Introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy

In a previous article I spoke of the conversation now going on between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics prompted by the culture war. A third tradition is participating in such talks as well, namely, the Eastern Orthodox Church. For many if not most of us, Eastern Orthodoxy is a real mystery. Images of bearded priests and candles, and the sounds of chanting come to mind. They are so far removed from us, it seems. Are we really part of the same church? Such a question would be absolutely preposterous to them, of course, for Orthodox are fond of pointing out that they stand closer to the ancient church than do Catholics or Protestants.

In this article I’d like to introduce you to the Eastern Orthodox Church. I will simply present some of Orthodoxy’s history and beliefs as an introduction without offering any critique.{1}


Orthodox Christians trace their lineage back to the apostolic church. The apostles, of course, founded only one church. Since the founding of the church there have been three significant divisions. The first occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries when what are known as the Oriental Orthodox churches split off over theological issues. These include the churches in Iran and Iraq, sometimes called the “Nestorian” or “Chaldean” churches. Also included were the Syrian Church of Antioch and the Coptic Church of Egypt. The churches that were left comprise what we know of as the Eastern Orthodox Church. These are the churches that remain in communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.{2}

The next division, typically dated in the eleventh century, was between the Eastern Church and the Western or Roman Catholic Church. Rome was one of the five main centers, or sees, of the Church. Although it was the most important of the five, it was different from the others. For example, the Western Church based in Rome used Latin, whereas the Eastern Church used the languages of the people. Rome had more of a legal mindset in its theology, whereas the East was more mystical. In addition, various cultural and political issues set it apart. The barbarian invasions of the fifth century and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire in the West further separated the West from the East.

Such things as these set the stage for division. Two major issues brought it to a head. One was the power of the pope in Rome. The bishops of the Church had long been seen as generally equal; all the bishops had a vote in decisions affecting the whole Church. However, a few wielded more influence than others. The Roman See was at the top. Thus, the pope was considered the first among equals among the bishops of the Orthodox world. However, some of the popes came to desire universal supremacy. For example, Pope Nicholas wrote in 865 that he had authority “over all the earth, that is, over every Church.”{3}

The other theological problem was that of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father. Does He proceed from the Father only or both the Father and the Son? The Nicene Creed originally said that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” A clause was added later by the Church in the West, without the agreement of the other bishops, to make it read, “proceeds from the Father and from the Son.” Later I’ll look at this a little more closely. For now we should note the importance of the clause for the unity of the Church.

The clause seems to have originated in Spain and was accepted by Charlemagne as part of the Creed. The seriousness of the matter can be seen in the antagonism it produced between East and West. For example, when the Greeks wouldn’t include the phrase, writers in Charlemagne’s court began accusing them of heresy. For another, in 867, Pope Nicholas’ backing of the inclusion of the Filioque clause in opposition to the rest of the Church brought about his excommunication by Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople, although communion was later restored.

The East resented its inclusion for two reasons. First, this act revealed the extent of power the Pope was trying to claim in allowing the addition on his own authority. Second, it was thought to be incorrect theologically. (I will return to these later.)

In the eleventh century relations between the East and the West worsened severely. Rome gained new power politically in the West, reviving the belief that it had universal jurisdiction. The Normans gained power in Italy and forced the Greeks there to conform to Latin methods of worship. In retaliation, the patriarch of Constantinople forced the Latin churches there to adopt Greek practices. After a few more events further heightened tensions, on July 16, 1054 some legates of the pope laid a Bull of Excommunication on the altar of the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. This is the date commonly given for the great schism between the East and the West. It was a landmark occasion, but the end didn’t finally come in fact until the early thirteenth century following a few tragic events in the Crusades. Now there was the Roman Church and the Eastern Church, the one headed by the pope, the other headed by the patriarch of Constantinople.

The Godhead

Space does not permit a full description of the theology of the Orthodox Church. Let’s touch briefly on its doctrine of God.

The Trinity

The Holy Trinity is of supreme importance in Orthodox theology and life. It “is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian.” Because we’re made in the image of God, we can’t understand ourselves if we don’t understand this doctrine. God’s triune nature also makes clear that He is personal–that He experiences personal communion within the Godhead, and thus can commune with us as well.

The Father

Below I’ll speak further about the role of the Father in the Trinity. Here I’ll just touch on the Orthodox understanding of the knowability of God. Orthodox believe that God is unknowable to us in His essence for He is so much higher than we are: He is absolutely transcendent. For that reason we can only employ negative language when speaking of Him: we can say what He is not in His being, but not what He is.

However, God is not cut off from His creation. While God’s essence is the core of His being and cannot be known, His energies, which permeate creation, enable us to experience Him. His energies “are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world.” Through these “God enters into a direct and immediate relationship with humankind.”{4}

The Incarnate Son

The whole of the sacramental theology of Orthodoxy is grounded in the Incarnation of Christ. The Incarnation is so significant that Orthodox believe it would have occurred even if Adam and Eve hadn’t fallen into sin. It was an act of love–God sending His Son to commune with us. Because of sin, however, it also became an act of salvation.

Orthodoxy seeks to give proper weight to both Christ’s deity and His humanity. One must recall the weight given to the Nicene Creed and its clear declaration of both natures. He is “true God and true man, one person in two natures, without separation and without confusion: a single person, but endowed with two wills and two energies.” The divinity of Christ is of utmost importance to Orthodox. “‘Behind the veil of Christ’s flesh, Christians behold the Triune God’ . . . perhaps the most striking feature in the Orthodox approach to the Incarnate Christ [is] an overwhelming sense of His divine glory.{5} He is the face of God for us. This revelation was seen most strikingly in the Transfiguration and the Resurrection.{6} On the other hand, the places where He lived and ministered and the Cross upon which He died are pointers to His humanity, and they are revered highly.

The Holy Spirit

The importance of the Holy Spirit in the Orthodox Church can hardly be overstated. They believe, in fact, that it is one thing that sets the Eastern Church apart from the Western. Whereas the Western Church put greater emphasis on the power of theological understanding, Orthodox depend more on the activity of the Spirit. St. Seraphim of Sarov said that such things as prayer and fasting and other Christian practices are not the aim of the Christian life. “The true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”{7} In the corporate setting, the Spirit is invoked repeatedly in Church worship. On the individual level, believers place themselves under His protection each morning in their prayers.

Earlier I talked about the split in the Church in the eleventh century. One of the key issues was the clause the Western Church added to the Nicene Creed, which said that the Spirit was sent by the Father and by the Son. This was called the Filioque clause. The Eastern Church rejected this addition because it was inserted without the support of the universal Church and because it was seen as incorrect theologically. For Orthodox theologians, the clause confused the roles of the Father and the Son in the economy of the Trinity. “The distinctive characteristic of the first person of the Trinity is Fatherhood,” says Timothy Ware. “He is the source in the Trinity. The distinctive character of the second person is Sonship; . . . [He] has His source and origin in the Father, . . . The distinctive character of the third person is Procession: like the Son, He has His source and origin in the Father; but His relationship to the Father is different from that of the Son, since He is not begotten but from all eternity He proceeds from the Father.”{8} To the Orthodox, then, to say the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is to give those two persons the same function. They point out, too, the scriptural teaching that “the Spirit of truth . . . proceeds from the Father.” (Jn. 15:26)

Furthermore, the clause seemed to imply a subordination of the Spirit to the Son, which could result in a diminution of the Spirit in the Church. But the ministry of the Spirit and the Son are “complementary and reciprocal.” “From one point of view,” says Ware, “the whole ‘aim’ of the Incarnation is the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost.”{9}

The Church in Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that true belief and worship are maintained by the Orthodox Church. “Orthodoxy claims to be universal–not something exotic and oriental, but simply Christianity,” says Orthodox bishop Timothy Ware.{10} They believe that Orthodoxy has maintained the teachings of the apostles and the early Church faithfully through the centuries.

Three Defining Characteristics

Something one notices soon after beginning an investigation of the Orthodox Church is its attempt to let its theology inform its practice in life and in worship.

The Orthodox Church can be described generally under three headings: Trinitarian, Christological, and Pneumatological. Regarding the Trinity, beyond simply holding it as a correct understanding of God, the Church attempts to emulate the Trinity in its practices. As the Trinity is both one and many, the Church is thought of as both one and many–unity in diversity. This applies to both individuals and to local churches all taken together. Orthodoxy is made up of a number of independent autocephalous churches, as they are called. “Just as in the Trinity the three persons are equal,” says Ware, “so in the Church no one bishop can claim to wield absolute power over all the rest; yet, just as in the Trinity the Father enjoys pre-eminence as source and fountainhead of the deity, so within the Church the Pope is ‘first among equals’.”{11}

Further, the Orthodox Church is Christological. It sees itself as “the extension of the Incarnation, the place where the Incarnation perpetuates itself.” It is “the centre and organ of Christ’s redeeming work . . . it is nothing else than the continuation and extension of His prophetic, priestly, and kingly power . . . The Church is Christ with us.”{12}

Finally, the Church is Pneumatological. It is the dwelling place of the Spirit. The Spirit is the source of power in the Church. In addition, He both unites the Church and ensures our diversity. We are separately given the Spirit, but so that we might come together. “Life in the Church does not mean the ironing out of human variety, nor the imposition of a rigid and uniform pattern upon all alike, but the exact opposite. The saints, so far from displaying a drab monotony, have developed the most vivid and distinctive personalities.”{13}

Authority in the Church

The Orthodox Church is at once popular and hierarchical. It is popular in the sense that the focus is on the people, and authority resides in the Church, which is the people of God. However, the Church is represented in its leadership, and here one finds a strong hierarchy. Major decisions are made by the bishops with a special place of honor going to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. “Where Rome thinks in terms of the supremacy and the universal jurisdiction of the Pope,” says Ware, “Orthodoxy thinks in terms of the five Patriarchs and of the Ecumenical Councils.”{14}

While the decisions of bishops are binding in general, it is understood that they aren’t infallible. The Church is infallible, but its bishops aren’t. As Paul said, the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Tim. 3:15)

For the Orthodox, the Church is the bearer and guardian of truth, which is passed on through Tradition. Included in Church Tradition are the Bible, the ecumenical councils of the early centuries, and the writings of the Fathers, the Canons or laws, the Icons–“in fact,” says Timothy Ware, “the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages.”{15} The Bible forms a part of this Tradition; it is seen as a product of the Church and derives its authority from the Church. “Among the various elements of Tradition, a unique pre-eminence belongs to the Bible, to the Creed, to the doctrinal definitions of the Ecumenical Councils.”{16} As another writer says, “It is neither subordinate nor superior to tradition, not can there be any contradictions between them.”{17}

When challenges were made to what had been taught by the Church from the beginning, answers were provided by various councils through the early centuries. The most important was the Council of Nicaea. Thus the Nicene Creed has preeminence, although the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creeds are also used. At these councils important doctrines of the faith were hammered out. Nicaea, for example, dealt with the person of Christ. Was He God or man or both? If both, how did the two natures relate in one person? The determinations of the councils, which were universally accepted, became authoritative for the Church.

The Church Fathers also provided authoritative teaching about Christian doctrine. Sometimes, however, they were in error. It became necessary, then, for the church to distinguish “patristic wheat . . . from patristic chaff.”{18}

The Worship of the Church

A close look at the Orthodox Church reveals quickly the importance of the Church as a whole, as the functioning body of Christ. The priority of the Church in Orthodoxy–not the so-called “invisible” or universal Church, but the visible worshipping community–might seem a bit odd to evangelicals. In evangelicalism the emphasis is more upon the individual’s relationship to Christ, whereas in Orthodoxy, the Christian life revolves around the Church as the locus of the ministry of Christ and the Spirit.

The Church is thought of as a reflection of heaven on earth. This belief underlies the elaborate nature of the worship experience. This reflection is seen first of all through beauty. A peculiar gift of the Orthodox, it is said, “is this power of perceiving the beauty of the spiritual world, and expressing that celestial beauty in their worship.”{19}

The worship service has supreme importance in Orthodoxy; it is more important than doctrine and the disciplines of the Christian life. “Orthodoxy sees human beings above all else as liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God, and who find their perfection and self-fulfillment in worship.” The liturgy is the contents of the worship service including the readings, actions, music, and all else involved. Says Timothy Ware: “Into the Holy Liturgy which expresses their faith, the Orthodox peoples have poured their whole religious experience.” It is what inspires “their best poetry, art, and music.”{20} Further, the liturgy of worship attempts to embrace both worlds–heaven and earth. There is “one altar, one sacrifice, one presence” in both. It is in the Church that God dwells among humans.

Orthodoxy is thoroughly sacramental. Holding that God has graced the physical world through the Incarnation of Christ, Orthodox see the whole of the created order as somehow graced by God and usable for revealing Himself. For the life of the Church there are special sacraments that are channels of God’s grace. Through particular physical means, such as through the elements of Communion or the water of Baptism, God extends His grace in a special way. The sacraments are “effectual signs of grace, ritual acts which both express and bring about a spiritual reality. Just as in the Incarnation the eternal Word of God was united with human nature in Jesus Christ, so in the sacraments spiritual gifts are communicated through tangible realities.”{21}

The Liturgy of worship reaches its highest point in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist creates the unity of the Church; it is “a Eucharistic society, which only realizes its true nature when it celebrates the Supper of the Lord, receiving His Body and Blood in the sacrament.”{22} “It is no coincidence,” says Ware, “that the term ‘Body of Christ’ should mean both the Church and the sacrament.” Where the Eucharist is, the Church is.{23}

There are other sacraments, too, in Orthodoxy, such as baptism, Chrismation (their equivalent roughly of Confirmation), Confession, and marriage. Customarily seven sacraments are listed, although there is no final word on the number. They aren’t all equal in importance; some are more significant than others, Baptism and the Eucharist being the most important. But all serve to convey the grace of Christ to His Church.

The Orthodox concept of the Church is extremely rich. There are aspects of their worship that many Evangelicals would find odd or uncomfortable (such as standing throughout the service) or even objectionable. But the attempt to bring the fullness of the kingdom into the worship service creates a rich and meaningful experience for the participants. Orthodoxy is unabashedly mystical. The worship service works to bring believers closer to a kind of mystical union with God. Here, the believer is to experience the presence of God and through it to eventually partake of the nature of God.

Icons and Deification

Let’s look at two beliefs of the Orthodox Church that are quite unusual to evangelicals.

I’ve already noted the importance of the Incarnation for the sacramental view of Christianity and of the world. It is also important for understanding the Orthodox use of icons. An icon, Timothy Ware tells us, “is not simply a religious picture designed to arouse appropriate emotions in the beholder; it is one of the ways whereby God is revealed to us. Through icons the Orthodox Christian receives a vision of the spiritual world.”{24} The use of icons reveals their view of matter, the created order. “God took a material body,” says Ware, “thereby proving that matter can be redeemed. . . . God has ‘deified’ matter, making it ‘spirit- bearing’; and if flesh has become a vehicle of the Spirit, then– though in a different way–can wood and paint. The Orthodox doctrine of icons is bound up with the Orthodox belief that the whole of God’s creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be redeemed and glorified.”{25} Ware says that Nicolas Zernov’s comments about the Russian Orthodox view of icons is true for Orthodoxy in general:

They were dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colours and lines of the [icons] were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating that men, animals, and plants, and the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper ‘Image.’ The [icons] were pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one. . . . The artistic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the celestial glory–it was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit. The icons were part of the transfigured world.{26}

Orthodox don’t worship icons, but rather venerate or reverence them. They are intended to remind the believer of God. Even those without theological training can learn from icons. But icons are more than a convenient teaching tool for Orthodox; they are thought to “safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation.” The Iconoclasts, it is thought (those who in the Orthodox Church fought against the use of icons), fell into a kind of dualism between defiled matter and the spiritual realm. “Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity, to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must by saved and transfigured.”{27}


One of the oddest teachings of Orthodoxy to evangelicals is that of the deification of man or theosis. The central message of Christianity is the message of redemption in Christ. Orthodox take quite literally the apostle Paul’s teachings on sharing in the message of redemption. “Christ shared our poverty that we might share the riches of His divinity; ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, though He was rich, yet for your sake became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich, (2 Corinthians viii, 9). . . . The Greek Fathers took these and similar texts in their literal sense, and dared to speak of humanity’s ‘deification’ (in Greek, theosis).” We are “called to become by grace what God is by nature.” For this to happen, of course, Christ had to be fully man as well as fully God. “A bridge is formed between God and humanity by the Incarnate Christ who is divine and human at once.”{28} Thus, “For Orthodoxy, our salvation and redemption mean our deification.”{29}

Underlying the idea of deification or divinization is the fact of our being made in “the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity. . . . Just as the three persons of the Trinity ‘dwell’ in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so we humans, made in the image of the Trinity, are called to ‘dwell’ in the Trinitarian God. Christ prays that we may share in the life of the Trinity, in the movement of love which passes between the divine persons; He prays that we may be taken up into the Godhead.”{30} Jesus prayed “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (Jn. 17:21) As Peter wrote: “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Pet 1:4)

As the image of God, we are icons of God. There is a reflection of God in us by nature. However, we grow in the likeness of God, or “the assimilation to God through virtue.” If we make proper use of our ability to have communion with God, “then we will become ‘like’ God, we will acquire the divine likeness. . . . To acquire the likeness is to be deified, it is to become a ‘second god’, a ‘god by grace’.” This is a goal we only acquire by degrees. “However sinful we may be, we never lose the image; but the likeness depends upon our moral choice, upon our ‘virtue’, and so it is destroyed by sin.”{31}

But will we be fully like God ourselves? To understand this doctrine, we must understand the difference between God’s essence and His energies. God’s essence is the core of His being. His energies are those characteristics by which we experience Him. “They are God Himself in His action and revelation to the world.” Through these “God enters into a direct and immediate relationship with humankind.” We cannot know His essence, but we can know His energies. Our deification consists in our “union with the divine energies, not the divine essence: the Orthodox Church, while speaking of deification and union, rejects all forms of pantheism.” We do not become one being with God. Nor do we become separate gods in our very essence. “We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation.” We are thus created gods.{32}

This deification involves the body, too. We will be transformed as Christ was in the Transfiguration, but the full transformation of our bodies will not come until the Last Day.

Several points can be made about the significance of deification. First, it is meant for all believers, not just a few. Second, the process doesn’t mean we won’t be conscious of sin in our lives. There is a continual repentance in the Christian life. Third, the means of attaining deification aren’t extraordinary. They are simple: “go to church, receive the sacraments regularly, pray to God ‘in spirit and in truth’, read the Gospels, follow the commandments.”{33} Fourth, it is a social process. The second most important commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. We don’t become divinized by ourselves. We realize the divine likeness as we live a common life with other believers such as that of the Trinity. “As the three persons of the Godhead ‘dwell’ in one another, so we must ‘dwell’ in our fellow humans.”{34} Fifth, deification is very practical. It involves the hands on application of Christian love, such as feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, etc. Sixth, it “presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments,” for it is here that we commune with God. “Church and sacraments are the means appointed by God whereby we may acquire the sanctifying Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness.”{35}

Evangelicals who are used to emphasizing a rational understanding of doctrine grounded in Scripture might find all this too vague. How can we hold to a doctrine of deification without falling into polytheism or pantheism? Once again we must take note of Orthodox mystical theology. Significant doctrines aren’t always clearly parsed and laid out for understanding. Orthodox have a very “face value” kind of theology: if Scripture says we are gods, then we are gods.

Concluding Remarks

This look at the Eastern Orthodox Church has been necessarily brief and rather surface. I have attempted to provide a simple introduction without adding an Evangelical critique. It is my hope that listeners will seek to learn more about Orthodoxy, both for a better understanding of the history of the Christian church, and to prompt reflection on a different way of thinking about our faith. While we might have serious questions about certain doctrines and practices of Orthodoxy, we can’t help but be enriched by others. The centrality of corporate worship as contrasted with our primary focus on the individual; the importance of beauty grounded in Christian beliefs contrasted with either the austerity of Protestant worship in the past or our present focus on personal tastes in aesthetics; the way fundamental doctrines such as that of the Trinity and the Incarnation weave their way throughout Christian belief and life in contrast to our more pragmatic way of thinking and living; these things and more make a study of the Orthodox Church an enriching experience. Even if one is simply challenged to rethink one’s own beliefs, the effort is worthwhile. Furthermore, in the context of the current culture wars it can only help to get to know others in our society who claim Jesus as Lord and seek to live according to the will of the one true God.


1. The writer has attempted to represent Eastern Orthodoxy by remaining true to its stylistic preferences, such as capitalizing references to the universal church and the particular sacraments (Baptism, Communion, etc.).

2. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, New edition, (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 4.

3. Ware, 53.

4. Ware, 232.

5. Ware, 225. Quotation from Bishop Theophan the Recluse.

6. “In Orthodox worship and spirituality tremendous emphasis in placed on both these events.” Ware, 226. “The theme of the Resurrection of Christ binds together all theological concepts and realities in eastern Christianity and unites them in a harmonious whole.” O. Rousseau, “Incarnation et anthropologie en orient et en occident,” in Irnikon, vol. xxvi (1953), p. 373, quoted in Ware, 226.

7. Ware, 229-30.

8. Ware, 211.

9. Ware, 229-30.

10. Ware, 8.

11. Ware, 240.

12. Ware, 241.

13. Ware, 242-243.

14. Ware, 239.

15. Ware, 196.

16. Ware, 197.

17. Keith Crim, ed., The Perennial Dictionary of Religions, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989), s.v. “Orthodox Churches” by V. Kesich.

18. Ware, 204.

19. Ware, 265.

20. Ware, 266.

21. Keith Crim, ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), s.v. “Sacraments,” by T.J. Talley.

22. Ware, 13.

23. Ware, 242.

24. Ware, 206.

25. Ware, 33-34.

26. Nicolas Zernov, The Russians and Their Church (London, 1945), 107-08, quoted in Ware, 34.

27. Ware, 33.

28. Ware, 20-21.

29. Ware, 231.

30. Ware, 231.

31. Ware, 219.

32. Ware, 232.

33. Ware, 236.

34. Ware, 237.

35. Ware, 237-38.

©2002 Probe Ministries.

Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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