In many ways, whenever one tries to focus on the topic of “Calvinism, ” it is like trying to hit a moving target. Are we trying to speak of the writings of John Calvin himself, who believed in the magisterial authority of the Church and believed in the Real Presence of Christ? Is it George Whitefield or Jonathan Edward’s flavor of Calvinism? R.C. Sproul? John Piper? When speaking of this issue, it is impossible to focus on a single type of “Calvinism,” but I believe it to be sufficient that we focus on the popular Reformed tropes of the 21st century when speaking of the issue.
The Council of Dositheus was a calculated response among Orthodox to respond to Saint Cyril Lukaris’ Calvinistic confession. I do not aim to give a serious interpretation of either Lukaris’ thought or even the confession itself. Rather, I seek to reconcile their thoughts in simple terms so as to make Orthodox doctrine more palatable and understandable to the Reformed. One can read the Confession here.
Please forgive my ignorance of Calvinism and Orthodoxy. I cannot cover every aspect of doctrine, because I do not understand them. Nevertheless, I hope my humble musings are at all helpful.
Decree 1. We have no disagreement here, let’s move on.
Decree 2. Calvinists take issue with, “Wherefore, the witness also of the Catholic Church is, we believe, not of inferior authority to that of the Divine Scriptures.” It is obvious the decree is referring to the thoughts of Saint Vincent de Lerins in the Commotorium.
That being said, Saint Vincent de Lerins upheld the material sufficiency of Scripture, as did other fathers. As I referred to before, Calvin himself upheld that the Scriptures are not to be privately interpreted (2 Pet 1:20). Therefore, the Decree is merely saying that when the Church has spoken whether in her hymnography, prayerlife, or Ecumenical Councils–these cannot be contradicted with private interpretations of Scripture. The life of the Church, which has given us the Canon of the Scriptures themselves, is likewise infallible.
Not every point of Christian doctrine is constantly up for dispute and re-interpretation. God has always preserved the Christian religion. So, while the Scriptures themselves contain all points of Christian doctrine, the Scriptures were made by God’s people, were always heard in the local parish among God’s people, and cannot be separated from them. The Church cannot be inferior to the Scriptures, because this would create a logical contradiction, as God gave the Scriptures through the Church (His people).
Decree 3. There is much more going on here, so forgive me for my brevity. “He foreknew the one would make a right use of their free-will, and the other a wrong, He predestinated the one, or condemned the other.” This is the conclusion of both Augustine and Chrysostom. Any other conclusion is predestinarianism, and as admitted by the likes of R.C. Sproul, heresy.
Calvinists misunderstand Orthodoxy’s Biblical anthropology, as their Old Testaments are from the Hebrew and not the Greek in which the Orthodox base their anthropology upon. Orthodoxy affirms that man is spirit, soul, and body. A man’s spirit (pneuma) is divine and eternal, his soul (psyche or nous) is immaterial but creaturely, and his body is material and is designed to work with the soul. To make things more complicated, there is overlap between the soul and spirit and likewise soul and body. Hence, the doctrine of the hypostatic union takes for granted these categories of thought. It also helps us make differentiations between us and the animals (who have bodies and souls, but no spirits).
So, when the decree states, “[Grace] is of use only to the willing, not to the unwilling — and co-operate with it, in what it requires as necessary to salvation, there is consequently granted particular grace. This grace co-operates with us, and enables us, and makes us to persevere in the love of God,” Calvinists see this as “works + faith” salvation. The dreaded “synergism” they despise so much.
However, let’s understand the above statement given Orthodox anthropology. When the Logos became flesh, He took on a body and a soul. By doing this, He divinized the human being–something miraculous that allows all other human beings to become God (something John Piper affirms).
Being that man is made in the image of God, we must be aware that we are not talking about his body and soul–these things the animals have. Rather, we are talking of his spirit. And, just as God has in Himself freedom to will and act, so does man in his spirit–otherwise, man would not be an authentic image bearer of God.
This is why Jesus Christ said the “spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41) and Saint Paul can write that, “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:23). The preceding passages are anthropological statements about how the divine part of man delights in the things of God, but is in conflict with the parts of man (soul/body) that are affected by the fall.
Hence, when the Orthodox speak of “cooperation,” we are not talking about earning salvation (i.e. man has to bring something to the table.) Rather, we are talking about an authentic sanctification of man in which man’s spirit is delivered from the body of death thanks to Jesus Christ (Rom 7:24-25). Man, by the grace of God, desires the things of God in his soul, by willing Godliness–something that is natural to the spirit and made possible when one’s mind is restored by grace through faith.
When man turns his attentions to things base, then he quenches the Spirit and his spirit is oriented to the temporal–the things that will not last and be destroyed in everlasting fire. Christ came and not only forgave us our sins, but made our salvation actually possible. Salvation is eternity with God, the redemption of our spirit/soul/body.
The Decree also comments, “For thus Scripture would be opposed to itself, since it promises the believer salvation through works…He takes not away the power to will — to will to obey, or not obey him.” In short, works do not earn salvation, nor they are evidence of salvation–they are our salvation. God rewards us according to our works (2 Cor 5:10) with Himself–with Theosis.
In short, Orthodoxy affirms a Biblical anthropology. Salvation does not violate our authentic human nature, because all men really bear the image of God, though we are affected by the fall.
For all practical purposes, the prayer life of the Orthodox Church affirms all the traits of the fall in humanity that Calvinism calls “total depravity.” Our prayers state that we “have done nothing good” (St. Marcarius the Great) and Saint Chrysostom prays that he has sinned “in all my senses.” Another prayer states, “May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for thou wilt find no deeds to justify me.”
The difference is this: Calvinism views salvation as a theoretical transaction of righteousness that “saves” the man, but no actual change in the man is actually necessary–sanctification is completely independent from what is actually needed to be saved. Orthodoxy is different. Orthodoxy affirms that salvation is both the forgiveness of sins (i.e. being thrown a life preserver) and also being pulled out of the water (an actual change in one’s ontological status). The spirit/soul/body is both changed and redeemed as a complete package.
As an example, the tax collector went home justified instead of the Pharisee according to the Calvinist because his faith was imputed to him as righteousness on a purely theoretical level. In Orthodoxy, the tax collector went home justified both because of his faith, but also due to the sanctity of his humility that fuel his repentance. Saint Cyprian can speak of the tax collector being both justified and sanctified. Calvin, due to his difference of opinion in this matter, did not.
In closing, I make note of the practical similarities between Orthodoxy and Calvinism, because ultimately both correctly reject that man saves himself and that man adds anything to God’s grace. Our prayers place zero stock in our abilities and have a right understanding of our fallenness.
However, the difference in terminology between Orthodoxy and Calvinism on this point is our Biblical anthropologies. Orthodoxy must affirm synergy, because to not do so would force us to have an unbibilical view of what mankind even is, require a misunderstanding of the incarnation where the Logos became flesh, and render many of the Scriptures (Matt 26:41, Rom 7:23, and Phil 2:12-13) incomprehensible.
In future installments, we will continue to work through the Confession.