Thursday, August 11, 2005

Agents and Victims

In reply to Josh S.’s posting of an article by John S. Romanides on Augustine, Paul, and original sin, Chris Parks linked us to a more learned and irenic Eastern Orthodox presentation of the same topic by John Meyendorff. Let there be no mistake, however. The doctrine expressed by Meyendorff is fundamentally the same as that of Romanides and one fundamentally at odds with the Augsburg Confession. To use an expression made popular by Bishop Spong (why should the devil get all the good lines?), it's just "Romanides with perfume".

Let’s just list the key affirmations of these Eastern Orthodox writers:

1) Nature cannot be sin, only freely chosen actions are sin

2) Original sin is an improper expression, there is no corporate guilt.

3) What we receive from Adam is not actual guilt, but a burden of mortality and suffering imposed from outside, and at most a predisposition as a result to sin.

4) Infants are not born sinful, only with a predisposition to sin.

5) The infants and those in the womb have no sin, their death if it happens is not punishment for original sin, but injustice done to them due to our being under the power of the devil.

6) In infant baptism remission of sins is not applicable, rather it serves to introduce the Christian infant into the life of God.

7) Fundamentally, the human race after the Fall is the victim of the devil’s action, not the agent of sin. To the extent that we are agents of sin it is due to our prior state of being under the devils unjust power.

8) God does not exercise retributive justice; the attribution of this to Him is a feature of Biblical anthropomorphic language, which it is theologically naive to take literally.

'9) And for all these reasons, justification, that is how an inherently sinful man can be received into a just God's favor is not a fundamental theological issue.

Now, I find the emphasis in Greek theology on the power and activity of the devil is important. I wish popular Lutheran preaching on salvation would add to its focus on the remission of sins a renewed emphasis on the renewal of life in our flesh and the defeat of the devil through the sacraments.

BUT, on all the above nine points given above, we are right and they are wrong. The Augsburg Confession and the Biblical evidence cited therein in the Apology and in the Formula of Concord is unalterably against the exclusion of real guilt from our conception and against any down-playing of God’s justice in exacting retributive punishment from us sinners. Our very need of a savior stands unalterably for our lack of free will (as Luther argued in his Bondage of the Will) and that we are all conceived and born as (in the words of our blessed catechism) "lost and condemned creatures" - - note that word condemned, and that means from birth, and that it is baptism which delivers us from this state. And for this reason, justification is the central theological issue.

Let’s just note a few other implications of Meyendorff's teaching for some recent debates:

1) I think we have to admit that Augustine really is the fundamental influence on medieval Latin theology, who had far more influence in determining what the Latin church believed than any "papal magisterium" or "consensus of the fathers." The Roman Catholics may have been backtracking on him since the fourteenth century and especially since the Jansenist controversy, but as they do so they are going straight back into Semi-Pelagian error.

2) If the Baptists are to be called non-Christians because they don’t believe that baptism is for the remission of sins, then I don’t see how the Eastern Orthodox can be called Christians since they apparently believe infant baptism too is not for the remission of sins.

3) If there is no corporate guilt in Adam, then what is it that makes us born and conceived in sin as the Psalmist wailed? Well, the only possible answer is that sexual desire was involved and so sexual desire is inherently sinful (if only venially), even within marriage.

4) As Meyerdonff himself recognized, the EO view of sin is basically "individualistic" (insert sneer here). (He offers some demurral on that, but nothing specific.) I can’t wait to charge some hyper-medieval EO blogger with "surrendering to the rampant market-based individualism of Byzantine culture."

Let me go back to the title of this post. I got it from the title of an anthropologist’s study of the Chinese revolution and Maoism. She found that the peasants of China were indeed victims of Maoism, but they were also agents of it, eagerly participating in injustice against others before falling victims in turn. This is a powerful image of our fallen state under the devil. We are, indeed, both agents and victims of our own ruin. We are victims of the devil, but we are even before that agents, insubordinate revolutionaries eagerly siding with the devil against our legitimate king.

Thank God that He, who owes us rebels nothing, has given His only-begotten Son for us. And thank God also for Martin Luther who burnished the glory of this gospel, long tarnished by error, of undeserved grace to lost, condemned, and helplessly sinning agents of the devil.

Original posting and comments at Here We Stand