Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Three Main Christian Traditions Simplified

I've billed this blog as "random thoughts on theology, etc." but haven't really written any theology reflections until now. Last night, however, I was reading about the sacrament of baptism in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and I had a brainstorm. So, without further ado, I offer my first theology post.

I used to describe the differences between the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches in terms of number of sacraments observed, the role of tradition, whether or not clergy can marry, and so on. I now think the differences can be summarized far more simply. I now suspect that most of the specific differences between the churches stem from the fact that each tradition emphasizes a different part of the salvation process.

The doctrine of salvation, at least according to the (Protestant) theology textbooks I've read, may be subdivided into three distinct but overlapping processes: justification, sanctification and glorification. Justification is the act of being made (or being declared, according to some denominations) righteous before God. It means that God considers our sins removed or covered with the blood of Jesus' sacrifice. The price has been paid. Sanctification is the process of being made holy (some denominations believe that sanctification is more of a one-time act that happens at a definite moment in time after justification). We learn to be more and more like Christ, and we put sinful ways behind us. Glorification is the consummation of salvation, when all traces of our old self are finally stripped away, and we are perfected in body and spirit, able at last to enter into God's presence.

Since I've been at CUA, I've noticed that when Catholics and Protestants use words like "salvation" or "saved," they have different processes in mind. Protestants almost always are referring exclusively to justification. Forgiveness of sins, for Protestants, at least, is a once-for-all-time deal. When you become a Christian, all the sins you've ever committed or ever will commit are forgiven. So the Protestant can speak of having been "saved" and no longer subject to God's wrath. That's what salvation is, after all: salvation from God's punishment of sin, which is death. Catholics, however, are almost always referring to sanctification. The baptism that initiates one into the Catholic Church removes the original sin that one was born with, but sins committed after baptism also need to be forgiven, and that requires one to "cooperate" with God's grace by showing earnest repentance. This is why the Catholic Church recognizes penance (confession of sin followed by acts of contrition and satisfaction such as prayer or works of charity) as a sacrament and holds to the existence of purgatory. Only after all of one's sins have been atoned for may one enter the presence of the holy God in heaven, and baptism doesn't cover sins committed afterward. This is why Catholics speak of being saved, and it's also why the Catholic Church seems, to most Protestants, to preach a works-based salvation. The focus is on the process rather than on a single moment in time.

What I didn't realize until last night is that Eastern Orthodox Christians focus on the third part of salvation, glorification. Eastern Christians have historically spoken about "divinization," which sounds heretical to Western ears but really means being made more and more like God. Divinization begins with justification and sanctification, but also includes the idea that two of God's fundamental attributes are incorruptibility and immortality. Man was created in God's image and likeness, but these have been tarnished or twisted by sin. Hence he can no longer dwell in God's presence and receive from God the gift of immortality (Eastern theology states the human beings were not created immortal but would have enjoyed eternal life as long as they remained in God's presence). The sacramental life, which begins with baptism and includes reception of the Eucharist (infants in the Eastern Orthodox church receive communion from the day of their baptism on) and frequent confession and penance, is more than the Western "account keeping" model (Eastern Orthodox Christianity believes in penance for post-baptismal sins, but does not believe in purgatory) and consumption of the body and blood of Christ, the sacrificial victim (or hostia, from which we get the word "host" to refer to the blessed communion bread). Participation in the sacraments is participation in the divine life itself, as the sacraments reflect and create heavenly realities in the lives of believers on earth. Perhaps the best example is the Eastern Orthodox marriage ceremony, which includes rituals that recreate the crowning of Adam and Eve as king and queen of their household. As one travels through life and participates in the liturgies, one becomes closer and closer to God and can once dwell in His presence and enjoy His incorruptibility and immortality. Roman Catholicism has these ideas too--and speaking of sanctification as "account keeping" is an oversimplification, to be sure--but in much more of a supporting role.

Now don't get me wrong: the three traditions do have real differences, and different views of where the emphasis is placed in the salvation act or process have led to highly divergent worldviews and practices which may be ultimately insurmountable. But we can't have an informed discussion if we misunderstand the ways we use basic terms like "salvation." So the next time you find yourself having a theological discussion with a Christian from another tradition, don't assume that he or she means the same thing you do by using certain words. We've looked at the key term "salvation" in this post. To summarize: Protestants, even though they don't deny the importance of obedience to God and living an upright life, emphasize God's absolute grace and focus on the doctrine of justification. Roman Catholics believe in grace, too, but believe that Christians must "show willing" in order to be saved. They must cooperate with God's grace by continually repenting of their sins and by actively participating in the sanctification process. Eastern Orthodox Christians, too, speak of grace and acts of repentance, but tend to take a panoramic view of salvation and stress the end goal of participating in the divine life in the presence of God.


  1. Your exploration of the difference between the Roman Catholic conception and the Eastern Orthodox conception (which was more heavily influenced by gnostic thinkers) has merit, and the virtue of comparing two relatively coherent and homogeneous traditions.

    Your summary of the Protestant position is lacking, as this tradition has far more diversity. The focus on "being saved" once and for all, further further sanctification is really particular to Evangelical Christian in the tradition of the American Second Great Awakening and their rather cryptic antecedents. This does not accurately state the approach of important Protestant traditions such as Lutherans (Garrison Keillor's monologs talk quite about about Lutheran attitudes here in a humorous but largely accurate way), Episcopalians (always a hybrid of Protestant and Catholic thinking), Calvinism (in theory, committed to a focus on divine grace and predestination, but in practice pietist), Anabapist/Quaker (very focused in practice in good deeds both politically and in social interactions), Univeralism (everyone is saved no matter what), and so on. New theological movements, like the one advocated by the polemic novel, "The Last Christian" focus on faith as something that enables good deeds rather than on good deeds or belief as something that enables salvation.

  2. Thanks for your comment. By nature, all "simplification" schemes fall short of complete accuracy (but they're useful for introducting unfamiliar topics, so the teacher in me likes them anyway). I still think my thesis hold, though. Here's why:

    1. A focus on good deeds doesn't mean that a denomination doesn't stress justification over sanctification, or that it views those deeds as a fundamentally necessary part of the salvation process. Many protestant churches believe that Christians should engage in good works, as you point out, but they tend to view them as evidence of having been saved, as opposed to acts that contribute to salvation (in Catholic parlance, "cooperating grace").
    2. The biggest point of difference between Luther (and by extension Lutherans) and the Catholic Church was the issue of justification. The Catholic Church teaches that man did not completely lose the image of God at the Fall. Thus, all human good works have some merit, and that merit cooperates with God's grace. In justification, God truly imparts righteousness to the person. Any sins s/he commits after justification (which, in Catholicism, is effected by baptism) must be atoned for by contrition, confession, and satisfaction (good works). Any good works s/he commits after baptism are credited as merit (i.e., they are truly good). Since one must be completely holy (i.e., completely free from sin) in order to enter the presence of God after death, all post-baptismal sins must be atoned for either in this life or in an intermediate state (purgatory), and this is sanctification. In contrast, Luther believed that at the Fall, man lost the image of God completely, to the extent that there was nothing good left in him, and no work that s/he performed, however good it might appear, could be meritorious, and the sinner could do nothing to cooperate with God's grace in the justification process. According to Luther, justification covers over the person's sin (as snow covers the ground) so that God sees the righteousness of Christ instead of the person's sin, but the person remains a sinner--albeit a forgiven one. In other words, God imputes but does not impart righteousness. Good works, whether performed before or after baptism, do not atone for sin or earn merit. Luther, therefore, rejected the doctrine of purgatory, and taught that all that was necessary to enter God's presence was justification. Christians engage in good works out of obedience and love, but they play no role in the salvation process. In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the (Catholic) Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued the "Joint Declaration on Justification," which reestablished communion between the two churches on the grounds that Catholics recognized that Lutherans did not deny the need for Christians to do good works and Lutherans recognized that the Catholic Church believed that grace was necessary for justification. So the main issue between the two churches was justification.
    (continued below)

  3. 3. The other reformers followed Luther's lead. Even the Anglican tradition, which, as you correctly note, retained many elements of Catholic practice and doctrine, rejected the notion of purgatory.
    4. A case could be made that Protestant "holiness" denominations (those in the Wesleyan, Church of God, and Pentecostal traditions) appear to stress sanctification. However, most of these churches teach that sanctification is a "second blessing" subsequent to and thus not essential for salvation (which they define as justification). All of them teach that sanctification is a work of grace, effected entirely by the Holy Spirit with no more contribution from the believer than desire.
    5. I must respectfully disagree with your categorization of Calvinists as pietists. Pietism was a later movement that aimed to correct the perceived hyper-intellectualism of the early Reformation (especially the Calvinist branch). While it is true that Calvinists place a high value on good works, they believe, as I stated in point #1, that these works are evidence of a person's justified status.
    6. I must also disagree with your portrayal of the Anabaptist tradition. There are a few Anabaptist denominations (some Mennonite and Brethren churches) that are passionate about social justice and peace, but these works are important because they reflect God's concern for the poor and the oppressed, not because they are important to the salvation process.
    7. The Quakers (part of the peace tradition but not otherwise related to the Anabaptists) and the Universalists are the two best cases in your list of possible exceptions. It's difficult to pin down exactly what they believe about the relationship between justification and sanctification.