Eastern Orthodoxy: An Evangelical Perspective
The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of two branches of the ancient Catholic Church. Prior to 1054 AD, the Catholic Church was formally united, while serious differences simmered beneath the surface. In 1054, the churches in Eastern Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa finally broke fellowship with Rome, not wanting to cede ecclesiastical supremacy to the Roman bishop or to accept various dogmas popular in the West. Henceforth, the main centers of Orthodoxy would be Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople, with Constantinople serving as “first among equals.” Later, a fifth patriarchate arose in Moscow. Despite notable differences among themselves, the autonomous Orthodox churches have ever since remained loosely bound together by a common faith, liturgy, and system of government. Like Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians believe that theirs is the one true apostolic Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
An interesting historical episode illuminates the sharp differences between Orthodox and Protestant interpretations of the Christian faith. In the late 1500’s, Philip Melanchthon, a disciple of Martin Luther, sent a copy of the newly formulated Augsburg Confession to Patriarch Joasaph of Constantinople, requesting that he might ” . . . find herein a faithful rendition of Christian truth.” Twenty years later, Joasaph’s successor, Jeremiah, finally responded, condemning as erroneous the Reformation teaching about spiritual authority, the divine nature, predestination, justification by faith alone, and the impropriety of icons and the veneration of the saints in divine worship. Further critiques would follow, effectively placing the Orthodox churches squarely and permanently in the Catholic tradition. It should be remembered, however, that Orthodoxy still remains at odds with Rome on such fundamental questions as the locus of doctrinal authority for the Church, the procession the Holy Spirit, and the nature of sin and salvation.
In this article, I will offer a brief evangelical perspective on Orthodox teaching about spiritual authority, salvation, and the Church. The reader is encouraged to study the Scriptures for himself in order to determine the truth about these fundamental themes.
Orthodox Christians teach that Christ has vested supreme authority in matters of faith and practice in the Church. Practically speaking, this means that authority is vested in the successors of the apostles—the bishops—and in various councils where the bishops infallibly worked out the true and binding meaning of the apostolic writings. Especially important are the seven Ecumenical Councils, held during the fourth through eighth centuries. These, along with the decrees of subsequent local councils, have determined the centuries-old shape of Orthodox tradition.
Following the lead of the sixteenth century Reformers, evangelical Christians argue that final authority in spiritual matters is vested solely in Christ and the Scriptures, especially the New Testament. This means that every believer has both a right and an obligation to seek from the Spirit of Christ the true meaning of the Bible for himself. Since Christ gives teachers to his Church, it is wise to listen carefully to their views. Nevertheless, no teacher, pastor, bishop, pope, council or tradition (other than the biblical tradition) has final authority over the conscience of the individual Christian man or woman. Martin Luther well expressed evangelical conviction on this matter when he said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Evangelicals find many passages in the New Testament to support Luther’s view (Matthew 23:8-10; Mark 7:1f; Luke 24:44f; John 16:13; 1 John. 2:27; Acts 17:11, 20:32).
For the Orthodox, salvation is theosis—the divinization of man. This startling concept seems to have originated with bishop Athanasius, who wrote, “God became man so that man might become god.” Orthodox theologians use ideas from Neo-Platonic philosophy to explain theosis. Theosis does not mean spiritual union with God’s essence which, after all, is humanly unknowable. Nor does it mean union with the hypostases, or Persons, of the Holy Trinity. Rather, it means union with the energies of God that, like the rays of the sun, emanate from His essence towards His creatures. This view of salvation supports one of the fundamental tenets of orthodoxy: God is so transcendent and so mysterious as to be essentially unknowable by man.
And yet, despite the vast chasm separating God and man, Orthodoxy affirms that Adam was created with in innate desire for fuller union with God—for a mystical participation in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). In the path of virtue, he would have attained it. But Adam’s transgression subjected him and his posterity to mortality, which now pressures all men to sin by choosing the things of this life rather than the things of God. Thus, Adam’s children do not inherit his guilt or a sin nature, only the spiritually weakening effect of mortality.
Christ offers salvation from this downward spiral by means of His incarnation, death and resurrection—all of which somehow lift believers out of their sin and mortality to God. Practically, salvation is accomplished through the cooperation of God and man. God reaches out to man in the Church, and especially in its sacraments. Man, however, must respond, freely partaking of the sacraments so as to receive the divine energies that produce theosis. This means that outside the (Orthodox) Church and its sacraments, there is no salvation.
The path to divinization includes other works as well: asceticism, prayer, contemplation, and good deeds. While water baptism and faithful Church membership apparently assure final salvation, Orthodoxy teaches that temporary punishments after death may also be necessary to make salvation complete.
Evangelical Christians find this soteriology truncated and unbiblical at many points. On the manward side, it denies that Adam’s sin is imputed to his offspring (Romans 5); that man inherits a sin nature as well as physical mortality (Mark 7; Romans 7, 8:1-8); that far from being free to respond to the Gospel, he is actually dead in trespasses and sins and therefore in desperate need of the grace of God to regenerate him and draw him to Christ (John 6; Ephesians 2); that salvation has primarily to do with pardon and deliverance from the wrath to come (Romans 1-3); that this pardon is received as a free gift, once for all, by faith at the moment of conversion (John 3, 6; Romans 3; Ephesians 2); and that the justified soul immediately enters Heaven at the moment of death (John 17; Philippians 1).
Similarly, on the Godward side Orthodoxy denies that God sovereignly elected a particular people to salvation before the creation of the world (John 17; Romans 8; Ephesians 1); that salvation is conferred solely only the basis of Christ’s righteous life and atoning death on the cross (Romans 3; 1 Corinthians 1; 2 Corinthians 5); that Christ’s death was substitutionary and therefore designed especially for God’s elect (John 10, 17; Romans 5; Ephesians 1); and that the Holy Spirit gives to the elect full assurance of their salvation, along with perseverance in the faith to the very end of their lives (John 14:16; Romans 8; Ephesians 1:13-14).
In sum, Orthodoxy rightly emphasizes that God created man for fellowship with Him, and that redemption has this great good in view. But by obscuring the biblical testimony concerning God’s actual plan of salvation, Orthodoxy makes the experience and enjoyment of this fellowship difficult at best.
Like Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy offers a sacerdotal interpretation of the Christian faith. That is, it emphasizes the Church, and especially the hierarchy of priests who allegedly mediate Christ and His salvation to His people. As we have seen, sacerdotalism entails that priests and bishops alone have the right to determine the true meaning of the New Testament for the faithful. Similarly, it entails that the priests alone hold the keys of the kingdom of God—the sacraments—in their hands.
Here, in a nutshell, was the bone of contention that gave rise to the Reformation. After centuries of toil under this kind of authoritarian system, the Reformers finally repudiated the sacerdotal interpretation of the Christian faith. Returning to the New Testament itself, they found to their amazement that Christ alone is the one Mediator between God and man, and that all true Christians are part of His eternal priesthood (1 Timothy 2; 1 Peter 2). This radically biblical view once again placed all believers under the direct authority of Christ and the apostolic writings. And this, in turn, made it possible for them to reexamine centuries of Christian tradition, much of which they found, to their amazement, was completely unbiblical. Thus, the Reformers not only challenged Catholic views on authority and salvation, but also on the mass, the number and nature of the sacraments, the veneration of Mary, prayers to the saints, the use of icons and relics in divine worship, and more. Succeeding generations of biblical Christians would question infant baptism, traditional ideas about Church-State relations, the gifts of the Spirit, and the true nature of Church government.
Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians lament these challenges, finding in them a tragic departure from the one true apostolic faith. Evangelicals, on the other hand, welcome them, finding instead a departure from defective human traditions and a return to the pure apostolic faith. For evangelicals, this historical struggle for the biblical gospel is understood to be an ongoing work of the Spirit of Christ. While believers are semper reformans (ever reforming), their Lord is ever bringing His Church closer to ” . . . the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness Christ” (Ephesians 4).
Earlier I mentioned that upon reading a copy of the Augsburg Confession, Patriarch Jeremiah wrote back to Melanchton, repudiating it at nearly every point. I did not mention, however, another telling episode in the history of Protestant-Orthodox relations that occurred around the same time.
In 1620, Patriarch Cyril of Lucaris also investigated the new Protestant teachings. But unlike Jeremiah, Cyril was so taken with them that he immediately proposed a new Orthodox confession constructed along essentially Calvinistic lines. Sadly, history shows that his labors met with widespread rejection from Orthodox leaders. That rejection became official and has continued right up to our own day.
Evangelical Christians, glorying in the simplicity and newfound freedom of the biblical gospel, are disappointed that Cyril’s views did not prevail. We pray that they yet might, even as we remain confident that Christ will indeed bring His people to the unity of the one true faith. Until that day, however, it falls to every believer to decide for himself which interpretation of the Christian religion accords best with the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Like the Bereans of old, we must search the Scriptures daily to see which of all these things are so (Acts 17:11).
- Walter Elwell, ed., The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Baker, 2001). See Article: The Orthodox Tradition.
- Paul Negrut, Searching for the True Apostolic Church.
- Benjamin Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, (Eerdmans 1975).