|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Protestantism|
Protestantism in search of Orthodoxy // Calvin’s erroneous views on Monasticism
The Inadequacy of the Critique by Anders Nygren
Fr. Georges Florovsky
Emeritus Professor of Eastern Church History Harvard University
Despite Protestantism's endeavours to understand the Christian Faith from inside the Holy Bible, its 1500-year old alienation from the Tradition of the Church has not allowed it to perceive many things in the correct manner. Luther's prejudice towards monasticism, along with the juridical perception of things as inherited from Papism, led Protestantism to a misinterpretation of the relations between God and Man, with regard to salvation. As a result, more recent researchers like Anders Nygren have, in their attempts to preserve Luther's prejudices regarding salvation and monasticism, misconstrued many areas, including that of Love in the Christian Faith. The present analysis by George Florovsky is an insight into this Protestant error.
The Christian idea of love is indeed something new. But it is not something so radically odd that the human soul cannot understand it. It is not such a "transvaluation of all ancient values," as Anders Nygren has claimed in his lengthy study Agape and Eros (originally published in Swedish in 1947 as Den kristna karlekstanken genom tiderna, Eros och Agape; published in two volumes in 1938 and 1939; two volumes published in one paperback edition by Harper and Row in 1969). Although there are certain aspects of truth in some of Nygren's statements, his very premise is incorrect. Nygren reads back into the New Testament and the early Church the basic position of Luther rather than dealing with early Christian thought from within its own milieu. Such an approach bears little ultimate fruit and often, as in the case of his position in Agape and Eros, distorts the original sources with presuppositions that entered the history of Christian thought 1500 years after our Lord altered the very nature of humanity by entering human existence as God and Man. There is much in Luther that is interesting, perceptive, and true. However, there is also much that does not speak the same language as early Christianity. And herein lies the great divide in the ecumenical dialogue. For the ecumenical dialogue to bear fruit, the very controversies that separate the churches must not be hushed up. Rather they must be brought into the open and discussed frankly, respectfully, and thoroughly. There is much in Luther with which Eastern Orthodox theologians especially can relate. Monasticism, however, is one area in which there is profound disagreement.
Even Luther at first did not reject monasticism. Luther's Reformation was the result of his understanding of the New Testament, an understanding which Luther himself calls "new." His theological position had already been formed before the issue of indulgences and his posting of his Ninety-Five Theses. Nygren, loyal to Luther's theological vision, has a theological reason for his position in Agape and Eros. Nygren identifies his interpretation of Agape with the monoenergistic concept of God, a concept of God that would be correct in and of itself, for God is the source of everything. But once we confront the mystery of creation, the mystery of that "other" existence, that created existence which includes mankind, we face a totally different situation. The existential and ontological meaning of man's created existence is precisely that God did not have to create, that it was a free act of Divine freedom. But — and here is the great difficulty created by an unbalanced western Christianity on the doctrine of grace and freedom — in freely creating man God willed to give man an inner spiritual freedom. In no sense is this a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian position. The balanced synergistic doctrine of the early and Eastern Church, a doctrine misunderstood and undermined by Latin Christianity in general from St. Augustine on — although there was always opposition to this in the Latin Church — always understood that God initiates, accompanies, and completes everything in the process of salvation. What it always rejected — both spontaneously and intellectually — is the idea of irresistible grace, the idea that man has no participating role in his salvation. Nygren identifies any participation of man in his salvation, any movement of human will and soul toward God, as a pagan distortion of Agape, as "Eros." And this attitude, this theological perspective will in essence be the determining point for the rejection of monasticism and other forms of asceticism and spirituality so familiar to the Christian Church from its inception.
If Nygren's position on Agape is correct, then the words of our Lord, quoted above, would have had no basis in the hearts of the listeners for understanding. Moreover, our Lord, in using the verbal form of Agape — αγαπάτε — uses the “old” commandment as the basis for the giving of the new, inner dimension of the spiritual extension of that commandment of agape, of love. If Nygren is correct, the "old" context of agape would have been meaningless, especially as the foundation upon which our Lord builds the new spiritual and ontological character of agape. Nygren's point is that "the Commandment of Love" occurs in the Old Testament and that it is "introduced in the Gospels, not as something new, but as quotations from the Old Testament." He is both correct and wrong. Correct in that it is a reference taken from the Old Testament. Where else was our Lord to turn in addressing "his people"? He is wrong in claiming that it is nothing but a quotation from the Old Testament, precisely because our Lord uses the Old Testament reference as a basis upon which to build. Hence, the foundation had to be secure else the building would have been flawed and the teaching erroneous. Indeed, Nygren himself claims that "Agape can never be 'self-evident'." In making such a claim, Nygren has undercut any possibility for the hearers of our Lord to understand any discourse in which our Lord uses the term "Agape." And yet Nygren writes that "it can be shown that the Agape motif forms the principal theme of a whole series of Parables." What is meant by this statement is that Nygren's specific interpretation of Agape forms the principal theme of a whole series of Parables. If this is the case, then those hearing the parables could not have understood them, for they certainly did not comprehend Agape in the specificity defined by Nygren, and hence the parables — according to the inner logic of Nygren's position — were meaningless to the contemporaries of our Lord, to his hearers.
To be filled by the love of and for God is the monastic ideal. In the Gospel of St. Matthew (22:34-40) our Lord is asked which is the greatest commandment. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [understanding]. This the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. In these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” — αγαπήσεις κύριον τον θεόν σου εν ολη τη καρδία σου και εν ολη τη ψυχή σον και εν ολη τη διάνοια σον. αυτη εστίν ή μεγάλη και πρώτη εντολή, δευτέρα δε όμοια αύτη, αγαπήσεις τον πλησίον σον ώς σεαντόν. εν ταύταις ταις δυσίν έντολαις ολος ό νόμος κρέμαται και οι προφήται. The monastic and ascetic ideal is to cultivate the love of the heart, the soul, and the mind for God. Anders Nygren's commentary on this text in his Agape and Eros is characteristic of his general position. "It has long been recognized that the idea of Agape represents a distinctive and original feature of Christianity. But in what precisely does its originality and distinctiveness consist? This question has often been answered by reference to the Commandment of Love. The double commandment, ‘Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all they heart’ and ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ has been taken as the natural starting-point for the exposition of the meaning of Christian love. Yet the fact is that if we start with the commandment, with Agape as something demanded, we bar our own way to the understanding of the idea of Agape... If the Commandment of Love can be said to be specifically Christian, as undoubtedly it can, the reason is to be found, not in the commandment as such, but in the quite new meaning that Christianity has given it... To reach an understanding of the Christian idea of love simply by reference to the Commandment of Love is therefore impossible; to attempt it is to move in a circle. We could never discover the nature of Agape, love in the Christian sense, if we had nothing to guide us but the double command... It is not the commandment that explains the idea of Agape, but insight into the Christian conception of Agape that enables us to grasp the Christian meaning of the commandment. We must therefore seek another starting-point" (pp. 61-63).
This is indeed an odd position for one who comes from the tradition of sola Scriptura, for the essence of his position is not sola Scriptura but precisely that Scripture must be interpreted — and here the interpretation comes not from within the matrix of early Christianity but from afar, from an interpretation that to a great extent depends on an interpretation of Christianity that came into the history of Christian thought approximately 1500 years after the beginning of Christian teaching, and that is with the assumption that Nygren is following the general position of Luther. In his analysis of certain interpretations of what constitutes the uniqueness of Christian love and in his rejection of these interpretations as that which determines the uniqueness of Christian love Nygren is in part correct. "This, in fact, is the root-fault of all the interpretations we have so far considered; they fail to recognize that Christian love rests on a quite definite, positive basis of its own. What, then, is this basis?" Nygren approaches the essence of the issue but neglects the important aspect of human ontology, a human ontology created by God. "The answer to this question may be found in the text... 'Love your enemies'. It is true that love for one's enemies is at variance with our immediate natural feelings, and may therefore seem to display the negative character suggested above; but if we consider the motive underlying it we shall see that it is entirely positive. The Christian is commanded to love his enemies, not because the other side teaches hatred of them, but because there is a basis and motive for such love in the concrete, positive fact of God's own love for evil men. 'He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good'. That is why we are told: 'Love your enemies... that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven'." What Nygren writes here is accurate. But it neglects the significance of human ontology; that is, that we are commanded to love our enemies because there is a spiritual value within the very fabric of human nature created by God, even fallen nature, and that that spiritual value is to be found in each and every man, however dimly we may perceive it. If we begin to love our enemy, we will begin to perceive in that enemy characteristics, aspects that were veiled, that were dimmed by the blindness of our hatred. We are commanded to love our enemy not only because God loves mankind, not only because God "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good" but God loves mankind because there is a value in mankind. Nygren writes (p.79) that "the suggestion that man is by nature possessed of such an inalienable value easily gives rise to the thought that it is this matchless value on which God's love is set." It is perhaps inaccurate to assert that Nygren misses the central issue that that which is of value in man is God-created, God-given.
It is more accurate to assert that Nygren rejects completely the issue, and he does so because of his theological doctrine of God and man. This again is part of that great divide which separates certain churches within the ecumenical dialogue. There is a basic and fundamental difference of vision on the nature of God and man. One view claims its position is consistent with apostolic Christianity, consistent with the apostolic deposit, and consistent with the teaching and life of the early Church and of the Church in all ages. Another view begins with the Reformation. Both views claim the support of the New Testament. Luther's writings on the Divine nature of love are not only interesting but valuable, not only penetrating but in one emphasis accurate. Indeed, if one considers Luther's doctrine of Divine love by itself, exclusive of his other doctrines, especially those on the nature of man, the nature of salvation, the nature of justification, the doctrine of predestination and grace, one encounters a view not dissimilar from that of ancient Orthodox Christianity. At times Luther can even appear to be somewhat mystically inclined. Luther's well-known description of Christian love as "eine quellende Liebe" [a welling or ever-flowing love] is by itself an Orthodox view. For Luther, as for the Fathers of the Church, this love has no need of anything, it is not caused, it does not come into existence because of a desired object, it is not aroused by desirable qualities of an object. It is the nature of God. But, at the same time, it is God who created mankind and hence the love of God for mankind, though in need of nothing and attracted by nothing, loves mankind not because of a value in man but because there is value in man because man is created by God. Herein lies the difference and it is indeed a great divide when one considers the differing views on the other subjects closely related to the nature of Divine love.
Article published in English on: 9-4-2008.
Last update: 9-4-2008.