Why Be an Orthodox Christian?
by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas - Professor of Orthodox Theology, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Source: Hellenic Chronicle - Date: March 6th, 1997
I recently read an article in an Evangelical Christian magazine with
the title "Why I'm Not Orthodox." It was very negative and biased against our church.
Could you comment on it? G.J.K., Tampa, FL
The article you are referring to was written by Daniel B. Clendenin,
who works for a Protestant evangelistic organization at a major American University. He
spent four years as a visiting professor at Moscow State University and has written two
books about Orthodoxy, one of which consciously describes Orthodox Christianity from a
Western Christian perspective. In the article you write about (approximately 6,500 words),
published early in January this year in the magazine Christianity Today the author is
writing to other Evangelical Protestants in an apparent response to the rather visible
defection of thousands of Evangelical Protestants in recent years to Orthodoxy.
The Content of the Article
The article begins by noting that in recent history, both Orthodox and
Evangelical Protestants have had an antagonistic attitude toward each other. The article
then shows why it is important for Evangelical Protestants to be concerned about the
Orthodox Church. In support of that concern are the recent large group conversions to
Orthodoxy in the United States by former Evangelical Protestants, the numbers of Orthodox
in the world and the U.S.A., the dominance of Orthodoxy in some countries of the world,
the appeal of the richness of Orthodox worship to Protestants, the claim to hold the true
faith and beliefs of Christianity by the Orthodox, and the common interests of both in
opposing the secularizing of the Christian faith in contemporary religious thought and
This is followed by a fairly accurate presentation the Orthodox Church
by the author for his Evangelical Protestant readers (with some exceptions). He describes
the organization, the history of the Orthodox Church with emphasis on the Great Schism
(1054-1204) between Orthodoxy and the Western Church and the differences which caused it,
emphasizing the Roman Catholic doctrines of the Papacy and the Holy Spirit (filioque).
This is followed by a section on "The Splendors of Worship" where the
Protestant approach to worship and Holy Tradition are contrasted to the Orthodox way. Here
the author argues that Protestants do not need, nor do they find necessary, conversion to
Orthodoxy to gain the values of worship and tradition.
The central section of the article in its criticism is headed
"Orthodoxy Versus the Orthodox." Here a sharp line of difference between Evangelical
Protestantism and Orthodoxy is drawn. The first of the topics discussed is the
understanding of the Church, in which the themes of exclusivity, regeneration, and
mission are sketched out. The second deals with the Sacraments, especially Baptism, the
Eucharist, and how one comes to salvation. The third part discusses icons and the fourth
part treats the topic of Scripture and tradition (note the small "t") and their
relationship with the Church.
The final section of the article is an affirmation on the part of the
author that he does not intend to convert to Orthodoxy because he is "committed to key
distinctives of the Protestant evangelical tradition."
As a whole, the article seeks to make the author's case in an
ecumenically sensitive manner, while he criticizes the Orthodox positions and defends the
Evangelical Protestant positions. In general, the discussion is conducted in the spirit
of ecumenical dialogue. The comments here and in what follows are offered in the same
spirit. This column can only begin the response. It will be continued next week.
The Main Points of Difference
A careful reading of the article from an Orthodox Christian point of
view reveals immediately several reactions. Though, clearly, the author is much more
informed than most Protestants about Orthodox Christianity, in many places the knowledge
that he has is incomplete. And in some important cases it is simply erroneous. In the end,
the conclusion (quoted above) was foreordained. We have here an article which at heart,
just compares two different understandings of Christianity, and predictably opts for one
of them. I believe that we should look more carefully at these differences.
Here are some of the major themes that surface and which need to be
addressed carefully from an Orthodox Christian perspective. In some cases, the purpose
is to correct mis-understandings; in others to point to weaknesses in the Evangelical
Protestant tradition; in others to point fundamental errors from an Orthodox Christian
perspective. There are ten themes we will look at. They are:
+Holy Tradition and Scripture
+Scripture and the Church
+Sacraments and Personal Salvation
+Orthodox "Fullness" and Protestant "Minimalism"
+Liturgical Worship and Word-centered Worship
+Icons, Preaching, and Singing
+Mission and Proselytizing
+"Cultural Religion" and "The Church in the World"
+In Spite All; A Shared Tradition.
There are many more issues raised by the article that could receive an
Orthodox response. Today, we will start with "Tradition and Scripture" and continue with
the topics above next week, without introduction. Readers might want to clip and save this
week's column so as to able to refer back to it.
Because the average "Religious Question Box" is about one fifth the
size of the article we are discussing, the responses will have to be very brief and direct
Like Protestants, the Orthodox Church also rejects "the traditions of
men." These are teachings and practices which violate the true Christian teaching and life.
But how do we know what is true Christian teaching and life? We look at Holy Tradition,
that is the experience, life and ethos of the whole Church in its fullness. Included in
Holy Tradition, and in a place of privilege is Holy Scripture. Consequently, treating
Holy Tradition as different than, or worse, contrary to Scripture is incomprehensible to
the Orthodox. For Protestants to do that is to create and knock down a straw man.
Holy Tradition includes elements as far ranging as the content of
missionary preaching, hymns, worship content and practices, the writings of Church
Fathers, the decisions of Church Councils, practices of spiritual and moral discipline.
Historically, it is impossible to extricate Holy Tradition from Scripture and Scripture
from Holy Tradition.
Thousands of Christians, believed in Christ, became members of his
body, the Church, lived Christian lives and often witnessed to their faith by dying for
it, long before there was anything like the New Testament that we read today. Scholars
know that in the first few centuries after Christ local churches usually had only a few
of the twenty seven books of what we now call the New Testament. Yet, they were believers
who lived the whole Christian faith. Even the New Testament witnesses to this: St. Paul
wrote to already existing Churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, and so on.
The striking truth is that it was Holy Tradition that created the New
Testament; not the other way around. When Protestants reject or minimize Holy Tradition,
the consequence is that they lose the ground and historical source out of which the New
Testament came into being. The tragic result, from the Orthodox perspective, is that they
thus also lose the witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church as a guide to
understanding the Scripture itself.
The end of this is the doctrine of the private interpretation of the
Scriptures, supposedly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, staunchly held by all
Protestants. Yet, in Orthodox perspective, this doctrine does not seem to lead to truth,
but to conflicting private and ecclesial division. Since the Reformation in the 16th
century, church body after church body has come into existence. Today, there exist
hundreds of Protestant sects, bodies, churches and movements, all proclaiming to preach
the truth, with multitudes of conflicting doctrines, church orders and structures,
worship traditions and ethical teachings. This can hardly constitute the One, Holy,
Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.
From an Orthodox perspective, this is precisely the result of the
separation by Protestants of Scripture from Holy Tradition. It is, one might say, the
fundamental error of Protestantism. For, as we shall see next week, what Protestants and
all Christians identify as the New Testament, is precisely the creation of the Church, not
the other way around
The important point to remember about the Bible and the New Testament
in particular, is that it is a product of the Church, not the other way around. In the
first years of Christianity, many writings about Jesus appeared and circulated. Often
attributed to Apostolic writers, these books not only were falsely titled, but they also
contained false teachings. The authentic scriptural writings were recognized as such in
the Church, and they alone were used in the Church's worship, preaching and teaching.
Eventually, there came a need to define which were authentic and which were not. This
led to the formation of the "Canon," or the list of books which were, in fact, inspired
Scripture in the experience and life of the Church "Canon" is a Greek word meaning
originally, a "measuring rod" or "ruler." It later took on the meaning of an "approved
list or catalogue." Between 170 A.D. and 220 A.D. the four Gospels the Acts of the
Apostles, the thirteen letters attributed to St. Paul were formally acknowledged as
"canonical," by the Church. Within a century after that, the New Testament as we know it
today was formally acknowledged as the canonical text. But it should be noted that what
made the books canonical was their inspiration by the Holy Spirit and their use in the
life of the Church as "inspired texts." It was the Church that acknowledged and certified
them as such. Thus, the Church is the author of the New Testament Scriptures and it is
Holy Tradition that is the guarantor of the Scriptures. Otherwise, what books are actually
Scripture would be determined by subjective opinion.
Scripture and the Church
Often the Orthodox Church is charged with not being "Scriptural
enough." That is a false charge, since every worship service of the Church is permeated
through and through with the Bible. So are the writings of the Church Fathers and the
Canons of the Church. The Bible is inextricably bound up with the life and tradition of
the Church. I would agree, however, that Orthodox Christians need to read the Bible much
more. The important thing is that the Bible be read in harmony with the Church's mind set
and tradition which guarantees the fullness of the truth with the guidance of the Holy
Spirit. The Bible itself speaks of "the household of God, which is the church of the
living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). Conversely, the Bible
is a constant guide to the Church: " All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for
teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of
God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The point is, that
the Church and Scripture are inextricably interconnected.
In the Orthodox Church's teaching, the whole life and work of Jesus
Christ was for the salvation of all of humankind. Central to the saving work of Jesus
Christ was His Incarnation. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, was sent into
the world to take on human nature (body and soul). He became thus, through His Birth of
the Virgin Mary one divine/human person (in Greek "Theanthropos"). His saving work was
fulfilled by means of His teaching, healing, guidance, suffering, death on the Cross and
His Resurrection from the dead. All this, He did for all of humanity of all ages. This
salvation is made available to every person through the Church which Christ brought to
fullness by sending the Holy Spirit upon His disciples at Pentecost. Belief in the Christ
and His work and trust in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is essential for each of
us to appropriate for ourselves the saving work of Jesus Christ. This brings us into the
household of God, the Church. It is there that the fullness of the faith (Orthodoxy as
true belief), and the fullness of true worship (Orthodoxy as true worship) and the
fullness of true Christian living (Orthodoxy as Orthopraxia) are to be found in their
Sacraments and Personal Salvation
The tradition of the Church and the Bible are absolutely insistent on
the necessity of the Sacraments for life in the Church and the salvation of individual
persons. In His dialogue with Nikodemos, Jesus pointedly said, "Truly, truly, I say to
you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God"
(John 3:5). When the Apostle Philip explained the Christian faith to the Ethiopian
government official, the immediate response was Baptism. The Bible tells us that Philip
"told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some
water, and the eunuch said, 'See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?'
And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and
the eunuch, and he baptized him" (Acts 8:35-38).
So also, the Eucharist is essential for salvation. Jesus declared
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his
blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal
life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood
is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him"
The sacramental way is at the heart of our appropriation of Christ's
saving work for ourselves, according to the Bible. But, it is not magic. Personal response
in faith, practice, trust, and belief are also necessary. What Protestants call "accepting
Christ, and making a personal commitment" is what Orthodox call "repentance." Orthodox
Christians know that they must continuously repent, because when we become members of the
household of God, which is the Church, at whatever age, we still must grow in faith and
obedience for the rest of our lives. Repentance is not a once in a life-time, or once in a
while behavior. It is the permanent essential stance of the Christian. In the Orthodox
Divine Liturgy and every service of worship, Orthodox Christians hear, "...let us commit
ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God."
While Protestants focus primarily on the individual, the Orthodox
Church recognizes that we are never alone and by ourselves as Christians. We live our
Christian lives as members of the Body of Christ, the Church: "let us commit ourselves
and one another and our whole life to Christ our God."
Orthodox "Fullness" and Protestant "Minimalism" Evangelical Protestants,
from the Orthodox perspective tend to reduce the meaning of salvation to one thing,
the stating in words that one "Accepts Jesus Christ as Personal Savior." From what has
been said above, in the Orthodox perspective, there is, indeed, the essential need to
believe in Christ and His saving work personally. But this is not the only thing that is
needed. Focused exclusively on a juridical (forensic) reading of Romans, it is too
legalistic and somewhat formalistic. What we hear is "Say these specific words and you
are saved. If you don't say the words, you aren't saved." The Orthodox holds to a much
broader view of salvation, based on the whole of the Bible.
The Orthodox Church teaches that God the Father, through Jesus Christ
and in the Holy Spirit saved humanity from sin, evil and death. No Orthodox Christian
teacher ever taught that we alone save ourselves. Salvation is from God as a gift to
humankind (grace, " charis "). Once that is made real through Baptism through which we
share in the death and resurrection of Christ, we enter into the new life as Christians.
St. Paul said "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ
was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life"
From that point, the Bible tells us to "work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good
pleasure" (Philippians 2:12). Salvation is not an instant thing; it is a process.
The point of all this is to affirm the richness and multi-dimensional
aspects of salvation. We have been saved by Christ's work of salvation; once baptized and
sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ, we are in the process of being saved; when the
Kingdom comes in its fullness, we shall be saved. In Orthodoxy the fullness of the
Christian Faith is maintained.
Liturgical Worship and Word-centered Worship
One of the criticisms that Evangelical Protestants make of the Orthodox
Church is that the Church has substituted the simplicity of the Gospel with an overload of
liturgical practices. This view ignores the reality of the situation. The Apostles were
Jews and we know from the book of Acts that they participated in the liturgical worship
of the Jerusalem Temple. This included things like incense, animal sacrifices, priesthood
and specialized buildings. In addition to this, they added the Christian sacraments,
creeds, the singing of hymns and chanting of prayers. Some of the earliest Christian hymns
and creeds are to be found in the very pages of the New Testament. As Christians increased
in numbers, rooms, and then buildings were set apart and decorated for liturgical worship.
In the ancient city of Dura Europos in Syria there is the earliest surviving Christian
Church dated at about 240 A.D. It had a raised platform for the altar at the East end and
a baptistry. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) describes what Orthodox Christians call the
Divine Liturgy including all of the essential elements of the service as conducted today.
We learn even from Pagan witnesses that this Sacrament was conducted every Sunday.
Included in this worship was preaching of the Word of God. In the sixteenth century, the
Protestant movement removed the altar for the Sacramental worship of God from the most
important place in the Church and replaced it with the pulpit. The Sacrament of the
Eucharist became secondary and preaching became primary.
The point of these comments is to show that this was an entirely new
phenomenon in Christianity. It was not, as is often claimed, a return to a pristine,
non-liturgical Christianity (which never existed), but the creation of something new.
Icons, Preaching, and Singing
In the article we are discussing, the author expresses the view that
the Orthodox Church holds that revelation comes primarily through icons as an exclusively
aesthetic approach. In contrast, Protestants, it is claimed, emphasize the Word of God.
From an Orthodox perspective this is a distortion. As we have already noted the Bible
permeates the whole life of the Church. There is no way to read the Fathers of the Church
without being immersed in the Bible. Scholars have pointed out that if the New Testament
were lost, it could be essentially reconstructed from the writings of the Church Fathers
of the first four centuries.
Several years ago a Priest of the Anitochian Archdiocese, Fr.
Constantine Nasr, published a book with the title The Bible in the Liturgy in which
practically every sentence in the Divine Liturgy is matched with passages from the Bible.
The article writer also forgot that the Services of the Orthodox Church are composed of
hymns and prayers. In these hymns both the concepts, and the phrases of those hymns and
prayers are in large part either quotations or reflections on the Scripture.
It is, of course, true that the icons embody the teaching of the Faith.
They have been called "the books of the unlettered." For many centuries few people knew
how to read. The icons witnessed the Gospel to them. But recently, a convert to the
Orthodox Church, Jim Forest, wrote a beautiful book with the title Praying With Icons
(Orbis Books) in which the reader learns how icons can enrich the spiritual life.
The point is that the Orthodox Church addresses the whole person: the
intellectual, the emotional, the aesthetic, the spiritual. The Christian Faith is
presented by as many means as are available to humanity, but in a balanced, holistic way.
Mission and Proselytizing
The author of the article explained that the Orthodox oppose
"proselytism." This is understood as going into areas where a church is dominant and
trying to make Christians of that church body abandon their faith and join another. The
"evangelization" of Russia after seventy years of atheistic Communism is one of the main
issues. I am quoted in the article as criticizing these activities. The author responds
by pointing out that half of Russia is not Christian. This, he thinks, justifies sending
American missionaries to Russia. Many missionaries in Russia try to convert Orthodox
people to become Protestant. Strange. Half of America is not Christian, also. And
Protestant Americans are leaving their churches in large numbers. Isn't this a more
likely target for American missionaries?
The reality, however, is different. It is based on the existence in
Evangelical Christianity of a forensic, legal, word and phrase based interpretation of
expressing belief in Christ. It is supposed, as we have seen, that one is "saved" by a
one-time repetition of belief in Jesus Christ as personal savior. If this formula is not
repeated, one is not saved. In the Orthodox perspective, this is a narrow understanding of
Cultural Religion" and "The Church in the World"
The other substantive criticism in the article is that Orthodoxy is
merely a cultural religion, identified with the world in which it finds itself and
therefore of little value from the point of the Gospel message. How should we respond to
The Church was involved in mission from the very beginnings of
Christianity. In the Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, its method was to preach the
Gospel in the language of the people, translate the Scriptures and the Holy Services in
their language and "incarnate" the Gospel in the culture of the people. That is why
Orthodoxy today is identified with the ethnic cultures of dozens of peoples of Eastern
In contrast, the Western Church for centuries imposed a dead language,
Latin; on all the people it converted. Protestantism did make the Scriptures available to
the people, but ever since has been struggling with the relationship of the Gospel with
culture, society and the nation. We know what too close an identity with the culture of a
nation can do: look at the "German Church" during the time of Hitler. But, in our own
times, in our own country, look at the "Moral Majority." Think about the connections
scholars see between American Protestantism, and laissez faire capitalism, racism,
"America Firsters," and nineteenth century American imperialism.
This is no time for stone throwing among Christians. Nearly all
Christian bodies, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant have some dark aspects in their
histories. All of us, in one or another fashion, have our weak points.
In Spite All; A Shared Tradition
I would rather be positive about the relationships between Orthodox
Christianity and Evangelical Protestantism. When one looks out on what is going on in
many church bodies, Orthodox Christians and Evangelicals seem to share much in common. In
Mainline Protestantism today, the criteria for thought and doctrine are often no longer
the Bible and the traditional doctrines of the Church about God, Christ, and the Holy
Spirit. Rather, spates of so-called "experience-based" theologies have come to the fore:
political, feminist, liberation, gay theologies; race-based theologies (black, Asian,
indigenous peoples); ecumenical, cross-cultural, pantheistic, and inter-religious
In all this confusion, the differences between Orthodox and Evangelical
views on revelation regarding Scripture and Holy Tradition seem tame. Both believe that
God is one -a Holy Trinity of persons- Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that the Father has
revealed Himself fully in Jesus Christ; that Jesus Christ is one Person, fully God and
fully man; that He alone is the Savior of the World through His Incarnation, Death, and
Resurrection; that the Holy Spirit brings us into fellowship and relationship with God in
a new life of redemption and holy living; that there is eternal life. All of these beliefs
came out of the teachings of the early Church after much struggle with heretical false
teachings. In these beliefs we are one, because both Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants
believe that these teachings mean what they say. Neither Orthodox nor Evangelical
Protestant Christians water these doctrines down. Nor do they "re-interpret" them, to
cease meaning what they originally meant.
Our differences remain, to be sure. But we have a common basis to
build upon for fuller understanding of the truth of the Christian Faith.