During my four years as a visiting professor at Moscow State University (1991-95) I often felt schizophrenic. There I was, a Protestant theologian teaching in the former Department of Scientific Atheism in the land where Eastern Orthodoxy had reigned for over 1,000 years. At one level, I was close in heart and mind to my Orthodox sisters and brothers in Christ; but on another level, I agreed with many of my atheist friends' criticisms of Russian Orthodoxy.
Suspicion and recrimination have often characterized relationships between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Protestantism. Protestant theologian Adolf von Harnack once described the Orthodox church as "in her entire structure alien to the Gospel and a perversion of the Christian religion, its reduction to the level of pagan antiquity." Not to be outdone, the Orthodox could respond in kind. An Orthodox priest who lectured to standing-room-only crowds at Moscow State once described Orthodox theology to me as "music made in the conservatory," whereas he described Protestant theology as "music made in the honkytonk bars. Protestant Christianity," Andrei went on, "is a cheap, terrible substitute, and an Orthodox believer who knows his own faith will never go there."
Writing a book on Eastern Orthodoxy and working through the manuscript with my Russian students helped me to compare Orthodoxy and Protestant evangelicalism. But one insightful reader asked a penetrating question: "Your book does a fine job comparing the two traditions; why have you not converted to Orthodoxy?" It is a good question, one I will answer in due course.
Why be interested?
One need not travel overseas to encounter Eastern Orthodoxy. It merits our attention for several reasons. Not a few evangelicals in the last decade have forsaken Protestantism to join an Eastern Orthodox church. The conversion of 2,000 evangelicals in 17 congregations "from Alaska to Atlanta" in 1987, recounted in Peter Gillquist's Becoming Orthodox, is only a small window into a larger phenomenon. As former Campus Crusade staff member Gillquist put it, why have so many "Bible-believing, blood-bought, Gospel-preaching, Christ-centered, lifelong evangelical Protestants come to embrace this Orthodox faith so enthusiastically?" (To be fair, we should note that a large number of Orthodox have become evangelical Protestants as well.)
Orthodoxy's size alone warrants our attention, despite its invisibility on the cultural radar screens of most Americans. Although it is difficult to gather firm figures, worldwide Orthodox Christians number about 150 million, with 3 million in the U.S. alonemore than most evangelical denominations. At a minimum, Protestants need to move beyond ignorance of these neighbors.
In some places in the world, Orthodoxy is the primary Christian game in town (as in Russia and Serbia), and it is inextricably wedded to the local ethnic culture. For good and ill, it is a classic "cultural religion," and comprehending Orthodoxy is an indispensable key to understanding those countries, cultures, and people.
Missiological concerns surface here, too. In many of these lands, Orthodoxy exhibits an unveiled distrust and even xenophobia toward the massive influx of Western missionaries into their backyards. Legislation pending in Russia, for example, could, if implemented, curtail Western missionary enterprises. Is it wrong for Western missionaries to seek to convert the Orthodox in lands like Russia, Romania, or Greece? Has Orthodoxy in these lands obscured the gospel, becoming merely a "cultural" religion thoroughly assimilated to ethnic identity?
Converts from Protestantism claim that Orthodoxy is strongest where evangelicals tend to be weak-its robust liturgical celebration of the majesty and mystery of God, its unyielding insistence on the indispensable role of tradition in theology, and its admirable heritage of perseverance amid terrible fires of persecution. Orthodoxy, advocates suggest, reveals and corrects evangelical reductionism and superficiality.
Some have argued that evangelicals eager to "contend earnestly for the faith" (Jude 3) will find an ally in Orthodoxy's allegiance to the basic truths of Christianity. That is, Orthodoxy's commitment to "right belief" provides a natural link to evangelical concerns. For instance, John of Damascus (675-749), Orthodoxy's most famous systematic theologian, epitomized the Orthodox ethos when he wrote in his The Orthodox Faith, "we do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the traditions just as we have received them." Liberalism is not a word in the Orthodox vocabulary.
Since the World Council of Churches' Canberra Assembly in 1991, evangelical and Orthodox believers have joined in a series of wcc-sponsored dialogues on matters challenging historic Christian faith. On another front, under the leadership of founder Bradley Nassif, the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism (SSEOE) holds meetings each fall at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center for the sake of the two traditions learning from one another.
Before trying to discern how evangelicals should respond to these many issues involving Eastern Orthodoxy, a brief history is in order.
On their own turf
The so-called Eastern Orthodox Church is actually not one but thirteen "autocephalous" or independent, self-governing churches. (Some within Orthodoxy say there are 15, but this is a minor, internal debate.) These thirteen churches are united in their understanding of the sacraments, discipline, doctrine, faith, government, and worship, but they administer their internal affairs separately. As independent churches, they are not bound together by any unilateral or monarchical organization, nor do they owe allegiance to a single primacy, as Roman Catholics do to the pope. Rather, each of the thirteen Orthodox churches has its own head, variously referred to as the patriarch, archbishop, or metropolitan. Here, according to Ronald Roberson's 1993 book The Eastern Christian Churches, is a list of these churches and their approximate sizes:
Constantinople, 3.5 million
Russia, 50-85 million
Serbia, 8 million
Romania, 19.8 million
Bulgaria, 8 million
Georgia, 3 million
Greece, 9 million
Poland, 1 million
The first four enjoy special honor due to their antiquity.
Small bodies of Orthodox believers exist in other places as "autonomous" but not "autocephalous" churches (Finland, Japan, former Czechoslovakia, etc.). In addition, sizable Orthodox "diasporate" groups exist in Europe, North and South America, and Australia, typically under the jurisdiction of one of the thirteen patriarchates mentioned above. The independent Orthodox Church in America (OCA) desires to function as a fully "autocephalous" church, although as yet the oca has not been officially recognized by most of the thirteen patriarchates.
Christians in the West variously trace their roots to Rome (Catholics), Wittenberg (Lutherans), Geneva (Calvinists), Canterbury (Anglicans), or Oxford (Wesleyans). We think the fundamental Christian schism occurred when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, October 31, 1517. Orthodox believers see things very differently. For them the fundamental schism occurred 500 years earlierin the year 1054 (more about that below). Further, they identify themselves by reference to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the "new Rome" of Emperor Constantine, and to the first seven ecumenical councils of the church.
Through the centuries, theological, geopolitical, cultural, and linguistic factors have combined to differentiate the Orthodox ethos from Western patterns of Christianity. Early on in the life of the Christian church, the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West began to diverge. In the year 311, Emperor Constantine moved the political capital of his empire from Rome to Constantinople. The move was far more than geographic. It had ramifications for the ecclesiastical status of both cities and further exacerbated the strained relations between the two regions. Later ecumenical councils at Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451) acknowledged Constantinople as the "New Rome" and accorded it "equal privileges" and "equal rank in ecclesiastical matters" with Latin Rome. Needless to say, Rome was indignant; not until the Lateran Council of 1215 did it acknowledge the status of Constantinople. But that was too little, too late. While Rome stumbled toward destruction in 476, Constantinople enjoyed relative theological and political stability for another 1,000 years, until it was sacked by the Turks in 1453.
Linguistic factors posed other, very practical problems. By the end of the sixth century, neither group could speak the other's language. The rise of Islam after Muhammad (died 632) was likewise crucial. Constantine had once controlled the entire Mediterranean perimeter, and as a result, Christianity flourished. But Islam's conquest of this same area eventually isolated the Eastern Christians centered in Constantinople from their counterparts in the West centered in Rome.
Theological disputes combined with these geopolitical and cultural factors to divide the Christian East and West. The East allowed some priests to marry, while the West required celibacy. In the East the local parish priest could administer the sacrament of confirmation; in the West only the bishop could. When celebrating the Eucharist, Catholics mixed the wine with water, while the Orthodox did not. The West used unleavened bread, the East did not. Differences over clerical beards, the tonsure, and fasting also exacerbated the growing deterioration of East-West unity.
Two theological controversies drove the final wedge between Catholic and Orthodox Christians: papal supremacy and the so-called filioque controversy. The collapse of the Roman Empire created a power vacuum that was increasingly filled by the growing power of the Roman papacy. Orthodox Christians were more inclined to appeal to the ecumenical councils than to a single bishop to settle theological matters. They conceded a special honor to the Western papacy but insisted that the bishop of Rome was only the first among equals. The so-called Photian Schism brought this matter to a head.
In 858 Photius was appointed as Orthodoxy's new patriarch at Constantinople, replacing Ignatius, who had been exiled and later resigned his duties. Ignatius's followers, however, refused to acknowledge the transition, and eventually both Ignatius and Photius appealed to Pope Nicholas (858-67) in Rome. Nicholas reversed the decision, reinstating Ignatius and deposing Photius. For Eastern Christians, this was yet another Roman encroachment upon their autonomy. Indeed, in a letter of 865, Pope Nicholas made it clear that he intended to extend the power of the papacy "over all the earth, that is, over every church." Eastern Christians would hear nothing of it.
Photius then branded the entire Western church as heretical for inserting the phrase "and the Son" (filioque) into the Nicene Creed. Originally the creed read that the Holy Spirit proceeded "from the Father"; a later Western interpolation (why, where, and by whom are not known), ratified at the Council of Toledo (589), added filioque to indicate that the Spirit proceeded from the Father "and the Son." Orthodox Christians viewed the filioque amendment to be contrary to explicit instructions by past ecumenical councils not to change the creeds. Worse, they considered the interpolation to be theologically untrue and a threat to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Much like a divorce where numerous and complex problems fester for years and then coalesce around a single event, the defining moment for a distinctly Orthodox identity came with the Great Schism of 1054. Schisms had already occurred in the Christian church, and others would occur later, but the Great Schism was the first of such major consequence.
On June 16, 1054, Pope Leo IX's legate, Cardinal Humbert, delivered a Bull of Excommunication to the Orthodox Patriarch Michael Cerularius on the altar of the Church of the Holy Wisdom at Constantinople while the patriarch prepared to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, condemning him and his court. Without waiting for a response, Humbert exited the church and declared, "Let God look and judge." He promptly left Constantinople.
Rome accused the "Greek heretics" of trying to "humiliate and crush the holy catholic and apostolic church." Cerularius condemned Humbert and entreated Orthodox believers to "flee the fellowship of those who have accepted the heretical Latins." As if this were not quite enough, during the Fourth Crusade, Western forces stormed Constantinople in 1204 and ransacked the Church of the Holy Wisdom, an unimaginable act of desecration from the viewpoint of Orthodoxy. Any vestiges of hope for unity after the estrangement of 1054 were dashed with the pillage of 1204. Despite efforts at reunification, to this day the Catholic and Orthodox churches remain estranged.
The splendor of worship
Most Protestants would experience an Orthodox liturgy as something strange, even exotic. I will always remember my first visit to an Orthodox church in Russia. Even before entering the church one is taken aback by the unusual architecture-the glittering gold onion domes that sparkle like diamonds on a sunny day. Once inside, a Western Christian experiences sensory overload: the near absence of chairs or pews, dim lighting, head coverings for most women, icons and frescoes covering almost every inch of space on the walls and ceiling, a massive and ornate iconostasis separating the priest and the worshipers, the smoky smell of incense and hundreds of candles burning in memory of the dead, the priest resplendent in his ornate vestments and enormous beard, and worshipers repeatedly prostrating themselves, kissing the icons, and making the sign of the cross.
Indeed, what Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have often sought is not only a conscious continuity with the historic, apostolic past, but also a richer experience of God's majesty and mystery through a more liturgical worship setting. These are worthy pursuits that can be fulfilled in the Orthodox Church. But about this pursuit we can make several observations.
Liturgically, the Orthodox ethos of a formal worship setting will attract some Christians, but to many other vibrant movements within evangelicalism it will have little if any appeal. One thinks, for example, of those committed to full ministerial status for women, the centrality of lay ministry and spiritual gifts, charismatically inclined groups, seeker-sensitive churches attempting to reach baby boomers or Generation X'ers with novel worship formats, and so on. Evangelicals focused on social ethics may also find little comradeship in Orthodoxy, as there is nothing in Orthodoxy comparable to the body of Catholic social teaching, for instance. These Protestant movements, important in their own right, are liturgical light years from Orthodoxy.
Further, rote liturgy can stultify as well as edify, which is one reason why many people prefer more informal or personal worship settings. What are we to make, for example, of the Orthodox liturgy in Russia today, which is recited in ninth-century Slavonic, a language very few Russians even understand? Further, Protestants have long enjoyed rich liturgical traditions of their own (see, for example, Bard Thompson's classic Liturgies of the Western Church). If a richer liturgical life is what a believer wants, converting to Orthodoxy is hardly necessary.
Similarly, Protestants like Thomas Oden, Donald Bloesch, and others have shown that one need not join Orthodoxy to immerse oneself in the patristic past with joy, gratitude, and a sense of accountability to that "great cloud of witnesses" of the last two millennia. Oden, for example, who delights in referring to his theological method as "paleo-orthodox," is now working on a comprehensive patristic commentary on the whole Bible to be published by InterVarsity Press. Thumb through Calvin's Institutes or a volume of John Wesley's Works and you will see our Protestant forebears thoroughly engaged with patristic tradition. As with liturgy, conversion to Orthodoxy is hardly a prerequisite for a renewed engagement with apostolic tradition.
Orthodoxy versus the Orthodox
Beyond the recovery of history and liturgy, there are deeper and more important questions. By joining Orthodoxy one inherits a theological package that includes central elements that have traditionally troubled many Protestant evangelicals and omits doctrines many evangelicals consider nonnegotiable essentials of vital Christianity. Upon joining the Orthodox Church, converts 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." In fact, what Orthodox converts "vow to accept" diverges significantly from important, basic tenets of evangelical Protestantism. Four important areas deserve ongoing dialogue.
The church. To be Eastern Orthodox is, above all, to stake a bold and unapologetic theological claim as the one true church of Christ on earth, which alone has guarded right belief and true worship in absolute identity and unbroken succession with the apostolic church. It is precisely this exclusivistic assertion that some Protestant converts, in search of the "true, New Testament Church" have found so beguiling. Inherent in this claim, of course, is the charge that both Catholics and Protestants have lapsed from the true faith into error, if not outright heresy.
One can find people who interpret this ecclesiological exclusivity more leniently; in fact, some would argue that the best Orthodox scholarsGeorge Florovsky and John Meyendorff, to name twowould allow for such leniency. But the claim to be Christ's one, true church remains the clear Orthodox position. This should trouble evangelicals (as well as other Protestants), especially when it is combined with the Orthodox idea of who constitutes the church and how one enters the church.
Is the church made up of those who have been "regenerated" by infant baptism in an Orthodox church institution, or by those who have experienced new birth and been justified by grace through faith? True, Luther and some other Protestants have not viewed baptismal regeneration and justification by faith as mutually exclusive. But whether a non-Orthodox person can even be saved is an open question in Orthodox ecclesiology. Over coffee one day I asked an Orthodox priest whether I, as a Protestant theologian, might be considered a true Christian. His response: "I don't know."
While this exclusivism is not unique to Orthodoxy, with this self-understanding it is easy to see why the Orthodox Church in countries such as Russia is extremely unhappy about Western, Protestant missionary incursions. At the 1996 meeting of sseoe, Orthodox representative Stanley Harakas said that the Orthodox, who have lived for 70 years in Russia under Communist oppression, are in a state of weakness, unable to rebuild churches and barely able to educate their parishioners. And while they are just beginning to recover, he says, Protestants invade, with all their Western resources, and attempt to draw away the very people the Russian Orthodox Church is attempting to nurture in the faith. Why should we welcome that? Harakas asked.
We should expect nothing less of ourselves than total respect for and even love of the history, theology, and culture of Orthodoxy; still, two things ought to be said about Orthodox complaints about Protestant proselytizing.
Take Russia as an example: First, the majority of Russians are non-Christian and unevangelized. In Russia, the largest figure usually cited for the Orthodox Church is 85 million people (some estimates are as low as 50 million), which means 100 million Russiansmore than half the countryare not affiliated with Orthodoxy. Surely there is enough evangelistic work for everyone. Sizable groups of the Russian population are disenchanted with Orthodoxy for a number of reasons. Russian Baptists, Adventists, and Pentecostals feel persecuted. Intellectuals, like one of my students at Moscow University, often disdain Orthodoxy as a "medieval mentality." Others charge complicity with the state, both past and present.
Second, whatever failings Western missionaries might bring to their work, and whether Orthodoxy likes to admit it, many Russians are responding very positively to a clear, contemporary presentation of the gospel by Protestant missionaries.
The sacraments. Despite its historical estrangement from Rome, from a Protestant theological perspective Orthodoxy is similar to Catholicism at several points. Most notable are its beliefs about baptism and the Eucharist. The theological objections evangelicals have traditionally had with Rome on these two points rightly apply to Orthodoxy.
Orthodox spiritual life gives central prominence to the sacraments. These sacraments are not mere signs, symbols, or reminders. They are the efficacious means by which God transmits his salvific and sanctifying grace to us. Orthodoxy generally affirms the same seven sacraments as Catholicism: baptism, chrismation or confirmation, the Eucharist, repentance or confession, holy orders or ordination, marriage, and holy unction or anointing of the sick. Preeminent among the sacraments are baptism and the Eucharist.
Baptism is the primary and fundamental basis of the entire Orthodox Christian life. In the words of contemporary Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko, "everything in the church flows out of the waters of baptism: the remission of sins and life eternal." Administered to infants who are fully immersed three times, baptism effects the "bath of regeneration" by which a person is born again, wholly cleansed from both original and actual sins, and, consequently, saved from guilt and punishment. In chrismation, performed immediately after rising from the baptismal waters, the priest anoints the infant with a special ointment, making the sign of the cross on various parts of the body, thus acknowledging the gift and seal of the Holy Spirit.
Orthodoxy affirms the real, physical presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist (as do Catholics, Lutherans, and many Anglicans), yet unlike Catholicism it is content not to explain how this happens. It makes no appeal to a doctrine of transubstantiation and instead simply affirms the mystery. The Eucharist, according to the Divine Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom (the normal liturgy for Sundays and weekdays), is "for the purification of the soul, for the remission of sins, for the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, [and] for the Kingdom of Heaven."
The Eucharist is a true, propitiatory sacrifice. Different Orthodox theories exist as to what, exactly, this means. Chrysostom's liturgy says of the Eucharistic sacrifice: "Your own, from your own, we offer you, in all and for all." Christ is thus "the Offerer and the Offered, the Acceptor and the Distributed," all in such a way that nothing is added to his once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. Like baptism, the Eucharist is administered to infants.
While Protestant evangelicals have never agreed on the precise meaning or mode of the sacraments, they have historically emphasized two related truths that diverge from the Orthodox understanding of the sacraments. Evangelicals urge the necessity of personal conversion through the faith and repentance of the individual believer, as opposed to the Orthodox idea of regeneration by the sacraments.
Also, while evangelicals wholeheartedly embrace the full-orbed New Testament descriptions of the work of Christ (reconciliation, ransom, redemption, forgiveness, adoption, etc.), since the Reformation, justification by faith and substitutionary atonement have enjoyed pride of place in our understanding of the doctrines of sin and salvation. Luther urged that Christianity would stand or fall with this doctrine; Calvin called it "the hinge upon which all true religion turns."
In the history and theology of Orthodoxy it is startling to observe the nearly complete absence of any mention of the doctrine of justification by faith. Rather, "theosis" (literally, "deification"), or the progressive transformation of people into full likeness to God, in soul and body, takes center stage. (2 Pet. 1:4). Further, the Orthodox reject the idea of inherited guilt; we are guilty only for our own sins rather than for the inborn consequences of Adam's fall. Conversely, evangelicals argue that this forensic framework for sin and salvation is not merely a historical and unduly negative carryover from Augustine and Anselm, but rather is the clear teaching of Paul in his Letters to the Romans and Galatians.
Icons. In 1523-24 the Reformers Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther donned the gown of the university scholar. This simple change of dress symbolized a radical shift that has characterized the Protestant West ever since: that the knowledge of God is mediated primarily through the written Word. The Puritan John Foxe, for example, insisted that "God conducted the Reformation by printing, writing, and reading." Before long, in Reformation churches the sermon had replaced the Eucharist as the defining moment of the liturgy.
Orthodoxy, in contrast, is a thoroughly aesthetic tradition, as attested by the central role played by icons. Orthodox churches are full of them. Worshipers prostrate themselves before them and kiss them. The priest censes them and elevates them in processions. Whereas Western Protestants want to hear the written Word spoken in the sermon, Orthodox believers want to see it in the visual images of iconsas well as hear it in the spoken word.
Icons are absolutely central to Orthodoxy, distinguishing it from both Catholicism and Protestantism. In the Orthodox calendar, the first Sunday of Lent celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a commemoration of the final triumph of icons in the long and bitter battle with the iconoclasts (literally, "image-smashers") on March 11, 843. Included in this liturgy is an anathema on all those who reject icons.
This is no archaic, dusty doctrine, either. Recently I worshiped at an Orthodox church in Palo Alto on this celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. In his homily, Father Vladimir explained the history and theology of icons, adding that the heresy of iconoclasm was alive and well: "Just look around us at all the Protestants."
Icons are not merely sacred art. Rather, they are a source of revelation. According to the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 787, icons are of equal benefit as Scripture in presenting the gospel message. What Scripture proclaims by word, the icon proclaims by color. Thus, when an Orthodox believer once asked why his church did not do more doctrinal teaching, his priest responded, "Icons teach us all that we need to know." Icons are, quite literally, a "theology in color."
While evangelicals might be eager to argue there is no biblical warrant for icons, for the Orthodox it is enough that icons have always been a part of church tradition. The final declaration of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea (787) that ratified the use of icons appealed to the "written and unwritten" tradition of the early church. And for Orthodoxy, this argument from holy tradition is of great significance.
Scripture and tradition. The late Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff once remarked that the ultimate conflict between the Orthodox East and the Latin West, both Catholic and Protestant, resided in two different ideas about tradition. From the Orthodox perspective, both Catholics and Protestants seek to ground theological authority in an external norm. In Catholicism this external dogmatic authority resides in the teaching magisterium of the church as expressed in the primacy and infallibility of the papacy. In Protestantism there arose the doctrine of sola scriptura.
In contrast, Orthodoxy offers a view of theological authority that is internal and pneumatic rather than external and dogmatic. The Spirit of God himself, realizing the sacramental presence of Christ in the church, speaks to us in tradition. Thus Georges Florovsky once referred to tradition as "the witness of the Spirit."
Orthodoxy has always affirmed that Peter was the "first among equals" (primus inter pares) ; but unlike Roman Catholics, the Orthodox have always denied that he held any "primacy of power" (primatus potestatis). Rather, for Orthodoxy the whole people of God is the protector of apostolic tradition. In an encyclical letter of 1848, the Eastern patriarchs stated this most emphatically: "Infallibility resides solely in the ecumenicity of the church bound together by mutual love. The unchangeableness of dogma as well as the purity of rite [are] entrusted to the care not of one hierarchy but of all the people of the church." This hardly signifies any sort of congregational or ecclesiological democracy, however, for while all believers possess the truth, it is the special duty of church authorities to teach it.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy are not alike in their views on the nature of theological authority; it is nevertheless correct to say that Orthodoxy, like Catholicism, views Protestantism in a similar negative manner. Two points that have been hallmarks of evangelical identity deserve special scrutiny: the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and the relationship between Scripture and the church.
When Martin Luther burned the books of Catholic canon law at Wittenberg's Elster Gate on December 10, 1520, he symbolized an important Protestant distinctive. Whatever honor Protestants bestow upon tradition, they deny that its authority is coequal with Scripture. Thus Luther once 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?" Calvin objected to the "tyranny of human tradition which is haughtily thrust upon us under the title of the Church." The Reformers did not reject tradition as a help to wisdom, as a reading of Calvin, Luther, or Wesley easily shows. What they objected to was the elevation of tradition to the status of Scripture.
One can find Orthodox statements that ascribe a unique authority to Scripture over tradition, but these are few and far between, and they speak of tradition in a narrower than usual sense. Put more starkly, Orthodoxy explicitly rejects the historic Protestant idea of sola scriptura. John Meyendorff writes that "the Christian faith can in no way be compatible with the notion of sola scriptura." Rather, Orthodoxy affirms a single source of revelation, holy tradition, of which Scripture is the preeminent among several forms. The other forms of tradition include the first seven ecumenical councils, which are acknowledged as normative and, by some, even infallible; patristic writings, especially those of the first four centuries; later councils; the Liturgy; canon law; and icons.
Karmiris writes, "Scripture and Tradition are equally valid, possess equal dogmatic authority, and are equal in value as sources of dogmatic truth . This conception lessens the validity and value of the Holy Scriptures as the primary source of Christian dogma." Thus, while the Protestant principle of sola scriptura places Scripture above tradition, for Orthodoxy the two are complementary means of one organic whole through which the Spirit of God speaks.
Second, in biblical interpretation the Reformers placed the Scriptures above the church. They insisted that the Bible interprets itself, and through the Holy Spirit, God instructs its readers in a direct and individual manner rather than binding their consciences to the supposedly reliable teaching of the church. It is precisely this view that elevates Scripture above the church and actually encourages private interpretation that the Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky once called "the sin of the Reformation."
Instead, Orthodoxy believes that the church stands above the Scriptures, which is why, as noted, Orthodox believers agree to "accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation that was and is held by the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, our Mother." In this Orthodox view, Scripture stands within rather than above the church, and to distinguish its authority from that of the church is a mistake of method.
Why not join?
There are many basic beliefs that Orthodoxy and evangelicalism hold in common: the inspiration of Scripture; the two natures of Christ, the finality and uniqueness of Christ's death on the cross, the resurrection, and our future hope of eternal life. It is no small thing for us to hold in common all the early, Christian creeds.
Moreover, evangelicals have some important lessons to learn from Orthodoxy. For example, it is understandable that evangelicals feel that the Orthodox doctrine of the church is too "high." But perhaps our theology of the church is too "low," much lower than our Protestant forebears would have it. In the opening pages of Book IV of Calvin's Institutes, for example, Calvin refers twice to the famous words of Cyprian (d. 258)so Catholic-sounding to our earsthat "you cannot have God as your Father without the Church as your Mother" (IV.1.1, 4).
Or again, it is one thing to guard the doctrine of sola scriptura, but quite another to ignore or disdain two thousand years of tradition; surely there is a dangerous arrogance in imagining that we do not need to listen to the wealth of biblical wisdom from the patristic writers.
Put another way, we must invoke the spirit of irenic disagreement in the formula: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity." The genius of this principle is that it allows us to disagree with other believers, even vehemently so, yet in an edifying fashion with a degree of theological modesty and a perspective that seeks a deeper consensus within the bounds of true faith.
But this really begs another question: "Essential" for what? Do we mean essential for salvation? For church membership? For employment at a seminary? For taking Communion together? Essential for clergy to pray together, to talk, and to encourage one another in Christ? When we realize that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle or a matter of conscience, then we are freed to engage fully people with whom we actually have profound differences without compromising our own theological commitments.
Yet, at times there are questions of conscience and matters of principle. Theologically, just what is at stake in the differences between Protestant and Orthodox theology? In fact, much of what is basic to Christianity: the nature, sources, and interpretation of God's revelation to us, the meaning of the church and its sacraments, the doctrines of sin and salvation, and even how one enters the kingdom of God. On these points evangelical and Orthodox thinking diverge in significant ways.
To my friend who asked why I had not converted to Orthodoxy, the answer was surprisingly easy. I responded by writing back: "Because I am committed to key distinctives of the Protestant evangelical tradition."
Daniel B. Clendenin is a graduate staff member for InterVarsity at Stanford University and author of Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective and Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader (both published by Baker).
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