Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodoxy: A tradition in Christianity that claims to represent the one true Church of Christ. Though many would see the Eastern Orthodox church as simply “Catholicism without a Pope,” the Orthodox would reject such a simplified identification. Not only do they not have a living infallible authority, such as a Pope, they approach theology from a more mystical, and less rationalistic perspective. Their theology primarily comes from the first seven ecumenical councils as, according to the Orthodox, these councils represent a perfect representation of the Christian faith.

The seven ecumenical councils are:

(1) The Council of Nicea (325 AD) – which affirmed the full deity of Christ in opposition to the heretic Arius. It is this council that produced the Nicene Creed.

(2) The Council of Constantinople (381 AD) – which affirmed the full deity of the Holy Spirit articulated at Nicea) and went further in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity: God is one in essence and three in person.

(3) The Council of Ephesus (431 AD) – Rejected the heresy of Nestorius (who was inclined to separate the two natures in Christ) and declared that Mary was Theotokos = Mother of God.

(4) The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) – Here the issue of the Person of Christ was articulated. Christ is one Person with two natures, one fully human and the other fully Divine; the natures were united, yet without confusion, change, division, or separation.

(5) The Council of Constantinople II (553 AD) – This simply reaffirmed Chalcedon and other prior councils.

(6) The Council of Constantinople III (680 AD) – Opposed heresy of monothelitism and affirmed that Christ had both a fully human will and divine will (united harmoniously under the leadership of the divine). The Quinsext Council (692) was viewed as an extension of the fifth and sixth, hence its name. Obligatory clerical celibacy was condemned.

(7) The Council of Nicea II (787 AD) – Here the declaration was that whereas only God can be worshipped, icons are to be venerated and honored.

Claiming to be the most “ancient faith” and an uncompromised liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox Church boasts of having over two-hundred and fifty million members worldwide.

The vast majority of their Churches are in countries such as Russia and Ukraine, yet the scope of Eastern Orthodoxy is definitely worldwide, with around six million members in the USA alone.


Daniel B. Clendenin, in his book, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective, writes:

“When Martin Luther burned the books of Catholic canon law at the Elster Gate of Wittenberg on December 10, 1520, he did so to dramatize a point that has become fundamental to Protestant identity: Scripture has a unique and normative value, and whatever value “tradition” has, it is secondary and derivative. Indeed, Luther wrote, “What else do I contend for but to bring everyone to an understanding of the difference between the divine Scripture and human teaching or custom, so that a Christian may not take the one for the other and exchange gold for straw, silver for stubble, wood for precious stones?”

Hence the great watchwords of the Reformation—sola scriptura! This does not mean Protestants neglect tradition, only that tradition is submitted to the higher authority of the Bible.

Furthermore, Protestants insist that God speaks to the reader of the Bible in a direct manner rather than being mediated by the church. Just as the Reformers placed Scripture above tradition, they placed the Scriptures above the church. It was the Word of God that gave birth to the church, Calvin insisted, and not the other way around.

Most Orthodox believers understand things differently. According to the late Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff (d. 1992), “The Christian faith and experience can in no way be compatible with the notion of sola scriptura” and the rejection of all ecclesiastical authority except Scripture. This elevation of the Bible above the church, the consequence of which is private interpretation, George Florovsky (d. 1979) once called “the sin of the Reformation.”

Positively, Orthodoxy believes that the Spirit of God speaks to his people through apostolic tradition. This tradition is expressed through Scripture, to be sure, but also through the seven ecumenical councils, and to a lesser degree, the church fathers, liturgy, canon law, and icons…. converts to Orthodoxy vow to “accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation which was and is held by the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, our Mother.””

CONCERNING SOLA FIDE (justification by faith alone)

Again Clendenin writes:

The central issue raised by the Reformation was how a person could stand just before a holy God—How can I be saved? For traditional Protestants, the answer to this question is expressed in Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” The perfect righteousness of Christ is credited to me by faith alone and not by any work I do. Because of Christ’s righteousness, God declares me just. Calvin called this doctrine “the hinge upon which true religion turns.” According to Luther, Christianity stands or falls with this doctrine.

The background for justification is distinctly legal or forensic. Having offended the majesty and honor of God, a just penalty must be paid. Calvin describes justification by faith just so: “Just as a man, deemed innocent by an impartial judge, is said to be justified, so a sinner is said to be justified by God when he asserts His righteousness.”

It is fascinating to observe the total absence of the doctrine of justification by faith in large segments of Orthodox history and theology. Instead, the idea of theosis or “deification” takes center stage. The startling aphorism—attributed to many early church fathers, including the champion of trinitarianism, Athanasius—summed it up well: “God became man so that men might become gods.”

In fact, theosis enjoys the support of Scripture, as in 2 Peter 1:4: “[God] has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature . …” Put another way, the Son of God descended and became a man, that we humans might ascend and become like Christ. The legal framework for understanding the work of Christ is played down and our mystical union with God is emphasized.

But what does it mean to “become God”? First, Orthodoxy categorically repudiates any hint of pantheism; theosis does not mean the essence of our human nature is lost. Rather, theosis speaks to believers’ real, genuine, and mystical union with God whereby we become more and more like Christ and move from corruption to immortality. As we avail ourselves of God’s grace and live lives of spiritual vigilance, we hope for what Maximus the Confessor (580-662) described as the “glorious attainment of likeness to God, insofar as this is possible with man.”

For more on their history and doctrinal distinctives I recommend this article by Dr. Sam Storms as well as a particularly clear and helpful one by Don Fairbairn, academic dean at Donetsk Bible College, Donetsk, Ukraine.

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