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 “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?

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”.