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Ordained Servant Online


Robert Letham

In his review of my book, Union with Christ, in the October edition, John Fesko, among a number of points, raises one issue that is particularly germane to the theme of the book.

He indicates that I spend twenty-four pages seeking to establish the compatibility of union with Christ with “the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of deification or theosis.” This is partly the case. The most common view of theosis in the East stems from Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), deriving from earlier formulations of Maximus the Confessor (580–662). My focus is on the Alexandrians, Athanasius (295–373) and Cyril (378–444), who had a distinctively different approach—largely sidelined—treating the process as transformation by the Spirit, liberation from sin and death, adoption as sons, renewal by participating in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), and entry into the eternal kingdom in the likeness of Christ. Recent scholarly discussion has centered on how far Calvin appropriated this tradition, bearing in mind that both Augustine and Aquinas resonated with it. In that context, Fesko, in legitimately distinguishing the Reformed from the East, cites one Eastern secondary source to the effect that the East has no doctrine of justification and then goes on to say that “what a tradition affirms ... is equally important as what it denies.” This, he argues, sets the two positions at loggerheads.

It is true that the East has neglected the forensic dimension of salvation, seen particularly in its defective view of sin. Notwithstanding, in Fesko’s citation, John Meyendorff writes, “Byzantine theology did not produce any significant elaboration of the Pauline doctrine of justification” (my italics). This lack is explicable on a number of grounds. Insofar as the East has doctrinal foundations, they are the seven ecumenical Councils, not lengthy confessions as in the West; it is not centered on logic but on a living dynamic relation to God focused especially in the liturgy. Due to historical isolation, and the depredations of Islam, the justification controversies of the Reformation passed the East by. Hence, as Meyendorff states, there was no significant elaboration of the Pauline doctrine in the East. “No significant elaboration” is not the same as denial. There are many statements in the Philokalia that are not only compatible with justification by faith but positively demand it. Aspects of the piety of the Heyschasts come to mind too. Elsewhere I have cited Chrysostom, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Mark the Ascetic, and Nicholas Cabasilas as prime examples. Thomas Oden has produced a range of support from others. As Theodore Stylianopoulos indicates:

The “justification theology” focusing on the issue of faith and works is no less traditional simply because a Protestant declares it “biblical.” Nor is the “theosis theology” focusing on union with Christ in the Spirit unbiblical simply because an Orthodox declares it “traditional.” An exegetical approach may well find that both the “participatory” and “forensic” views of salvation are part of the larger biblical witness, and that deeper appreciation of both may be achieved precisely by seeing them in positive comparative light.[1]


[1] T. G. Stylianopoulos. The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective: Volume One: Scripture, Tradition, Hermeneutics (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1997), 209–10.

Robert Letham, a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, teaches Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, Bridgend, Wales. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2012.

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