One sunny day in the late 1990s I was walking with friends near the center of Kiev, Ukraine, when I heard some chanting. I looked around and saw a small demonstration taking place. There were, perhaps, about 100 people marching in the street carrying a few placards. The man carrying the placard at the head of the marchers was dressed in the distinctive clothing of an Orthodox priest.1 On his placard was the claim that the Orthodox Church was the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church. Now, I was raised a Protestant and had personally placed my faith in Christ as a result of an evangelistic message given by a Protestant on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley while I was a student there. So, upon hearing the claim of the demonstrators, I immediately sensed a challenge in their claim. How could they claim something so exclusive?
Eastern Orthodoxy is indeed present in most parts of the world today, but is to a great many in the West little known and even less understood. In fact, the Orthodox Churches found in most countries of the West are immigrant churches, that is, churches started by immigrants from the countries of Eastern Europe (Greek, Russian, Armenian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Serbian, etc.). These churches may recruit new members through conversion of Protestants or Roman Catholics, but the majority of their flocks are descended from these ethnic groups. Of course, marriage to a member of an Orthodox Church is one of the more common ways for people outside of the traditional ethnic communities to become Orthodox. This was humorously depicted in the wildly popular film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. However, since the 1980s a small but growing number of evangelicals have become Orthodox. Some of these have become part of the various national Orthodox churches, such as the Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox Churches, but most seem to have become part of the Evangelical Orthodox Church, which became associated with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Some have also become part of the Orthodox Church in America, which began as a result of Russian Orthodox missionaries to Alaska in 1794.
How many people belong to the Orthodox Church in all its various expressions? The best estimates put the number between 200 and 300 million worldwide, depending on the way “members” is defined. In any case, the size of the Orthodox community would make it third behind the Roman Catholics and the Protestants in the Christian tradition. Among those who are active members in Orthodox Churches there are many who are sincere and devout in their Christian faith. This essay, though written from the perspective of an evangelical Protestant, is not intended to simply discredit the faith of all Orthodox believers. Yet, in the spirit of 1 Thessalonians 5:21, I want to “examine everything carefully” and “hold fast to that which is good.”2
Other than their exclusive claims to being the one true church, to which I will return later, what are the distinctive views of the Eastern Orthodox? I will attempt to survey their most important beliefs and practices by examining the following questions.
- What is the highest authority in their tradition?
- What is their view of creation?
- What is their view of Christ?
- What is their teaching on how one is saved, and what role do the “sacraments” play in their teaching on salvation?
- How do they worship (including what an Orthodox Church service looks like)?
- What is the justification for seeing orthodoxy as the one true church?
The Orthodox, like Protestants and Catholics, regard the Bible as the inspired Word of God. But like the Catholics, the Orthodox Bible contains a few books not found in the Hebrew Scriptures (that is, books called the Apocrypha [Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, etc.] and written between the close of the Old Testament and the writing of the New Testament).
The inclusion in the canon of Scripture of some books not regarded as canonical by Jesus and the Apostles (based on their lack of reference to them) is not an unimportant matter.3 However, even more important and resulting in more serious consequences is the place of tradition in connection with the Scriptures.
The Orthodox view of tradition is more complex than the Roman Catholic view. In the Catholic view, Scripture and tradition are both authorities. In other words, tradition exists alongside of Scripture as another authority. In the Orthodox view, the Scriptures are a part of tradition. According to their theologians, it is a mistake to pit Scripture against tradition. They are both part of one great tradition. They affirm that Scripture may be the highest tradition, but it is still tradition. But Scripture is not, in their view, the highest and final authority for faith and practice in the way Protestants since the Reformation have seen it and confessed it to be. Scripture, as part of the great tradition, must be interpreted authoritatively. Though the Orthodox do not have a Magisterium4 comparable to the Roman Catholic Church, they do, practically speaking, have something functionally similar.
For the Orthodox, the church’s tradition is the authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. This means, practically, that no believer has the right to interpret Scripture on his or her own, so to speak. The proper way to read Scripture according to the Orthodox is with the writings of the church fathers5 alongside the Bible, guiding us in our understanding of what the Bible says. Of course, in practice, there may be very few Orthodox who literally read their Bibles with the writings of the church fathers open beside them. But what they do seems (to this outside observer) to be: (1) they read the church fathers a good deal more than the Scriptures and then (2) when they do read Scripture, they come up with their understanding of what the Scriptures are supposed to mean from the church fathers and thus find in the Bible what they have already become convinced of by reading the church fathers. No doubt, this may facilitate a quicker and correct understanding of some parts of the Bible. However, the possibility that one or more of the church fathers has misunderstood or misinterpreted Scripture does not seem to come into play. When the church fathers and the church’s tradition as a whole are used as a means of understanding Scripture, rather than using Scripture to correct and guide the church’s beliefs and practices, the result is often seen in putting the church’s tradition as an authority over or above the Scripture.
The implications of this approach to authority are clear. Paul’s words to Timothy, his faithful disciple, in 2 Timothy 3:16–17 tell us that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” This teaching, reproving, correcting, and training work of the Scripture in the lives of believers is at least partially shackled by the Orthodox approach to authority since the Scriptures can’t do that directly! Any teaching or reproof that isn’t grounded in the church’s tradition must be set aside—disqualified.
A good example of how this works can be imagined, if this had been applied to the “discoveries” made by Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers of the 16th century. Luther found peace for his tortured conscience when he discovered that he could be justified by faith alone (apart from works) and that God credited Christ’s righteousness to him when he trusted in Christ and His work on the Cross for him. He did not find this understanding in the Roman Catholic Church’s tradition. He found it in the Bible, particularly in Romans. If the Orthodox principle of reading the Bible only with the help of the church fathers and the church’s tradition had been applied, Luther would have had no message. Sola fides, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria,6 the slogans of the Reformation, would have never corrected the practices and beliefs of the church. Though partial or basic understandings of these truths can be found here and there in some of the church fathers, no clear championing of them is to be found in the church’s tradition.7 Does that mean that the principles expressed in the slogans are wrong? According to the Orthodox understanding of authority, this would certainly be the case. But what about the fact that all of these principles that were of such life-changing significance for Luther and so many others in the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th century are found explicitly and implicitly in the Bible? If the Bible clearly teaches something, is it not valid, even if it is not found clearly in the church fathers? Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the other reformers insisted that the Bible’s teaching was over the church’s teaching, and when the church’s teaching did not correspond to the Bible’s, then it was the church’s teaching that had to be changed, not the Bible’s.
The Bible teaches its supreme authority repeatedly. For example, Moses taught the Israelites to trust and obey God’s Word and teach it to their children (Deuteronomy 6:1–9). God told Joshua not to turn to the right or the left from following His Word (Joshua 1:6–9). Psalm 1 blessed the person who clings to God’s Word, Psalm 19 says it is far superior to any truth we learn from nature, and Psalm 119 magnifies the importance of Scripture, making the believer wiser than his teachers (119:97–104). The prophets continually called the Jews back to the Word of God (e.g., Isaiah 8:20; Jeremiah 6:16–19; Hosea 4:6). Jesus condemned the Jewish religious leaders of His day for undermining the teaching of Scripture by their traditions (Mark 7:6–13). And the Berean Jews were commended for evaluating the truthfulness of Paul’s teachings in the light of the Old Testament (Acts 17:11). Scripture is the only sure foundation and authority for the Christian.
Due to their high regard for tradition and belief that what the church fathers taught was permanently valid, the Orthodox Church has not been significantly involved in the debates of the last two centuries over creation and evolution. This is beginning to change as secular and rationalist thinking has come to dominate the sciences in the West. Andrew Louth is a theologian and professor emeritus from Durham University in England. He is at the same time a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church and serves the parish in Durham. Louth reveals the kind of approach likely to be taken with increasing frequency. He asks:
Do Christians have to believe that Adam and Eve existed, and that they sinned, and that their sin has infected all subsequent human beings? Do we have to believe that there was an original couple, that Homo sapiens emerged from some kind of Homo erectus as a single couple, in a particular place. . . . There are . . . Christians who believe this, and indeed not a few of them are Orthodox Christians. I do not, however, think we, as Orthodox, need to commit ourselves to such a position.8
Louth goes on to discuss the many characteristics that we humans share with animals. Thus a common origin is seen as quite reasonable. He does, of course, affirm that man possesses reason and is a higher being and in the image of God. Even so, this identity need not be tied to a historical Adam and Eve, according to Louth.
But what about the Fall? For Louth, the fallen state of humanity is an undeniable fact. Yet he is content to argue that man’s condition is something that slowly evolved as humanity found “that the pull of more evident pleasure, or a sense of the self expressing itself in aggression towards the other, was too great to resist.” What Louth is arguing is clearly a view of sin, but not just sin as we know it, but what he refers to as “ancestral sin” (the term he prefers to “original sin”).
Ancestral sin, he thinks, is a consequence of man’s ontology. In other words, man’s nature is such that sin is a regrettable but unavoidable reality of his being. If, then, sin is more of an ontological problem than a moral or spiritual problem, a historical Adam and Eve and a historical Fall are not really necessary. These two perspectives (that is, our commonalities with the animal world and an obscure beginning for “ancestral sin” in the distant shadowy past) present no problem for Louth and those who agree with him in seeing an evolutionary beginning for life and a process of “millions” (his term) of years rather than a recently created historical pair who sinned by disobeying God’s explicit command.
Father Seraphim Rose (1934–1982), an American Orthodox monk and scholar, wrote a lengthy book surveying the teachings on Genesis 1–11 of Orthodox theologians and scholars down through the centuries. He documents with lengthy quotes from the “Holy Fathers” of Eastern Orthodoxy that up until the 19th century the Orthodox Church held to a literal six-day creation week about 6,000 years ago and a global catastrophic Flood at the time of Noah. But, he tells us, by the 20th century a very large percentage of Eastern Orthodox believers had accepted the ideas of evolution and millions of years.9
Eastern Orthodoxy has historically maintained and defended a high view of the deity of Christ. The Orthodox make a great deal out of being “the Church of the seven councils” (that is, the seven ecumenical councils of the early Church). The first five of these councils dealt with challenges to the full deity or full humanity of Christ. The first of these councils was held in Nicea and the fourth was held in Chalcedon. These two councils affirmed the biblical doctrine of Christ as being one person with two natures, thus fully divine and fully human. From the side of His divinity, He is the second person of the Trinity and is as fully God as are the Father and the Holy Spirit. From the side of His humanity, He is the virgin-born son of Mary and the heir of David. All these things the Orthodox Church faithfully teach and affirm. Thus, there is no debate between evangelical Protestants and the Orthodox on the deity of Christ or His incarnation. Difficulties emerge, however, when the meaning of the incarnation for redemption is considered. This is best considered in connection with the next question.
Salvation and the Sacraments
“What must I do to be saved?” This was the question the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas in Acts 16:30. It remains the critical question for all of mankind. Indeed, if we are given the wrong answers to this question, a catastrophic loss is the prospect we face. Strangely, in contrast to both Protestants and Catholics, the Orthodox do not seem to focus very much on this question. There are, of course, reasons for this.
Like Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy places great emphasis on the “sacraments.” Like Catholicism, Orthodoxy sees baptism as bringing about the regeneration of the person receiving the sacrament. The Orthodox typically baptize infants, but, of course, adult converts to Orthodoxy are baptized as well. In contrast to Roman Catholics, the Orthodox baptize by immersion. Immersion is carried out three times in succession, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Unique to the Orthodox is a second sacrament applied immediately following baptism, called “chrismation.” Chrismation is performed by the priest on the newly baptized individual by anointing him or her with oil and making the sign of the cross over the various parts of the body (the forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, chest, hands, and feet) of the newly baptized and saying, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” According to Orthodox teaching, this sacrament brings about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the newly baptized individual. In the Orthodox view then, even if the individual being baptized is an infant, he or she is consequently a full member of the church from that point on. The oil used in the anointing of the person being baptized is called the “chrism.” According to Orthodox belief, the chrism may be administered by a priest but the chrism must have first been blessed by a bishop.
The Orthodox do not believe that faith on the part of the person being baptized is necessary in order for these sacraments to be effective. Indeed, Orthodox theologians take great pains to clarify and emphasize that the effectiveness of the sacraments is entirely independent of any faith or particular desires for God or sanctity. To quote a prominent Orthodox theologian: “In no way is the efficacy of the sacrament contingent upon the faith or moral qualifications of either celebrant [i.e., priest or bishop] or recipient.”10 How is such a thing possible? The answer becomes clearer when we read Karmiris’ explanation of what happens when the sacraments are dispensed: “Baptism and chrismation transmit justifying and regenerating grace.”11 Quite explicitly then, these two sacraments, according to Orthodox teaching, automatically transmit God’s saving and regenerating grace.
How is it possible that a person can be baptized without any faith or spiritual hunger, by a priest of whom no moral qualifications are required, and yet that baptism be effective without fail? The answer to this question is that the sacrament itself, by virtue of being a genuine sacrament of the Orthodox Church, is certainly effective. In other words, all that is necessary is that the priest or bishop celebrating the sacraments must be a duly ordained minister of the Orthodox Church. The baptisms that take place in the Protestant Church or even the Roman Catholic Church are not regarded as valid baptisms. Why not? Karmiris explains this quite clearly:
Furthermore, the Orthodox Catholic Church believes that divine grace is not dispensed outside of the true church, and thus the church does not recognize in their fullness sacramental acts which are performed outside of her, except in extraordinary cases.12
Thus, it is because of the belief of the Orthodox that the ancient maxim of Cyprian (3rd century) is true, that is, “outside of the church there is no salvation.” Since only the Orthodox Church is the true church, then only the ministers of the Orthodox Church are genuinely in the apostolic succession.13 Thus these ministers play the role of transmitting God’s grace when they administer the sacraments.
It is ironic that the Orthodox regard the faith of the one being baptized as inconsequential while they at the same time believe that all baptisms administered by legitimate Orthodox ministers are effective. From the perspective of an outside observer, their faith is great, but it is in the wrong thing. The Bible makes the faith of the believer the decisive thing. Notice Paul’s response to the question of the Philippian jailor: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). As a result of his faith, the Philippian jailor was then baptized (Acts 16:33). What a perfect situation for Paul to have clarified the effectiveness of baptism to bring salvation! All he would have had to say was “Receive baptism from us and you will be saved!” But, of course, he did not say that. He placed the emphasis squarely on the faith of the individual sinner as the essential thing to receive salvation.
Two things must be said to clarify the picture further. It is quite true that Eastern Orthodoxy is a very sacramental tradition. The portal to enter the Orthodox Church is through the sacraments. Great emphasis is placed on these sacraments. There is a deeply rooted belief that the visible acts of the church’s priests and bishops signify the invisible works of God. Because of the authority of the church to perform these acts and transmit the grace pertinent to the particular purpose, grace is transmitted to the recipient by virtue of the work of God through the church’s ministers. Thus the members are taught that these sacraments are the means of salvation and becoming “deified.” (More will be said about “deification” momentarily.) The point I want to make is this: the members of the Orthodox Church naturally assume that they can depend on the sacraments and that they will be effective. Consequently, the great majority of those within the Orthodox Church rely on the sacraments to “get them through” (that is, to gain their salvation for them).
The second thing that needs to be said here is to clarify to people outside of the tradition that the salvation believed to have been imparted at one’s baptism and chrismation is not viewed within Orthodoxy as a permanent possession. In fact, it is viewed merely as a beginning. Whether or not one will end up actually saved depends on a number of other things. Thus, it would be a misrepresentation of Orthodox teaching to leave people with the understanding that all that was needed was to be baptized and chrismated. Though it is true that the Orthodox believe that baptism and chrismation bring regeneration and justification, it is not true that they regard the new member of the church as having a “free pass to heaven,” so to speak. The spiritual life in this newly baptized and chrismated individual must be nurtured. This is especially done through participation in “the Eucharist” (i.e., the Lord’s Supper). But other matters are important as well. The main thing I wish to make clear at this point is that salvation in Orthodoxy is regarded as a process, indeed a life-long process. The sacraments play a very great role, but other things matter as well.
Salvation and Deification
One of the great points of confusion among outsiders trying to understand Orthodoxy is the concept of “deification” or “theosis.” Translated, the thought is “becoming god.” To most Westerners this concept is totally alien. Paul does, of course, speak of being “conformed to the image of Christ” (Romans 8:29). Is that all the Orthodox mean by theosis? No, it is not. In fact, the Orthodox have a major and complex theology built around the idea of deification.
Most frequently quoted by the Orthodox is a statement by Athanasius: “God became man that we might become gods.”14 Athanasius was by no means the only church father to speak of deification in similar terms.15 Outsiders might be tempted to think that the Orthodox have similar views to the Mormons, believing that humans can become divine, “gods” in an ontological sense. This would be quite mistaken. The Orthodox are quite clear in their Trinitarian belief that the divine essence resides only in the triune God. Man cannot by any means cross over the divide between the divine essence (the one true God) and human nature. But they do indeed mean more than what Protestants mean with their doctrine of sanctification. Where then does the Orthodox doctrine of theosis (deification) fit in their doctrine of salvation?
If, in fact, the Orthodox thought of deification only in terms of sanctification (i.e., the process of becoming more and more like Christ through faith and obedience and the work of the Holy Spirit), there wouldn’t be a real problem with their doctrine other than the natural confusion that arises from the use of the term. But a careful survey of the writings of Orthodox theologians leads one to the conclusion that theosis is much more important than that. Indeed, it becomes clear that the Orthodox think of theosis as the process of salvation. In other words, one is saved by becoming “deified.”
The basic perspective of the Orthodox on theosis is that it is a life-long process of becoming more and more holy, more and more like God, or as they often express it, more and more “a god.” This transformation can also be spoken of as “union with God” or “sharing the divine nature.”16 The ultimate goal is not even reachable in this life. However, significant progress toward it can and must be made. How is progress toward theosis made? First of all, through active participation in the sacraments. According to one theologian,
The road toward our theosis, our union with God, can be formulated in the following short statement: divine grace and human freedom . . . We are able to walk that road. We will be accompanied and strengthened by divine grace. The holy mysteries (sacraments) are what transmit this grace of the All-Holy Spirit. His sanctifying and deifying energy is actualized in the holy services of the church, especially in holy baptism, repentance, and the divine Eucharist.17
Two things emerge from this claim: theosis requires both divine grace and human action and the critical role played by the sacraments. The interaction of divine grace and human action is referred to often by Orthodox theologians and is called synergy. Of course, in the sacraments, according to the Orthodox view, grace is transmitted from God to man. However, in synergy, man must bring his part. Man’s part is essential to the success of the venture. The prominent and highly regarded Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky refers to what the Orthodox Church calls the “synergy of divine grace and human freedom.” On this point Lossky quotes St. Macarius of Egypt as saying: “The will of man is an essential condition, for without it God does nothing”18 (my emphasis). This logically would mean that man is a participant in his own salvation. This is indeed what the Orthodox Church teaches. Lossky goes on to quote a 19th-century Russian ascetic writer to this effect: “ ‘the Holy Ghost, acting within us, accomplishes with us our salvation,’ but he says at the same time that ‘being assisted by grace, man accomplishes the work of his salvation’ ”19 (my emphasis).
When one surveys the vast literature from Orthodox asceticism (as practiced by the countless monks in Orthodox monasteries), one finds this viewpoint that man participates in his own salvation in many places. Theosis is a synergistic process in which the believer pursues the goal of union with God by means of (my emphasis) denial of the flesh and pursuit of holiness. We are told that this involves struggle and striving: “Fastings, vigils, prayers, alms, and other good works which are done in the name of Christ are means which help us reach that goal which always remains the same: the reception of the Holy Spirit and the making him our own, that is theosis.”20
Human effort, then, is an essential part of theosis; it is the means of pursuing union with God. Since theosis is accomplished by the synergy of God’s grace and man’s effort, then salvation depends not on God’s grace alone—it is not a gift, but is a reward for man’s effort. The seriousness of the Orthodox pursuit of holiness, at least on the part of many of the monks, is indeed impressive.
But is this explanation of how one is saved reconcilable with Ephesians 2:8–9? “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In fact, Paul’s central thrust in the Book of Romans is to establish that “apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested . . . even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe . . . being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21–24).
Romans and Galatians both speak eloquently of justification by faith and of the substitutionary atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ’s completed work on the Cross. Strangely, these themes are scarcely, if ever, addressed by Orthodox theologians. When questioned about this deficit, the reply is that there are many metaphors for salvation in the Bible and that the Orthodox preference is to think in terms of union with God rather than in the legal terms so favored in the West. Is it not rather an error of perception to think in terms of preferences when discussing the great biblical theme of salvation? What does the Scripture itself emphasize? Is not the Book of Romans the longest and most systematic treatment of the doctrine of salvation in the New Testament? How can we ignore its clear teaching on grace, faith, the substitutionary atonement, and justification, and hope to have a truly biblical understanding of God’s plan of salvation?
Salvation and the Atonement
A final point on the Orthodox teaching on salvation should be added before leaving this topic. There is comparatively little focus in Orthodoxy on the atonement or the Cross but a significantly greater focus on the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Protestants and Catholics are accustomed to thinking of the Incarnation as part of the process ending in the death of Christ on the Cross for our sins. Of course, the doctrine of Incarnation is a rich vein that bears many treasures for Christian theology, not the least of which is an affirmation by God of the inherent goodness of the material creation.21 But in Scripture, the Incarnation of Jesus is seen first and foremost as a revelation of God to man of His goodness and character (Hebrews 1:1–3) to redeem man by means of the atonement. This is seen with great clarity in Jesus’ own statement of the purpose of His coming: “to give His life a ransom for many” (e.g., Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). It comes as a surprise, then, to find the Orthodox perspective on the incarnation, which is captured well in this statement from Bulgakov:
For God so loved the world that He spared not His Son to save and deify it. The Incarnation, first decreed to ransom fallen humanity and reconcile it with God, is understood by Orthodoxy as, above all, the deification of man, as the communication of the divine life to him. To fallen man the Incarnation became the supreme way for his reconciliation with God, the way of redemption. This produces the concept of salvation as deification.22
The incarnation is then said to be the effective “deification” of man. This deification is, according to Bulgakov, the Orthodox view of salvation. From a biblical point of view, it seems strange to gloss over the atonement and attribute to the Incarnation things never declared in Scripture and then end up calling it salvation.
Within the doctrine of redemption as set forth by Orthodoxy, there is also the surprising role attributed to the Resurrection. The Orthodox theologian and priest Andrew Louth makes the following assertions about the Resurrection and redemption:
Orthodox theology . . . considers the question of Adam’s sin and its consequences from the perspective of the resurrection of Christ. The icon, called ‘The Resurrection’ . . . is a depiction of Christ destroying the gates of hell and bringing out from hell . . . Adam and Eve, as the first of a crowd of people . . . who are being brought out of hell by Christ’s victory over death in the resurrection. . . . Adam is commemorated as he is now: one whose penitence made it possible for him to be redeemed from hell by Christ at his resurrection.23
This is a remarkable presentation of the Fall and redemption! Though the reality of the Fall and the redemption are affirmed, notice that the Fall is the departure from the path of deification, and that redemption is accomplished by the Resurrection. And man’s inclusion in the redemption is on the basis of his “penitence”! What is missing here? Absolutely no mention is made of the atonement or the Cross. No mention is made of the payment for sin or satisfying the wrath of God. For the Orthodox, Christ’s victory over death and not the Cross or atonement is what saves from sin, death, and hell.
But Scripture is clear. Peter tells us, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Luke 24:45–47 records Jesus’ charge to His disciples before He ascended to Heaven:
Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
In Romans 3:23–26, Paul instructs us:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
And in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 he says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” And in 2 Corinthians 5:21 we read, “He [God] made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
We cannot bypass the Cross. It is at the heart of the gospel, as Paul makes clear:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly (Galatians 2:20–21).
But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).
Christians from the West tend to be confused or even shocked when they first attend an Orthodox service. In Eastern Europe and Russia, Orthodox Churches generally do not have seating. (However, Greek Orthodox Churches in America do tend to have pews.) The inside of an Orthodox Church is typically richly adorned with icons. The word “icon” is simply the Greek word for “image.” At the front of the sanctuary is a wall of icons with a door (or doors) in it. This wall is called an “iconostasis” (“icon stand”). It plays an important part in Orthodox worship. The icons on the iconostasis only display the most important icons adorning a particular church. There are often many, many more icons distributed throughout the church. Westerners from the Catholic tradition, or who are familiar with Catholic Churches, are accustomed to religious art being featured prominently in the church. However, in an Orthodox Church, one is immediately struck with the number of pictures and the obvious importance they play in Orthodox worship. Why are icons so important to the Orthodox?
Worship and Icons in Orthodoxy
The place of icons in Orthodox worship is the result of a centuries-long development and some bloody battles. In the year 726, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III decreed that icons should not be used in Orthodox worship. This was immediately resisted, indeed violently resisted, and the famous “iconoclastic controversy” was underway. During the next 117 years, the Byzantine Orthodox Church and society were torn by this controversy. By and large, it was the state, the emperors, their families, the patriarchs, and the bishops who attempted to remove icons from the churches and to ban them from use during church services. The monks and many of the laity were vehemently opposed to the attempts of the iconoclasts to suppress the use of icons in the church.
Finally, in 753, Emperor Constantine V called a council of the church in Constantinople, which issued a condemnation of using icons in the church’s worship. This did not stop the controversy, however. There continued to be strong resistance to the prohibition against the use of icons in the church, and there was further persecution from the state against those who insisted on continuing to use icons in worship.
When the emperor died and his wife (Irene), a secret advocate for using icons, became empress, she called another council. This council, held in 787 in Constantinople, reversed all of the decisions of the 753 council and affirmed the correctness of the use of icons in worship. This second council to deal with the use of icons is recognized as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Even this council did not end the conflict over icons. Not until 843 did the last iconoclastic emperor die. His wife had another synod called to confirm the decrees of the Seventh Council. This victory for the advocates of icon usage is celebrated every year as the Feast of Orthodoxy.
This bitter controversy and its final resolution in favor of those advocating the use of icons in worship has left a deep impression on Eastern Orthodoxy. The love for and religious use of icons is a distinguishing mark of Orthodoxy. This raises the question: what justification is given for this practice? There is, after all, no mention of using icons in the New Testament. Not only that, there is the second commandment (Exodus 20:4) against making idols to worship and serve as well as the prohibition in Deuteronomy 4:23–27 against making any “graven images.”
Those advocating the use of icons countered with the argument that the Apostles affirmed the use of icons even though they did not say anything about them in their surviving writings. We can, they claim, know this through oral tradition. This is, of course, a claim that can neither be proved nor disproved.
But the most important argument brought in support of the validity of icons was that the Incarnation made them acceptable. Since God chose to take on flesh when Christ was born, He made Himself visible. He took on a physical body (that is, made up of matter; Romans 8:3). Thus, the rejection of icons was arbitrarily said to be the denial of a genuine incarnation.24 To believe that God became man meant that man could represent Him with material elements. The fact that God was able to incarnate Himself, to become man, is clearly a miracle of which only He is capable. It is a great leap to get from the historical Incarnation of God in Jesus to say that that means people are, therefore, competent to create holy images to be venerated in worship.
In fairness, it must also be said that the Seventh Council declared that it is wrong to worship icons but that it was acceptable to venerate (strong form of the word “to honor”) them because they represented holy personages: Jesus, Mary,25 and the saints. In venerating an icon of the Apostle Paul, for example, one is said to be recognizing and honoring his holiness, which he achieved during his life. This is even said to result in making the venerator more holy. All of this became standard justification for the use of icons and remains so today.
Is it possible to use icons and not violate the second commandment? Is it possible to venerate icons and not slip over the line into worshiping them? Even the highly respected and prominent Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann admitted that the line dividing veneration and worship is a fine line that is easy to cross over. In his own words: the line “dividing the Chalcedoninan essence of icons from real idol-worship is [an] exceedingly fine line.”26 But, even if the worshipers are sufficiently schooled in theology and philosophy to stay on the right side of this fine line, is it an appropriate thing to do in a religious service of a faith that is “word-” and not image-based?
It is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation. Christ is said, in John 1, to be the Word which became flesh. All of this and much more in the rest of the New Testament emphasizes God’s speaking. It seems at the least that the great emphasis on icons works counter to this biblical emphasis on the Word of God, what God says to us, and to which we must respond. Thus, with as much good will as we can muster, we still have to say that the particular form of icon veneration now practiced (bowing before, kissing) is rather far removed from speaking and hearing the Word of God, which is precisely what we all need much more than focusing on the image of a “saint.”
The Importance of Icons in Orthodox Worship
Perhaps one of the most unfortunate consequences of the tragic iconoclastic controversy was that it actually ended up elevating icons in importance. Before it began, it was entirely possible to be an Orthodox believer and participate in Orthodox worship without venerating icons. Icon veneration, or worship in many cases, was widespread, but it was not a dogmatically defined practice and was not integrated into Orthodox liturgy.
After the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787, veneration of icons was made an integral part of Orthodox worship and the meaning of icons was dogmatically defined by the council’s decrees. This results in a role for icons within the Orthodox Church that is clearly far beyond anything that can be justified by Scripture. Though linking the making of icons with an affirmation of the Incarnation makes sense to many, just as many see the argument as far from compelling.
And, if that argument is not compelling and not based on any explicit Scripture, why should icon veneration have such an important place in the life of the church? Further, the prohibition against the making of “idols” or “graven images” from Exodus and Deuteronomy, though a part of the law, should still be taken as representing God’s revealed will. We did have a supernatural intervention in Peter’s life when the Lord wanted to make it clear that eating certain meats prohibited by the law was no longer prohibited (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:9–16). We have no such revelation regarding the making of graven images. It certainly does seem quite unjustified to claim that those of us who reject the use of icons in Christian worship deny the Incarnation.
When I was a very young child (two years old), my father was deployed to China at the end of World War II. I spent a whole year alone with my very young mother. She, of course, missed my dad terribly and wanted me not to forget him. She had a photograph of him by her bed, which I also shared with her that year. Every day she would hold the photo up to me and tell me to “give Daddy a kiss.” I, of course, complied.
One day, however, he returned from China to his wife and son. I was initially a bit frightened of this man who had come in and taken my place in bed next to my mother. Wanting to help me get over my reservation about my dad, my mother told me to give my dad a kiss. I ran into the bedroom, got his picture and kissed it! I had become devoted to the image, but didn’t know the person the image portrayed. Of course, I was quite limited in understanding images and representation, but until I was able to truly get to know my dad, could it be said that I loved him? Probably not. I may have loved the image because it made my mother happy, but I had to get to know him in order to grow in a relationship of love and trust.
It would, in my judgment, be an error to think that the great devotion to icons demonstrated by many Orthodox believers really betokens a great love for the one represented in the icon. And, even if it does indicate a great love for the one portrayed in the icon, is it fitting to develop such devotion to John Chrysostom or Basil the Great or even Mary? Should not our devotion be directed toward our Lord and Savior rather than His servants? That is the message the angel in Revelation gave to John when he prostrated himself at the angel’s feet (Revelation 22:8–9). The angel’s words make it abundantly clear that worship should not be given to fellow servants but only to God.
The Pattern of Orthodox Worship
A brief word about the conduct of Orthodox services should be added to this topic. The priest(s) perform the rituals of the Eucharistic service behind the iconostasis, out of sight of the worshipers. The liturgy is sung or chanted and is quite consistent. In other words, the worshipers who attend regularly know the liturgy and know how to enter into the process. The participation of the worshipers is seen in their responding at appropriate points in the liturgy and in much bowing, kneeling, and kissing of the icons. Some worshipers will stay through an entire service, but many will come in at some later point and many will leave before the service is over. In fact, there are at least two services that take place each Sunday, the first being “Matins,” which lasts about an hour. The Eucharistic service lasts another hour and a half. Thus, many come and partake of whatever portion of the service they wish to be present for and participate in. As strange as it seems to Westerners, it is not considered inappropriate for people to come late or leave early during a service. There is a sense that entering into the liturgy when one arrives and praying and kissing the icons is enough. The liturgy is, after all, for God. Of course, participation in the Eucharist requires that one stay until the priest comes out from behind the iconostasis and distributes the bread and wine. This is the high point of the service. A sermon, generally called a “homily,” is typically short and not many seem to wait to hear it. The important thing in the service is the liturgy and the Eucharist. Preaching does not tend to be valued very highly.
Curious to many, it is precisely this liturgy and the artwork (i.e., the icons) that have attracted many Westerners to Orthodoxy. There is, in the eyes of many, something worshipful about the solemn atmosphere and the ancient liturgy that gives a sense of connection with the past. However, the question that begs for attention is whether or not the exposition of the Scriptures should not play a central role in Christian worship. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in his last epistle before martyrdom was “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Further, he tells him that it is the Scriptures that are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) and that he should “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis added). Liturgy, per se, is certainly not a bad thing. The Greek word from which it comes simply means “service of worship.” It was used of the pagan worship of the gods, but it is also used in the New Testament to refer to Christian worship. Thus, it is not the use of liturgy as such that I find questionable but rather the very limited place the exposition of the Scriptures have in Orthodox worship. Hearing Scripture read and expounded are clearly primary concerns of Paul in his pastoral letters. This should tell us something very important.
The Claim to Be the One True Church
As was pointed out at the beginning of this chapter, the Eastern Orthodox have a very exalted view of their church. Of course, the same could be said of Roman Catholics. In fact, from the fourth century until Vatican II (1962–1965), the claims made by Roman Catholics were just as great as those made by the Orthodox. However, with Vatican II it began to be possible for Catholics to see Protestants as “separated brethren” (my emphasis). This was a great advance over just seeing Protestants as heretics. From a Protestant perspective, it is possible to think in terms of different “denominations.” Each denomination may be more or less close to what one sees as “fully biblical.” The differences that Baptists have with Presbyterians need not lead to rejecting one another as “heretics.” In fact, they may engage in various activities cooperatively to get the gospel out to an unbelieving world. From an Orthodox perspective, this notion of different legitimate denominations, different churches that have a valid justification for thinking of themselves as the people of the body of Christ, is not possible. In their view, there can only be one true church and they are quite confident that they are it! Why? The reason is actually quite simple. The claim to be the one true church is connected to their claim to be “apostolic.” By “apostolic,” the Orthodox do not just mean that they believe and teach the message and doctrines of the Apostles. They do claim that—and more. What they are ultimately claiming is that their bishops and priests are the actual heirs of the Apostles, the “successors” of the Apostles. In other words, the claim is based on what theologians call “apostolic succession.” The way this is claimed to have worked is simple. The Apostles appointed their successors before they died. These successors ordained priests and bishops in their years of ministry and, then, when they died, the ones they had appointed in turn appointed their successors. That means, they say, that there is an unbroken succession of appointees that goes right back to the Apostles, who started the succession. The implication for the Orthodox is also that anyone not in that succession is not regarded as a legitimate minister of the true Church, the one founded by Jesus and the Apostles. Even at this point in history, the Orthodox believe that all of their bishops stand in a direct line of succession, an unbroken chain, going all the way back to the Apostles and thus have been ordained to lead the true Church and to appoint (i.e., ordain) future ministers for that Church.
If we stop and reflect for a moment on the logic employed in this justification for the claim to be the one true Church, it should become obvious that there is a logical fallacy involved. Just for the sake of illustration, let us say John ordains Bill, who in turn ordains Jim, who ordains Carl. Now let’s say that Jim begins to be influenced by a number of his friends and begins to add things to his teaching that did not come out of the Bible. Let’s say further that in his teaching he also leaves out a few of the important points from the Bible. When Jim then appoints and ordains Carl to be his successor, he makes sure that Carl shares his values and viewpoints. As the process continues, we may find that by the time we get to Andy a few centuries later, he is teaching many things that the Apostles didn’t teach and not teaching a number of things that they did teach. Is he in the “succession” beginning with the Apostles? Perhaps so, but this would be in a relational sense. But if he is not a theological successor in terms of holding to the teaching of the Apostles, how important is it that he has a formal link back to the Apostles? Can we doubt that the message, the teaching of the Apostles, is far more important, indeed decisively important, for the role of leading and serving the Church of Jesus Christ? We see exactly this kind of problem in the Gospels. Jesus pointed out that the scribes and Pharisees had seated themselves in the chair of Moses (being Jews, they had a relational link to him) but that their example should not be followed (Matthew 23:2ff) because their traditions undermined the truth of the Scriptures (Mark 7:6–13).
As the 16th-century reformers pointed out in their conflicts with the Roman Catholic Church of the time, where the gospel is truly proclaimed and the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s supper) are administered, there is the Church. Of course, they made it very clear that the Bible was the final authority for all things in the faith and practice of the Church, but they decisively rejected the notion of apostolic succession based on formal descent from the Apostles. It was the message and teaching of the Apostles, which is found in the written Scriptures, that give us the message and teaching that the Church must proclaim. Where Christ and His atoning death on the Cross and His Resurrection make up the central content of a community’s faith, and the written Word of God found in the Bible is the final authority for faith and practice, the Church is present, whatever denomination or tradition it belongs to. This is a far more important measure of the true Church than the formal descent referred to as “apostolic succession.”
A Concluding Question
One last question might trouble some. Is it possible for a born-again believer to be a practicing member of the Orthodox Church? Of course it is as long as they repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and His death, burial, and Resurrection! As Jesus told Nicodemus, the Spirit blows where He wills (John 3:8). There are without doubt born-again believers in all kinds of places and churches. What is not possible is to claim that all in any particular church or denomination are saved just because they are members of that church or denomination. This certainly applies to the Orthodox Church, but it also applies to Protestant churches. Salvation and membership in the Body of Christ, the Church universal, is dependent on a personal relationship with the Christ of Scripture that comes about by personal repentance and faith in Him, not through belonging to any particular local church, denomination, or tradition. The Lord knows those who are His (2 Timothy 2:19)!
Many years of missionary work in Eastern Europe and Russia have led me to conclude that the gospel is not often proclaimed in the Orthodox Church. Church services are ritualistic exercises that focus on the icons and the sacraments. It is all too easy to trust in those sacraments to save one and on the icons to sanctify one rather than in the finished work of Christ on the Cross in our behalf. Though we cannot judge what is in the heart of another, we can certainly assume that most people in the Orthodox Church need to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ and need to turn to Him for forgiveness of sins and to trust in His work on the Cross for their salvation. This is, indeed, the message that all people need to hear.
|God||Trinitarian Godhead consistent with Bible|
|Authority/Revelation||The Bible is considered a part of tradition, thought the highest and most important tradition. The apocrypha is also considered part of Scripture, though on a lower level; tradition, particularly in the Church Fathers, gives the authoritative way to interpret Scripture.|
|Man||A fallen creature, yet not without the ability to cooperate with God in the process of deification (becoming “god,” i.e., reaching salvation)|
|Sin||Transgression of God’s will; sin is not seen as the powerful force controlling and enslaving people’s will (cf. Romans 7; Ephesians 2:1–10).|
|Salvation||A cooperation of man with God; most important in this process is participation in the sacraments; the sacraments must be received from duly ordained ministers (priests and bishops) of the Orthodox Church who stand in the line of apostolic succession; beyond the sacraments, the individual believer must strive to become increasingly “holy”; the doc-trine of the Atonement (the substitutionary death of Christ on the Cross for our sins) is not emphasized, but rather the Incarnation and Resurrection are the focus.|
|Creation||Originally believed in a literal, six-day creation, but influ-ence of evolutionary views is increasing.|