Here's something I found on the St. Herman of Alaska site:
Justification by Faith Alone: An Orthodox Perspective
by Brian Lehr
Webmaster's note: The following letter is a response to a good friend of mine, a Protestant Pastor, who had asked me a question about the Orthodox teaching on Justification by Faith Alone. I will refer to this friend as Peter.
Oct. 29, 1998
Several weeks ago we had a conversation on the phone which got me thinking. You had mentioned last year’s Christian History magazine which dealt with the subject of Eastern Orthodoxy. You said that one of the things that really bothered you in the magazine articles was a statement you read about justification by faith alone. I’m afraid I didn’t provide a very articulate answer to your question. I knew the Church strongly believed in salvation (or else I wouldn’t become a part of it), but it had been over a year or so since I looked into this particular subject, and thus was not able to provide you with an adequate explanation as to what the Orthodox Church teaches about this doctrine. So I decided to go dig out the books again, and refresh my own memory on this particular subject.
I’m afraid that as I get older, I find that I can more clearly place my thoughts on paper, rather than verbalize them in a telephone conversation. This is to my own detriment, as it does not allow for proper interaction. Nevertheless, after having restudied the material before me, I’ve decided to write my answer to you in this letter. I hope it helps answer your question regarding how the Orthodox Church understands salvation and justification by faith alone. I’ve also inclosed a booklet I wrote for those who were asking me "Why would a Pentecostal Pastor want to enter such a dead Church?" I hope it also serves to answer other questions that you’ve perhaps had.
After our conversation, I re-read the Christian History magazine. I wanted to find the exact place that you were referring to. After going through the magazine several times, the only place that I can find that referred to justification by faith alone in such a manner as might cause you concern is on page 35, where it says:
"The central issue raised by the Reformation was how a person could stand just before a holy God - How can I be saved? For traditional Protestants, the answer to this question is expressed in Paul’s doctrine of 'justification by faith alone...' It is fascinating to observe the total absence of the doctrine of justification by faith in large segments of Orthodox history and theology." The author of this article was Daniel Clendenin, an Evangelical professor of Christian studies at Moscow State University. The article was excerpted from Clendenin’s book, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective, of which I have a copy. I’ll be referring to him a little later.
First of all, I want to start by saying that the Orthodox Church most definitely does NOT believe in a salvation by works. Salvation is wholly and completely an act of Grace by God. It is received by man through faith. Fr. Anthony Coniaris, in his book, An Introduction to the Orthodox Church, reminds us that our works are not meritorious in God’s sight:
"Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, 'For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.' This verse seems to contradict the one just before it: 'For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God - not because of works lest any man should boast;' (Ephesians 2:8-9). One verse says: 'You have been saved...not because of works,' and the next says: 'Created in Christ Jesus for good works.' Far from contradicting each other, these verses give us the Orthodox Christian position concerning good works. Good works do not produce salvation, but salvation produces good works. We are not saved because of good works, but we are saved for good works."
That being said, we both know that no doctrine can be fully summarized in such a short paragraph. This is especially true in regards to soteriology, for many other doctrines are by necessity brought into the picture (ie: the spiritual state of fallen man; water baptism; the purpose of the sacraments; theosis; etc). But let me expand on two issues in particular: the role of faith vs. works, and justification by faith alone.
In the Orthodox Church, the issue of Faith vs. Works was never an issue as it was in Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The Eastern Church has always understood salvation to be a doctrine of synergy - God in His sovereignty does His part; man is responsible to do his: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling...for it is God who is at work within you..." This is really no different than you and I have always preached as Protestants. We recognize that it is not enough just to begin the Christian life (wherever that beginning might be - either at baptism for the Orthodox, or a public profession of faith for the Protestant), but we must continue on in the faith - "He who perseveres to the end shall be saved."
In light of this, consider also this prayer, said every morning by Orthodox Christians around the world:
O my plenteously-merciful and all-merciful God, Lord Jesus Christ, through Thy great love Thou didst come down and become incarnate so that Thou mightest save all. And again, O Saviour, save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee. For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty; yea, Thou who art great in compassion and ineffable in mercy. "For he that believeth in me," Thou hast said, O my Christ, "shall live and never see death." If then, faith in Thee saveth the desperate, behold, I believe, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works which could justify me. But may my faith suffice instead of all works... But the prayer doesn’t stop there. It goes on to show that our faith is not to be separated from works:
Vouchsafe me, O Lord, to love Thee now as fervently as I once loved sin itself, and also to work for Thee without idleness, diligently, as I worked before for deceptive Satan. But supremely shall I work for Thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
St. Polycarp (69-156 AD), personal companion and disciple of the apostle John, puts it this way in his Letter to the Philippians (chap. 2): "He who raised Him up from the dead will also raise us up - if we do His will and walk in His commandments and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness."
So, if you were to ask an Orthodox Christian if he is saved by his works, he will say “Absolutely not!” But if you ask him if works has any part to play in his eternal salvation, he would quickly say "Absolutely!" If you were to ask him if he is saved by faith, he would respond "Absolutely!" But if you asked if he were saved by faith alone, his response would be "Absolutely not!"
How can this be? How does it all work out together? To answer such questions is to delve into mysteries of the faith that God has not chosen to clearly reveal to us (Deut. 29:29). You see, the Orthodox Church is not bent on dissecting and categorizing every doctrine in a Western, intellectual manner, but is content with leaving such details with God (as they do with the doctrine of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, etc). To our rationalistic mindset, this may seem like a copout, but when an Apostle (Paul) appeals to Abraham as a classic example how "faith" saved him (Romans 4), and the Lord’s brother (James) appeals to Abraham as a classic example of how "faith without works" didn’t save him, then the Church is satisfied to say both are correct, and leave it as a mystery.
What the Church will say, however, is that while we are saved by faith, we are not saved by faith alone. In the 2000 year history of the Church, this was a teaching which only took hold less than 500 years ago in Germany. When Martin Luther began translating the Bible into German, he took the opportunity to add and delete some key words, in order to bolster his relatively new teachings in this area. Frank Schaeffer points out in his book, Dancing Alone, that Luther added the word "only" to key Biblical passages in which he revised such sentences as: "you are saved only by faith," or "you are saved by faith alone." Since Luther could then "prove" his teachings on sola fide from his new German translation of the Bible, many people eagerly accepted these teachings as Biblical!
"In 1529, Dr. Link, the pre-eminent German language scholar of the day, wrote to Luther asking him why he had been inserting words into the German Bible. Luther’s astonishing written answer nicely sums up the heart of the Protestant problem of individualistic subjectivity, 'It is so because Dr. Martin Luther says it is so!'"
If the truth be told, however, there is one place (and only one!) where the words "faith" and "alone" appear together - the Epistle of St. James, which states: "See how a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). Here we find James emphasizing the Orthodox doctrine of "Synergy": "Do you see that faith was working together [synergei] with his works, and by works faith was made perfect [or completed]" (James 2:22).
In short, the Orthodox Church strongly affirms a doctrine of salvation as follows: we are saved by grace through faith - but not by faith alone (James 2:24).
So why, then, do the Orthodox not have a clearly defined doctrine of Justification, as Clendenin points out in the Christian History quote which was the catalyst for this letter? Simply put, it is because the Orthodox Church sees justification and sanctification as one divine actionGÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âªone continuous process, instead of seeing them broken down into parts and pieces. They see the bigger picture of salvation as encompassing all of life, and not just as an event that happened at a certain time in the individual’s past. Does this mean that the Orthodox Church does not believe in justification by faith? No, it just means that they did not chose that aspect of the salvation process (or any other single aspect) to focus in on, as did the Protestant Reformers.
In fact, Clendenin clearly points this out in his book, although it was not made clear in the article to which we are referring:
"We can say, then, that in addition to theosis Eastern theologians affirm any number of biblical metaphors for salvation, including juridical ones. They acknowledge that the work of Christ cannot be reduced to any single metaphor. Thus, while legal metaphors are truly Pauline and should be affirmed, they should not be allowed to dominate, but should be 'relocated' among the host of other biblical images" Clendenin, Daniel, Eastern Orthodox Christianity:
A Western Perspective. Baker Books, 1994
In closing, while one may find it disconcerting to not see a major treatise or catechism dealing with such an important topic as justification, there are actually many such equally important doctrines not clearly defined and categorized to the Westerner’s satisfaction. Perhaps this is due to the two different mindsets that prevail between East and West. Western Christianity is busy dissecting the Faith - analyzing, scrutinizing, categorizing, taking it apart, trying to figure it out and somehow fit it all back together in a nice package that we can all understand. Eastern Christianity, however, is more concerned with living the Faith and participating in the ongoing life of the Church, daily working out our salvation with fear and trembling. In fact, Clendenin points out that, unlike the Western confessions - whether Roman Catholic or Protestant - one will not discover the essence of Orthodoxy in any dogmatic works or systematic treatises:
"Except for the monumentally important work Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (De fide orthodoxa) by John of Damascus (675-754), almost no Eastern theologians have written what we in the West have come to know as systematic theologies. In Eastern theology we find nothing at all that would compare with Aquinas’s Summa theologica, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics" Clendenin, p. 53
I hope this helps answer your original questions to me as to how the Orthodox Church views salvation, and how they understand justification by faith. As in any multifaceted diamond, there is much, much more to be said about this subject, but which were beyond the scope of this letter. Perhaps when we next get together for a visit, we’ll have the opportunity to discuss some of them. If I find that I don’t know an answer for you, that’s ok - I’ll just go home and write you another article! :-)
Love in Christ,