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,

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting to learn all that church history. I'd be especially interested to learn more history regarding the Pope and the relationship of the church to that position. For example I have heard (though never understood) that at some point there were two popes. I look forward to reading your next column