What Is Eastern Orthodoxy?

A Reformed Perspective and Response

Article by

Professor, Wales Evangelical School of Theology

Orthodoxy comprises a range of autonomous churches, the Russian and Greek being the most prominent. During the first millennium of the church, the Latin West and the predominantly Greek-speaking East drifted apart linguistically, culturally, and theologically. Rome’s claims to universal jurisdiction and its acceptance of the filioque clause led to severed relations in 1054. Many countries in the East, overrun by the Muslims, had limited freedom. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, while in the twentieth century, Orthodoxy in Russia and Eastern Europe endured under Communist rule, suffering intense persecution.

Orthodoxy is emphatically not to be identified with Rome. Ecclesiastically, it has no unified hierarchy, no pope, no magisterium. It lacks the barrage of dogmas of the Roman Church. Its doctrinal basis, such as it is, is the seven ecumenical councils, referring principally to the Trinity and Christology, the vast majority of which Protestants embrace. While at the popular level some Marian dogmas are accepted, they are not accorded official status. Nor is there a requirement for converts from Protestantism to renounce justification by faith alone. Particularly distinctive is its dominantly visual worship; icons fill its churches. Its ancient liturgy, rooted in the fourth century, is central to its theology and life.

If Orthodoxy differs so significantly from Catholicism, how closely does it resemble Protestantism? A brief overview of Orthodoxy reveals several points of alignment, some significant misunderstandings, and a few major disagreements with Protestantism.

Learning from Orthodoxy

First, Protestants can learn from many positive elements in Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox liturgy, for starters, is full of Trinitarian prayers, hymns, and doxologies. The Trinity is a vital part of their belief and worship. This finds biblical precedent as Paul describes our relationship with God in Trinitarian terms: “Through [Christ] we . . . have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).

Another positive element in Orthodoxy is their teaching on union with Christ and God. Crucial to Orthodox theology is deification, in which humans are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and transformed by divine grace. Orthodox theology has maintained a focus on the union of the three persons in God, the union of deity and humanity in Christ, the union of Christ and the church, and the union of the Holy Spirit and the saints. In some forms, Orthodoxy’s focus on deification enters the realm of mysticism. But in other strands, exemplified by the Alexandrians, Athanasius (295–373), and Cyril (378–444), it is the equivalent of regeneration, adoption, sanctification, and glorification viewed as one seamless process.

In addition, unlike the Western church, the Orthodox Church has enjoyed freedom from concerns raised by the Enlightenment. Due to its historical and cultural isolation, Orthodoxy has experienced no Middle Ages, no Renaissance, no Reformation, and no Enlightenment. Until recently, it was not preoccupied with critical attacks of unbelief, which in the West have sometimes bred a detached, academic approach to theology divorced from the life of the church. This is evident in Orthodoxy’s firm belief in the return of Christ and heaven and hell, topics often sidelined in the West due to possible embarrassment.

Finally, the Orthodox Church keeps together theology and piety. Asceticism and monasticism have had a contemplative character. The knowledge of God is received and cultivated in prayer and meditation in battle against the forces of darkness. Since the Enlightenment, Western theology has centered in academic institutions unconnected to the church. Orthodoxy has profoundly integrated liturgy, piety, and doctrine.

Points of Alignment

Beyond these positive elements in Orthodoxy from which Protestants can learn, there are many areas of agreement between Protestantism and Orthodoxy.

The ecumenical councils’ declarations on the Trinity and Christ show the extensive agreement between Orthodoxy and classic Protestantism, despite disagreement on the filioque.

With different emphases, the Orthodox and evangelical Protestants agree on the authority of the Bible, sin and the fall (although the Orthodox do not accept the Augustinian doctrine of original sin), Christ’s death and resurrection (although the atonement is regarded more as conquest of death than as payment for the penalty of the broken law), the Holy Spirit, the return of Christ, the final judgment, and heaven and hell.

Although the Reformation controversies passed the East by, occasionally Orthodox fathers talk of salvation and of faith as gifts of God’s grace, while the Orthodox liturgy repeatedly calls on the Lord for mercy to us as sinners, as does the famous Jesus prayer. At root, justification has not been an issue and so has not provoked discussion. Similarly, there are echoes in the West of deification — in Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and some Puritans — for, understood in the way Athanasius and Cyril did, deification is no more incompatible with justification by faith than are sanctification and glorification.

Additionally, the Orthodox doctrine of the church stresses its unity, the parity of bishops and of all church members, underlying its opposition to Rome. This is a model close to Anglicanism.

Significant Misunderstandings

Historically, however, Protestant and Orthodox believers have often misunderstood one another.

To start, Protestants tend to misunderstand the Eastern understanding of icons. Nicea II (AD 787) emphatically denied that icons are worshiped. Following John of Damascus (675–749), the council distinguished between honor (proskunēsis) given to saints and icons, and worship (latreia) owed to the indivisible Trinity alone. Icons are seen as windows to the spiritual realm, indicating the presence in the church’s worship on earth of the saints in heaven. Moreover, the idea of image (eikon) is prominent in the Bible. The whole creation reveals the glory of God (Psalm 19:1–6; Romans 1:18–20). Reformed theology, in general revelation, views the whole world as an icon.

No problem exists with intercession among saints as such, for we all pray for and with living saints; we have prayer meetings. However, the Bible does not encourage us to pray to departed saints, for there are no grounds to suppose that they hear us. Rather, Scripture directs our hope to Christ, his return, and the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).

On Scripture and tradition (the teaching of the church), both sides appeal to both sources. There is an overwhelming biblical emphasis in Orthodox liturgy, while the Reformation had a high view of the teaching of the church. The issue is not the Bible versus tradition, but rather which has the decisive voice. For evangelicalism, the Bible is unequivocally the word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), while all human councils may err.

From the Orthodox side, many confuse the Protestant doctrine of predestination with Islamic fatalism. The Bible teaches both the absolute sovereignty of God and the full responsibility of man, God’s decrees not undermining the free actions of secondary causes. As such, the Orthodox idea that the doctrine of predestination short-circuits the human will, and is effectively monothelite, is misplaced.

Many Orthodox polemicists also accuse evangelicals of ignoring the church’s part in Scripture. However, the classic Protestant confessions attest that the church is integral to the process of salvation, the Christian faith being found in the Bible and taught by the church. Both Scripture and the church are originated by the Holy Spirit. Church and covenant are integral to Reformed theology. Orthodoxy often confuses classic Protestantism with today’s freewheeling individualists.

Major Disagreements

Beyond these points of alignment and misunderstanding, significant differences do exist.

First, the East tends to downplay preaching. Largely due to the impact of Islam, and despite Orthodoxy’s heritage of superlative preaching (Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, among others), their liturgy is more visual. Sermons are part of the liturgy, but the focus is more on the icons and the symbolic movements of the clergy.

Next, the relationship between Scripture and tradition differs. For Orthodoxy, tradition is a living dynamic movement — the Bible existing within it, not apart from it. This was the position of the church of the first two centuries, with the Bible and tradition effectively indistinguishable. Later developments in the West placed tradition over Scripture (medieval Rome), or pitted Scripture against tradition (the anabaptists, some evangelicals), or put Scripture over tradition without rejecting it (the Reformation, the Reformed churches). For Orthodoxy, Scripture is not the supreme authority.

A third distinction is found in what’s called the Palamite doctrine of the Trinity. Gregory Palamas’s distinction between the unknowable essence (being) of God and his energies has driven a wedge between God in himself and God as he has revealed himself, threatening our knowledge of God with profound agnosticism. It introduces into God a division, not a distinction. The Christian life easily becomes mystical contemplation.

Along with Rome, the East venerates Mary and the saints. Orthodoxy considers it possible, legitimate, and desirable to pray to departed saints. But there is no biblical evidence that this is possible.

Finally and most crucially, Orthodoxy has what we might call soteriological synergism. The East has a vigorous doctrine of free will and an implacable opposition to the Protestant teaching on predestination and the sovereignty of God’s grace in salvation. This puts Orthodoxy further away from the Reformation than is Rome.

How Far Away Is the East?

Compared with Rome, how far away from Protestantism is Orthodoxy?

Orthodoxy is closer to classic Protestantism than is Rome in a number of ways. Both were forced into separation, and both oppose the claims of the papacy. The structure of the Orthodox churches is closer to Anglicanism than Catholicism. Orthodoxy does not have the same accumulation of authoritative dogmas as Rome. Its stress on the Bible opens up a large commonality of approach.

In other ways, Orthodoxy is further removed from Protestantism than is Rome. Protestantism, with Rome, is part of the Latin church, shares the same history, and addresses the same questions. Its faith is centered in Christ; the East’s is more focused on the Holy Spirit, along with a more mystical theology and practice. As Kallistos Ware puts it, Rome and Protestantism share the same questions, but supply different answers; with Orthodoxy the questions are different.