The Eastern Orthodox church began in 1054 with the dissolution of the “catholic” church by the actions of the bishop of Rome. Eastern Orthodoxy is a denomination highly fractured by nationalism, prevalent in the Balkan peninsula of Europe, Russia, and also having small numbers in the Near East. Although very similar to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy has grown apart from the other portion of the “catholic” church, having faced severe persecution from both Muslims and Communists since the fourteenth century. The belief system of the Eastern Orthodox can be summed up in the decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils that were called in the first millennium CE.
Sections on this Page
- General Considerations
- Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism
- The Problem With Petrine Authority
The Eastern Orthodox church is a confederation of many national churches, all having the same doctrinal positions yet governed separately. Nominally, the lands in Eastern Orthodoxy are divided amongst the four historic Patriarchates (the main heads of the Eastern Orthodox church): in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. There are nine other “autocephalous,” or self-governing, churches, in Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, and Albania. There are also five churches which are deemed “autonomous,” as mostly independent and mostly self-governed, but do not yet have full independence, in the Czech Republic/Slovakia, Sinai, Finland, and China1. There are also many Orthodox living in America and in western Europe, and at this time, they tend to still hold to the specific church of their nationality.
Observances Concerning the Lord’s Birth: Advent; Christmas
Observances Concerning the Lord’s Death: Ash Wednesday; Lent; Holy Thursday; Good Friday; Easter
Other Observances: Ascension/Pentecost; Epiphany; Annunciation; Days Concerning Saints
Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism
The Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church share many views and doctrines on account of their shared heritage in the “catholic” church; nevertheless, many differences also exist. Let us now examine briefly the various traditions discussed concerning Roman Catholicism and their similarities and differences with the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox church.
Traditions Concerning the Scriptures: The Eastern Orthodox use a translation of the Septuagint for their Old Testament, and all the works included in the original. Some, however, do not accept 4 Maccabees2. The church is still considered the ultimate interpreter of the Scriptures3.
Traditions Concerning Sacraments: The Eastern Orthodox church has essentially the same seven sacraments (although the terminology is different) as the Roman Catholic church, except the Roman Catholic confirmation is chrismation in the Eastern Orthodox church, and it is always performed immediately after baptism (unless one converts to Eastern Orthodoxy and was already baptized; then they are simply chrismated when they join)4.
Traditions Concerning the Church: The Eastern Orthodox church has not gone so far as to say that the church is their “mother,” but do regard highly their church as an institution5.
Traditions Concerning History: The Eastern Orthodox church has not made any claim to a pure history, and many in it recognize the abuses that some of its members have committed in times past.
Traditions Concerning Mary: The Eastern Orthodox also regard Mary very highly, holding to the same traditions as the Roman Catholic church6.
Traditions Concerning Saints: “Saints” are held in high esteem within Eastern Orthodoxy as in Roman Catholicism, although in Eastern Orthodoxy saints are chosen by popular opinion and the council of each autocephalous church. Prayer to these “saints” and relics concerning them are likewise accepted7.
Traditions Concerning Sin: The Eastern Orthodox church does not bind penance as necessary, yet urges its members strongly to do so. The confession is done face to face, and there is more humility on the role of the priest than in Roman Catholicism, but it still places a man in the wrong position (1 John 1:9)8.
Traditions Concerning Prayer: The Eastern Orthodox have a “Jesus Prayer,” a prayer said constantly like a meditative chant, which is an attempt to reach higher spiritual levels9. This is likewise not seen in the Scriptures, and is inconsistent with Matthew 6:7.
Traditions Concerning Consecration: The Eastern Orthodox bishops need to be celibate in order to obtain their position, but priests are not bound to celibacy as in the Roman Catholic church (unless they desire the priesthood while single; in that situation, they must remain celibate)10. The emphasis on monasticism and asceticism is also present11.
Traditions Concerning the Afterlife: The Eastern Orthodox deny the concept of Purgatory.
The Eastern Orthodox church has formulated the idea of theosis, or “becoming god.” The belief is that through spiritual maturation, humans can actually become divinities, and they use Psalm 82:6, quoted in part by Jesus in John 10:34-36, as justification12:
I said, “Ye are gods, And all of you sons of the Most High.”
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, ye are gods?’ If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came (and the scripture cannot be broken), say ye of him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, ‘I am the Son of God?'”
Do the Scriptures truly teach that we can become gods through spiritual maturity? By no means! The Psalmist uses the present tense; if such people are to “be” gods, they must be this way already! The Psalmist is perhaps best understood as making a more sarcastic form of comment, especially when we see that he continues in Psalm 82:7 by saying that these “gods” will “die like men.” Jesus’ use of the passage serves as a demonstration that it is possible for God to come in the form of a man, as He Himself does, and should not be extended to indicate the divinity of the persons to whom the Psalm was addressed. The very “oddity” of the idea that Jesus was God in the flesh should indicate to us that the idea of man becoming as a god was not a common view in Jesus’ day.
We also have the witness of Isaiah in Isaiah 55:9:
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
God is much, much higher than man is, and we cannot attain to His level of maturity or anything near it. Does man obtain maturity similar to that which God has? Surely, for through God we receive the fruit of the Spirit and chiefly love (Galatians 5:22-23, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13). To say, however, that we can become gods takes the Biblical doctrine of spiritual maturity too far. We have the opportunity to share in attributes of God, but never can it be said that by them we can become as God.
The Eastern Orthodox believe highly in icons, religious art painted on wood displaying a spiritual message. They give great reverence to these icons, similar to the Roman Catholic church and its relics, going so far as to kiss these icons and bow in front of them13. They even treat Bibles in the same manner, kissing them also14. This all comes out of the belief that we must remember the humanity of Christ somehow, and therefore there are these icons, and they must be used15. Is this an idea present in Scripture?
The Lord, before His death, did give us a memorial of His physical life in His Supper (cf. Matthew 26:26-29, the other Gospel accounts). Paul goes so far to call it the proclamation of His death in 1 Corinthians 11:26. There is within the Scriptures therefore a fitting memorial for the life of our Lord in the bread and the fruit of the vine.
Concerning icons, it is, along with the Roman Catholic church’s practices concerning relics, too close to idolatry to be fit for Christian worship, especially in light of 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. It would be too easy for many to forget that the icon is just a tool to be used in prayer and service, and to begin praying to and bowing before the icon itself. We could also see the examples given in the Old Testament concerning the Jews making shapes of wood and stone and His reaction against them (cf. especially the deeds of Jeroboam, 1 Kings 12:25-13:5).
Especially in some of the eastern European countries in which Eastern Orthodoxy is prevalent, the argument is often made that the icon is only two-dimensional and therefore cannot be an idol. On the other hand, God never mentions how many dimensions a figure must have before it becomes an idol, for God even calls things which technically have no form idols, as seen in Colossians 3:5:
Put to death therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
An idol, then, is not defined by its dimensions; an idol is defined as anything that takes the full attention of an individual away from God. If the icon is placed before God, then it is an idol in His sight.
The Problem with Petrine Authority
The Eastern Orthodox church is governed nominally by five Patriarchs, sitting in seats in Constantinople (Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Moscow. Their desire is to have the bishop in Rome (i.e., the Pope) restored to that association, if he would recognize that “first among equals” means primacy, not supremacy16. This is not the supremacy that the bishop in Rome now believes he has17. The Eastern Orthodox church believes that all bishops are collectively the successors of Peter, not just the one in Rome, although he has a “special claim” to being such18. Where the papacy claims infallibility, the Eastern Orthodox says the church has infallibility when met in a council19, and there is a much greater emphasis on a more oligarchical system of governing (many bishops meeting in councils to determine doctrine) over the more monarchical system in Roman Catholicism (the pope determining doctrine with the assent of some bishops)20. Finally, both churches claim to be the “true church,” founded on Peter, the “rock.21”
The implications of the schism between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches show most clearly how Peter is not the true source of authority. It should be said first that members of both churches will often appeal to all of the disagreement over what the Bible says about various issues of faith, and point to the vast number of denominations in the world today. This certainly is tragic, however, no one denies the source of faith, the Word of God. The Word is fairly objective, because all can appeal to it as an authority for issues of doctrine. This is not so for those holding to a system of Petrine authority, especially since there are two groups claiming this authority.
Let us use an example to illustrate: the main doctrinal issue that divided these two churches, the presence of the filioque in the Nicene Creed22. If one were to ask the pope in Rome if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son, he would say that it does, and that his judgment is true because he sits on Peter’s chair in Rome. Now, if one would go before a council of the patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox church and ask if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son, they will say that the Holy Spirit only proceeds from the Father and that their judgment is true because it was the doctrine promoted within the original Nicene Creed as agreed upon by that particular ecumenical council, and that council’s determination is inspired by the Holy Spirit through apostolic succession. Who is right? They both claim the same authority and yet have come to completely different answers; to what should one turn?
The Roman Catholic church answers that since Peter is one man, only one man can have his authority. This is all well and good if they wish to say that they have only had Peter’s authority since 1054, since before then the bishop in Rome had at least nominally accepted the existence of the bishops in Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and there was much communication and work done between them, especially in the earlier centuries. The implications of this argument are vast: the Roman Catholic church would be forced to admit that they had communion with heretics between 150-1054, and that they have esteemed some heretics as their “church fathers,” such as Athanasius, Origen, and many others, who were members of the eastern churches. The Roman Catholic church has not made any such move; therefore, they contradict their own argumentation. The system of authority grounded in Peter is still divided.
There would be only one place that one could turn to in order to answer the question above or any question similar to it. It cannot be tradition, nor the pope, nor the councils of the Eastern Orthodox, but the Word of God as seen in the Holy Scriptures. No one within “Christendom” questions the authority of its authors, nor can anyone claim that its authority can be compromised by division. Authority vested within men has proven itself to avail nothing, and has been compromised by division. Authority for the Christian’s deeds and beliefs, therefore, can only be found in the Scriptures.
1: From Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 5
2: Ibid., p. 200
3: Ibid., p. 201
4: Ibid., pp. 278-279
5: Ibid., pp. 199, 239
6: Ibid., pp. 257, 260
7: Ibid., p. 256
8: Ibid., pp. 288-289
9: Ibid., p. 65
10: Ibid., p. 291
11: Ibid., pp. 36-37
12: Ibid., p. 219
13: Ibid., p. 32
14: Ibid., p. 201
15: Ibid., p. 33
16: Ibid., p. 27
17: Ibid., p. 27
18: Ibid., p. 28
19: Ibid., p. 239
20: Ibid., p. 15
22: Filioque is a Latin term meaning “and the son.” In around the eighth century CE, the “catholic” churches in the west began to add this phrase in the Nicene Creed in the article concerning the Holy Spirit, signifying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. The eastern churches considered this as heretical, believing that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, and through the Son. There is still great dissension over this word in the creed. For more, please see Creeds: The Nicene Creed.