Smells and bells, ancient chants and priests with long robes and beards, people crossing themselves and kissing icons, an atmosphere filled with an “air of antiquity and apparent changelessness.” That is what one observes upon first sight in his or her encounter with the Eastern Orthodox Church. A sense that he or she is visiting an “exotic” country or, to use the expression of an eminent Orthodox theologian, “a new and unknown world.”1
Why, then, should we bother exploring it?
There are several ways to answer this question. One is that Eastern Orthodoxy is either the primary or a significant religious context for many countries in the world. From Russia to Greece and from Ethiopia to Egypt, evangelical believers engage daily with some form of it. It is therefore important to know more about it for missiological and ministry reasons.
The influence of Eastern Orthodoxy, however, is not only defined by geography. In the context of a call for “retrieval”2 of the great tradition, and as a reaction to some of the shortcomings of evangelicalism, many evangelicals “turn east.”3 Concepts like “theosis,” (the process by which humans are united to God) to give an example, are becoming quite popular among evangelicals. As one Orthodox scholar observes, “Orthodox theology has developed from an unknown commodity into a respectable minority theology.”4 However, it is often the case that evangelicals approach it in a piecemeal and fragmentary fashion, not taking the entirety into consideration. It is important therefore, for theological reasons, to study this tradition in a more holistic way.
Finally, one last reason is that we simply cannot ignore an ancient Christian tradition. No matter our disagreements, which at times are profound, we need to approach it with humility as we consider important concerns and emphases that Eastern Orthodoxy may have preserved and that we may have either lost or not been attentive to.
What, then, is Eastern Orthodoxy?
Due to a limitation of space, we will focus on what we believe to be the heart and center of Eastern Orthodox theology and practice. Before answering this question, an important clarification needs to be made, which is that the Orthodox are not Roman Catholics. The fact that both have priests wearing robes and follow high liturgical rites does not mean that they are the same. It is wrong, therefore, to project onto them what we know about Roman Catholicism. With this clarification in mind, let us proceed to describe what we believe is at the core of Eastern Orthodoxy, namely the doctrine of the church.
Bulgakov, a prominent Orthodox theologian, starts his book The Orthodox Church with a chapter on “The Church.”5 He opens by stating that “Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth.” We need to bear in mind that, according to their approach, there is no real distinction between a visible and an invisible aspect of the church, which is a departure from biblical, Reformation theology. For the Orthodox, the visible manifestation of the church is the only expression of it. Thus, they believe that they are the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” The adjective “apostolic” here carries a very specific meaning in this context. It does not simply refer to the church that was founded by the Apostles or is grounded in the Apostolic teaching. It means that they are the literal and actual successors of the Apostles by virtue of tracing a line of bishops back to the era of the church fathers. This contrasts, of course, with the Reformed understanding that being Apostolic means adhering to the Apostolic teachings contained in Scripture. Bulgakov explains, “After the Apostles the communication of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church became the prerogative of the hierarchy, that is of the episcopate, with its presbyters and deacons.”6 This Orthodox understanding can be observed in the way various theological topics revolve around this ecclesiological axis.
First, let us consider the issue of revelation and authority. For the Orthodox, the church is the depository of truth and of dogma. She is the possessor of the “living tradition” as the Holy Spirit moves and works in her. So for them, the dichotomy of Scripture and tradition does not make very much sense. This is because Scripture is seen “as tradition,”—that is, as part of the tradition of the church. Bulgakov even speaks of the “Church as tradition.” The church “knows” the truth and has the correct dogma, which she expresses in her kerygma, meaning “proclamation,” when it is needed and through various means. The Orthodox believe that this “living tradition,” which in a mystical way resides in the church, has been articulated and expressed in things like the Bible, the decrees of the ecumenical councils, liturgical texts and hymns, the writings of the Early Church Fathers, and even in the icons—a topic which would require more space to explore than we have here.
The church is also central in the Orthodox understanding of soteriology. Salvation is actualized and pursued only in the context of the church. St. Cyprian, a third century bishop, famously said, “No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.” John Calvin quotes Cyprian and refers to the imagery and reality of the motherhood of the church throughout his Institutes. For the Orthodox, however, this phrase means something very specific. Salvation is synergistic and sacramental and, most importantly, ecclesial. When talking about synergism, once again one needs to be careful not to read into it the controversy between Catholics and Protestants concerning the faith and works dichotomy. Their notion of salvation may best be understood as an ongoing journey, one that takes place in the context of the church. In their view, salvation starts with the sacrament of baptism, where participants are regenerated and cleansed from the effects of “ancestral sin.” With the sacrament of chrismation, participants receive the Holy Spirit and start their journey in the context of the church. It is there where they can confess their sins and receive forgiveness through the sacrament of confession and, most importantly, receive Jesus Christ and His nourishment and strength for their journey through their participation in the sacrament of Eucharist. Being on a journey, the only thing they can claim for their state of salvation is this: that they are on a journey. In that context, there is no real place for any understanding of salvation that includes justification by faith alone and no space for assurance and certainty of one’s status before God. These are significant and non-negotiable points of departure from a biblical understanding of faith and assurance.
The Eastern Orthodox understanding of the centrality of the church can be a useful and needed challenge to us evangelicals, as many times we tend to have a very individualistic understanding of salvation, in which the church plays a peripheral and optional role. On the other hand, Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology, in which the church is identified solely and exclusively with only one visible expression of it, namely the Orthodox one, presents an insurmountable obstacle to meaningful interaction. Moreover, the lack of emphasis on crucial Protestant and Reformed doctrines such as the priesthood of every believer, justification by faith alone, and monergism result in a very different sort of religious experience that tends toward a synergistic understanding of salvation with no sense of certainty and assurance, empty ritualism, and ecclesial authoritarianism.
- Khomiakov as quoted by Timothy Ware in The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books,1997), 15.↩
- I take this call as something positive. See for example, Kenneth J. Stewart, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Crisis (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2017)↩
- Rowan Williams, Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021).↩
- Paul Gavrilyuk, “The Orthodox Renaissance,” First Things (Dec. 2012), 35↩
- Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1988), 1.↩
- Ibid., 40.↩