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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Drifting East

Published Monday, January 1, 2018 By Michael Brown

Why are people leaving Reformed churches for Eastern Orthodox churches? While there have always been some who have left Protestant churches to be received (chrismated) into Eastern Orthodoxy (EO), significant cultural differences have generally prevented it from being a significant draw to Protestant “searchers.” With the advent of a distinctly American flavor of EO found in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and the Orthodox Church in America, and the influence of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, many are being drawn to EO who evidently had a limited familiarity and access before.

In the 1960s and ’70s, a large number of evangelicals left Campus Crusade for Christ and founded a movement called the New Covenant Apostolic Order. Those who belonged to this movement had spent significant time reading the early church fathers in an effort to discover the New Testament church. They came to the conclusion that EO was that church, and in coming years, large numbers of pastors and laypeople were received into that fellowship. Peter Gillquist spearheaded a publishing effort to teach Protestants about EO, resulting in a steady stream of converts who now saw EO as a way to participate in an ancient faith without the trappings of the Roman Catholic Church.1 Generally, there are three categories of reasons why people join Eastern Orthodox churches: mystery, history, and beauty.

Attracted to Mystery

EO worship is described as participation in and expression of fundamental unknowable realities: the Trinity, the incarnation, Creation, the sacraments, and the church.2 For many converts to EO, a main draw is the idea that EO worship (and even theological formulations) supremely reflects these mysteries, especially in contrast to Western Protestantism.

Many who have left for EO would say that the West is more focused on talking about God rather than actually experiencing, loving, and serving him. They perceive a conflict between an attempt to define, explain, and codify God and to revel mystically in the unknown. Many EO convert stories highlight being carried away in some aspect of beauty, mystery, or experience, rather than having a question answered; they may speak less of finding some elusive answer in EO theology, and more of being soothed out of existential angst by the EO experience. They speak of being alive to possibility, of being lost in spectacle and grandeur as they see, hear, and touch, in contrast to the stagnancy they felt in a bland or shallow Western religious program. They speak of finding the West’s dogmatic assertions unsatisfying and lacking, the product of callously spouted answers and touted systems that swallow up purity, piety, and humility.

Mystery: Knowing through Not Knowing

For EO, mystical experience is an ascent toward God—an experience that surpasses all human understanding, and an existential attitude that involves the whole being. One implication of this is that knowing begins in prayer, in liturgy, in sacraments, as opposed to starting with, as is said to characterize the Reformed and Western church, a preoccupation with mere rationalistic constructs.

Thus in EO, the beginning place of knowing is, ironically, in unknowing. Central to EO is the idea of apophaticism, a way of knowing in which one knows God primarily through mystical contemplation, rather than through positive propositions or intellectual activities. It is an emptying of the mind of logic and engaging in prayer in one’s ignorance. The goal is not knowledge but union with the Triune God, what EO calls deification. This negative way of apophaticism is the only way to open the door to a legitimate positive way of cataphaticism (a way of saying something positive about God). Denials, or negations, are the beginning point of EO theology, and everything else is God (as displayed by the negations of the central Athanasian Creed and by descriptors of God, such as ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible, and inconceivable).

Protestants are said to give lip service to God’s incomprehensibility, but then they compromise it via their theological systems, confessions, and philosophies when they explain that which was just confessed as incomprehensible. Vladimir Lossky says:

We must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, and inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically. Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other…there is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism…. Mysticism is…the perfecting and crown of all theology: as theology par excellence.3

Some Reformed Thoughts on Mystery

As human beings created in the image of God, we are more than thinking beings.4 It would not surprise us that many of our friends attracted to EO will need more deliberate, patient, personal, holistic (body and soul) care. This is the care, after all, that the Father gives us. We can model and teach holistic piety in the way we interact in church and in the world.5

To provide this care would first be to ensure that our own local churches’ love and communion extend beyond the walls of the church on the Lord’s Day. Thoughtful, intentional, and sacrificial seeking to love and serve one another daily is our calling. The phrase “They will know we are Christians by our love” is not just a platitude but a calling, a privilege, a responsibility, a participation in the life of God and his people. If we wish to minister most effectively to those believing that EO is a more desirable place to experience the mysteries of the Christian life, then let us spend time with one another, weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice, chasing after the wandering, binding up the wounded, bearing with one another, and by the Spirit serving and loving one another as God the Father loves and serves us in Christ.6 It behooves us to examine ourselves in light of God’s word to see if we sound like the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals that lack love.7

But alongside living in caring community and ministering to the whole person the entire week, it will likely be helpful to review and affirm some of our thoughts on the broad concept of “mystery,” including the following:

  • We, in fact, take pains to express the preponderance of mystery, as evidenced by the over twenty times we refer to it in the Belgic Confession, especially with regard to the Trinity, the incarnation, the church, the Lord’s Supper, God’s will, election, and regeneration.8
  • The Holy Spirit shapes faith by institution and ritual, as well as by intellectual explanation and assent. The church is important for faith, life, practice, and piety; indeed, outside of her there is no salvation. The sacraments (at least the two instituted by Christ) are far more than bare signs but effectual means of grace. Extraordinary things are happening through ordinary means.
  • The ecumenical creeds and confessions of the church are not merely lists of things to which we subscribe, but lively words forming our liturgical lives in union with our Triune God and his people. We stand before God in awe, and he dwells within us. We are not just talking about God, but we are talking to him and with him and because of him—given that in him we live and move and have our being, and the Spirit of Christ dwells within us.
  • Though there is much to be recognized as mystery, there is much that the Lord has revealed. Certainly there are things beyond our comprehension as finite creatures, but that does not undermine the fact that there are things we know and can know as God has revealed himself in nature, in his word, and in his Son. Scripture itself makes this distinction between the revealed and hidden things (Deut. 29:29). The incarnation, the reality of which is inaccessible to us in great and many ways, is that the Eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We only know in part, yes, but we do know! And while knowledge for knowledge’s sake may be problematic, and speculation is idolatrous, the Lord never prizes ignorance. To say that we cannot know something fully is not to say that we do not know it meaningfully or sufficiently.9 What God has said to us, we must learn.


Another major contributing factor in Protestant conversion to EO is the allure of antiquity. EO claims to be the original Christian church founded by Jesus, with liturgy, doctrine, and government that has remained unchanged since the days of the apostles.

In the first place, EO contends that its worship has not changed since the days of the apostles. They claim that the Divine Liturgy “was in practice right after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Disciples of Christ on the 50th day after His Resurrection.”10 While they admit that the Divine Liturgy saw subsequent development and did not take its final form until the fourth century, they maintain that the basic structure of their worship has not changed since the early church. As one Orthodox monk put it, “You have to understand, the words we are saying in today’s liturgy are the same words that Christ was saying, the same words that saints from the first century, the second century, the third century, the fourth century [were saying].”11 Unlike American evangelicalism that undergoes constant updates and changes in its musical and liturgical styles, the Divine Liturgy appears to remain untouched by the passing fads and whims of popular culture.

Second, while EO describes itself more as a way of life than a system of belief, it nevertheless claims to represent the unbroken succession of apostolic Christianity in its doctrine, which is summarized in the seven Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451, Constantinople in 553, Constantinople II in 681, and Nicaea II in 787) and their respective creeds and canons.12 For the Orthodox Church, these ecumenical councils constitute its confession. In addition to the seven ecumenical councils, EO recognizes as authoritative the writings of the early church fathers. This is “for guidance in questions of faith, for the correct understanding of Sacred Scripture, and in order to distinguish the authentic Tradition of the Church from false teachings.”13

Finally, EO offers connectivity to the ancient church in its government through its claim of an unbroken succession from the apostles to the current bishops of the Orthodox Church. EO has three tiers of church hierarchy in its government: bishops, presbyters, and deacons. These offices, EO claims, have direct lineage to the apostles—that is, the men who serve in these offices today were ordained by men who were ordained by men (and so on), all the way back to the apostles. Without this apostolic succession, says Orthodoxy, a church is not a true church: “The succession from the Apostles and the uninterruptedness of the episcopacy comprise one of the essential sides of the Church. And, on the contrary: the absence of the succession of the episcopacy in one or another Christian denomination deprives it of an attribute of the true Church, even if in it there is present an undistorted dogmatic teaching.”14

A Critique of Orthodoxy’s Historical Claims

Is it true that EO represents the unbroken chain of apostolic Christianity in its worship, doctrine, and government? How should we as Reformed Christians respond to these claims? The notion that the Divine Liturgy has been in place since the days of the apostles is misleading and grossly oversimplified. The nearest example in the New Testament of an apostolic liturgy is found in Acts 2.42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” But this, of course, is not a liturgy; rather, it describes the four main elements present in the weekly worship of the apostolic church: word, fellowship, sacraments, and the prayers (which include the singing of Psalms and hymns).  Likewise, the most reliable documents from the post-apostolic early church, such as the Didache (c. second century) and Justin Martyr’s First Apology (c. 155–157), provide us with evidence that worship in the ancient church consisted of Scripture reading, preaching, singing, the Lord’s Prayer, and weekly Communion. These, however, show no signs of looking identical to the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. In fact, the oldest surviving liturgy in use by EO today is the “Liturgy of St. James,” which dates no earlier than the fourth century. EO’s claim that its liturgy has remained unchanged since the days of the apostles is unsubstantiated and overstated.

Turning to EO’s claim to represent the unbroken chain of apostolic doctrine, we make two brief observations. First, EO’s claim works only if one accepts the Orthodox notion of the church’s infallibility and, specifically, that the canons and decrees of the ecumenical councils are infallible.15 If the canons and decrees of the ecumenical councils are infallible, as EO claims, then they possess the same weight and authority as Scripture. On the other hand, if the church and its various councils are fallible, then it is possible that the church has erred in its rulings from time to time since the days of the apostles. We believe, as the Westminster Confession of Faith states, that “all synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice; but to be used as a help in both.”16

Second, we point out that essential Christian doctrine is not limited to the seven ecumenical councils of the ancient church. While we agree that there exists a “catholic consciousness” in the ancient creeds, confirming “a number of the fundamental truths” of Christianity, we also recognize that the history of the Christian church continued after the eighth century, giving rise to crucial questions and debates that required more clarity than the canons and decrees of the ecumenical councils provide.

Finally, we respond briefly to EO’s claim to apostolic succession in its government—that is, that their current bishops have a direct lineage to the apostles. While such a claim is in itself dubious, even if it could be proven, it is no ground for the believer’s confidence that EO has preserved the truth over the past two millennia.17 As Michael Horton states,

Orthodoxy’s appeal to a direct line to the apostles is surely no greater ground for confidence than that which the Galatian churches could have claimed. Yet they were wrong. It is on the basis of the apostle’s own rebukes that we know they were wrong, and that their lofty place in the history of the church could not save them from the apostle’s anathema.18

In other words, if the apostolic church itself was fraught with problems and sometimes deviated from the truth, how does EO’s claim to apostolic succession of its bishops give us confidence that the truth has been preserved pristinely over the centuries? The true apostolic succession is not one of men but of apostolic ministry—ministry of the word of God, which alone is the final authority for the Christian’s faith and life.

The treasure that the church carries in earthen vessels is the gospel—the announcement that God has done for us in Christ that which we could never do for ourselves, even with his help. This is all we have at the end of the day, and without it our ancient pedigree and customs, liturgies and rites, ecclesiastical offices and powers, are worthless.19

It is not upon an apostolic succession of men that Christ has built his church, but upon the gospel that the apostles proclaimed.


Beauty is another category that has been a factor in people’s embrace of EO. Some converts to EO have become frustrated with the lack of beauty in many Protestant worship services. For example, note the following:

I never understood why Old Testament worship utilized all the senses, and then suddenly we get a new and better covenant (Heb. 8:6) and switch to plain white walls free of any symbolism. Orthodox people taste, touch, see, hear, and smell virtually everything! Orthodoxy is exceedingly beautiful. Worship is beautiful in Orthodoxy, as it should be. And every detail of worship is carefully designed for the honor and glory of God—from the way we sing to the images that adorn our walls to the vestments of the clergy.20

Since a hallmark of Reformed churches since the Reformation has been simplicity of worship, and since Reformed church décor is often designed to minimize distraction from the preached word, converts like the one just cited describe their transition as one from worship that is ugly and bland to worship that is beautiful and vibrant.

How EO Appears to Provide Beauty

One reason EO has such a sensory approach to worship is because it emphasizes both ontology and eschatology when describing beauty. First of all, ontology (i.e., being, existence) comes into play in the belief that the cosmos is designed to reflect God’s own beauty. EO theologian Andrew Louth explains: “We see a created order of beings both visible and invisible, a creation which, because created out of nothing, manifests nothing but God himself, for the whole created order is to be seen as a theophany, a manifestation of God, indeed a manifestation of God’s beauty.”21 Beauty is therefore pursued not simply for subjective experiences of delight, but because to gaze upon beauty is to gaze upon God’s own beauty revealed in creation. Indeed, the very layout of EO worship spaces is intended to be a model or reflection of the entire cosmos.22

Second, eschatology comes into play as the beauty of worship especially reflects God’s revelation of beauty as it exists in the eschaton. The idea of the age to come breaking in on the present age is not a category wholly foreign to Reformed theology. After all, we regularly speak of the already/not-yet and recognize the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ miracles.23 Orthodoxy, however, tends toward an over-realized eschatology, attempting to pull more and more of the age to come into the present in worship. Furthermore, this eschatological distinction is even conceived in terms of an ontological or metaphysical movement toward “being.”24 For example, Leonid Ouspensky, a famous Russian Orthodox iconographer, speaks of those in glory (the saints) as more fully human than sinners because they have “put on the incorruptible beauty of the kingdom of God.” He continues:

For this reason beauty, as it is understood by the Orthodox Church, is not the characteristic beauty of a creature. It is a part of the life to come, when God will be all in all.…For the church…the value and beauty of the visible world lie not in the temporary splendor of its present state, but in its potential transformation, realized by humans. In other words, true beauty is the radiance of the Holy Spirit, the holiness of and participation in the life of the world to come.25

Again, there is validity in speaking of the glory of the age to come breaking in on the present, but glorification is not the same as Plato’s pure being. The beauty of the age to come is consummate beauty, to be sure, but EO’s handling of this beauty using the language of being and ontology ups the ante, as it were, concerning what happens in worship. If in worship the worshipper experiences nothing less than the age to come manifesting a beauty that is more real than the present, then it is no wonder that worship is so geared toward sensory experience.

Beauty in Scripture and the Reformation

Scripture speaks regularly of beauty, although it does not do so in a philosophical and analytic direction. “Instead the biblical writers are content with beauty as a general artistic quality denoting the positive response of a person to nature, a person or an artifact.”26 It is true that God’s creation is beautiful; the fruit of the tree was “a delight to the eyes” (Gen 3:6) and the various results of God’s creative acts were declared “good” or “very good.” And the beauty of this world does seem to direct our attention to a “beauty that is more permanent and transcendent than anything this life can give.”27 Yet beauty in Scripture is not only an aesthetic quality but also a spiritual response to the beauty of God.

It is also true that Scripture does describe God himself as beautiful. David desires to enter God’s presence to “behold the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4). The psalmist notes that God made the heavens and that “splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Ps. 96:6). But it is noteworthy that, in the Old Testament, beauty is frequently used as a synonym for glory, majesty, splendor, and pleasantness.28 Yahweh in his glory and Jesus in his transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36; cf. 2 Pet. 1:16–17) and his appearance among the seven lamp stands (Rev. 1:12–16) equally depict the beauty of God’s holy array.29 Thus, while beauty is predicated on God and while there is an appropriateness to speaking of his beauty in aesthetic terms, the ontological and eschatological language used in EO descriptions of beauty seems to go beyond Scripture’s intent, reflecting ideas more Platonic than biblical. Nevertheless, the Bible assumes that beauty is praiseworthy and good, that beauty found in this world is a reflection of God’s perfect beauty, and the artisanship found throughout Scripture’s pages is even attributed to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Exod. 31:1–11). The pursuit of and delight in beauty by humans should be seen as a natural outworking of this very truth.

Is the character of EO worship truly beautiful vis-à-vis Protestant worship?  No. The only way converts can downplay the beauty of Protestant worship is by judging Protestant worship by one’s tastes for Byzantine artistic culture. Though some claim that the simplicity of Protestant worship is “boring” (i.e., lacking beauty/aesthetics and so on), Darryl Hart and John Muether offer an important response: “The real question…is…how did Reformed and Presbyterian churches come to a point where members sometimes perceive preaching, the sacraments, prayer, song, Bible reading, and benedictions as boring?”30 Indeed, how did they? We suggest that the problem is not with Protestant worship but with the overly narrow tastes that have been cultivated by converts to EO. A scenario, offered by John Witvliet, is illustrative:

On a Sunday in Advent, the Kyrie and Gloria are sung by a choir of developmentally and physically disabled children. The Old Testament lectionary reading is from Isaiah 35. Their singing, by any standard measure, lacks aesthetic integrity—it is unrhythmic and out of tune. Yet here a powerful symbiosis of social factors (personal knowledge of individual choristers) and theological factors (the vivid and hope-filled eschatological theme of Isaiah 35) transform the aesthetic dimension of the choir’s contribution into a rich, kingdom-oriented liturgical experience.31

There are indeed times when Protestant worship is done sloppily and lazily. But it is crucial to remember that the broken and contrite heart renders something to God in worship more beautiful than any external adornments that meet any number of cultural aesthetic norms.

A Kinder, Gentler Gospel?

Orthodox converts regularly speak of a fuller, broader understanding of the gospel in Orthodoxy than is typically believed and taught in Protestant churches. Protestants are accused of “gospel reductionism”:

In the Holy Scripture and in the Holy Fathers salvation is a grand accomplishment with innumerable facets, a great and expansive deliverance of humanity from all of its enemies: sin, condemnation, the wrath of God, the devil and his demons, the world, and ultimately death. In Protestant teaching and practice, salvation is essentially a deliverance from the wrath of God.32

Some Orthodox converts say that as a result of this broader understanding, they experience an increased joy in their salvation, draw greater encouragement from it, and find more gospel power for holy living. This better experience is a result, they may argue, of Orthodoxy subjugating the primary, dominant salvific image in Protestantism (i.e., the Divine Judge acquitting criminals in the courtroom) to the image of the divine doctor healing the sick in the hospital. This offers some degree of relief from the angst of what they would probably characterize as an errant or imbalanced understanding of God’s wrath.

We readily admit that the proclamation of these broader elements of redemption may be inappropriately neglected, not only in churches that indeed have a narrow view of gospel blessings, but even in churches that explicitly confess a rich and broad understanding of the gospel. Preaching and liturgy absent of communicating the Lord’s victory through Christ over all of humanity’s enemies is surely deficient, and we do well to be self-critical if we have lapsed into such an imbalance. Rounded preaching and worship includes the gospel themes of restoration from ruin, repair of brokenness, victory over Satan, glorification, and the like. And certainly there can be too much law and not enough gospel in our liturgy and preaching, distorting our people’s understanding of God’s character.

It seems, however, that the substantive disagreement here is not over how broad a range of gospel blessings are believed and taught, but over the doctrine of justification itself, and most of all whether that doctrine’s basic “courtroom model” elements should have a primary role in the communication of the broad gospel blessings. We are compelled to answer this question by asking: In what framework and model, and in what balance or emphasis, do the Scriptures communicate the fullness of gospel blessings? Not without other frameworks, yes, but the Scriptures in fact weigh heavily toward the image of the Divine Judge acquitting criminals in the courtroom. This is the image that permeates Scripture: sin as the cause of the wrathful curse, and of Christ who comes to die to atone for the debt of that sin. The Lord levies the horrific curse in the garden in direct response to man’s idolatry and straightaway announces the bruising of the Seed for the crushing of the Serpent; his law at Sinai even anticipates Israel’s unthinkable gross apostasy for which he will drive them into onerous exile, and institutes the sacrificial system where only smelly, bloody slaughter brings forgiveness; his prophets explain at great length the gross sin of the people as the cause of his severe judgments, and that their only hope for reconciliation will come through the unjust spurning, crushing of an obedient Son; Jesus himself speaks forcefully of the wrath to come, and in the gospels increasingly reveals the driving purpose of his death, to pay the ransom debt; and, of course, Paul directly systematizes the longstanding justification theme.

So if what attracts someone to Orthodoxy is that the chief biblical structure of the gospel’s communication is relegated to the back burner, such that the discomforts inevitably caused by the chief structure get muted, the existential relief may be delightful, but it is, to use the metaphor from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Turkish delight.33 Christians can and should learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable:

It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust….For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. (Lam. 3:26–33)

As we ought regularly to struggle with and feel some angst about our violations of God’s law (“a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death”34), we flee to the atoning suffering and death of Christ. This is a salve that is, let us admit, unsettling but also beautiful.

Practically, we are concerned that when professing Christians flee to EO for a kinder, gentler gospel, some take that path to evade accepting and confronting the horrific nature and extent of their sin, and thereby cultivating a godly sorrow for it that leads to repentance. This path was opened to them, and such a journey was encouraged in the Protestant churches they have left. They may try to quiet the law working on their conscience with EO religious exercises and a gospel easier on the ears. Ironically, then, this Orthodox critique of Protestantism’s supposed gospel reductionism is akin to the modern evangelical church’s pragmatism or its penchant to adapt theology and practice primarily for its value to fulfill people’s emotional, social, or other perceived needs.

It is also worth offering some counsel to those who (probably rooted intellectually in the problem of evil and/or emotionally in personal experience of abuse at the hands of sinful authority) are anxious about the biblical God of wrath. Let us remember that the Lord, given all we know about him, is worthy of our confidence in his justice. He gave us his own Son, and so though we may have some questions about him and may at times be intimidated by him, we have beheld enough of his love, peace, and glory, to worship him, sense his love, and know that one day we will enjoy full, soulful, peaceful resonance with him.

How to Talk to Those Considering Eastern Orthodoxy

First, of paramount importance, while communicating with those in our care who are anywhere along a road considering EO, let us maintain intellectual honesty and humility. We should feel free to admit the foreignness of Orthodoxy to many of us rather than presuming (under pressure) to speak hastily to it. Those promoting Orthodoxy pounce on obvious mischaracterizations of their faith made by their critics (e.g., when we conflate Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism), and we easily lose credibility if we also become guilty of mischaracterization. We expect that in the long term, the care we take in patiently responding to them may be every bit as important as the substance of our answers to EO claims. We should try to slow everyone down. One man in our churches who left for EO was introduced to it, “studied the matter on the internet for three months,” and then left his Reformed church of over ten years (without any discussion or indication of such a move to any pastor or elder). Not only should this man be told that he moved hastily, but we ourselves should model for him and others a slow, careful, and thoughtful approach.

Second, let us be sensitive to the difficult life situations of those who are considering EO. It is quite possible that in someone’s home life or in their church life they have become restless for reasons technically unrelated to the differences between EO and confessional Protestantism. One man’s brash and offensive character traced to his tremendously traumatic life seems to have made him a religious vagabond (EO may prove only to be a comfortable stop along the road). In other cases, however, peoples’ troubles rub up against the edges of Reformed doctrine. There was a man in one of our churches who was tormented by the Reformed conception of God’s sovereignty because of the suffering of a family member. Somehow, he found relief on this point in EO. In either situation, our normal work of loving counseling and discipline, rebuking and comforting must be renewed so that, as much as depends on us, the sheep do not compound their sins with false religion or wander elsewhere for false comforts.

Third, put together a short list of talking points or questions about the core differences between the Reformed faith and EO that can structure otherwise open conversations with our members about Orthodoxy. It is more important to discuss sola scriptura versus conciliar infallibility, or iconoclasm versus the mandatory use of icons, than it is to get lost in discussions about every jot and tittle of EO tradition. And through these discussions, we do well to be patient and understanding (though also firm), as opposed to being primarily adversarial.

Finally, while the person remains a member of one of our local churches—if they are exploring EO, reading, even attending an occasional service—patience on our part is an excellent virtue to exercise. As long as a person is not given over to promoting beliefs and practices inconsistent with their Reformed profession, let us seek to extend as much latitude as possible. There is a difference between someone who is genuinely curious and needs to think through new challenges to their profession without us standing over them and inquiring at every turn, and someone who is spreading newfound Orthodox convictions on their social media page. In the latter case, admonition and discipline must be considered.


Michael Brown is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California.

This is an abridged adaptation of Rev. Brown’s report to the United Reformed Church of North America’s Study Committee on Eastern Orthodoxy and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.

  • Michael Brown

  1. Peter Gillquist writes of his conversion in Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith, rev. ed. (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2010), and shares the conversion stories of eighteen Protestant pastors in Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox, 2nd ed. (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1995).
  2. Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 1.
  3. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 8–9.
  4. For a useful discussion the breadth of the human person, a breadth that goes beyond “cognitivist approaches” that reduce man to merely a thinking being, see James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009). In places, Smith sounds as if he is minimizing the importance of knowledge and cognition, but this is not his intent.
  5. Those who believe the Reformation to be exclusively cerebral seem to have paid insufficient attention to the Puritans whose writings evidence a thorough and careful theology wedded to a deep and passionate piety and experience of faith. For a useful introduction to Puritan writers, see Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006). Also, Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
  6. Daily household devotional reading and prayer, the regular exercise of hospitality, and the development of local/regional household prayer and fellowship gatherings would be ways to serve these purposes.
  7. Wilhelmus à Brakel’s words on humility, meekness, and peaceableness are commendable as we seek to avoid the pride and arrogance that is often more true of us than we wish to admit. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1995), 4:67–101.
  8. There is particular (and catholic) reflection on our experience of that mystery, as represented by John Owen’s Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Works 2:1–274), and applied in Sinclair B. Ferguson’s The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2014).
  9. See Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003). As this unknowable/knowable discussion applies to the essence/energies distinction, consider Michael Horton’s adaptations in The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 129–31, 159–60, 612–13, and critical interactions with them; for example, Ryan M. McGraw, “Shifting Paradigms in Reformed Systematic Theology: A Review Article of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way,” Puritan Reformed Journal 5:2 (July 2013): 250–54.
  10. This is according to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. See George Mastrantonis, “Introduction to the Divine Liturgy,” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, accessed March 10, 2016, http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7117.
  11. Harry Radliffe and Michael Karzis, “Mt. Athos: A Visit to the Holy Mountain,” 60 Minutes, May 22, 2011, accessed March 10, 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mt-athos-a-visit-to-the-holy-mountain.
  12. “Many misunderstandings and prejudices concerning the Orthodox Church thus go back to a wrong approach as students try to form, merely with the help of sources and scholarship, a picture of Orthodoxy, which is not really doctrine but a way of life, with its own system-related criteria and thought forms.” Anastasios Kallis, “Orthodox Church,” in Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 3:866–68.
  13. Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1983), 43. See also Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1969), 22, who states that the Orthodox Church possesses a “Patristic mind” that considers “the Fathers . . . as living witnesses and contemporaries.”
  14. Pomazansky, Dogmatic Theology, 257–58. Pomazansky adds, “The Apostles established in the Church the Grace-given succession of the episcopate, and through it the succession of the whole Grace-given ministry of the Church hierarchy, which is called to be stewards of the Mysteries of God, in accordance with 1 Corinthians 4:1,” in Pomazansky, Dogmatic Theology, 247.
  15. For more on EO’s claim that the canons and decrees of the ecumenical councils are infallible, see Pomazansky, Dogmatic Theology, 29-–49, and The Patriarchal Encyclical of 1895.
  16. Westminster Confession of Faith, 31.4.
  17. The claim itself is dubious, given both the history of Orthodoxy and its ecclesiastical structure. As Robert Letham observes, “The Eastern church in the Byzantine Empire had no systematic ecclesiology. Unlike the West, there was no coherent body of canon law, due to the fact that the Byzantines never considered the church in a juridical manner.” See Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2007), 121. Throughout much of the Byzantine Empire (c. 330–1453), the Orthodox Church was not held together by a magisterium and final authority, as was the Western Church with its College of Cardinals and Papacy in Rome. Not only did its center shift to Moscow from Constantinople, which fell to the Turks in 1453, but under the pressure and persecution of Islam since the seventh century, the Orthodox Church gradually dispersed into a monastic movement of ascetics, mystics, hermits, and recluses. While this does not disprove EO’s claim to apostolic succession, it does seem to make the claim more difficult to prove than the similar claim of Rome, which has, for the most part, remained seated in one place for two thousand years and developed a highly structured ecclesiology.
  18. Michael Horton, “Are Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism Compatible? No: An Evangelical Perspective,” in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, ed. James Stamoolis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 142.
  19. Horton, “Are Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism Compatible?,” 142–43.
  20. Jamey Bennett, “Liturgy, Sacraments, and All That Jazz: Ten Reasons I Joined the Orthodox Church,” Journey to Orthodoxy (blog), September 30, 2013, http://journeytoorthodoxy.com/2013/09/liturgy-sacraments-all-that-jazz-ten-reasons-i-joined-the-orthodox-church.
  21. Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 66.
  22. Louth, Eastern Orthodox Theology, 133–34.
  23. See Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, ed. Raymond O. Zorn, trans. H. de Jongste (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962), 65–70; Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (1948; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 386.
  24. These are metaphysical matters that can get complicated, but for a description of the details, see Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 20–45. This is a chapter titled “Eschatology after Nietzsche.”
  25. Leonid Ouspensky, “The Meaning and Content of the Icon,” in Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Daniel Clendenin, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 42.
  26. “Beauty,” in Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 82.
  27. “Beauty,” 85.
  28. See Edmund Clowney, “Living Art: Christian Experience and the Arts,” in God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F. H. Henry, ed. D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 240.
  29. Clowney, “Living Art,” 246.
  30. D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 115.
  31. John D. Witvliet, “Toward a Liturgical Aesthetic: An Interdisciplinary Review of Aesthetic Theory,” Liturgy Digest 3, no. 1 (1996): 76.
  32. Josiah Trenham, Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings (Columbia, MO: New Rome Press, 2015), 288. As an aside, Father Trenham is a convert from the Reformation to EO; he is a former PCA minister and alumnus of Westminster Seminary California.
  33. C. S. Lewis used the confection Turkish delight as a metaphor for sin and temptation in The Chronicles of Narnia. See C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
  34. Belgic Confession of Faith, art. 15 (regarding original sin).
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