East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 8, No. 3, Summer 2000, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Eastern Orthodox Teachings in Comparison with the Doctrinal Position of Biola University

Robert L. Saucy, John Coe, and Alan W. Gomes

Editor's Note: The 1990s witnessed the presence of a number of Eastern Orthodox Christians on U.S. evangelical university and seminary faculties. In 1997 Biola University, LaMirada, CA, with three Orthodox faculty and staff, commissioned three of its theology faculty to examine Eastern Orthodox teachings in the light of Biola's doctrinal position.  This April 1998 report, available online along with an eight-page summary (www.biola.edu/faculty/alang), did not lead to the dismissal of any employees.  However, Columbia International University, Columbia, SC, did require the resignation of Professor Edward Rommen in December 1997, following his decision to leave the Evangelical Free Church for Eastern Orthodoxy.  Finally, Dr. Bradley Nassif of the Antiochian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church, who defines his theology as evangelical, taught full-time at Fuller Seminary's Fullerton, CA, extension in 1998-99 and currently teaches part-time at Fuller.  See Bradley Nassif, "Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism: The Status of an Emerging Global Dialogue," Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 18 (Spring, 2000): 20-55.

The focus of the East-West Church & Ministry Report is not North America.  At the same time, Biola's careful reflection on Orthodox theology from an evangelical perspective serves as a model for the sort of theological exercise that should be the task of all Western missionaries serving in historically Orthodox territories. The following excerpt from Biola's 76-page report, along with accompanying responses by theologians Don Fairbairn and Gerald Bray, seek to serve that purpose.

The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone
Biola's doctrinal statement affirms that "Men are justified on the simple and single ground of the shed blood of Christ and upon the simple and single condition of faith in Him who shed the blood, and are born again by the quickening, renewing, cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, through the instrumentality of the Word of God."  Biola's statement of faith is based on the traditional Protestant understanding of the relationship between faith and good works, which entails the following:

1. Justification means "to declare righteous." It does not mean to "make someone righteous (inherently)," but rather it is the verdict of a judge "to pronounce righteous" as opposed "to condemn."

2. Human beings are justified by God on the basis of the righteousness of Christ which is reckoned to them. It is not based on any inherent righteousness or good works of the believer produced by the grace of God.

3. The righteousness of Christ is reckoned to people on the sole ground of faith in Christ and his saving work.

The concept of justification in Orthodox theology differs from that of evangelical Protestantism. Instead of justification being simply a judicial declaration of the right status of the person on the basis of Christ's imputed righteousness, Orthodox theology holds that justification includes also the actual making of the person righteous. It involves the partaking of a "real righteousness" whereby the individual is in fact being made righteous by being "in Christ," that is, by becoming a partaker of the Divine nature and, thus, entering the path of theosis or deification. Orthodox theology thus includes what evangelical Protestantism understands as regeneration and sanctification in the meaning of justification. Orthodox teaching explicitly denies justification by faith alone and includes good works as necessary in justification.  [It also] defines justification as including the concept of being transformed into the likeness of God. Justification is included in the process of "salvation" or "deification" (being transformed into the likeness of God through union with Christ). Thus the place of works in relation to "salvation" or "deification" in the citations below is also the place of works in relation to justification.

1.  "Justification is not merely a once-for-all event, but a dynamic, ongoing process. Two conditions are given here: God accepts whoever (1) fears Him and (2) works righteousness. This in no way denies justification by faith; but it is not by faith alone. And God supplies the grace necessary for us to fear Him and work righteousness."1

2.  Orthodox teaching implicitly denies justification by faith alone by asserting the necessity of the sacramental rites for justification, regeneration, or salvation.  Evangelical Protestantism denies that baptism or any other sacramental rite is essential for justification or regeneration.

The Doctrine of the New Birth through the Instrumentality of the Word of God
Biola's doctrinal statement affirms that "Men . . . are born again by the quickening, renewing, cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, through the instrumentality of the Word of God." The writers of Biola's statement can be assumed to believe that no other instrumental means are necessary for the effecting of new birth. The Orthodox teaching that the new birth or regeneration occurs through the instrumentality of the sacrament of baptism denies that the new birth is effected solely by faith through the instrumentality of the Word of God.

1. "By means of holy baptism, the 'bath of regeneration' and renewing of the Holy Spirit, believers shed the sinful garments of the old man and are clothed in Christ, entering through him as through a door, into the church, the kingdom of grace. We are thus regenerated, renewed, and recreated, our nature being made over into the divine image . . . . According to Chrysostom, 'It is through baptism that we received remission of sins, sanctification, communion of the Spirit, adoption, and life eternal.'"2

2. "'Baptism,' writes Nicholas Cabasilas, 'is nothing else but to be born according to Christ and to receive our very being and nature.'"3

Orthodoxy's strong position on Apostolic succession and the place of the bishop as the "fountain of all the sacraments" entails that the ecclesiastical hierarchy is a necessary instrument in effecting regeneration (as in baptism) and all the other sacramental means of grace for the participation in theosis and salvation.  "'The dignity of the bishop is so necessary in the Church,' wrote Dositheus, 'that without him neither the Church nor the name Christian could exist or be spoken of at all . . . . He is a living image of God upon earth . . . and a fountain of all the sacraments of the Catholic [universal] Church, through which we obtain salvation.  If any are not with the bishop,' said Cyprian, 'they are not in the Church.'"4 Thus, faith's response to the Scriptures is not a sufficient means of regeneration, as indicated in Biola's doctrinal statement.

Scripture and Tradition
Eastern Orthodox place significant weight on "tradition"--much more so than in Protestantism. Traditions include especially the Scriptures, the church councils (particularly the seven ecumenical councils), the teachings of the church fathers, the liturgy, and the veneration of icons. The problem from a Protestant perspective is not the existence of tradition per se, but whether any tradition, however widely or anciently held, is to be regarded as on a par with Scripture in terms of inspiration, infallibility, and authority. Another point of conflict is whether the church is the infallible interpreter of Scripture.

Eastern Orthodox expressly deny the principle of sola Scriptura. For Orthodox it is the Spirit-led church that provides the norms for true belief; in Protestantism, Spirit-inspired Scripture is the sole norm.

1. " . . . [the Church] provides the norms of true belief, of the profession of the true faith."5

2. " . . . for them [the Orthodox] the Christian faith and experience can in no way be compatible with the notion of Scriptura sola."6

While conservative Protestants do agree with the conclusions of at least certain of the [seven] ecumenical councils, they do not regard these as infallible or inspired, any more than they believe their own confessions of faith (e.g., Biola's doctrinal statement) to be inspired. Protestants accept these decisions only in so far as they reflect Scripture, which alone is infallible and inspired. Indeed, Protestants outright reject as erroneous much of the seventh ecumenical council (Nicea, 787), which enjoined the veneration of icons.

Orthodox [also] affirm that the Spirit-led church is the infallible interpreter of Scripture. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches both agree that one's interpretation of Scripture must be subordinated to and controlled by the Tradition. Protestants believe that the Orthodox (and, for that matter, Roman Catholic) position effectively (and wrongly) places the church over the Bible rather than the other way around.

1.  " . . . [The Bible] must not be regarded as something set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the Church . . . . It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority . . . . and individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error if they trust their own personal interpretation."7
2.  " . . . to understand the inspired Scripture a special inspiration, inherent only in the Church, is necessary."8

Other Orthodox Beliefs and Practices Which Are in Tension with the Evangelical Protestant Tradition

1.  The Church and its hierarchy. Orthodoxy teaches that the Church is the continuation of the incarnation of Christ in the world. This leads among other things to the conclusion that the Church, through the hierarchy, conveys the saving grace of God through the sacraments.

2.  The exclusivity of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church is the true visible Church.  Thus although most Orthodox believe in the possibility of salvation outside of the Orthodox Church, the full enjoyment of the grace of salvation is found only in the Orthodox Church.

3.  The canonization of saints. Like Protestants, Orthodoxy holds that all believers are "saints." In addition, however, some members of the Church are officially recognized through canonization as having attained a level of sanctification which is described as "glorification." Though dead, these recognized saints play a significant role in the faith and practice of the Orthodox believers. This includes praying to them and asking them to intercede for us as well as venerating them and their relics.

4.  Prayers for the dead. Orthodoxy teaches that the ultimate fate of the individual is not determined until the last day of Judgment. The person still has opportunity prior to final judgement to turn more toward God or away from God. Thus there is the need to pray for the departed dead in their journey toward final judgment.

5.  Various beliefs about Mary. Orthodoxy teaches a number of doctrines concerning Mary that evangelical Protestantism holds as non-biblical. These include Mary's perpetual virginity; her freedom from actual sin; the Bodily Assumption of Mary; [that] Mary is to be venerated as the most holy saint; [and that] believers are to pray to Mary asking her to intercede for us in heaven.

6.  The veneration of icons. The practice of venerating icons was mandated by the seventh ecumenical council (787) and, thus, has become very important to the life of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox are to honor [and] worship God and [are to] pray before icons which are pictures or representations of Jesus Christ, Mary, and the Saints, typically painted on wooden panels or other plain surfaces.

7.  The denial of guilt in original sin. The evangelical Protestant heritage has historically held that all people have inherited from Adam not only the corruption and mortality of sin, but also the guilt of sin. Orthodox theology holds only to the inheritance of corruption and mortality. 


  1. Orthodox Study Bible on Acts 10:35
  2. John Karmiris, "Concerning the Sacraments," in Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Daniel Clendenin (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 24.
  3. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, 2nd ed.  (New  York: Fordham University Press, 1983), 193.
  4. Timothy Ware (Kallistos), The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1993), 248-49.
  5. Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1988), 10.
  6. John Meyendorff, "Doing Theology in an Eastern Orthodox Perspective," in Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox, 83.
  7. Ware, Orthodox, 199.
  8. Bulgakov, Orthodox, 19.

Robert L. Saucy, John Coe, and Alan W. Gomes, "Eastern Orthodox Teachings in Comparison with the Doctrinal Position of Biola University," East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Summer  2000), 6-8.

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