East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1995, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Eastern Orthodoxy:
Five Protestant Perspectives

Don Fairbairn

Until very recently, the Western world treated Eastern Orthodoxy as the forgotten branch of Christendom.  Evangelicals are familiar with Protestantism and Roman Catholicism,  but not Eastern Orthodoxy. In the last few years, that has changed dramatically.  The expansion of Evangelical missions since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has brought increased contact with Eastern Orthodoxy. Also, some Eastern Orthodox in the United States and England are now much more active in sharing their faith.  They no longer are content to work exclusively among East European immigrants in urban enclaves. Some Orthodox now actively evangelize Protestants, seeking to draw them into their church fold.  This increased Orthodox-Evangelical interaction, both in the East and in the West, has contributed to the formation of at least five Evangelical perspectives of Eastern Orthodoxy.  The first three may be described as a priori, deriving from preconceived assumptions about the nature of Orthodoxy.  While not well-founded, they are the most common understandings of Orthodoxy held by Evangelicals.

1.  The first of these a priori perspectives is a failure to recognize the differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. On the surface, Eastern Orthodoxy bears marked similarities to Roman Catholicism. Both churches have priests who appear to serve as mediators between God and humanity.  Both have churches which are full of religious paintings and relics.  Worship is very different from the usually simpler liturgies and less ornate churches familiar to most Evangelicals.  As a result, many Evangelicals assume that Orthodoxy is the same as Roman Catholicism. Undergirding this perspective is the assumption that faith versus works is the primary issue.  Eastern Orthodoxy ends up in the same category as Roman Catholicism because of the mistaken assumption that its doctrine of salvation is identical to that of Catholicism.  In actuality, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic differences over sacraments and creeds are probably greater than the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  Also bear in mind that most Orthodox believers in Russia and Ukraine are unfamiliar with the Protestant Reformation.  Those who are acquainted with Protestantism typically see it as the product of a minor internal disagreement within the heretical Western church.  In their minds, the difference is East versus West.  Consequently, if Evangelicals have a perspective which fails to distinguish between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the result is a serious misunderstanding of Eastern Orthodoxy.

2.  A second a priori perspective is a complete aversion to Orthodoxy based upon a misunderstanding of its externals.  This is probably the most common perspective on Eastern Orthodoxy.  Many Evangelicals' strong objection to Orthodoxy derives from the assumption that Orthodox are worshiping idols in violation of at least the second commandment, perhaps even the first commandment.  Without denying that Orthodox worshipers may succumb to worship rather than veneration of icons, Evangelicals still need to be wary of assuming that without close study they can properly evaluate the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and the role of icons in worship.

3.  A third a priori perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy is an uncritical acceptance of Orthodoxy.  Many Evangelicals familiar with church history recognize that a tremendous debt is owed to the church of the Ecumenical Councils (4th to 8th centuries) for our understanding of the Trinity and the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ.  It was the councils, many of which were led by Eastern church fathers, that formulated orthodox (with the small "o") confessional statements of faith widely accepted among Evangelicals to this day.  However, some Evangelicals mistakenly conclude that since the Nicene Creed and the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are held in common with Orthodox, other theological differences must be minor.

With the second and third a priori assumptions in particular, people appear to believe what they want to believe about Eastern Orthodoxy. In the one instance, Evangelicals are predisposed to oppose a church whose form of worship is radically unfamiliar.  In the other, Evangelicals are deeply concerned about the splintering of the body of Christ and consequently want to see Evangelical and Orthodox differences as secondary, rather than substantive.

Now let us examine more carefully two additional, contrasting perspectives on Eastern Orthodoxy, both of which have been much more carefully thought through.

4.  The first involves recognizing the differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, but concluding that these differences are purely cultural in nature.  Supporters of this interpretation emphasize the great distance between Western and Eastern mindsets. If the differences are only cultural, then Orthodox Christianity is just as valid as Western (Catholic or Protestant) Christianity.  In fact, in an Eastern context, it is argued, Orthodoxy is the only appropriate understanding of Christianity.  Consequently, no significant room exists for Evangelical Christians to work separately from, much less in opposition to, Orthodoxy.

What is the difference between an Eastern and Western mindset? It can be argued that Westerners tend to be more individualistic. Easterners, by contrast, are more corporate in their outlook on life.  Eastern Orthodox believers tend to focus on the whole, the community, and the web of interrelationships between God and the body of believers. Western Christians are more likely to concentrate on the experience or the feeling of the individual believer.  Westerners more often insist upon explanations for why life is as it is.  Easterners, on the other hand, seem less disturbed by paradox and mystery.  If they cannot explain why the world is the way it is, they seem less troubled by unanswered questions.  Exact theological definition and precise articulation of faith is more characteristic of the West than the East.  Western Evangelicals in particular have been shaped by the pursuit of spiritual meaning in life through personal study of the Bible.  For Orthodox, it is not a text which provides the source of meaning but, rather, the image of Christ and the saints in the context of worship.  Believers' relationships to saints represented in icons provide connectiveness, meaning, and purpose in life.  These widely recognized differences between Eastern and Western mindsets form the basis for the argument that salvation in purely rational and individualistic terms makes little sense in the East where greater stock is placed in imagery, mystery, and community.

As carefully thought out as this perspective is, it still has its shortcomings. First, all theological differences cannot be understood simply in cultural terms.  More on this point in a moment.  Second, even if the differences were cultural, we should recognize that culture is not always neutral.  Today it is politically correct to say that "all cultures are equally good.  And even if we are missionaries or evangelists, we do not want to change anyone's culture."  That is certainly true to a degree, but spiritual change in a people rarely occurs without change in culture as well.  Evangelicals believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms cultures and societies just as it transforms individuals. In fact, God first spoke His Word into a world that was just as Eastern as the world of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union today. But the way by which He chose to do that was not so much through images and pictures as it was through a spoken and then a written word.  Of course, Orthodox would be quick to explain that the main way God spoke was through Jesus Christ, who is the image of God.  And that certainly is true.  But it is also true that every generation except the first has learned about Jesus Christ through a word, through the New Testament. It is difficult for me to agree that it is satisfactory to have a form of Christianity which does not emphasize the word, but rather, emphasizes images.  I am not saying that images (icons) are necessarily wrong. But I believe the emphasis needs to fall elsewhere.  As a result I believe this fourth perspective, which tries to see these differences simply as cultural, is not adequate.

5.  This leads us to a fifth and final perspective.  I would argue that three of the major theological differences separating Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are more than cultural.  First, to my mind, Eastern Orthodoxy has a different view of humanity's sinful condition.  For Evangelicals, Adam and Eve before the fall enjoyed full communion with God.  If I am correct, that is not Eastern Orthodoxy's understanding of Adam's and Eve's condition before the fall.  Rather, Eastern Orthodox believe "they were not put in a condition of fellowship with God, but were placed on a pathway to fellowship with God.  They were not created perfect.  They were created with the opportunity to gain the fellowship with God which was set before them as a goal of their lives."  Because of that difference in understanding, Eastern Orthodoxy does not see the fall of humanity as a drastic departure from an originally perfect state but, rather, as a turning aside from a pathway. As a result, Eastern Orthodoxy has a less severe view of sin than does Evangelical Christianity:  we have not lost a precious possession through the fall, but simply have made a wrong turn.  Because sin is not as severe, the remedy need not be as dramatic; we need only a course correction to be put back on the road to fellowship with God.

Secondly, I believe Eastern Orthodoxy's understanding of grace differs fundamentally from that of  Evangelicalism.  For Evangelicals, grace involves an attitude of God toward us.  God looks at us, He sees what we deserve, but because of His graciousness, He does not give us the hell which we deserve, but instead makes us His children.  Grace reflects the fact that salvation is an unmerited, free gift.  Eastern Orthodoxy, however, sees grace as a divine energy or power that is transmitted to penitents, enabling them to return to the pathway of fellowship with and acceptance by God.  To me, Eastern Orthodox writers almost seem to be describing a substance:  the grace residing in icons that permitted great saints to have fellowship with God is available to me as I worship, using icons. Grace is not an attitude of God toward sinners but, rather, a power or energy which when transmitted to us enables us to gain fellowship with Him.

A third major difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism concerns contrasting understandings of salvation.  For Evangelicals, salvation almost always means justification, the initial act by which God declares a sinner to be righteous.  The sinner then becomes acceptable in the eyes of God and begins a personal relationship with Him.  This aspect of salvation known as justification is not emphasized in Eastern Orthodoxy.  When Orthodox theologians speak of the beginning of Christian life, they speak of baptism rather than a conscious conversion experience.  But in actuality, Orthodox do not focus on the beginning of Christian life because salvation is understood to be the process of becoming acceptable to God--as I practice love, mercy, and justice, as I become more and more like God, acceptable to God, and in fellowship with Him.

This Eastern Orthodox process of salvation is called theosis, or deification.  Theosis, however, does not mean that we actually become gods.  Orthodox writers repudiate that very strongly.  What it means is to become like Jesus Christ.  We gain the qualities that God has, grow in our understanding of God, and in turn, experience more and more of His fellowship and acceptance.  This different understanding of salvation looms large as we consider when a person becomes acceptable before God.  For Evangelicals, it is the moment when genuine faith begins, at the moment of justification.  For Orthodox, it is at the end of the process of theosis, at the end of what some Evangelicals would understand as sanctification.  And there, I think, lies the most critical difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism.

If these three theological differences are granted, it raises an urgent question concerning the degree to which Evangelicals can cooperate with Orthodox.  Readers will have to answer this pivotal question for themselves.  But as Evangelicals explore whether or how they might cooperate with Orthodox, careful reflection needs to be given to differing Evangelical and Orthodox understandings of humanity's condition, God's grace, and our means of salvation. 

Don Fairbairn is academic dean at Donetsk Bible College, Donetsk, Ukraine.  This article is based on a lecture, "Perspectives on Eastern Orthodoxy," delivered at Wheaton College,  24 January 1994.  The audio tape is available for $9 (includes postage) from the Institute for East-West Christian Studies (IL residents add 6.75% sales tax).  Fairbairn's 76-page study of Orthodoxy, "Partakers of the Divine Nature," is also available from the IEWCS, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187-5593 U.S.A. for $8 (U.S. and Canada, 1st class); $10 (Europe, printed-matter airmail); 18-page summary $3 (U.S. and Canada, 1st class); $4 (Europe, printed-matter airmail).  Note:  IL residents add 6.75% sales tax.

Don Fairbairn, "Eastern Orthodoxy: Five Protestant Questions," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Spring 1995), 5-7.

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1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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