Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Interpersonal Forgiveness from an Eastern Orthodox Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Interpersonal Forgiveness from an Eastern Orthodox Perspective

Article excerpt

In the last 15 years, Christian and secular psychologists in the western tradition have written much about interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation. The eastern Christian tradition (i.e., the Orthodox Church) has not had much of a voice in this discussion. In order to promote dialogue and assist clinicians in their ministry to Orthodox Christians, this article proposes some basic elements of an Orthodox view of interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation, links those elements with eastern theology and anthropology, and compares them with concepts from western Christian and secular psychology.

In the last 15 years, the study of interpersonal forgiveness has blossomed in psychology. Secular (e.g., Casarjian, 1992; Simon & Simon, 1990), Christian (e.g., McCullough, Sandage, & Worthington, 1997; Smedes, 1996), and Jewish (e.g., Dorff, 1992, 1998) scholars have been involved in this development. Some scholars have argued that forgiveness is unhealthy and resentment is a better choice of action in the face of interpersonal hurt (e.g., Forward, 1989; Haber, 1991), but most Christian psychologists have extolled the benefits of forgiveness. Recent research demonstrates that forgiveness is physically and psychologically beneficial for both forgiver and offender (e.g., Al-Mabuk, Enright, & Cardis, 1995; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Gassin, 1994, 1997, 1998; Huang, 1990; Sarinopolous, 2000). Both Roman Catholic (e.g., Linn & Linn, 1978; Tobin, 1993) and Protestant (e.g., McCullough, Sandage, & Worthington, 1997; Pingleton, 1989, 1997; Rosenak & Harnden, 1992) scholars have contributed to this work, but one voice has not been heard in the forgiveness scholarship: that of Eastern Orthodoxy. [1] Given that the Orthodox Church was not as influenced as the west by philosophical movements such as scholasticism, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment (all of which affected our understanding of persons, and their relationships with God and with one another, which are the foundations of forgiveness), it behooves scholars of forgiveness to peruse and incorporate into the study of forgiveness unique ideas from eastern Christianity.

The purpose of the current project is to propose an Orthodox view of forgiveness, assessing similarities and differences between the Orthodox view and the view held by western Christianity and to a lesser extent secular psychology. This article is intended to be an initial offering on this topic to the field of psychology [2] and is designed to promote discussion and clarification. Hopefully, it will also aid clinicians in addressing the needs and world view of their Orthodox clients.


A common psychological definition of forgiveness is foreswearing negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, while fostering positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an individual who has personally, deeply, and unfairly hurt another (Enright & the Human Development Study Group, 1991). Many scholars of interpersonal mercy have proposed models describing the process of forgiveness (e.g., Enright & the Human Development Study Group, 1996; Rosenak & Harden, 1992; Smedes, 1996). This is not the place to review these models in detail; the uninformed reader may consult the references above.

Eastern and western Christianity diverge in their understanding of some basic concepts; therefore, a few theological definitions are needed before discussing forgiveness from an Orthodox perspective. At the outset, it must be said that because these comments are brief, they necessarily simplify the diversity that exists in each tradition (especially in the western traditions). Perhaps the most critical difference between west and east concerns the concept of salvation. Western Christianity tends to see salvation in black-and-white terms: either one is saved (i.e., destined for eternal dwelling in heaven) or not. …

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