Historical Background of Orthodoxy
Eastern Orthodoxy consists of a family of churches, largely in countries to the east of Rome, that rejected the authority of the pope and separated from the Roman Catholic Church in a.d. 1054. The most prominent Orthodox churches are the Greek Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox, but Orthodoxy also includes other groups such as Syrian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox.
The division in 1054 was prompted by objections to the pope's endorsement of the addition of the Latin clause filioque (“and the Son”) to the Nicene Creed, so that it said that “the Holy Spirit … proceedeth from the Father and the Son” (a reference to the eternal relations between the Son and the Holy Spirit). But issues of ecclesiastical authority were probably more significant than the specific doctrinal issue. Orthodox churches include about 218 million adherents today, compared to 1.1 billion Roman Catholics and about 830 million Protestants.
Orthodoxy comprises a range of autocephalous and autonomous churches, the Russian and Greek being the most prominent. (Autocephalous churches are federations of local churches over which no outside jurisdiction can claim authority. They are autonomous churches in that they have authority over their own internal matters, though they require the approval of another church for such things as the appointment of a chief hierarch, or church leader.)
During the first millennium the predominantly Latin-speaking West and the predominantly Greek-speaking East drifted apart linguistically, culturally, and theologically. Rome's claims to universal jurisdiction and its addition of the filioque clause led to severed relations. Following this, many countries in the East, overrun by the Muslims, had limited freedom, both politically and ecclesiastically. Constantinople, or Byzantium (modern Istanbul), the capital of the Christian East, was conquered in 1453. In the twentieth century, Orthodoxy in Russia and Eastern Europe lived under Communist rule, suffering intense persecution.
Orthodoxy's doctrinal basis is the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils (between a.d. 325 and 787), with reference especially to the Trinity and Christology. Evangelicals agree with most of these dogmatic decisions.
Orthodoxy is highly visual, with icons dominating its churches. Its ancient liturgy, rooted in the fourth century, is central to its theology and life.
Positive Elements of Orthodoxy That Evangelicals Can Learn From
The Orthodox liturgy is full of Trinitarian prayers, hymns, and doxologies; the Trinity is a vital part of belief and worship, whereas in the West it often appears as little more than an arcane mathematical riddle. Paul describes our relationship with God in Trinitarian terms: “through [Christ] we … have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18).
Union with Christ and God
Crucial to Orthodox theology is “deification,” in which humans (while remaining humans) are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, transformed by divine grace, and in this sense become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Though talk of deification sounds alarming to many evangelicals, the difference is largely one of emphasis. Orthodoxy has maintained a focus on the union of the three persons in God, the union of deity and humanity in Christ, the union of Christ and the church (central in the NT, e.g., John 14:18–24; 17:20–23; Eph. 1:3–14), and the union of the Holy Spirit and the saints. In contrast, the West has often emphasized the juridical aspects of doctrine, such as the doctrines of atonement and justification.
Freedom from Concerns Raised by the Enlightenment
Due to its historical avoidance of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century (with its emphasis on the primacy of reason), Orthodox theology never became preoccupied with unbelieving critical challenges to and revisions of the faith, which in the West have often bred a detached, academic approach to theology divorced from the life of the church. This is evident in Orthodoxy's firm belief in heaven, hell, and the return of Christ—topics that many in the West (esp. among more liberal Protestant groups) have sidelined due to possible embarrassment. There is strong commonality here between evangelicals and the Orthodox.
Unity of Theology and Piety
In Orthodoxy, the knowledge of God is received and cultivated by prayer and meditation aided by the Holy Spirit, in battle against the forces of spiritual darkness. Therefore, asceticism and monasticism have had a contemplative character in Orthodoxy. By contrast, since the Enlightenment, Western theology has centered in academic institutions, many of them unconnected to the church. Orthodoxy has profoundly integrated liturgy, piety, and doctrine.
Agreements between Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy
The ecumenical councils' declarations on the Trinity and Christ show the extensive agreement between Orthodoxy and evangelicalism, despite their disagreement on the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. Although they have different emphases, Orthodoxy and evangelicalism agree on the Bible's authority, on sin, and on the fall (however, the Orthodox do not accept the specific Augustinian doctrine of original sin). They also agree on Christ's death and resurrection (although the Orthodox regard the atonement more as conquest of death than payment for the penalty of sin), the Holy Spirit, the return of Christ, the final judgment, heaven, and hell.
Historically the justification controversy of the Reformation was not an issue in the Eastern church, but there is generally an underlying consensus between the East and several Reformation doctrines in the West. Eastern patristic writers occasionally spoke of salvation as a gift of God's grace, and of faith as a gift of God; the famous Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) attests to Orthodoxy's rejection of good works contributing to justification. In a similar way, there are echoes in the West of something like the Orthodox doctrine of “deification”—which is no more incompatible with justification by faith than are the doctrines of sanctification and glorification.
Additionally, the Orthodox doctrine of the church resonates with many evangelical concerns. Orthodox opposition to Rome is underlined by Cyprian's stress on the unity of the church, the parity of bishops, and the equality of all church members—a model of the church close to post-Reformation Anglicanism.
Evangelical Misunderstandings of Orthodoxy
Orthodoxy's use of icons (visual representations of Christ and the saints) has bothered evangelicals, who argue that it can easily tend toward idolatry and worship of images of God. However, the Second Council of Nicea (a.d. 787) emphatically denied that icons are worshiped. Following John of Damascus, it distinguished between honor (Gk. proskynēsis) given to saints and icons, and worship (Gk. latreia) owed to the indivisible Trinity alone. Icons are regarded as windows to the spiritual realm, betokening in the church's worship on earth the presence of the saints in heaven. Moreover, the idea of image (Gk. eikon) is prominent in the Bible. The whole creation reveals the glory of God (Ps. 19:1 ff.; Rom. 1:18–20).
On Scripture and tradition (the teaching of the church), both sides appeal to both sources. There is an overwhelming biblical emphasis in Orthodox liturgy—the Bible has been translated into the local vernacular wherever Orthodox missionaries have gone—while the Reformation did not ignore tradition but had a high view of the teaching of the church. The issue is not the Bible alone vs. tradition; it is which has the decisive voice, the last word over the other? For evangelicalism, the Bible is unequivocally the Word of God (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16), while all human councils may err, and therefore the Bible must finally judge the tradition that seeks to expound it. For Orthodoxy, however, the decisions of the early church councils and church fathers often function in practice as equal to the Bible in authority.
Orthodox Misunderstandings of Evangelicalism
The Orthodox confuse the Protestant doctrine of predestination with Islamic fatalism. But the Bible teaches both the absolute sovereignty of God and the full responsibility of man, since God's decrees also take into account the free actions of secondary causes. The Orthodox mistakenly believe that the doctrine of predestination is monothelitism (the heresy that Christ had only his divine will but no human will). The idea that predestination short-circuits the human will is misplaced.
Many Orthodox polemicists accuse evangelicals of ignoring the church's part in salvation. However, the classic Protestant confessions attest that the church is integral to the process of salvation, the Christian faith being found in the Bible and taught by the church. Orthodoxy at this point confuses classic Protestantism with the view of later individualist views.
The Eastern Tendency to Downplay the Preaching of God's Word
Largely due to historical events (the depredations of Islam) and despite Orthodoxy's heritage of superlative preaching (Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen), worship in the East is more visual than worship in evangelical churches. Sermons are part of the liturgy, but the focus is as much on the icons and the symbolic movements of the clergy. Gregory of Nyssa stressed God's visible revelation in creation, along with the ambiguity and inadequacy of language.
The way Calvin resolved this question was to understand the knowledge of God in auditory terms: God's Word must be heard by us in faith. For Calvin, God reveals himself in his Word by the Holy Spirit. In the Word read and proclaimed, God addresses us personally. We cannot see him but we hear him. His verbal revelation is true and reliable, and the preaching, teaching, and meditative study of it comprise the prime channel of God's grace.
The Relationship between Scripture and Tradition
For Orthodoxy, tradition is a living, dynamic movement, the Bible existing within it and not apart from it. Orthodoxy also believes in biblical authority but as part of a larger whole. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the ultimate authority.
The Palamite Doctrine of the Trinity
The influential archbishop of Thessalonica, Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), promoted a distinction, later widely accepted in Orthodoxy, between the unknowable essence (being) of God and his “energies.” But this view has driven a wedge between God in himself and God as he has revealed himself, threatening our knowledge of God with profound agnosticism, since we have no way of knowing whether God is as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. This formulation defies rational discourse, since it tells us that we cannot say anything definitive about who God is, with the result that the Christian life is reduced to noncognitive mystical contemplation. It introduces into God a division, not a distinction.
The Veneration of Mary and the Saints
Orthodoxy considers it possible, legitimate, and desirable for Christians to ask Mary and other departed saints to intercede with God on their behalf. But neither Jesus nor Paul ever suggest that this is possible or acceptable.
The point is not that request for prayer is made to saints as such, for all Christians ask living saints to intercede with God for them. What evangelicals object to is the belief that departed saints can receive our prayers and so intercede on our behalf. The Bible does not encourage us to put our hope in the prayers of departed saints; it directs our hope to Christ, his return, and the resurrection, not to contact with saints departed (1 Thess. 4:13–18; cf. 1 Samuel 28; 1 Chron. 10:13; 1 Tim. 2:5).
Orthodoxy insists that the incarnation mandates icons of Christ, since God has chosen to reveal himself in human form. Evangelicals are equally emphatic that the second commandment prohibits the use of images in worship, and many think that using icons of Christ as aids to worship oversteps acceptable boundaries in that regard. Both sides claim the other is heretical; Orthodoxy considers evangelicals guilty of Manicheeism, entailing a deficient view of matter, while evangelicals argue that icons of Christ imply a Nestorian abstraction of Christ's humanity. (Manicheeism holds that there are two coequal realities, spirit and matter, which are respectively good and evil. Nestorianism is a heresy that separated Christ's divine and human natures.)
Synergism in Salvation
The East has a vigorous doctrine of free will and an implacable opposition to the Reformed teaching on predestination and the sovereignty of God's grace in Christ. In this aspect, Orthodoxy is farther away from the Reformation than is Rome. The difference in respective weighting of grace and the human will is far-reaching. It entails differing understandings of the extent of human sin and the nature of Christ's work.
Compared with Rome, How Far Away from Protestantism Is Orthodoxy?
There are ways in which Orthodoxy is closer to classic Protestantism than is Rome. Both were forced into separation from the Roman Church, and both agree in their opposition to the claims of the papacy. The structure of Orthodox churches is much closer to that of Reformed churches, especially the Anglican church. The Orthodox recognition of the parity of all believers, and the autonomy and autocephalous nature of local churches, is far closer to Reformed polity than is the Roman hierarchy. Hence, Orthodoxy does not have the same accumulation of authoritative dogmas as Rome. Moreover, the Orthodox stress on the Bible opens up a large commonality of approach.
There are, however, ways in which Orthodoxy is further removed from evangelicalism than is Rome. Protestantism shares the Roman Catholic understanding of the Trinity. Orthodoxy's stance on the filioque controversy, and its distinction between the essence of God and the divine energies, produce a different form of piety. Western faith is centered in Christ; the East's is more focused on the Holy Spirit. As Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware put it, Rome and Protestantism share the same questions, but supply different answers; with Orthodoxy, the questions themselves are different.