Monday, October 24, 2011

Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy, part 2

The Plumb LineStraight Answers to Honest Questions

by Arden C. Autry, Ph.D.

Question: A family member has joined the Orthodox Church.  Could you explain the difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy?

Answer (part 2): We share with the Orthodox the heart of Christian faith in Jesus Christ, but differences in emphasis and approach can be seen.  Some differences in worship are like those between Protestants and Roman Catholics, although (as noted in part 1) their rift with the Eastern Orthodox is almost 1000 years old.  On the other hand, heirs of John Wesley can find substantial agreement with Orthodox thinking about salvation.

Orthodox worship looks very "Catholic" to Protestant observers.  That is because key elements of the liturgy (in both churches) pre-date the Great Schism of 1054 A.D.  Orthodox liturgy was never in Latin (as it was in Roman Catholicism until Vatican II) but in the language of the worshipers.  But the Orthodox have always stressed preservation of the traditional form of "Divine Liturgy" (i.e., the Eucharist or Mass).  Like Roman Catholics, the Orthodox place great emphasis on participation in liturgy--the words, gestures, and sacraments.  Protestants do not totally lack the concept of corporate participation, but we are clearly more individualistic in faith and more innovative in worship expression.

Catholics and Orthodox emphasize correct liturgy and the vital connection to historic expressions of the faith (safeguarded by "apostolic succession," their bishops' historical link to the first apostles).  In contrast, Protestants have emphasized correct doctrine and the necessity of personal experience with God (especially in the Pietist, Wesleyan, and Pentecostal streams).  To oversimplify a bit, we can characterize the difference this way: Protestants stress believing; Catholics and Orthodox stress belonging.  Protestants might say that if you believe you belong (to the invisible church).  Catholics and Orthodox claim that you find the fullness of faith only by belonging and participating in the "true church."

John Wesley would start with believing; the Orthodox would start with belonging. Their paths converge, however, with regard to becoming. [Yes, Dr. James Buskirk's headings are quite useful here!]  In contrast to doctrinaire Protestantism (seemingly content with confessing right beliefs), Wesley preached the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and God's will for the "entire sanctification" of Christians.  "Salvation," for Wesleyans, is more than forgiveness of sins. God is changing us; salvation has holiness as its necessary goal. Transformation of character and behavior through the pervasive presence of Christ is an emphasis Wesley found in the New Testament and in the writings of early church fathers, which he read extensively.  This same emphasis on the transformed life is found in the Orthodox Church's language of "deification."  The term sounds strange to Protestant ears, but it refers to the goal for every Christian's life, just as when we speak of "Christlikeness" or "holiness."  (More on this topic in the next column.)

Submit your question to Dr. Arden Autry,

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy, part 1

The Plumb Line

Straight Answers to Honest Questions

by Arden C. Autry, Ph.D.

Question: A family member has joined the Orthodox Church.  Could you explain the difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy?

Answer (part 1): First let's emphasize what we have in common.  We embrace the same essence of Christian faith: Jesus Christ, his person and work. Together we affirm the Trinitarian understanding of God, although Orthodox theologians give this doctrine more centrality than most Protestants.  To compare Orthodox with Protestants, however, we must include a third reference point--the Roman Catholic Church.  And we need to know a little history about the authority of the Pope and the wording of the Nicene Creed.

Before 1054 A.D. there was essentially only one Church.  Then tensions and debates which had been building for centuries caused the "Great Schism" between the churches of the eastern Mediterranean and the churches looking to Rome for leadership.  Among other complaints, Eastern Christians said the Roman bishop (the Pope) was claiming too much authority.  The Roman Catholic view is that the Eastern Church (the "Orthodox") broke communion by rejecting the Pope.  The Eastern Churches (e.g., Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.) feel that Rome broke communion with their historic churches and bishops, who trace their lineage back to the earliest apostles. Each side claims the other caused the split, which has lasted for nearly 1000 years.

The quarrel in 1054 focused on a change in the Nicene Creed--an addition the West adopted but the East refused. In the Nicene Creed (dating from the fourth century and the undivided church) we confess our belief "in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father."  Over the centuries, however, the western churches had added the words "and the Son" (filioque in Latin) to this line. Thus Roman Catholics and Protestants alike say "and the Son" when reciting the Nicene Creed.  The Orthodox refuse to say these words because they regard the addition as illegitimate tampering with Tradition, since the whole Church never agreed to this wording in ecumenical council.  They also argue that the western version relegates the Holy Spirit to a subordinate role, leading to a flawed understanding of the Church.  The theological argument is subtle and complex, but the dispute over who can change the Creed is at the heart of the schism.

Protestants have not cared much about the East-West split.  We have focused more on a split within the West--the Protestant Reformation, 500 years after the Great Schism.  From the 1500s Protestants defined ourselves in significant ways by our differences from the Roman Church, with little or no reference to Eastern Orthodoxy.  As the "world has gotten smaller," however, our contacts with Orthodox Christians have increased.  We have discovered points of commonality but also of difference. In the next column we will identify other distinctives but also surprising affinities with John Wesley's understanding of salvation.

Submit your question to Dr. Arden Autry,