February 10, 2023

Faith and Works: An Orthodox Philokalic Perspective (1 of 6)

 By Dr. George D. Panagopoulos,
Professor of Dogmatics at the
University Ecclesiastical Academy Of Vella Ioannina

Not a few Orthodox theologians in our days overtly or covertly try to downgrade the Neptic-Hesychastic tradition and to diminish the importance of Monasticism in the life of the ecclesiastical body by "denouncing" Philokalic piety as primarily "prayerful" and ascetic living as an attempt at "individualization by works". In this way, they bring to the fore, consciously or unconsciously, the "oft-repeated" criticism raised by Protestants against monastic asceticism as an "ethic of meritorious works" (cf. G. Florovsky, The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers).
In what follows, I try to demonstrate on the one hand that the above position is unsupported and on the other hand to briefly describe the teaching of the Orthodox Catholic Church on faith and asceticism or, in other words, on faith and good works in relation to justification and sanctification in Christ. In this project, I will mainly rely on testimonies collected selectively from the Orthodox Philokalic literature, which I will interpret in the light of the prophetic and apostolic phronema, as reflected in Holy Scripture and experienced continuously in the ecclesiastical community.

1. Salvation "by faith through the working of the commandments" or the Pauline Character of Philokalic Piety

One of the most authentic witnesses of our ancient tradition, Saint Gregory of Sinai, guides us in our brief search: The working of the commandments reveals faith in love acted upon; it is the living and saving faith acted upon by the Spirit in the believer (cf. "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6).
The Protestant separation of faith from works is unknown in the Orthodox tradition. This must be understood correctly: According to the Orthodox assessment, we are not justified by our works. "Self-righteousness" is a profoundly anti-Christian teaching: "You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:4). Thus it becomes clear what is constantly experienced in the history of Orthodox monasticism, namely that asceticism and "its pains" are not understood as meritorious, but as a means of healing used by the Church in a context that is primarily charismatic. Our justification and salvation is from "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6).
Man certainly does not stand passive, nor inactive and unwilling before the divine gift in Christ. Such a claim would eo ipso be equivalent to a "soteriological monophysitism" which would invalidate theonomic and Christ-centered Judeo-biblical and patristic anthropology.
However, the activation of the human will in the context of the new life in Christ presupposes the restoration of human nature and its liberation from slavery to Satan and sin, which is accomplished only through the purifying, illuminating and theurgical energy of the Cross of Christ in the Mystery of our divine adoption in Christ. Good works, which presuppose the synergy with the grace of our will (which, we say again, was freed by the energy of the Cross in Baptism and remains free by the participation in the Mysteries), are NOT meritorious. However, without them, our salvation is impossible and grace can be "in vain", since there is a danger of falling. The Philokalic experience is summed up in the classic phrase of Saint Mark the Ascetic, "and this is why the commandments do not cut off sin - this is only through the Cross - but they keep the conditions of the freedom given to us". It is also clarified by the laconic phrase of Saint Peter of Damascus: "These commandments protect us, and it is by the grace of God" (cf. George I. Mantzaridis, Christian Ethics, volume II, Thessaloniki, 2009, pp. 211).

Part Two

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