A Critical Analysis of Eastern Orthodox Beliefs

Introduction

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.)

Key Tenets of Orthodoxy

My admittedly incomplete understanding so far has identified the following as “key” tenets within Orthodoxy, most excepted from What is Orthodox Christianity? (holy12.org)[i]:

  • “The purpose of Orthodox Christianity is the salvation of every human person, uniting us to Christ in the Church, transforming us in holiness, and giving us eternal life. This is the Gospel, the good news, that Jesus is the Messiah, that He rose from the dead, and that we can be saved as a result.”
  • The (Orthodox) Church, itself, is a if not “the” agent of authentic Christian faith and practice. The Orthodox believe strongly that life in Christ is found nowhere other than in shared life within the Body of Christ – that the Church is the place in which is found the Kingdom of God on earth.  They believe it serves as a kind of Ark in which its members can seek safety from the chaos of the surrounding calamities.
  • Of God: The Orthodox are strongly committed to the Trinity of the One God; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom has and will always eternally exist, and each as a personal identity. “The Church primarily draws near to God and communes with Him in divine mystery, approaching God apophatically, which means that we don’t make precise, exhaustive definitions of Who God is. We’re content to encounter God personally, realizing the inadequacy of the human mind to comprehend Him (John 1:18; I John 4:12; Is 55:9) and following the revelation about Himself that He has made.”
  • Of Christ: The Orthodox hold adamantly, in keeping with their Trinitarian view, that Christ is God. “Jesus is the Theanthropos, the God-man. He is not half God and half man, nor is He a hybrid of the two. Rather, He is fully God and fully man, perfect in His divinity and perfect in His humanity.”  Here is where we (with our Western, Evangelical eye) begin to see a stark contrast with our traditional viewpoint, perhaps seen best in the following:
  • Of Christ and Salvation: “His work on Earth was for the purpose of saving mankind, for the life of the world. Everything He did was for our salvation, whether it was being baptized, teaching in parables, healing the sick, or His glorious death and resurrection. Because of who He is and of what He did for us, we have the opportunity to become by grace what He is by nature, to the fullness of the stature of Christ (Eph 4:13). We can put on the divine, becoming partakers of the divine nature (II Pet. 1:4).” (We will return to this and related views at some length, below.)
  • Of Man: The Orthodox believe man was created to worship God. This is what they call their “anthropology”.  In contrast to Reformed beliefs, they hold that: “Each human being is of infinite value, because we bear the indelible stamp of our Creator.”  The theological idea is that each person represents a potential worshipper of the One God.
  • Of Man’s Sin: “All of mankind suffers from the effects of sin (death, sickness, and all evil), even aside from which sins each of us has committed. In Orthodox anthropology, guilt is not our main problem. The problem is that we are sick. So when we talk about original sin, it is understood not as a transmitted guilt for Adam’s sin, but rather as an inherited disease which can be cured in salvation, the dynamic path of growth into God’s likeness.
  • Of the Nature of Salvation (Theosis): Here is where the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Church part ways most dramatically. The Orthodox belief is that salvation is from our inherent disease (above) into what they call the “divine life”, and what Paul characterized as being “in Christ” (Rom 6:23, 2 Tim 3:12, Rom 8:1, 12:5, 1 Cor 15:22, etc., etc.).  The Orthodox view the life of the Christ-follower as growing into, being transformed “from faith to faith”, into the Divine likeness.  There is little, if any, hint in the materials I’ve reviewed of the objective of salvation is “going to heaven when I die.”  It is a completely anti-Western Church worldview (or God view).

Here’s the way the above-cited online resource describes it: “Theosis can be translated as deification or divinization, and its meaning is that the Christian can become more and more soaked with the divine life, becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.

“For the Orthodox, salvation is a process that encompasses not only the whole earthly life of the Christian, but also the eternal life of the age to come. It is often described in terms of three stages—purification (katharsis), illumination (theoria) and divinization (theosis). Salvation is therefore not only becoming sinless (purification), but it is also progress in being filled with the divine light (illumination). And it is becoming so filled with God in union with Him that we shine with the likeness of God. In some cases that means even literally becoming a bearer of the Uncreated Light, which is a physically visible light from God that is His presence, such as at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-6; Mark 9:1-8; Luke 9:28-36) or when Moses spoke with God on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 34:29-35). Though this terminology of three stages is sometimes used, there is overlap between them, and the whole process itself is also called theosis.”

  • The Church: “Our Creed describes the Church as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. This means that the Church is one—undivided and not many; it’s holy—sanctified and set apart for the work of God; it’s catholic—whole and characterized by fullness and universality; and it’s apostolic, going out into all the world to preach the Gospel and baptize the nations, as well as being rooted and founded in the work of the Apostles.  And, the word Church itself in its Greek form of ekklesia means “those who are called out.” The Church is called out from the world by God.”
  • Tradition and Scripture: The Orthodox view the traditions of their Church as unchanging over time. Each generation provides them as a legacy to the next.  And they are not to be tampered with.  “Unlike some ideas about tradition, the Orthodox Church does not see Holy Tradition as something that grows and expands over time, forming a collection of practices and doctrines which accumulate, gradually becoming something more developed and eventually unrecognizable to the first Christians. Rather, Holy Tradition is that same faith that Jesus taught to the Apostles and that they gave to their disciples, preserved in the Church and especially in its leadership through Apostolic succession (Jude 1:3).”  (So I guess this means Worship Teams are out 😉 )

Their commentary about the Bible is interesting, in which they identify the end of its interpretive context as the year 367 AD after the Church Fathers had agreed to the compilation comprising it:  “At the center of Holy Tradition is the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, the written witness to God’s revelation in the Church. That means that the Scriptures are always interpreted from within the Tradition that was the context for their writing and canonization, a process that lasted until the 4th century—it was not until the year 367 that we see the first list of the 27 books we now know as the New Testament.”  In practice what this seems to mean is that if you are studying the Bible and have a question, you are to consult the commentaries of the Church Fathers, not someone who just finished a critique on Revelation or 1 Corinthians.  This is quite challenging.

  • Approach to Spirituality: A signature distinction of the Orthodox faith vs all other forms of Christianity I’m familiar with is its committed focus on creating spiritually rich followers of Christ. No other brand of Christian faith (with the possible exception of the Anabaptist congregations) places as preeminent a value on living the life Christ intends for us, through the grace of His Spirit, than do the Orthodox.  For example, one of the tenets they pursue is the practice of praying continuously (I Thess. 5:17), at least as an ideal. (I’ve written a bit about people who have entered into this kind of life here.)

“The spiritual life of an Orthodox Christian is liturgical, sacramental, and mystical. Spiritual intensity is not something reserved for super Christians or monks or nuns. It’s for everyone. This life means prayer and frequent participation in liturgical services in church. It’s also a whole ascetical way of life, which means fasting and other ascetical disciplines, such as non-possessiveness, so that the whole human person, both soul and body, is brought into communion with Jesus Christ through cooperation with His grace… Holiness is much more than just being moral. It’s a whole way of looking at the world and a holistic way of living in it. In Orthodox spirituality, we look for the presence of God in everything and everyone, and we treat them accordingly.”

  • The Sacraments: Certainly the Orthodox treat the sacraments more reverentially and as literally imparting more of God to the congregant than do the Protestant Churches. For the Protestant, the taking of the bread and wine/juice of the Eucharist is symbolic of his participation in Christ.  For him, it’s a memorial reflection.  For the Orthodox, they are literally receiving the “divine energies” of God/Christ in the physical sacraments.  The Eucharist is the highest of seven sacraments they participate in that include: baptism, “chrismation” (or confirmation), holy unction, in ministering to the sick, confession, marriage and ordination.
  • Saints: The Orthodox, like the Catholics, hold in esteem (venerate) those whose holiness – whose “set-apartness” – was widely recognized by those in the Church as being exemplary of those who were called to serve God (as, they believe, we all are). They are quick to point out, however, that veneration of the saints and prayers to them as petitions to intercede on behalf of themselves or a brother is not the same as prayers to God.[ii]
  • Worldview: Perhaps most enlightening of the observations of the Orthodox about being Orthodox is their conclusion that it is not something to be taught and thus learned, but rather something to be lived.

Points of Similarity or Unity of Belief

Not having participated in Orthodox life, it’s challenging for me to pick out discreet points of agreement with their faith and practice.  So the following simply represents what I believe to be the points of agreement of our respective faiths.

The Kingdom of God

As an overarching issue, we seem to be in agreement that the purpose of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was to redeem those who believed in Him, God, who would then be indwelt by His Spirit and so enter into a transformed life in the Kingdom of God here and now.  Those in this Kingdom are those who endeavor to obey Christ by loving God with all of their heart, soul, and mind and loving their neighbor as themselves (Mt 22:37-39).  While the Orthodox seem to imply a more profound transformation than I currently understand or have experienced (i.e. transformation into Christlikeness by the Spirit — the idea of “theosis” or “divinization”), we certainly agree on the graces of the Holy Spirit[iii] as the agent of our transformation into some degree of Christlikeness.

The Nature of Salvation

I do not agree with the standard, post-reformation, Western Protestant concept of salvation.  I am convinced that Paul didn’t teach what the modern, Western, Protestant Church teaches (if they teach anything at all), and surely not the Christian-crusade-based messages of the 1960’s involving the mouthing of a “sinner’s prayer” as the only requirement of eternal life in Christ.

To the Orthodox, salvation[iv] is a process of “deification” – becoming like Christ/God.[v]  In principle, I don’t have any disagreement with this view.  Certainly, if the Spirit of God lives within you, and you are successful in getting yourself out of His way, then becoming something like a little, human Christ on earth should be the ultimate result.  When Western Protestant churches teach on sanctification (which is rarely, since it is such a rare occurrence among their congregants), this is actually what the Biblical texts that they cite are claiming.  That’s why I believe it.

As an outsider’s observation, however, I would caution concerning this expectation in a church setting.  While it is true for each of us, it seems to me that it could be deadly in a communal setting in which one person’s degree of “deification” is compared to another’s.  This is an obvious setting for the human proclivity for competition, pride, boasting, etc., or, alternatively, shame or despair at not achieving what others seem to have “achieved”.

So the expectation of moving toward “Godlikeness” is real and Biblically promised.  But human comparisons of the extent to which it is true in Joe vs Jane is a potential acid that would eat at the unity of any gathering of believers, but particularly one that took this belief seriously, unlike the average Protestant church today.

“Non-Possessiveness”

One of the things that really caught my eye in the above tenets is the statement about “non-possessiveness”.  For me, this is a principle tenet of authentic Christian (i.e. Biblical) faith taught by Christ (about which I’ve written a bit here.)  Any path to Christlikeness is entered only by forsaking our attachments to worldly things (Luke 14:33).  The Orthodox clearly understand this.

“Living Christ”

A distinctive of the Orthodox believers is that they expect to experience God in their lives, typically as byproducts of their liturgical lives.  The number of Western Protestants or Catholics for that matter, who get up each morning expecting to experience God in their lives has been decreasing (in my observation) steadily throughout my entire life.

An online Orthodox webpage[vi] puts it this way:

“Orthodox Christians believe that truth must be personally experienced and, as a result, they place less emphasis on its precise definition.”

The risk, of course, of a purely experiential faith, is that some experiences will be incorrectly identified as “truth” without the context of the scriptures, or at the very least their interpretation by the Church itself.  Is there “truth” of God to be experienced outside of the liturgy of the Church?  Of course.  Certainly, each moment of a relationship is such an opportunity.  But obviously, not all experiences represent “truth”.

Living a life whose compass points to the experience of Christ in our lives is certainly a demonstrably (not to mention more Biblical) manner of living for the Christian than what we typically observe in Westerners.

The method to this seeking and expectation, for the rank and file Orthodox person, is the Church’s liturgical practices:

“The center of Orthodox Christian liturgical life is the Divine Liturgy, the church service where believers who are prepared by prayer, fasting, and confession, receive the Holy Eucharist, bread and wine which have been mystically changed by God into the Body and Blood of Christ (John 6:47-58).”

Points of Disagreement/Concern

The Role of Scripture vs Church Tradition

In their professions, I don’t see where the Orthodox put a significant emphasis on scripture as authoritative and a principle revelation of their faith.  In fact, I have seen statements in which they equate (i.e. consider co-equal) the scripture and the Church’s interpretation of it.  Sure, they laud their fathers for compiling the books of the Bible in 367 AD, but they otherwise are quite silent on the importance of the Bible in informing their faith.  Of course, they cite verses to substantiate their various positions.  But I don’t find any professed acknowledgment of the scripture as a preeminent resource for founding their faith.

That role seems to fall to their Church Fathers and their Church traditions.  Now that would be just fine if their Church Fathers got it all right, and their correct understanding became intimately incorporated into their Church traditions.  But how do we know if they did?  Relying on the testimony of (uninspired) men is always a risk, even if they claim Apostolic heritage.  The Apostle Luke extolled us to examine the scriptures to “see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Now I can also see that if you are building an “unchanging” Church, based on the historical tradition of its founders, you probably don’t want people scrutinizing the scriptures to see if those traditions are Biblical.  I don’t have any “smoking gun” evidence that the Orthodox traditions are unbiblical.  It’s just that I find an over-emphasis on the tradition of the Church to be risky.  It has to be unassailable — perfect.  And I don’t think they can claim that.

Conclusions

For me, there is much to like about the Orthodox faith and practice.  In particular, I find their emphasis on a living, active, confident faith refreshing.  I may be wrong, but I don’t get the impression that they, like so many Protestant congregations, need to be cajoled by their leaders to live lives of trust and submission to Christ.  Everything about the Church seems to be acknowledging Him as Lord.  This is huge!  And it is increasingly rare, as earlier noted, in the West.

Tradition vs Scripture

But the protestant in me is cautious on a couple of issues.  The first is their notion of the equality of authority of their Church traditions with Biblical scripture.  It’s not just that they lock in their interpretation of doctrines to how they were understood in the fourth century.  In many ways (perhaps more than how this practice could negatively affect one’s Christian walk), this is a good thing.  The closer our beliefs are to those of the first generations of authentic Christ-followers, the better.

The principle in Biblical textual analysis/interpretation is that the older the Biblical manuscript, the closer it is to its original author, and so the more authoritative it is.  This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls were so important: they predated other OT manuscripts by 1000 years.

The same principle applies to Christian faith and practice.

But the principle here, it seems to me, is: is it a good thing to discourage people from studying the Bible, and instead simply defer to the writings of Clement, Origen, Eusebius, etc.?  What did those guys have over the Apostles and Biblical authors?

In truth, I don’t think the Orthodox rely on the Fathers over the Apostles.  They’re simply relying on the doctrines that emanated, finally, after the Fathers were done fighting the early heresies by the fourth century that resolved many of the early doctrinal debates (e.g. the nature of Christ, the relationship of the members of the Trinity, the authority of the Hebrew Bible in Christian faith, etc.)

Unchanging

And this gets us to the point the Orthodox have chosen in the development of Christian belief and doctrine to lock it down – “nothing to be added, nothing to be removed, nothing to be changed”.

It’s pretty easy to see that, if your life has been immersed in chaos or pain or sickness or hopelessness, the idea of a 1600-year-old faith built on the foundation of the first true Christian faith and practice would have enormous appeal.  Even if you haven’t been victimized by these things, the notion of an authentic Christianity has tremendous appeal.

Anyone who has grown up experiencing non-liturgical, non-denominational, Worship-band-led churches with “personality” pastors pumping out quasi-Biblical topical messages would be forgiven for longing for the authenticity, the honesty, of an ancient faith that just seeks Christ in their worship.  I, for one, identify with that.

Salvation

But for me, the appeal of the Orthodox beliefs is in their understanding of salvation.  Their understanding is 100% Biblical, but 100% un-Protestant.  They claim thisi:

In the Orthodox Church, salvation is primarily understood as theosisTheosis is the infinite process of becoming more and more like God.

It is only in and through Christ that we can be saved (John 14:6). Salvation cannot be earned. It’s a free gift from God. But being saved requires our cooperation with God, because God will not violate our free will. A life of repentance is needed—that’s turning away from our sin and toward God.

In theosis, we become filled with the divine life. We take on God’s attributes, but we do not become merged with the Holy Trinity. We become partakers of the divine nature (II Peter 1:4). There is union but without fusion. We say that we can become a “god” by grace, not in a polytheistic sense (there is only one God), but rather we become adopted sons and daughters of the Most High (Ps. 82:6; John 10:34), like our Father but not the same as Him.

These things I completely believe and trust because I have experienced them.  They (the Orthodox) and no others (so far as I know, with, again, the possible exception of the Anabaptists) hold to this view of God’s redemption of His children and its effect on them in the lives they live while alive on earth.

So, while I am dubious about their icons and their liturgy fixation, and their treatment of their Church tradition and Fathers, I am equally persuaded of their authentic faith by their understanding of this key doctrine.

Paul taught us that “Justification” (by which most Western Christians understand the meaning to be eternal Salvation) was “by faith alone” (Eph 2:8-9).  Unfortunately, they fail to read the next verse, Eph 2:10, as a “working out” of that salvation:

10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

To me, this is the ancient truth that the Orthodox bring to our attention, something that the Western Church has long ago apparently abandoned.


[i] What is Orthodox Christianity?

[ii] Why Orthodox Christians “Pray to” Saints » Saint John the Evangelist Orthodox Church (saintjohnchurch.org)

[iii] The Orthodox Faith – Volume IV – Spirituality – Orthodox Spirituality – The Holy Spirit – Orthodox Church in America (oca.org)

[iv] Salvation – St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church (saintpaulemmaus.org)

[v] Deification: The Orthodox Understanding Of Salvation » Saint John the Evangelist Orthodox Church (saintjohnchurch.org)

[vi] Eastern Orthodox Church Beliefs and Practices (learnreligions.com)

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