Due to the concerns of people I care about sincerely, I wanted to make public my thought process as it pertains to Eastern Orthodoxy.
First, let me begin with what I personally find historically and theologically wrong with the majority of Eastern Orthodoxy. I do not list these things because I intend to teach and convince you of them. Rather, I am giving an honest assessment of my own private opinions based upon my weighing of the Biblical and historical evidence.
- Paedobaptism. Clearly, the Scripture speaks of believers baptism, and such baptism was the dominant mold of the early Church, even in believing families. Paedobaptism is an obvious break with the earliest Church practices, if I were to employ a purely historical method in addressing the question. It is worth noting that Cyprian is the only aberration within the first three centuries of the Church.
- Monarchical Episcopacy. Granted, the Monarchical Episcopacy did universally exist extremely early, but the plain verbiage of the Scripture, Didache, and 1 Clement indicate that even small cities (and probably individual churches) had several Bishops a piece. However, it is worth pointing out that Orthodox ecclesiology may also be rightly derived from the Scriptures.
- Extreme use of icons. The historical case that the ancient Church never used icons cannot be proven. The theology for icons developed over time. Calling them “windows into heaven” probably would have been a very foreign, and strange notion, to the early Church. Plus, it is really unsanitary. Ditto for the Eucharist in which Orthodox partake of it all using the same spoon. This spoon is subsequently put in everyone’s mouth.
- Emphasis on free will. The Eastern Orthodox will admit God can affect the thoughts and desires of man, so that he will freely choose what God ordained for him to choose.* The way this is emphasized between east and west is very different. The Augustinian will emphasize that this shows that God is in complete control of everything. The Eastern Orthodox will emphasize that man’s free will is ultimately responsible over his destiny. Both ultimately are saying the exact same thing, but with the exact opposite emphasis. I personally find the following Orthodox emphasis annoying:
- *Bishop Kallistos Ware writes to be saved that “human free will is an essential condition” (How are we Saved, p. 38), and that God’s grace does not compel us.
- However, the ancient Orthodox champion of free will, John Cassian, concedes: “For the God of all must be held to work in all, so as to incite, protect, and strengthen, but not to take away the freedom of the will which He Himself has once given…God works all things in us and yet everything can be ascribed to free will, [and this] cannot be fully grasped by the mind and reason of man” (John Cassian, Conference 13, Chapter 18).
- The Scripture itself is also clear that no one can come to the Father unless He “draws” them (John 6:44). It is worth pointing out that the word “draw” in the Greek means to compel “a person forcibly against his will” and it is used consistently with this sense in the New Testament.
- Fearing God too much. Man by his free will can apostatize. Man can give into temptation. Man can fail to endure until the end. We ought to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Of course all of these things are true. But “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6) and that “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also” (2 Cor 4:14). So, we may have confidence in the saving work of our God on our behalf, because He loves us. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). We must embrace the mystery of all of the above, but I will always emphasize the strength and love of God over the weakness and deficiency in man.
- Corrupt history. Eastern Orthodoxy is no different than any other corner of Christendom. It has its far share of violence, Byzantine emperors meddling, selling out to Tsars, and Bishops acting nasty. Usually, a point like this would not even come up (I wouldn’t avoid being an Anglican because I don’t like King Henry VIII), but it is relevant when we consider that there is an institutional Church still existing today from Apostolic times, but its outward character is the very opposite of Apostolic.
- Rejection of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. The East rejects this doctrine specifically because it is tied to merits and justice. The Orthodox rightfully teach that God does not require anyone’s merit, nor can injustice be done to Him in any ultimate sense. However, early Eastern believers commonly wrote on Penal Substitutionary Atonement in the past so I cannot in my own mind reject what seems to me a very clear model of the atonement, even if in the modern day it is not appreciated in Orthodox circles.
- Prayers for the dead. The Scripture does say the dead pray for us (Rev 6:10). However, on what basis do we know we can ask other Christians beyond the grave to pray for us? How do we know they can hear our prayers, and so many of them? Why follow a practice that God has not explicitly commanded us to do? While prayers for the dead is not necromancy, I am not 100 percent confident that Saints Mary and Stephen hear my requests for prayers– though, to be honest, a few extremely unlikely answered prayers have occurred recently in my life which would give me greater grounds for confidence that the prayers of deceased brothers and sisters are efficacious.
- Partially obfuscated Gospel. My western mind prefers the cut-and-dry Western, Protestant Gospel. We are saved by faith alone, apart from works, period. The Eastern Orthodox can affirm the same exact thing, but they regularly will not let the conversation end there. When not pressed apologetically, Eastern Orthodox will often extol the role of works in justification because they are aware that faith will not justify man if it is not a faith that produces works. However, they lack a Roman concern for merits, so ultimately works do not merit salvation, but rather works proceed and are a demonstration of man’s cooperation with his salvation from God. Like I said, the Western view is simpler. The Orthodox view most simply can be summed up as, “Works cannot earn salvation to any degree, before or after conversion.” This is true enough.
- It is worth pointing out that Protestantism emphasizes what we are saved from (our sin) and how (the merits of Christ.) Orthodoxy generally glosses over this, opting focus on what we are saved for (theosis–being transformed into the image of God.) We need to emphasize both if we are to present the Gospel in its fullness.
- “Valid sacraments,” though something I can easily infer are important from early Church history, are not emphasized in the Scripture. However, the Scriptures take for granted that taking part in the sacramental life of the Church is part and parcel with being faithful. In my Protestant mind, it is hard to grapple with the idea that the means of taking part with God’s divinity on Earth is tied to a specific, visible institution (apart from “sacraments by desire”).
- The Orthodox Church has not clearly avoided schism, though historically they lay the strongest claim to it. The Oriental, Syriac, and Armenian churches either voluntarily left, or were forced to leave the Church, over the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon–depending who you listen to.
- It is worth pointing out that modern Oriental Orthodox today admit that their doctrine Christologically does not differ with Eastern Orthodoxy. Hence, the whole division was linguistic and ultimately nationalistic. There are accusations that the Egyptians appointed their own Bishops and ultimately this would have been an act of schism, akin to the Novationist and Donatist schisms.
- Further, it appears the Romanists were the schismatics in 1054 AD. The Roman church excommunicated the Orthodox and continued to refuse the Orthodox into communion unless they would allow themselves to be subjugated to Rome. It appeared the Orthodox would maintain communion initially as long as they were not subjugated. Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Pope Francis actually teaches against the conversion of Orthodox to Romanism, as he identifies them as a legitimate Church body. However, Orthodoxy generally rejects Rome as a legitimate Church until they forswear Papal claims to absolute authority.
Now that I proved I am an equal opportunity hater, the following are reasons why I am compelled to choose Eastern Orthodoxy:
- The Gospel. The Gospel does exist within Eastern Orthodoxy. It’s not a works based Gospel. It isn’t a Faith + Works Gospel. It is a Faith Alone, but not a Faith that is alone, Gospel. “The notion of merit is foreign to Eastern tradition…human free will is an essentialy condition, [but] in no way does this signify that salvation can be earned or deserved” (How are we Saved, p. 38). This is the correct Gospel.
- The Gospel has been consistently held for generations. Protestants reject Orthodoxy over prayers for the dead, icons, and the like while ignoring this is how the vast majority of believers have worshiped for all of Christian history. Are all of these people going to Hell? Does Christ’s shed blood now not cover all sins, but only some sins? It would seem to me that God bears with a lot of error on our behalf as long as we like dependent children lean on Him.
- Anti-schism. I want to be careful not to take the Gospel (that Christ forgives all of our sins) and use that as justification to commit any sin I want. The Scripture is specific that certain sins not repented of (greed, lying, homosexuality, adultery, schism) result in damnation. Doctrinal purity is not on that list, but schism is. Yet, the Protestants prize doctrinal purity so much, that they commit the sin of schism to attain it. This, in my mind, is unbiblical and unforgiveable. God warns us not to divide the Church repeatedly. He even gives us a vivid example in Rom 14 and says not to make disputes over matters we know to be clearly wrong (observing Sabbaths for example). We are to be “convinced” in our “own mind” of this or that doctrine, but to keep this between ourselves and God (Rom 14:22). We cannot commit the sin of willful defiance against God in schism for the sake of doctrinal purity, when the Scripture says the exact opposite.
- Matters of dispute. Protestantism has made it an issue that all matters of dispute require schism. Catholicism is the exact opposite, excommunicating people over disputable matters. Orthodoxy contains diversity and allows for disputable matters. For example, most reject any sort of concept of Purgatory, but they will not excommunicate a Bishop that holds to a concept that has certain ideas in common. Should Luther have been excommunicated for his continual defense of the doctrine until 1528? Or do we bear with each others inconsistencies when it pertains to disputable matters?
- The Reformation is not a “tragic necessity.” If the Gospel is still being preached, aren’t all other matters disputable and not worthy of schism?
- Rejection of Forensic Justification. Now, I don’t think Forensic Justification is entirely wrong, or at least I am not convinced of this entirely. However, Forensic Justification alone is too narrow a concept to fully encompass the Biblical teaching of how we are justified. It was never historically held by the Church, never explicitly endorsed in the New Testament (no matter how much the Reformers inferred the concept), and it clearly historically breaks with the Old Testament where “righteousness” can be lost (as in Ezek 18) and must be maintained through continual faithfulness and repentance (manifested in sacrifices, fasting, Sabbaths and the like.) The New Testament made clear that there is a historical break between the legal requirements of the Old and New Covenants. However, nowhere does it say that this discontinuity also applies to the need to be continually repentant and faithful. Salvation is a continual relationship with our redeeming God, for we are “being saved” (1 Cor 1:18, 1 Cor 15:2, 2 Cor 2:15). Ultimately, our salvation is only complete at the Judgement. An emphasis on the transactional nature of Forensic Justification alone obfuscates this Biblical fact, and it in part distorts the truth of the Gospel.
- No concept of being “back slidden.” Because of Forensic Justification, us Protestants have been forced to rationalize extra-biblically how someone who is clearly sinning has not forfeited salvation. We say they are saved, but they are back sliding. In other words, “not positively moving forward with their sanctification” (a concept never mentioned in the Scriptures). We ignore the literal warnings of the Scriptures that such people will not inherit the Kingdom of God, merely saying “they were with us, but not of us.” Just because some people were with us, that does not mean they were all not of us. Further, even if the preceding is true (which ultimately I personally think it is but that’s besides the point), it is wrong to add an extra-biblical inference to our hermeneutic when the Bible literally warns against falling away. We must walk fearfully before God, but with confidence that his faithfulness is greater than our sinfulness.
- Consistent ecclesiology. While we may infer presbyterianism from the Scriptures and the Didache, in no way was this explicit in the Scriptures. However, Orthodox Ecclesiology can also be inferred from the Scriptures. Further, it was explicit in early Church documents very early on, and universally accepted. Interestingly enough, churches in India cut off for almost 1,000 years by Islam maintained the same Ecclesiology and then rejoined Oriental Orthodoxy (and others Catholicism.) While there are few Indian Eastern Orthodox, they maintain a church that is identical in every way other than the acceptance of Chalcedon. Undoubtedly, if the Church is recognizable even after 1,000 years, it has been consistent as if it were preserved in a time capsule. For those who reject the priesthood and Bishoprics of the East, ask yourself, how did the whole Apostolic Church explicitly have all these things as soon as they were commented upon in the third century without exception? If any serious strain of differing thought similar to modern Protestantism existed, it would have come into conflict with the dominant mode of ecclesiology. But, we never see this.