East and West
I’ve been taking some classes at an online Seminary for the past four years, and one thing that I’ve learned is an appreciation for the writings and theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Up until my early 50’s I had not been exposed to the Eastern Orthodox Church. My church roots as a child were in the Episcopal Church, followed by the Quaker Church and followed by the United Church of Christ. When I was 17 I had a conversion experience that we in my tradition call being “born again.” It was an intensely emotional experience where I asked the Lord Jesus to come into my life, forgive my sins and to become Lord of my life. After that experience I began attending a Pentecostal Church in Huntington, New York, which was part of the Assembly of God denomination. I had a very godly pastor named Charles Schaffer and he was the first Christian leader I had ever met who believed that the Bible was an inspired message from God and that it could be depended on for guidance in every area of life. I learned a great deal from him.
I enrolled in a non-denominational charismatic Bible College in Texas called “Fountain Gate Bible College” in 1982. This college was led by Dr. Fuchsia Pickett. It was there that I learned how God could open up the words in Scripture and give us amazing insights into his nature, plan and purpose for our lives. Dr. Pickett was an amazing woman who had been a Methodist pastor and then had come into the Pentecostal experience of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” with the gift of speaking in heavenly languages. This practice is also popularly called “speaking in tongues.” She also was used by God in healing and saw all kinds of diseases healed through prayer during her lifetime of ministry. I spent four years at Fountain Gate and that was really foundational to my relationship with God for the next 20 years. Over the past 14 years I’ve been learning about the way the early believers in the New Testament met together. Ecclesiology is the fancy word for that – it is the study of the structure and organization of the church. I’ve become a member of a house church here in Texas as a result of this study. More recently I’ve been challenged by the theology of N.T. Wright, who is an Anglican Professor of the New Testament. Through him I’ve learned a better way (in my opinion) of understanding what took place in the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus. The fancy term for that is “Atonement Theory.”
What I want to share in this blog is a little of what I’ve been learning about the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern and Western branches of the church are very different. The western church is called the Roman Catholic Church because it was centered in Rome. The Eastern Church was originally centered in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) and is now concentrated in many places, including Russia, Serbia, Egypt and Greece. These two churches were originally one unified church but they began to drift apart after 800 CE and formally split in 1054 CE in what was called “the Great Schism.”
The Protestant Reformation in Western Europe began in the 16th century and spawned such movements as the Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Anabaptist groups (Mennonites, Amish), Moravians, Methodists and Baptists. These movements reacted to perceived errors and corruption in the Roman Catholic Church but many of them retained much of the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Eastern Orthodox branch of the church remained unaffected by the Protestant Reformation. They were also unaffected by many doctrinal developments in Catholicism that took place between 800 CE and 1530 CE. Their doctrines are based on the doctrinal statements of the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the church that were held between 325 CE and 787 CE. They have not added any new doctrines since then. This is pretty amazing. They can trace their roots back to the early churches of the 1st and 2nd centuries in Egypt, Syria and Greece.
One major difference between the two communions is that the western Christians (Catholics and Protestants) were both heavily influenced by Augustine whereas eastern Christians were not. Augustine was a church leader who lived in North Africa in the 5th century. He was a theologian and a prolific writer. Much of Catholic theology came from Augustine. In the 16th century Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin rediscovered the theology of Augustine and drew on his ideas as they developed what later became Lutheran and Reformed theology.
The Eastern Church was never influenced much at all by Augustine. One area where Augustine was influential on the Western Church is in the area of sin. For Augustine humanity was totally depraved. There was nothing in humanity that was good or praise-worthy. Outside of the salvation of Christ which could change an individual, every inclination of a human being was toward evil. Augustine frames the idea of salvation in legal terms. God is a Holy Judge and man is guilty of sin and deserving of punishment. According to Augustine, Christ came to earth to be the sacrifice to pay for the sins of humanity so that God could grant forgiveness of sins for those who trusted in Christ.
The Eastern Church did not emphasize the total depravity of humanity. Instead they emphasized that the Image of God was present in all humans – Christian or non-Christian. The Bible tells us in the book of Genesis that all humans were made in the image of God. The essential qualities of God such as kindness, love, truth and humility are present in all human beings, but they have been marred through sin. Eastern Orthodox theology sees salvation as a healing process. God in Christ came to heal the sin-sick soul. His death and resurrection created a new humanity – a new creation. Humans that trust in Christ and live their lives in surrender to Him become part of this new humanity. They are now engaged in a process of being healed so that the image of God (humility, kindness, truth, patience, etc) can be seen clearly in their lives. The Apostle Paul wrote this in the third chapter of his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, Greece around 50 CE:
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
So then the Christian life is one of surrender and contemplation. As we surrender our wills to God and as we contemplate the beauty of His Son Jesus, the Spirit of God transforms us inwardly so that we reflect more and more accurately the very image and likeness of God’s character.
I will have more to write on Eastern Orthodoxy in the future.