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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 practice.

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
  • +Appropriating Salvation
  • +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.

    Appropriating Salvation

    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 wholeness.

    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" (John 6:53-56).

    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" (Romans 6:4).

    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 salvation.

    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 this?

    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 Europe.

    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 theologies.

    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.