Eastern Orthodoxy (Part IV)

By Frederica Mathewes-Green:

3.) In At the Corner of East and Now you mention that while Protestants tend to see Orthodox and Catholics as closely related brethren, Orthodox tend to see Protestants and Catholics this way. Can you explain the difference in understanding?

Answer: It's funny, but I remember when my editor was going over that chapter, he wrote in the margin that I needed to give some examples of what Protestants and Catholics disagree about; as a Jewish man, he didn't know what they were.

It took me a very long time to grasp how Orthodoxy is different. As I said above, there is really no book that encapsulates it. I learned, I guess, the old-fashioned way, the way people have assimilated this faith from the beginning, by going to worship and listening. The words of the services are very rich and full of teaching. The feast in early June of the Council of Nicea, for example--the hymns recount it all thoroughly, explain what Arius taught, why he was wrong, what the council decided, etc. Since worship has been in the vernacular through history, even illiterate peasants could get a thorough theological education, just by going to church and listening.

Gradually, gradually, over several years, I began to grasp how it differed from both Catholic and Protestant traditions. First, there is an expectation that every Christian (every person, actually) is called to this transformation in Christ. It's not just for "mystics" -- in fact, there is no word for "mysticism" in Orthodoxy. There is just the normal Christian life. We don't have pietistic (some would say narcissistic) "spirituality", because the essential test of growth in Christ is humility and active love for others.

Another difference from Western Christianity is that this transformation includes the body as well as the soul. There isn't the dualism that keeps troubling the West. This is why, in the early church, they gathered the bloody remains of martyrs and placed them under the altar (in Revelation, John hears the voice of the martyrs crying out from beneath the altar). The body of a Christian, not just his mind or soul, literally participates in Christ ("partakers of the divine nature" says St Peter), which is also evident from their belief that the Eucharist is really Christ's Body and Blood. Post-Communion prayers speak frankly of the physical Eucharist passing "through me, to all my joints, my kidneys, my heart" -- un-squeamish about that. Perhaps Platonism/dualism didn't take root in Eastern Christianity because early Christians were so often in debate against "philosophers," who were recognized as pagans. We still use many ancient hymns that celebrate the victory of Christians over "philosophers." (also re dualism, St. Augustine had virtually no role in Orthodoxy, and his explication of Original Sin doesn't fit Orthodox understanding of the Fall's effects.)

A big factor is that Western theology was based on the Scriptures in Latin translation, and as radically as the Reformers broke with Catholicism, they still unknowingly built on the same Latin-language thought-world. (St. Augustine could not read Greek well, and was led astray by a mistranslation in Romans 5:12). An example is the NT Greek word "energeia," energy, which appears all through St Paul, eg, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is energizing in you, both to will and to energize for his good pleasure." But there was no Latin equivalent, so when Jerome made his translation he used "opus," work. A sculptor creates a statue and that is his opus, but it is separate from him; he's not "energizing" within it. So you see that this creates a very different sense of whether and how God is present--the reverberations go on and on.

In Orthodoxy, salvation is a free gift, entirely by grace (grace is an aspect of God's "energy," rather than a separate created thing). We are saved by being rescued from the power of death and the evil one, like the Hebrews rescued from Pharaoh--not by Jesus making a payment to the Father. That theory didn't develop till the 11th century, after the East-West split. Substitutionary atonement strikes native Orthodox as strange and somewhat repellent. Though, as I said, they emphatically believe in salvation by grace, so you see how it cuts across Western categories.

Those are just some of the examples of where Protestants and Catholics have a theological "family resemblance" that Orthodox don't share. It gets even more complicated when the terms have just a shade of different meaning. I've been Orthodox 14 years and I'm still learning. Sometimes I think I'll try to write the book that would sum all this up, and sometimes I think it can't be done; you can't get it any other way than by living it, soaking in it.

[If you haven't please read also Part I and Part II and Part III.]


Lex said…
Fascinating post! I have been dealing recently with neighbors who consider my family to not be "real Christians" because we are Roman Catholics (this is in the US), with my family background in the Middle East/Mediterranean and the Orthodox Faith.

A few of these neighbors also are going on yearly "missionary trips" to former Soviet countries to convert the Orthodox Christians there to "evangelical Christianity" and set up Baptist and Evangelical churches in these countries.

I am horrified. To me, this is a cultural issue, not an issue of faith. I believe that what they are doing is morally wrong to assume that their version of Christianity is correct, yet the Orthodox are "practicing idolatry", as one missionary put it. "It's idolatry, and God hates that."

Do you also see a cultural component at play here, thus this view being bigoted and not simply a matter of doctrinal difference? This is where my hackles are up over the issue. How do you even deal with people who think that you're an "idolater"?

Thank you for bringing these topics to light.
Abu Daoud said…
Hi Lex, you are raising some great questions. Rather than just post a remark let me think about it and write something which I will post to the blog later on today. Salaam wa na3mat irrab ma3ka.

Are you Roman Catholic, or some form of Eastern Catholic (Maronite, Melkite, Coptic Catholic)?
Gearoidin said…
I know this is an old entry but I have just stumbled across your blog. I was very interested in reading your series on Orthodox Christianity.
When you speak of Catholics, do you mean Latin Rite (Roman) Catholics? Where do you see Eastern Rite Catholics? Would they not be closer to Orthodox Christians yet Catholic at the same time?

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