A Friendly Critique of Eastern Orthodoxy — Three Erroneous Beliefs

Title: A Friendly Critique of Eastern Orthodoxy – Three Erroneous Beliefs

Text: Galatians 2:16, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Exodus 20:4-5

Time: July 23rd, 2012


In previous messages I’ve gone through what I called “A Friendly Critique of Roman Catholicism,” in an effort to point out a number of unbiblical teachings found in the Catholic church. I consider Catholics brothers and sister in Christ, although I maintain with the Reformers that they hold to some false teachings that at worst could damn the soul and at best hinder one’s spiritual life as a Christian. In other words, some of the false teachings in the Catholic church are severe enough to potentially damn the soul, but most of them can be seen as hurting a believer’s spiritual progress. It’s the same way, I believe, with the false teachings in the Orthodox church. Again, I consider members of Eastern Orthodoxy as brothers and sisters in the Lord, although, just as with Catholicism, they hold to a number of false doctrines and practices. Some of these false teachings, such as teaching about salvation, have the potential of damning the soul if taken a certain way. But most of the false teachings found in Orthodoxy, like in Catholicism, more or less oppose full spiritual growth in Christ. In other words, they hinder Christian maturity. Before the year A.D. 1054 there was a general unity within Christianity, although the church in the West and the church in the East were gradually drifting apart due to many factors. But after 1054 the split was official, and Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity have developed differently ever since. But nevertheless, Orthodoxy and Catholicism share many or most of the same Christian beliefs and practices. For example, they both accept the first seven ecumenical councils; they both recognize more or less the same canonical scriptures; they both hold to apostolic succession; they both view the Mass in similar ways; both follow the same basic structure in the Liturgy, and so forth. So there are many, many similarities between East and West, between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This explains why the late Pope John Paul II saw Orthodoxy as a priority in the eventual unity of all Christianity, because it is already so close to Catholicism in many ways – much more closer than Protestantism in its many forms. So in a sense, many of the same criticisms found of Catholicism apply to Orthodoxy. However in this message, and in the message that follows this one, I’ll try to avoid reduplicating what I’ve already said about a particular false teaching, except where there is some unusual or important twist on a false teaching that Orthodoxy brings. Unfortunately, many of the errors that we see in the Roman Catholic church were already present in the established Christian church before the East-West split in A.D. 1054. Consequently, both branches of the church continued to promote errors as they had before. But let me get specific and point out three erroneous teachings found in the Orthodox church.


First, Eastern Orthodoxy teaches salvation by works. Galatians 2:16, “Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” Again, it’s very clear from the New Testament teachings that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. This is taught very clearly by the Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans and elsewhere, for example, in the Book of Galatians. It’s crystal clear. Anyone with an open mind can simply go to the New Testament and read for him or herself what it teaches about salvation, and find that salvation is by faith alone apart from works. However, after the early generation of Christians, after the death of the original Apostles, after the 1st Century, the church began to move away from the simple message of salvation by faith alone as taught by the Apostle Paul and others in the New Testament writings, and began to move in the direction of moral living as a means to salvation. This is not just my opinion, but it’s the conclusion of historians and scholars who are familiar with Christianity after the 1st Century. For example, author Cyril Richardson in his book Early Church Fathers says, “Clement (a Christian leader around A.D. 100) has moved away from the Pauline gospel into an atmosphere more concerned with the moral life. . . . Clement’s Letter reflects the movement away from the Pauline faith to a type of Christianity in which ethical interests and concern for law and order predominate.” So East and West Christianity reflects this false emphasis on works in salvation rather early on. Now I’ve already talked about Catholicism’s false emphasis on works, let me talk now about Orthodoxy’s false emphasis on works in respect to salvation. In the East, in addition to an emphasis on works contributing to our salvation, in opposition to the Apostle Paul’s teaching of faith alone, there is the idea of “deification” included in the church’s salvation message. This sounds strange to us in the West because neither Catholicism nor Protestantism teaches anything like it. The idea is that we are saved to become “like” God, to become “deified” in the salvation process. So then we never really are “saved” in this life, at a point in time, but rather we enter a life-long process of deification, where our soul is either becoming more like God or less like him. In Protestant theology, this is more like what we’d call sanctification or holiness – a life long process of discipleship where we learn to yield ourselves to God. But in the East, they make it how we are saved, which is not exactly what the Apostle Paul teaches. The error is a confusion of salvation with Christian maturity. The goal of “deification” is biblical – our goal should be to be like God, but to teach we must strive to be saved is wrong because it contradicts the salvation by grace through faith message Paul and others teach in the New Testament. In this, like Catholicism, Orthodoxy is in error.


Second, Eastern Orthodoxy teaches church infallibility. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Reformers were adamant that God’s Word, the Bible, was above all church leaders, traditions or rituals – in short, the Word of God was above the church. But for Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as Roman Catholics, the church is above the Bible in authority, if not in theory, in practice. But if the above passage from the New Testament is true, then the church cannot be above Scripture, but must submit to Scripture. It says that all of God’s Word, the Bible, is given by God for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training. That means that it alone is the chief authority for Christians; it means that it could reform not only church leadership but also the church itself whenever it wanders into error. But for the Orthodox church it is impossible for the church to lead the faithful into error because it is supposed to carry with it the authority of God for its infallible task. But if this is so, how can there be two infallible churches in Christianity that teach different things? How can there be the Great Schism of A.D. 1054 if both infallible branches of the church are in fact infallible, incapable of leading the faithful into error. Obviously, one of them, either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, is in error, and therefore isn’t infallible. So one of the so-called infallible churches isn’t infallible, since they both can’t be right. The truth is, from a biblical Protestant perspective, on the issue of the infallible church, they are both wrong. The truth is, there is no infallible church, there never was, and there never will be. Christ never promised an infallible church. He did promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, according to Matthew 16:18; which means that any error, corruption, heresy or apostasy would not ultimately bring the church down, that it would prevail in the end, that there would always be a true witness on earth of God’s truth, that any sickness in the church wouldn’t kill it, but that it would be renewed, reformed and revived as needed. Orthodoxy prides itself on being true to the original and early traditions of Christianity – and that is true if we consider up to the time of the first seven ecumenical councils as the cut-off point. But why not go further back, even earlier, and make the early church and the New Testament the cut-off point? Why not consider this true orthodoxy? Why not see the Bible as the only infallible test and not try to make the church organization infallible? The infallible church was an erroneous teaching in Catholicism, and it’s an erroneous teaching in Orthodoxy as well. It makes no sense in either case.


Third, Eastern Orthodoxy teaches the adoration of the saints. Exodus 20:4-5, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God. . . .” If one enters an Eastern Orthodox church building one immediately notices very visible icons present in the front of the sanctuary. What do all these visual images represent? They are depicting various important saints and angels that worshipers are to adore at different times during the worship service. These icons are an important part of Orthodox worship, because at certain times in the service the faithful are called upon to view, reflect on, touch and even kiss certain important icons in veneration. Now what strikes a Protestant as unusual and suspicious is that nothing of this sort of activity is taught in the New Testament anywhere. The logic behind the Orthodox worship service is easy enough to understand – they take as their model the heavenly worship described, for example, in Revelations 4, where the angels and saints are surrounding the throne of God in all its glory. Orthodox emphasize the idea of a “communion of saints” – that is, worship where not only the present living believers on earth worship, but also the departed saints, angels and souls of others in heaven join in to form a corporate unity. While not strictly a form of worship found in the early New Testament church, there is biblical precedent for it, so we really can’t find fault with this style of church. But what is forbidden in Scripture is the use of graven images in worship, because they can so easily function as idols, turned into idolatry. Now in the long history of the Christian church there has been a long debate going over the use of visual images in the church, over statues and icons, and other artistic renderings. For Orthodox Christians this debate was settled in the early ecumenical councils in favor of the use of icons; but for other Christians the issue is not over by any means. Most Protestants see the use of icons as a distraction from the pure and simple worship of God. They find the theological hair-splitting by Catholic and Orthodox theologians between “worship” – reserved for God alone, and “adoration” – permitted of saints and angels, unconvincing. Statues and icons per se are not wrong, it’s just their wrongful use in Christian worship that is troubling. To witness someone bowing down to, kissing or kneeling in front of an icon, it sure looks like worship. To see someone praying in front of an alter of icons or statues, it looks as if prayers are being made to these objects.  Theological distinctions don’t take away from a practical reality. This is either idolatry or very close to it.


I want to make myself very clear. I’m not against icons or statues or paintings or any visual art in the church; I’m against these objects being used in improper ways in Christian worship. I’m against the glory of God being robbed by anything, including sacred art objects. But the biggest reason I suspect that Eastern Orthodox use of icons is wrong is that there is no biblical precedent for it. As a Bible-believing Protestant I take as my authoritative standard the Bible alone. It alone is the one true test for what is proper and what isn’t proper in the church. Orthodoxy takes as its standards the historic creeds, the first seven ecumenical councils, the teachings of the early church fathers, and of course, Scripture. But by including other things in addition to Scripture itself, the church opens the door for error and corruption. We’ve covered just three erroneous teachings of Eastern Orthodoxy – salvation by works, infallible church, and adoration of saints using icons. All of these errors have come into Orthodoxy from sources outside the Bible. They either came through the influence of outside cultural factors, such as in the case of Greek philosophy in respect to the deification doctrine of salvation; or gradual internal church development, as in the case of church infallibility and adoration of the saints. But in either case these errors where not tested by the plain teachings of Scripture; they were not lined up and measured by the only infallible standard, God’s Word. As 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” Unfortunately, this was not done, or it was not done thoroughly enough, in the church following the 1st Century. All the New Testament writings were completed before the end of the 1st Century; the Word of God in the New Testament was complete. No, the writings were not bound together in one volume called “The New Testament,” but they were known, read and followed by churches. What happened, evidently, is that the church began to see itself as the authority instead of seeing itself as under the authority of the Word of God. Some beliefs and practices came into the church gradually, and then justification for their existence was made from Scripture rather than testing them by Scripture. Eventually some of these beliefs and practices became established to the point nobody would or could challenge them, since they carried the weight of precedent and acceptance. It took the Reformation, many years later, to go back and test doctrines and practices that should have been tested by Scripture earlier. Orthodoxy prides itself on preserving the traditions of the church; unfortunately, it’s still preserving some things that never should have been allowed or permitted in the church to begin with. These can only be categorized as errors.


One Response to “A Friendly Critique of Eastern Orthodoxy — Three Erroneous Beliefs”

  1. diễn đàn xe hơi sài gòn Says:

    diễn đàn xe hơi sài gòn

    A Friendly Critique of Eastern Orthodoxy – Three Erroneous Beliefs | Jeff Short’s Weblog

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