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I was listening to Dr Matthew Raphael Johnson's podcast the other day (Russian scholar/Orthodox Priest/Nationalist troublemaker) and he launched into a somewhat polemical criticism of Catholic theology by outlining what he perceives to be a fundamental flaw in our understanding of supernatural grace in the Catholic Church. He maintains that the Catholic Church falsely teaches a theory of created grace - that us Catholics deviated from true Christian orthodoxy by teaching that we can only encounter supernatural grace by interacting with a Catholic priest or bishop who alone have the power and authority to confect grace through indulgences and sacraments. Grace can only exist in the world, so it is alleged, if there are bishops. No bishops, no grace. Thus, this is called 'created grace'. It is argued that Eastern Orthodoxy avoided this error by resisting the filioque and thus maintaining a fuller understanding of the action of the Holy Spirit in the world. Moreover, Dr Johnson believes this error in Western Christianity is the cause of the philosophical errors which birthed the Nominalism and Cartesian Rationalism which laid waste to everything else.

Now I need to declare from the outset that I am no expert on theology and there are people who are far more knowledgeable on the subject of this forum than I. But his criticism did resonate with me because, TBF, I really don't like the Catholic teaching that when we commit a mortal sin our prayers have no efficacy with God because our grace is cut off entirely and we need to seek out a priest to absolve us to get back into a state of grace. The idea that God is not constantly drenching us in grace, even after we have committed sin, out of the goodness of his heart is odd to me because as a loving, living intelligent being, it doesn't seem right that God would limit our access to grace through means which are purely mechanical, by restricting our access to 'grace vending machines' in every confessional and altar. I believe that God has established these sacraments for our convenience to help us regain grace because we need practical guidance and they have pedagogical value, but the idea that the access is limited to these institutional mechanisms seems to me to be too churlish for our all-merciful God. 

Is there a point to Dr Johnson's Orthodox polemics against the Catholic Church's economy of grace or is he painting an unfair picture here?

Sidenote: the created grace critique interestingly tries to link these errors with a perceived poverty in Catholic understanding of the Holy Spirit due to the Filioque Controversy and often it assumes that the Gregorian Reforms created a discontinuity with past practices in the Church: it is alleged that the Gregorian Reforms codified the sacraments of the Catholic Church to an extent that they broke with a more liberal understanding of grace existing before hand in the Church where grace is viewed as being accessible to everyone through personal prayer and penance. And so the argument is that the Gregorian Reforms represented a consolidation of this error of created grace in Western Christianity.

Here is the podcast:


I have not listened to the podcast yet but I will do. I am meditating the issue of created grace and divine energies very often because I have the impression that this question is the most important difference between catholic and orthodox theology. However, I am not absolutely sure now who is right, but I tend to agree with Gregorius Palamas that grace is not created because otherwise 2 Peter 1,3-4 would not really make sense.
If you want to question the orthodox position, I would challenge their metaphysical base. Thomist philosophy is very profound and especially the teaching of act and potency is absolutely meaningful and I cannot imagine any alternative to it. The difference between act and potency leads straight to the conclusion that God has to be pure act. A pure act cannot have anything in potency and divine energies which are not the divine essence would be something in potency. There would be some kind of inner-divine division and that threatens the simplicity of God. The simplicity of God is a central teaching of the church fathers, the Bible and the councils.
(06-22-2017, 06:03 AM)Guingamp Wrote: [ -> ]I have not listened to the podcast yet but I will do. I am meditating the issue of created grace and divine energies very often because I have the impression that this question is the most important difference between catholic and orthodox theology. However, I am not absolutely sure now who is right, but I tend to agree with Gregorius Palamas that grace is not created because otherwise 2 Peter 1,3-4 would not really make sense.
If you want to question the orthodox position, I would challenge their metaphysical base. Thomist philosophy is very profound and especially the teaching of act and potency is absolutely meaningful and I cannot imagine any alternative to it. The difference between act and potency leads straight to the conclusion that God has to be pure act. A pure act cannot have anything in potency and divine energies which are not the divine essence would be something in potency. There would be some kind of inner-divine division and that threatens the simplicity of God. The simplicity of God is a central teaching of the church fathers, the Bible and the councils.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Guingamp. Thoughtful and well-informed as always!
I'm sorry but from just reading your paraphrasing Dr Johnson, it sounds like he is arguing in the same vein as Luther.  In that, there is no need for bishops and they only exist for sake of convenience...yet my understanding of how the priesthood of the Old Testament was, does not fit the liberal view of salvation.  That simply by the power of prayer man can redeem himself.

It should also be said, that the Church has never denounced the idea that one can be saved without actually receiving the Sacraments.  Baptism of Blood, Baptism of Desire, and Reconciliation through Perfect Contrition are all valid in the eyes of the Magisterium.  It's just these are extra-ordinary phenomenon that are not common, and thus the ordinary way to salvation is to actually receive the Sacraments, which comes from the priest (exception to Baptism) which can be performed by anyone.
(06-22-2017, 07:29 AM)austenbosten Wrote: [ -> ]I'm sorry but from just reading your paraphrasing Dr Johnson, it sounds like he is arguing in the same vein as Luther.  In that, there is no need for bishops and they only exist for sake of convenience...yet my understanding of how the priesthood of the Old Testament was, does not fit the liberal view of salvation.  That simply by the power of prayer man can redeem himself.

It should also be said, that the Church has never denounced the idea that one can be saved without actually receiving the Sacraments.  Baptism of Blood, Baptism of Desire, and Reconciliation through Perfect Contrition are all valid in the eyes of the Magisterium.  It's just these are extra-ordinary phenomenon that are not common, and thus the ordinary way to salvation is to actually receive the Sacraments, which comes from the priest (exception to Baptism) which can be performed by anyone.

Remember, the Eastern Orthodox don't have distinctions such as mortal versus venial sin. And they don't seem to put as much stress as Catholics do on frequent reception of Eucharist and confession. What I like about the Orthodox is that I suspect their less legalistic approach to sacraments and grace in a way which diffused the tensions which led to Martin Luther's heresy. Luther's break came as a result of his yo-yoing back and forth between mortal sin and the confessional. He seemed like a poor candidate for religious life as well due to his temperament. The guy just couldn't get a hold on his lust and his alcoholism. 
(06-22-2017, 06:03 AM)Guingamp Wrote: [ -> ]I have not listened to the podcast yet but I will do. I am meditating the issue of created grace and divine energies very often because I have the impression that this question is the most important difference between catholic and orthodox theology. However, I am not absolutely sure now who is right, but I tend to agree with Gregorius Palamas that grace is not created because otherwise 2 Peter 1,3-4 would not really make sense.

I agree that the essence/energy-distinction is the major difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It has real effects on your prayer life….yet not in the extreme way portrayed by Dr. Johnson. The Carmelite mysticism of the 16th century could never have developed if Catholics really held the view that "they only are able to encounter supernatural grace by interacting with a Catholic priest or bishop". Mental prayer has always been part of our tradition, sometimes more explicitly, sometimes more implicitly.

However, very often in Catholic thinking there is a too strong emphasis on the chasm between creature and Creator that chokes prayer life and portrays God as a distant judge, instead of presenting Him as a loving Father and brother. I find the Orthodox approach much more adequate in this respect.
Until recently, I was pretty sure that Eastern and Western theology concerning the essence/energy-distinction could be reconciled. However, guingamp is starting to convince me that I'll have to choose a side  :-) At the moment, I find the Eastern approach much more convincing than the Latin position.

(06-22-2017, 06:03 AM)Guingamp Wrote: [ -> ]If you want to question the orthodox position, I would challenge their metaphysical base. Thomist philosophy is very profound and especially the teaching of act and potency is absolutely meaningful and I cannot imagine any alternative to it. The difference between act and potency leads straight to the conclusion that God has to be pure act. A pure act cannot have anything in potency and divine energies which are not the divine essence would be something in potency. There would be some kind of inner-divine division and that threatens the simplicity of God. The simplicity of God is a central teaching of the church fathers, the Bible and the councils.

An Orthodox might answer this objection in this way:

- Although God is simplicity itself, simplicity is not His essence, but rather a divine energy

- God is no more multiple because of His powers tjam the soul is because of its powers, or than the center of a circle is because of its power to produce the points of the circle.

The Catholic might object: But in the case of the divine energies the multiplicity is not only one of powers, but of "realities" that can be participated by creatures. To what the Orthodox might offer the following two analogies:

- The divine essence is to its energies as the sun to its rays.

- The divine essence is to its energies as the mind to its distinct items of knowledge.

This means that the relation of unity-in-multiplicity is not that of an entity to its powers, but that of an entity to its equally actual manifestations. The sun is known through its rays, and likewise the intellect is imparticiable in its essence but particiable in what it knows. Of course the rays and the items of knowledge do not exist apart from the sun and the mind, but that is as it should be.

(These arguments are from Gregory Palamas, as presented in "Aristotle East and West" by Bradshaw)
(06-22-2017, 05:01 AM)Pacman Wrote: [ -> ]TBF, I really don't like the Catholic teaching that when we commit a mortal sin our prayers have no efficacy with God because our grace is cut off entirely and we need to seek out a priest to absolve us to get back into a state of grace. The idea that God is not constantly drenching us in grace, even after we have committed sin, out of the goodness of his heart is odd to me because as a loving, living intelligent being, it doesn't seem right that God would limit our access to grace through means which are purely mechanical, by restricting our access to 'grace vending machines' in every confessional and altar. I believe that God has established these sacraments for our convenience to help us regain grace because we need practical guidance and they have pedagogical value, but the idea that the access is limited to these institutional mechanisms seems to me to be too churlish for our all-merciful God. 
Pacman, sorry but I think you may be making a serious mistake here. Yes, you lose sanctifying grace when you commit mortal sin, but that doesn't mean God doesn't continue to provide us with actual grace. He can and does provide us with actual graces so that we can return to Him. Sometimes He does drench us in these graces! It is absolutely true that we no longer MERIT when we lose sancitifying grace - how could someone lacking this participation in Christ really achieve anything supernaturally meritorious? I think you are rejecting a false notion of the Catholic understanding of grace.

And no, not all means of grace are mechanical, but God did absolutely intend to bring salvation to the world through His Church so we shouldn't be surprised that there are specific and well-defined ways in which we can receive salvific grace from the Body He ordained to dispense graces. Or would we rather let all means of grace be fuzzy and difficult to identify?

While we are talking about exclusivity, please be aware that there is a sizeable chunk of the Orthodox community that believes that they and they alone have the corner market on the Holy Spirit. Remember, these people can't even be bothered or will downright refuse to say whether the Catholic Church has valid Orders.
The Orthodox position (and Eastern Catholic) seems more intuitively correct to me, but I'm not trained in philosophy or theology.  It seems both the Catholic and the Orthodox side are militantly opposed to each other on this, both saying that their opponents position leads to atheism or agnosticism.Its head spinning in its intricate abstraction.

At least from an intuitive and pragmatic level I think the Essence/Energies distinction and Uncreated grace is much more helpful and less stark than the strict, almost mechanistic Thomist position of grace being some abstract creation that, once lost by sin,plunged the soul into outee darkness lest it redeems itself through sacramental confession.
(06-22-2017, 10:47 AM)JosefSilouan Wrote: [ -> ]The Catholic might object: But in the case of the divine energies the multiplicity is not only one of powers, but of "realities" that can be participated by creatures. To what the Orthodox might offer the following two analogies:

- The divine essence is to its energies as the sun to its rays.


- The divine essence is to its energies as the mind to its distinct items of knowledge.
Yes, the analogy presents the orthodox position very well but it also presents the metaphysical problem clearly. The rays are not the sun and for that reason they are to some degree in potency. Every kind of divisibility destroys the strict idea of divine simplicity.

We are really facing more than a metaphysical problem. We are facing a totally different approach to theology. The idea of divine energies is caused by the experience of the saints and the whole approach of orthodox theology is (as Romanides and metropolitan Vlachos of Nafpaktos call it) empirical. The experience of the saints, the experience of the divine light necessitates a theology of a distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies. The catholic idea of created grace is much more rooted in a philosophical background and caused by rational reflection. I think that both sides are to some degree justified by scripture and tradition (most of the fathers do not seem to know the distinction, and many texts in scripture support the idea of a huge distancy between man and God). So, if you want to challenge the orthodox understanding of divine grace, it may be also helpful to challenge the whole empirical approach of theology.
I think, the orthodox way of doing theology is not without danger and it is to some degree comparable to the modernist understandig of theology because the modernists usually overemphasize the relevance of experience and devaluate the importance of the intellectual content of the dogmas. If you are able to defend the value of logical reasoning for theology and spread doubt about the importance of experience, that would be a good point in favor of catholicism.
(06-22-2017, 01:18 PM)Guingamp Wrote: [ -> ]I think, the orthodox way of doing theology is not without danger and it is to some degree comparable to the modernist understandig of theology because the modernists usually overemphasize the relevance of experience and devaluate the importance of the intellectual content of the dogmas. If you are able to defend the value of logical reasoning for theology and spread doubt about the importance of experience, that would be a good point in favor of catholicism.

I don't think this would be a fair argument. You really can't compare an Athonite monk to modernist Charismatics who dance their names to guitar tunes :-) The 'experience' Orthodox theologians talk about must always conform with:

- the literal truth of the Scriptures
- all Dogmas formulated in the first seven ecumenical councils
- the tradition of the fathers
- the instruction of/obedience to a spiritual teacher or elder

I don't know any modernist who would subordinate his experience to any of these factors.

Furthermore, if you denied the importance of experience, this would undermine the infallibility of the inspiration of both the Holy Scripture and Tradition. How, for example, did John come to the conclusion that "God is Love"? As far as we know, this statement wasn't uttered by Our Lord. And it isn't the kind of statement you come up with through logical reasoning. On the contrary, it seems to have been derived from having experienced the "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob -- not of the philosophers and scholars."

Quote: ...many texts in scripture support the idea of a huge distancy between man and God

Many texts of the OT certainly do, and they express an undeniable truth. However, the incarnation changed the structure of the cosmos in ways we cannot even imagine. If there exists a man who is also God, the distance between man and God can't really be called absolute anymore.
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