In modern-day Evangelicalism, the issue of contemplative spirituality has come to the fore. People like Thomas Merton, M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating (Roman Catholics) and Richard Foster (Evangelical) have turned to the East in their search for spirituality. One possible stop point is that of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, with its idea of centering (contemplative) prayer and spiritual directors. Eastern Orthodox spirituality has a veneer of being Christian since it is practiced in the "Christian East," which for non-discerning Evangelicals means it is an acceptable Christian alternative.
The sourcebook for Eastern Orthodox spirituality is the Philokalia, a collection of writings from theologians and mystics in the East in the Hesychist tradition till the 18th century. Beginning with the Desert Fathers, and also the orthodox Eastern teachers like the Cappodocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus), the evolving Eastern spirituality soon had a center at Mt. Athos, where generations of monks practiced and refined the monastics practices from its Neo-Platonic root.
Just because something has a long history and tradition does not mean that it is right. As heirs of the Reformers, we Protestants hold to the principle of Sola Scriptura. Unfortunately, I would have to post this caveat in light of the many Radical biblicists in the modern church: Sola Scriptura is a principle of appeal to authority. It is NOT an appeal to methodology. Many biblicists practice Solo Scriptura, in which there is an appeal to Scripture without the actual need to engage with what it says IN CONTEXT. They think that the mere citation of verses with some surface similarity to their position(s) is sufficient, a method used by the heretic Charles Finney for example to deny doctrine such as total depravity. My latest interaction with biblicists has shown me how terrible the situation is within the corpse of Evangelicalism.
The main issue here is that Eastern spirituality is essentially heretical. It is a Neo-Platonic scheme of ascension towards God. The only difference between that and the Neo-Platonism in Western spirituality is the distinction between God's essence (being) and His energies (works). Deification or theosis, which is the end game for Eastern spirituality, is participation in God's energies not in His essence, thus there is no ontological fusion with God's essence per se, although it is to be questioned how much this distinction holds in practice.
Eastern Orthodoxy has a relatively simple story. Humanity is made after God's image and created good. However, Man chose to sin. This "ancestral sin" however is not original sin and is not transmitted to Adam's posterity as such. The faculty of beholding God is the nous, or the mind's "eye of the soul" [Allyne Smith, Philokalia, The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts: Selections Annotated and Explained (trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Bishop Kallistos Ware; Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2012), xi], which is darkened by the Fall but otherwise still functional. Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy is not to avert God's wrath, but rather to behold God through the usage of the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer, which would bring one to theosis.
The contrast between the Scriptures and Eastern Orthodoxy can be seen as follows:
|Eastern Orthodoxy||Biblical view|
|Goal of Man||Theosis: Participation in the Divine (p. xiii)||Glorification: Enjoy and worship God in our transformed yet still creaturely bodies|
|Nature of the Fall||Darkened mind (nous), but only impaired; sickened, not dead (pp. xi, 178)||Radically depraved sinners totally corrupt in all their faculties|
|Nature of Sin||Sin is only in sinful acts, alien to human nature (pp. 28, 126); moral||Fallen nature of Man; forensic||How to be saved||Grow towards theosis, through spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer||Justification by grace alone through faith alone|
|Individual or Corporate||Corporate setting. Spiritual directors required for growth towards theosis (p. 21)||Individual|
|Nature of salvation||Synergistic (Man needs to cooperate with God) (p. 96)||Monergistic (God alone saves)|
|How Jesus saves||Invoking Jesus' name in the "Jesus' Prayer" results in Christ burning up the impurity within the nous of the sincere believer practicing the prayer in order to grow towards theosis. (p. 113)||Meriting the righteousness in His life and death on the Cross, so as to die as an expiation and propitiation for the sins of all who repent and have faith in Him as their Savior|
|Our part in salvation||Believers ought to purify the nous from sin, and keep it from sin in the future (p. 52). Also, imitating the life of Christ in this world is needed (p. 209)||Empty hand of faith, i.e. nothing|
Eastern Orthodoxy is fundamentally Pelagian, and it makes little difference if they do not think in those categories. Just like sin is objective meaning sin is sin regardless of what others think about it, Eastern Orthodoxy is Pelagian even though Eastern Orthodoxy do not have the categories for thinking in that manner. In other words, it is Eastern Orthodoxy's fault for misreading the Scriptures so badly they cannot think in forensic categories.
Eastern Orthodox spirituality flows from its anti-biblical teachings. It is a fundamentally Neo-Platonic ascent towards God. The problem is impurity of the mind's eye or nous, which is not much different from the Neo-Platonic problem being that of finitude. Sin is a creaturely problem, and the solution is clothing finitude up with the divine. We see here the rather obvious difference between Eastern Orthodox view of theosis and the biblical view of glorification. In theosis, one participates in something divine, which even using the essence-energies distinction, still has the creature in some sense participating in the Creator. In the biblical view of glorification however, the glorified saint does not ever "participate" in anything divine. Rather, he is made like Christ as the perfect image (ectype) of God. Christlikeness is the eschatological telos which Adam was made for, if Adam had not fallen, he would have progressed to be the perfect image and likeness of God. In glorification, the saint is made into the perfect eschatological image of God. An image however is still an image. We are like Christ in His glorified humanity, but His divine nature is always out of bounds to us. Finitum non capax infiniti; the finite cannot contain the infinite. Even in our glorified state, we are still creatures. It is easy here to see what's wrong with theosis. Even with the qualifications made by the essence-energies distinction, there is still a disturbing idea of participating in the divine, instead of in the image of the divine in Christ's glorified humanity.
The practice of Eastern spirituality arise from their unbiblical view of sin and salvation, and thus cannot be just taken and "contextualized" for Christians. Here are some choice quotes about the nature of prayer:
"The essence of prayer, then, is the mental ascent to God from the heart." -Theophan the Recluse, The Duty Also of Those Living in the World (p. 32)
"Prayer is a great blessing, and it embraces all blessings, for it purifies the heart..." -St. Hesychios the Priest, I,On Watchfulness and Holiness, Sec. 62 (p. 41)
For through unceasing prayer and the study of the divine Scriptures the soul's noetic eyes are opened" -Abba Philemon, II, A Discourse on Abba Philemon (p. 87)
Prayer in Eastern Orthodox spirituality is a human work required for salvation, not a means of grace. The "Jesus Prayer" is normally a single phrase in which the person praying it says "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" (p. 108) and then repeats it over and over again like a mantra (p. 107). As the chart shows, the Jesus' Prayer basically is their idea of how they can invoke Christ's name for Him to save them, a practice which totally misunderstands the idea of calling upon Jesus' name for salvation in the Scriptures.
Eastern Orthodox spirituality is integral to their unbiblical system of doctrine, and thus the practices cannot be divorced from the underlying theology. Evangelicals who think they can take those practices and use them are playing with fire. There is simply no way one can say that they trust in Christ's work alone for their salvation, and then deny it with these practices which are intended as cooperative work towards one's own salvation. There is little difference between the idea of one's "ascetic efforts in prayer" being "designed to earn merit," and "our cooperation with God in protecting the grace of prayer that God gives to us" (p. 96). Both ways, Man has to do something to be saved, and thus Eastern Orthodox spiritual disciplines are still meritorious. Anyone who borrows from those practices therefore has mocked the death of Christ, and spat on His face, and needs to repent of this grievous sin against God.