For all its diversity and divisions, the Christian faith still holds forth a common agreed narrative: it is the problem of sin met with God's promise of salvation. However, disagreement begins with the effort to quantify these two essentials. Those of us in the Western church may be acutely aware of how these are disputed between the Catholic and Protestant traditions,1 even within them,2 but less conscious of a wider divergence from the Eastern church.
This divergence, although partially the result of unfolding history - the Latin West and Greek East, each developing its own distinctions according to the pressures it faced3 - has given rise to notably different presentations of the human condition, rooted in the writings of the patristic theologians celebrated in each stream to this day. J. Patout Burns identifies two figures in particular as exemplifying these two traditions: Gregory of Nyssa for the East, Augustine for the West.4 Both wrote extensively on the impact of sin and assurance of salvation, yet each interpreted these very differently, such that Eastern and Western theology can seem incompatible in these matters.
How, then, did Gregory and Augustine, and with them East and West, arrive at such a disparity? Such a question brings with it a daunting prospect, given the vast scope of the topic and the prolific work of each writer. Therefore, in this paper, we will narrow our assessment to how each understood the fall of humanity, and God's response to it. In doing so we may find that, far from being incompatible, the Eastern and Western traditions may combine to offer a richer perspective on God's redemptive work in His image.
1. Consider, for example, the tenets of sola scriptura or sola fide.
2. Within Protestantism, consider the significance of baptism (E.g. Sheila D. Klopfer, “From Personal Salvation To Personal Baptism: The Shaping Influence Of Evangelical Theology On Baptism,” Baptist History and Heritage 45 (2010): 65-79, pp.65-77); within Catholicism, consider the changing face of purgatory (E.g. John E. Thiel, “Time, Judgement and Competitive Spirituality: A Reading of the Development of the Doctrine of Purgatory,” Theological Studies 69 (2008): 741-85, pp.741-42, or Robert L. Kinast, “The Pope, Purgatory and Process Theology,” Encounter 73 (2013), pp.39-46).
3. Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (London: SPCK, 2013), xiii-xx.
4. J. Patout Burns, “The Economy of Salvation: Two Patristic Traditions,” Theological Studies 37 (1976): 598-619, p. 599.