More on East Meets West

Today I would like to share more with you about the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The Eastern Orthodox Church traces its beliefs back to the seven great ecumenical councils of the church which were held from 325 AD to about 750 AD.  At these councils leaders from the major cities in the Christian world gathered to discuss theology, listen to the Holy Spirit and to write the creeds and doctrinal statements of the church.   The western church (later known as the “Catholic Church”) officially split from the eastern church in 1054 AD over disagreements about the role of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity. About 500 years later the Protestant Reformation began in western Europe in which the Lutherans, Calvinists and others split from the Catholic Church. One of the reasons for this split was the belief of the Roman Catholic Church in the primacy of the pope.  Unlike the western church, the eastern church never had a pope, but it is a communion of autonomous churches governed by meetings of the chief bishops, who are called Patriarchs.

The Eastern Orthodox Church emphasizes God as mystery.  Rather than trying to dissect God and create systematic theologies in which there is a category for everything related to God, the Eastern way emphasizes mystery. God is vastly greater than anything we can possibly say or think about Him.  The idea of mystery also includes the deep truths about God and his nature that have been revealed through the Scriptures and through the testimony of holy men and women.  Bishop Kallistos Ware writes that “A mystery is something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.”[1] 

God is revealed as Trinity – three Divine persons sharing love with one another.  There is a great emphasis on the trinity within Eastern Orthodox practice and teaching. God is One Being, but He is revealed as three personalities with separate functions:  Father, Son and Spirit.  The essential nature of God is love.  God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4:16). The photo I have included is of a painting by Rublev which is an icon, or symbolic representation of the Trinity.  The Father is to the left, Jesus in the middle and the Holy Spirit is seated on the right.  This painting emphasizes their love for each other and their equality.

The Incarnation is a major point in Eastern theology.  God Himself took on flesh and blood and was born on earth as human being.  He was fully God and also fully man. He suffered the temptations of sin but never sinned. He was baptized in water to identify with humanity's weakness and He was filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit for his service to humanity.  Through the indwelling power and grace gifts of the Spirit this man Jesus healed the sick and set free those oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38).  Then He gave his life as a ransom for us - to defeat death and rescue humanity.  God raised Him from the dead and when He rose from death He lifted humanity out of darkness and death and into the light and life of a New Creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).

The Eastern way also emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a Person.  He is a member of the Godhead just like the Father and the Son.  He was involved in creation as the Spirit who brooded over the chaos and darkness before God said “Let there be light" (Genesis 1:2).  He was also involved in the conception, birth, baptism, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus functioned in his entire earthly ministry as a man dependent on the wisdom and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. It is important to see that the Spirit is equal to Jesus and not subordinate to Him like the western (Catholic and Protestant) theologies tend to imply.

Rather than frame man’s sin problem as a legal issue in which God is the Judge and Jesus is the defense attorney, Eastern theology frames man's problem as spiritual death, which then leads to sin (disobedience to God). Scripture teaches that spiritual death was passed down to humanity through the original sin of Adam (see Romans 5:12).  Jesus gave His life on the cross to destroy death and bring God’s life back to humanity (see Hebrews 2:14, Romans 8:1-4).  Salvation then is the process of receiving the Life of God and allowing that Life to dwell in us and transform us back into the moral image of God.  This process is called “theosis” in Eastern Theology.  The Apostle Paul makes a clear statement of this process of transformation in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when he writes,

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.” (NIV)

It is the Holy Spirit then, living inside the hearts of believers who transforms us gradually into the image of God.  This happens as we participate in the life of the church and obey the commands of the Lord.

In the future I will write more about the Eastern Orthodox church.  For those interested in further study, I recommend Kallistos Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way” which I have referenced in the footnote below.

[1] Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995, 15
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