although it does not return to the true Church.
The Slavophile theologians in the person of Khomiakov were the first to try to distinguish the difference between the true Church and the Western denominations not according to one or another dogmatic element, but from the standpoint of the general superiority of the inner ideal of the true Church over the non-Orthodox churches. In this lies the great service of Khomiakov to theological science, to the Church, and to the enlightened West, which valued it wholeheartedly as did Russian men of letters who were interested in religion. This estimate is most convincingly revealed by the fact that all European theologians who are sympathetic to Orthodoxy speak of it using Khomiakov’s very formulation of the confessional differences. In part the Old Catholics who are attracted to the Orthodox Church and who have carried on an extended official correspondence concerning the rapprochement of their community with us, set forth precisely the views of Khomiakov on the chief questions which, in their opinion, divide us and Old Catholicism. We understand the thought about the filioque as an innovation most of all opposed to church discipline, which commands "guard the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace," and transubstantiation in the Eucharist as a concept foreign to church tradition (which teaches about transformation) and borrowed from Western theologians.
Among all the theological compositions written by Russians, Khomiakov’s little volume is the most popular both among our own educated society and abroad. Therefore we will not pause to repeat his positions. Let us recall that he discerns the difference of the denominations in their teaching about the ninth clause of the Creed — in their teaching about the Church. Revealing the Orthodox teaching about the Truth, completely distorted and almost lost by all the non-Orthodox West, Khomiakov quite clearly shows the moral value of our spiritual ideal and the general superiority of our faith to non-Orthodoxy, which has lost one of the most holy, spiritually elevating truths of Christianity. Understanding by the Church not so much power as a mutual union of souls, completing each other by their mystical communion with Christ Who is not revealed to believers in isolation, but in their mutual love, in their unity (the Ecumenical Council). Khomiakov introduces into all the demands of church discipline and into the very recognition of divine truth (which is guaranteed by the authority of church tradition) a spirit of joy, foreign to slavery, carrying us into the limitless breadth of communion with the whole world of believers, with all eternity.
While recognizing without further comment that the Orthodox teaching on the Church is correctly expounded by Khomiakov, and that he in general sufficiently revealed the superiority of Orthodoxy to the Western denominations, which have lost an understanding of the moral union of the faithful in both their religious life and religious knowledge, and which have reduced the Kingdom of God to the level of either a personal (individual) podvig [a Russian word used to refer to an act of heroic virtue, especially an act of asceticism (trans.)] or an extra-legal governmental organization — recognizing this and acknowledging the theological and missionary service of Khomiakov, we maintain, however, that his definition of Orthodoxy or, what is the same, of true, divinely-revealed Christianity in counter-balance to the European denominations is incomplete. We have long wanted to complete it.
In actual fact the difference between our faith and non-Orthodoxy lies much deeper.
The dogma of the Church is, of course, one of the most important; our communion through the Church ought constantly to recur to the consciousness of the believer. But even apart from this in the definition of the direct relation of each personality to God and to one’s own life a great difference is felt between the non-Orthodox European and the Orthodox Christian. Even trivialities are permeated by this difference. Let us take the guides of the spiritual life. Some of those which we study in school and which constitute the content of our theological, dogmatic, and moral science are borrowed from the Catholics and Protestants; among us only direct errors of non-Orthodoxy which are known to all and condemned by the church authorities are omitted. Other guides of our spiritual life, common to educated people and the common people, both our contemporaries and our ancestors in the faith back to the eleventh century and earlier, consist of the content of the prayers and hymns of the divine services and the ethics of our Holy Fathers.
But here is a remarkable thing! Between these two types of guides there are almost no internal connections. Diplomaed theologians do not know our prologues, our dogmatic hymns (stichera and canons), our Lives of the Saints; and if sometimes they do know them, it is not as religious thinkers, but as simple pilgrims, as lovers of the church singing. Meanwhile this Slavonic literature in thick, clumsy books is the chief and almost the only nourisher and creator of real, living Russian faith, and not only of the common people, but for the educated too. However, theological science cannot even approach it, even if only from psychological interest.
Let us now consider the most perfect Christians and guides of the Christian life among us: Hieroschemamonk Amvrossy, Father John, Bishop Theophan. They are not narrow fanatics; they are grateful graduates of our seminaries and academies, but try to find borrowings and references to our school and scholarly theology in their teachings. You will not find them, aside from accidental slips of the tongue.
Offer them whole mountains of scientific volumes to help in their teaching, and they will treat them with respect and, believe me, will find nothing to borrow. The ordinary Christian who wants to comprehend one or another manifestation of his religious life experiences the same thing. It is obvious that our theological science, formed on western principles, although foreign to western errors, is so far from the real spiritual life of Orthodox Christians, so unrelated to it, that it not only cannot guide the latter, but cannot even approach it.
This could not be if it were only in the teaching about the Church that the difference between Western theology and Orthodoxy were to be found; but this is the result of the fact that the Western religions have changed the very understanding of Christian life, of its aims and its conditions.
When I was rector of the Academy, I gave a certain intelligent student the topic: “Compare the moral teaching of Bishop Theophan with that of Martensen.” Martensen is a venerable Protestant preacher, recognized as a very good moral theologian, and further quite free from confessional errors. Bishop Theophan is an educated Russian theologian, former rector of the St. Petersburg Academy. And what was the result? It turned out that Christian morality under the pens of these two authors appeared in completely different, often diametrically opposed, aspects. The sum of the differences was formulated in this way.
Bishop Theophan teaches how to arrange life according to the demands of Christian perfection, but the Western bishop (sit venia verbo) takes from Christianity however much is consistent with the conditions of contemporary cultured life. That is, the first views Christianity as an eternal foundation of true life and demands that each break himself and his life until such time as it agrees with that norm, but the second looks on the bases of contemporary cultured life as on an unshakable fact, and only in areas of its existing private options does he indicate which of them are most approved from the Christian viewpoint. The first demands moral heroism, podvig; the second considers what elements of Christianity would be suited to us in our current way of life. For the first, a man called to life after death in which true life will begin, the historically shaped mechanism of contemporary life is an insignificant illusion, but for the second the teaching about the future life is an elevated, ennobling idea, an idea which helps better and better to arrange our real life here.
In the difference of these two teachers of virtue is indicated the difference between West-European religion and the Orthodox faith. The latter proceeds from an understanding of Christian perfection or sanctity and from this standpoint evaluates the reality at hand, but the West is firmly established on the status quo of life and preserves the minimum of religious practices by which one may be saved, if in fact eternity exists.
“You point out not the false faith, but the lowered religious attitude of the West!” we are told.
“Yes!” we answer, “so far we have been talking about the mood and about the degeneration of Western religious life and thought; now we will indicate also the high principle which has been lost by them.”
Christianity is a podvig of virtue; Christianity is the pearl, for the acquisition of which the wise merchant of the Gospel should sell all his possessions. Historically, by this self-denying decision, by taking up the cross, obviously various podvigs have been understood: at the time of the earthly life of the Savior, entry into the number of the disciples who followed Him; later, confession of faith and martyrdom; then, from the fourth to the twentieth centuries, asceticism and monasticism. In actual fact these various types of podvig were only means toward one idea, one goal — the gradual attainment on earth of spiritual perfection, i.e., freedom from passions (or apatheia) and the possession of all virtues, as all the faithful ask this for themselves in the prayer of St. Ephrem, repeated many times in Great Lent and accompanied with multitudinous prostrations. “This is the will of God: your sanctification,” says the Apostle, and it is possible to attain it only by making it the chief and only aim of life, if one lives in order to attain holiness. In this, true Christianity is contained; this is the essence of Orthodoxy in opposition to the non-Orthodoxy of the West. The Eastern heresies in this respect, and consequently in their nature, are much closer to Orthodoxy than the Western (we have in mind the strongest Eastern heresy of the Monophysites, to which the Armenians are closely joined.) The spiritual perfection of the individual remains among them also the aim of Christian life, and the difference arises only in the teaching about the conditions for the attainment of that aim.
But do the Western Christians really say that it is not necessary to strive for moral perfection? Do they really begin to deny that Christianity commands us to be perfect?
They will not admit this, but it is not in this that they see the essence of Christianity, while in the understanding of perfection and in the means to attain it they disagree with us on every word; they will not even understand us in anything and will not agree that precisely the moral perfection of the individual is the aim of Christian life — and not merely knowledge of God (as the Protestants suppose) or the correct organization of the Church (Papists), for which, in their opinion, God Himself gives a man moral perfection as a reward.
Moral perfection is attained by the way of independent, intricate work on oneself, by inner warfare, deprivations, and especially by self-humiliation. The Orthodox Christian who sincerely and heartily fulfills the spiritual discipline has by that very act already completed a significant part of that podvig, because our discipline is all so formed that it serves for the gradual mortification of the passions and the acquisition of blessed perfection. To this end help is given by the content of our prayers in divine service, of podvigs of preparation for the Sacrament, of the fasts, and by that almost monastic order of Orthodox life which is indicated by our canons and which our ancestors before Peter followed strictly and which even now is maintained by people living by the principles of our culture.
In short, the Orthodox faith is an ascetic faith; Orthodox theological thought — that which does not remain a dead property of the school, but influences life and spreads among the people – is a following of the ways of spiritual perfection. From this very point of view in our stichera and canons are viewed both dogmatic definitions and the events of sacred history, as well as the commandments and the expectation of the Last Judgment.
Of course all this is not foreign to the Western denominations, but there salvation is understood as an external recompense for a certain quantity of good deeds (also external), or for an undoubting faith in the Divinity of Jesus Christ (Protestantism). There they do not consider and do not know how to consider how a soul should gradually free itself from obedience to passions, how we go from strength to strength to passionlessness and the fullness of virtues. There are ascetics there too, but their life is permeated by gloomy, unconscious fulfillment of long-established disciplinary requirements, for which they are promised forgiveness of sins and future eternal life. But that that eternal life has already appeared, as the Apostle John says, and that blessed communion with God is obtained by unflinching asceticism here, as St. Macarius the Great says, all this the West does not understand.
This lack of understanding is becoming more and more crude and hopeless. Contemporary Western theologians have lost the thought that the aim of Christianity, the aim of Christ’s corning to earth, is namely the moral perfection of the individual. They have as it were gone mad with the fiction that Christ the Savior came to earth in order to bring happiness to some kind of humanity in some future ages, although He said with all clarity that His followers must bear a cross of suffering, and that their persecution by the world, by their own brothers, children, and even parents, would be constant, and toward the end of the age would increase with especial strength. That Golden Age which the worshipers of the “superstition of Progress” (as S. A. Rachinsky so well expressed it) await on earth is promised by the Savior in the future life, but neither the Latins nor the Protestants want to accept this for the simple reason that (speaking openly) they believe feebly in the resurrection and believe strongly in the happiness of the present life, which, on the contrary, the apostles call a vanishing vapor [Jas 4:14]. This is why the pseudo-Christian West does not want to and cannot understand the negation of this life by Christianity, which commands us to struggle, “having put off the old man with his deeds and having put on the new, which is renewed after the image of Him that created him” [Col. 3:9-10].
“Christianity is love for one’s neighbors, and love is compassion in sorrows,” the contemporary Christians, especially women, will observe, “asceticism is thought up by monks.”
I will not argue on the first point as Leontiev argued; I will even say this: if love were possible without spiritual asceticism – without inner warfare, and without external, then the latter and the former would not be necessary. But love dried up among men namely when they began to speak with the mouth of Luther. The word was fulfilled: “And for the multiplication of lawlessness the love of many will dry up.” Where there is no podvig, where there is no battle, there passions and lawlessness ascend the throne, and where sin reigns, there love dries up and men begin to hate each other [Matt 24:10]. I turn to the second point. It is true that love is expressed most of all in compassion, but not so much for the external misfortunes of our neighbors as for their sinfulness, and such compassion is permitted only for one who is weeping for his own sins, i.e., for a man practicing asceticism.
“Asceticism is thought up by monks”… One Moscow lady expressed it still more definitely: “The priests thought up your whole religion; I recognize only the Iveron Mother of God and the martyr Triphon (I’Iverskaya et Triphon le martyr), and all the rest is nonsense.” But these phrases show most of all that sour educated people do not understand the word asceticism.
The whole organization of our life is not in general predetermined by this concept and of itself it does not include in itself either virginity, or fasts, or a hermit’s life. Asceticism, or spiritual heroism, is called a life filled with work on oneself; the kind of life whose aim is the destruction of its passions: fornication, self-love, spite, envy, gluttony, laziness, etc. and the filling of the soul with the spirit of wisdom, humility, passionlessness, and love, which is never an isolated virtue but only a companion and completion of the enumerated qualities of the soul.
Of course a Christian who wants to follow his own way will himself see that he has to remove himself from worldly distractions, humble the flesh, and pray a little more to God — but these deeds have no final value in the eyes of God, and acquire value for us only as a condition for attaining the gifts of the spirit. A much greater value have the spiritual podvigs occurring in the consciousness of the man: self-reproach, self-abasement, self-resistance, self-constraint, remaining within oneself, vision of the life after death, constancy in feelings, warfare with thoughts, repentance and confession, anger against sin and temptation, etc.; exercises all which are so little known to contemporary educated people and so understood and well-known to every peasant with a superficial knowledge of religion, present or past. Here is that spiritual alphabet about which Bishop Tikhon* speaks, and in this is found the most essential content of true Christianity as a podvig of life, a content forgotten by the Western denominations, but constituting the center of Orthodox dogmatic literature which interprets the whole Divine revelation, all the events and sayings of the Bible chiefly in application to these stages of the process of spiritual perfection. Having been incarnate, humiliated, and afflicted for our sins, the Savior brought us in His person and in communion with Him the possibility of this very spiritual activity, and in it is embraced our salvation. But some perform it [Phil 2:12] voluntarily and consciously, living a spiritual life; others pass through the latter almost against their will, being reformed by sufferings sent from God and fulfilling the church discipline; still others only before death cleanse their distraction by repentance and receive enlightenment in the next life, but the essence of the Christian podvig is contained in asceticism, in work on one’s soul; in this also is contained the essence of Christian theology.
*"There are two kinds of learned wise men: some study in schools from books, and a great many of them are less intelligent than the simple and unlettered, since they do not know the Christian alphabet; they sharpen the mind, they correct and adorn words, but they do not wish to reform their hearts. Others study in prayer with humility and diligence and are enlightened by the Holy Spirit and are wiser than the philosophers of this age; they are devout and holy and beloved of God; although these do not know the alphabet, they well comprehend everything; they speak simply, crudely, but they live beautifully and auspiciously. These, O Christian, emulate" [III, 193].
If we were to follow up all the errors of the West, both those which entered into its teaching of the faith as well as those inherent in its morals, which were transmitted to us through “the window of Europe,” we would see that they all are rooted in a misunderstanding of Christianity as the podvig of the gradual self-perfecting of the individual.
Of this sort is the Latino-Protestant teaching about redemption as the revenge on Jesus Christ of the Divine Majesty offended by Adam, a teaching which grew out of the feudal understanding of knightly honor, which is restored by the shedding of the blood of the offender; of this sort is the material teaching about the sacraments; of this sort is their teaching about a new organ of Divine Revelation in the form of the Roman Pope, whatever his life might be like; the teaching of works of obligation and of supererogation. Of this same sort, finally, is the teaching of the Protestants about saving faith, with a denial of all church organization.
In these errors there is clear a view of Christianity as something foreign to our consciousness and conscience, something conditional, as of a concordat with the Divinity, demanding for unknown reasons the recognition from us of certain understood formulae and granting us for this eternal salvation. To protect themselves from the naturally arising objections, the Western theologians strengthened their teaching about the total as-it-were incomprehensibility not only of the Nature of God, but also of the divine law, and they demanded in the person of the scholastics, in the person of Luther, and even in the person of the modern Ritschel, that we recognize reason as the enemy of faith and fight with it, while the Fathers of the Church, in the person of St. Basil the Great and even St. Isaac the Syrian consider the enemy of faith to be not reason, but human stupidity, distraction, inattention, and stubbornness. If we move from the false religious faith to the moral convictions of the Westerners, we will find in some of them simply perversions of the Christian commandments, and these perversions have so eaten into the foundation of Western social and personal life that no cultural perturbations, which have toppled Christian altars and destroyed royal thrones, have been able to topple these wild and immoral prejudices.
Thus the Lord commands forgiveness for everything; but Western morality, revenge and bloodshed; the Lord commands one to humble oneself and consider oneself the chief of sinners, but the West puts above all else “the feeling of personal worth;” the Lord commands us to rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted and driven out, the West demands the “restoration of honor"; the Lord and the Apostles call pride “demonic,” the Westerners, nobility. The lowest Russian beggar, sometimes even a half-believing foreigner who secretly worships evil spirits, distinguishes good and evil better than the similar moralists of the thousand-year old Western culture which has so sadly mixed up fragments of Christianity with the lie of classicism.
And at the root of all the errors lies ignorance of the simple truth that Christianity is an ascetic religion, that Christianity is a teaching about the gradual extirpation of the passions, about the means and conditions of the gradual acquisition of virtues; these conditions are internal, consisting of podvigs, and given from without, consisting of our dogmatic beliefs and grace-giving sacraments which have only one purpose: to heal human sin fullness and lead us to perfection.
reprinted in Living Orthodoxy Vol. X #1
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