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.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.