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.)

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  1. Thanks for these crash courses in Eastern Orthodoxy, Arden. Very helpful indeed. Are there any introductory books to the topic that you'd recommend?

  2. Hi, Declan. Didn't notice I had a comment. Sorry for taking so long to respond.

    A good place to start reading about Orthodoxy is Kallistos Ware's book, The Orthodox Church. He was raised Anglican and converted in his twenties, later becoming a priest and bishop. Very scholarly but readable.

    God bless.