The Difference Between Orthodox Spirituality and Other Traditions
by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
Orthodox spirituality differs distinctly
from any other "spirituality" of an eastern or western type. There can be no
confusion among the various spiritualities, because Orthodox spirituality is
God-centered, whereas all others are man-centered.
The difference appears primarily
in the doctrinal teaching. For this reason we put "Orthodox" before the word
"Church" so as to distinguish it from any other religion. Certainly "Orthodox"
must be linked with the term "Ecclesiastic," since Orthodoxy cannot exist outside
of the Church; neither, of course, can the Church exist outside Orthodoxy.
The dogmas are the results of decisions
made at the Ecumenical Councils on various matters of faith. Dogmas are referred
to as such, because they draw the boundaries between truth and error, between
sickness and health. Dogmas express the revealed truth. They formulate the life
of the Church. Thus they are, on the one hand, the expression of Revelation
and on the other act as "remedies" in order to lead us to communion with God;
to our reason for being.
Dogmatic differences reflect corresponding
differences in therapy. If a person does not follow the "right way" he cannot
ever reach his destination. If he does not take the proper "remedies," he cannot
ever acquire health; in other words, he will experience no therapeutic benefits.
Again, if we compare Orthodox spirituality with other Christian traditions,
the difference in approach and method of therapy is more evident.
A fundamental teaching of the Holy
Fathers is that the Church is a "Hospital" which cures the wounded man. In many
passages of Holy Scripture such language is used. One such passage is that of
the parable of the Good Samaritan: "But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed,
came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion . So he went to him
and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own
animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when
he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said
to him, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I
will repay you" (Luke 10:33-35).
In this parable, the Samaritan represents
Christ who cured the wounded man and led him to the Inn, that is to the "Hospital"
which is the Church. It is evident here that Christ is presented as the Healer,
the physician who cures man's maladies; and the Church as the true Hospital.
It is very characteristic that Saint John Chrysostom, analysing this parable,
presents these truths emphasised above.
Man's life "in Paradise" was reduced
to a life governed by the devil and his wiles. "And fell among thieves," that
is in the hands of the devil and of all the hostile powers. The wounds man suffered
are the various sins, as the prophet David says: "my wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness" (Psalm 37). For "every sin causes a bruise and a
wound." The Samaritan is Christ Himself who descended to earth from Heaven in
order to cure the wounded man. He used oil and wine to "treat" the wounds; in
other words, by "mingling His blood with the Holy Spirit, he brought man to
life." According to another interpretation, oil corresponds to the comforting
word and wine to the harsh word. Mingled together they have the power to unify
the scattered mind. "He set him in His own beast," that is He assumed human
flesh on "the shoulders" of His divinity and ascended incarnate to His Father
Then the Good Samaritan, i.e. Christ,
took man to the grand, wondrous and spacious inn - to the Church. And He handed
man over to the innkeeper, who is the Apostle Paul, and through the Apostle
Paul to all bishops and priests, saying: "Take care of the Gentile people, whom
I have handed over to you in the Church. They suffer illness wounded by sin,
so cure them, using as remedies the words of the Prophets and the teaching of
the Gospel; make them healthy through the admonitions and comforting word of
the Old and New Testaments." Thus, according to Saint Chrysostom, Paul is he
who maintains the Churches of God, "curing all people by his spiritual admonitions
and offering to each one of them what they really need."
In the interpretation of this parable
by Saint John Chrysostom, it is clearly shown that the Church is a Hospital
which cures people wounded by sin; and the bishops and priests are the therapists
of the people of God.
And this precisely is the work of
Orthodox theology. When referring to Orthodox theology, we do not simply mean
a history of theology. The latter is, of course, a part of this but not absolutely
or exclusively. In Patristic tradition, theologians are the God-seers.
Saint Gregory Palamas calls Barlaam [who attempted to bring Western scholastic
theology into the Orthodox Church] a "theologian," but he clearly emphasises
that intellectual theology differs greatly from the experience of the vision
of God. According to Saint Gregory Palamas theologians are the God-seers; those
who have followed the "method" of the Church and have attained to perfect faith,
to the illumination of the nous and to divinisation (theosis).
Theology is the fruit of man's cure and the path which leads to cure and the
acquisition of the knowledge of God.
Western theology, however, has differentiated
itself from Eastern Orthodox theology. Instead of being therapeutic, it is more
intellectual and emotional in character. In the West [after the Carolingian
"Renaissance"], scholastic theology evolved, which is antithetical to the Orthodox
Tradition. Western theology is based on rational thought whereas Orthodoxy is
hesychastic. Scholastic theology tried to understand logically the Revelation
of God and conform to philosophical methodology. Characteristic of such an approach
is the saying of Anselm [Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093-1109, one of the
first after the Norman Conquest and destruction of the Old English Orthodox
Church]: "I believe so as to understand." The Scholastics acknowledged God at
the outset and then endeavoured to prove His existence by logical arguments
and rational categories. In the Orthodox Church, as expressed by the Holy Fathers,
faith is God revealing Himself to man. We accept faith by hearing it not so
that we can understand it rationally, but so that we can cleanse our hearts,
attain to faith by theoria* and experience the Revelation of God.
Scholastic theology reached its
culminating point in the person of Thomas Aquinas, a saint in the Roman Catholic
Church. He claimed that Christian truths are divided into natural and supernatural.
Natural truths can be proven philosophically, like the truth of the Existence
of God. Supernatural truths - such as the Triune God, the incarnation of the
Logos, the resurrection of the bodies - cannot be proven philosophically, yet
they cannot be disproven. Scholasticism linked theology very closely with philosophy,
even more so with metaphysics. As a result, faith was altered and scholastic
theology itself fell into complete disrepute when the "idol" of the West - metaphysics
- collapsed. Scholasticism is held accountable for much of the tragic situation
created in the West with respect to faith and faith issues.
The Holy Fathers teach that natural
and metaphysical categories do not exist but speak rather of the created and
uncreated. Never did the Holy Fathers accept Aristotle's metaphysics. However,
it is not my intent to expound further on this. Theologians of the West during
the Middle Ages considered scholastic theology to be a further development of
the teaching of the Holy Fathers, and from this point on, there begins the teaching
of the Franks that scholastic theology is superior to that of the Holy Fathers.
Consequently, Scholastics, who are occupied with reason, consider themselves
superior to the Holy Fathers of the Church. They also believe that human knowledge,
an offspring of reason, is loftier than Revelation and experience.
It is within this context that the
conflict between Saint Gregory Palamas and Barlaam should be viewed. Barlaam
was essentially a scholastic theologian who attempted to pass on scholastic
theology to the Orthodox East.
Barlaam's views - that we cannot
really know Who the Holy Spirit is exactly (an outgrowth of which is agnosticism),
that the ancient Greek philosophers are superior to the Prophets and the Apostles
(since reason is above the vision of the Apostles), that the light of the Transfiguration
is something which is created and can be undone, that the hesychastic way of
life (i.e. the purification of the heart and the unceasing noetic prayer) is
not essential - are views which express a scholastic and, subsequently, a secularised
point of view of theology. Saint Gregory Palamas foresaw the danger that these
views held for Orthodoxy and through the power and energy of the Most Holy Spirit
and the experience which he himself had acquired as a successor to the Holy
Fathers, he confronted this great danger and preserved unadulterated the Orthodox
Faith and Tradition.
Having given a framework to the
topic at hand, if Orthodox spirituality is examined in relationship to Roman
Catholicism and Protestantism, the differences are immediately discovered.
Protestants do not have a "therapeutic
treatment" tradition. They suppose that believing in God, intellectually, constitutes
salvation. Yet salvation is not a matter of intellectual acceptance of truth;
rather it is a person's transformation and divinisation by grace. This transformation
is effected by the analogous "treatment" of one's personality, as shall be seen
in the following chapters. In the Holy Scripture it appears that faith comes
by hearing the Word and by experiencing "theoria" (the vision of God). We accept
faith at first by hearing in order to be healed, and then we attain to faith
by theoria, which saves man. Protestants, because they believe that the acceptance
of the truths of faith, the theoretical acceptance of God's Revelation, i.e.
faith by hearing saves man, do not have a "therapeutic tradition." It could
be said that such a conception of salvation is very naive.
The Roman Catholics as well do not
have the perfection of the therapeutic tradition which the Orthodox Church has.
Their doctrine of the Filioque is a manifestation of the weakness in their theology
to grasp the relationship existing between the person and society. They confuse
the personal properties: the "unbegotten" of the Father, the "begotten" of the
Son, and the procession of the Holy Spirit. The Father is the cause of the "generation"
of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit.
The Latins' weakness to comprehend
and failure to express the dogma of the Trinity shows the non-existence of empirical
theology. The three disciples of Christ (Peter, James and John) beheld the glory
of Christ on Mount Tabor; they heard at once the voice of the Father, "This
is My beloved Son," and saw the coming of the Holy Spirit in a cloud, for, the
cloud is the presence of the Holy Spirit, as Saint Gregory Palamas says. Thus
the disciples of Christ acquired the knowledge of the Triune God in theoria
(vision of God) and by revelation. It was revealed to them that God is one essence
in three hypostases.
This is what Saint Symeon the New
Theologian teaches. In his poems he proclaims over and over that, while beholding
the uncreated Light, the deified man acquires the Revelation of God the Trinity.
Being in "theoria" (vision of God), the saints do not confuse the hypostatic
attributes. The fact that the Latin tradition came to the point of confusing
these hypostatic attributes and teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from
the Son also, shows the non-existence of empirical theology for them. Latin
tradition speaks also of created grace, a fact which suggests that there is
no experience of the grace of God. For, when man obtains the experience of God,
then he comes to understand well that this grace is uncreated. Without this
experience there can be no genuine "therapeutic tradition."
And indeed we cannot find in all
of Latin tradition, the equivalent to Orthodoxy's therapeutic method. The nous
is not spoken of; neither is it distinguished from reason. The darkened nous
is not treated as a malady, nor the illumination of the nous as therapy. Many
greatly publicised Latin texts are sentimental and exhaust themselves in a barren
ethicology. In the Orthodox Church, on the contrary, there is a great tradition
concerning these issues, which shows that within it there exists the true therapeutic
A faith is a true faith inasmuch
as it has therapeutic benefits. If it is able to cure, then it is a true faith.
If it does not cure, it is not a true faith. The same thing can be said about
medicine: a true scientist is the doctor who knows how to cure and his method
has therapeutic benefits, whereas a charlatan is unable to cure. The same holds
true where matters of the soul are concerned. The difference between Orthodoxy
and the Latin tradition, as well as the Protestant confessions, is apparent
primarily in the method of therapy. This difference is made manifest in the
doctrines of each denomination. Dogmas are not philosophy, neither is theology
the same as philoosphy.
Since Orthodox spirituality differs
distinctly from the "spiritualities" of other confessions, so much the more
does it differ from the "spirituality" of eastern religions, which do not believe
in the Theanthropic nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit. They are influenced
by the philosophical dialectic, which has been surpassed by the Revelation of
God. These traditions are unaware of the notion of personhood and thus the hypostatic
principle. And love, as a fundamental teaching, is totally absent. One may find,
of course, in these eastern religions an effort on the part of their followers
to divest themselves of images and rational thoughts, but this is in fact a
movement towards nothingness, to non-existence. There is no path leading their
"disciples" to theosis-divinisation (see the note below) of the whole
This is why a vast and chaotic gap
exists between Orthodox spirituality and the eastern religions, in spite of
certain external similarities in terminology. For example, eastern religions
may employ terms like ecstasy, dispassion, illumination, noetic energy, etc.
but they are impregnated with a content different from corresponding terms in
* Theoria is the vision of the glory of God. Theoria is identified with the vision of
the uncreated Light, the uncreated energy of God, with the union of man with
God, with man's theosis (see note below). Thus, theoria, vision and theosis
are closely connected. Theoria has various degrees. There is illumination, vision
of God, and constant vision (for hours, days, weeks, even months). Noetic prayer
is the first stage of theoria. Theoretical man is one who is at this stage.
In Patristic theology, the theoretical man is characterised as the shepherd
of the sheep.
Theosis-Divinisation is the participation in the Uncreated grace of God. Theosis is identified and connected
with the theoria (vision) of the Uncreated Light (see note above). It is called
theosis in grace because it is attained through the energy, of the divine grace.
It is a co-operation of God with man, since God is He Who operates and man is
he who co-operates.
From Chapter 2 of Orthodox
Spirituality: A brief introduction, published in 1994 by Birth of the
Theotokos Monastery, Levadia, Greece. See also "Way
Apart: What is the Difference Between Orthodoxy and Western Confessions?",
by Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev and Galic.