\What are the Similiarities and Differences in Western and Eastern Theology?

Greetings Eastern Catholicism Forum,

My last two topics in this forum have been good. And so I am emboldened to start another one. This thread is NOTE meant to be a debating thread. This is an informative thread and a open dialogue. Again, I am not interested in who’s theology is better or more correct. I want to see what is similiar in Western and Eastern Theology and then address the differences.

NOTE: There may be some times that I don’t know what something is, I will go ahead and ask the question. You guys have been most helpful and most patient with me.

If you do bring the Orthodox Church Theology in here, please state this as I can get very confused easily when talking about these subjects.

So here’s the topic:

What are the similiarities and the differences of Western and Eastern Theology?
Can you provide some good books that address Eastern Theology or links?

Thanks in advance.
God Bless,
Anathama Sit

It is really difficult to compare Western theology and Eastern/Byzantine theology. This is true partly because the two can seem so completely different, at least on the surface. It is also partly because there is really no one “Western” or “Eastern” theology. One could say that Western theology is more scholastic. But when you compare the writings of, say, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure (the two greatest scholastics), you’ll find that even within scholasticism there is HUGE variation.

The stereotypical characterization is that Western theology is more “rational” and/or “legalistic” and Eastern/Byzantine theology is more “mystical” and/or “pastoral.” (Just a side note here, I’m not speaking for any of the Oriental traditions as they are another matter entirely and I am not qualified to address their theological traditions so as to compare them to Western theology). I think the above characterization is a gross over-simplification, and usually tends to betray ignorance of Western theology, especially Western mystical theology, on the part of the person making the claim.

My own generalization, for what it’s worth, would be that Eastern/Byzantine theology is more Liturgical/Sacramental, whereas Western theology is more philosophical. In the East there is the sense that theology is about what God has revealed to us about Himself. In the West there is an emphasis on what we can discover about God through our own God-given powers. Of course both tendencies exist in East and West. We can’t have theology without Revelation. Indeed, any theology without Revelation is not theology at all, but philosophy. On the other hand, our reason is necessary to understand what has been revealed, and it aids us in plumbing the depths of that Revelation. Reason can - and for many, including many saints has - serve as a preparation for receiving Divine Revelation. So the two are very much needed.

Similarities? Both rely on Scripture and Tradition. Both put a strong emphasis on the Patristic Fathers and later Fathers/Doctors of the Church. Both look to the lives of saints as living witnesses of Tradition. Both have their scholars who developed highly complex systems of theology. Both can lead to error when taken to extreme. :blush: Both recognize that the greatest/truest theologian is the one who does theology on his knees, etc., etc., etc.

Many try to nit-pick for differences. The more I study, the more I realize that the main difference is semantics and emphasis. At the core we are all groping to express the infinite Mystery that we encounter in the Church, the Body of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.


Greetings Phillip Rolfes,

What a well-thought out and balenced post.

I liked the comment on the best theologian is the one who does theology on his knees. :thumbsup:

Your last sentence resonates deep within my soul. What prompted this question is I am reading The Face of God and it talks of Eastern Theology or Byzantine Theology and it mentioned something about The Eastern Theolgoy being one about emphasizing the relatinoship with God while Western likes to think it out. I think to get a fuller and better understanding of the Church I need to learn both and to be open to them both.

Thank you so much for that last post. I’m going to join ThatOneGuy92 and give it a :thumbsup:

God Bless,
Anathama Sit

“Face of God” is a wonderful book, as are all of Kyr Raya’s books. That being said, however, he does have a tendency to repeat certain cliches that were started in relatively recent times by popular Orthodox theologians. The cliche that Eastern theology is “mystical” and Western theology is “rational” was popularized, I believe, by Vladimir Lossky in his book “Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.” I believe in one of his books Kyr Raya repeats that cliche. :shrug: Generally when I’m reading an Eastern theologian I ignore any and every comparison and contrast they make to Western theology. I’ve found that 9 times out of 10 the comparison is just silly.

I get the sense that many Easterners, both Catholic and Orthodox, believe that Western theology consists mainly in the decrees of the Western Councils (i.e. the 14 post-Schism Councils often referred to as “ecumenical”), and the Summa Theological of St. Thomas Aquinas. With that they get the wrong impression that Westerners believe God to be some sort of logical conclusion rather than a Trinity of Persons we encounter in and through the Church. For any practicing Roman Catholic who grew up in the Church and is knowledgeable of the Faith, such a generalization is laughable. No one can read the writings of such great mystics as St. John Cassian, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Augustine (ummmm, I said the “A” word), St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, etc., etc., etc., and then make the claim that the theology of the West is “rational” with a straight face.

I remember being told once that in order to really understand Eastern/Byzantine theology, you have to experience it by regularly attending the DL, praying the daily prayers of the Byzantine tradition, praying the Jesus Prayer, as well as reading the writings of the Fathers, etc. Well, the same can be said for the West. In order to really understand the theology of the West, you do have to experience it, live it. I believe that until one has done so, one has little to no right to make the sort of comparisons and contrasts between East and West that many Easterners, both Catholic and Orthodox, make. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh.

OK I am Eastern Orthodox.

The Orthodox church has Holy Tradition as it’s source, and srcipture is a part of Holy Tradition.

The Catholic church has scripture and tradition as two sources.

We Orthodox stress deification, whereas the Catholic church is more legalistic as a general rule.

There is a bettern word than deification but I can’t recall it now.:frowning:

Of course the Eastern Catholics are less legalistic than the Roman Catholics.
We agree in most areas except the supremacy of Patriarch of Rome, the Pope.

Greetings Andrewstx,

When you say deification, I have run into this term in The Face of God, do you mean that man is raised up to the Godhead, though he does not become the Godhead?

God Bless,
Anathama Sit

The Catholic Church most certainly recognizes that the Scriptures are a part of Holy Tradition. That being said, however, it also recognizes that as the inspired Word of God, the Scriptures have a special pre-eminent place within Holy Tradition. Scripture and Tradition are not two separate sources, in Catholicism. I believe it is in Dei Verbum that the Catholic Church spoke of one source of Revelation, the person Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. That Revelation is handed down in Scripture and Tradition, but Scripture and Tradition are inseparable from one another. If the Catholic Church actually does distinguish these two sources, as you claim, it is only to highlight the special role that the Scriptures play in our Faith as the inspired Word of God.

In the spiritual/mystical tradition of the West the emphasis may not be directly on deification, but it is most certainly not legalistic. The mystical emphasis of the West focuses on a bride-bridegroom relationship between the person and Christ, on the “mystical marriage” of the soul to the divine Spouse. This emphasis is replete throughout the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Bonaventure, St. Francis of Assisi (although he didn’t write about it so much as live it), St. Therese of Lisieux, in short, every mystical father and mother of the Western tradition.

As far as Eastern Catholic beliefs are concerned, ideally they are identical to the beliefs of Orthodoxy. In reality this is not always the case, due usually to ignorance and/or bad catechesis on the part of Eastern Catholics. The role of the Papacy is hotly disputed even among Roman Catholics, and the past several Popes have called for a reform of the Papacy, recognizing that the current expression of the Papacy is far from ideal.

Supremacy is a completely different can of worms. Marduk is much better at dealing with that than I.

Deification/theosis is best defined in the words of St. Irenaeus (I believe it was Irenaeus): “God became man so that man might become god.” But you are correct. It’s not that man actually becomes an additional member of the Trinity. It is rather that he participates in the divine life of the Trinity.


I believe the alternative to “divinization” that you are looking for is “theosis.” Correct me if I’m wrong. :smiley:

One more thing with regards to the Western spiritual tradition’s emphasis on “mystical marriage.” If you read the sources you will find that the outcome of mystical marriage is practically identical to that of deification/divinization/theosis; i.e. identification with the one contemplated. St. Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” St. John the Baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” So the end of both theosis/mystical marriage is Christ fully alive in us and living through us. “Christ has no hands but yours…” is a famous quote from St. Teresa of Avila (sorry I don’t know the fully quote, but it’s quite beautiful if you can find it). Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross both say that at the highest levels of the spiritual life our wills are so united to God’s that they are one. We will what God wills, and He wills what we will.

So the end of all spiritual life is identification with the beloved, to become like God.

But EC do recognize the binding validity of these councils right?

Greetings Phillip Rolfes,

You have hit the nail on the head. It is ALL about Union with God. I believe this is the Aim and the objective of both Traditions, though they may do it in different ways.

Thanks for the explanations and answering the posts again, time to go and get a nap eventually.

God Bless,
Anathama Sit

Some do, some don’t, but all recognize the fundamental orthodoxy of these Councils, which is really more important than whether or not they are “ecumenical.” It is difficult to accept as ecumenical a council that dealt solely with disciplinary issues of the West - e.g. Lateran IV if memory serves me correctly - and did not even involve any representatives from the Eastern Churches. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and scholar, Fr. Peter Galadza, gave a wonderful talk on this very topic at an Orientale Lumen Conference a couple years ago.

The fact is that it wasn’t until relatively recently that anyone tried to draw up a list of ecumenical councils in the Roman Church. I believe St. Robert Bellarmine was the first to do so. He actually drew up a couple of lists that were divergent from one another. But the councils were dealing with disciplinary and theological issues that were only affecting the West at that time, and rarely involved the participation of anyone from the East. So I think we shouldn’t be asking whether or not a council is ecumenical, but whether or not it is orthodox in its teaching. Eastern Catholics do recognize the orthodoxy of the 14 “General Synods of the West” as Pope Paul VI called them.

Thank you for your quick reply. :smiley: As I recall they are called Ecumenical because they were presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch whom Christ referred to as we. He never said we of any other man but Peter, and this is why the Pope speaking in his office of the successor of Peter says we and us instead of I and me. This is also why there have been no Ecumenical councils from the EO post schism. (At least as far as I know they haven’t made any such claim.) [BIBLEDRB]Matthew 17:23-26[/BIBLEDRB]

No Ecumenical Councils since the post EO breaking away??

I guess this is a difference between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox. The Catholic Church I believe views all the councils as ecumenical.[Correct me if I am wrong, but please use acceptable documentation.]

Define what you mean by “all the councils”.

The Catholic Church certainly believes in a distinction between a council, and an ecumenical council. As evidenced by Western councils that are not ecumenical, such as the two councils of Orange, the Council of Hippo, and the Council of Lyons.

I’m not sure there has been such a thing as a local council since the schism, in the west, however. Meanwhile the Orthodox Churches see them as quite important, and have held countless since.

Local councils have been very important in the Catholic church since the schism. For instance, just off the top of my head, the third Plenary Council of Baltimore was essential for the church in America in that it provided a normative catechism soon adopted in most English speaking nations.

Again though the many Ecumenical councils held here were because we had the successor of the Prince of the Apostles, who alone may call or preside over an Ecumenical Council.

Greetings ThatOneGuy92,

Tis a fair question. I mean all the councils that the Catholic Church accepts as ecumenical, such as Vatican I and II ect.

God Bless,
Anathama Sit

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