In the last post, I highlighted some aspects of how Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism was put together and the things I found helpful and disappointing. In this post, I want to get to some of the core theological issues.
East and West have long been at cross purposes, in many ways speaking different languages, not just in terms of Latin and Greek (in the ancient church) but also in terms of terminology and worldview. Thus Edward Rommen helpfully points out in his essay that where the East is more interested in relationships i.e. “new life with Christ”, the West concentrates on propositions i.e. “change in legal status” or “justification” (p.239). The question, though, is whether those differences are simply different emphases, or represent different beliefs entirely. This is the first book I have read on the topic. By no means am I an expert, but, from my limited viewpoint, there are three key theological issues, that, even once the language has been waded through, continue to be significant points of difference: anthropology (humans); soteriology (salvation); and authority.
Anthropology, in the theological sense, is the study of humans – who they are and how we are to understand them. For many evangelicals, this boils down to the question of what the status of humans is before God; for many Orthodox, it is the question of how one relates to God. Much of the discussion revolves around different understandings of Rom 5:12ff. Orthodox insist that sin is not inherited from Adam but rather that each person ‘falls’ on his own. The implication is that since humans are not irreparably damaged by sin, they can recover with the help of the Holy Spirit, by cooperating with the Trinity (p.150). In contrast, Michael Horton points out that if each of us is born to sin and death “in Adam” our hope must lie outside of ourselves, that is, in inheriting “Christ’s obedience, justification and immortality” (p.160) Are humans basically ‘good’ on account of their imageness? Or are they evil beyond recovery apart from Christ because of the fall? Of course both questions hold an element of truth: the depravity of humans does not entirely negate the image; but nor does the image consume the depravity. Yet the danger of the Orthodox view must be that such an optimism leaves room for humans to contribute to their own salvation (p.73). However, this is God’s work, not ours. As Horton says, “We are not declared righteous because we have cooperated with Gods grace; we are justified “freely by his grace” (Rom 3:24) so that we can’ (p.161).
An understanding of the nature of humans obviously affects how you expect salvation to come. My understanding of the Eastern Orthodox soteriology is that while they affirm that Jesus’ death saves, the emphasis is on his incarnation. By this, they mean not only Jesus’ life but also the church. If the church is his body, it is the extension of the incarnation: to be “in the church” is to be “in Christ”. Thus it is by participating in the church and in particular its sacraments, that union with Christ (salvation, in the Orthodox mind) is achieved. This raises the question of the role of faith. On one hand, Nassif argues that faith is necessary (p.71); on the other, he suggests that Communion (or the Eucharist as he calls it) really is Jesus’ body and blood, another incarnation, in which case by taking it, a person is automatically joined to Christ (p.77). Nassif himself acknowledges that this may be the root of Orthodox nominalism (p.82, 86). In contrast, evangelicalism takes a much more personalised view of salvation, with the emphasis on the legal concept of justification. All the Orthodox writers affirmed this and then very quickly moved to explaining their larger vision of union with Christ. They support the biblical motif of justification, but unlike Calvin, for whom it was the “hinge on which all religion turns” (p.138), it is given little treatment. While the Orthodox maintain that this is because they see all the pieces of the puzzle, unlike evangelicals who are transfixed on but one, Horton argues that this underemphasis actually turns the puzzle into something else entirely.
Many evangelicals are suspicious of Roman Catholics for their location of authority in the Pope. The Patriarch in the Orthodox church does not carry the same position as the Pope and that’s an important distinction to make. However, nor does the Orthodox church carry ‘Scripture alone’ as the authority, as near as I could make out. It is a little confusing: Nassif argues that Scripture is authoritative, as received and interpreted by the church (p.62-63); Berzonsky says that the Bible is not the ultimate source of truth at evangelicals believe, because to do so would be to equate it with Christ, but Christ is incarnate in the church, not a book (174-176); Rommen takes tradition as a tool to interpret Scripture but does not see that it has authority over it. At the very least, it could be said that the role of Scripture and tradition is somewhat ambiguous in Orthodox understanding. While Nassif rightly criticises evangelicals for an historical amnesia which produces a spiritual and interpretative arrogance (p.67) he also admits to broad biblical illiteracy in his own church (p.85). Perhaps more to the point in terms of compatability, the Orthodox church leaves little room for further Biblical reformation of tradition. It also so roots the message in the tradition, that there is not only little room for Biblical reform, but indeed, a lack of tolerance for contextualisation of the gospel for evangelism (Nassif p.82; Hancock-Stefan p.211).
Nassif’s thesis that evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy are compatible is based on a belief that all the core beliefs of evangelicalism exist in Eastern Orthodoxy, but that the latter is the more developed and mature form of Christianity (p.84). There is work to be done in bringing practice into line with this maturity (p.86) but it remains that Orthodoxy comes to grips with the Trinitarian God is a far richer way than evangelicalism. The evangelicals in this book, on the other hand, see that the ‘fuller’ Orthodox understanding of the gospel actually takes its heart away: adding to the gospel subtracts from it.
But what does this mean for compatability? Unfortunately, none of the writers defined what they mean by ‘compatible’. Nassif calls for evangelicals to become Orthodox so that their principles might grow to maturity; Berzonsky calls for evangelicals to repent of their Reformation theology and become Orthodox (p.195). Rommen offers the suggestion of limited compatability, that is, that some things will never be agreed on (especially certain points of Western thought that the Orthodox church has anathematised p.249) but that there are some points on which there is considerable agreement.
What I noticed was this: by and large, the Orthodox and evangelicals agreed on their doctrine of God. The main areas of disagreement were the doctrine of man and of salvation. It is on this basis that I am happy to say that the Orthodox worship the same God as evangelicals, but that they have misunderstood the means of relating to him. If someone is a converted Orthodox (i.e. not nominal), they are my brother or sister. Yet, the distinctions highlighted in this book are not unimportant. There are significant pitfalls in the Orthodox message of salvation. Until these are resolved, I suspect that respectful dialogue and separated traditions will continue to be the principal expression of any compatability.
Categories: Written by Tamie
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.
I ran across your blog–I am a convert to Orthodoxy from evangelical protestantism. Although I recognize your post is based on your review of the book (which I have not read), I recognize some fundamental misunderstandings about Orthodoxy. This is not surprising as it is a very broad and deep subject.
Quickly, regarding anthropology–your understanding of the Orthodox view is a little off. In actuality, the Orthodox view is both of the things you describe–we understand that humans are not totally depraved, that we can participate in our salvation. But we also understand that salvation lies outside of ourselves and is granted only by the mercy of God.
Second, regarding soteriology, while salvation can be desribed as union with Christ, it is not true that this union is automatically achieved by participating in the Eucharist. Only by participating in faith can you be joined to Christ. As you mention, the Orthodox do understand that salvation encompasses the legal concept of justification, but it also encompasses much more. The primary understanding is that of healing. Salvation is a healing of our distorted image; the Church is a spiritual hospital. Salvation is also a process, not a one-time event. Finally, salvation is a mystery that we can never fully and precisely define or comprehend (just as God is a mystery).
Regarding authority, a couple of points stuck out to me. First, there is no ambiguity in the Orthodox Church regarding the authority of Scripture. Scripture is part of Holy Tradition, and it is the highest authority in the Church. However, Scripture must be interpreted by the Church, and not by each individual. This is done by the Tradition of the Church–which is in actuality merely the Holy Spirit’s voice speaking through to the Church, as recognized and received by her over time. In addition, you state that there may be a lack of tolerance for the concpt of contextualization of the Gospel for evangelism. I’m not sure what is meant by this, but the history of Orthodoxy includes more contextualization than most Western traditions–if you look at Orthodox missionaries from the first century down to our own you will find that they have always gone into a culture, trying to find ways to relate the Gospel to that culture rather than trying to mold the culture to the missionaries’ own. A prime example would be Saints Cyril and Methodius, who evangelized the Slavs. They invented the Cyrillic alphabet for the Slavs, to match their spoken language, that they might translate the Scriptures for them. And the Orthodox have always conducted services in the country’s indigenous language (there are exceptions to this in places like North America in modern times where there are large immigrant populations–there, the services are sometimes conducted for the understanding of the immigrants).
I hope the above helps you, or at least prompts you to do further reading and investigation. I am certainly no scholar, just someone trying to follow Christ. But, I know from experience that Orthodoxy is something that cannot really be comprehended by reading books; it must be lived. If you can find an Orthodox church close by, go to a few services and observe.
Thanks so much for you comment! Some of the contributors to the book were evangelical Protestants who converted to Orthodoxy (and one was an Orthodox who converted to evangelical Protestantism) but to be able to interact with a brother who has such experiences is fantastic!
Thanks for highlighting some of my misunderstandings about Orthodoxy. I wonder whether you could clarify further for me? I’m keen to learn as much as I can!
Regarding anthropology, some of the Orthodox guys in the book affirmed what you do – that we are saved only by God’s grace but that we participate in our salvation. I wonder if you could explain how we can contribute to our salvation if we’re saved only by God? I take it that you don’t see God saving and us participating as mutually exclusive concepts? (Incidentally, I do think we need to work out our faith with fear and trembling – but as I quoted Horton, because God enables us to.)
On soteriology, can I get you to answer a basic question for me? If someone asked, “What must I do to be saved?”, what would you say?
Kind of related to soteriology, but a separate point, I was wondering if you could explain (in your understanding) an Orthodox position on evil? Like, what in our world is evil and how is it manifest? And who is Satan? (Just wondering because none of the guys in the book including the evangelicals talked about that so I just didn’t get any info on it!)
Yeah, I reckon the thing about the Holy Spirit’s voice speaking over time through the church is heaps significant. Can you explain for me, though, how we discern the Holy Spirit’s voice? The reason I ask is that obviously West and East have discerned the Spirit saying different things over time to their churches.
Also, James, I wonder if you would be happy to share what made you convert to Eastern Orthodoxy?
Thanks for the suggestion to go to an Orthodox Church. A friend of ours has a relative who works at an Antiochene church (which I think is similar) close by and we’ve been meaning to check it out for a while!
I’ll do my best on your questions–but keep in mind that I am still a relative newborn Orthodox (I have been Orthodox for 3 years) and so I may not be giving you the best answers.
“I wonder if you could explain how we can contribute to our salvation if we’re saved only by God? I take it that you don’t see God saving and us participating as mutually exclusive concepts?”
“What must I do to be saved?”
These are very related so I’ll take them together.
You are correct–they are not mutually exclusive. The Fathers talk about “synergy.” Both man and God work together–though God does the heavy lifting, he will not save us unless we choose it, and that requires us to do something. Sometimes you will see Orthodox writers explain that, in answer to the question “Have you been saved,” the Orthodox response is “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will [or hope to] be saved.” They mean by this that Christ’s incarnation and death was God saving all of mankind–he opened the door, inviting all to come in. “I am being saved” means that we decide daily to enter it, and we get up, repent of our sins, and in faith obey Christ’s commandments, and when we fall down we get back up and repent again. We participate in the Holy Mysteries (i.e., Sacraments) and the life of the Church. And if we are doing this, God is transforming us into his likeness. “I will be saved” means we set our hope on Christ, that when he comes to judge the world, we will be counted among those to stand at his right hand.
So, in answer to the question, what must I do to be saved, the answer is, repent of your sins, be baptized (and this means, be baptized into the [Orthodox] Church, the body of Christ], and believe [and this means, not a one time or purely mental belief, but a living faith, doing good works, and trusting in God–working out your salvation, as you say].
You may be thinking that this sounds like works salvation or trying to understand how this plays into the faith vs. works argument. This was a very tough thing for me, as a protestant, to comprehend. The Orthodox have never viewed faith as opposed to works; the argument does not make sense to them. We are saved by faith; but the faith must be a living faith, not just a mere mental belief; and faith without works is dead. (James 2).
“I was wondering if you could explain (in your understanding) an Orthodox position on evil? Like, what in our world is evil and how is it manifest? And who is Satan?”
Satan is the Devil, Lucifer the Archangel, the highest of God’s creations among the spiritual powers, who fell to pride and was cast from heaven. Evil–I don’t think I can give a comprehensive answer, but evil is separation from God. It is man (or demon) not following/obeying God. The existence of evil as a theoretical possibility, but not as a reality, is required by free will.
“Can you explain for me, though, how we discern the Holy Spirit’s voice? The reason I ask is that obviously West and East have discerned the Spirit saying different things over time to their churches.”
We as individuals cannot trust ourselves to discern the Holy Spirit’s voice. The Church does, as a body. This discernment is not granted to any individual, priest, Pope, or Patriarch. It is granted to the Church as a whole. And sometimes the appropriate discernment can only be had in hindsight, looking back over time. The workable answer (and even it has its flaws) is that of St. Vincent of Lerins (read his Commonitory, available on the web)–the true Tradition is that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. You’ll have to read St. Vincent to get the qualifications to that. Essentially, we don’t add new stuff, and we don’t believe stuff that was just believed by one small group somewhere; it has to be understood by the Church as the mind of the Church. I know in the end this is somewhat circular, but that’s what I understand. At some point you do have to go on faith. You should inquire of a more learned Orthodox, preferably a priest or bishop, to get more than that.
“I wonder if you would be happy to share what made you convert to Eastern Orthodoxy?”
Basically, I decided to study Orthodoxy because I knew nothing about it. I was astounded to find that they claimed to be THE One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Not a branch of the One, but the One. So, I read up on the beliefs of the early Church, because I had never studied Church history. I expected to find that the early Church’s beliefs matched my own, which were standard evangelical protestant. But, the more I read, the more I became aware of a disconnect. I found that the early beliefs of the Church matched up with the Orthodox understanding, not mine. Especially important to me were the earliest post-Apostolic writers, like St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Irenaeus of Lyons. These men sat at the feet of the Apostles, or at the feet of those who did. Surely, I thought, they understood the message better than I, reading books written two thousand years ago in a different culture. And, after I attended an Orthodox Church for about a year, I started to get it. So, here I am.
“Thanks for the suggestion to go to an Orthodox Church. A friend of ours has a relative who works at an Antiochene church (which I think is similar)” – The Antiochian Church is one of the Orthodox Churches (which are in communion with one another). You may find their music a bit haunting; it seems very similar to Muslim chanting to me. I think that’s because they come from the same part of the world. But despite the differences in style, all the Orthodox Churches are in communion and agree on the Faith.
Hope that helps.
Christ is Risen,
Thanks for sharing so honestly! Sounds like you’ve been on a huge spiritual journey. The guys in the book cited examples of people who’ve converted but few of them were theological – things like they enjoyed the richer sense of worship, or they were fed up with the scandals in their own denomination. Your conversion sounds like a bit of a homecoming!
Thanks for your explanation of synergy – I think it’s the clearest one I’ve heard so far! Can I ask, though, if we play a part in our salvation, doesn’t that by definition mean that it’s not only God from whom salvation comes? (Or is my brain set in its Western legal way of thinking and therefore not understanding synergy? :) )
Also, with the repent and be baptised thing (I reckon that’s what I’d go with too – Paul to the Philippian jailor, etc.!), you said only baptism into the Orthodox church is sufficient. Could you explain the status of those in other non-Orthodox churches as far as you understand it? This was an area of disagreement amongst the Orthodox in the book. I guess it’s a question of whether conversion to the Orthodox church from Protestantism is the same as conversion to Christianity or whether it’s a conversion to a deeper understanding of Christianity.
With the Scripture / tradition, thing, one issue is what you define as ‘the church’, is that right? And that’s the point at which is becomes circular?
And with the thing about true tradition being what has always been believed, what do you make of the Reformers’ arguments? As I understand it, they weren’t making something new but saw themselves as calling their church back to the apostolic faith – hence, for example, Calvin’s reliance on and appeal to the arguments of Athanasius, Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, The Cappadocians and Irenaeus in his Institutes.
He is risen indeed!
Not an expert on ‘synergy’, but it seems that what the Orthodox mean is that salvation must be received with faith, and that it necessarily means a life of growth in holiness. The big debate on this was in the 8th century during the ‘monothelite’ controversy over whether Christ had one or two wills. The orthodox decision was that he had two, a human and a divine, which were brought into harmony in Christ’s person and his obedience to the Father (‘yet not my will, but yours’). So salvation is a redemption of the will of humans and works through co-operation, not an overriding of it. This is where Calvinists will probably diverge from the Orthodox in understanding on this question, but the Orthodox are not saying by any means that salvation ‘comes’ from humans, rather that we must receive it actively.
I think Andrew is correct.
Re: your brain being set in its Western legal way of thinking and therefore not understanding synergy–
I think this is probably somewhat the case (it was definitetly my problem). Not necessarily legal thinking, but the problem is you are trying to understand it rationally. In the Orthodox Church there are certain areas where we cannot understand–Mysteries. For example, how the bread and wine of the Eucharist becomes the actual Body and Blood of Christ? The western churches want to figure out how this happens, transsubstantiation, consubstantion, etc. The Orthodox Church just says, “it changes.” No further inquiry is possible; it is beyond our ability to understand.
So it is with salvation–as I said, it is a mystery. We know that we must repent, and be baptized, and join the Church, and live in obedience to Christ. Analyzing with precision regarding the exact nature of God’s work in us, or what role we play, is unfruitful. We know what we must do to be saved. Exactly how that happens–that’s God’s department. We just do what he says.
Also, you should remember the whole problem with terms–salvation in the Orthodox Church means becoming like God (having the image and likeness of God restored in us)–called theosis. Different than salvation if defined as merely being forgiven, declared righteous.
Re: the status of those in other non-Orthodox churches
The consensus as I understand it is that we do not know the status (re: their eternal destiny) of those in non-Orthodox churches. The same is true of those in other religions. The same is true of those in the Orthodox Church. Only God knows. We do believe that the Orthodox Church is the fullest expression of Christianity.
Regarding specific persons entering the Orthodox Church, the priest and bishop wherever they enter will determine how they are to be accepted. Sometimes their baptisms will be recognized. Othertimes, if for example they are coming from a non-Trinitarian tradition such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they will be baptized as if they were not Christians.
As to circularity–I’m glad you asked. I guess what I did, was to investigate the teachings of the early Church, and the compare it to the Orthodox. And I discovered them to be one and the same. At some point, you just determine to the best of your ability that this church is the same as the church established by Christ through the Apostles. That’s where the faith comes in; it is impossible to prove such a thing objectively (although you can get close.) And from there, you accept its teachings/proclamations of the Ecumenical councils, etc. The reasons why this is tough is
there have been periods of time in Church history where almost every priest, layperson, and bishop had turned Arian. There were only a few holdouts. But they won the day. So, looking back, the Church declared the minority was maintaining the true tradition, the deposit of faith from the Apostles.
Regarding the Reformers–well, they were trying. And their efforst were certaily warranted. But by the time of the Reformation the errors of the Roman Church had been too entrenched, even in the very way of thinking and “doing theology.” The Reformers threw out much of what was valid in their efforts, namely the proper understanding and respect of Holy Tradition. As to Calvin’s citation of some fo the Fathers, I am certainly no scholar. But you can prooftext almost any proposition. And the Fathers were not infallible. Only the Church as a whole is infallible. So, citing to this Father or that does not really establish anything–you have to look at the whole teaching of the Church. Oftentimes, you can cite one Father for one proposition, which certainly seems to prove it, but if you read all the writings of that Father, you will see this is not what they meant.
Hope this helps. Again, you probably know more about a lot of these issues than me, as you are a divinity student.
One more thing–have you ever been bothered by certain passages in the Bible? Like the Lord’s prayer–Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And Matthew 25-you did not give a cup of water, so you are to be cast out. These always bothered me, even when I was a kid. They just don’t align with the standard evangelical position on salvation–call on the name of Christ, believe and you are saved. I mean, forgiveness is based on our forgiving others; we have to do good things for our fellow man to be saved. As a Protestant you learn to interpret those kind of passages away, to make them conform to the Protestant understanding of soteriology. But I started to ask, on what basis are we making these interpretations? Who better than those who spoke with the authors of the Gospels, the Epistles, who were taught by them directly, to give the proper intepretation?
The Orthodox Church is the only church I have found where the whole Bible makes sense.
Hi Andrew, thanks for joining in the discussion! We looked very briefly at the monothelite heresy in church history earlier this year but I’m still trying to figure it out. With the idea of Christ having two wills (not one as the monothelites said), it sounds like from your explanation (assuming I’ve read you rightly) that these were in disharmony until that point in Gethsemane? Which doesn’t sound quite right to me. (As in, I take it the reason Christ can have two wills is because he has two natures; yet Christ’s natures are not in discord with each other, so can we say that his wills were?) Or is this how you see Christ being made perfect (as in Heb 2:10, 5:9)? Could you explain for me please? :)
James, things are getting clarified nicely for me, so thanks for your patience!
With the thing about who is saved, etc, can I ask about whether the Orthodox have a doctrine of assurance? If you don’t know if anyone is saved, how do you know that you are saved? (I did an essay on assurance in 1 John earlier this year so the topic has been on my mind!)
With synergy, the issues of do we save ourselves or does God save us I resolve by compatabilism – I wonder if you know it? If you know Don Carson, he’s a major proponent of it and I think he’s right. It’s the idea of two parallel lines, perhaps like train tracks. One line is God’s sovereignty, that is, that he saves us and it is entirely his work. The other train track is our responsibility, that is, that we must actively accept God’s work and work out our faith with fear and trembling. Though the two seem contradictory, the Bible seems to uphold both unashamedly. As to how they fit together, that’s the mystery of God! I’m not sure whether this is ‘synergy’ in Western language? This concept allows me to implore God to save someone and also to implore them to turn to him; and likewise, to ask God to change and sanctify a Christian while encouraging the Christian to become more like Jesus.
With the question of theosis, which in my reading seems to be the big deal in the Orthodox mind, one of the evangelicals suggested that Orthodoxy collapses justification and sanctification into each other while evangelicals may have separated them too far. I think you’re right about how we have been saved, are being saved and will be saved, if I understand you rightly, but I was wondering about how the thief on the cross next to Jesus aligns with this idea? As in, his salvation was largely dependent on the declaration of his status – he didn’t have time to become more like God! How does that work?
I’m glad I can make sense! Please, though, remember to check up on me with those more knowledgeable.
Regarding compatabilism: I have not heard of it. Without endorsing the whole doctrine, which I don’t know the ins and outs of, the way you describe it is compatible and in accord with Orthodoxy; especially the part about “Though the two seem contradictory, the Bible seems to uphold both unashamedly. As to how they fit together, that’s the mystery of God!” Sound right on to me.
Re: theosis, and Orthodox collapsing of justification and sanctification into each other. The Orthodox do not view these two things separately, and I think would say the Scriptures do not either, so you are right.
As to assurance, the Orthodox doctrine is we have none. This is because God always respects our free will. He never “locks us in” because we may change our minds, and he will never take that away from us. So, up until the day of our death we have the ability to turn away from him. That’s up to us. Interestingly, I was just reading Ezekiel 18 last night, which speaks to this
Regarding the thief on the cross, that was a big point for me when I was a protestant. I thought that he was the exemplar for understanding salvation by faith versus works. The short and simple answer is, he is not to be viewed as the example for how mankind in general (and each specifically) is saved. He was in a very special, unique situation. He showed mercy to Christ when everyone else was spitting on him and cursing him; he spoke out against the other thief, he believed and trusted in Christ as the Messiah even as he saw him hanging next to him, crucified–an almost incomprehensible faith, which not even the disciples had. We do not know how God worked in him. Again, we know what Christ and the Apostles told us to do to be saved, and that we are to do, even if it does not seem like the thief did all those things. His salvation is a mystery.
Good luck with your studies. Please feel free to email me if you have any more questions!
No, diothelitism is not about Christ finally offering up his human will at some point, but constantly doing so at every point in his life despite the human temptation to do otherwise. Gethsemane is merely a definitive instance of this. This has to be a genuine obedience, as it is for all human beings, not an ‘easy’ work, otherwise Christ could not actually be said to be tempted as we are, and his obedience would be meaningless.