Monthly Archives: May 2013

Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Salvation

So far on this blog I’ve discussed why I decided to explore Orthodox Christianity and given some background to this branch of faith, highlighting the main differences from Protestantism.  In probing those differences, I’ve covered the Holy Tradition, the role of icons, and the role of Mary in Orthodox faith.  However, the most crucial difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is their respective views of salvation – what it means to be “saved” by God.  Of all the differences, this is the one I have struggled with the most.

sola-fide1Many writers and commentators I have seen in the course of my examination have liked to put the differences in terms of whether mankind is justified by faith alone (sola fide), or by a combination of faith and good works.  Indeed, to my dismay I have seen some Orthodox defend their faith in such terms!  It seems to me that this is more a problem of the language used, than where any real difference lies.  I am completely convinced that both traditions regard salvation as being 100% dependent on the grace of God through faith, as is stated in Ephesians 2:8-9.  Where the difference lies is in approach.  Generally speaking, Protestantism is intellectual, metaphysical and fatalistic, while Orthodoxy is experiential, dualistic and mysterious.  So you get very different thought patterns on this subject emerging.

itisfinishedThe Protestant approach is to focus on Jesus’ saving acts as an event – a one-time thing that occurred at a specific point in history, that forever affects the eternal fate of mankind.  It is something that has already happened, that Jesus has already done.  It follows that mankind must choose how to respond.  To be saved, we must accept this act as a sacrifice for all our sins.  His sacrifice is a completed work, and once we accept it, we are assured of a place in Heaven.  This gives us the freedom to love God and follow Him.  Godly living is dependent not on our works or our efforts, but on trusting in the event of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection; an intellectual realization of what He has done for us which will permeate our lives with His Spirit and bear the spiritual fruit of Galatians 5:22-23.

There is a beauty and a simplicity to this sort of gospel, best encapsulated by hymn-writer Fanny Crosby:  “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!”  Assurance of salvation is, without a doubt, the main selling point of Protestantism.  But is it too simple?

judaskissThe Orthodox Christian would certainly say so.  Firstly, Orthodoxy does not believe in predestination as understood and often taught by Protestants, though He created us to be of a certain nature, and foreknows all our actions.  We have complete free will in how we interact with God.  And while God does not change, and His promises toward us are assured, how we utilize our free will is not.  We are unable to be 100% sure of our ability to walk with God in the future throughout the rest of our lives.  Even Peter, who was confident he would never deny Jesus, did so within a short space of time.  Likewise, Judas was an apostle and shared in Christ’s ministry, but fell away.  To say that one is “assured” of salvation is to place confidence in the flesh – our flesh, rather than in God.  It’s an interpretation of how we are saved that is, ironically, legalistic, rather than one based on God’s grace.

Instead, Orthodox believe that salvation is a process of theosis – becoming more like Christ, becoming God’s image (or icon, if you like), becoming who God originally intended us to be before the Fall.  This occurs through the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, through the faith He has given us.  But God requires our co-operation and our ongoing vigilance in these matters.  We do not pass from death to life intellectually, or in our spirit, at a fixed point in this life – there is no Billy Graham moment where we make a “decision for Christ” and we are “saved” from that point forward.  It is true that God knows our hearts, and that, like the thief on the Cross next to Jesus, we can live a deeply sinful life, and yet appeal for Him to remember us in His Kingdom at the last and be saved.  But for most of us, the decision to repent and follow does not represent the end of our earthly lives, but represents the first step of the journey into Life.  We are saved by faith alone, as Paul tells us, but it is ongoing faith that must be committed to with mind, body, soul and spirit, on a daily basis.  And as James the Just tells us, faith that is not shown by deeds is dead, and cannot save us.

Ladder 3In this view, salvation is not just a ticket to heaven for our soul and spirit at the end of our lives.  It is a gradual renewal of our whole being on a daily basis as we live out this life, and pass on to the next.  And this renewal must be sought on an ongoing basis, through physically living out our faith.

This new (or old!) way of looking at salvation has been by far the most challenging aspect of Orthodoxy for me.  Intellectual, event based salvation, with its Country Club “in or out” view of Christianity is so pervasive that adjusting one’s thinking to something different can be very hard.  The Protestant doctrine of assurance, based on predestination, can also be very difficult, and frightening, to let go of, and initially when I studied Orthodox salvation I felt cheated – like I was giving something precious up in exchange for something less.  Without assurance it can appear that the only alternative is salvation based on human effort, and every religion teaches that!    But of course, the opposite  is true, because in rejecting predestined assurance, we are no longer presuming our future faithfulness, but relying on God’s grace to maintain our faithfulness.  And God’s grace is assured.  His promises are faithful and true.  We stop relying on ourselves, or an inaccurate view of ourselves, and start relying completely on Jesus this way.

It remains to rebut the charge that Orthodoxy is not properly Christian because it is “salvation through works”.  It is true that Orthodoxy is loudly and proudly overt about its physical nature and the set prayers, fasts, sacraments and liturgies that constitute the religious activity that follows from being part of the Church.  But is Protestantism in all its many forms any less “religious”?  Protestants are told to pray, read their Bibles, and worship with others – the distinction seems rather fine.  The reality is that most Protestant churches themselves encourage people to live their faith by these means, and that without this activity, a Christian can only be so in name only.  As the old bumper sticker says, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Orthodoxy is no different.  To quote the 19th Century Russian Orthodox Monk Seraphim of Sarov:

“Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. But mark, my son, only the good deed done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ’s sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this.”

There is no Christian faith without it being displayed through Christian religion, and no Christian religion can save if it is not inspired by Christian faith.  That seems an obvious hallmark of both the Orthodox and Protestant traditions, whatever armchair theologians may have to say on the subject.

Lesbian Sex at the Bed and Breakfast

It’s been fascinating to read about the case of the Whangarei Bed and Breakfast that refuses to put gay couples in the same room together.  What’s been even more fascinating to note is that the owners are Antiochan Orthodox.

banbIt’s a classic conflict of rights.  The owners, of course, have the right to make any rules they like regarding what should happen on their own property.  This seems fair enough.  But the lesbian couple also have the right not to be discriminated against simply because they choose to bat for the other team.

Quite possibly the whole problem would have been solved with some clear terms and conditions on the Pilgrim Planet website.  But there is nothing – only a vague statement about “old-fashioned values”.  If you are going to have a policy of preventing gay couples from staying in the same room, it needs to be a lot more explicit than that, so that nobody has to suffer any embarrassment.  Furthermore, if the Ruskins really do run their B&B with “old-fashioned values”, meaning in this case Christian values, then are they being consistent?  Are they refusing shared accommodation to unmarried heterosexual couples as well?  Consistency would seem to demand that.  Judging from the lack of complaints in that regard, I’d say they are quite comfortable taking bookings from fornicating straight couples, and are therefore a pair of big fat hypocrites.

It’s all very strange.  Clearly it’s not the sex they object to.  People have sex in B&Bs all the time.  It’s not like gay sex is any louder or more offensive to the ears than straight sex.  And it generally takes place in the room where nobody else sees it.  No, the Ruskins are objecting to the “thought” that gay homosexuals might be enjoying themselves on their property.  This is not consistent with Orthodoxy, which is a faith of free will and free choices.  I suppose that, living in Whangarei they are a long way from the nearest Priest, but I can’t imagine any decent Orthodox clergyman condoning these attitudes.  If you aren’t prepared to have strangers commit acts of sin on your property, then maybe you shouldn’t be running a Bed and Breakfast?

The attitude that the Ruskins have taken is a disgrace.  They seem to believe they are “taking a stand”, when in fact what they stand for is nothing but hypocrisy and judgmentalism.  Of course, no sin should be condoned, but when you discriminate between sins, you cross a line.  The Ruskins need to be upfront about their policies and make them consistent with their faith, or get out of the hospitality business.

Protestantism, Orthodoxy and Mary

Once more we examine the two traditions of faith on this blog.  My previous posts have been relatively straightforward.  However, this one, and the next, are a little bit more contentious, and you will find me perhaps slightly more skeptical of the Orthodox position than I have been prior.  This post will deal with the position of Mary within both Protestantism and Orthodoxy.

The Protestant view of Mary is that she was a nice young girl who was blessed by God, conceived and gave birth to the Messiah by the Holy Spirit, had at least six other children with Joseph, played a minor part in Jesus’ ministry, and thereafter graced a million bad children’s nativity plays.  The Protestant looks at Catholic and Orthodox reverence for Mary, scratches his or her head, and asks “what’s the big deal?”   (or as we say in the hip-hop community – “Mary Mary, why ya buggin’?”)

theotokosFor within Orthodoxy, Mary is indeed a “big deal”.  She is given the highest veneration of any mere mortal yet born, and holds the title of “Theotokos”, a Greek word literally meaning “God-bearer”.  She is invoked several times in the course of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – that 1600 year old communion service which is celebrated almost identically in every Eastern Orthodox church in the world most Sunday morning.  Prayers are said to her, and her icon is venerated and holds pride of place in all Orthodox churches over the altar.  Moreover, whenever the Theotokos is mentioned by the Priest in a service, it is customary for the congregation to sing “Most Holy Theotokos, save us”.  All of this is enough to make any respectable Protestant spit tacks and wonder whether Orthodoxy is in fact a pagan cult with a goddess placed on an equal footing with God.  So is it?!

Firstly, as I discussed in a previous post, the Saints are all alive and standing before God, and are also part of our Church family.  Mary is one of these exalted folk, so all the same arguments apply to Mary.  It then follows – well why is Mary so special?   The reason is that, in order for God to do His saving work and send His Son, Mary’s co-operation was needed.  Mary was, in effect, the very first of us all to make “a decision for Christ”!  For God to choose her to bear His Son implies incredible virtue on her part.  For her to accept confirms that virtue.  She is the only mortal who plays a direct part in God’s saving act.  She is the vessel on which salvation sails.  A Christian, if he or she is truly of God, has the Holy Spirit within and we are blessed because of it, but Mary literally had the Son of God within!  It is clear that there is no other Saint or mere mortal more exalted before the Throne of God.  She has earned the greatest veneration of all the Saints by virtue of God’s grace in choosing her, and by her example to us all as a model of holy living.

maryiconaltarIt follows that there is no greater intercessor for us with regard to the Judgment Seat of Christ than Mary.  She has the ear of Christ, and moreover, she is his Mum!  All respectable men listen to their mothers, so how much more does Jesus listen to his own mother!  There is no clearer explanation of their dynamic than the one we see  in the Bible when they were at the wedding in Cana.  It’s hard to think of a more petty or indulgent “need” than booze at a party, but Mary insisted that her son do something about it in a way that conveyed the authority she had been given in God’s Kingdom, and even persisted when he complained!  She told the servants “Do whatever he tells you”, and Jesus relented to perform the miracle requested.

That pretty much sums up the role of Mary in Orthodoxy.  She is the greatest of all those in Christ and our chief advocate before Him, especially for our day to day troubles.  But she also says – “Do whatever He tells you”.  The role of Mary is not to receive focus to herself, but always to point to Christ, her son and our Saviour.  Indeed, she is almost never without Jesus in any Orthodox icon you will see, but almost always has one hand pointing to Him.  She is not a goddess but a Queen Consort – the “Queen Mother” effectively, a consort to the One King.  And Orthodox see John 19:26-27 as applying to all Christians, not just the Apostle John – she is our mother too.

mariolatryThese concepts can be hard to get used to for someone who may have swallowed some of the vitriol leveled at Catholicism and Orthodoxy by more fundamentalist sectors of Protestantism, especially the notorious cartoonist Jack Chick.  The assertion is that veneration of Mary was not an original part of Christianity, that she is “worshiped” as a carry-over figure from pagan goddesses, and that she only became venerated in the post-Constantine era of the Roman Empire.  Not at all true.  While it is the case that the New Testament Epistles only make mention of her in passing, the hymn Beneath Thy Protection from c.250AD predates the Christian era of the Empire to a time when Christians were still being persecuted and martyred, and thus at a time when the stakes of good doctrine were exceedingly high.

What also needs to be borne in mind is that, for the first 600 or so years of the Church, giving props to Mary was so strongly associated with a defense of Christ’s joint divine and human nature that to question the effusiveness of it in and of itself would have been unthinkable.  The early heresies of Gnosticism were predicated on the idea that bodies were evil and therefore Christ could never have had a body or been born.  So to venerate Mary was (and still is) to defend against this idea.  Later on in the 6th Century, Nestorianism reared its ugly head with the idea that Christ was merely human and only assumed divine nature in his death and resurrection, relegating Mary to the role of being merely “lucky” to have given birth to someone who only later became God’s saving instrument.  To venerate Mary was to reject these heresies, which, if we are honest, still creep around the edges of Protestantism today.

smellslikeinnovationSince the criticisms of Jack Chick et. al. are generally directed at Catholicism, they are sometimes not as applicable to Orthodoxy, which neither believes in the immaculate conception (as Catholics do), nor regards her as a “co-redemptress”, as has been debated by Catholics.  Orthodox regard these ideas as “innovations” which are not part of the Holy Tradition, and make Mary an exalted end in herself, rather than the traditional role I have described.  There is no separation of Mary from Jesus.  She is not a goddess but a Queen and a Mother, and has always been so from the beginning of the Church.

It only remains to discuss the specifics of how Mary is venerated within the Church, and what is said of her.  Some of the language would seem heretical to a Protestant – “Holy Theotokos, save us”?!  How does that square with Acts 4:12, where Peter says “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”?  It took me a while to understand this part of the Liturgy, and for a long time I did not sing it until I was confident I wasn’t committing some grave error.  When Orthodox sing this, they are not invoking Mary to grant them eternal life, since that is obviously not in her power and she is not a co-redemptress.  They are asking her to exercise the authority that she does have in heaven to petition  God to work in our lives.  Just as she “saved” the wedding in Cana, she “saves” us in the same way.  Even the Apostle Paul uses the word “saved” in a variety of ways in his epistles – at one point he says that “women shall be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15), which clearly does not mean all mothers will automatically receive eternal life!  As I have said, Orthodox have a different view on what it means to be “saved”, which I will discuss in a later post.

I would be lying if I said that I was completely convinced of the Mariology of Orthodoxy, or that all of the proscribed prayers to Mary I have come across seemed doctrinally sound to me.  Was Mary sinless her whole life, or even just sinless post-annunciation?  Was Mary a perpetual virgin?  Those could be innovations for all I know.  Orthodox theology itself is not particularly helpful in this regard either.  For whatever reason, there is not much literature defending the specifics of her place in the liturgical life in the Church.  In some ways this is reassuring – silence means other doctrines are regarded as much more important.  And it is true that they are more important.  Christ is the centre of our faith, whether we are Protestant or Orthodox.  But I am convinced of the exalted place of Mary within the Kingdom of God, and will continue to walk by faith in these matters.  Mary is venerated because God Himself has venerated her, because it adds to the glorification of Christ and because it stresses his two natures.  It is not “its own thing”, and should not be perceived that way.

ADDED:  I forgot to add this segment of the Akathist Hymn to Mary, which is sung in Friday services during Lent.  Again, not everything in here is something I am certain is doctrinally sound, but it’s probably the most beautiful of all Orthodox hymns:

Protestantism vs Orthodoxy: Icons

Continuing my series of posts on comparing Orthodoxy with Protestantism, I thought I should address the status of icons and the Saints in the two branches of faith.

icontouchOne of the most distinctive things about the Orthodox Church, and probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Orthodoxy, is the proliferation of Byzantine-styled paintings known as icons.  Church walls are covered in them, especially down the front.  Believers will bow in front of them, pray in front of them, confess their sins, make the Sign of the Cross, light candles and kiss them as part of their observance of faith.  For Protestants, indeed, most Westerners, this is all very alien and bizarre.  Since, to a Protestant, our faith is defined by its spiritual, individual and internal nature, this behaviour has the appearance of, at best, unnecessary religious activity, and at worst, pagan idolatry.  It’s a cultural phenomenon which can lead Protestants to dismiss Orthodoxy without giving it due care of examination.

Of course this is not what is going on at all.  The word icon is Greek, and simply means “image”.  In this case, the images are of Jesus, Mary, and all those Saints, both Biblical and otherwise, who have passed on.  The Byzantine style in which they are painted is very deliberate.  It’s a reaction against Classical art, in which it was common to furnish pagan gods and goddesses as idols for worship.  The lack of 3D depth is simultaneously supposed to signify their current abode in a “different dimension”, as well as take the focus away from the object itself and place it on the real person the object depicts.  The paintings themselves are not idols.  They instead focus our minds on the Saint and the example he or she set us, or on Jesus Himself.

A Protestant may not see the necessity of such paraphernalia to their faith.  They would argue that the focus should be on Jesus, and Him crucified, and that it is Jesus who saves us.  Anything else is a distraction.  This is not necessarily untrue.  However, it is in Christ’s body that we find salvation.  The Saints are part of that body, and part of the congregation of our Church as we worship, even after they have passed on.  It encourages our faith to have their icons on the wall, participating with us, as we participate with them.  We are not saved by ourselves, we are saved in Christ, as part of His body, which is the Church.  Theoretically the presence or absence of icons makes no eternal difference, but for the sake of our own souls, we encourage their participation, as they encourage ours.  So that is why Orthodox value them in both their own homes and in their churches.  As my Priest would say, “they are part of our family, and the icons are our family album”.

iconostasisMaking the icons, and the Saints they depict, a part of our faith is no different from the way a Protestant would normally make other Christians a part of their faith as they seek to follow Jesus:  We look to others as good examples to follow, and we ask godly men and women to pray for us for our needs.  This is never a substitute for our prayers to God, but a way of involving the Body of Christ in our faith rather than struggling alone.

I should say here that in practical terms, icons of Saints play only a small part in Orthodox religious practice.  It is mostly icons of Jesus and Mary that are venerated and utilized on a day-to-day basis.  Usually Saints are only specifically venerated on Saint’s Days, or if they are a patron Saint of a specific church, or an individual’s Name Saint.   The focus is (rightly) on Jesus Christ, His incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

Icons are definitely the “weirdest” part of Orthodoxy, but they are a continuation of the Old Testament tradition of icons, such as those on the Ark of the Covenant, and the theological basis for them is directly related to Jewish veneration of physical objects like the Ark.  They are a manifestation of the Church’s focus on Christianity as a physical, material, experiential faith, rather than merely a spiritual and intellectual one.    Personally, as a lifelong Protestant I have found it very strange (and still do to some extent) to kiss and venerate icons, and, like any religious activity, to do it for its own sake without faith as your motivator is no better than not doing it at all.  But there is value in actually kissing Jesus’ image as a physical act, rather than just praying to Jesus in your head, or singing a gospel song about Jesus.  It binds us to Him in a physical way.  It gives us more reverence for Him and what he has done for us.  And like all acts of faith, it allows the Holy Spirit to work on us.

jesusiconWhat about the Saints?  Is venerating the Saints an act of worship that should be reserved for God alone?  There is a tendency in Protestantism to regard any veneration of others as somehow diminishing God, or worshiping man rather than God.  However, I have come to the opposite point of view.  To venerate men and women of God, living or dead, and to honour them, glorifies God, and in turn it blesses us to venerate those God has chosen to work through.  And I have to say that it was not anyone Orthodox that convinced me of this, but a Protestant writer and speaker – John Bevere.  While attending a Protestant “Megachurch” in Corpus Christi, I got involved in a Bible Study which utilized his book Honor’s Reward.  Bevere explains in the book very clearly that how we act in the Kingdom of God determines our reward from God, and that for God to reward us, we must  honour both God and others in our lives.  Honour is an essential part of our Christian faith, and there are plenty of Bible references to those we should honour in our lives, all of which Bevere details.

As for the distinction between “veneration” and “worship”?  To me it is very clear – it’s simply a distinction of what you say about someone.  We praise people all the time and talk about their deeds.  If I say David Bowie is the greatest musical artist of the twentieth century, then that’s not worship, it’s simply veneration – saying an (admittedly subjective) true thing about him.  If I said David Bowie was King of the Universe, that would be worship (and therefore blasphemous, because he is not).  In Orthodoxy, Mary and the Saints are given due praise, but not praised as God is praised.  There is a clear dividing line, as there normally is when we praise even secular figures.

Iconography has always been a part of Christianity and a part of the Tradition of the Church.  It was only in the 8th Century that icons became hotly debated, partially due to the influence of the new religion of Islam, in which all images were banned.  In fact, icons were banned in the Byzantine  Empire for many years during this time.  However, the 2nd Ecumenical Council of Nicea proclaimed in 787AD:

… we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message. … we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects.

While there was there was further conflict in the ensuing years, until icons were finally restored by the Empress Theodora in 842AD, this settled the matter theologically.  I think the proclamation here sums up pretty well the value of icons to Christian faith.  They are an enrichment to it, not a detraction from it, and while one can obviously practice Christianity without them, they can be an excellent aid to faith.

Terrible Journalism From the NZ Herald

So I visit the NZ Herald site today and I see this:


OMG!  Key was misled by the US?!  This is a scandal!  So I click on the link, and…


Note that the key words “claims Dotcom” were left out of the headline.  This is quite a crucial bit of information, wouldn’t you say?  Changes the story somewhat, don’t you think?  Just a little?

Actually, there is a MASSIVE difference between John Key being objectively misled by the US as a provable fact, and the mere opinion of Augustus Gloop here.  One is big news worthy of a headline.  The other is not news at all.  We know what Dotcom thinks.  We don’t give a f*ck.  Why is that news?  Why pretend it is news?  What does the Herald think it is doing?!!!


Face Of This, And Every Other Day

Don’t give me that Andrew Sullivan crap on your blog…