Discovering Eastern Orthodoxy

Jeff Simmonds

When I heard that Frank Schaeffer, son of the famous Francis Schaef-fer, had converted to Orthodoxy I was surprised, not because he had converted - but because I realised I knew virtually nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy. I had lectured at Bible Colleges for a number of years - I had even lectured in church history! - but I knew very little about this major stream of Christendom and the Christian cousins we never talk about.

Further investigation led to some surprises. Several significant Protestant leaders in addition to Franky Schaeffer, have converted to Orthodoxy. The most spectacular mass conversion must be that led by Peter Gillquist who was a leader of the Campus Crusade movement. In 1987 Gillquist and 2,000 others from Campus Crusade converted en masse to Orthodoxy.

There are now a large number of Protestant converts to Orthodoxy in America - half of American Orthodox bishops and seminary students are from non-Orthodox backgrounds. American converts and seekers have the advantage of an Orthodox church which has services in English. In New Zealand, the Orthodox churches are much more ethnically focused. Services are in Russian or Greek, which makes bridging the gap between East and West most difficult. Nevertheless Orthodoxy has much to teach us.

It is easy to forget the sheer size of Orthodoxy as a stream within Christianity. In America, Orthodoxy is listed as the fourth largest religion. Worldwide there are around 185 million Orthodox Christians and in Russia alone there are 70 million.1 Reason enough for us to want to know more about the Orthodox faith.

What is Eastern Orthodoxy?

Eastern Orthodoxy is the most ancient of the three Christian streams. Protestantism, of course, originated at the Reformation with Luther and Calvin. Roman Catholicism, while tracing its roots back to Peter, is to a large extent a creation of the Middle Ages - a great deal of its political structure and its theology having been developed in the medieval period.

When Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) first claimed to be "the ruler of the whole world" the role of Pope became one of political, as well as religious, power. Significant developments and innovations in theology were made by Anselm (1033-1109) who developed the doctrine of the atonement, while Aquinas (1225-1274) was the real architect of modern Catholic theology. As a result, many ideas which Western Christians would trace back to the Bible - such as the Protestant doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus died as our substitute, bearing the penalty of sin) are really relatively recent developments and are not found in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Whilst Western Christianity is constantly developing and changing - Vatican II is an example of this - Eastern Orthodoxy has remained unchanged for over a thousand years. There have been few developments in Orthodoxy since the last of the Great Church Councils held in 787. John of Damascus, an eighth century Orthodox theologian, said "we do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the traditions just as we received them".

The main advantage of Eastern Orthodoxy - and, its opponents would say, its main drawback - is that it has not moved from the position it held fifteen hundred years ago. Its theology did not develop in the Middle Ages: there was no Aquinas to create whole new systems of belief; and it did not become a political tyrant: there was no Pope Innocent to turn the church into a political animal. As a result, there was no need for a Reformation to return the church to its original mission.

Attending services at an Eastern Orthodox church is like taking a trip in a time machine, back to an uncorrupted, authentic and ancient faith. At the same time, this makes the Orthodox Church seem strange and foreign to the Western believer. Much of its belief and practice seem completely alien. Those who visit an Orthodox service in New Zealand are greeted by icons, incense, chanting in Russian or Greek, and mysterious rituals involving robed priests behind doors. But if we got into a time machine and travelled back 1500 years, we would likewise find that the church services seemed strange and foreign - although an Orthodox believer would not notice much difference!

Maybe Orthodoxy seems foreign not only because of a cultural difference between East and West, but because the Western church has strayed so far from its origin and heritage that an authentic Christianity - the real McCoy - seems unrecognisable.

The foundations of Orthodoxy are the foundations of all Christianity. Orthodoxy believes in the Trinity (that God eternally exists in Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit), in the incarnation (that Jesus was fully God and fully human), in the atonement (that we are saved by the death of Christ on the cross), in the inspiration of the Bible, and in the Last Judgement. Orthodoxy practices baptism (of infants) and celebrates communion. Prayer and worship make up a significant part of Orthodoxy's religious practice.

In all things, Orthodoxy is orthodox, (holding to 'right belief'), and the Eastern Church adheres to the 'right belief' defined by the early Councils and Creeds of the Church.

The Great Schism

The central point of Orthodox history is the Great Schism of 1054. This was when the Pope officially excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, who in turn anathematised (condemned) the Pope. The Church split in two.

In part, this dispute was about the authority of the Pope. The Church had always been ruled by Councils of bishops, one of whom happened to be the bishop of Rome. There were five main leaders - the bishop of Rome (the Pope), and the bishops of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch (known as Patriarchs), each of whom had the oversight of a particular geographical area (or 'see').

The Pope was not supposed to have any more authority than any of the other leaders, and each of the sees were supposed to be autonomous. That meant that the bishop of Rome had no right to tell other Patriarchs what to do.

But with the Pope's rise in political power, he increasingly saw himself as the primary leader of the whole Church, and began to meddle in the affairs of the other four churches. The other Patriarchs, understandably, rejected this intrusion and resisted the political interference. The Pope's claim to be the head of the Universal Church remains an obstacle to reconciliation. Orthodoxy would accept reunification only if the bishop of Rome was regarded as having equal power to that of the other Patriarchs.

The other main dispute between East and West was the addition of the words "and the Son" (in Latin, filioque) into the Nicene Creed by the Western Church:

"I believe... in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and together glorified."

The early Church, and the original Creed, said that the Spirit proceeded from the Father, and this is the "faith handed down" which the Orthodox Church maintains. However, Spanish Christians added the words " . . . and the Son" in the late sixth century, and this addition was formally adopted by Rome in the eleventh century.

The Eastern Church was (and still is) highly opposed to this addition, believing that changes to the Creed can only be made by the whole Church as the result of an Ecumenical Council. One single part of the Church (such as Rome) does not have the authority to tamper with the Creeds and make changes to the faith which has been handed down unchanged for many centuries.

Clearly, the filioque controversy is related to the controversy over the authority of the Pope and his claim to be the head of the Universal Church. In claiming the right to change the Creed, the Pope was seen as claiming an authority which is possessed only by the Church in its totality.

Also, the Eastern Church regards the idea that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to be untrue, and theologically dangerous. They claim that the teaching that the Father 'generates' the Son, and that the Father and the Son 'generate' the Spirit, presents a Trinity whose members are not equal - one where a hierarchy operates in which the Holy Spirit is at the bottom of a three-tiered Godhead. If the Spirit is equal to the Son and not subordinate to him, he must, like the Son, proceed from the Father alone.

The official Orthodox position is that the Son sends the Spirit who proceeds from the Father. This is what Jesus says in John 15.26:

"When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who goes out from [proceeds from] the Father, He will testify about Me."

A compromise, recently agreed to by Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, is that the Creed should say that the "Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son". These arguments may seem to be merely a question of semantics, but the filioque issue has been a significant cause of division in Christendom for a thousand years and is one of the main reasons why we know so little of Orthodoxy today.

Other less significant differences between East and West created tension: Orthodox priests had to have long beards, Western priests had to shave; Western priests were supposed to remain celibate, Eastern priests were married; the East used bread with yeast in it for communion, the West used unleavened bread; and there were differences over when Easter should be celebrated.

In addition, there were significant language differences - the East spoke Greek and the West spoke Latin, and even scholars of the day seldom understood both languages. As a result, a great deal of misunderstanding arose, especially over technical doctrinal issues.

The tension caused by different politics, language, theology and practices was heightened by the Crusades. In theory the Western Christians launched the Crusades to come to the aid of the Orthodox Christians who were being threatened by Islam. As things unfolded, however, the Western Christians acted despicably, misusing their power to set up Latin kingdoms in the Eastern lands they captured. Having captured Jerusalem, the Crusaders expelled the Patriarch and Orthodox priests and imported Westerners to do the job!

Things went from bad to worse when in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the Western Christians attacked and sacked the city of Constantinople - the capital of the Orthodox world. One Orthodox observer said that the Muslims seemed "merciful and kind when compared with these men who bear the Cross of Christ on their shoulders".2 For nearly 60 years Constantinople was a Latin kingdom.

Many of the differences between East and West could have been resolved, but the appalling actions of the Crusaders who massacred Jews, Muslims and then fellow Orthodox Christians, meant that reconciliation was impossible. Eastern Christians acquired a very deep distrust of their Western brethren which still lingers.

The Bible, the Councils and Tradition

Orthodoxy believes that when the Church is united and undivided it is guided by the Holy Spirit, and is therefore infallible. This affects the way Orthodox believers view the Scripture.

Rather than the Church deriving its authority from the Bible (as in Protestantism), Orthodoxy sees the Bible as deriving its authority from the Church. That is, the Bible is inspired because it is the product of the Church, which wrote it. The Church decided which books should be included in the Bible and which should be rejected. Also, the Church alone possesses the authority to interpret the Bible correctly.

Unlike the Protestant attitude, which says that every believer can interpret the Bible for him or herself and that one may have a private interpretation, the Orthodox attitude to the Bible is that it must be understood as the Church has taught it. The new convert to Orthodoxy declares:

"I will accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation which was and is held by the Holy Orthodox Church of the East, our Mother."3

Orthodoxy takes seriously the word of Jesus that the Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth. That is, the Church will not go astray - what the Church says is indisputably true. Because the New Testament was created by the Church, guided and directed by God's Spirit, it is trustworthy.

For those of us who are somewhat suspicious of organised religion, the claim that the Church is infallible may seem somewhat bizarre. However, it is the whole Church which Orthodoxy views as infallible - the Church as a complete entity. When the entire Church gets together, it has the power and authority to speak authoritatively. The problem is that since the Eastern and Western churches split, the Church is no longer unified and therefore can no longer be regarded as infallible.

Prior to the schism between East and West, Orthodoxy believes that the Church was infallible. The Church met as a unified body seven times before the schism, at what are known as the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and these are regarded by Orthodoxy as absolutely authoritative.

The decisions made at those Councils and embodied in the Creeds (such as the Nicene Creed), are considered infallible. Therefore, doctrines such as the nature of the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ (which are not explicitly stated in the Bible) are not to be questioned because they have been stated by the Universal Church which cannot make mistakes.

When the Church divided in two (and the Western Church became fragmented into its many denominations) it lost its ability to speak authoritatively. As a result, Orthodoxy came to a standstill - it did not have the authority to continue to develop doctrinally. Orthodoxy, from that point on, determined to adhere to those doctrines which had been decided at the Seven Councils.

The Councils and Creeds, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers, constitute the tradition of the Orthodox Church. This tradition has an authority almost equal to that of Scripture itself. However, Orthodox don't see tradition and the Scripture as two distinct things: rather, the Bible is part of tradition - part of that which has been handed down by the Church and which Christians revere and follow.


Eastern Orthodoxy is not Catholicism. It is not an autocratic faith - it has no Pope, instead it recognises that it is the whole body of believers which is guided by God. Despite its faithfulness to tradition and the ancient beliefs 'handed down to us through the ages', it is a dynamic faith. This is because the Holy Spirit is seen as present within the Church, guiding and directing it.

Orthodoxy is a challenge to us who have been in organisations which claim to be 'New Testament Churches' - that is, which purport to be based on the belief and practice of the early Church. If indeed they were, such churches would be liturgical and sacramental, because the early Church was liturgical and sacramental. If such churches really want to do what the early Church did, they should convert to Orthodoxy!

It is also a challenge to those of us who declare that we follow the Bible, but claim the freedom to interpret it as we please. In rejecting the authority of the Pope, we each run the risk of making ourselves our own Pope in matters of belief, practice and interpretation. Such rabid individualism is not Biblical!

Many beliefs held by Christians are relatively new or novel. To give but one example, the doctrine of the 'rapture' was first proposed by JN Darby in the 1840s. Orthodoxy knows of no such teaching.

Eastern Orthodoxy therefore offers us a critique of what we believe and why. The criteria for judging our beliefs, put forward in the fifth century by Saint Vincent of Lerins is (a) universality: has the doctrine been believed everywhere in the Christian world and in every time by all, or almost all, of the recognised teachers of the Church? (b) antiquity: can this doctrine be found, at least in seed form, in the teachings of the Apostles, and maintained by the Fathers of the Church? and (c) consensus: has this doctrine been held by an ecumenical Council, or by the broad consensus of the Fathers of the Church?

Of course, many Christians could not apply these criteria because we are generally ignorant of Church History and early Christian writings. Most of us know little about the Ecumenical Councils or the Church Fathers. And this is precisely where the Orthodox Church has a vital role to play. Orthodoxy has not forgotten or neglected these things. Most Orthodox Christians - even uneducated ones - know something of the Councils and Creeds.

If we were to apply Saint Vincent's criteria to our own forms of Christianity, much of it would have to be tossed out because there is so much which has been added, and there is so much that we have omitted or deleted. The Orthodox Church, however, would stand without a need for Reformation, for it has held, without addition or subtraction, the faith handed down from our Fathers.

In part two of this article we will look at some theological differences between Eastern and Western Christianity, and will examine the role of icons, Mary and the saints in Orthodoxy.



1. Daniel B Clendenin: Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Baker Books, 1994) p 17

2 Timothy Ware The Orthodox Faith (Penguin, 1993, second edition) p 60 (Quoting Nicetas Choniates)

3 Timothy Ware The Orthodox Faith (Penguin, 1993, second edition) p 200


Recommended Reading

Timothy Ware: The Orthodox Faith (Penguin, 1993, second edition)

Daniel B Clendenin: Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Baker Books, 1994)

Bishop Kallistos Ware: The Orthodox Way (revised edition) (1995 St Vladimir's Seminary Press New York)

Peter E Gillquist ed: Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox (Conciliar Press, 1992)

Dr Jeff Obadiah Simmonds is a writer, speaker and the lead singer in the rollicking folk band Obadiah and the Minor Prophets. He has lectured at BCNZ Wellington and the Salvation Army Training College. He has also published a series of little booklets on the Bible, theology and Church history. You can e-mail him at

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