devotional

06APR
2012

A question about the Orthodox Church and orthodoxy

On 3 Apr 12, Stacey W. asked:

            “Is using the term orthodox a correct way to describe reformed soteriology? I recently had a person who is not a professing Christian refer to herself as orthodox. I have only heard of the eastern orthodox churches, and upon looking up the term orthodox came across the Oriental Orthodox Church, Orthodox Presbyterian and Orthodox Judaism. I have used the term orthodox assuming that its meaning was correct doctrine/theology. Is it a term I should avoid, so I do not identify myself with people who use the word orthodox to mean a type of church that isn't biblical? What do orthodox churches believe?”

 

Response:

            This is a two part question. Part one’s a lot easier.

 

            Part 1: Using the word “orthodox” is like using the word "catholic." We are not "Catholic," but we are “catholic” (lower case "c"). "We believe in one catholic and apostolic church…" The word "catholic" just means "universal." "Catholic" (upper case “C”) is the religion. 

           The word "orthodox" (with a lower case “o”) is much the same. The word itself just means "true," "right," or "straight." It comes from two Greek words ortho (correct) and doxa (worship). I am an "orthodox" Christian when I have a sound theology, though I may not belong to an "Orthodox Church” (Russian, Georgian, etc.). The “Orthodox Church” (upper case “O”) is the religion. Reformed soteriology, therefore, is only orthodox so long as it's biblical. Only Christians have correct worship, John 4:23. It's not a term exclusively used by the Reformers for their doctrine of salvation. Reformed soteriology is only one of many correct (or orthodox) definitions of salvation. Using the term orthodox is a great thing since we must have proper orthodoxy.

           Part 2: What do they believe? Here’s a very brief answer. I mainly have in mind here the Eastern Orthodox Church which was first known as the Eastern Byzantine Church. I tend to speak more highly of Orthodox churches than I do of Roman ones, but that may only be because I know less about them. Many would not like me relating the two so much. Indeed they are not the same.

           They're the second largest religious group in the world. It's a highly ritualized or formal religion with metric tons of liturgy and recitation. It’s very stylized. Lots of singing (mostly all the service is singing actually). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in anything so formal there's always a great danger or tendency towards mere externals or dead tradition. They broke (officially and finally) from Rome in 1054. There are lots of icons (statues, paintings, etc.) in their churches to “aid their worship.” They do pray for the dead. There are a ton of saints, vestments and pageantry to uphold the “mystery” of truth as they see it. There are a lot of secondary differences between them and Protestantism that would offer us difficulty. On Trinity, they’re sound. They affirm the Resurrection properly. They do, however, hold to the idea of the “literal alteration” of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ A.K.A. transubstantiation. This is something that we as Protestants deny, though many in early church history affirmed it (with, of course, wildly varying definitions). This false doctrine instantly creates a serious problem for me since it straightaway brings in with it all the dangers of priestcraft and sacerdotalism that we observe in Roman Catholicism. They are, I believe, a system that by and large rejects a salvation said to be “completely by grace through faith alone.” Of course, most members would need to be tested here, but their answer would include or preclude them from the faith. I see most Orthodox members responding like Nicodemus in John 3 and marveling improperly and arrogantly about the idea of one being “born again;” that their best just isn’t good enough. I, like the Reformers, believe that justification is the capstone doctrine of the faith no matter what tradition you come from. For me, it’s grace, faith, Scripture, Christ- all alone.

           Their selected highest ranks remain unmarried. Instead of a pope, they have a different patriarchal structure for leadership that’s not nearly as centralized. They are divided from Rome and deny papal primacy. They accept apocryphal books as a "worthy read" but don't hold them as with the other 39 Old Testament books. This makes them like the Roman church in a deuterocanonical type stance. They're also very heavily influenced by patristic tradition. This is material and tradition from the earliest eras of Christianity after the death of the Apostles, and most especially the first seven great ecumenical councils. They, like Rome, hold that they are the true church through a divine succession. They consider the Bible only to be a part of all that came "out" of the Apostolic church whereas you and I as Protestants might see the Bible as more like what actually "made" the Apostolic and early churches (even though our faith did in fact once exist as the “Apostle’s doctrine” in a non-enscripturated form, Acts 2:42). (More on this in a moment). This plays into their strong hold on tradition. The Orthodox Church, as Phil Johnson says in his article Why So Many Denominations?, like Rome, “…Claims to represent the One True Church, [and] their call for “unity” turns out to be nothing but a kinder, gentler way of demanding submission to the Mother Church’s doctrine and ecclesiastical authority.” They claim that anyone not a part of their system has, at least in some manner, lost their/the way.  

           The Orthodox believer likely sees our doctrine of Sola Scriptura as very dangerous. For them, church tradition is the key to unlocking the biblical text properly. Again, this is not necessarily bad; in fact, I think we in the west could benefit from such a stance in many ways, but I would never say that the words of any man outside of Scripture are the key to understanding Scripture. That would mean I’d need their writings as well. The gospel is one for the world. That means, in part, that you can hear it as an 18th century Chinaman and never need to know who Polycarp was to grasp all that Luke said in the New Testament. Polycarp and Athanasius certainly help, but none of their writings are the primers for truth; truth is the primer for truth, and while that always finds its local expression in history, the Scriptures alone stand as a sentinel canon unto themselves.

           They reject penal substitutionary atonement (as the Reformers taught it) which is a big issue for me. They deny that Christ’s death was a satisfaction to God (though terminology here quickly becomes very nuanced). It's hard to speak definitively on the Orthodox Church because it’s just not a system we see here much in the U.S. For the most part, with an Orthodox Church member, who I have very rarely seen, my heart goes out to them with great suspicion.

           The main thing is still the main thing. There is always theology involved in faith. You must obviously be found by the doctrinally correct Jesus to be saved. You must also have the right faith in that right Jesus (as if He gives any other). That faith is a total trust in Him for grace, John 5:24. I suppose the bottom line for me in all this is that if a person cannot let go of any system (and by the way that can include any Protestant system of theology or church doctrine as well) and just trust in Christ alone for salvation (by any legitimate articulation of the idea) then I hesitate to call them saved. I am not one who just says, “Well, I just believe the Bible.” I know that many false religions claim that. Rather, with all that I know from the Bible, and from my fathers in the faith, I am demanded back to a place where I can say that Christ alone saves. My system therefore brings me to Christ because it’s His system. In short, therefore, my system sets itself up to decrease like John the Baptist (John 3:30) as I come to know Christ more and more, and not just it. I am brought, by faith, outside of myself and my own works to Christ’s. I’m brought to that precipice and tossed over the edge into the depths of so great a Savior. My system does inform me of this, but in the end it’s not my system that brings me there because my system is not the Holy Spirit. Christ alone is my joyous boast. Works will always be present, yes, but if any religious system’s adherent cannot totally leave it all aside, even as only for a moment to confess this greatest of truths (a justification by faith alone (Romans 4, et al)) then I cannot doctrinally espouse their system as genuine. In all humility I cannot. The glory of the gospel is completely lost if you deny that it is a participation in His perfect righteousness alone that completely pardons. Christ alone forgives sin. No one else can! Eastern Orthodoxy cannot lay down its system. They simply cannot do it.      

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