In a previous post I covered some of my personal reasons for exploring Orthodoxy as a means of deepening my faith. But I thought I should also give some background to Orthodoxy itself for readers, and explain the differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism.
A lot of people in the West have either never heard of Orthodox Christianity, or if they have, have given it very little thought – most people when they think of Christianity only concern themselves with Catholicism and Protestantism. However, both these branches of Christian faith have their origins in the Orthodox Church, which dates itself back to the original 12 apostles of c. 27AD, and today has 300 million adherents.
For over 400 years, the Orthodox Church was the only form of Christian church – there were no denominational splits that were not regarded as heresies. The Church was run by the five Patriarchs – in order of seniority, the Bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, and while the Bishop of Rome was regarded as the Head of the Church, it was as “first among equals”. After the two ecumenical Councils of Ephesus in the 5th Century, several branches of the church schismed off, the most prominent being the Ethiopian and Egyptian (Coptic) church (to this day, the Coptic Church has its own Pope). The Roman Church, however, remained (in theory at least) part of Orthodoxy until 1054, when it too schismed off and became what we know today as the Catholic church. While there were issues of theology disputed, the main problem was the issue of Papal supremacy over the whole Church, and his ability to set doctrine for the Church. To this day, that issue remains at the root of differences between Catholicism and other forms of Christianity.
Protestantism sprang from the protests of Martin Luther against doctrines of the Catholic Church in 1519, and grew from there into a full rebellion againt Catholicism and ecclesiastical authority, resulting in many different branches and theological twists. From an Orthodox perspective, this was both positive and negative. In rebelling against Catholicism, the Protestants were, in many aspects, moving back towards Orthodox theology, and in pure theological terms (though not practice) Orthodoxy is closer to Protestantism than Catholicism is. However, they were also throwing out the baby with the bathwater: In rejecting Catholic tradition they were also rejecting that part of the tradition that came from Orthodoxy. So while there were some attempts, on both sides, during the 16th and 17th centuries to reconcile the Protestants back into the Orthodox fold, these were ultimately a failure – the battered wife could not bring herself to accept a new suitor.
There are many ways in which Protestants and Orthodox have common ground in a way that Protestants do not with Catholics. Both traditions reject the absolute authority of clergy, especially Papal authority, in matters of doctrine. Neither believes in purgatory, legalistic penance, the immaculate conception, or clerical celibacy (though Orthodox bishops are celibate). In both traditions there is a strong emphasis on faith as the driver of personal salvation (though there are some practical differences in how this works). And there is no differences between the Orthodox Nicene Creed and what Protestants believe.
However, there are substantial differences. The most obvious one is the liturgical worship of the Orthodox Church, an interactive recitation of prayer and praise between the Priest and the congregation that is mostly sung or chanted. While some Protestant denominations have liturgical worship, most Protestants used to “rock bands and raised hands” will find it very alien. But mostly this is a matter of style, not substance. The real issues of difference are:
- Sacraments: Protestants regard sacraments like baptism and communion as “symbolic” steps of obedience to God undertaken by believers. Orthodox regard them as “real” and obligatory facets of the Christian walk;
- Icons: Protestants do not use icons, invoke the Saints, or venerate them in any formal way. Orthodox churches are full of icons, and the Saints they depict are regularly invoked and venerated;
- Free Will: Protestants largely follow the Calvinistic view that God predestines salvation for Christians, and that salvation once gained cannot be lost. Orthodox emphasise the free will and free choice of humans, and believe that salvation can be rejected by choice;
- Authority: Protestants believe that divine authority and the revelation of the Spirit comes from the 66 books of the Bible alone (sola scriptura). Orthodox believe that divine authority and the revelation of the Spirit rests in the “Holy Tradition” of the Church, of which the Bible is the primary, but not sole part;
- Mary: Protestants regard Mary as incidental to the Christian narrative. Orthodox see her as the “Theotokos” (God-bearer), the greatest of all the Saints, the primary intercessor before the judgement seat of Christ, and accordingly invoke and venerate her in a way some Protestants would regard as heretical;
- Salvation: Protestants view salvation (being saved) as an event that has already occured through Christ’s death and resurrection, one which it only remains for us to claim for ourselves. Orthodox view salvation as an ongoing process, a journey of “theosis” in which through ongoing faith we are restored to the image of God.
There are probably others I haven’t thought of right now, but those are the main ones. I hope to tackle them all in detail, one post at a time, though not necessarily in order. And there is a specific reason why I am doing this too: After much googling, I have noticed that there is simply no concise resource out there on the internet that I could find which represented a genuine summary of the issues for any Protestant wanting to explore Orthodoxy. There is plenty expounding on Orthodox beliefs, but it is written mostly for either people who are already Orthodox, or Catholics. Likewise, Protestants all but ignore Orthodoxy – there’s been a couple of Christianity Today articles and that’s it. And what is left is people talking past each other and misrepresenting the beliefs of the other side.
My impression from my studies so far on all the above issues is not that one view is right and the other wrong, or that one view is heretical and the other Truly Christian. While others may beg to differ on both sides of the divide, I understand the Orthodox view as a completion of the Protestant view in most cases – one rounds the other out for a better picture of the Faith. Conversely, the Protestant view can also inform and enlighten aspects of the Orthodox view in a way that is not contradictory to it. In most cases where one side criticises the other, it is not because the doctrine criticised is wrong, but mostly because it has been misunderstood. I hope to clear up some of the misunderstandings.