The recent welcome of Evangelical radio apologist, “The Bible Answer Man” —Hank Hanegraaff, into the Greek Orthodox Church[1] has understandably raised more than eyebrows. Questions about the differences between Protestants and Orthodox have been coming my way in the aftermath, so I want to offer to Good Book Blog readers an essay I wrote for Talbot’s Sundoulos magazine back in 2008. In it you’ll find some general characteristics of the Orthodox denomination as well as key points of difference with Protestants—some of which converts such as Hank Hanegraaff would typically need to renounce as they formally enter Orthodoxy.[2]

On Orthodoxy East and West [3]

Exterior of a Greek Orthodox ChurchI imagine I was like many of my western missionary colleagues when it came to the Orthodox Church in those early days after the break up of the Soviet Union—namely, naïve. The little thought I had given to Eastern Christianity had found easy (read: ignorant) bliss in the idea that in studying the Roman Church I pretty much had the Greek one down too. Just different “bells and whistles” on this exotic eastern model. What was my surprise then when an Orthodox cleric once said, “It’s you Protestants who are closer to Catholics than either of you are to us Orthodox.” What?! In the years since, I have come to see that in many ways my Orthodox friend was right … and in other ways, I’m not so sure. In the brief space allotted here I’ll try to elaborate something of what I mean.

My own ignorance of the Eastern branch of Christianity, also known as Eastern Orthodoxy, is most likely not all that uncommon for most American Protestants. Though a somewhat indigenous, American kind of Orthodoxy is growing here, many of us have never encountered this church in any significant way other than “Big Fat Greek Weddings” or the like. Even those who have seriously engaged the American kind of Orthodoxy that is not particularly associated with an ethnic group (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.) should realize there are significant variances between what they may have seen here and what missionaries engage in other parts of the world. For one thing, there is less nationalistic flavour to American Orthodoxy. As the Epanagoge, a ninth century classic expression of Byzantine Church-State synergy relates, Orthodoxy does seek to identify itself as the ‘soul’ of the State.[4] Such identification translates in the mind of many nationalities into a blurring of political/cultural and religious boundaries. “Russian and Orthodox—synonymous words,” bluntly asserts the “Beware, Protestants!” poster plastered in Kyiv trams in the early 1990’s. Likewise rumbling deep in the Russian soul is the dictum of the great Russian writer, F. M. Dostoyevsky, that “a Russian without Orthodoxy is but a drone, not a person.” Ethnic identity tied to one faith is generally foreign to us in this land of emigrants of ours, but elsewhere in the globe it is not. And unfortunately for Orthodoxy, in these other lands the Orthodox faith gets dragged into the tribal pride that infects us all to one extent or the other. Xenophobia and other dark sides of nationalism are painted with Orthodox colors in Russia today.

This absence of nationalism in American Orthodoxy is part of the reason why my Ukrainian colleagues in Kyiv consider us to have a kinder, gentler Orthodoxy, a “sanitized version” here, as they say. Another contributing factor is that Orthodoxy in America was heavily influenced in the 20th century by a particular group of Orthodox intellectuals who found refuge from the Bolshevik Revolution in Paris. The “Parisian School” with well-known names like Georges Florovsky, Sergius Bulgakov, Vladimir Lossky and later John Meyendorff advanced a “neo-patristic synthesis” calling Orthodoxy back to its traditional roots in the Church Fathers. The result was a return to the spirit of the early church that was, for one thing, more respectful of Scripture and less encumbered by 20th century politics. The dismissive attitude to the apostle Paul by Russian Orthodox apologist Deacon Andrei Kuraev, “Certainly the word of the Savior himself means more than the word of an apostle,”[5] are as unpalatable to most American Orthodox as they are to us.

These matters of context aside, Orthodox East and West do share a basic ethos and common way of telling the Christian story. Here was where I eventually learned that the priest was right: Orthodox are different from Catholics and Protestants. In the introduction to his fine book about Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes, Donald Fairbairn does an admirable job of sketching the contours of what might be called the “Eastern Way.”[6] Categories he uses for the Orthodox way of doing Christianity include concepts of Group (East) versus Individual (West); personal, mystical participation (East) versus legal; pictorial-image oriented versus meaning-text oriented; Christian life as a process (East) versus Christian life as a condition (West); and finally truth found in the Church in its entirety, i.e., Holy Church Tradition (East) versus truth found in a particular source of authority (Bible or Magesterium--Papacy) that stands over and above the Church.

As a western person with a western training, I found that my day-to-day encounters with these eastern currents proved very enriching for my own theological formation. Orthodox emphasis of concepts like the communion of the saints, the lex orandi which fixes theological reflection firmly in doxology, worship, and prayer; and the Christian life as theosis which takes very seriously Peter’s words about us as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), all filled out areas in my own understanding of God and his ways. Methodologically, I find Orthodox theologians to be unabashedly Trinitarian in their reflection. Rather than a mere beginning point for dogmatics that develops syllogistically and rationally from there (typical Western), the Trinity—Christianity’s true glory, is the golden thread woven throughout every locus of doctrine. Ecclesiology becomes not just doctrine about the church; it is about the church through the lens of the Trinity. Anthropology is not just doctrine about humanity; it is about humanity through the lens of the Trinity. Etc. Here the Trinity is what it should be--Christianity’s trump card to all other religions in the marketplace. Rather than sheepishly tiptoe around the subject because of the hard “Trinitarian Math” (3 = 1), Orthodox seemed to celebrate the Trinity more than I did.

I further appreciated Orthodoxy’s basic conservatism. Although the claim that they are the Church that has alone retained the faith and practice of the apostles is perhaps too bold as we shall see below, it was the Greek east that stood up to the novelty of the Papacy the west was pushing. The filioque controversy, which today remains the shibboleth (from the Orthodox perspective) dividing east from west, was born from the east’s vehement protest to some late (6th century) adding words to the ecumenical creed by the western Church.[7]

Of course, conservatism has its down sides too. It can make institutions and traditions impervious to needed change and growth. The Church Father Cyprian once wrote that “Antiquity without truth is but an old error” (Epistle 74). And he was right. Just because something is old does not make it true or right, and here Orthodox conservatism sometimes consternates even the faithful. One case of this that attracts much attention today from Orthodox themselves is the curious absence of any citation from the book of Revelation in the Holy Liturgy. As anyone familiar with the Orthodox Liturgy knows, it is a wonderful repository of both Old and New Testament Scriptures, but why not a single citation from Revelation the most liturgical book of the New Testament?[8] The usual explanation offered for this by Orthodox is that at the time the Liturgy was formulating in 4th century Syria, Revelation was not considered to be canonical in this region, so it was left out.[9] So by their strict conservatism a misstep that may have been prudent in the 4th century continues to mark the Church down to the present century.

Another trace of Orthodox conservatism may be found in the Orthodox approach to the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation. To Protestants and Orthodox alike, the Orthodox Church remains to this day an unreformed Church. The 16th century dissent from Luther and company that ultimately brought about the churches of the Reformation and reactionary changes in Catholicism did not touch the Orthodox Church of the eastern regions. But the moniker unreformed does not particularly bother Orthodox, in fact, they glory in their resilience against the Reformation. Why? Two reasons. First, because the Protestant play proved what the East had said for centuries about the waywardness of Rome. The Catholic west had needed reforming since the day the local church at Rome began abusing its primacy of honor. By the 16th century, Catholicism was corrupt in both doctrine and practice of the Christian life. In this, the Orthodox see the Protestant reaction as correct and appropriate. But, and this is the second reason, it was “too little too late.” The Protestant agenda, while well intended, was not able to give the needed corrective because it too was but a creature of the Roman west. Orthodox are quick to point out that the Reformation was really an internecine sort of battle. It was fought on western soil over western doctrinal novelties. It used western language, methods and approaches. In short, in the view of the Orthodox the Reformation is still infected with the western approach to Christianity—things highlighted by Fairbairn above. The Reformers had given different answers to the Catholics, yes, but they were still western, individualized, and forensic answers.

In my view, the Orthodox charge here is fairly leveled at us, at least in part. Protestantism is a movement colored by the historical context of its birth. However, and this is where Orthodox are not apt to concede, in this Protestantism is like every other denomination, Orthodoxy included. If the Catholics and the Protestants are guilty of being over contextualized, of having their telling of the Christian Story shaped by the language and philosophies of the Roman legal mind and the Scholastics’ rationalism, how did the Greek East escape similar influences in their own context? Is the Orthodox telling of the Christian Story with its own emphases, starting points, central motifs and presuppositions free of the influence of alien philosophies and cultural norms? The very idea that the Eastern Church alone escaped unscathed strains belief; it is also not well supported in fact.

Clearly there were historically contextualized forces that pushed and pulled and ultimately left their mark on the ecumenical patristic Church’s theological reflection, which is the common root of the tradition shared by Orthodox and Catholic alike and most jealously guarded by the Orthodox. And here is where Protestants level their protest and appeal for the distinctives that truly make them different from both the Orthodox and the Catholics. No one denies that a Sunday morning reading of the Holy Liturgy in Orthodox churches today has forms not found in the worship of the apostolic churches of the New Testament including “priests,” altars, sacramentals (holy water, etc.), and icons. The role the Virgin Mary takes on also rings very different to the New Testament. Bulgakov’s words, that “a faith in Christ which does not include His virgin birth and the veneration of His Mother is another faith, another Christianity from that of the Orthodox Church. Protestantism is this other sort of Christianity…” are strong indeed given the “curtain of silence” drawn around Mary in the Church’s first four hundred years.[10] By the same token no one denies either that the melodies of Platonic philosophy get a lot of air-time in the patristic Tradition. The east’s earliest major theologians (Origen and the Cappadocian fathers) were all well-versed in the ascent of the soul, the contemplative ideal as the summum bonum, and gnosis true and false.

The point to these and many more examples like them is the question of the authority of Holy Church Tradition in the Christian life and the way doctrine developed following the apostolic period. It is precisely why the Protestants called for the single authority of Scripture in their sola Scriptura mantra. Without an authority outside the human condition, we all are going to tell the King’s Story a little slanted to the times in which we live. But Orthodox explicitly deny sola Scriptura, saying Scripture alone is not sufficient for this task. In fact, Scripture is formally and materially insufficient for Christian faith and practice. Scripture is formally insufficient because it’s just a literary form that still requires the total life context of the Church for its proper interpretation. After all it was the Spirit-led Church that gave us the New Testament in the first place! Scripture is materially insufficient because it does not even contain the necessary records of worship and liturgy the Church needs for faith and practice.[11]

Despite the fact that Scripture never sanctions any interpretive lenses other than itself (see Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:4-9; 2 Tim. 3:16), the Orthodox point of view does call for further reflection about the nature of the New Testament as tradition in its own right. Simply put, the difference here is that Protestants understand the New Testament as unique apostolic tradition which does not begin a story; it finishes it. The apostles were Jesus’ uniquely commissioned emissaries to found, build and establish the Church (Matt. 16:19; Eph. 2:20), but their witness is not merely to Jesus. Theirs is a witness to Jesus as the Omega-point for God’s kingdom plan that has been unfolding since Eden’s garden (Eph. 1:9-11). This is the biblical, apostolic tradition that makes Protestants not look forward from the apostles to the Church’s tradition for interpretive norms to understand Jesus as much as it makes them look back to the Old Testament’s theological norms, promises and life Jesus satisfies. In the Old Testament are the powerful, wide, and rich motifs of covenant and kingdom that in Christ give the necessary contours to the life the Church is to model. This is the tradition the apostles bore witness to and so founded the Church. Therefore, to say that "the Church gave us the Bible" is for Protestants is something of a putting the cart before the horse, a confusion of categories. It confuses the truth itself with a particular medium of the truth. It is something like saying that Jesus did not exist before his story was put to papyrus by the Gospel writers.

The apostolic, biblical tradition established in the Old Testament is also why Protestants in sola Scriptura see no lack of information in the New Testament that the Church through its tradition must shore up. It is true the NT contains precious little on the forms of the apostolic worship. But maybe this is the whole point! Maybe it is precisely the point of the Church’s coming to maturity from the Old Covenant to the New, that fixed and detailed liturgical forms become of secondary importance. For the believer who is a temple filled with the Spirit of the living God himself (1 Cor. 6:19), response to God is more principled than codified as Jesus said (John 4:22-24). It is inexorably charismatic, full of “body life” and Christ-centered. And this we do see in the New Testament church with abundance (1 Cor. 14:26)! So rather than rue a lack of form in the NT, Protestants welcome this phenomenon as yet another harbinger of the fullness the believer enjoys in the Holy Spirit. Longing for the formalism of the Old Testament is longing for a bygone day. It is an unfortunate rejudaization of the New Covenant that also crept into the early patristic tradition, church historian Jaroslav Pelikan points out.[12]

A final clarion of the Reformation denied in the Orthodox Tradition is salvation sola fidei, by faith alone. Here again Protestants see more of the all-too-human side of the early patristic tradition and not enough of the biblical, apostolic one. “I am being saved” is how Kallistos Ware answers the old Gospel query, “brother are you saved?” In this he reflects the fundamental future orientation of salvation in the Orthodox Story. Salvation ultimately is the completion of the process of theosis--a matter of becoming like God (in his moral characteristics) and fellowshipping with Him forever. Orthodox now walk the road of “becoming saved” by faithful participation in the life of the Eucharistic community, the Church. For Protestants this amounts to a collapsing of justification into sanctification because it neglects the past tense of the believer’s salvation.[13] Paul addresses the past tense and its relation to faith alone very clearly in his letter to the Romans. The first five chapters establish that peace with God, reconciliation, and justification became the believer’s possession at the moment of faith. Note the past tense orientation to Paul’s words:

Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God…having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation (Rom. 5:1-2, 9-11).

So the believer can rejoice now because she has confidence of having already escaped God’s wrath by faith in Christ. She is accepted, reconciled, justified, and at peace with God because the hammer’s blow for her sin was taken at the cross, and it was taken by Jesus. This is indeed Good News.

Only armed with the confidence in the new status gained by faith alone in chapters one through five can discussion of the daily process of “Christianizing the Christian” or sanctification properly begin as it does in Romans chapter six. This is how our telling of the Story must go, too. Salvation’s present and future for us are always couched in salvation’s past. Otherwise the good works that are supposed to flow from new life subtly become works that create new life, faith in Christ fades into faith in Church administered rites, other “means of grace” supplied by Church Tradition gain a sense of urgency that is absent from the New Testament, and the assurance of salvation remains elusive. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright puts his finger on the core of it all, however, when he writes “where confidence before God is founded upon Christ’s work alone, there is no need for sacramentals, devotion to Mary, rote prayers, and sacramentalism in general.”[14]

Wright’s words may set us back on our heels a bit for their bluntness, but that is what grace does. It’s a blow square in the face of the way we naturally operate. In the fullness of the New Covenant revelation of the apostles’ witness no human-shaped tradition, Orthodox or Protestant, holds any weight. May God give us grace that in our telling of the Great Story to our generation we listen and find the profit that we should from one another, but all hold fast to the witness of grace and truth our Lord delivered from the Father in heaven. “He who comes from above is above all” (John 3:31).

[2] See John H. Erickson, “The Reception of Non-Orthodox into the Orthodox Church,” St. Vladimir’s Quarterly 41 (1997): 1 –17.

[3] Sundoulos (Spring, 2008): 2-7.

[4] From the “Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” a document issued in 2000 by the council of Russian Bishops. Accessed at <<>> on November 13, 2007.

[5] Dn. Andrey Kuraev, Protestantam o Pravoslavii (Moskva: Svato-Tritzkoї Sergievoї Lavry, 1997), 60.

[6] Donald Fairbairn, Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes (Westminster John Knox, 2002). See the introductory chapter.

[7] Filioque, literally, “and the Son”, refers to the Trinitarian source of the sending of the Holy Spirit. The Nicene creed left the matter of the Spirit’s sending to the Father. The Spirit’s sending from the Father “and the Son” first is added to the creed in 589 in the Spanish city of Toledo. Although Scripture clearly speaks of Jesus’ sending of the Spirit (John 15:26), the Orthodox qualify the Son’s role to one of agency. The Spirit is from the Father through the Son. Saying the Spirit is from the Father and the Son robs the Father of his uniqueness in the Trinitarian relationship.

[8] Grant Osborne’s assessment in his massive commentary, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 12.

[9] John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 15.

[10] Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 116. Church historian J. N. D. Kelly, says that prior to the fifth century there is no written evidence that believers prayed to Mary or believed in her capacity to defend or help Christians (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989], 491).

[11] For expressions of the Orthodox views of the material and formal insufficiency of Scripture, see, for example, John Whiteford, “Sola Scriptura: In the Vanity of Their Minds,” (, accessed November 9, 2007.

[12] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971) 26.

[13] Donald Fairbairn has a good discussion of the significance of the past tense in an unpublished paper, “A Summary of Eastern Orthodox Thought,” March 1993, pp. 6-8.

[14] N. T. Wright, “Justification: The Biblical Basis and Its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism,” in The Great Acquittal: Justification by Faith and Current Christian Thought, ed. G. Reid (London: Collins, 1982), 31.