Creation 2.0: Investigating the Orthodox Perspective

As promised, the readers’ comments on the earlier Atonement series spurred me to look more closely into the Orthodox perspective on atonement.

In fact, Michael J. Gorman’s viewpoint is heavily influenced by the Orthodox notion of theosis, that is, God’s purpose that Christians become like/become united with God. And Gorman resonates powerfully with me. And so it seems a natural thing to check into.

Now, the Eastern Orthodox are unfamiliar to most Americans, largely because our cultural heritage is largely from Western Europe, and hence we are strongly influenced by Catholicism and Protestantism — both of which are phenomenons originating in Western Europe.

But the early church was largely an Asian and Eastern European phenomenon — the stomping grounds of Orthodoxy. You see, under Constantine (4th century) the Romans built a second capital in Constantinople, later known as (under Muslim rule) Istanbul. The result was to solidify the Roman Empire’s earlier separation into eastern and western administrative divisions by Diocletian.

The West largely spoke Latin, being ruled out of Rome, whereas the East spoke Greek, as it had going back to Alexander the Great.

The East contained Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria, and countless others of the oldest Christian churches. The West, of course, had Rome, which remained the center of the Empire as a matter of history and heritage, although its power began to move toward the East.

The barbarians — various largely Germanic tribes — attacked the West and ultimately overthrew Rome, but the East remained largely free from the dissolution that destroyed the West. The Eastern Roman Empire thus become the Byzantine Empire — not by conquest or downfall, but by a loss of its Roman and Latin roots. It survived until Constantinople was conquered by the Muslims in 1453 — leading to the Muslim invasion of Eastern Europe.

In the West, the bishop of Rome became the most powerful influence, in part due to his skillful dealings with the barbarians and in part due to the lack of much in the way of civil government. The Roman government had fallen, leaving the church in place as the central, organizing feature of Western civilization.

The result was that, in the West, the church was seen as above civil government. The kings answered to the Pope. The Pope crowned Charlemagne when he became king of the Holy Roman Empire (modern France, Germany, and part of Italy, all under one king).

However, in the East, each major city had its own bishop and none claimed supremacy. Moreover, the government continued to be strong (relatively) and to support the church. The church was very nearly a department of the Byzantine government.

As a result, the Eastern churches rejected the claims of the bishop of Rome to authority over all of Christendom. However, otherwise, the Eastern and Western churches continued to be in fellowship, to hold common church councils and to work together — most of the time.

And yet, because of language and cultural differences, and the sheer difficulty of communicating across lands trapped in the Dark Ages (as was true in the West), the two halves of Christendom became more and more distinct.

In 1054, the East-West Schism occurred, formally dividing the Catholic West from the Orthodox East. Both sides excommunicated the leaders of the other.

The doctrinal points leading to the division seem absurdly trivial to a Protestant reader, and you have to figure that politics and power played a very large role. After all, the East had no interest is submitting to the increasingly powerful Pope or his powerful allies in the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, when Western armies sacked Constantinople on their way to the Crusades, they demonstrated that they considered the Orthodox as no better than pagans — and thus subhuman.

The Orthodox effectively converted to Christianity all of Eastern Europe, including Russia and much of the former Communist bloc nations, from Greece north. The Orthodox church chose to organize itself into national segments, so that there is a Russian Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church, etc., but they consider themselves as making up a single church, but with no formal authority over each other.

Because the Orthodox leaders are often appointed by secular rulers, the Orthodox patriarchs never enjoyed the raw political power of the Pope. Indeed, they routinely found themselves subservient to the state, as the church was generally funded by tax revenues as an arm of the state government. Nearly all churches were state churches in the West, too. The difference is that, in the West, the church saw itself — and was seen — as having authority over kings.

Thus, without a balancing doctrine subjecting kings to the power of the church, state funding of the church inevitably led to state control of the church. There were instances, of course, of church leaders protesting state actions, but it’s easy to trace much of the vast difference in the histories of Eastern and Western Europe to the relative weakness of the Eastern church when confronted with state power, compared with the relative strength of the Catholic Church over against the Western kings.

This is not to approve either structure, just to point out that the difference had a huge impact on the development of the culture of Europe.

During the years of immigration to the US from Eastern Europe during the Ellis Island days, vast numbers of Orthodox Europeans came to the US, and they brought their religion with them.

The Greeks founded Greek Orthodox Churches. The Russians founded Russian Orthodox Churches. Etc. Although the Orthodox had once been great missionaries, by this time, the churches were more closely tied to ethnic identity than to evangelistic mission.

Earlier generations of Americans had, of course, brought their state religions with them, but they quickly became Americanized and transformed their state religions into democratized versions of their European forebears. Thus, the Presbyterian Church was originally the state church of Scotland, but few would identify an American Presbyterian with Scottish heritage today.

However, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Orthodox Church of America was founded, having its roots in the Russian Orthodox Churches in Alaska, although there’d been ethnic Orthodox congregations in the US for around 200 years at that point.

The Orthodox have posted a remarkably frank critique of the American Orthodox experience here and here. In short, they are divided administratively, not nearly as missional as they ought to be, evangelistically weak, and often unwelcoming to converts. (And, of course, we Protestants are often guilty of the very same sins.)

And yet they are experiencing a revival and growth — as many convert to Orthodoxy from other American expressions of Christianity. They admit their problems and are trying to do better.

In theological terms, they have a weak theology of the Kingdom and of the gospel. After all, the call of all nations into a single church, a single Kingdom, under a single king, was meant to do away with ethnic divisions within the church — the very thing that so many of the Orthodox are unwilling to give up in the U.S.

Nonetheless, we who have a Western cultural heritage find that the Orthodox have some insights into the Scriptures that were forgotten by the Western church. You see, the West came to be dominated by the thought of Augustine, who greatly influenced not only Catholicism, but the Lutherans and Reformed (Calvinist) churches as well. The East largely rejected Augustine, and so developed a subtly different theology in many respects — with ideas that simply didn’t make it onto the Western theological radar.

One final point. The Churches of Christ have always spoken highly of the Orthodox, because we share an a cappella heritage with them. I know a large number of former members of the Churches who’ve converted to Orthodoxy. After all, unlike our pretensions, they have roots that provably go back to Pentecost, as a matter of history.

Moreover, they have some attitudes that are very Church of Christ-like. For example,

With reference to the above question, it is particularly instructive to recall the answer once given to an inquirer by the Blessed Theophan the Recluse. The blessed one replied more or less thus: “You ask, will the heterodox be saved… Why do you worry about them? They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins… I will tell you one thing, however: should you, being Orthodox and possessing the Truth in its fullness, betray Orthodoxy, and enter a different faith, you will lose your soul forever.”

Thus, the Orthodox, like many in the Churches of Christ, define the faith that saves in terms of a systematic theology — a body of doctrines — rather than simple faith in Jesus. It changes quite a lot about how we understand our salvation and our Savior. But at least this position is more generous regarding the eternal faith of the non-Orthodox than that of many of my brothers in the Churches of Christ!

And so … I find much to admire in Orthodoxy and expect to learn quite a lot as we consider their views on the atonement. However, I don’t see them as holding a purer, truer gospel than many other denominations. Rather, like so many others, they emphasize some things we ought to emphasize more, and we emphasize some things they ought to emphasize more.

This is why Jesus called us toward a single church, headed by a single King, joined by a singular faith in Jesus. If we would obey that command, our strengths would compound, rather than compete.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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19 Responses to Creation 2.0: Investigating the Orthodox Perspective

  1. Mike Miles says:

    Thanks for this post! I’m currently teaching a Survey of Church History class on Wednesday nights, and as it turns out, I’m discussing the East-West Schism this week. This was very beneficial and providential as I prepare my class notes, as this is a great summary of the origin of Orthodox Christianity and who these churches are.

  2. Doug says:

    One thing CofC’ers most likely would have problems with is the use of icons in the Greek Orthodox Church Buildings. If you have ever been inside a Greek Orthodox Church you know that ornate icons are everywhere inside the buidlings and they are very important to the Orthodox. In fact, the Orthodox Priest who was explaining their church to us spent most of his time discussing the various icons on the walls and dividing curtain inside his church building.

  3. Iconography is a bitter pill, but the Orthodox sing acapella, and we don’t have a lot of allies on that front. Accomodations will just have to be made. Maybe we could just think of the icons as the picture album which goes along with the New Testament…

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    According to the Wikipedia on “Icons” —

    The Eastern Orthodox view of the origin of icons is generally quite different from that of most secular scholars and from some in contemporary Roman Catholic circles: “The Orthodox Church maintains and teaches that the sacred image has existed from the beginning of Christianity”, Léonid Ouspensky has written.[29] Accounts that some non-Orthodox writers consider legendary are accepted as history within Eastern Orthodoxy, because they are a part of church tradition. Thus accounts such as that of the miraculous “Image Not Made by Hands”, and the weeping and moving “Mother of God of the Sign” of Novgorod are accepted as fact: “Church Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon of the Savior during His lifetime (the “Icon-Made-Without-Hands”) and of Icons of the Most-Holy Theotokos [Mary] immediately after Him.”[30] Eastern Orthodoxy further teaches that “a clear understanding of the importance of Icons” was part of the church from its very beginning, and has never changed, although explanations of their importance may have developed over time. This is because iconography is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation (Christ being the eikon of God) which didn’t change, though its subsequent clarification within the Church occurred over the period of the first seven Ecumenical Councils. Also, icons served as tools of edification for the illiterate faithful during most of the history of Christendom.

    and from the Orthodox Church in America,

    In the Orthodox Church the icons bear witness to the reality of God’s presence with us in the mystery of faith. The icons are not just human pictures or visual aids to contemplation and prayer. They are the witnesses of the presence of the Kingdom of God to us, and so of our own presence to the Kingdom of God in the Church. It is the Orthodox faith that icons are not only permissible, but are spiritually necessary because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Christ is truly man and, as man, truly the “icon of the invisible God” (Col 1:15; 1 Cor 11:7; 2 Cor 4:4).

    http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-building/icons

    Love their atonement theology. Just don’t get the icons — not that I’m against art; I just can’t abide turning icons into some sort of law. I guess it’s because I’ve seen the process good idea -> tradition -> law -> element of saving faith far too many times already.

  5. Doug says:

    Jay, it seems that’s the conclusion I’ve come to with every denomination that I have ever been a part of… Love some of it but despair at other parts. Maybe we ought to shoot all the theologians along with ths lawyers. :-)

  6. guy says:

    Jay,

    i’d be cautious about how to interpret the claim that icons are “spiritually necessary.” i doubt that “spiritually necessary” is meant to reference ‘going to heaven when you die’ from an Orthodox perspective. My understanding so far is that we reject that sort of minimalist conception of salvation. Salvation in Orthodoxy is robust and has much more to do with here-and-now salvation than merely what ‘location’ people will be in upon bodily death.

    –guy

  7. Jerry says:

    I’ve been reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He says that in the 8th & 9th centuries, especially, there were literal battles in the East and West over the icons. One Eastern emporer wanted to ban them under the 2nd commandment. However, the monks, the priests, and the common people loved them so much they insisted they not only be retained as aids to devotion, but that they be objects of adoration and veneration. In fact, one esteemed cleric went so far as to say, “It would be better to patronize every brothel in town than to refuse to venerate and worship the icon of the Virgin” (paraphrased from recent memory).

    There were basically three attitudes toward the icons: 1) Ban them as forbidden images. 2) Use them as “visual aids” to stress the humanity of Jesus and to knowing the stories of the Bible. 3) Accept them as objects of worship and sources of miracles. It seems the same attitudes are still present today – but generally without the violent defense of the positions.

  8. guy says:

    Jerry,

    You’re probably right in your breakdown, but i just wanted to point out in Orthodoxy that there is a distinction between “venerate” and “worship”:

    http://orthodoxwiki.org/Venerate

    –guy

  9. Monty says:

    Jay- “I guess it’s because I’ve seen the process good idea -> tradition -> law -> element of saving faith far too many times already.”

    Yup, just try to remove the kissing of the priest’s hand and or some other act of veneration and see what firestorm you start. Then you’ll know if it’s considered just tradition or a saving element that bestows grace.

  10. guy says:

    Monty,

    i’ve seen terrible firestorms in CoC’s over switching worship times or turning an old, un-used chapel into an area for the youth. But in the cases i witnessed, i’d still say those were attachments to traditions and not belief that 10:30am or ‘our-first-auditorium’ are “saving elements that bestow grace.”

    –guy

  11. Alabama John says:

    Many churches of Christ in this area will not have the icon of the cross anywhere in their building or worn around their neck. It’s seen as what was used to torture and kill Christ. Its felt and taught you might just as well wear an electric chair icon around your neck or a hangmans noose as a cross.

  12. David Brent says:

    Thanks Jay for investigating the perspective of the Orthodox Catholic Church.

    I started studying Orthodoxy seriously this past year and have made some comments on this blog site about it. When I began, I was sceptical of the icons. They were weird, but after opening my mind and heart I have come to see the beauty and value of the icons. No, I have not converted to Orthodoxy. Not yet. But I have learned so much that we in the Church of Christ haven’t had the benefit of learning because of our historical ties to the Reformation, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism, as Jay has already pointed out. Icons are not easy to explain. They are complicated. But it is worth the investment of time to learn about their meaning and purpose. In fact, studying the overall aspects of the faith of the Orthodox has been a great help in my own faith.

    Icons are not idols. They are not worshiped. Icons are representations of reality . . . a physical reminder that the “cloud of witnesses” is real. From Hebrews 12:1 (ESV) . . . “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,”. The “cloud of witnesses” is stressed much more by the Orthodox than in the brotherhood of Churches of Christ.

    The Orthodox adorn their sanctuaries with icons. When they worship as assembled Christians, the icons visually demonstrate that the worship is done in the presence . . . in the company . . . of the whole church . . . of all believers past and present. (Even future Christians are included, but that is a different conversation.) In fact, those Christians that are depicted in the icons are not just present but are also joining in the worship. The “cloud of witnesses” joins in the worship with those who are present.

    The Orthodox develop relationships with those that are depicted in icons, and as such, the icons are venerated. (In addition to Jesus, the icons depict Mary, the 12 Apostles, church Fathers, etc.) But they are not worshiped. Worship is reserved for our Trinitarian God. (Veneration is an expression of a relationship with that which is represented.)

    There is so much more to icons. I have provided some links for those that are interested. Enjoy!

    http://lettersonorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/taking-a-look-at-icons/

    http://orthodoxbridge.com/calvin-versus-the-icon/

    http://orthodoxbridge.com/icons-and-the-veneration-of-saints/

    http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/icons-and-truth-2/

    http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/smashing-icons/

    And by the way, Father Stephen’s blogsite is one of the best I have every found. It has taught me more about Truth than I thought possible. When I talk to Orthodox Christians about my interest in Orthodoxy, many will direct me to this site as a must read. I have gone back into the archives and found it to be a rich deposit worth delving into. I have learned more from this site than I have from the past 20 years of Sunday School.

  13. Jerry says:

    David,
    It would not be difficult to learn more from almost any serious theological site than one would learn in 20 years of Sunday School. Most Sunday Schools are 1) shallow, 2) poorly taught, 3) disorganized, and 4) repetative of “first principles” (which means the things that make the coc superior to other churches).

    Thanks for the links, however. I have an interest in the Orthodox persectives, as I am involved with Eastern European Mission. We work in many nations where the Orthodox are the national churches. From what I have learned so far, historically they are under the thumb of the national governments, a hold over from the period of their formation in the days of the decline and fall of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Even today, there is a close connection between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, the Patriarch even being in the line of succession to the Russian presidency.

  14. David Brent says:

    Jerry,

    Glad the sites are of interest to you. My wife and I also support Eastern European Missions. We give directly. We love EEM!

    I often wonder about the Orthodox in Russia and Ukraine.

    I follow a lot of American Orthodox websites. I am drawn to it in part because of the language they use . . . by the conversations they are having. I sense a lot of deep spiritual wisdom at the base of Orthodoxy. But something doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand how they can have so much understanding, wisdom, and conviction and at the same time have their own countrymen starving for Jesus. I don’t know why they can’t give out Bibles and provide spiritual educational materials to the schools! What must it feel like to have foreigners come in to their own country to do the work they should be doing? How can they know so much and do so little?

    Do they applaud the work EEM is doing? Do they even know it is going on?

    I know this criticism could be launched at Churches of Christ for the lack of involvment we have in our own communities. It is easy to see the weakness of others more clearly than to see our own.

    Above you referred to the relationship of the national Orthodox churches to the national governments. I agree with the historical background you mentioned. From what I have learned, however, the Orthodox believe there should be a relationship between the two . . . that they should be linked and work together cohesively. When they look at the seperation of church and state in the US, they see a model that will continue to drive society’s moral fabric downward and exasberate the multiplication of endless denominationism.

  15. David Brent says:

    I can’t speel!

    I meant “exasperate the multiplication of endless denominationalism.”

  16. Jnorm888 says:

    Jay Quin, I hope you don’t mind if I inter-act with what you said here.

    You said:
    “Thus, the Orthodox, like many in the Churches of Christ, define the faith that saves in terms of a systematic theology — a body of doctrines — rather than simple faith in Jesus. It changes quite a lot about how we understand our salvation and our Savior.”

    From how I look at things, I don’t necessarily view the Faith that saves in terms of a systematic theology or body of doctrines alone, for not only do we Baptize infants, we give them Holy Communion too. We also do the same with the severely mentally impaired under our care. And so I see the Faith that saves as being more in the area of Loyalty, Compassion, Mercy, and Love(faith that is informed by Love) first and for most. Reason and Comprehension of the doctrines can come in time as the child grows in faith. For us, it’s not just up to the parents/guardians to help the infant/child grow in faith. It’s the duty of the whole congregation/parish/New Covenant Community. And so a simple faith in Jesus that doesn’t include the Church would be considered like a type or form of Docetism to us.

    I also view the one church issue as more organic and Christological, for our Ecclesiology is closely connected or linked with our Christology and so the quote you gave by the Blessed Theophan the Recluse is telling me that it’s all about Union with Christ. For we actually see ourselves as being made one with Him(The Logos Incarnate), and so when we talk like that it’s because we mystically see ourselves as being united with the Resurrected Body of Christ.

    I hope I wasn’t harsh in my reply.

  17. Jerry says:

    In Ukraine, the Orthodox are either supportive or neutral toward EEM’s activity. In Russia, some have actively opposed our work at times.

    The young woman who is currently directing our distribution center in Ukraine has always been highly spiritual. When she was 8 years old, she asked her parents to pay for her to be baptized by an Orthodox priest. (Evidently they charge for this “service,” something I had also run across nearly 50 years ago in New Zealand as I studied with a man from the Orthodox movement.) When she was 12, she wanted a Bible from the same source – but found she would have to go on a waiting list and pay a large amount for the Bible. Soon after that, she came across American missionaries there who gave her an EEM provided Bible. Soon after that, she was baptized in the church of Christ, and has been a zealous follower of Jesus ever since.

    I have decided that nearly all denominatiions have some truths that they understand quite well. Then, they tend to make these ideas normative for all and tests of fellowship with other Christians. Eventually, these “truths” become shallow concepts that provide points in the “Creed” (written or unwritten). The words used to describe them are still true, though the understanding becomes shallow, even to the point that most members of the denomination have little to no understanding of the great truth these words represent.

    Unfortunately, I believe the Church of Christ also shares in this phenomena….

  18. Anon says:

    I am Orthodox (though raised Baptist) and spend a lot of time in Eastern Europe for business. One thing to bear in mind is that Christians were brutally persecuted there on a scale that is difficult to comprehend and without precedent – it will take generations to recover and restore the full vitality and health of the Church from within. Unfortunately so many missions to that region were about proselytizing, which has created a deep suspicion amongst many Orthodox.

    Things are slowly improving – offering a hand to the local Church and working with them in brotherly love and service would go a long way toward healing both the local communities and suspicions that in some cases are learned responses. And of course we give out Bibles!

    One comment on the article – it overstates somewhat dramatically the subordination of local Churches to the state – just read the history of Orthodox saints to see how many were persecuted by Emperors.

  19. Neal Roe says:

    Brother Jay, thank you. I am catching up and totally stoked on the Orthodox inclusion. Thankfully folks like Jnorm888 and Anon have dialed in, hope they stay. The fact is the Eastern Christians have a documented history of survival that we should respect and study. I have a weekend of surgery recovery and will be glued to the site.

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