This post is sort of an addendum to my previous posts on the differences between Orthodox and Protestant (or “bible-believing”) Christianity. You can read my previous posts as follows:
- The Hipster Church: Coming Out as Orthodox
- Orthodoxy Versus Protestantism (an overview)
- The Church
Since many of the arguments I used to explain the Orthodox viewpoint also apply to Roman Catholicism, it could be easy for Protestants to assume that Orthodoxy is simply a more antiquated version of Roman Catholicism without the Pope. Indeed, this seems to be how many Catholics themselves view things. But there are serious differences both in doctrine and in the entire approach to faith. Orthodoxy is no less than a different mindset from both Catholicism and Protestantism.
Some of the more theoretical theology (such as the filloque dispute) may not seem like a big deal, but these “minor” deviations have cancerous practical consequences. The fundamental differences are:
1. Original Sin. Originally both the Eastern and Western Church were in communion, a situation which lasted for the first thousand years of Christianity. But separation began as early as the turn of the 4th Century, when Augustine first postulated the idea of “original sin”. While Augustine made invaluable contributions to Christian theology, his Greek was poor, and this doctrine in particular sprung from a mistranslation of Romans 5:12 in the Vulgate. It soon gained widespread popularity in the West, where Latin was spoken, but was never adopted by the East, where the original Greek was understood. Tied in with this is the idea of Complete Corruption – that to be human is inherently to be sinful regardless of our actions. This later became popular among Protestants during the Reformation.
Orthodoxy has instead held that sin is not a pre-existing condition of being human, only that the consequences of Adam’s sin were death and decay, and God’s curse (Genesis 3:15-25 – LXX), from which we must still be saved. In Orthodoxy, our sin is a result of our free will and choice only, and therefore our own responsibility.
2. The Filloque. At the Council of Toledo in 589AD, the local Bishops proposed an addition to the Creed stating that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Son as well as the Father. Since the purpose of the Council was to reconcile Arians back into the Church, the error of what became known as the filloque came about from the influence of the Gothic King Reccard and other new converts, who could still not quite bring themselves to view the Trinity as a co-equal entity. The Bishops, eager to reconcile the Arian Goths to the Church, acquiesced. While not formally agreed to by the Pope at the time, reciting the filloque as part of the Creed also became popular Western practice, and at the turn of the 9th Century was adopted throughout the Frankish Holy Roman Empire, which covered the bulk of Western Christendom. Eventually, the Papacy itself acquiesced to adopt it in 1014AD, despite the Third Ecumenical Council of 431AD specifically forbidding further additions to the Creed. This in time triggered a break in communion with the rest of the Church in 1054AD, also known as the Great Schism, whereupon the Pope officially tried to excommunicate the Ecumenical Patriarch.
To this day, Orthodoxy holds that the Spirit proceeds from the Father as an equal Person fulfilling His saving acts, and not from both the Father and the Son.
3. Papal Primacy. The filloque controversy was, in many ways, simply an excuse for the Papacy to wield what it saw as its rightful powers as “the Holy See of Peter”. While the Church always regarded the Bishop of Rome as the “first among equals” in honour, and made use of him to settle disputes, the Papacy gradually began to interfere proactively in other jurisdictions, especially during the 9th Century, when Pope Nicholas tried to interfere in the election of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and claim that the Pope had primacy over the whole Church, not just his diocese or his Patriarchate. Ever since, Popes have made this jurisdictional claim, which Orthodoxy completely rejects. Orthodoxy sees all Bishops as equals, and that only the Whole Church can discern doctrine. While the Bishop of Rome is the most important Bishop, he is not regarded as the “Vicar of Christ”, or a “Bishop of the Bishops”.
4. Satisfaction. Traditionally Orthodoxy has described salvation in a variety of ways – Christ saves by conquering sin and death, by an exchange of love between God and man, by atoning for sin Himself where man could not, by an exemplary life, by incarnation as both God and man, and so on. None of these descriptions are complete in and of themselves, or stand alone separate from each other as a discrete explanation of salvation. However, in the late 11th Century, Anselm of Canterbury propagated the idea that sin was a crime against God that offended God’s honour (similar to the way crime offended the honour of Western medieval Kings), and therefore implied salvation involved not personal transformation, but satisfying this honour – the crime must be paid for one way or another. This soon became the standard primary explanation of Christ’s saving acts in Western Christianity. But while Christ’s suffering is regarded as an atonement by the Orthodox Church, this does not imply that God separates from Himself by sacrificing Himself to appease Himself – a veritable “god of the volcano” into which things must be hurled to prevent eruption. Anselm, while well-meaning, turned salvation into a legal transaction or contract rather than a process of rehabilitation.
These four innovations to the faith, sometimes in concert with one another, had massive implications for what followed. Just for starters:
- The Roman doctrines of purgatory and indulgences – unknown in Orthodoxy – came directly from the ideas of Satisfaction and Original Sin, and triggered the Reformation in the West. But instead of repudiating the underlying doctrines, the main point of contention between Roman Catholics and Protestants became not over whether or not God’s justice, honor, or wrath needed to be satisfied, but whether man could add anything to that satisfaction in penance;
- Original sin also led to an unnecessary need for Mary’s conception to be “immaculate”. As Orthodox see it, this has in turn caused an undue focus on the uniqueness of Mary as a separate heavenly entity in Roman Catholicism, instead of stressing her humanity and her relationship to her Son. Meanwhile, Protestants took it in the opposite direction – if humanity is Corrupt through original sin, it is impossible for Mary to be anything special, or to be “More honourable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim”;
- There was a degrading of the sacredness of sexuality in the West into something inherently sinful in itself (since original sin is sexually transmitted). Sex ceased to be a sacrament, and more of an activity allowed only because it was the only way humans could reproduce. This in turn solidified the practice of Priestly celibacy in the West;
- Papal Primacy led to Papal infallibility, and, combined with the Filloque, into a weakening of the Holy Tradition and a strengthening of the role of the ecclesiastical office-holders at its expense. The Roman Catholic Magisterium became the determinant of Truth, not the Orthodox councillar approach of what has been believed “always, and everywhere, by all”.
…and there are numerous other ways in which these innovations have created theological differences. While a lot of the externals remain similar to this day, Roman Catholicism became a very different beast from the Orthodox faith which spawned it. The same rituals and trappings soon took on quite different meanings. And while the Protestants of the Reformation repudiated the Roman church’s innovations, they did not break from the underlying theology behind them, which is what really separates the West from the East. Nowhere is this difference better articulated than by Alexandre Kalomiros in his famous 1980 presentation The River of Fire. While this sermon is unfortunately shrill, and lacking in charity towards Western Christianity in its accusations, it lays things out very well. On one hand, we see a judicial and rationalizing faith on the part of Protestants and Catholics, and on the other, a rehabilitative, experiential and mysterious one on the part of Orthodox. In a nutshell: Is Christianity merely a restoration of our relationship with God, through Jesus, or us, or both of us, being justly punished? Or does Christianity restore our relationship with God by using all of His saving acts to heal us of our sinful passions so we are ultimately holy and at one with God’s Energies?