As Far as East from West

For centuries, Roman Catholics and Protestants have sparred over their many differences. Every aspect of their theologies have been carefully examined, contrasted, and debated by church leaders and theologians on both sides of the Tiber. However, it has been far less common for Western theologians of any stripe to engage with the third great branch of Christendom: the Eastern Orthodox church. After the Great Schism of 1054, the strained relations which existed between the Eastern and Western branches of the church hardened into an official split with both sides viewing the other as outside the bounds of the true church. Over the centuries, cultural and linguistic barriers have continued to push East and West apart. 

However, the tumultuous politics of the 20th century have begun to draw the two sides together again. The rise of Communism forced many Russian Orthodox to flee to the West for asylum and the subsequent collapse of the U.S.S.R. has reopened connections between the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe and the Western world. As these two worlds have touched, Eastern Orthodoxy has grown in the West. There are more than 6 million Orthodox Christians in America and increasing numbers of Western Christians (many of them Evangelicals and some of them Reformed) have crossed the Bosporus and made a home in Eastern Orthodoxy.[1]

This all raises a question: How are Western Christians to understand and respond to Eastern Orthodoxy? 

Reformed & Eastern Orthodox: Where’s the Dividing Line?

What is it that distinguishes and divides us? This is not just a theological question; it is a pastoral question as well. How should Pastors and Elders counsel someone who is considering a move to the East? Increasingly, this is an issue that is being faced by Reformed churches.[2] What does it look like to faithfully shepherd someone who is wrestling with the claims of Eastern Orthodoxy? If Reformed churches are to rightly understand, and wisely respond to, Eastern Orthodoxy, then we must recognize that the ultimate issue which divides us is the doctrine of Scripture.

Important Dividing Issues

Those familiar with Eastern Orthodoxy might find that to be a strange statement. There are, in fact, many important issues about which Reformed and Eastern Orthodox churches would not see eye to eye. In terms of ecclesiology, Eastern Orthodoxy believes that it is the one true and infallible church and has priests and bishops (though the priests are allowed to marry and the supremacy of any one bishop, such as the Pope, is rejected).[3]

In terms of liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox are fiercely committed to the use of icons and incense as well as to a robust church calendar with prescribed days for feasting and fasting.[4] Their view of the sacraments is far closer to Rome than Geneva (both in terms of the number of sacraments as well as the theology behind them) and their worship and piety grants a role to the saints and the virgin Mary that would not be held by Reformed Protestants.[5]

In terms of soteriology, Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the distinction between justification and sanctification held by Reformed Protestants, and views the doctrine of salvation through the lens of “theosis” instead.[6] This view rejects the courtroom terminology common in Western discussions of salvation in favor of more relational and mystical metaphors which stress the ongoing process of salvation by which men make their way to God.[7]

The Ultimate Dividing Issue

Each of these issues are of great importance, but the ultimate dividing issue is the doctrine of Scripture. While Reformed and Eastern Orthodox churches share significant areas of agreement on this issue, there are also key disagreements regarding Scripture’s attributes and its role in the theology and life of the church. For the Reformed, Scripture constitutes the only infallible source of theology and authority for the church.[8] As Robert Letham puts it:

"It is an axiom of historic Protestantism, and of the Reformed churches in particular, that the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct, the highest court of appeal in questions of controversy. Beside it, the teachings of the church are in a secondary position. They are effectively a commentary on Scripture. The Word of God written has priority and all human opinions must submit to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture."[9]

Any significant disagreement over the source of authority for theology and life must be the ultimate dividing issue because all other disagreements (whether in ecclesiology, liturgy, or soteriology) ultimately have their roots in this fact: Reformed and Eastern Orthodox churches have a radically different view of the nature and role of the Scriptures.

Understanding the Eastern Orthodox View of Scripture

Before Reformed churches can respond to the Eastern Orthodox view of Scripture, it is important to study it carefully. There are some significant ways in which both communions share the same view of Scripture’s nature and attributes. However, there are also significant ways in which they do not, and in the final analysis, Reformed and Eastern Orthodox churches use Scripture in radically different ways.

Areas of Agreement

It is important to observe at the outset that Scripture is prized by the Eastern Orthodox. Orthodox scholar Timothy Ware describes the Eastern view of Scripture this way:

"The Bible is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to the human race, and Christians must always be ‘People of the Book’. […] It is sometimes thought that Orthodox attach less importance than western Christians to the Bible. Yet in fact Holy Scripture is read constantly at Orthodox services: during the course of Matins and Vespers the entire Psalter is recited each week, and in Lent twice a week; […] Besides these specific extracts from Scripture, the whole text of each service is shot through with Biblical language, and it has been calculated that the Liturgy contains 98 quotations from the Old Testament and 114 from the New."[10]

The Eastern Orthodox receive the Bible as the Word of God and maintain its historicity and inspiration.[11] Since the Enlightenment was largely a Western affair, the Eastern churches have generally been resistant to the attempts of Enlightenment Liberalism to undermine confidence in the text of Scripture.[12] Old Testament and New Testament are not pitted against each other but are seen as unified parts of one book – the Bible – which is focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ.[13] Eastern churches agree with the West on the canon of the New Testament as well.

Areas of Disagreement

However, there are also significant areas of disagreement. When approaching the Old Testament, Orthodox churches follow the Greek Septuagint instead of the Hebrew text. This means that their translations do not come from the Hebrew and they include the Apocryphal books of the Septuagint as well (though these are typically viewed as being a lower order of Scripture than the books of the Old and New Testaments).[14]

Not only do the Eastern Orthodox hold to a different list of books than Reformed Protestants, they also approach those books differently. A defining characteristic of Scripture from a Reformed perspective is the perspicuity (or clarity) of the Bible. While there are, of course, difficult passages in the Bible which require care and study, the basic message of the Scriptures is clear and can be grasped by even the simplest of readers who are helped by the Holy Spirit.[15]

The Eastern Orthodox do not hold to the same view. In the ancient conflict between orthodox Christianity and heretical groups (whether Arians, Sabellians, Montanists, or Gnostics), both sides appealed to the Scriptures as their source of authority.[16] How is one to distinguish between competing interpretations? If both Arius and Athanasius rooted their theology in the Bible, on what basis could one man’s theology be condemned as heretical while the other was praised as a defender of the faith? Florovsky answers this way: “It was in this historical situation that the authority of Tradition was first invoked. Scripture belonged to the Church, and it was only in the Church, within the community of right faith, that Scripture could be adequately understood and correctly interpreted.”[17] No individual can rightly interpret the Bible without the guidance of the Church. 

Indeed, the Orthodox denial of the perspicuity of Scripture leads them to also deny the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible cannot be understood without the teaching of the Church to explain it – in this sense at least, the Eastern Orthodox would argue that the Scriptures are dependent on the Church and are, therefore, not sufficient on their own.[18] Clendenin explains:

“By itself and without the church the Bible would not be understood, or would be liable to great misunderstanding, and thus converts to Orthodoxy pledge that they will ‘accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation which was and is held by the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, our Mother.’”[19]

This brings us to the core disagreement between the Reformed and the Eastern Orthodox, as well as the Reformed response. We will consider both of these next time.

B.E. Franks is an MDiv student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College and completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.

Related Links

Theology on the Go: "J. Gresham Machen and Biblical Authority"

"Serial Choice? Hermeneutics and a High View of the Bible" by David Garner

"The Troublesome Doctrine of Biblical Authority" by Scott Redd

The Authority of Scripture, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason [ Booklet  | Download ]

Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen & Scott Swain


[1] For statistics on Orthodoxy, see Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 17. For accounts of Protestant conversion stories see Peter E. Gillquist, Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith, (Ben Lomond, CA: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2010), and Peter E. Gillquist, Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox, (Ben Lomond, CA: Ancient Faith Publishing, 1995). The recent conversion of Hank Hanegraaff – the Dutch born, and CRC raised “Bible Answer Man” – to the Eastern Orthodox church is another high-profile example. 

[2] See the excellent “Report of the Committee Appointed by URCNA Classis SWUS to Study Eastern Orthodoxy,” High Desert URC, accessed May 13th, 2019,

[3] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church¸ (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 245-254.

[4] For an Eastern Orthodox discussion, see Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2013), 113-140, Ware, The Orthodox Church, 298-306, and Leonid Ouspensky, “The Meaning and Content of the Icon.” In Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, edited by Daniel B. Clendenin, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 33-63. For a Protestant assessment see Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes – Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective, (Ross-Shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2007), 143-171.

[5] For the Eastern Orthodox view of the sacraments, see John Karmiris, “Concerning the Sacraments.” In Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, edited by Daniel B. Clendenin, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 21-31, Ware, The Orthodox Church, 274-297, and John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends & Doctrinal Themes, (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979), 191-211. For an Orthodox view of the saints see Sergius Bulgakov, “The Virgin and the Saints in Orthodoxy.” In Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, edited by Daniel B. Clendenin, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 65-75. 

[6] Protestant sources which define “theosis” and contrast the Protestant and Orthodox approach to soteriology are, Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, 117-137, Letham, Through Western Eyes, 243-268, and Michael Horton, “Are Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism Compatible? No:”. In Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, edited by James J. Stamoolis, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 128-140.

[7] The Orthodox base their view on the writings of various Church Fathers, but the classic Patristic exploration of this idea is found in St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, (New York: Paulist Press, 1988). A representative discussion of theosis from a modern Orthodox perspective can be found in Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 97-110.

[8] There are many sources one could point to which explore the Reformed view of Scripture, but the most succinct and helpful is still Chapter One of The Westminster Confession of Faith¸ (Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications, 2007), 1-8.

[9] Letham, Through Western Eyes, 173.

[10] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 199, 201.

[11] Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1972), 17-27.

[12] Though Robert Letham interacts with at least one Orthodox theologian, T.G. Stylianopoulos, who seems to have imbibed some Critical assumptions. See Letham, Through Western Eyes, 184-187.

[13] To quote Georges Florovsky: “The two Testaments are to be carefully distinguished, never to be confused. Yet they are organically linked together, not as two systems only, but primarily in the person of the Christ. Jesus the Christ belongs to both. He is the fulfiller of the old dispensation and by the same act that he fulfills the old, ‘the Law and the prophets,’ he inaugurates the new, and thereby becomes the ultimate fulfiller of both, i.e. of the whole. He is the very centre of the Bible.” Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 22-23.

[14] Letham, Through Western Eyes, 179-183.

[15] The Westminster Confession puts it like this: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due sense of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” WCF, Ch. 1.7.

[16] Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 75.

[17] Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 75.

[18] Florovsky: “The Bible is the Word of God indeed, but the book stands by the testimony of the Church. The canon of the Bible is obviously established and authorized by the Church.” Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 18.

[19] Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, 106.