Maximus the Confessor, Cyril of Alexander, and the East are not with Leighton Flowers on Freewill

In some of my more recent posts I have been engaging with a guy named, Leighton Flowers; and his ‘Provisionism.’ I have attempted to show how his position fits into, what historically, is understood as semi-Pelagianism. I still think that’s the case. In this post I want to get into a distinction that Flowers likes to appeal to himself; he likes to align his position with the pre-Nicene church fathers, with particular reference to what he takes to be their understanding of “freewill.” Mind you, Flowers isn’t really all that concerned with whether or not he can find historical catholic precedent for his soteriological view or not; but when debating Calvinists like, James White, or Lutherans like, Jordan Cooper—people who have been similarly framing Flowers’ position as semi-Pelagian—Flowers, in counter to their Augustinianism, which he takes to be a species, categorically, of Manicheanism, will attempt to find counter voices in the primitivism of said proto eastern church fathers. He believes that his understanding of freewill in salvation aligns with their respective understandings; particularly as that would stand in contrast to the mature Augustine’s doctrine of predestination/election and “determinism.” In this post I simply want to say to Leighton: not so fast! I will do that by way of reference to Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: Vol 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700), and his brief sketch of Augustine’s position in contrast to Maximus the Confessor’s. By this simple reference my hope will be to alert the reader to the fact that Flower’s attempt to appeal to the eastern understanding of “freewill” in salvation is equivocal; particularly because the eastern Church has a robust Christological condition underwriting the way they think humanity vis-à-vis freewill in salvation. Further, in my attempt, I will also refer to some of Cyril of Alexander’s thinking with hopes of fortifying what we find out about Maximus’s thinking.

Pelikan writes:

No less striking was the contrast between the Augustinian tradition and the Greek tradition in the understanding of grace and salvation. An epitome of the contrast is the formula of Maximus: “Our salvation finally depends on our own will.” For “one could not conceive a system of thought more different from Western Augustinianism; and yet Maximus is in no way a Pelagian.” This is because the dichotomy represented by the antithesis between Pelagianism and Augustinianism was not a part of Maximus’s thought. Instead, “his doctrine of salvation is based on the idea of participation and of communion that excludes neither grace nor freedom but supposes their union and collaboration, which were re-established once and for all in the incarnate Word and his two wills.” Even though the century following the death of Augustine saw his predestinarianism attacked by his critics and mollified by his disciples, the Augustinian understanding of original son and of grace continued to shape Western theology. Eastern theology, on the other hand, continued to emphasize, with Maximus, that divine sonship was a gift of God and an achievement of man, and neither of these without the other. Such diametrically opposed interpretations of the very hear of the Christian gospel would almost inevitably come to blows when the ecclesiastical situation had shifted and all the other doctrinal differences that we have been examining became matters of open controversy. Nevertheless, over the centuries of the controversy, it was neither in the doctrine of grace nor even in the doctrine of the church that East and West came into dogmatic conflict most frequently, but in a doctrine on which, supposedly, not only East and West, but even Nestorians and Monophysites, were all agreed: the dogma of the Trinity.[1]

On the face of things, it might sound like Flowers is onto something, in regard to the idea of freewill, as that is ostensibly operative in Maximus’s and the East’s soteriology. But what Maximus has, and Flowers doesn’t, is a soteriology grounded in a robust understanding of Christology and our participation in His humanity as the ground and frame of reference wherein we have capacity to finally say yes to God. In other words, following Athanasius et al. the east understands that apart from union with Christ, by way of His hypostatic union with us, the person, in and of themselves, does not have the capacity to say yes to God. In other words, the east has a heavy doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ operative in their soteriological understanding; so heavy that they referred to their soteriological doctrina as theosis. Flowers doesn’t have this doctrine funding his conception of soteriology, which again, is why he is left open to the charge of forwarding semi-Pelagianism.

To help further fortify this thinking on participatio Christi in the eastern understanding of salvation, let’s turn to Donald Fairbairn’s discussion on union with Christ in the soteriology of Cyril of Alexandria (another eastern father). This passage from Fairbairn is rather lengthy, and you’ll notice that he has a dialogue between Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics in mind, but I think the whole context helps to grant greater insight into just what Cyril’s union with Christ and/or doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ was all about. Fairbairn doesn’t get into the how of union with Christ in Cyril’s theology, but he does point out that for Cyril it is the indicative of being in union with Christ wherein the person has the capacity to be for God and not against Him. This is what Flowers doesn’t have in his soteriological conception, and again, why his view easily falls prey to the charge of semi-Pelagianism. Here is Fairbairn:

From what I have written, it is clear that there are important similarities and differences between Cyril’s understanding of justification and that of Protestantism. Cyril repeatedly writes of the believer’s righteousness as one that is given by another, by Christ, from the outside. This emphasis on Christ as the source of the Christian’s righteousness is similar to the Protestant understanding of the passive nature of the Christian’s righteousness. Cyril, as much as Luther or any Protestant subsequently, sees the righteousness or holiness of the Christian as that which belongs to Christ and which Christ actively grants to the believer, who passively receives it through faith and grace. But as we have seen, there are also differences between Cyril and many classical Protestant writers. Cyril does not adopt a forensic framework as the dominant aspect of his soteriology. He does not distinguish justification and sanctification to any great degree at all. And he certainly does not make justification the central idea of his soteriology. Thus, Cyril stands as a caution against the potential dangers of a theology that is too exclusively forensic or makes the justification/sanctification distinction too sharply.

When one examines Cyril’s relation to modern Eastern Orthodoxy, we find that there are also similarities and differences. The participatory nature of salvation shines very clearly in both Cyril and modern Orthodoxy. But on the other hand, two things about Cyril’s understanding of participation stand in partial contrast to some expressions of modern Orthodoxy. First, the basis for Cyril’s understanding of participation is not the qualities of God (whether they be the energies, as in later Palamite theology; qualities such as incorruption and immortality that dominate the attention of many Greek patristic writers; or even qualities like righteousness and holiness on which this article has focused), but the person of Christ. For Cyril, participation is at heart personal. We become righteous when we are personally united to the one who is righteous, to Christ. (Notice again that this exactly parallels the fact that we become sons of God when we are united to Christ, the true Son.) Second, the very fact that participation is at heart personal means that it is not fundamentally gradual or progressive. The outworkings of union with Christ are indeed gradual, but union with Christ himself, effected in baptism at the very beginning of Christian life, lies at the heart of Cyril’s concept of participation. To say this even more directly, for Cyril even deification is primarily the present state of the believer, rather than the culmination of a process, and his teaching on justification undergirds this fact.

At this point, readers from both Protestant and Orthodox traditions may object that their tradition does in fact emphasize personal union with Christ. This is true. There are some – perhaps many – voices within both traditions that possess such an emphasis. But my point is that in both Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the centrality of personal union with Christ tends to be obscured by these other emphases: forensic justification in Protestantism and a more mystical and/or progressive approach to union with God in Orthodoxy. I ask my readers to recognize these tendencies, even though the mistakes to which they can lead are sometimes successfully avoided.

With that caveat registered, I suggest that as one looks at these two sets of similarities and differences between Cyril on one hand and either Protestantism or Orthodoxy on the other, they expose a false dichotomy that has perhaps hindered dialogue between the two groups. Protestants, schooled in on-going disputes with Roman Catholicism, are often quick to point out the difference between imputed righteousness and imparted or infused righteousness, and the classical Protestant concept of justification is closely tied to the first of these, in opposition to the second. It seems to me, though, that Protestants sometimes extend this dichotomy into an opposition between imputed righteousness and participatory righteousness, thus unhelpfully applying concepts borrowed from anti-Catholic polemic to anti-Orthodox polemic. (Whether those concepts are appropriate even in dialogue with Roman Catholics is another question, but one I will not address here.) I believe Cyril’s thought demonstrates that this is a false dichotomy. Instead, Cyril teaches us that participatory righteousness – or better, our participation in the one who is himself righteous – is the very heart of imputed righteousness. To say this in Protestant terms, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian when the Christian is united to Christ, who is the righteous one. But to say the same thing in Orthodox terms, participation in Christ, because it is a personal participation granted to the believer at the beginning of Christian life, implies that his righteousness becomes ours.

As a result, I suggest that a deeper consideration of Cyril’s doctrine of justification can both challenge Protestants and the Orthodox, and help to uncover latent common ground between them. Protestants need to recognize that justification is not merely or even mainly transactional, but primarily personal and organic. We are united to Christ as a person, and as a result, his righteousness is imputed to us. The forensic crediting of righteousness grows out of the personal union. At the same time, the Orthodox need to recognize that the gradual process of deification (even the continual reception of life-giving grace through the Eucharist, one of Cyril’s greatest emphases) is grounded in an initial personal union with Christ, and thus, both righteousness and deification are at heart gifts that Christ gives us when he gives himself to us. Perhaps both Protestants and Orthodox can then recognize that as Christians, we are righteous, holy, and even divine, because – and only because – we are in Christ. And if we are righteous, holy, and divine in Christ, then throughout Christian life we will progressively become more and more who we already are.[2]

Lengthy, I know; but necessary to provide the whole context. These are details that Flowers never addresses when he almost casually refers to the eastern fathers and their conception of salvation and freewill. Their idea of freedom isn’t like Flowers’ understanding, which sounds more like libertarian free agency; their conception is drenched in a robust doctrine of participation with Christ (Calvin’s doctrine of unio cum Christo and duplex gratia actually sounds much more akin to someone like Cyril than what we find in Flowers’ naked conception of human freedom in the soteriological package).

Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m spending so much time with Flowers on these things. He has already doubled down over and over again on the idea that his position is not semi-Pelagian; but he dupes himself. My goal with this post was simply (in a bloggy way) to take away Flowers’ easy appeal to the eastern fathers, as if they stand with him contra, Augustine. They do stand against Augustine, but not in the way that Flowers does. Flowers, unfortunately, is more in the camp of Pelagius himself, and someone, early, like John Cassian. Pax Vobis

 

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 182-83.

[2] Donald Fairbairn, “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria, With Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue,”Participatio Vol. 4 (2013): 142-44.