In this article, we in simple terms continue reconciling Calvinist thought with the most anti-Calvinist document written by the Orthodox Church. It is my aim to show that what really separates us is not that all profound and that Calvinists have everything to gain by appreciating the traditional teachings of Christianity as formulated in Orthodoxy.
Decree 11. This Decree also speaks against the doctrine of the “invisible Church,” without explicitly saying so. It invokes the idea of the Church having both wheat and tares. In support of this, it refers to obliquely 1 Cor 6, that the Church judges those who are explicitly within the Church and casts them out–something not possible philosophically if the invisible Church was Scriptural.
Nevertheless, being that Calvin did believe in a visible, sacralist institution constituting the Church, I honestly do not see this as a point of contention between Reformed and Orthodox. In reality, the Reformed and Orthodox are speaking past each other.
The Reformed define the “Church” as the sum total of all of those predestined to salvation. If this is one’s working definition, being that not everyone is predestined, then obviously not everyone in church is in the Church. The Orthodox simply do not define Church this way, while affirming there are those who are in a local church that are in fact predestined. They simply do not capitalize the “C’ in church to make this distinction.
Decree 12. At first glance, the Reformed balk at the following: “it is impossible for the Catholic Church to err, or at all be deceived, or ever to choose falsehood instead of truth.” But, in reality, they agree. Did the “men of God” who penned the London Baptist Confession (or whatever Confession the Calvinist affirms) err? Is the Bible on our shelves containing the wrong books? Is the Nicene Creed wrong? No Reformed thinker would arrive at any of these conclusions.
Then, are they no different than the Orthodox when they say the Church has not erred in these things? Of course. This is so exceedingly obvious that it is laughable that more do not make the connection.
The difference is this–who’s view of these important Christian doctrines infallible? Orthodoxy has no Pope, so they can only point to a historically delineated consensus of Christian thought over centuries. The Roman Catholics cherry pick a little bit (Saint Stephen of Rome’s opinion counts a little more than Saint Cyprian’s), but the Calvinists (to be honest) are all over the place!
Is Westminster, Dort, or London right? Which church fathers do they agree with and which don’t they? Which doctrines of those same fathers do they accept and which do they reject. A cherry-picked tradition does not serve as a very consistent grounding for extra-biblical religious dogmas (such as the Calvinist dogma there are 66 books of the Bible), but let’s be honest, that’s what Calvinists have.
I do not say this to Calvinist bash, but rather the opposite. We Orthodox have a similar tradition to the Calvinists in that we vest the Church with authority. The difference is we are more consistent in our application of what constitutes the mind of the Church (though, at any given time, not perfect on all points.)
Decree 13. At first glance, it would appear I would have to do heavy duty mental gymnastics do reconcile the Calvinist mantra of “Faith Alone” with the Decree: “We believe a man to be not simply justified through faith alone, but through faith which works through love, that is to say, through faith and works.” However, even on this point, I honestly think we on the most part agree. As I summarize the soteriology of Orthodoxy elsewhere:
Man does not accumulate merits in order to attain salvation as a gratuitous, yet obligatory gift from God. Rather, Orthodoxy focuses on what salvation is: Theosis.
Orthodoxy teaches that works are “fruits in themselves” of salvation and not merely “witnesses” of salvation. Good works are our salvation, they are the new creation (2 Cor 5:17) that God is making us into (Eph 2:10)–this is why “faith…justifies through works.”
Because salvation is Theosis, we will have an eternity of bearing “fruits,” becoming evermore Christlike so that we actually are one with Christ. We are meriting salvation by virtue of experiencing it, becoming God by participating in His divine energy (Gal 2:20). So, merit is not something we give to God in exchange for the grace of salvation, but it is within the Orthodox context an experience of God’s goodness–a literal participating in His divine energy.
In even less words, Orthodox agree with Calvinists that works do not merit salvation. We mutually uphold that salvation is entirely by grace, through faith, and experienced in works. Both of us affirm that works play a role in the judgement.
Our key difference is that Calvinists add a distinction between justification and sanctification (i.e. the “sanctification process”), a distinction that Orthodox find Biblically unfounded and unnecessary. So, while Orthodox find grace to be transformational, Calvinist agree up to a point, but they do not believe the transformation is part of how we are saved. The Calvinist view of salvation is highly transactional (Christ pays the penalty for sins and gratuitously gives you His merits, saving you without actually changing you.) Yet, if we understand that our transformation is salvation, then the distinction between justification and sanctification that Calvinists take for granted becomes questionable.
So, let me sum this all up in even less words…Yes! We agree, salvation is not earned, it is through faith! Works do not earn us salvation, but they help us enjoy salvation! We agree that there are those who repent and have no other work and are saved! However, most of us are saved by a means other than “death-bed repentance” and we are theologically more concerned about how man is normatively saved.
For those who find my writing on the topic of justification to be a private interpretation, here is a link to a popular Orthodox website (Russian-Faith.com) explaining the same thing. If you don’t trust either of us, then trust a list of popular Orthodox writers reiterating my points here.
Decree 14. This Decree takes a swipe at “Total Depravity” when it states: “We believe man in falling by the [original] transgression to have become comparable and similar to the beasts; that is, to have been utterly undone, and to have fallen from his perfection and impassibility, yet not to have lost the nature and power which he had received from the supremely good God.” The Calvinist may affirm the first half of the sentence, but cannot understand how it works with the second half.
As we covered in our first part, this is due to our different Biblical anthropologies. The Decree states the Orthodox position simply: “For otherwise [if man lost free will] he would not be rational, and consequently not a human.”
In reality, the Calvinist anthropology is that man has free will, but man can only make bad, impious decisions. The Orthodox do not view this as true free will.
The Orthodox anthropology would likewise affirm that man has free will, but would also assert that he can make good, pious decisions as this is natural to man–but he will make bad ones due to the fall spiritually blinding him.
Honestly, these positions are not even functionally different for all practical purposes. The only reason we debate them is because the Calvinist definition of what “man” is would make it seem that “man” is not even “man” anymore (i.e. the image of God is completely lost if Total Depravity is true, because goodness is natural to an image-bearer of God). Nevertheless, Orthodox sound a lot like Calvinists in their prayerlife, one popular evening prayer stating that during the day we were “behaving worst than beasts in sins voluntary and involuntary.”
In short, our differences are philosophical and not a real point of difference. The reason the Orthodox view is better is because it helps us better understand the incarnation and how we are saved. The Calvinist view of humanity ultimately obscures these things and makes actual sanctification (ascesis and such) alien. The practical ramifications for this specifically are enormous, as the loss of ascesis in Reformed Christianity ultimately robs people their salvation. (If you are confused by this, re-read Decree 13 above!)