Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy

A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy
by Jack D. Kinneer

During my studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, I was often asked by students, "Are you Orthodox?" It always felt awkward to be asked such a question. I thought of myself as doctrinally orthodox. I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. So I thought I could claim the word orthodox.

But I did not belong to the communion of churches often called Eastern Orthodox, but more properly called simply Orthodox. I was not Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. As far as the Orthodox at St. Vladimir’s were concerned, I was not Orthodox, regardless of my agreement with them on various doctrines.

My studies at St. Vladimir’s allowed me to become acquainted with Orthodoxy and to become friends with a number of Orthodox professors, priests, and seminarians. My diploma was even signed by Metropolitan Theodosius, the head of the Orthodox Church in America. From the Metropolitan to the seminarians, I was received kindly and treated with respect and friendliness.

I am not the only Calvinist to have become acquainted with Orthodoxy in recent years. Sadly, a number have not only made the acquaintance, but also left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy. What is Orthodoxy and what is its appeal to some in the Reformed churches?

The Appeal of Orthodoxy

Since the days of the apostles, there have been Christian communities in such ancient cities as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Corinth in Greece. In such places, the Christian church grew, endured the tribulation of Roman persecution, and ultimately prevailed when the Roman Empire was officially converted to Christianity. But, unlike Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern Christians did not submit to the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the earthly head of the entire church. And why should they have done so? The centers of Orthodox Christianity were as old as, or even older than, the church in Rome. All the great ecumenical councils took place in the East and were attended overwhelmingly by Christian leaders from the East, with only a smattering of representatives from the West. Indeed, most of the great theologians and writers of the ancient church (commonly called the Church Fathers) were Greek-speaking Christians in the East.

The Orthodox churches have descended in an unbroken succession of generations from these ancient roots. As the Orthodox see it, the Western church followed the bishop of Rome into schism (in part by adding a phrase to the Nicene Creed). So, from their perspective, we Protestants are the product of a schism off a schism. The Orthodox believe that they have continued unbroken the churches founded by the apostles. They allow that we Reformed may be Christians, but our churches are not part of the true church, our ordinations are not valid, and our sacraments are no sacraments at all.

The apparently apostolic roots of Orthodoxy provide much of its appeal for some evangelical Protestants. Furthermore, it is not burdened with such later Roman Catholic developments as the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences, the immaculate conception of Mary, and her assumption into heaven. Orthodoxy is ancient; it is unified in a way that Protestantism is not; it lacks most of the medieval doctrines and practices that gave rise to the Reformation. This gives it for many a fascinating appeal.

Part of that appeal is the rich liturgical heritage of Orthodoxy, with its elaborate liturgies, its glorious garbing of the clergy, and its gestures, symbols, and icons. If it is true that the distinctive mark of Reformed worship is simplicity, then even more so is glory the distinctive mark of Orthodox worship. Another appealing aspect of Orthodox worship is its otherness. It is mysterious, sensual, and, as the Orthodox see it, heavenly. Orthodox worship at its best makes you feel like you have been transported into one of the worship scenes in the book of Revelation. Of course, if the priest chants off-key or the choir sings poorly, it is not quite so wonderful.

There are many other things that could be mentioned, but I’ve mentioned the things that have particularly struck me. These are also the things that converts from Protestantism say attracted them.

The Shortcomings of Orthodoxy

So then, is this Orthodox Presbyterian about to drop the "Presbyterian" and become simply Orthodox? No! In my estimation, the shortcomings of Orthodoxy outweigh its many fascinations. A comparison of the Reformed faith with the Orthodox faith would be a massive undertaking, made all the more difficult because Orthodoxy has no doctrinal statement comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Orthodoxy is the consensus of faith arising from the ancient Fathers and the ecumenical councils. This includes the forty-nine volumes of the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers, plus the writings of the hermits and monastics known collectively as the Desert Fathers! It would take an entire issue of New Horizons just to outline the topics to be covered in a comparison of Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity. So the following comments are selective rather than systematic.

First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith. Some reject it. Others tolerate it, but no one I met or read seemed to really understand it. Just as Protestants can make justification the whole (rather than the beginning) of the gospel, so the Orthodox tend to make sanctification (which they call "theosis" or deification) the whole gospel. In my estimation, this is a serious defect. It weakens the Orthodox understanding of the nature of saving faith.

Orthodoxy also has a real problem with nominal members. Many Orthodox Christians have a very inadequate understanding of the gospel as Orthodoxy understands it. Their religion is often so intertwined with their ethnicity that being Russian or Greek becomes almost synonymous with being Orthodox. This is, by the way, a critique I heard from the lips of Orthodox leaders themselves. This is not nearly as serious a problem in Reformed churches because our preaching continually stresses the necessity for a personal, intimate trusting, receiving, and resting upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Such an emphasis is blurred among the Orthodox.

Second, the Orthodox have a very inadequate understanding of sovereign grace. It is not fair to say that they are Pelagians. (Pelagius was a Western Christian who denied original sin and taught that man’s will is free to choose good.) But they are definitely not Augustinians (Calvinists) on sin and grace. In a conversation with professors and doctoral students about the nature of salvation, I quoted Ezekiel 36:26–27 as showing that there is a grace of God that precedes faith and enables that human response. One professor said in response, "I never thought of that verse in that way before." The Orthodox have not thought a lot about sin, regeneration, election, and so forth. Their view of original sin (a term which they avoid) falls far short of the teaching of Paul. Correspondingly, their understanding of Christ’s atonement and God’s calling is weak as well. Their views could best be described as undeveloped. If you want to see this for yourself, read Chrysostom on John 6:44–45, and then read Calvin on the same passage.

Third, the Orthodox are passionately committed to the use of icons (flat images of Christ, Mary, or a saint) in worship. Indeed, the annual Feast of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of icons to the churches at the end of the Iconoclast controversy (in a.d. 843). For the Orthodox, the making and venerating of icons is the mark of Orthodoxy—showing that one really believes that God the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father, became also truly human. Since I did not venerate icons, I was repeatedly asked whether or not I really believed in the Incarnation. The Orthodox are deeply offended at the suggestion that their veneration of icons is a violation of the second commandment. But after listening patiently to their justifications, I am convinced that whatever their intentions may be, their practice is not biblical. However, our dialogue on the subject sent me back to the Bible to study the issue in a way that I had not done before. The critique I would offer now is considerably different than the traditional Reformed critique of the practice.

Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had. At least at St. Vladimir’s, Orthodox scholars have been significantly influenced by higher-critical views of Scripture, especially as such views have developed in contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship. This is, however, a point of controversy among the Orthodox, just as it is among Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy also has its divisions between liberals and conservatives. But even those who are untainted by higher-critical views rarely accord to Scripture the authority that it claims for itself or which was accorded to it by the Fathers. The voice of Scripture is largely limited to the interpretations of Scripture found in the Fathers.

There is much else to be said. Orthodoxy is passionately committed to monasticism. Its liturgy includes prayers to Mary. And the Divine Liturgy, for all its antiquity, is the product of a long historical process. If you want to follow the "liturgy" that is unquestionably apostolic, then partake of the Lord’s Supper, pray the Lord’s Prayer, sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," and say "amen," "hallelujah," and "maranatha." Almost everything else in any liturgy is a later adaptation and development.

A Concluding Assessment

But these criticisms do not mean that we have nothing to learn from Orthodoxy. Just as the Orthodox have not thought a lot about matters that have consumed us (such as justification, the nature of Scripture, sovereign grace, and Christ’s work on the cross), so we have not thought a lot about what have been their consuming passions: the Incarnation, the meaning of worship, the soul’s perfection in the communicable attributes of God (which they call the energies of God), and the disciplines by which we grow in grace. Let us have the maturity to keep the faith as we know it, and to learn from others where we need to learn.

Orthodoxy in many ways fascinates me, but it does not claim my heart nor stir my soul as does the Reformed faith. My firsthand exposure to Orthodoxy has left me all the more convinced that on the essential matters of human sin, divine forgiveness, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the Reformed faith is the biblical faith. I would love to see my Orthodox friends embrace a more biblical understanding of these matters. And I am grieved when Reformed friends sacrifice this greater good for the considerable but lesser goods of Orthodox liturgy and piety.


Dr. Kinneer is the director of Echo Hill Christian Study Center in Indian Head, Pa.


  1. A quote from Dr. Kinneer,

    "The Orthodox believe that they have continued unbroken the churches founded by the apostles."

    And which currently operating religious organization doesn't? My only point being that if a person or persons, separate or together, are going to make that claim, then the practices they employ should be the same as those very apostles they say they are following. Right?

    The emmissaries of Messiah, called Nazarenes, not Christians, walked in Torah according to the traditions of "their fathers", as Sha'ul mentioned when he wrote to Timothy. This meant that they would have kept the appointed times of YHWH as described in Lev 23. For example, Pesach would not have been transformed into what we now call communion. A careful reading of I Cor 11:17-34 together with 5:7&8 in the same letter shows that Sha'ul had not replaced the appointed feast of YHWH with something else.
    Yeah, I know. It has been argued back and forth for centuries, but should there be a restoration taking place, it would challenge much of what has been taken for granted in our worship and service.

    Dr. Kinneer has made an interesting contrast between the reformed and orthodox beliefs and practices. I submit that an interesting contrast may also be made between the beliefs and practices of the first Nazarenes (that "sect", as it was called in Acts), which included the emmissaries (apostles), and what has come to be called Christianity.

    Perhaps we could explore those contrasts, and, maybe even clear up a few things? Or has this been done and it sits on someone's bookshelf?


  2. 1. I don't regard the NT as abrogating the OT. Still, there is a principle of progressive revelation. We can't properly understand the NT without the OT, but at the same time we also understand the OT better in the light of fulfillment.

    In addition, the antitype exceeds the type. So I wouldn't say that communion has to be identical with the Passover.

    2.In addition, the details of the Seder post-date 70 AD. So we can't assume that every detail that has come down to us represents the pre-70 AD tradition.

    3.Having said all that, the Passover does represent the template for the Last Supper and Lord's Supper. That's the point of reference.

    When the early church lost its Jewish membership it was very easy for the church to reinterpret and misinterpret the sacraments--among other things.

    A new, quite alien framework takes the place of the old, and begins to take on a life of its own, developing in an inner logical that may be consistent, but consistent with a false premise. So you end up with notions like baptismal regeneration, the real presence, transubstantiation, and so on, which are generated by the imposition of an extrinsic interpretive grid.

    Roger Beckwith, who knows his way around the Jewish sources, performs a needed corrective in this respect:


    "To understand such feasts, it is necessary to remember the Biblical attitude to meals in general...Meals were...used to inaugurate covenants...the animals to be eaten were first offered in sacrifice to God, with the result that he became the Host, inviting men to his table, and that the sins of men were taken away by the shedding of blood before they approached (Heb 9:16-22)...Those who neglected the annual Passover meal were rejected by God and became liable to the visitation of death (Exod 12:15,19; Num 9:13). Now, in 1 Cor 10:14-22, St. Paul compares such feasts with their pagan counterparts and with the Holy Communion, and he dwells upon the function of all of these in cementing koinonia (communion, fellowship, partnership) not just between worshiper and worshiper, but more especially between the worshippers and the deity (vv. 16f.,20)," R. Beckwith, Priesthood and Sacraments, Latimer Monographs 1
    (Marchman Manor, 1964), 91.

    "The sin of 'not distinguishing the body,' and the physical judgments which it is liable to bring (1 Cor 11:29-31), can be paralleled from the corresponding judgments incurred by profaning the sacred feasts of the OT, in which no one imagines there to be a bodily presence of the Lord in the elements (Lev 7:20f.; 22:3)," The Service of Holy Communion and its Revision. Latimer Monographs 3 (Marchman Manor, 1972), 33.


    4.Finally, the NT was written in the language of Diaspora Judaism, often quotes from the LXX, and occasionally reflects the theology of Diaspora Judaism (e.g., Acts 7; Book of Hebrews).

    The Talmud is written in Aramaic, is it not?--as are the Targums.

    "Christian" (Gr.christianos), is a NT terms (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16).

    Messianic-Jews are at liberty to use Hebrew synonyms, but it is quite Scriptural to use Greek synonyms as well--not to mention Latin, French, German, English, &c.

  3. Steve,

    Thank you for that well studied response. Especially #3. With your permission, I would like to use that quote in our fellowship.

    As to the seder, our practice (our local fellowship that is), is not to try and duplicate the rabbinic seder that has become the post Temple substitutionary standard (set order), but rather to approach the very thing Mr. Beckwith describes, a coming into the presence of YHWH through that which He has appointed as a set-apart time.

    I suppose the biggest departure we may have with Christianity is when we celebrate Pesach, as opposed to the weekly or monthly traditions of communion that take place in most churches. We abide, as closely as we can these days, to the biblical calendar beginning in the month of Abib. With the internet we can now know when the barley has become abib in the Land, and make the adjustments from there. Very much another subject, but it does work into what we celebrate and when as it pertains to all the feasts.

    That, and the fact that we actually have a meal together.

    As to language, you must forgive me. I am trying to learn biblical Hebrew (quite a task at my age), and I am, of course, fascinated with the differences in what words are used to describe the various articles of faith that have come down to us at the end of the age. I have come across a website where a fellow has researched the differences between the LXX, the Masoretic text and the NT. Very interesting stuff.
    I had wondered for many years why the geneologies of Matthew and Luke were different. It is because Matthew used the geneology of the Hebrew scriptures and Luke used the LXX. They differ by one person.

    The Talmud? Never read it. Mishnah? Haven't read that one either. Targums? I've never even seen one. I certainly would not qualify as a good orthodox Jew by any stretch. Oh well. I'm sure that my trusting in Messiah Yeshua (and, yes, I know that is not His spoken name) would disqualify me from their ranks anyway.

    Yes, Christianos is a NT term. But we are talking about roots. There is only one tree. Does it make a difference? I am in the process of finding out. And having the opportunity to explore those roots with someone like yourself, I consider it a priviledge.


  4. Ephraim,

    Regarding the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, I’d say the following:

    i) Since we don’t have direct access to the family records which Matthew and Luke redacted, we can’t reconstruct the original; hence, we lack sufficient info to fully harmonize them.

    That being said:

    ii) Regarding the accuracy of the two genealogies, I’ll say the following:

    Luke says that Elizabeth was related to a priestly family, which means Mary was related to a priestly family as well. The genealogies of the priesthood were a matter of public record.

    iii) I think it’s fair to say that ancient Jews had a broader concept of descent than modern Western Europeans. Israel was a tribal society, a society composed of extended families. The idea of the nuclear family is fairly modern and provincial.

    iv) We tend to think of a family tree as branching up and out. And that’s one way of looking at it. But we can turn it upside down as well. I have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, &c.

    v) Most modern scholars agree that both genealogies belong to Joseph, though one traces natural descent, and the other legal descent.

    vi) Beyond the family records, which are unavailable to us, we know that Matthew made use of the LXX version of Chronicles while Luke made use of the LXX version of Genesis and chronicles.

    vii) Putting (iii)-(vi) together, there would be nothing inaccurate for Matthew and Luke to seize on different ancestors—in the case Matthew, the Davidic line through Solomon, and in the case of Luke, the Davidic line through Nathan.

    If at some point along the family tree you pick a different ancestor, that will result in a different set of names until the two branches reunite.

    Matthew’s reasoning is pretty straightforward. Luke’s is more oblique. He’s elaborating the tradition of Isa 11:1, Micah 5:2 (Hebrew 5:1), and Jer 23:5-6 (par. 33:15-16).

    viii) This accounts for the differences. But Matthew and Luke both share a unifying principle in their common use of septunarian numerology and typology.

    In Matthew’s case, you have a dual septunarian scheme:

    a) The three sets of fourteen (multiples of seven).

    b) The numerical value of David’s (Hebrew) name=fourteen (multiple of seven), generated by the technique of gematria.

    In Luke’s case, you have a triple septunarian scheme:

    a) Seventy-seven names (multiples of seven).

    b) The seventh place is occupied by Enoch, the seventh from Adam (3:37; cf. Gen 5:18; Jude 14).

    c) Joshua (Hebrew name for Jesus) in the forty-ninth place (3:29);

    d) Jesus in the seventy-seventh place (3:23).

    The general significance of the septunarian numerology is obvious enough: the Sabbath, the Jubilee, Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks.

    Jesus is the antitype of Joshua and Enoch, the ultimate to their penultimate and antepenultimate respectively.

    Finally, compact Biblical genealogies (e.g., Gen 5; 10; 1 Chron 1-9) function as transitional markers, summing up what has gone before in preparation for what is yet to come. For those who already know the story, the names evoke the story. In this way, Matthew and Luke are both recapping redemptive history in order to bring the past up to the present as a lead-in to the climax of prophecy.

  5. The idea that one geneaology is of Mary is a later medieval shift to honor her. The earliest tradition of the geneaologies is in Julius Africanus who ascribes both of them to Joseph. The idea was that through a Levirite marriage Joseph's father married his brothers wife.

  6. Steve,

    I am in the process of forming a question regarding the geneology of Yosef's youngest son, Efrayim. But, I need some reference material that I do not have here at work. I hope to have it framed by tomorrow.

    It does concern his transformation in scripture from a boy to a tribe to a nation spoken of often by the prophets.

    Till then,


  7. Well, my question didn't come together as I had hoped. That's ok. It is a rather large topic and a person shouldn't jump in just anywhere and think that it will make sense. It is a linear study, Genesis to Revelation.

    I'll wait and perhaps an appropriate subject will come along and provide an opening for at least some discussion.


  8. Ephraim,

    Whenever you're ready to frame your question you can post your comment on whatever the latest thing is that I have up at the time.

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  10. What's the point of this stupid blog? So some Orthodox Christians don't understand salvation by faith, some are caught up in ethnicity blah blah. Fine, but what has all this got to do with Orthodoxy per se? I've met Calvinists that thought they were the only ones saved. Is that a criticism of reformed theology?