Why I Am Not Eastern Orthodox

At a certain point in my life it became clear that I could not remain a typical American Evangelical. But where would I end up? One option I considered was becoming Eastern Orthodox.

For an Evangelical discovering more traditional forms of Christianity, accepting certain Catholic beliefs (purgatory, indulgences, papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, etc.) is very difficult.

Catholicism also has things to attract a rightly disposed Evangelical: the liturgy, the Eucharist, confession, confirmation, Sacred Tradition, apostolic succession.

To an Evangelical, Orthodoxy can seem like a way to have the latter without having to accept the former.

Why, then, didn’t I become Orthodox?

One practical hurdle was that in the South, where I grew up, there weren’t many Orthodox around. But that wouldn’t have deterred me. I couldn’t decide on the one, true faith based on which churches are in the local yellow pages. I would have to decide on theological grounds.

The other practical hurdle was a lack of theological resources. There have been more books published since, and much information is available on the Internet (which wasn’t commercially available then), but at the time I was limited to a few books on Orthodoxy by Jaroslav Pelikan and Timothy (now Bishop Kallistos) Ware.

Word Fights

When I began looking at the issues separating Catholics and Orthodox, it turned out that a lot of them were more semantic than substantive. If I became Orthodox, I would have to accept more Catholic things than I at first thought: purgatory, for example. Orthodox don’t traditionally use the word purgatory for the purification that happens after death, but they acknowledge that such a purification happens. They pray for the souls of the departed, which makes sense only if those prayers can help the departed in some way.

Rather than using the image of fire for the purification (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10–15), Orthodox often picture the soul passing through a series of “toll houses” on its road to heavenly glory. It’s a different image, but it points to the fundamental reality that the saved soul may have to undergo some form of ordeal before it is admitted to full heavenly glory.

This seemed to put the question of purgatory in the category of the “word fights” that Paul warns us against (cf. 1 Tim. 6:4–5; 2 Tim. 2:14). It doesn’t matter if the word purgatory is used to describe a particular post-death reality or if precisely the same image is used to allow us to imagine it. The fundamental reality is the same, as is its most obvious practical implication in this life: prayer for the dead. I would have to accept that whether I became Catholic or Orthodox.

Filioque

One of the most-cited issues separating the two churches is the so-called filioque controversy. This term is Latin for “and the Son,” and it refers to the clause in the Nicene Creed that says the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son.”

“And the Son” isn’t in the original Greek version of the Creed. It was inserted later by Western Christians and eventually authorized by the pope. Orthodox often criticize this on various grounds:

  • Including the word makes the Creed inaccurate.
  • The Creed is inviolable and cannot be changed.
  • The pope doesn’t have the authority to change the Creed.
  • If the Creed is to be changed, it should be done in union with the East (meaning specifically the Orthodox).

The last point seemed arguable. Perhaps, for the sake of Christian unity, the Nicene Creed shouldn’t have been changed until such time as unity with the Orthodox was restored. But the inclusion of the filioque in Latin versions of the Creed is a historical fact, and the question of whether it was prudent to add it in that way did not tell me anything about whether the Catholic Church had the authority to do it. The Catholic Church does not claim that its pastors will use their teaching authority in the most prudent manner but only that they are protected from error when they use its full measure.

The criticism of the filioque clause based on the authority of the pope also didn’t help me, as papal authority was a separate issue that I had to work out.

The claim that the Creed was inviolable and can never validly be revised seemed implausible on its face. The Nicene Creed was created to fight heresies, and heretics didn’t stop inventing new ones after it was penned. Even if the Nicene Creed was sufficient to meet the theological challenges of its own day, changing circumstances might call for the creation of new creeds or even a revision of the Nicene Creed itself—for example, if heretics found an insidious way of misinterpreting some of its clauses.

Indeed, that’s how we got the Nicene Creed: It is a revision done in 381 by one ecumenical council (Constantinople I) of a previous creed written in 325 by another ecumenical council (Nicaea I). Heretics were misinterpreting the former creed’s clause concerning the Holy Spirit, so the fathers of Constantinople I revised it to prevent them from doing so.

It thus seemed that the Church’s magisterium has the authority to revise creeds of this nature. The question was whether it did so in the most prudent manner.

This still left me to consider whether the Holy Spirit does proceed “from the Father and the Son.” It might seem like a small matter, but it pertains to the inner life of God, and that makes it important.

I recognized the force of the Catholic arguments concerning the subject. Various Bible passages taken together suggest that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father (cf. Matt. 10:20; John 15:26; Acts 2:33; Gal. 4:6).

Ultimately, though, I recognized that it was not up to me to decide this question; it was up to the Church. On a subject this far from human experience, my feeble mind could not be relied upon. I would have to rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church, which put me back to considering which Church was Christ’s.

(Much more can be said on this subject, including the way it is possible to harmonize the Catholic and Orthodox positions on the matter, but this reflects what I could see at the time. For more information, see the Filioque tract online at www.catholic.com.)

The Papacy

The other most-cited reason for separation between Catholics and Orthodox is the papacy. Orthodox do not recognize the pope as having the kind of teaching and governing authority that the Catholic Church claims.

When I was an Evangelical considering Catholicism—and previously, even when I was quite anti-Catholic—I recognized that there is a certain logic to the office of the papacy.

Organizations need leaders if they are to hang together, and if Christ’s Church is a “visible” Church, then it needs a single earthly leader. It was because I then thought of Christ’s Church as an “invisible” union of all true believers that I didn’t recognize its need for a pope.

The absence of a pope from Eastern Orthodoxy clearly had negative effects. With no pope to call or recognize ecumenical councils, the Orthodox haven’t had one in centuries. As Kallistos Ware virtually admits, there is no practical way for the Orthodox to call or agree upon an ecumenical council (cf. The Orthodox Church, Penguin Books, 255–8).

The absence of a pope has led to a kind of magisterial paralysis on the part of the Orthodox, and this concerned me very much as I recognized the need for Christ’s Church to have a functioning teaching authority capable of settling new theological controversies.

I also recognized that if Peter were the rock Christ speaks of in Matthew 16:18, this would make him the earthly leader of the Church in Jesus’ absence. I just didn’t yet recognize him as the rock. I even recognized that Scripture had in it things that look like an echo of papal infallibility. In the Old Testament the high priest could inquire of God via the urim and thummim (sacred lot), and if God chose to answer, the answer would be correct (cf. Ex. 28:29–30).

There was also the incident in which Caiaphas unwittingly prophesies about the death of Christ. John specifically tells us that “he did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation” (John 11:51).

There thus seemed to be some kind of special teaching charism associated with the earthly leader of God’s people in the Old Testament. While the era of new public revelation is now closed, it wasn’t unreasonable that there be a special teaching charism associated with the office of the earthly leader of God’s people in the New Testament age. “It’s a good thing the Catholics are wrong about Peter being the rock,” I used to say. “Or they’d have an interesting argument for papal infallibility here.”

It emerged in my reading that many Orthodox were prepared to make two key concessions regarding the papacy: that Jesus did give Peter a form of primacy over the other apostles (though this was conceived of “first among equals” role) and that the bishop of Rome is in a special sense the successor of Peter, though other bishops also may in some sense be Peter’s successors. These concessions seemed decisive to me.

The minute it is admitted that Peter has some kind of primacy given to him by Jesus, it becomes very hard to sustain the idea that this was only a kind of “first among equals,” ceremonial authority (such as that of the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court).

First-century Palestinians had a theocratic view of government—literally. It was the first-century Jewish historian Josephus who coined the term theocracy to describe the Palestinian Jews’ belief that God was the King of Israel and its earthly leaders were his proxies. The political institutions the apostles were familiar with didn’t have people who had figurehead positions. Rulers in the East were strong men. If God gave you authority, he gave you authority.

The early Church certainly understood Christ’s ministers as having authority over laity (cf. Heb. 13:17), and if Jesus put one particular minister over the others, it would be understood that he had authority over them. In answering the question of which of the apostles is the greatest (Luke 22:24), Jesus may have stressed the principle of servant leadership (22:25–27) and stressed that all the apostles would have authority (22:28–30), but he identified Peter as the one with pastoral charge concerning the others (22:31–32).

The concession that the bishop of Rome is in a special sense the successor of Peter also had important implications. It meant that both groups could admit that the pope has a special authority based on his connection to Peter. The point of dispute was the kind of authority. While it is understandable that people in the East would be more comfortable with a pope who had a ceremonial role in presiding over the other bishops of the world, I had concluded that this kind of figurehead role was unlikely to be what Jesus gave Peter.

Another consideration presented itself: If God set up the institution of the papacy, which group was he more likely to guide into a correct understanding of it: the group that possessed it or the group that was in separation from it? Common sense would suggest that God is more likely to guide the group that possesses an institution to a correct understanding of it. Biblical precedent would suggest this. When the Northern Kingdom seceded from the South in Israel, a question arose about the Jerusalem temple. God had designated this temple as uniquely his. It was the proper place for Hebrews to worship, including the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom (cf. Deut. 14:22–26; 1 Kgs. 11:36).

It was the Southern Kingdom that properly understood the role of the Jerusalem temple, and the Northern Kingdom came to worship at other, unauthorized sites.

Fractured Unity

As I learned more about Orthodoxy, another set of factors seemed to weigh against it.

Both Eastern Orthodox and Catholics say the Nicene Creed’s affirmation that the Church of Christ is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” but which has the better claim to those notes? I couldn’t say one was holier than the other. Both have great holiness and great wickedness in their histories, and making a judgment based on the variable tides of history would be unwise. Both are apostolic in the sense that they both have apostolic succession.

But the Orthodox communion has an issue when it comes to being “one.” I’m not referring to the dissent and division that has been part of every Christian community since the beginning. I’m referring to the fact that not all Orthodox churches are in full communion with each other. There are situations in which church A is in communion with church B, and church B is in communion with church C, but A is not in communion with C. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is in communion with some Orthodox churches but not others (notably the Russian Orthodox church).

The Eastern Orthodox also have an issue in the degree to which they display catholicity. Compared to the Catholic Church, the Orthodox tend to be confined to a few ethnicities (Russian, Greek, etc.). The Catholic Church, by contrast, embraces far more ethnicities.

This is not an argument by itself, as catholicity is not simply measured by how many cultures a church embraces. Originally, it embraced only one. But Christ gave the Church a mandate to preach the gospel to all peoples (cf. Matt. 28:19–20), and it is worth noting that the Catholic Church has fulfilled this mandate more effectively than the Orthodox church has.

It was also worth noting the size difference between the two. A little over half of all Christians are Catholic, while a little under a quarter are Orthodox. Again, this is not an argument by itself, but it contributed to an overall impression that raises the question: Which of the following is easier to accept?

1. Church A is the true Church of Christ despite being a small, ethnically limited, and internally fractured communion that does not possess the admittedly divine institution of the papacy, while church B is a schismatic church despite it being far larger, having evangelized far more cultures, not having internal full communion problems, and having the institution of the papacy.

2. Church B is the true Church of Christ, and its just-mentioned characteristics are signs of God’s providential guidance, while church A is the body in schism.

It seemed to me that it was easier to explain matters if one accepted the second possibility: The Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ and the Orthodox are, regrettably, in schism at present. It would be much harder to maintain that the Catholic Church is a false superchurch that dwarfs the true Church. Protestants might be able to argue that case by labeling it the Whore of Babylon and attributing all kinds of evil doctrine to it, but that argument would not work for the Orthodox, who are in near-total agreement with Catholic doctrine.

I concluded that I would have to bite the bullet and accept the “hard sayings” of the Catholic Church. After all, Jesus had some hard sayings himself.

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