A Critical Analysis of Eastern Orthodox Beliefs

In way of introduction, I have been forming my Christian beliefs, in some cases based on other’s views, in others personal study, for now some 20+ years. Recently, I have explored some of the beliefs and doctrines of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and, surprisingly perhaps, have found substantial overlap with my own. I say surprisingly, because I have never experienced any teaching of the Orthodox Church, a Church who claims its beliefs to be the authentic beliefs of the very earliest Christians. I would characterize my own beliefs as still shackled in some ways to traditional Western Christian doctrines (e.g., a “Platonized” or perhaps “Epicurean” brand of God vs “Emmanuel”, God with us; going to heaven or hell, but little if any mention of living the Christian life; Christianity as put on once a week but discarded the remainder of the week, etc.). But through my study, I have gradually been concluding that some fairly large pieces of Western Christian belief are not Biblical (i.e. not what the Bible authors actually teach), in the pure sense of that term, and so have been looking at other faith traditions to see if I find more Biblical authenticity in them than what I have grown up being taught. This piece, then, is intended to be a somewhat more thorough investigation of what the Orthodox believe in comparison to my current beliefs, from which I hope to learn and grow in my faith. (It helps me to learn and remember if, when studying a subject, I write down what I find more or less as I find it.)

A Conversion Story

I admit to selfish motives in penning this piece. How one comes to allegiance and obedience to Christ is an intensely personal story. And, others may likely find nothing in it to identify with from their own experience. But for me, at this point in my life, it is important for me to describe how my life was turned inside out if only for the benefit of my progeny if no one else. This is that story.

The Problem With Murder

Introduction We all have an instinctive revulsion of the wanton destruction of one of us by the hand of another. But why? If the victim is not one of our family or close relations, how is it that we feel the evil of his loss? How are we – the victim and I – connected? Where does our sense of the fact that his taking is evil come from? This piece is an exploration of a recent “revelation” I’ve been considering that points to a much more profound loss than the loss of just this one person.

What is the Christian’s Calling?

There are three polar opposite popular opinions these days as to what it is the Christian is called to do. The first is that the Christian calling is to do essentially nothing. This is the view held, in whole or in part, by the vast majority of those who identify with the Reformed Church tradition, convicted as they are by the doctrine of God’s Grace. These folks’ understanding is that God is in complete control of the outcome of society, and so they are at best incidental to His Sovereign decision. Some who hold this opinion share it only up to a point, insisting that spreading the Gospel of Christ is the true Christian calling, which they read as applying to themselves in Mat 28:19-20. The other opinion is that Christians should “work” for the righting of society’s wrongs, be they racism, child trafficking, spousal abuse, drug abuse, or,…fill in your favorite societal pathology. This opinion also includes climate-related causes, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, tree planting, trash clean-up, etc. These people are persuaded not so much by Biblical commissions but rather by their well-founded belief in the advent of the “New Heavens and New Earth” at the Eschaton. If there’s going to be a “New Earth”, they reason, then they should be about its preservation until that day. What these popular opinions seem to fail to appreciate is what Jesus actually called us to do . Let’s unpack what they’re missing.

Searching for a Consistent Biblical God

I wonder how many people have been thrown off of their inevitable search for God by what they perceive as not just the inconsistency of the characterization of God in the Bible’s Old Testament compared to His portrayal in the New, but by His seemingly severe, some would say immoral, characterization in the Old Testament. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find and describe one, integrated, consistent whole of the Divine Nature across the entire Bible? Imagine being able to perceive God’s essential God-ness through a new lens, and so enable others to see beyond their personal prejudices. Looking for such a God is the task of this piece.

Biblical Narrative As a Mosaic

Most of us read the Bible as at most a narrative of the history of God’s people, culminated by some revolutionary stuff in the New Testament. And, it certainly, on one level, is that. But few of us read the Bible carefully enough or deeply enough to see its deeper construction as an intricate weaving of individual, but connected, narratives that all create a larger meta-narrative.

The “X-Files” of the Tanakh

There is some very strange stuff going on, semantically, in the Tanakh – the Old Testament. Our English translations hide much of it, allowing us to blithely assume that unclear verses are either just poorly translated or, perhaps, intended to be purposefully obscure. But, what if their obscurity/ambiguity reveals some much deeper meaning than simply the literal texts in which they appear? And, if there is a deeper meaning, what could it be, and what is it likely to be?

Paul’s Apocalypse of Christ

In his letter to the Ephesian church, the Apostle Paul reveals that for millennia God had knowledge kept secret that suddenly, through Christ, had been revealed, first to Christ’s Apostles, and then to those to whom they preached.  The revelation of this secret, this μυστήριον mustḗrion, was for Paul the life- and reality-shattering apocalypse of Christ.

The Inversion of Virtue

The West, I argue, has turned a corner from which it will be impossible, short of a miracle, to un-turn.  We’ve become addicts of narcissism, ignorant judgements, and feigned righteousness.  We’re continuously fed their messages of “just a little more” so that our impending overdose is all but assured.  But, perhaps most depressing is the fact that we don’t even realize it. 

Did God Deceive Israel?

People who read the Bible somewhat seriously are well aware of the Biblical story leading up to the nation of Israel; their near-total rejection of their redeeming God; His attempts to retrieve them from their apostasy; and their ultimate destruction as a nation and collection of tribes in 70 and 135 AD.  What some may fail to notice is that even before they entered the “promised land”, God had foretold their apostasy and that, as a result, they would endure the curses articulated in His covenant made with them at Horeb.

Isaiah’s Servant and “Israel”

The book of Isaiah is in many ways a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. In it, we find a seemingly bipolar God concerning His chosen but about-to-be-exiled Israel. One moment He chastises their behavior while the next He promises future redemption and blessing. And in it, we find the enigma of His servant – sometimes His beloved Israel, and sometimes…well, someone else, unnamed.

Make Straight the Way of the LORD

Anyone who has spent any time in Israel knows that it is a land of hills, and therefore of constant elevation change from one location to another.  From the cliffs overlooking the Rift Valley of the Dead Sea and Masada in the South, to Qumran, to the Central Highlands, to the Golan Heights and Mount Herman in the far north.  (If you’ve been there you may have heard the saying: “Everything is uphill in Jerusalem”.)  How did this topography influence the Biblical authors?

America is Not Greek

Our democratic institutions evolved out of those invented by the Greeks.  The Greeks were intoxicated by the idea of rational speech – logos.  Their principle was that logos was at the heart of the Greek-invention and revered culture of political discourse.  And “discourse" only occurred when those involved shared in the same virtues and  all sought after the same common good, setting aside their personal interests.  To the Greeks, their edification came from striving together to achieve a common good for their citizens.  To them, politics was the process of seeking the highest possible good for the people. Nothing could be less true of today's America.

Life Elevated

Much of today’s popular psychological messaging is designed to make us happy and content with ourselves by puffing up our self-esteem.  Much of this messaging is commercial, designed to create in us a frame of mind favorable toward purchasing whatever is being sold.  This psychology doesn’t have your best interests at heart; it doesn’t want what’s best and most edifying for you.  It just wants your money, your time and attention, and your “clicks”.

Freedom from Disquiet

It’s interesting to me that today in the West, a substantial portion of the population apparently believes that they have an innate right to not be exposed to anything that upsets them – be it KAG hats, critical commentary (social media posts?) on their ideas, objective description of our real history, moral values… whatever. This is a prescription for disaster.

The Law of Faith

Paul in Romans 3:27 says:

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.

Unfortunately, Paul never explicitly tells us what this law is that he is referring to (this is the only occurrence of the phrase not only in Romans, but in the entire Bible.)  In order to understand his meaning, we’re going to have to do a bit of exegetical work on the argument he is waging in Romans 3 and preceding.

A Fresh Look at Paul

What was Paul teaching us in his epistles?  Ever since Martin Luther and the Reformation he inspired 500 years ago, we’ve thought we knew.  However, in the last 30 years, a different understanding has been proposed as the result of research to understand Jewish thinking on their relationship to God in first-century Israel, so that Paul’s messages could be interpreted within this context that surrounded him.

The Economy of God

God’s economy is not a traditional economy but it does have some characteristics in common with them. Both are composed of a series of “transactions” – interactions between “supplier” and “acquirer”. However, this is largely where the analogy ends. The economy of God doesn’t have a measure of value that you can denominate in quantitative units. It also isn’t constrained by a finite amount of value. Its source of value is God Himself, whose resources are inexhaustible.

The Chimera of Being a “Good” Person

Most everybody not only wants to be a “good” person but thinks they currently are. Such self-assessments are natural, and possibly critical in maintaining a sense of self-worth -- of your psychological wellbeing. As this article points out, everyone thinks they’re good. More than that, they think they’re better than most everybody else. But how can everybody be right about this?

Israel, Judah and Jerusalem in Prophecy

Confusion by those reading the Old Testament’s (OT) prophecies regarding Israel, Judah, Jerusalem, and Zion has resulted in profound disagreements by interpreters.  Some (Jews, many Dispensationalist Christians, and some “Hebrew Roots” Christians) believe the prophecies should essentially be taken literally.  The Jewish Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem in the future; all people of Jewish descent will return to the land of Israel in the future, and all others in the world will pay homage to the God of Israel in pilgrimages to Zion.  This is the view of the majority of Western Christians, as a result of the popularization of the eschatology of Charles Darby in the 1830s, known as “Dispensationalism”. Are they correct?

Perceiving God

Christians are taught to “know” and love God.  And for some, their experience in the faith leads them to moments of perceiving God with them.  Here I’m not talking about some strange incursion into your life by some spirit-like presence, perhaps in response to some crisis or loss in your life.  The web is full of such event-induced testimonies, and, no doubt some are true, and some are even God.

No, I’m referring to times typically of quiet reflection in which you sense the reality of God with you.  These episodes are far more intense and immediate than the Spirit-filled Christian typically experiences.  They are (for me at least) very rare.  (I certainly am no mystic.)  But they do happen.

The Jewish and Christian God

Jews and Christians have almost nothing in common except their God.  He is one and the same God. Jews believed they were chosen by God for special blessing, that this blessing was an inheritance due to their birthright, originating with their father Abraham if they would only faithfully live by His Law (discussed, below).  They didn’t concern themselves with “going to heaven” (at least until the advent of their Pharisees in the first century BC), but were very concerned about their survival from hostile surrounding nations.  And so, to them, God would “save” them, His chosen people, from these earthly enemies.  But when they died, they were dead.

Christians, on the other hand, believe they are “saved” from God’s final judgment of creation by their belief in the life, message, atoning death and resurrection of their Lord Jesus Christ.  They believe that they die physically, but that they live on in the presence of their Savior forever.  Most Christians are taught that the Law given to the Jews has no claim on them – that they have “freedom in Christ” through their faith.  Some, probably a significant percentage if not a majority, believe that after death Jews who have not turned to Christ are sent, as punishment for this decision, to suffer in hell for eternity.

So how could His people be so different in their beliefs?  And how could there be such disdain of one for the other?  The purpose of this piece is to explore these questions and to see if there is any room for a middle ground, based on what the Bible says.

Seek First the Kingdom of God

Not all Christians experience the same quality of spiritual life.  For some, their lives are joyful, full of confidence, full of assurance of their acceptance and eventual reward, and full to overflowing with the Spirit of God, to the point that they feel compelled to give it away to those around them.

For others, life is more measured, perhaps a bit more stressful, containing more concern, at least to a degree, for some of the things in their lives, resulting in worry.  They are somewhat discouraged by the lack of spiritual “fruit” in their lives.  They want to love, and to serve and to experience the joy of the Lord.  But frustratingly, they just feel they’re stuck in a rut.

Why is the one life blessed so abundantly, while the other seems unfulfilled?

Belief, and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit

There appears to be in the Christian church today a profound misunderstanding of the working of Salvation in the Christian’s life.

On the one hand, we have the tried and true fundamental statement of salvation found in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians (2:8):

For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

When one hears and receives this glorious proclamation, he breathes a groaning sigh of relief.  “I no longer have to strive to please God on my own; to be ‘good’ enough; to worry that I won’t live up to God’s expectations.  I’m saved and my faithfulness to Him has saved me.”

These are all legitimate conclusions for the one who has, perhaps at long last, repented and believed.  God saves from His judgment those who live faithfully to Him and His Son, Jesus, the Christ.

But what is it the Christian believes who receives this reprieve?  And what is it that he has agreed to in proclaiming Christ the Lord of his life?

“in Christ”?

What does it mean to be “in Christ”?  How do I know if I am?   The Apostle John tells us this:

1 John 5:20 (ESV)

[20] And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

To John, the condition of placing our faith in God and His Son, the Christ, was synonymous with being “in him”.

Free Will?

If God decided the destiny of every person that would ever live before the foundation of the world, why bother exhorting people to change their lives? If God directs every (significant) action and outcome of everyone’s life, why tell them to change?  They’re just doing what God specifies they do. If God didn’t provide humans with free will, why then spend many Biblical books appealing to those same wills to change what they think and believe, telling them what they should choose to think and believe instead?

The Grace of God

The grace of God is widely misunderstood by Christians today. I misunderstood it for decades, to my humiliation. So I can easily understand why and how others can be misled. In searching for a definition, the one that I feel best describes its efficacy is provided by Dallas Willard: “Grace is the action of God in our lives to accomplish what we cannot do on our own.”

Forsake Offense

When many look at what’s going on today they see an attack on their long-held values.  Others see sinister forces at work to prevent them from achieving a better society.  And let’s just stipulate that both are reacting honestly, in that their feelings are not fake. What’s unusual today is the strength of those feelings.  It’s true that the media does its best to stoke the flames of those feelings.  But unless you spend your day glued to a media outlet, its hard to believe that you are significantly more agitated by today’s events than, say, those of the 1960’s (assuming you were here then). So what is it about today, this time, that is so different, that elicits so much more emotional trauma and animosity against the other side?

The Narcotic of Moral Superiority

Just sitting here, listening to a bit of the media frenzy following Trump’s statements on the Charlottesville tragedy, and wondering if the genie is now truly out of the bottle.   He said the apparently unsayable – that both sides of the confrontation shared blame.  You can’t say that in the media’s America.  After all, we’re talking about Nazis here – vile, evil, haters of people different than them.  The story being pushed is that this confirms that Trump and everyone associated with him have exposed themselves as just such vile, evil, white supremacists.

Israel as Metaphor

Those familiar with the Jewish Bible -- the Tanakh -- or what Christians call the Old Testament, have puzzled for centuries over the meaning of the failed history of the Israelites, culminating in the destruction of their Temple and Jerusalem in 70AD, and their destruction or banishment from their homeland in 136 AD following the Bar Kokhba revolt.  What exactly does it mean that God chose the Israelites from all the peoples of the world, led them, gave them a homeland and, for a time at least, heaped blessings on them only to have them nearly universally turn their backs on Him and His prescriptions for living?  And what can we learn from their experience?