Though it does not stand as strongly relatable to many evangelicals of the west, the Eastern Orthodox Church is one major arm of the Christian Church. As possibly viewed through either a Roman Catholic lens or an overly Eastern lens (e.g., Buddhism), many within the evangelical tradition are left with questions of who is this group and what do they really believe at their core.
From a brief introduction to church history, many will know they came into their own following the Great Schism of 1054 CE, through division over papal authority and the addition of a particular Latin word to the old Nicene Creed. However, this branch of the Christian faith has offered many contributions down through the ages. I’ll simply identify 4 in particular.
When speaking of personal transformation, the evangelical camp would refer to the great concept of sanctification. We will easily recall such passages as Romans 12:1-2. Interestingly enough, the Orthodox speak of such transformation as well. Yet, they use different terminology that offers a unique spin on this biblical belief. That term is theosis and it is defined as such:
“Theosis is the understanding that human beings can have real union with God, and so become like God to such a degree that we participate in the divine nature. Also referred to as deification, divinization, or illumination, it is a concept derived from the New Testament regarding the goal of our relationship with the Triune God.”1
The goal is to become like God, recalling such passages as Matthew 5:48 (becoming perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect) and 2 Peter 1:4 (becoming partakers of the divine nature). It was Athanasius himself who declared: “God became man so that men might become gods.” To dispel any wrong conceptions concerning this doctrine of theosis, Shuttleworth remarks:
“The human person does not merge with some sort of impersonal divine force, losing individual identity or consciousness. Intrinsic divinity is never ascribed to humankind or any part of the creation, and no created thing is confused with the being of God. Most certainly, humans are not accorded ontological equality with God, nor are they considered to merge or co-mingle with the being of God as He is in His essence.”2
Here is a word that would cause many evangelicals to squirm. Fear arises as we consider the possibility of Mary-worship or a fully-orbed Mariology that is foreign to the Bible itself (i.e., there is pretty strong biblical evidence that the concept of the immaculate conception is untrue).
The word theotokos literally means “bearer of God,” not “mother of God.” In detailing the history behind this word, Justo Gonzalez, clarifies the nature of the debate: “But in truth, the debate was not so much about Mary as about Jesus. The question was not what honors were due to Mary, but how one was to speak of the birth of Jesus.”3
The concept did not actually come about in light of such practices as the veneration of the saints who have gone before us. Rather, it centered around the theological debates of the early 5th century, particularly between Nestorius of Antioch (holding an Arian view) and Cyril of Alexandria (championing the orthodox, Nicene view). Nestorius declared that Jesus held “two natures and two persons,” rather than two natures in one person. The human nature and person were born of Mary, but the divine were not. One can see the danger of dividing Christ into two beings. All of this was settled at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE.4
Now, when the Theotokos, or Mary, is invoked and prayed to, this is no doubt a problematic notion for evangelical Christians. Such a practice seems devoid of biblical support, at least within the Protestant canon. All one can find is a couple of deuterocanonical references (2 Maccabees 15:14; Baruch 3:4). However, when one keeps the word within its historical context, one can appreciate its place within church history, all the while trying to correctly understand why the Orthodox do offer prayers to Mary, God-Incarnate’s bearer.
This takes us to another challenging doctrine of Eastern Orthodoxy – that of icons. The tradition of such is truly foreign to evangelicals, especially the veneration of such saints in the images. To simply have the array of icons spread around the Orthodox Church buildings is probably not as problematic, at least in likening it to varying stained-glass artwork found within some of our own edifices. Still, for those with negative views of icons themselves, the words of the old saint, John of Damascus, proves food for thought:
“To depict God in a shape would be the peak of madness and impiety…But since God….became true man…the Fathers, seeing that not all can read nor have the time for it, approved the descriptions of these facts in images, that they might serve as brief commentaries.”5
In the end, for the Orthodox, the matter was settled at the Seventh Council of the Church, particularly at Nicaea in 787 CE. There, the leaders of the day distinguished between latria, the worship due only to God, and dulia, the worshipful veneration given to images of the saints. Whether one finds this practice acceptable or not, the church historic owes much to the Eastern Church and its housing of icons through the centuries. There can be a sense of awe and honor seen in these depictions of our Lord, the Theotokos, John the Baptist and a host of the historic fathers and mothers of the faith.6
4) Sacramental Mysteries
Like the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy holds to seven sacraments: baptism; chrismation (confirmation); the eucharist; penance; the priesthood; marriage; and the anointing of the sick. However, there seems a more developed theology behind the nature of the sacraments, particularly how the invisible grace of the invisible God is made known through the visible.
Karkkainen defines the focus of sacramentalism: “…God’s grace is both mediated and experienced by and through the sacraments of the church.”7 He continues, “It does not downplay the meaning of faith, as is often depicted in Protestant caricatures of sacramentalism, but rather brings faith into focus.”8
The explanation moves further as the Orthodox bring in the element of mystery. This, too, is a word that stirs discomfort for western evangelicals whose faith is usually defined by propositionally driven theological statements. However, the East provides us with a flavor more akin to the ancient biblical community, noting they were situated in a more eastern setting where mystery was welcome. Rev. Alciviadis C. Calivas reminds us what the word, mystery, means: “The word mysterion essentially means anything hidden or incomprehensible.”9 He goes on to explain the concept of the sacramental mystery:
“The holy mysteries are at once inward and outward in character. Redeeming and sanctifying grace is transmitted by visible means…This embodiment of spiritual realities in material form is rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation and the ultimate redemption of matter. It is consistent with the very nature of the Church as the divine-human institution and the continuing mystery of Christ’s presence in history. It also affirms the basic ‘goodness’ of nature and recognizes the psychosomatic nature of humankind.”10
And the end goal of mystery for the Orthodox is that it continues beyond the seven sacraments themselves, as noted by Karkkainen: “This union is fulfilled in the sacramental life.”11 This is where sacramentalism begins to truly affect the life of the church.
While the Protestant-evangelical wing will have much to wrestle with if it wants to truly understand the Eastern Orthodox Church, rather than discarding it too easily, we must recognize that this tradition has carried a voice for two millennia, impacting the church not just on its own “side of the world,” but right over into the western, developed world of the 21st century.
1. [Mark Shuttleworth , “Theosis: Partaking of the Divine Nature,” accessed on February 3, 2015, http://www.antiochian.org/content/theosis-partaking-divine-nature.%5D↩
3. [Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2001), 254.]↩
4. [Ibid., p252-257.]↩
5. [Ibid., p260, quoting John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, 4.16.]↩
6. [Ibid., p260-261.]↩
7. [Veli-Matti Karkkainen. An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), loc.184.]↩
8. [Ibid., loc.184-185.]↩
11. [Karkkainen, loc.187.]↩