In this article, we in simple terms continue reconciling Calvinist thought with the most anti-Calvinist document written by the Orthodox Church. It is my aim to show that what really separates us is not that all profound and that Calvinists have everything to gain by appreciating the traditional teachings of Christianity as formulated in Orthodoxy.

Decrees 15-17. Much could be made about the differences between Orthodox and Calvinists as it pertains to sacramental theology. There is no way to sugarcoat it. Calvinists, though they originally believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and appeared to affirm baptismal regeneration, did not recognize other sacraments of the Church. Further, the sacraments they did recognize they view as optional means of grace, as one is saved by faith.

Let me address this briefly with two points:

  1. Orthodox believe in what is akin to “sacraments-by-desire,” so no one believes someone who has no access to the sacraments, but has faith in Christ and is repentant, is unsaved. So, the error is not with the Orthodox in saying they are necessary, as it is assumed that normatively they are…most of us are not martyrs or geographically cut off from the Church. Rather, the error is in Calvinism taking an exception (that we can be saved apart from taking part in the life of the Church) and have made it a rule. The error in this is obvious, as many people don’t even see the point in going to church as they view it as “optional.” Calvinists may call these men faithless. Likewise, those who avoid physical manifestations of God’s grace in the sacraments are likewise faithless in the eyes of the Orthodox. Hence, these is no practical difference between our respective positions, but a difference in emphasis.
  2. Calvinists have re-defined what a sacrament is, which leads to an unnecessary confusion. Calvinists assert that the only two sacraments are those Christ Himself instituted (baptism and the Eucharist.) However, this is an extra-biblical definition and, in fact, unbiblical idea! The word “sacrament” is only used once in reference to a rite in the Scriptures. In Eph 5 it refers to marriage. Marriage, after all, was instituted by Christ in the Garden of Eden. The “only two sacraments” idea simply does not work. Further, the Orthodox idea is more expansive. Sacraments are “mysteries,” physical manifestations of God’s grace–God Himself. Those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal 3:27). When the Church disciplines someone who does not confess/repent, God Himself judges (Matt 18). God Himself is in the Eucharist. Marriage is Christ and the Church. The Orthodox understanding of sacraments is explicitly Biblical.

As we can see in the preceding, our differences cannot be explained away, but good Bible-believing Calvinists can at the very least respect the Orthodox position.

Decree 18. In short, this Decree cannot be reconciled with Calvinism without getting very nuanced. First, let’s begin with what we agree about. First, we agree that those who are faithful enjoy a taste of Paradise after death (all that is lacking is the resurrected body) and the faithless suffer the pains of Hell (ditto). Further, we also agree that those who died faithful and with repentance, but lacking commensurate good works with this repentance (i.e. lack of time, died right after repenting), are saved. The question is…when?

Calvinists would say such men experience “instant heaven” after death. Orthodoxy teaches these men await release from torment, but have hope as they know their release will come. The former makes prayers and good works on behalf of the dead superfluous, the latter allows for it. There are two reasons for this difference of opinion:

  1. Calvinism believes in forensic justification, where a man is not really made righteous by God but rather is considered righteous by God due to his faith. This makes it possible for someone to be in heaven instantly after death, due to heaven being a reward for righteousness. In Orthodoxy, the reward is righteousness, so being “considered” righteous is irrelevant unless one’s consideration is predicated upon an inward reality among the faithful.
  2. As referred to previously, Calvinism sees Heaven as a reward instead of a literal experience of God as Orthodoxy teaches. Orthodoxy views the afterlife as a spectrum of how one experiences God. The idea is that there are those who suffer for a time because they are not enjoying God as much as they will at some point makes no sense in Calvinism. It did to first century Jews, who universally agreed upon praying for the dead, but disagreed upon whether the dead were all in Heaven (just the Heaven for some was less enjoyable that that of others), or whether one may rightly differentiate between Heaven and Hell.

The paradigms between Calvinism and Orthodoxy are so different, there is not much more that I can say other than that we both affirm Heaven and Hell, but we have more hope for those who are dead than the Calvinists. Ultimately, we are all trying to contemplate something chronologically that exists outside of the space-time continuum (the afterlife, experiencing the Eternal One, etc), and so perhaps it is best to leave it there and chalk up our differences merely to the limitations of our respective traditions and minds.

Question 1. This is another part of the Confession that is not only hard to square with Calvinist teaching, but also hard to square with Orthodox teaching. In short, it helps to understand the primary role of the Scriptures. When Jesus Christ read Isaiah, or the Bereans searched the Scriptures, or when Paul taught in the synagogues, the Scriptures were being read corporately. The reason for this is obvious–the printing press was not invented yet and every copy was made by hand. So, people did not have their own private Bibles (though it is not unheard of, especially for the wealthy, to have some of the books.)

Hence, the Confession is merely iterating a traditional, and Biblical, view of Scripture usage. It may be almost too conservative, if not too Biblical in its application of the Orthodox principle. So, it is best to reconcile both views with the point that Calvin himself was no more of a fan of private interpretation of the Scriptures than the those who affirmed the Confession were. Nevertheless, due to Orthodox saints extolling us to read the Scriptures daily, even the Orthodox cannot defend the literal teaching of the Confession on this point.