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News broke this past week that Hank Hannegraaf, of the Bible Answer Man radio program, was chrismated on Palm Sunday at Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet another man devoted to the Eastern Orthodox faith is Rod Dreher, who has been much in the news of late because of his best-selling book, The Benedict Option. So who are the Eastern Orthodox and what is it precisely that they believe? Continue reading . . . 

News broke this past week that Hank Hannegraaf, of the Bible Answer Man radio program, was chrismated on Palm Sunday at Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet another man devoted to the Eastern Orthodox faith is Rod Dreher, who has been much in the news of late because of his best-selling book, The Benedict Option. So who are the Eastern Orthodox and what is it precisely that they believe?

There are @ 6 million people in the U.S. who identify with the Orthodox faith, and @ 200-215 million worldwide (70 million of whom are in Russia alone), all of whom are gathered into one of the 13 autocephalous or “self-governing” Orthodox churches throughout the world. The head of each autocephalous church is called a Patriarch. The Patriarch of Constantinople is given greater honor but has no authority to interfere with the affairs of the other 12 Orthodox communions. “All bishops share equally in the apostolic succession, all have the same sacramental powers, all are divinely appointed teachers of the faith” (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church [hereafter TOC], new edition [New York: Penguin Books, 1997], 27).

Although these many autocephalous churches are independent, they maintain (so they assert) complete agreement on matters of doctrine and are in sacramental communion with each other.

Before I describe ten of the more important beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy, a brief history of the Church should be noted.

In 330 the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of his empire to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul in Turkey). This was the first step in a geographical, cultural and political split between the East (centered in Constantinople) and the West (centered in Rome). By the end of the sixth century, neither group could speak the other's language. Latin was the language of Rome and the west while Greek was the language of Constantinople and the east.

The east also allowed some of its clergy to marry while the west required celibacy. In the east the local parish priest could administer the sacrament of confirmation but in the west only the bishop could. In the west Roman Catholics mixed the Eucharistic wine with water while the east did not. The west used unleavened bread (azymes) in the Eucharist while the east used leavened bread. Other disputes over such matters as clerical beards, the tonsure (shaving of a portion of the head before admission to the priesthood), and fasting also served to divide them. The east encouraged active lay involvement in theology while in the west it was largely restricted to the clergy.

Timothy Ware summarizes several other points of theology that served to divide east from west:

“At the risk of oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on” (TOC, 48).

Among the many causes for the split between Rome and Constantinople, I only mention the following.

The east accused the western church of heresy when they, following the theology of Augustine, inserted the term filioque (“and the Son”) into the Nicene Creed. In its original form, the creed affirmed that the Holy Spirit proceeded “from the Father.” At some later time (no one knows for sure when or how or by whom, but most likely it originated in Spain) the word filioque was added to affirm that the Spirit also proceeded “from the Son.” They believed this reinforced the Deity of the Son against Arian threats. It was ratified at the Council of Toledo in 589 and spread rapidly into France, Germany, and was eventually endorsed by Charlemagne. Orthodox believers regarded this as a violation of the finality and authority of the early ecumenical councils and the wisdom of the Fathers. They also regarded it as theologically untrue and a threat to the doctrine of the Trinity.

After centuries of squabbling and mutual recriminations, Pope Leo IX sent his legate, Cardinal Humbert, to the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. On June 16, 1054, Humbert (not a particularly compassionate or cordial man!) delivered the papal bull of excommunication that anathematized the Orthodox Patriarch Michael Cerularius. As he departed, he shook the dust from his feet and declared: “Let God look and judge.” Michael, as one might expect, reciprocated. According to Bell, “Humbert had excommunicated the eastern patriarch, not the eastern church; Michael had excommunicated Humbert, not the papacy. In other words, the mutual excommunications were personal rather than institutional, and over the next few years they were gradually forgotten. Far more serious were the disastrous effects of the Crusades” (David N. Bell, Many Mansions [Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1996], 55).

The final blow came in 1204 when western troops on their way to Egypt in the Fourth Crusade took a detour through Constantinople. They had been invited to Constantinople by Alexius, son of the emperor, ostensibly to restore the latter to the power from which he had been deposed. Alexius failed to live up to his end of the bargain, principally his promise to reward them financially. They stormed the city and ransacked the Church of the Holy Wisdom, regarded as an act of inexcusable desecration by eastern Christians (French prostitutes who had accompanied the soldiers caroused in the church, one of whom sat defiantly on the throne of the patriarch). For three days they burned libraries, ransacked, pillaged, desecrated and destroyed every artifact and building associated with the Orthodox Church. They raped and killed and left Constantinople in ruins. It never recovered, and the breach was final.

We are now ready to look at 10 important things that are believed by the Eastern Orthodox.

(1) The Eastern Church acknowledges that the pope deserves primacy of honor, but they insist that he is only a first among equals and that an ecumenical council rather than a papal decree is to be regarded as final authority. The Orthodox Church, notes Ware, “does not accept the doctrine of Papal authority set forth in the decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870, and taught today in the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same time Orthodoxy does not deny to the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome a primacy of honour, together with the right (under certain conditions) to hear appeals from all parts of Christendom. . . . Rome’s mistake – so Orthodox believe – has been to turn this primacy or ‘presidency of love’ into a supremacy of external power and jurisdiction” (TOC, 27).

(2) The east’s approach to theological reflection is known by the name Apophaticism. This doctrine is derived from the word apophasis which means “beyond/above words or ideas”. It stands opposed to the Cataphatic (“according to words or ideas”) theology of affirmation in the west. Apophatic theology begins with the conscious awareness that because God is so radically transcendent no human language or concepts can adequately grasp or articulate his essential nature. God is so utterly incomprehensible that the only thing comprehensible about him is his incomprehensibility! Apophatic theology tries to describe what God is not. Therefore, all our conceptions about God as well as our language used to describe him is that of denial. God is ultimately unknowable and therefore undefinable. Rather than saying that God is omnipotent, the orthodox says he is not limited in power. Rather than saying that God is omnipresent, the orthodox says he cannot be contained in any place. It is the difference between a positive affirmation and a negative denial.

Thus the emphasis in Orthodoxy is on the unfathomable mystery of God, before which one bows in contemplation and awe. Rather than seeking to explain God rationally, the Orthodox happily acknowledges that God is inexplicable, his character impenetrable by human reasoning.

(3) The Eastern Church also emphasizes the role of the five senses in worship: what we can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste is vitally important. Since the invisible God became visible in Jesus, icons and images of him are an essential part of our religious response. Seeing, therefore, is superior to thinking. Images are more important than ideas. Liturgy is more important than lectures (sermons). Orthodox churches are thus filled with paintings, icons, images, incense, etc., what observers call “smells and bells”!

The icons in an Orthodox church are not hung on walls haphazardly, “but according to a definite theological scheme, so that the whole edifice forms one great icon or image of the Kingdom of God” (TOC, 271). One may rightly “venerate” or “revere” an icon, but only God is to receive “absolute worship and adoration”. Says Ware, “the icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood and paint, but towards the person depicted” (TOC, 32). As Clendenin explains, “without question Orthodoxy 'exults in beauty' and seeks to experience and express spiritual truth in the concrete, tangible forms of color and design and in music rather than in books or discourse” (Eastern Orthodox Theology, [Baker], 73).

Thus, as one author has said, “sights and sounds point the way to God, not philosophic speculation or literary subtlety” (Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture [New York: Random House, 1966], 38). A common sight in Orthodox services is of a believer prostrating himself before an icon and kissing it.

The Orthodox emphasis on icons and images was attacked by an appeal to the prohibition in Exodus 20:4 and the statement in John 1:18 (“no one has seen God at any time”). Their response: (1) Exodus 20:4 is a prohibition of pagan images created to replace the worship of the one true God. (2) The OT prohibition of images was itself relative, not absolute, for God commanded a whole array of material artifacts to be utilized as aids in worshipping Him (e.g., the ark of the covenant, the golden cherubim, the brazen serpent). (3) Most important of all, the once invisible God became visible and circumscribable in the incarnation of Christ. 

(4) Eastern Orthodoxy does not emphasize the forensic or legal concepts of the western church such as justification by faith alone. Rather, it stresses the concept of theosis or the gradual divinization of man. The Orthodox appeal to 2 Peter 1:4 (“so that you may become partakers of the divine nature”) to support the idea that fundamental to salvation and acceptance with God is becoming like Christ through a process of ever-deepening mystical union with him (they also appeal to John 17:22-23; Ps. 82:6; 2 Pt. 1:4; Mt. 5:44-45). This process is a cooperative work of divine grace and human effort. Orthodox theologians insist they do not believe in pantheism: the human nature does not cease to exist, nor do humans become God in such a way that no distinction between Creator and creature is left. Humans “are called to become by grace what God is by nature” (Ware, TOC, 21).

The Orthodox make a distinction between what they call the essence of God and the energies of God. Union with God that comes via theosis is union with the energies of God but not his essence. God and man are not to be thought of as fused or joined into one being. The Creator-creature distinction always remains. God retains his personal identity and we retain ours.

The body, no less than the soul, experiences theosis, although not fully so until the day of resurrection. However, the Orthodox believe that certain saints have experienced the first-fruits of bodily theosis in this life. It is this latter reality that accounts for the Orthodox attitude toward relics. Says Ware,

“Like Roman Catholics, they [the Orthodox] believe that the grace of God present in the saints’ bodies during life remains active in their relics when they have died, and that God uses these relics as a channel of divine power and an instrument of healing. In some cases the bodies of saints have been miraculously preserved from corruption, . . . This reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body” (TOC, 234).

(5) While the Orthodox do embrace Scripture as a religious authority, it is not the sole or final authority. The Holy Spirit speaks to his people through apostolic tradition, through the seven ecumenical councils, through the church fathers, through canon law, even through icons. Thus, “to an extent matched by no other Christian communion, Orthodoxy claims that it alone has maintained an unbroken continuity with the apostolic faith of the New Testament, that it alone is the true visible church, and that salvation outside of the Orthodox church is a questionable assumption” (Clendenin, 30). Clearly, Orthodoxy places great weight on what they believe is the unbroken inward continuity with the church of ancient times. Tradition, says Ware,

“means the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons – in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages” (TOC, 196).

Thus, whereas Scripture actually exists within or is a part of the Tradition, it is given a pre-eminence above the other elements. The Orthodox emphasis on tradition can be seen in the statement by Jaroslav Pelikan who noted that “the greatest insult one could pay to any [Orthodox] theologian . . . would be to call him a 'creative mind’” (The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, vii).

The Orthodox do affirm the sufficiency of Scripture (ad omnia satis superque sufficiat – “for all things complete and more than sufficient”). But Scripture is differently interpreted by different people. Hence the need for the consensus of the church as to Scripture’s proper interpretation. Said Florovsky: “Ecclesiastical understanding could not add anything to the Scripture. But it was the only means to ascertain and to disclose the true meaning of Scripture. Tradition was, in fact, the authentic interpretation of Scripture” (“The Function of Tradition in the Ancient Church,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 9.2 [1963]; quoted in Clendenin, Readings, 99). Florovsky insists that “Scripture belonged to the church, and it was only in the church, within the community of right faith, that Scripture could be adequately understood and correctly interpreted” (99).

(6) The Orthodox believe that the voice of God can be heard in the seven ecumenical councils no less than in Scripture. These councils “possess, along with the Bible, an abiding and irrevocable authority” (Ware, TOC, 202): Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), the Quinsext Council (692), and Nicea II (787).

(7) As for the sacraments, like the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodoxy recognizes 7 sacraments, three of which are non-repeatable (baptism, chrismation, ordination) and four of which are repeatable (Holy Eucharist, repentance, marriage, holy unction). The Eucharist is the most important of all and “stands at the heart of all Christian life and experience” (TOC, 275). These sacraments are effective only when performed inside and by the Orthodox Church, except in extreme emergencies or crisis. What do the sacraments accomplish? What are they effective for?

“That justifying and sanctifying divine grace which abides in the church is administered by the church to the people by means of the holy mysteries, which are divinely instituted ceremonies that deliver, by visible means, mysteriously transmitted invisible grace. Thus it is that the sacraments, when they are worthily received, become instruments, means of transmission, of divine grace” (John Karmiris, “Concerning the Sacraments,” in A Synopsis of the Dogmatic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, trans. George Dimopoulos [Scranton: Christian Orthodox Edition, 1973], p. 21 in Clendenin.)


“Each sacrament transmits its own particular grace. Baptism and chrismation transmit justifying and regenerating grace; repentance and unction transmit grace which is for the healing of soul and body; ordination and marriage enable us to perform certain specific functions; and the Holy Eucharist feeds and satisfies us spiritually” (22).

“In no way is the efficacy of the sacrament contingent upon the faith or moral qualifications of either celebrant or recipient, yet every magical and mechanical action is excluded in the performance of the sacrament. We see then, first of all, that the priest, as performer of the sacrament, is simply the instrument of the invisible and actual celebrant, the Lord himself” (22-23).

He writes: “the sacraments are effectively accomplished independently of the faith of those accepting them” (23). I’ll only comment on a few of the seven sacraments.

In baptism those who believe are cleansed of original sin and all actual sins. Their guilt and due punishment are obliterated. The person must be immersed and raised up three times in water which has been sanctified in order for baptism to be considered valid.

As for the Holy Eucharist, “The Orthodox Catholic Church,” says Karmiris, “accepts the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist: the elements of bread and wine are changed into Christ’s very body and blood in such a way that he is hypostatically and essentially present in the sacrament” (27). The Orthodox are careful, however, to avoid use of the word “transubstantiation”. Even infants are to be given the elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist. Again, “the Holy Eucharist is not a mere sacrament, but a sacrifice as well. It is a bloodless, conciliatory offering to God ‘in all and for all’” (28). Yet he says, “Naturally, it is understood that, in all of these things, nothing is added to the sacrifice of the cross, the saving fruit of which is communicated to participants in the Eucharist. Neither is repeated the Redeemer’s death on the cross” (29). Timothy Ware is even more explicit:

“The Eucharist is not a bare commemoration nor an imaginary representation of Christ’s sacrifice, but the true sacrifice itself; yet on the other hand it is not a new sacrifice, nor a repetition of the sacrifice on Calvary, since the Lamb was sacrificed ‘once only, for all time.’ The events of Christ’s sacrifice – the Incarnation, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension – are not repeated in the Eucharist, but they are made present. ‘During the Liturgy, through its divine power, we are projected to the point where eternity cuts across time, and at this point we become true contemporaries with the events which we commemorate’” (TOC, 286-87).

Penance is “a second baptism” in that it deals with sins committed after baptism. “Totally contrary is the Latin teaching of penalties and punishments, external and temporal remission, the treasury of merits, the superabounding grace of our Lord’s passion, the works of supererogation performed by the saints, and purgatorial fire, all of which the Orthodox church most strenuously rejects” (Karmiris, 29).

As for ordination, the hierarchy of the Orthodox church “traces its beginnings back through an unbroken succession to the apostles themselves” (30). Thus “no one who is not in possession of the apostolic succession has any right to perform any sort of priestly or pastoral function” (30).

(8) Orthodoxy venerates Mary as “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, as superior to all created beings” (Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988] p. 65 of Clendenin). Whereas Mary is not a substitute for Christ, she “intercedes before her Son for all humanity. We ceaselessly pray to her to intercede for us. Love and veneration of the Virgin is the soul of Orthodox piety” (66). Orthodoxy denies that Mary had other children by Joseph.

The Orthodox Church rejects the Roman Catholic dogma (1854) of the immaculate conception of Mary but at the same time affirms her sinless life.

As for the bodily assumption of Mary “The church believes that, dying a natural death, she was not subject to corruption, but, raised up by her Son, she lives in her glorified body at the right hand of Christ in the heavens” (67). In other words,

“Like the rest of humankind, Our Lady underwent physical death, but in her case the Resurrection of the Body has been anticipated: after death her body was taken up or ‘assumed’ into heaven and her tomb was found to be empty. She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives already in the Age to Come” (Ware, TOC, 260).

“She covers the world with her veil, praying, weeping for the sins of the world; at the last judgment she will intercede before her Son and ask pardon from him. She sanctifies the whole natural world; in her and by her the world attains transfiguration. In a word, the veneration of the Virgin marks with its imprint all Christian anthropology and cosmology and all the life of prayer and piety” (67).

Thus, whereas the Orthodox “venerate” (duleia, hyperduleia, proskynesis) Mary and grant her special honor, “worship” (latreia) is due God alone.

(9) The Orthodox view of the saints does not differ significantly from that of Rome. “The saints are our intercessors and our protectors in the heavens” (Bulgakov, 68). Again, “God accords to the saints, as to the angels, the power to accomplish his will by active though invisible aid accorded to humans” (70). Veneration of the relics of the saints “is founded on faith in a special connection between the spirit of the saint and his human remains, a connection which death does not destroy. In the case of the saints the power of death is limited: their souls do not altogether leave their bodies, but remain present in spirit and in grace in their relics, even in the smallest portion” (71-72).

(10) The Orthodox believe that the living should pray for the dead even as the dead intercede for the living. One prayer for the dead is: “Pardon every transgression which they have committed, whether by word or deed or thought.” Most Orthodox theologians today reject Purgatory as taught by the RCC and insist that the departed dead do not suffer.


Thanks Sam, this is helpful.

"... and that salvation outside of the Orthodox church is a questionable assumption”

No doubt, and I wouldn't want to be snarky but so would salvation *inside* the Orthodox church be a questionable assumption.

We really do have to thank God for Wycliffe, Luther & Co who insisted that the Bible be made available to everyone. This is the greatest accomplishment of the Reformation.

I couldn't help but think of Jesus' remark to the woman at the well about God seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth.

Sometimes I think that "tradition" morphs into a well disguised form of ancestor worship.

Very informed, well written article. Having come from Eastern Orthodoxy as a priest and consecrated bishop, I concur with what is written and agree with it.

Sam, thanks for this truly enlightening summary of Orthodoxy. As I read it, I was once again reminded of the inestimable importance of the Reformation. I totally get why many are troubled by the chaos and confusion within evangelicalism. But, what I don't get is why "evangelicals" convert to RCC or OC. Finally, as read this article, I couldn't help thinking about the different articles I've read recently about the deeply troubling relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin.

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