27 February 2006

Defective Fallen Nature?

On this blog, a commenter has stated that the Orthodox have a defective understanding of the fallen nature. As that thought was rolling around in my head, I came across the following from another reader of this blog that I thought would be of interest here.

Chris Jones wrote elsewhere:

The Orthodox Church certainly does not deny the doctrine of original sin. Where they differ from the usual Western, Augustinian formulation of the doctrine is as follows: They do not teach that we share in the guilt of Adam's sin. Instead they teach that sin and death have damaged us in such a way that we cannot do other than sin. But only when we actually sin do we bear the guilt of it. Not bearing the guilt of Adam's sin does not mean, however, that we could somehow attain salvation apart from grace. The fall leaves us in a state of sin because we are separated from God and bereft of grace, and are incapable of repairing that separated condition from our own strength. That remains true despite the fact that we are not personally guilty of Adam's sin. The second point where the Orthodox differ is on the manner in which "original sin" is transmitted. The "fully Augustinian" position is that original sin is transmitted through sexual reproduction, on account of the concupiscence involved in sexual intercourse. The Orthodox do not teach this, but are pretty agnostic as to how original sin is transmitted. They point most often to our mortality itself as that which makes sin inevitable. As the writer to the Hebrews says, fallen humanity may be describes as all those who through the fear of death were all their lifetime in bondage to him that had the power of death - that is, the devil. (Hb. 2:14 & 2:15)


Stan said...

Fr. Fenton,
Just a question of curiosity... in my readings I often fine distinctive difference in how Antioch and Greece, for example, communicate themselves. Granted, they are in the same communion, but my point is simply this... I think you could sell an Antiochian Christian on Chris' words, but you wouldn't find that same acceptance in some of the other patriarchs. Perhaps I am wrong, and if so my apologies... I would appreciate your thoughts. Pax.

- Stan Lemon

fr john w fenton said...


I don't doubt the finding of distinctive differences between patriarchal jurisdictions--even apart from Rome. And I didn't post Chris' words necessary to say, "That's the official Orthodox position." To find such, one needs to immerse himself in their prayers. I simply thought Chris' words revealed a perspective not often heard or assumed--even among the Orthodox.

Secondly, your comment suggests comparing anecdotal evidence with anecdotal evidence--not always the best way to confess or "do theology." Admittedly, that's what I've done, but not for the purpose of "doing theology" but for the purpose of suggesting a possible range. Theology is, after all, the setting of boundaries. For who can, in the end, describe adequately any mystery--even the mystery of how profoundly sin has infected us or drives us to the grave?

Finally, whatever differences one might find between Antioch and Greece or between prayed doctrine and anecdotal theological datum, one will undoubtedly find the same range in Lutheranism, especially on the question of sin. Simply ask how many Lutherans hold to the Calvinistic understanding of the depravity of man--quite against the Formula of Concord. But then, isn't that a matter of catechesis; i.e., the teaching rightly interpreting (or mis-shaping) the prayer?

Stan said...

Fr. Fenton,
Thank you for your comments. I understand what you mean by anecdotal evidence with anecdotal evidence, I guess my struggle is there are clearly different confessions prayed within the Greeks and the Antiochians, for example. Consider the Western Rite within Antioch, the prayers of which seem to be categorically rejected normatively by most Greek priests, in fact even the Blessed Fr. Schmemann had his criticism about a distinctively different confession being prayed within the Western Rite. This, though, is just one example. I also bring this up because I have become increasingly convinced there are aspects of Antioch which rightfully make a Lutheran's mouth water, but these same aspects dont seem to have the same reality in Greece. Original sin, in particular, I think is a telling example, the way the Priests from each patriarchate respectively preach on the matter is distinctively different. I think this problem comes into light especially when Lutherans talk amongst themselves about Orthodoxy. Consider some of the poorly written material on other blogs in the Cyber world, where the authors resort to everything but the resources from Antioch, and some of those arguements and concerns are valid - meanwhile those who have been categorically defending the East seem to do so from an Antiochian concentration...

As for consistency and conformity among a church body, I recognize that the Church is a sinner's church and one will never find a Church which is uniform within iteself, the East and Missouri are no different in the fact that they have to deal with reality of sinful people committing sins within their communion. Nonetheless, when the prayers of a communion is rejected by the Priests of another communion that the first is in fellowship with I think one can reasonably wonder what is going on. Pax.

- Stan Lemon

Ronnie said...


You indicate " [your] struggle is [that] there are clearly different confessions prayed within the Greeks and the Antiochians".

Yes, and remember, there are other theological minds out there who have wrestled with the same items. One giant that comes to mind is the venerable Prosper of Aquatine.

I would suggest that you start with any respectable disctiopnary or history of the Christian Church, such as P. Schaff's work or the writings of that one Roman catholic writer (can't remember his name).

There are many resources on the web that you can consult as well.

fr john w fenton said...


Thanks for your comments.

When I use the term "prayed confession," I'm referring strictly to the liturgical texts. What preachers preach is very important and must not be passed over lightly but, as you know, varies widely. That's not to excuse it, but is to recognize (a) this fact and (b) the lasting impact on one's confession is the liturgy.

As far as I know, with the exception of the Western Rite, all jurisdictions use the same--or nearly identical--texts for the Divine Liturgy. As for the Western Rite texts, it is my understanding that these have all been approved by the appropriate authorities, and that no canonical jurisdiction officially renounces another for the use of these texts. What one priest or bishop may say is another matter--again, not to be taken lightly, but also not "official" (as we in the LCMS use that term in these matters).

I don't see the conflict you do between the Western & Byzantine liturgies, or between Antioch and Greece (or Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, etc.). I'm aware of one critique by Fr Schmemann but not on the issue of original sin.

Perhaps more specific data would be helpful. Again, thanks for your comments.

Stan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
fr john w fenton said...


I hope you're not offended that I removed your comment. Most of the comment helped carry along the conversation. However, at one point, by wading into the land of speculation, it crossed a line that shouldn't be crossed. Since I couldn't edit, I had to delete.

If I may summarize, your comment raised two legimate points. First, the acceptance among the East of the Western Rite. And second, the apparent issues of theologicla dis-continuity among Orthodox jurisdictions.

Since I am not Orthodox, I am not competent to answer either. However, I do know that these issues are often debated and that various blogs carry that debate; and a most fascinating discussion ensues.

Anonymous said...


The propriety of a Western Rite is questioned by many- within and beyond Antioch. This is not primarily because it is "Western" but because it ceased to exist in the Orthodox Church. The same treatment is given the other "Eastern" liturgies that were overshadowed by the Byzantine Rites of the Great Church and St. Sabbas.

The main argument is that the Holy Spirit is active today in the Church, preserving and protecting that which the CHurch needs. The Holy Spirit did not cease inspiring and guiding the Church when St. John died on Patmos. It is not ours to decide what is of the "essence" of the Church's rites and traditions, and what is not. Change happens on its own without our trying to effect it.

As to the differences between Antioch and Greece, there are differences and there is a whole range of "exactly the sames". There are small differences in how the services are done when comparing the Greek and Slavic typikons (ordos), and within each family of liturgical traditions (e.g., between Greece, Constantinople, Antioch, Cyprus, Jerusalem, and Alexandria). Many of these are rather ancient. There is no requirement of liturgical conformity, in full, in Orthodoxy. There is, however, the great responsibility to "not remove the ancient landmarks of your fathers", as the OT puts it. Tradition is a serious matter, even when slight 'changes' have made their way in. You are very different than you were as a newborn, as a child, as an infant, as a young adult, and as you will be as an old man- you are a Person (body and soul), you change while staying the same. The Church is Christ's true Body, incarnate.

As to doctrinal differences, it is worth noting that Orthodoxy has very little in the way of full blown "Dogmas" as these must be formulated by an Ecumenical Council- and you know when the last one of those was. That is not to say that there are not rather clear teachings and doctrines the Church holds without being formally dogmatized. Most of these are in the Divine Services, the prayer book, the lives of the saints, and the writings of ancient and modern Fathers. They are a part of the Tradition of the Church. This tradition is sifted and decided in much the same way that it took 300+ years for the canon of the Bible to be fully and finally recognized. Some held a much wider canon (i.e., Shepherd of Hermas, Letters of Clememt and Ignatius), and others held to less (i.e., no Hebrews or Revelation). It took time to recognize and settle. This glacial pace is still a part of Orthodoxy, and you will find people that hold to slightly wider and slightly narrower ways of speaking about various teachings, and look at them through different lenses. This was seen in the ancient Church with the "schools" of Antioch and Alexandria, literalist vs. allergorical, one focusing more on the humanity rather than the divinity of Christ. Any purely local teaching is considered to be, at best, a "theological opinion" that is acceptable to hold, at worst, an idiosyncratic heresy placing oneself in the place of God.

Original Sin is a concept that can be spoken of along a wide spectrum depending on who one is speaking with. When confronting a "total depravity" Calvinist (or, Lutheran) one aspect of the Orthodox teaching needs to be brought to the fore. When confronting the RC teaching on the inherited "guilt of Adam's sin" another aspect is stressed. When facing a Pelagianist or a modern humanist, other aspects are discussed. It's like the old story about the blind philosophers and the elephant, each thinking they understood the whole elephant based on the one piece they were touching (i.e., trunk, tail, leg, ears).

Overall, in the West, the view of Adam before his fall is seen to make him a kind of superman of all perfection and knowledge. In the East, he was said to be created with the innocence and understanding of a child. He was created at dawn, and fell by noon. He had not reached the heights of all perfection, he was simply without corruption, without mortality, without sin, but also without experience, was not all-knowing, and lacked any personal virtue. In fact, the incarnation of Christ brings humanity to a higher level than Adam was at because our nature is now united to divinity, and sits at the right hand of the Father! We, however, inherited Adam's mortality just as any son inherits his Father's characteristics.

These are all quite deep questions that Orthodoxy has never boiled down to an aphorism. We are discussing ways of being human that we have no experience of since we were not in Eden as perfect men, and are not yet in Heaven as divinized men. All of these are great Mysteries that are not easily grasped since we are like those blind men with the elephant, spiritually blind and not philosophical (in the patristic sense).

Chris Jones said...


Since you think that you could "sell" my comment to an Antiochian, but perhaps not to a Greek or a Russian, I think it would be helpful to explain how I came by the information that I presented in that comment.

As you may know, after being raised a high-Church Episcopalian, I became Orthodox over 20 years ago. I was Orthodox for about 10 years before joining an LCMS Lutheran congregation.

I prepared for becoming Orthodox by being catechized by a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, a jurisdiction which was originally a mission of the Russian Orthodox Church. I was a member of the Russian-heritage OCA for most of my time as an Orthodox. While I was Orthodox, I studied theology for two years in a pre-diaconate program under the tutoring of Fr Alexander Golitzin, DPhil (Oxon). In addition to being one of the leading scholars of the spirituality of the Christian East, Fr Golitzin is also a monk of the monastery of Simonaspetras on Mount Athos, Greece.

The Orthodox teaching on original sin which I presented in this comment was imparted to me in my catechesis before becoming Orthodox. It was explained to me in greater depth in my training under Fr Golitzin, and I read widely in the Patristic literature on the subject under Fr Golitzin's tutelage.

Before joining an LCMS congregation, I was a member of an Antiochian Western-rite congregation for about a year.

The reason why I lay out this history in such detail is to make clear that I have had both broad and deep exposure to the teaching of the Orthodox Church on this matter, including the perspective of the purportedly "liberal" Antiochian Archdiocese, the heritage of the unmistakeably "right-wing" Mt Athos, and the "middle-of-the-road" views of the OCA. And there is no difference - no difference at all - in the teachings of these different groups within Orthodoxy. If I have not represented the teaching of Orthodoxy on this point correctly, it is due to my inadequacy of understanding or expression, not to any supposed dogmatic diversity within the Orthodox Churches.