The Synod of Jerusalem (different than the biblical “Council of Jerusalem”) was an Eastern Orthodox council which was convened in 1672 to deal with the influences of Reformed theology (particularly that of Calvin) on the Orthodox Church. While this council is not without its modern Orthodox retractors, it was at the time thought to be a definitive and dogmatic pronouncement of the Orthodox faith. It was the Eastern Orthodox “Council of Trent.” From this Synod came the Confession of Dositheus.

Let me give you a brief overview of the Orthodox faith concerning Predestination according to this council.

Having affirmed their commitment to the authority of the church as being equal to that of Scripture (“Wherefore, the witness also of the Catholic [Orthodox] Church is, we believe, not of inferior authority to that of the Divine Scriptures”), the statement then proceeds to give an Eastern Orthodox understanding of Predestination:

“We believe the most good God to have from eternity predestinated unto glory those whom He has chosen, and to have consigned unto condemnation those whom He has rejected; but not so that He would justify the one, and consign and condemn the other without cause.”

The key here is that while believing in predestination, they do not believe that it is “without cause.” The agent of the cause is not God’s sovereign will, as is the case in the “unconditional predestination” of Calvinists, but in man’s free will.

“But since He foreknew the one would make a right use of their free-will, and the other a wrong, He predestinated the one, or condemned the other.”

Man’s “right use” of their own freedom is the boundary line which ultimately decides the predestination and fate of the individual. Here, there is no difference between the Orthodox, Arminian, and Catholic understanding of predestination. 

All Christian traditions have rejected Pelagianism. Therefore, they don’t believe that we are born neutral, like Adam in the Garden. Every Christian tradition believes in what is called “inherited sin.” Inherited sin is the “infection” of sin that is part of our nature. We sin because we are sinners (or corrupted). It is who we are. In this we inherit death. While the Orthodox have always rejected the concept of “imputed sin” (i.e. we are condemned for Adam’s sin), they accept that we are born with a debilitating sinful nature that makes us unable to willfully choose God without divine assistance. Therefore, in order for one to make “right use of their free-will” there must be some type of “mediating” grace that makes the person able to choose God. In this vain, the confession goes on:

“And we understand the use of free-will thus, that the Divine and illuminating grace, and which we call preventing [or, prevenient] grace, being, as a light to those in darkness, by the Divine goodness imparted to all, to those that are willing to obey this — for it is of use only to the willing, not to the unwilling — and co-operate with it, in what it requires as necessary to salvation, there is consequently granted particular grace.”

Notice, the Orthodox church, like Arminians and Catholics, must explain the genesis of belief in a fallen, broken, will-tainted world. While Catholics and Orthodox do not see this corruption as radical as Protestants (hence the often levied charge of semi-Pelagianism) and do not call it “total” depravity, they nonetheless recognize that we need help. This genesis of our faith comes by way of “illuminating” or “preventing” grace. This grace goes before salvation and is given universally. It is the grace that enables or helps a person to believe. Once the person believes, they are then among the predestined (so long as they persevere in their belief). More from the confession on this point:

“This grace co-operates with us, and enables us, and makes us to persevere in the love of God, that is to say, in performing those good things that God would have us to do, and which His preventing grace admonishes us that we should do, justifies us, and makes us predestinated.”

For those who do not respond or co-operate with God’s grace:

“But those who will not obey, and co-operate with grace; and, therefore, will not observe those things that God would have us perform, and that abuse in the service of Satan the free-will, which they have received of God to perform voluntarily what is good, are consigned to eternal condemnation.”

Concerning a rejection of salvation by faith alone, the Protestant’s central distinctive doctrine, this Orthodox confession here is very clear:

“We believe a man to be not simply justified through faith alone, but through faith which works through love, that is to say, through faith and works. But [the idea] that faith can fulfill the function of a hand that lays hold on the righteousness which is in Christ, and can then apply it unto us for salvation, we know to be far from all Orthodoxy. For faith so understood would be possible in all, and so none could miss salvation, which is obviously false. But on the contrary, we rather believe that it is not the correlative of faith, but the faith which is in us, justifies through works, with Christ.”

Most specifically, the confession clearly condemns all the Reformed assigning them to be among the “most wicked heretics”:

“But to say, as the most wicked heretics do and as is contained in the Chapter [of Cyril’s’ Confession] to which this answers — that God, in predestinating, or condemning, did not consider in any way the works of those predestinated, or condemned, we know to be profane and impious.”

Reformed Protestants believe that man is depraved and unable to co-operate with God in any way. The solution for Reformed Protestants is not an appeal to an “enabling” grace, but to a saving grace. This grace does not merely come to the aid of man, but completely regenerates the elect. While Reformed protestants believe in previenient grace, we don’t believe that its purpose is to aid all men or to make choosing God universally possible. We don’t believe that God’s predestination is based on foreseen faith, but on God’s sovereign mysterious choice. God’s saving grace comes only to the elect and does not regard their actions, good or evil. The Reformed Protestant’s major complaint concerning previenient or “enabling” grace is not that it does not make sense, but that it is unbiblical.

It is interesting how an essential aspect of the soteriology (doctrine of salvation) of Catholics, Arminians, and Orthodox all rest on the doctrine previenient grace. In my opinion it is the Achilles heel of their entire system. Without previenient grace, they would be forced to become Pelagians or Calvinists. I would choose the latter!

Again, while the Confession of Dositheus is not necessarily universally accepted among the Orthodox, I think it accurately represents the Orthodox attitude toward depravity, predestination, and faith. Hope you found it interesting.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

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