According to one estimate, the Eastern Orthodox Church in America has over six million members, making it the fourth largest religious body in the country. Historically, most Orthodox Americans have been immigrants from eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Russia, Ukraine). While this is still the case, the last twenty five years have witnessed a number of high-profile conversions to Orthodoxy. Surprisingly, many of these converts have come from evangelical roots.
Peter Gillquist and other former Campus Crusade for Christ staff members led a group of people into Orthodoxy during the 70’s and 80’s.1 Charles Bell led most of his Vineyard Christian Fellowship congregation into the Eastern church in 1993.2 Perhaps the most high-profile conversion was that of Franky Schaeffer, son of the late Francis Schaeffer, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1990.3 The trend East hit home in 1995 when a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the denomination of Machen, Van Til, Murray and Bahnsen, demitted the ministry and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Even the thought of such apostasy would not have occurred twenty-five years ago.
Though I do not want to overstate this movement toward the East (it is more of trickle than a flood), it is nevertheless disconcerting to see such a movement emerge. Although it is the provenance of the sociologist to explain the reasons for this trend, one gathers from the testimonial literature of recent converts that prominent is the desire for an older Christian tradition and greater unity of faith. Many, for example, reason that there must be something wrong with Protestantism since it has proliferated to some 23,000 denominations. But perhaps the most cited reason is disgust over the growth-oriented, pop theology that goes on in the name of evangelicalism.4 This shallowness, in turn, results in a feeling of spiritual frustration, leading many to ask themselves, “Isn’t Christianity something more than this?” The question is a good one and their disgust is appreciated. It is their answer that disappoints.
The question is ultimately not one of heritage or personal fulfillment. Neither is it one of how the church influences culture. The Byzantine5 polemic often points to the materialism of the west as a direct result of its overly intellectual theology. Protestants, in turn, can point out that the emphasis on the mystical and other-worldliness in Byzantine theology has retarded technological advances in countries it dominates and has also paved the way for oppressive political rule. While I believe the latter is true, debate cannot remain at this level. Though ideas have consequences, ideas cannot ultimately be judged by consequences. Some people (and even cultures) are better than the ideas they espouse. Some are worse. The truth of an idea must be judged on its own merits. The real question is “Is Byzantine theology true?” Before answering this question, though, it is first necessary to give a brief historical and theological introduction to Orthodoxy since most Protestants know little about it.
Orthodoxy’s history goes back to the patristic period and it considers these ancient credentials proof that it is the one true apostolic church. Of course its selection of church fathers is selective and favors, obviously enough, Greek theologians over their Latin counterparts. Augustine, for example, is seen as the source of much aberrant dogma.
Its most revered theologians include Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the three Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-c. 390), Basil the Great (c. 330-379) and his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-395), the pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500), Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), John of Damascus, (c. 675-c. 749), Photius (c. 810-c. 895), Symeon The New Theologian (949-1022), and Gregory of Palamas (1296-1359). All were influenced to various degrees by Platonism in one of its many forms. The most obvious example of this tendency is the pseudo-Dionysius who attempted to reconcile Christianity and Neoplatonism much like Thomas Aquinas tried to bring together Christianity and Aristotelianism.
The most decisive event in Byzantine history occurred when the emperor Constantine, a convert to Christianity, determined in 324 to move the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium, changing its name to Constantinople. This move marked the beginnings of a rift between the Greek east and the Latin west which eventually culminated in an official separation in 1054. The history of the Eastern Orthodox Church was integrally tied to the eastern empire for over one thousand years.
There were several reasons for the gradual separation including the different languages spoken, cultural differences and an often unstable political environment which made communication between east and west difficult. The major cause of the rift, however, were two theological issues. The first was over the authority of the bishop of Rome, the pope and the second over the doctrine of the Trinity.
During the period in question, the pope’s prestige and influence grew. From the time of the Council of Nicaea (325) the bishop of Rome was given the place of honor among the other bishops since Peter was believed to be the first bishop of Rome and because it was the capital of the empire. As time wore on and the Roman government in the west weakened, the pope become increasingly involved in matters of state and eventually came to dominate both sacred and secular affairs. To go along with this power, popes began to make grandiose claims about their supremacy culminating with the declaration that the Bishop of Rome was the head of all the church (east and west) and spoke with absolute authority.
While eastern churches recognized the bishop of Rome as holding a preeminent place among the other bishops, they viewed him as possessing no more authority than any of the other patriarchs. It is important to understand the precise nature of the east’s quarrel with Rome at this point. The eastern churches did not dispute Rome’s prerogative to exercise absolute power in the west, they merely contended that its authority did not extend beyond the border. There other another bishop exercised absolute authority.
The second issue was of the so-called Filioque controversy. This controversy had to do with an interpolation in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The original version reads “[I believe] in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father…” The interpolated version adds, “and the Son” (Latin, Filioque) after ‘Father.’6 The difference over the procession of the Spirit did not become an issue until the Photian Schism in the 9th century when Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, declared the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son to be heretical. The church of Rome, at first indifferent, eventually elevated it to a test of orthodoxy. From this point on, reconciliation was never seriously attempted.
An official split between east and west occurred in 1054 when a papal legate nailed a Bull of Excommunication against the Ecumenical Patriarch on the altar of the Hagia Sophia. The Patriarch returned the favor and excommunicated the legate. Any hope that the rift between Rome and Byzantium would eventually be healed was dashed in 1204 when western crusaders, originally bound for Egypt, became embroiled in the local politics of Constantinople and ended up sacking the city and the Hagia Sophia. Byzantium has never forgotten this act of treachery.
Two other events are crucial in understanding the history of Byzantium. First, the rise of Islam in the 6th and 7th centuries. Muslim militancy spread the religion of the crescent moon over vast regions ranging from Persia, through Arabia and over north Africa. In the 680’s the Muslims began their relentless attack on Constantinople. The capital of the eastern empire held out for hundreds of years, but eventually fell to the Turks in 1453. Many practitioners of Orthodoxy have since been under the political yoke of Muslims.
The other event that proceeded the Islamic military conquest of Constantinople was the conversion of the Slavic peoples beginning in the 9th century. Soon thereafter most of the Slavs, including those in Russia, became Orthodox. With the fall of Constantinople, Moscow became the main seat of Orthodoxy and was dubbed by some as the third (and last) Rome. It remained so until the Communist Revolution in 1917 when the victorious Bolsheviks implemented an officially atheist regime. After this, Moscow could no longer claim this appellation with any credibility, at least until 1991.
With the collapse of Communism, the Eastern Orthodox Church is once again flourishing in Eastern Europe. It is not, however, restricted to that part of the world. Almost every country claims at least some adherents to Orthodoxy. Indeed Orthodoxy claims around 185 million adherents worldwide and, as mentioned, six million in the United States alone.7
Evangelicals often confuse Eastern Orthodoxy with Roman Catholicism. Because of their similar practices and rituals this is understandable. Byzantine theologians, however, take umbrage at this, viewing Rome as radically different from itself. Indeed, Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Protestantism is actually closer to Rome than the Orthodox Church.8While this claim can be demonstrated to be false, Rome and Byzantium do differ in many respects and so rather than entering into the debate over who is closer to whom, I will proceed to outline the doctrinal distinctives of Orthodoxy.
Perhaps the best place to begin is with Byzantium’s view of the church. The eastern Church is governed by an oligarchy of Patriarchs. There are five Patriarchates including, in order of importance, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The head of the Patriarchate of Constantinople is called the Ecumenical Patriarch, in recognition of his prominence. Rome is the fifth and highest, but since it and the east are not in communion, its primacy is effectively negated.
Besides the four Patriarchates there are several “autocephalous” (lit. ‘self-head’) churches which are administratively independent. These include Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland and Albania. The heads of these different churches are called Patriarch, Metropolitan or Archbishop depending upon the region. The Eastern Orthodox Church in America is trying to become self-governing, but has not been recognized by a majority of Churches.
Unlike Rome, there is no single person who is the head of the Byzantine Church, nor is there a central government. And while the Ecumenical Patriarch has a special place of honor among the other heads (the fundamental way of determining whether a church is Orthodox is whether it is in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople), he does not rule the churches outside his Patriarchate. However, within his jurisdiction, a Patriarch’s rule is absolute.
Orthodox worship is quite different than Protestant worship. Candles and icons are pervasive, pews are often absent (Orthodox stand while worshipping), repetitive prayers are sung without instrumental accompaniment, incense is burned and the sign of the cross is made. Like Rome, the Eucharist constitutes the center of Orthodox worship.
Orthodoxy recognizes seven sacraments or “mysteries” (Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, Repentance, Holy Orders, Marriage and Anointing of the Sick). It differs slightly with Rome in its understanding of the Eucharist. Where Rome teaches transubstantiation (the bread and wine becomes the actual body and blood of Christ), Byzantium is reticent to say exactly what occurs, preferring instead to view it as a mystery.
Mary is venerated as the Theotokos or Mother of God, but her immaculate conception has not been dogmatized. Orthodoxy believes in the use and veneration of icons, particularly those that represent Christ, Mary and the saints. It, like Rome, draws a distinction between veneration and worship. This theological nicety is duly ignored by the Orthodox faithful.
Theologically it adheres to Tradition which includes both Scripture and revelation passed on orally, the Nicene Creed, the declarations of the seven Ecumenical Councils (presumably councils which are attended by bishops from all regions, Rome counts twenty-one), patristic writings, service books and even icons. The pronouncements of the Ecumenical Councils hold a special place in Orthodox theology and are considered to be infallible.9
Orthodoxy considers God to be unknowable in his essence. Theology therefore must be negative (apophatic) in character, stating what God is not rather than what he is. Knowledge of what God is not is viewed as preparatory for knowing what God is. This knowledge comes through direct experience of the Divine Light, the same light that the disciples experienced when Jesus was transfigured. This mystical knowledge is not knowledge of God’s essence, but of his energies. These energies are “God Himself in His action and revelation to the world.”10
As mentioned above, Orthodoxy rejects the interpolation of ‘Filioque’ in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, believing that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. It teaches that God is Creator, but is not totally sovereign, deeming this to be incompatible with human freedom.
Orthodox anthropology teaches that man is made up of three parts, body, soul and spirit.11 This doctrine has serious implications for Orthodox soteriology as will be seen in my critique below. Adam was created in the image of God possessing free will and reason, but needed to attain to, by his own effort, God’s likeness. This likeness is an assimilation to God through virtue. “To acquire the likeness,” writes Bishop Timothy Ware, “is to be deified, it is to become a ‘second god’, a ‘god by grace’.”12 I will return to the idea of deification presently, but note here the implication that Adam was created only potentially perfect. He was not created virtuous or upright as the Reformed symbols teach.
Adam’s fall was not total and his guilt not passed on to his progeny. Sin is viewed as an impediment to participation in God’s likeness rather than a state that renders man guilty before God. Indeed, the notion of forensic guilt and forensic justification are neglected if not wholly rejected by Orthodox theologians.
The Incarnation is viewed as making deification possible (“God became man so man can become God”). Merely possible because Christ’s work alone is not enough. Rather, man cooperating with God’s grace is the recipe for salvation. This salvation, moreover, is viewed primarily in metaphysical not moral categories. Man is pulled down by sin, but is lifted up to deity through Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. It is a higher level of being rather than the state a perfect holiness that is the goal. To be sure, holiness (virtue) is necessary in order to attain this higher state of being, but it is not the end itself.
Pervading Orthodox theology is the notion of mystery. It views western Christianity as being overly rational and takes the Medieval scholastics to be the primary example of this tendency. Though the accuracy of this charge depends upon what is meant by ‘rational’ and what western tradition is under consideration, it does underscore the Orthodox attitude regarding truth and knowledge. At every crucial point in its theology, mystery is not only appealed to, but is celebrated. How can the wine be Christ’s blood? How are we assured that the Church speaks for Christ? What is the nature of deified man? These are all mysteries. Precisely at the points where Orthodoxy gets most controversial and its claims become most vague or in need of demonstration, it falls back to mystery. If the west has a tendency to be overly rational, the east with even greater warrant can be judged to be irrational or at best, a-rational.
With its emphasis on mystery it is little wonder there are no detailed systematic theologies written in the eastern tradition.13 Truth ultimately is experienced, particularly in the sacrament of Communion. In this regard it has a good of affinity with contemporary existential theologians.
This is not to deny the place of mystery in theology. Reformed theology has its mysteries too – predestination and freewill, God is all-glorious yet God receives glory from his creation. The difference is that Reformed theology prefers to place the mysteries where Scripture places them. Where it does not, it strives for detail and precision. Mystery yes, mysticism, no.
Before turning to critically review Orthodox theology I will, heeding the advice of Johnny Mercer, first accentuate the positive.
Three commendations of Orthodoxy come immediately to mind. First, Byzantium has not succumbed to liberalism nearly to the extend that Rome or Protestantism has. Whereas Rome and perhaps most Protestant denominations fail to suppress heretics (Presbyterians need only to think of the liberal takeover during the modernist controversy) Byzantium has vigorously, effectively and persistently flushed heretics from out of its midst. The statement by John of Damascus epitomizes Byzantium’s conservatism, “we do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the traditions just as we received them.” We can learn a lesson from this.
Second, Byzantium stands opposed to much of the political agenda of secularist ideologues. Particularly its resistance to the feminist movement and strong stand against abortion is to be commended.
Finally, it resists the unity-at-any-price mentality of the modern-day ecumenical movement.
Byzantium is not coy about its claims that it is the true church. Bishop Ware’s candor is typical of Orthodox writers: “Orthodoxy, believing that the Church on earth has remained and must remain visibly one, naturally also believes itself to be that one visible Church… Orthodox are in all humility convinced that they have received a precious and unique gift from God; and if they pretended to others that they did not possess this gift, they would be guilty of an act of betrayal in the sight of heaven… Orthodoxy also teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation.14
If their theological position is correct, other positions that differ from it are wrong. In an age of compromise, relativism and confusion, a bold statement such as Byzantium makes should be appreciated.
Of course theological conservatism is only a relative good. The ultimate question is not one of conservatism versus liberalism, but rather the status of the view that is being conserved. One can be a conservative Marxist or a conservative Darwinian, but that is hardly a commendation of those who espouse such views.
In future articles I shall take up the less pleasant task of showing where Orthodoxy departs from biblical Christianity.
To be continued.
1. Peter E. Gillquist, Becoming Orthodox (Ben Lomond, California: Conciliar Press, 1989).
2. Charles Bell, Discovering the Rich Heritage of Orthodoxy (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing Co., 1994).
3. Frank Schaeffer, Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994). Despite his Reformed upbringing, Schaeffer repeatedly misstates, distorts and maligns Reformed theology. At one point, after a particularly egregious exposition of the five points of Calvinism, Schaeffer comments: “With God portrayed as a fatalistic, cruel force of nature, with the Incarnation reduced to nothing more than play acting, since “The Elect” were already chosen before Christ came to earth, with Christ’s death reduced to a sacrifice to an angry, vengeful “God,” with man reduced to a creature without free will, Calvinist Reformed theology logically, if unintentionally, opened the door to the Enlightenment’s demotion of humanity and religion” (88-9). At the beginning of the book Schaeffer warns his readers, “I am not a scholar.” This warning should be taken seriously.
4. Some evangelicals have recently attempted to rouse their fellow evangelicals out of their collective cultural, intellectual and theological slumber. Note especially recent jeremiads by David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) and Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
5. Loosely following the usage of John Meyendorff, I use ‘Byzantine theology,’ ‘Byzantium’ or simply ‘Orthodoxy’ as synonyms for ‘Eastern Orthodoxy.’ Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, 2nd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1983).
6. It is unknown when the Filioque first appeared, but the first known use of it was at the third Council of Toledo in 589.
7. Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 17. These numbers are probably exaggerated since Orthodoxy counts all baptized by the church and not active members.
8. According to Timothy Ware, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are “two sides of the same coin.” Ware, The Orthodox Church, new edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 2.
9. The seven Ecumenical Councils were Nicaea 325 (rejection of Arianism), Constantinople I 381 (Holy Spirit decreed to be God, equal with Father and Son, proceeds from Father), Ephesus 431 (condemned Nestorian heresy), Chalcedon 451 (condemned Monophysite heresy and establishment of “pentarchy,” or five archates [Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem]), Constantinople II 553 (elaboration on views of Ephesus and Chalcedon), Constantinople III 680-1 (condemned Monothelites who claimed that since Christ had two natures in one person he must also of had only one will), Nicaea II 787 (Iconoclast controversy; iconodule position upheld).
10. Ware, 68.
11. This view, often called trichotomy, is definitively refuted by John Murray, “Trichotomy,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2 (Carlisle Penn: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 23-33.
12. Ware, 219.
13. Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky appropriately titled his book on doctrine, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.
14. Ware, 246-47.