The Eastern Orthodox never believed in Total Depravity

Friday I was talking to a friend of mine, a pastor of an Assembly of God church nearby

N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright

who has two master’s degrees, about John Calvin’s shenanigans in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1600s. He said N.T. Wright (who is an Anglican bishop) takes a more Eastern Orthodox position. The Eastern Orthodox did not agree with Augustine‘s ideas about original sin and predestination. The pastor said Calvinism completely rests on the first of five logical pillars, Total Hereditary Depravity.

“Like Luther, Calvin belongs to the Augustinian tradition, which explains his insistence on the corruption of human nature, the ineffectiveness of works for salvation, and justification sola gratia and sola fide. It is in this context that we must situate his concept of dual predestination. However, Calvin goes much further in this area than the Augustinian tradition, as represented, for example, by Thomas Aquinas, for he holds not only that some are predestined for salvation while others are cast aside (the “outcast”) but also that predestination to damnation is a deliberate act of divine sovereignty. Such an idea of God obviously poses a problem, from which have arisen many conflicts in Reformed theology up to and including the recapitulation of the entire question by Barth (KD II/2)…”–Alasdair Heron


St Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church Greenlawn

The Eastern Orthodox never accepted the idea of original sin from Adam that resulted in total hereditary depravity, the idea that humans are so fallen that they cannot choose to follow God in and of themselves, they have to be called by God. This difference in viewing the fall of humanity results in a very different view of salvation, which to the Eastern Orthodox is a life-long continuous process. In western protestantism salvation is a one time event. Salvation to the Eastern Orthodox is more like what some protestant denominations call sanctification.

My friend said that since the Catholic Church’s doctrine of salvation was based on Augustine’s idea of Original Sin, when the Reformation started, they didn’t have much to work with (except Augustine’s ideas about Original Sin) and therefore the protestant Reformation was largely limited to wrestling within Augustine’s theology about humanity’s need for a special call from God.

LutherWittenbergThe Eastern Orthodox Church never had a Protestant Reformation comparable to Luther nailing 95 objections to the selling of forgiveness of sins, to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. But the Eastern Orthodox also never believed in Total Depravity. (They do believe the world is fallen, as Paul taught in Romans 5.) Their theology of salvation does not start with original sin and humanity’s inability to choose God without being chosen by God. The Orthodox start with the fact that we are created in the image of God, and that as we are being saved from our sins we reflect God’s image more and more.

Reasons the Orthodox never had a Reformation are that they never had an Emperor who was also a Pope, they never allowed the bishops to govern politically, and they never had a pope in the sense that the Roman church did. So power was spread out more. They never required celibacy of their priests.

The Orthodox also don’t talk about an infallible Bible, nor do they subscribe to the principle of sola scriptura. Church tradition is more important to the Orthodox. The Bible is regarded as the most reliable and earliest source of the Apostles’ and church fathers’ traditions, the Bible being the core of the church traditions. They believe in the 7 councils of the Bishops, beginning with the Nicene Creed. They also don’t believe any of those councils or creeds are infallible, just highly regarded. (However many view the primary confessions as nonnegotiable, required for membership as an Orthodox Christian. To say that Jesus was not fully man and fully God is heresy to most Orthodox Christians.) Many in the Orthodox traditions also do not have as nasty a view of hell as the western church does.

Now isn’t that interesting? Is it possible that our view of Christianity has been limited by a few wrong turns, and that we should open up our eyes to other possibilities? N.T. Wright seems to think so.

[The second to last paragraph was updated 8/4/13]


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
This entry was posted in Bible, Command, Example and Necessary Inference, Faith and Works, Grace, Hell, History, Salvation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Eastern Orthodox never believed in Total Depravity

  1. John says:

    I was a member of the Church of Christ for 27 years, eventually becoming an elder. I was joined to the Holy Orthodox Church in 2005. You have summarized the Orthodox position on this issue quite well. From the Orthodox perspective, the Reformation was an in-house fight between Catholics and Protestants over Augustine. We like to say that each of them have more in common with each other than either does with Orthodoxy. Augustine did not read Greek, so the whole ongoing synthesis of eastern Mediterannean church patristic writing was lost on him.

    Just discovered this site–I look forward to checking it out.

  2. Fr Basil Biberdorf says:

    I’m an Orthodox priest, and I’ll take issue with the second-last paragraph. While the ascription of infallibility to the Scriptures is something mostly confined to arguments made between Protestants, I would hardly say we (the Orthodox) view them as “fallible” (i.e., liable to be erroneous). Rather, the Scriptures are only properly interpreted and rightly used within the context of the Tradition of the Church. Indeed, they are the *core* of the Tradition of the Church. That’s a very different thing than saying we don’t believe them to be “infallible”.

    As regards the Creed and the Ecumenical Councils, “infallibility” is a misapplied concept. The Councils express the belief of the Church. The content of the Creed is not open to debate, and confessing the Creed is a non-negotiable requirement for Orthodox Christians. (Denying that the Son is fully and completely God makes one a heretic, not an Orthodox Christian, for example.)

    And, yes, we do believe in hell.There are arguments about what hell is really like, but I’m not sure what saying we don’t have a “nasty view” of it means.

  3. Gary Cummings says:

    Humm, interesting. I like a lot of the Eastern church’s approach to theology. I know that they did not believe in original sin, neither do I. However, I have seen of the human condition to say that I believe in some sort of human depravity (but not the total depravity of Calvin and Augustine).
    I think the Rabbis had a name for this “Yetzer-something”. I forgot the last part. It is part of being human, we all struggle with the tendency to do evil. I kind of accept that. Paul certainly had a similar view in Romans. In my own life, I have seen this principle operate.
    Maybe depravity is a genetic memory from the Fall. I do not know. There is something there. Can human depravity exist without original sin? I would have to answer yes, as human history is full of acts of massive depravity, our prisons are filled with depraved people, and depraved perverts rape our women and children (and a lot of that happens in the church).
    The victory is in Christ Jesus, who is our great God and Savior

  4. I would like to read more about the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation.

    • Richard Mohr says:

      Dara! Are you reading about the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation? The latest edition of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Church” is a very good introduction. You should also listen to us on YouTube. Our music is there, as well as lectures and whole services. There are a lot of Orthodox websites. Take a look at Ancient Faith, Journey to Orthodoxy, Preachers Institute, Finding the True Faith and others, as well as the websites for the Antiochian Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America.

      I am a convert from the Evangelical world. I have a Fuller Theological Seminary M.Div. You might imagine how difficult it was for me to grasp what Orthodoxy teaches. I persisted.

      Attend an Orthodox church regularly. Don’t just go there on Sunday morning. Ask questions. If there are a lot of converts, such as at St Barnabas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa, California (where I am a member) there will be people that will be happy to talk with you. Almost all of us adults at St B are converts.

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