13-5 Orthodox Church Doctrines
We can do well to point out some essential similarities between our approach and that of Orthodoxy, and then seek to bring our contacts from that common position forward into ground which will be new for them.
13-5.1 The Second Coming
The Eastern Christians look forward with great longing to the return of Jesus Christ; they expect the new heavens and the new earth with a glorified, deified mankind. This aspect of Orthodox theology is something which we can play upon. We too look forward to the Lord’s return.
Orthodoxy stands for truth; and we can plug in to this immediately. We too stand for truth. But the problem is that for the Orthodox, truth is only to be found in the past dogmas of the church. We need to inspire in our contacts a spirit of discovery, of excitement about personal Bible study, instead of nonsense like the following: " The Church's decisions also carry force across time; and for this reason, the decisions of the Holy Fourth Ecumenical Synod are of such binding character that the Church can make no disparate decisions without refuting Herself. In keeping with this spirit, the phrase, 'We now clearly understand...,' has no place among Orthodox. The classical Patristic dictum, 'Following the Holy Fathers...,' is the only one which expresses how Orthodox understand themselves" -The Non-Chalcedonian Heretics, by the Holy Monastery of Saint Gregory (Monastery of Gregoriou), Mount Athos, Greece. Translated and published by the Centre for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna, CA (1996).
Yet despite this attention to ‘truth’, it is noteworthy that it is almost impossible to find a definition of the concept of the Orthodox church. One of their theologians asks: “Who can give a definition of the divine being? Who can express clearly what is a dear and caring mother? It is the same with the church”. This lack of definition stands in stark contrast to the concept which we have of a “system of truth revealed in the Bible”, expressed as we have it something like the Statement of Faith or books or a correspondence course. Again, we have to lead our contacts onwards from this basic interest in ‘truth’ towards actually finding out for themselves what that truth is; not merely assenting to the value and need for ‘truth’, but actually seriously setting themselves to find it from the actual words of Scripture. We do well to remind our contacts of the simple statement of Jesus: “Thy word is truth” (Jn. 17:17).
Orthodoxy places great emphasis upon doctrine, and is eager to condemn any who deviate from their teachings even on relatively minor matters. The language they use is often unChristian, and we can draw this to our contacts’ attention. Consider these statements from an Orthodox website: “In practical terms, this declaration has opened the road to union with the non-Chalcedonian heretics , who have in no way renounced their heresy or accepted the decrees of the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Ocumenical Synods. Anyone can understand why, according to the tenth Apostolic Canon, one who comes into communion with a Priest rightly deposed by the Church is himself deprived of communion, since he has " trodden upon the Church of God." Thus, it is important that we not shirk our responsibility with regard to God and with regard to the holy Orthodox Truth, in searching out excuses that are wrongly based on the individualism of contemporary man”. We can readily agree that doctrine matters. But for different reasons; because the Bible is the word of God. Where, we can ask, do the various Bishops and previous Orthodox writers take their authority from? Is this not following man-made religion, just as Hinduism and Buddhism have done, endlessly striving to correctly interpret the interpretations of the interpretations of previous church writers?
The idea of an exclusive fellowship is common within Orthodoxy. Again, to quote from one of their websites: “By contrast, it is one who opposes heresy and separates himself from it who truly demonstrates that he has endeavoured to preserve the unity of the Church. For canonical separation in such an instance has as its object the defence of the Orthodox faith and the preservation of the unity of Orthodoxy itself”. This is tough stuff, akin to some of the more extremo statements one hears from some Protestant splinter groups. The purpose of separation is not because we have to maintain unity. The true church cannot be divided, for there is only “one body”. Truth can never in that sense be ‘lost’, and can scarcely be ‘maintained’ merely by aggressively separating from the apostate. We need to explain the real meaning of fellowship- a sharing in common. If we know the real, true Christ, and are baptized into His body, we are in fellowship with all others who are in His body. For there is only one body. We are in one family with them; for the true brothers and sisters of Jesus are whoever hear His words and do them. So the sense of fellowship between true believers is a purely natural process; again, tell our contacts about the inexplicable unity there is at Bible Schools held in the Orthodox nations, especially Russia and the Ukraine. The unity of the church / ecclesia is developed naturally, because we all believe the same things. Yes, this is why we separate from wrong teaching, but it’s a natural outcome of our unity together. It tends to happen naturally, and certainly without the vicious condemnation meted out by the Orthodox. Maybe tell the contacts about cases of those who have parted company with us, so they see that even in such cases the Spirit of Christ prevails amongst us.
Doctrine, however, and apostasy, are defined in terms of breaking with the traditions of the elders, rather than in relation to Biblical statements. Consider how one Orthodox website condemns the Orthodox Church of Finland (largely comprised of the Russian population in the border area]: “The unity of Orthodoxy, expressed in the common celebration of Pascha, is ruptured by this Church, which is self-condemned by inviting the severe sanctions appointed by the canons (the seventh Apostolic Canon [which deposes any clergyman for deviating from the universal formula for the celebration of Pascha-Tr.]; the minutes of the First Oecumenical Synod [which reiterate Canon VII of the Apostles-Tr.]; and Canon I of the Council of Antioch [which, in addition to reiterating Canon VII of the Apostles, calls those who resist the rules for the common celebration of Pascha " alien" to the Church-Tr.])”. Apostasy is defined as departing from the minutes of meetings of previous Bishops! We need to stress the implications of believing that the Bible which we hold in our hands is indeed the word of God.
Yet the Orthodox do recognize that doctrine affects life in practice: “the dogmas express the revelation and the life which the Church has and they also cure man and lead him towards deification. They are spiritual road signs. In this sense we can say that the dogmas save man and sanctify him. This happens
because they cure him and give him the right orientation on his way towards God” (Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, The Mind of the Orthodox Church). Again, one can play on this. We agree that Biblical doctrine- not Orthodox dogma- does indeed transform human life in practice, and this is our whole point- that doctrine is important for this reason. But mere assent to dogma or doctrine will not save anyone; they must be lived out in practice. And again, we can give examples of this- e.g. believing in a Jesus who had human nature inspires us to faith in prayer (Heb. 4:15,16), whereas a pale faced, iconic, haloed Christ of Orthodoxy has little inspiration for us in practice.
13-5.4 Gnosis And The Orthodox Church
However, the Orthodox emphasis upon doctrine disguises a very basic problem which we have to point out to them. The Orthodox Saint John of Damascus wrote: “God then, is Infinite and Incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about Him is His Infinity and His Incomprehensibility”. Straight away we see that the idea of truth and ever being able to attain to “the truth” has gone out of the window. Yet “the truth” is a fairly common New Testament term. We need to make it clear that we do not think that that if people acquire all intellectual knowledge they will have knowledge of God. The Orthodox stress that this is the Western approach to theology which they despise; and in a sense we can agree with them. Knowing God is about having a relationship with Him based upon that knowledge, not just knowing facts about Him. From an Orthodox perspective, true 'theology' is spiritual knowledge or
gnosis - knowledge of a realm far superior to intellectual knowledge. However, whilst we agree that we cannot make knowledge of God a function of the intellect, we also have to show our disagreement with the Orthodox perspective that the intellect can only know about God, it is incapable of knowing God. It is possible to know God- you can find many Bible verses that say so. And the issue of that knowledge is in a life lived with Him. Much of what the Orthodox say about gnosis is critiqued in John’s letters. But it may well be that the average Orthodox contact we have isn’t going to be helped by our bringing this point out. But some may be- for I observe that the Orthodox are increasingly teaching their members more of what they are supposed to believe. “The great challenge for Orthodoxy in the near future is not to find new and better ways of adapting to the dominant culture by assimilation and thus becoming " relevant" ; the challenge is to establish and maintain genuine continuity with the Saints and Fathers of the past. This means more education, for ignorance of the Faith among many Orthodox today is appalling and is the single greatest factor in the crisis we are now facing” -Fr. Alexey Young, Book Review of Facing East, in Orthodox America (Feb., 1997).
Robin Amis goes so far as to say that “the schism between the two churches [Eastern and Western] was at root a schism between head and heart” (A Different Christianity: Early Christian Esotericism
and Modern Thought, p. 29).This is I think to some degree true, in that the Orthodox churches are more emotional and less oriented towards things like Bible study. The celebration of Easter and other festivals in Russia involves, from what I have seen over the years, a lot of very genuine from-the-heart tears by genuine Orthodox members. We need to strike a balance here. We can’t just preach cold doctrine and expect people to accept it as if we are merely getting them to sign up for a new theological position- when most of them aren’t even into theology at all. There has to be an element of passion and emotion in our appeal. The doctrines must have meaning in practice; as Robert Roberts wrote, “If a man is not emotionally moved by the truth, he is not of the truth”.
This focus on the heart rather than the head in Orthodoxy is well presented in the following quote:
" It is not enough to be acquainted with the texts and to know how to
draw from them quotes and arguments. One must possess the theology
of the Fathers from within. Intuition is perhaps more important
for this than erudition, for intuition alone revives their writings
and makes them a witness. It is only from within that we can perceive
and distinguish what (actually) is a catholic testimony from what
would be merely theological opinion, hypothesis, interpretation,
or theory" -Fr. Georges Florovsky, " The Ways of Russian
Theology" in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky,
Aspects of Church History (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1987), pp. 191,
192. Now again, we must strike a balance. It is true enough that
mere “quotes and arguments” of the type that traditionally we have
used in their preaching to fellow Westerners will not be very powerful
when dealing with Orthodox contacts. But on the other hand, we have
to make the point, surely agreeable by most of our hearers, that
we can’t just let our feelings / intuition guide us alone; or else
we will end up believing whatever we ‘feel’ is right. We will have
become the authority... and as we must constantly stress, the Bible
alone is to be our authority.
13-5.5 Resistance Of Pagan Influence
The Orthodox insist that during the West's 'Dark Ages', Christians
in the West lost awareness of the highest realm of knowledge. In
the thirteenth century, the West was reintroduced to
Greek pagan philosophy through its contact with the Arab culture.
Unfortunately, the Orthodox claim, these pagan philosophers were
embraced in a way the Christian East had never done. Now here of
course we would have plenty of common ground initially. We too strongly
believe that Christianity got corrupted through pagan philosophy.
But what to do about this problem? Our solution is to get back to
the Bible, thanking God that the text has been miraculously preserved.
The Orthodox solution is to turn to their Bishops and traditions.
We can easily show that immortal soul, Jesus born on December 25th,
the trinity etc. were all pagan ideas brought into Christianity.
13-5.6 Human And Divine Nature
Bear in mind that one of the main initial differences between the Eastern [Orthodox] churches and the Western church was that the East followed the teaching of Irenaeus, and the West that of Augustine. Augustine had the idea that both the world and our own natures were inherently evil and wicked, deserving to be destroyed; the wrath of God was against a baby from the moment the foetus developed. Irenaeus, by contrast, saw humanity as created in God’s image, who could realize their potential by responding to God’s word. It’s as well to tell folks this- because most of them won’t know it. And to make the point that actually, we agree with Irenaeus. We’re not meaningless pieces of filth existing on this planet, with no chance of rising above “our station and our place”. Indeed, paradoxically, it was Eastern European Communism which veered towards that position. Instead, we really are created in God’s image, and we really can be transformed into the image of His Son. In this we can disagree with the West and agree with the East. It’s a significant point, worth making to those from an Eastern Orthodox background.
Another tension between Eastern and Western theology is the idea of “deification”- that people can in some sense be raised to Divine nature. The West strongly rejected that. And although Eastern Orthodoxy took it too far, it is still true that our teaching about God manifestation in persons is far closer to the original Eastern ideas than to the Western ones- and again, it’s a point worth making. That we can truly become God manifest right now, and rise up to Divine nature in the future, after the pattern of our Lord. One Orthodox writer put it like this: “…This does not mean that human beings are able to become God in his essence. But it does mean that they can become “gods” by grace even as they remain creatures of a human nature” (1) . We may not totally agree with this form of words, but our belief in God manifestation is something that can be explained to people from an Orthodox background and ought to be easily accepted by them. And again, the point can be made that standard Western theology was mistaken in this area right at the start of the division.
(1) Vigen Guroian “The Shape of Orthodox Ethics”, Epiphany Journal (Fall 1991) p. 9.