Saturday 3 November 2012

Resolving the apparent contradiction between Protestant assurance of salvation, and Orthodox ascetic spirituality


There is a striking difference between, on the one hand, the evangelical Protestant emphasis on the Christian's assurance of salvation - that when born-again we know we are saved by adoption into God's holy family; and, on the other hand, the Orthodox ascetic - the monk or hermit - who may continually be praying for mercy, and on guard against deception by demons, and deeply uncertain about his own eventual salvation.


On the one hand, the Orthodox monk is spiritually far more more advanced in Holiness than the usual born again evangelical; yet is is the evangelical who has assurance.

Is there a contradiction?

Not necessarily.


Since the monk is obviously Holy, and lives for Christ, yet regards his soul as in peril; Catholics might regard the confidence of the evangelical as necessarily deluded.

Evangelicals might say that monasticism is the problem, its temptations are too great; and the monk is corrupted by spiritual pride - imagining that his status (or 'job') sets him above others, and thus falling into wickedness.

(After all, Protestants must believe that monasticism is bad, and deny absolutely that it is a valid path to salvation for anyone at all; or else why did they utterly abolish monasteries? Why are there no evangelical monks or nuns?)


My understanding is that the apparent contradiction is solved if salvation is regarded as both qualitative then quantitative.

The Christian is saved, and with assurance, when converted, when born-again.

Then begins the process of sanctification or theosis - working-towards union with God during life on earth. This is the main purpose of Christian life.


The evangelical focuses on holding-onto salvation. He knows that the only thing which could lose his salvation is if he himself rejects it and turns away from God.

Therefore evangelical spirituality is - in a sense - a repetition of the born-again experience, a re-living, a rehearsal: turning to God again and again - daily, hourly. To feel, again and again, the gratitude and love of accepting Christ.

The monastic needs or wants more; wants to move forward on the path of sanctification or theosis, to become himself more like God. To start on the path which, if completed, would lead to Sainthood (as conceived by Eastern Orthodoxy; to live in Heaven and on earth simultaneously, to be an intermediary).


The monastic path is real, and really is a higher path - a more desirable goal; but it really is more hazardous.

Its hazards are profound, and amount to the loss of salvation - essentially by corruption from original sin - that is spiritual pride, causing the monastic to substitute himself for God; and corruption from personal purposive evil (Satan, devils, demons) who - it seems from numerous accounts - are attracted by spiritual ambition.

So ascetics are apparently almost-always subject to demonic attack, demonic deceptions, terrors and temptations.


Climbing a rocky mountain is more hazardous than staying on the plain below - one may be impatient to reach the top, climb too fast and become exhausted and fall into a crevice and to death; one may delude oneself that the peak has been reached and pride oneself on reaching the top when there remains much yet to climb; and one may neglect to recall that every mountain slope is the abode of devils who will try to throw the climber into volcanic fissures before they reach the summit.  


The key concept is spiritual ambition.

Spiritual ambition is a good motivation; but must be balanced by humility or else will be corrupted into worldly ambition, or remain spiritual but become evil (turned away from Christ).

The true monk has great spiritual ambition, strives for greater holiness; but any ambition can be corrupted into pride is opened to deception in its understandings.

Under modern conditions, the perils of spiritual ambition are greater than ever. Past monks would submit to the authority of a Saint or Spiritual Father, who would watch them for signs of corruption, and ensure that the pace of sanctification did not proceed faster than the safeguarding humility which must increase to match it.

Even despite such safeguards, there were still hazards, and Holy Men fell and were lost.


Nowadays spiritual ambition is even more hazardous - and those who claim sanctification have often very obviously been corrupted, when evaluated by the discerning Christian.

The high mountains are real, but the 'low road' of evangelical Christianity may be all that is possible for most modern men.

We who live in spiritual isolation, and lack the wise authority of a Holy Father, should be wary of spiritual ambition - and fearful of losing the salvation of which we are indeed assured - assured so long as we do not ourselves cast it away.




Donald said...

I think this notion of a quantitative difference fits in nicely with explaining child mortality, but also why not everyone dies as a child.

Child mortality was as you say BGC incredibly high throughout most of human history. Even today embryonic life is very precarious. If you believe as I do (and it seems at least plausible) that the soul is brought in to existence at the time of conception, and if you also believe that the innocence of children (even if corrupted by original sin, but not necessarily guilty of the sin of their first parents, as Orthodox seem to believe)essentially assures them of salvation (controversial admittedly), then why does God allow anyone to pass childhood? Aside from the impracticality of no parents, it seems this quantitative difference must be in effect. God wants people to grow and develop in earthly life because it makes a difference in heavenly.

Speculative, but an interesting thought. Likely complicated by free will.

Bruce Charlton said...

I think this is correct. It would seem that theosis is what we are here for: a high risk, high reward business.

Hazards lie in both directions. We cannot stay still but must move forwards - or else, like a shark, we will we will suffocate and perish; but if we try to move forwards too fast, then we will smash into the rocks or swim into seas filled with predators

Anonymous said...

The trouble is "being saved" has its own set of serious problems. Evangelical churches have all kinds of wolves in their midst, because once one has been "saved" their behavior is of little account. A great deal of bad behavior by such people occurs in these churches.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - In my experience, you are completely wrong; and evangelicals are the best behaved people that I have met (bearing in mind I have not met many Mormons).

Of course there are exceptions, and everybody is a sinner - but as an average generalization evangelicals are the best behaved people (probably on average the most devout too).

I'd have thought that was pretty uncontroversial?

However, I am talking mostly about Anglicans, nonconformists and serious Home Churches. I am *not* talking about the flashy tele-evengelist ('God brings you success, tithing makes you a profit') kind of thing.

america said...


From an American perspective Evangelical is associated with a certain kind of protestant usually from the south. It's tied up in all sorts of non-faith things.

Wurmbrand said...

For a Lutheran -- I won't speak for Protestants in general -- the basis of the Christian's assurance is certainly not his conversion experience, but the promises of God. These promises are connected with his Baptism and with the Lord's Supper as saving gifts from God to man. Luther may have had a conversion experience, but the "point" was never the experience per se, but the light of God coming to a frightened sinner through the pages of Holy Scripture. I hasten to add that Luther did not, from this, draw the conclusion that the convicted sinner ought to hunker down by himself with his Bible. He needed, rather, to hear the Gospel preached. Preaching and Sacrament are the means of grace, and they are found in Holy Mother Church. But She is no earthly power or institution.

My reading of Roman Catholic and Orthodox spirituality has, in general, found this robust emphasis on Biblical, Gospel-oriented preaching to be deficient.

By "Gospel" I mean fairly narrowly the preaching of what Christ has done for us and that this is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit through means. "Gospel" is sometimes used with what a Lutheran would regard as undue broadness to include the preaching of Law as well, i.e. what is owing from us to God, and which must always throw us down into the dust because even the most "holy" people are not utterly beyond the power of the sinward tendency ("the flesh"). The Christian life, then, for the Lutheran, is one paradoxically of constant struggle and repentance, and of ongoing confidence and trust.

tgj said...

You cannot "resolve" this contradiction without misunderstanding one or the other concept of salvation, and probably the Orthodox one. The essence of Protestantism is that you yourself are the Pope and you get to interpret everything and decide what salvation means, what is necessary, and what is "risky" or "ambitious" for yourself and/or for others. You can be as "traditional" as you like and conform to some kind of authority or authorities (that you pick), or you can come up with some rational argument, or whatever you like. For the Orthodox, salvation is never assured in part because only God decides what the threshold is for any given person, and He generally does not tell you when you cross it. However, some things are clear. One of them is that, once you understand what Orthodoxy is and commit to it, there is no salvation for you outside of it. Perhaps God will extend more grace to the heterodox who never had the chance to learn about Orthodoxy (whether that extends to their salvation in any given case is not for us to know), but once you cross that line, you yourself are now responsible for knowing the truth. Likewise, the more you know about Orthodoxy the more trouble you are in for convincing yourself that stepping across that line and becoming Orthodox is not necessary to please God or to obtain salvation.

The Orthodox monk does not necessarily see himself as more holy than the layman, or even necessarily striving for something higher. He simply decides to commit more of himself to pleasing God and tries to remove more restrictions and distractions than laymen (he may fail, but this does not necessarily mean he is in more danger of being dramatically deceived or losing his salvation than, say, a layman who makes friends with heretics and takes their ideas a little too seriously). Perhaps he does this out of spiritual ambition, but perhaps he does it because he simply loses interest in other things, or because he feels more convicted about his sin. Perhaps he feels that his sins are so bad that nothing short of complete commitment can make his salvation possible. One gets a sense on reading about St. Mary of Egypt, for example, that she was entirely motivated by her sense of sin and her sense of how this cut her off from God and from salvation and was never motivated by some kind of spiritual ambition or willingness to take risks, although she achieved a state that most would consider to be extremely holy. In fact, if I remember correctly, she embarked on her extreme path because God told her to, presumably because it was necessary for her salvation.

No one would ever advise someone to do what St. Mary of Egypt did. Too dangerous, too ambitious, whatever. The point is that you don't do something like that unless it's necessary, and for some people it is necessary. Whether it is necessary for you is between you and God. On the other hand, Christ is quite clear that the most important thing is to love God with one's whole mind, heart, and soul. This does not leave much room for letting other priorities get in the way, or for other sources of "truth" to insert themselves between us and whatever narrow way God has established for us and for humanity in general.

In the end, it seems to me that the only path that's really dangerous is the path of self-will, where we define salvation and risk for ourselves instead of simply following what God has laid down and doing what He tells us to do. The hard part is being consistent about laying aside our desire to put on the Pope hat and come up with our own ideas about what is safe and what is not. It requires a certain amount of trust in God to do this. Without faith it is impossible to please God, and even Protestants *say* it is necessary for salvation (but do they know what it is, or how to get it?).

Anonymous said...

For expansion on DJ Nelson’s comment and to contrast Luther and Calvin on the question of assurance, see Phillip Cary’s engaging paper, Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin, which can be found at

Bruce Charlton said...

@tgj - Thank you for the comment.

My own perspective is that of Mere Christianity, so the argument is necessarily a different one for me.