by Mark Malyj
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox meet one another on a daily basis in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and other countries. The encounter also continues in Greece, and in the U.S., where large numbers of Eastern Orthodox immigrants have arrived and set up churches.
There is often great tension in this encounter. Eastern Orthodox see Evangelicals as fractious individualists, at best well-meaning, but who in practice bring about the unraveling of the one and indivisible true Church that is Orthodoxy. Evangelicals on their part see the Eastern Orthodox Church as more of a witness to its own Tradition rather than the Biblical gospel of salvation, and a Church that has taken advantage of its privileged status with the State in different countries to enforce Orthodoxy, a recurring pattern since the days of Constantine. These stock viewpoints quickly tend to shrill and strained interactions.
A more constructive relationship could happen, God willing. I think that a good place to start for Eastern Orthodox is to study the history of the Evangelical movement, to recognize how God has worked through it to bring millions to faith in Christ around the world, and to better understand how Evangelicals are part of the Body of Christ. I hope that a group of Eastern Orthodox scholars would undertake this task.
This article is an attempt to improve the encounter from the Evangelical side. One of the desires of Evangelicals is to plant churches that reflect the vibrant and living faith of the first-century Church. When they turn to this period, Evangelicals turn to the New Testament, which is just about the only written record available regarding this earliest time of the Church. However, they fail to realize that a second witness to this period is contained within core elements of the Eastern Orthodox Church's Tradition. It is my intention to examine this Tradition to better understand the faith of the earliest Christians in the decades following the ascension of Christ.
Ignatius, who lived until about 107, is along with Clement and Polycarp one of the earliest Church fathers. He is honored in church history and within the Roman Catholic Church. He is specially revered in Eastern Orthodoxy, since he was the second bishop of Antioch, which has always been one of the patriarchal seats of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Ignatius' writings are more diverse and consistent than Clement's or Polycarp's. His martyrdom predated Polycarp's death, and Polycarp was reputed to have known John the apostle. Thus, Ignatius is a bridge to the apostolic age. He provides a key to understanding the practices and emphases in the immediate post-New Testament Church, and following that period, in what became the Eastern Orthodox/Roman Catholic Church, which was given official sponsorship by the empire at the time of Constantine.
Ignatius held a realistic view of the Eucharist (literally, "Thanksgiving"). Unlike the medieval Roman Catholic Church, he did not speculate about transformation of the elements. Very simply stated, his doctrine was "This is the flesh and blood of Christ", echoing Jesus' words in John 6. Note that Ignatius followed John in applying the word "flesh" (sarks) to the Eucharist instead of "body", as was the usage of Paul and Matthew.
Today an Eastern Orthodox priest might avoid wearing his wedding ring when conducting the liturgy, so as to not accidentally get crumbs of the Eucharist bread underneath it, then unknowingly take the body of Christ home and so desecrate the holy mystery. Eastern Orthodoxy to this day holds to the realistic doctrine of the Eucharist, which should be simply accepted by faith without the intrusion of intellectual speculation.
Roots of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition
Where did Ignatius, second bishop of Antioch, who died perhaps only two decades after the apostle John, get his firmly held view of the Eucharist and its centrality for the Christian to receive God's grace? His answer was an appeal to Tradition, handed down by the apostles through the apostolic succession of bishops, which was only decades old at this point.
From a modern perspective, this early Tradition could be viewed as the one and only authoritative manual for corporate Church life and practice. Or, to put it in language of today, Tradition was the way the early Church "did" the Bible. Later, Tradition took on even greater weight as it appealed to itself for authority.
Unity and the True Church
Eastern Orthodoxy makes a great emphasis that it is the one True Church. Though it recognizes baptisms performed by other churches, as long as they are in the name or the Trinity, it says that if believers take Eucharist/communion at a non-Orthodox church, that they have sinned.
Going back to Ignatius, he wrote that salvation is only through the church, the body of Christ. In his epistles, Ignatius spoke of unity much more than deliverance from sin as the greatest attribute of the Christian life. Growing in unity with the Church is preparation for ultimate unity of the believer with the Father and the Son.
To this day, the Trinity and the universal (orthodox) church are at the center of Eastern Orthodoxy's "worldview". The writings of Ignatius seem to be the first place where we find reference to the universal church.
Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons
By the time of Ignatius, these three offices within the church form a hierarchy, with a single bishop in a given city over presbyters, with deacons serving them, but with the bishop held in check by the good will of the laity, who provided finances and resources. Ignatius admonished those who worshipped outside this system, saying that they were detracting from the unity of the church. Some historians say that in these admonitions can be detected a transition from a more primitive form of church governance to a monoepiscopy, though not yet the monarchical one that arose later in the West with the Papacy.
Though Ignatius does not describe the rite of chrism, he does refer to the anointing of the new believer. Certainly the church at Antioch had a developed rite of chrism by the 3rd century. It is likely that the authoritative theology/Tradition of the church by the time of the 2nd century Church fathers was to anoint new believers with chrism at the time of baptism. The basis for this was the anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism.
Focal points of Traditions - the Last Supper and Pentecost
Church life in Eastern Orthodoxy consists of an interlocking set of practices, based on Tradition. Eastern Orthodox theology asserts that these points of Tradition can either be tracked back to unwritten teachings of Christ or the apostles, or else was given later to the Church under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
An Evangelical perspective might attempt to trace each element of Tradition to its historical root. Perhaps the item that could be tracked back to the earliest date historically is the practice of the Eucharist, with its literal, realistic view of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Instead of making a labored interpretation of Scripture to justify this, Eastern Orthodoxy appeals to unwritten Tradition. We have demonstrated that this can be traced at least to the time of Ignatius, who was almost within earshot of the apostles.
Eastern Orthodoxy holds that Tradition is of equal authority to Scripture, though the two cannot be in conflict. For them, their practice of the Eucharist is a self-evident proof of the necessity of Tradition. Someone who merely reads Scripture will not be able to independently derive this authoritative practice of the Eucharist without the benefit of Tradition.
Eastern Orthodox church life in many ways revolves around the Eucharist. The key New Testament passages here are the accounts of the Last Supper.
A totally different perspective is taken by Evangelical Protestantism, which traces its historical roots to the Reformation led by Luther and Calvin in the 16th century. Evangelicals are largely ignorant of Eastern Orthodoxy. Perhaps the key New Testament passage in the church life of the Evangelicals is the account of Pentecost, with the conversion of 3000 people in response to Peter's preaching. This passage is foundational for Evangelicalism's emphasis on preaching and conversion.
God's workings through the Church
Dialog between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Evangelical Churches would be merely forced unless both sides recognize that God has moved in mighty ways in both churches at times during their history.
There is no doubt that the Church of Ignatius' time worked as leaven within the Roman Empire to bring many to a sincere faith. Some Evangelicals might downplay this by claiming that many came to faith in spite of the early Church organization and its errors, but most have not thought the issue through.
Perhaps greater blindness is present on the part of Eastern Orthodoxy in its lack of appreciation for what God has done through the Evangelical Church. It can be argued that in the centuries since the Reformation many have come to confess Christ and belief in the Trinity through the Evangelical Church, outside of Eastern Orthodoxy with its Tradition, and this also under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Even with this basis of appreciation as a meaningful start to dialog,
Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals often talk past each other in their impassioned defense of Tradition and Sola Scriptura. A better understanding of the historical doctrinal background of each would help.
The Early Church and Sola Scriptura
A common Evangelical view of Tradition with a capital T in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches is that it grew over many centuries and gradually displaced the clarity of Scripture with non-essential extra-biblical teachings that in some cases contradict the Bible. Furthermore, this would not have happened if the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, though embryonic in that day, had been given its rightful authority in the Early Church, as it was to achieve in the Reformation.
We have shown that the early practice of the Eucharist and Chrism at the time of Ignatius, with its appeal to an authoritative extra-Scriptural interpretation of the teachings of Christ and the apostles, may indeed have served to clarify Scripture instead of displacing it. While it may be true that much of later Tradition added a great deal of layering to the clarity of Scripture, Tradition was in a purer state in the generations that followed Christ's Ascension.
However, there is a greater difficulty in the Evangelical appeal to Sola Scriptura in its dialog with Tradition, The problem is that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is anachronistic, or out of its time, in the day of Ignatius. Sola Scriptura is anchored on the Canon of Scripture. But the very idea of Canon was not yet recognized. True, by this time the Rabbis had established a canon for the Old Testament at their Council of Jamnia, but this passed largely unnoticed in the Church. The Church was not forced to grapple with the necessary concept of a Canon of Scripture until Marcion developed a heretical list of authoritative writings about 130.
By the time of Marcion, the groundwork for Tradition had already been laid. Why did Tradition assume its position of authority so quickly, seriously to be shaken only during the Reformation? Remember that for Ignatius, unity was vital. Salvation was only through the Church, and growing in unity with the Church was preparation for ultimate unity of the believer with the Father and the Son. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura based on Canon was not available to be the basis for unity. Unity based on Tradition already had an outward, tangible, and institutional expression. Evidence of unity was seen in the practices of the Church, such as the Eucharist and Chrism, which were grounded on authoritative interpretations of the life and teachings of Christ.
Tradition was guaranteed, since it was handed down through the succession of duly-authorized bishops in direct descent from the apostles themselves and the Lord Jesus Christ. These practices were on their way to universality. And Tradition was further guaranteed by the assertion that it was inspired, guided and safeguarded by the Holy Spirit. This assertion was seriously challenged only at the time of the Reformation with its re-orientation to Sola Scriptura and its corollaries, the closing of special revelation and the sufficiency of scripture.
Authority and Constantine
After Ignatius, the Church increasingly appealed to Tradition, in part, to assert and maintain orthodoxy. The emphasis on orthodoxy was more and more couched in terms of unity and universality of practice. This completely resonated with the world view of the Roman emperor Constantine, who was the first to come to the throne under the banner of the Christian faith.
Constantine undoubtedly had a strong personal faith in the omnipotent God of Christianity. But for him, Christianity was more importantly a means of re-forging the Empire on the principles of unity and universality, based on divinely-inspired Tradition. Indeed, this re-forged empire was to last another thousand years until 1453, when the Byzantine Empire fell. (From the perspective of God's Lordship over history, it is interesting that the Reformation waited until 1517 to begin, when Luther posted his 95 theses.)
Constantine took on the unofficial, but unchallenged role of overseer of the Church. Through his prodding, the Church called its first of seven ecumenical councils. These councils eventually cemented many great doctrines of the faith, including the Trinity, the single person of Christ, and his divine and human natures. These doctrines are officially accepted by almost all modern Christian denominations, cults excluded.
Constantine was a great pragmatist. He undertook a program of building churches across the Roman Empire. He also accelerated the building of the Church as an institution, and enforcing uniform belief and practices. Scripture did not clearly speak to many of these practical areas, but Tradition did.
So Tradition grew even more in authority, buttressed by the emphasis on unity enforced through an interlocking system of church hierarchs. A strong doctrine of Sola Scriptura never did arise within Eastern Orthodoxy to challenge this, even at the time of the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century.
In this article, I have attempted to help Evangelicals to understand the worldview of the Eastern Orthodox. The two sides often view each other negatively through their different vantage points of Tradition and Sola Scriptura. A better understanding of the historical background of Eastern Orthodoxy would help Evangelicals.
Ignatius, one of the earliest Church fathers, was a bridge to the apostolic age. He is key to understanding the practices and emphases in what became the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Ignatius held a realistic view of the Eucharist, simply stated, "This is the flesh and blood of Christ", echoing Jesus' words in John 6. He had a firmly held view of the Eucharist and its centrality for receiving God's grace. He spoke of unity much more than deliverance from sin as the greatest attribute of the Christian life. Growing in unity with the Church is preparation for ultimate unity of the believer with the Father and the Son.
I have shown that Ignatius was not original in these doctrines, but that he appealed to Tradition, handed down from the apostles through the apostolic succession of bishops, which was only decades old at his time.
The common Evangelical criticism of the Eastern Orthodox Church is its lack of reliance on Sola Scriptura. However, in the day of Ignatius, Sola Scriptura is an anachronism. Sola Scriptura is anchored on the Canon of Scripture. But the very idea of Canon was not yet recognized, and took on force only gradually in the succeeding centuries, starting at the time of Marcion.
For the early Church, Tradition was the authoritative manual for corporate Church life and practice. Later, Tradition took on even greater weight as it appealed to itself for authority.
I have shown that the early practice of the Eucharist and Chrism at the time of Ignatius, with its appeal to an authoritative extra-Scriptural interpretation of the teachings of Christ and the apostles, may indeed have served to clarify Scripture instead of displacing it. While it may be true that much of later Tradition added a great deal of layering to the clarity of Scripture, at least in the generations that followed Christ's Ascension, Tradition was in a purer state.
Also, in the absence of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura based on Canon, Tradition was the basis for unity. Unity had an outward, tangible, and institutional expression, such as the Eucharist and Chrism, which were based on authoritative interpretations of the life and teachings of Christ. According to Tradition, these forms were not culturally based, but were of the essence of the faith.
Tradition was guaranteed, since it was handed down through the succession of duly authorized bishops in direct descent from the apostles themselves and the Lord Jesus Christ. And Tradition was further guaranteed by the assertion that it was inspired, guided and safeguarded by the Holy Spirit.
In this article I have attempted to understand and appreciate the roots of Eastern Orthodoxy. I pray that Eastern Orthodox would also attempt an appreciation of how the Holy Spirit has moved in mighty ways in the growth of Evangelical churches. This would then be a positive basis for dialog and cooperation.