Father James Bernstein
Is the Christianity of the Gospel today outdated? In our multicultural and transcultural world, it seems so. And if we, however, choose to remain Christians, many of us would prefer to be emancipated from the Orthodox „fundamentalism” of the Fathers, of the Holy Canons and the Tradition.
In the core of the transcultural world, an American Jew chooses to become Christian and even Orthodox Christian! He chooses to be a priest of God Most High. He chooses to feed his soul with the Scriptures and the „classical” Parents. From the core of the multiculturalism, this American Jew urges us to remain „traditional” Christians, to return to the sources, the Parents and the Gospel. We present the third part of the interview that Father James Bernstein has granted exclusively to our magazine. (Tatiana Petrache)
We find that the contemporary Orthodox theology has many confused aspects, many scholastic and secular influences, especially at the academic level. How did you come to discover true Orthodox theology? Who are the contemporary theologians who have helped you in this regard?
As a graduate of St Vladimir Seminary in New York I had exposure to academic theologians from all over the world as we had many guest speakers and teachers. At that time those that had the greatest influence on me were the professors that were part of the Russian Émigré especially Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Fr. John Meyendorff. Fr. Thomas Hopko also had a great impact. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware often visited and was highly respected. In the 80s there were a limited number of Orthodox books available in English. In contrast today there are a great and growing number! The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky was highly regarded. Unfortunately at that time in seminary I was exposed to what is called “higher Biblical criticism” view of the Bible – especially the Old Testament. I was very much against this academic approach to Scripture (and still am) and found it to have a detrimental impact spiritually on the students.
After my ordination to the priesthood and move to Seattle Washington in the Pacific Northwest I read and reread books as: Unseen Warfare , The Ladder of Divine Ascent, The Arena, The Discourses of St. Dorotheos of Gaza, parts of the Philokalia and St John Cassian’s Conferences (unabridged). These are the books that really helped form my thinking and spirituality. Also the Psalms in Hebrew, portions of which I memorize and try to repeat throughout the day. My very favorite book is Unseen Warfare which was written by Fr. Lorenzo Scupoli in 16th century Italy and then edited by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (18th cent.) and revised by St. Theophan the Reclusw (19th cent.).
At that time my personal exposure to monasticism was very limited. With the establishment of Elder Ephraim’s Greek Athonite monasteries in the U.S. especially St. Anthony in Arizona and the convent of St. John the Forerunner in Goldendale, Washington State – my exposure increased. And the impact upon me for good increased as well.
During these years I read many of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos’ books, and also Fr. John Romanides. You will be surprised to know that I am a very slow reader! Actually I have not read many books. What books that I do read focus on classic Orthodox spirituality and are patristic rather than of recent saints and elders. This may be a flaw in me but I find that focusing on a select few books, the Bible, the Psalms in Hebrew, and the spiritual classics mentioned above I do best. They provide more than enough inspiration to seek a deeper spiritual life! Sometimes I think that the more one reads the more difficult it is to focus. Some call it spiritual gluttony.
Your question makes mention of contemporary theology being confused with many scholastic and secular influences, especially at the academic level. This is true. It presents a very great danger as its impact is to increase secularism and relativism in the church. An undermining of our historic and traditional theology and morality. I present in the concluding part of my book, part 3, entitled Discovering Salvation with Depth an understanding of salvation that is rooted in the Biblical and Patristic ethos and could be described as non-academic. It strongly emphasizes the 3 fold process of purification, illumination and theosis (deification) utilizing the sacramental life of the Church and personal asceticism and prayer. It also emphasizes the Orthodox Church as being the only One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Christ and the Apostles. That salvation is only to be found in her. Yet we do not know the eternal state of any person outside of her. Only God knows and will judge. We should not judge now before God Himself judges.
„God loves us”
You specify in your book that the teaching of ancestral sin is one of the main differences between Orthodox theology and scholastic theology. What are the implications of this view on man’s salvation? You say that the Christian Orthodox view regarding the sin is very similar to the Judaic one. Please develop this point!
Chapter 14 in my book focuses on the issue of ancestral sin. A number of chapters following describe in depth how the view of ancestral sin impacts our understanding of salvation. All interpretations of the Biblical Fall assume that man turned away from God, and as a result fell from a position of intimacy with God to a state of confusion and death. Sin, mortality, and death, both spiritual and physical, were the direct result of man’s disobedience. In this scenario of what is called “the Fall,” the next major assumption often made by non-Orthodox churches is that death was the direct result of a punitive sentence pronounced by God. That is, God made a law—“you shall not eat of the fruit, for if you do you will surely die”—and when Adam and Eve broke that law, death resulted from God’s punitive proclamation. The action and resultant punishment are understood as being of a juridical nature. In this non-Orthodox understanding of the Fall, God had no choice but to declare that Adam and Eve would die. The punitive action was demanded by a necessity to which God Himself was bound. The necessity of being just.
In contrast to this juridical view of the Fall, the Orthodox hold that when God told Adam he would die if he ate the forbidden fruit, it was a simple statement of fact. The Lord was essentially saying, “If you turn from Me, the only source of life, then death will be the outcome.” The Orthodox understood the statement to be a warning, not a threat of retributive justice. In Orthodox thought, the great sin is not that they disobeyed a law, but rather that they sought to discover knowledge and sustenance apart from God. The non-Orthodox view stressed that death is God’s direct retributive judgment on man for having broken His law, while the Orthodox view stressed that death is a self-imposed condition resulting from man’s turning away from God, who alone is the source of life.
You ask “What are the implications of this view on man’s salvation?” The implications are actually very great. Because for us Orthodox death is not viewed as a juridical issue, neither is its cure. And this understanding related to my upbringing in Judaism.
My youthful experience in Judaism taught me that God loves. Though we had many laws to fulfill, God was always presented as merciful and forgiving. Salvation was never taught as our being delivered from God’s wrath. In my eighteen years as a Protestant, I came to view salvation as our being saved from the wrath of God and from the hell that He created for the lost. Salvation essentially meant to avoid hell and go to heaven. As an Orthodox Christian, I was being taught that salvation means being saved not from God’s wrath, but from the power of the three great enemies: sin, death, and the devil.
Another huge difference in the two views of ancestral sin is how the question, “How Fallen are we?” is answered. The answer to this question depends on two things: What was the state from which we fell, and to what state have we fallen? I discovered that in non-Orthodox Christianity, both the height from which we fell and the depth to which we have fallen are held to be much greater than in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Christian approach meshed well with the Orthodox Jewish understanding with which I was raised. Both have a much more favorable view of man than is presented in non-Orthodox Christianity, especially in the Calvinist view that man fell from a state of perfection to a state of total depravity, retaining no ability within himself to return to God.
In contrast, in the Orthodox Christian view, the Fall damages the spiritual eye but does not destroy it. We are not totally blind, because having been created in the image and likeness of God, we still retain free will and some degree of desire for God. Faith remains within us, though it may be the size of a mustard seed.
„Each era presents its unique set of challenges”
As a spiritual Father living in a cosmopolitan and secular world, do you think it is still possible to live a Christian life nowadays? What does it mean to live the Gospel in today’s world?
Each era presents its unique set of challenges for Orthodox Christians. Beginning with pagan Rome in which it was illegal to be a Christian, the Patristic era in which the Church fought off innumerable heresies and schisms, the rise of Islam and resulting wars and persecutions, the Tarter invasion, the fall of Byzantium, the Communist Revolution and Soviet Russia, the rise of secularism and aggressive atheism. Each generation has provided both challenges and opportunities to live as salt and light in a darkened world. In that regard we have much that we can learn from our predecessors. As many of them have walked through the fire, survived and were better for it.
We do have unique challenges today including the pervasiveness and ready availability of corrupting influences via technology, addicting entertainment, pornography, drugs and all the abundance that luxury provides. Secularism, hedonism, atheism are pervasive. The dominant view in the West is that Christianity has failed and has nothing good to offer us in this age. The intensity in which these corrupting influences have become invasive is for many, especially the young, overwhelmingly irresistible. Where as in previous generations these views were somewhat distant, modern technology, media, cell phones, television, movies have made the corrupting messages immediate and constantly present.
Equally dangerous, in my opinion, is the weakening of the traditional Orthodox refuge/fortress of the Orthodox Church and those we would rely upon for protection against this demonic invasion of our spirituality. Syncretism, heresy and apostasy among Church leaders and academics who view themselves as being more “relevant” to this present age. In seeking to address the issues of our age in language understandable to the culture – which is supposedly more sensitive and loving – they compromise and distort our essential message and life. By seeking to be less offensive and more acceptable they willfully and sometimes unwittingly are undermining the Gospel / Orthodox Faith. This they do because they hold that traditional Orthodoxy has failed and has become increasingly irrelevant to peoples needs. They want to fill the gap by reinterpreting, “correcting” and changing the Faith.
The whole hearted embracing of the Ecumenical Movement and resulting de-facto acceptance of the branch theory of the Church (which Protestants and increasingly Roman Catholics believe) may result is schism and confusion/apostasy among the Orthodox. A falling away among Orthodox who are not well founded. There is also along with this the danger that the monastics that have traditionally served as a kind of anchor for the Church may weaken and succumb under pressure to the forces of compromise and corruption. Increasingly those who we would look to for inspiration and encouragement are succumbing to a false humility and timidity.
There are in my mind trends that indicate that we may be closer to the second coming of Christ than we think. First is the fulfilling of the prophecy of Christ that the concluding days would be exceeding corrupt as in the days of Noah and of Sodom and Gommorrah (Luke 17:26-30) and that unless there was Divine intervention “no flesh would be saved” (Matthew 24:21,22) which may well be being fulfilled with the advent of nuclear warfare. The technology that could destroy all life did not exist before. Second: A major falling away from the Church – apostasy and heresy – which we are witnessing today. Third: The Jewish people play a providential role in the last days as described by St. Paul in Romans chapter 9,10 and 11.
(to be continued)
The article can be found translated in Romanian in August 2019 edition of the Orthodox Family Magazine.