What is Eastern Orthodoxy? A Reformed Perspective and Response


Orthodoxy includes a range of self-governing churches, with the Russian and Greek being the largest. During the first millennium of the Church, the Latin West and the predominantly Greek East separated linguistically, culturally and theologically. Rome’s claims to universal jurisdiction and its acceptance of filioque clause led to broken relations in 1054. Many eastern countries, invaded by Muslims, had limited freedom. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, while in the 20th century Orthodoxy in Russia and Eastern Europe endured under communist rule, suffering intense persecution.

Orthodoxy should absolutely not be identified with Rome. Ecclesiastically, it has no unified hierarchy, no pope, no magisterium. It lacks the barrage of dogma of the Roman Church. Its doctrinal basis, such as it is, is the seven ecumenical councils, referring primarily to the Trinity and Christology, the vast majority of which are embraced by Protestants. While at the popular level some Marian dogmas are accepted, they have no official status. Nor is there a requirement for converts from Protestantism to renounce justification by faith alone. Particularly distinctive is its visually dominant cult; icons fill its churches. Its ancient liturgy, rooted in the 4th century, is at the heart of its theology and its life.

If Orthodoxy differs so significantly from Catholicism, how similar is it to Protestantism? A brief overview of Orthodoxy reveals several points of alignment, some important misunderstandings, and some major disagreements with Protestantism.

Learn from Orthodoxy

First, Protestants can learn many positive elements from Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox liturgy, to begin with, is full of Trinitarian prayers, hymns and doxologies. The Trinity is a vital part of their belief and worship. This finds biblical precedent as Paul describes our relationship with God in Trinitarian terms: [Christ] we . . . have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).

Another positive element of Orthodoxy is their teaching on union with Christ and God. Crucial for Orthodox theology is deification, in which humans are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and transformed by divine grace. Orthodox theology has emphasized the union of the three persons in God, the union of divinity and humanity in Christ, the union of Christ and the Church, and the union of the Holy Spirit. and saints. In some forms, Orthodoxy’s emphasis on deification enters the realm of mysticism. But in other strands, exemplified by the Alexandrians, Athanasius (295-373) and Cyril (378-444), it is the equivalent of regeneration, adoption, sanctification and glorification considered as a continuous process.

Moreover, unlike the Western Church, the Orthodox Church enjoyed immunity from the concerns raised by the Enlightenment. Due to its historical and cultural isolation, Orthodoxy has known neither the Middle Ages, nor Renaissance, nor Reformation, nor Enlightenment. Until recently, she was unconcerned with the critical attacks of unbelief, which in the West have sometimes spawned a detached academic approach to theology, separate from church life. This is evident in Orthodoxy’s firm belief in the return of Christ, Heaven and Hell, topics often set aside in the West due to possible embarrassment.

Finally, the Orthodox Church keeps theology and piety together. Asceticism and monasticism had a contemplative character. The knowledge of God is received and cultivated in prayer and meditation in battle against the forces of darkness. Since the Enlightenment, Western theology has centered on academic institutions unrelated to the Church. Orthodoxy has deeply integrated liturgy, piety and doctrine.

Alignment dots

Beyond these positive elements of Orthodoxy from which Protestants can draw inspiration, there are many points of agreement between Protestantism and Orthodoxy.

The statements of ecumenical councils on the Trinity and Christ show the broad agreement between Orthodoxy and classical Protestantism, despite the disagreement on the filioque.

With differing emphases, Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants agree on the authority of the Bible, sin and the fall (although the Orthodox do not accept the Augustinian doctrine of original sin), the death and resurrection of Christ (although the atonement is seen more as a conquest of death than as payment for the penalty of the broken law), the Holy Spirit, the return of Christ, final judgment, heaven and hell.

Although the controversies of the Reformation passed by the East, the Orthodox fathers sometimes speak of salvation and faith as gifts of God’s grace, while the Orthodox liturgy repeatedly invokes the Lord’s mercy upon us as sinners, just like the famous Jesus prayer. Basically, the justification was not a problem and therefore did not provoke discussion. Similarly, there are echoes in the West of deification – in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin and certain Puritans – because, understood in the manner of Athanasius and Cyril, deification is no more incompatible with justification by faith than are sanctification and glorification.

Moreover, the Orthodox doctrine of the Church emphasizes its unity, the parity of the bishops and of all the members of the Church, which underlies its opposition to Rome. It is a model close to Anglicanism.

Significant misunderstandings

Historically, however, Protestant and Orthodox believers have often misunderstood each other.

To begin with, Protestants tend to misunderstand the Eastern understanding of icons. Nicaea II (AD 787) flatly denied that icons were venerated. Following John of Damascus (675-749), the council distinguished honor (proskunēsis) given to saints and icons, and worship (latreia) due to the one indivisible Trinity. Icons are seen as windows to the spiritual realm, indicating the presence in the worship of the church on earth of the saints in heaven. Moreover, the notion of image (eikon) is important in the Bible. All creation reveals the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-20). Reformed theology, in general revelation, views the whole world as an icon.

No problem exists with intercession among saints as such, for we all pray for and with living saints; we have prayer meetings. However, the Bible does not encourage us to pray for deceased saints, because there is no reason to suppose that they hear us. On the contrary, the Scriptures direct our hope to Christ, his return and his resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

On Scripture and tradition (the teaching of the church), both sides appeal to both sources. There is an overwhelming biblical emphasis in Orthodox liturgy, while the Reformation held a high opinion of Church teaching. The question is not the Bible versus tradition, but rather who has the decisive voice. For evangelism, the Bible is unequivocally the word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), while all human advice can be wrong.

On the Orthodox side, many confuse the Protestant doctrine of predestination with Islamic fatalism. The Bible teaches both the absolute sovereignty of God and the full responsibility of man, the decrees of God not affecting actions free from second causes. As such, the orthodox idea that the doctrine of predestination bypasses the human will, and is effectively monothelite, is misplaced.

Many Orthodox polemicists also accuse evangelicals of ignoring the role of the Church in Scripture. However, the classical Protestant denominations attest that the Church is an integral part of the process of salvation, the Christian faith being found in the Bible and taught by the Church. The scriptures and the Church are created by the Holy Spirit. The Church and the covenant are an integral part of Reformed theology. Orthodoxy often confuses classical Protestantism with today’s freewheeling individualists.

Major disagreements

Beyond these points of alignment and misunderstanding, important differences exist.

First, the East tends to minimize preaching. Largely due to the impact of Islam, and despite the legacy of superlative preaching orthodoxy (Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, among others), their liturgy is more visual. Sermons are part of the liturgy, but the emphasis is more on icons and symbolic movements of the clergy.

Second, the relationship between Scripture and tradition differs. For Orthodoxy, tradition is a living dynamic movement – the Bible existing within it, not outside it. This was the position of the church of the first two centuries, with Bible and tradition effectively indistinguishable. Later developments in the West placed tradition over scripture (medieval Rome), or pitted scripture against tradition (the Anabaptists, some evangelicals), or placed scripture over tradition without rejecting it (the Reformation , the Reformed Churches). For Orthodoxy, Scripture is not the supreme authority.

A third distinction is found in what is called the Palamite doctrine of the Trinity. Grégoire Palamas’ distinction between the unknowable essence (being) of God and his energies has driven a wedge between God in himself and God as revealed, threatening our knowledge of God with deep agnosticism. It introduces into God a division, not a distinction. The Christian life easily becomes mystical contemplation.

Along with Rome, the East venerates Mary and the saints. Orthodoxy considers it possible, legitimate and desirable to pray to deceased saints. But there is no biblical evidence that this is possible.

Last but not least, Orthodoxy has what we might call soteriological synergy. The East has a vigorous doctrine of free will and an implacable opposition to Protestant teaching on predestination and the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation. This distances Orthodoxy further from the Reformation than is Rome.

How far is the East?

Compared to Rome, how far from Protestantism is Orthodoxy?

Orthodoxy is closer to classical Protestantism than Rome is in many ways. Both were forced into separation and both oppose the claims of the papacy. The structure of the Orthodox churches is closer to Anglicanism than to Catholicism. Orthodoxy does not have the same accumulation of authoritative dogma as Rome. The emphasis on the Bible opens up a great community of approach.

In other respects, Orthodoxy is further removed from Protestantism than is Rome. Protestantism, along with Rome, is part of the Latin Church, shares the same history and addresses the same issues. His faith is centered in Christ; that of the East is more focused on the Holy Spirit, as well as a more mystical theology and practice. As Kallistos Ware says, Rome and Protestantism share the same questions, but provide different answers; with Orthodoxy the questions are different.


Comments are closed.