The Greek Orthodox Answer Man?

The news of Hank Hanegraaff's conversion to the Greek Orthodox faith has--not surprisingly--elicited a variety of responses from individuals online. On Twitter, one controversial progressive pastor welcomed Hanegraaff (quite ironically, I would add) to "a greater tradition than biblicism." Christianity Today featured an article in which the author drew the conclusion that "Hanegraaff's conversion gives evangelicals one more bridge to Orthodoxy." A Protestant blogger has sarcastically suggested that "Hanegraaff...should try doing his radio program for a month while relying strictly on Orthodox resources." The spectrum of opinions has been exceedingly wide ranging; yet, very few have dealt, in any substantive way, with what the Greek Orthodox Church actually believes. It seems to me that before any of us draw conclusions about Hanegraaff's "conversion," we should want to understand that to which he has "converted." 

Frank Gavin--the Anglican Priest and noted Orthodox scholar--has written a thorough and trustworthy Systematic Theology of Greek Orthodox dogma that goes under the title Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Orthodox Thought. The breadth of this work serves as a helpful resource to which one may turn when seeking to answer the question, "What does the Greek Orthodox Church believe?" While all pastors and seminarians should do themselves the enormous favor of working through the totality of this work, I want to limit this post to a brief consideration of what the Greek Orthodox Church believes about authority, justification and the nature of the Church. 

Under the heading "Sources of Dogma," Gavin noted that in the Orthodox Church, Scripture and tradition "are of equal weight." In the Orthodox Catechism, we read, "Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Apostolic preaching and is found in Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles." As the Greek Orthodox theologian, Chrestos Androutsos, has put it in his Dogmatics, "Holy Tradition is not only the continuation of the Word of God contained in Holy Writ, but also the trustworthy guide and interpreter of it." Just as the Roman Catholic Church places additional sources of authority on par with Scripture, so too does the Orthodox Church. This, of course, lays the foundation for the Greek Orthodox Church's deviation from biblical Christianity. 

Since human tradition is placed side by side with Scripture, it should not surprise us to discover that similarities exist between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of justification. In contradiction to the Protestant belief that Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the Orthodox Church teaches that "Justification as an actual change in man is both the doing away with sin and guilt, and the implanting of a new life...negatively, the remission of sins, and positively, sanctification." The implication of such teaching is found in the Orthodox belief that one may lose his or her justification before God. Androutsos noted, "no one may be sure of his own salvation nor may he predict with certainty that he will be able to keep himself from grievous sins in the future and remain in (the state of) justification." Such semi-Pelagian views of soteriology are consistent with the Orthodox Church's views of authority. 

The Greek Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, also embraces the idea that it is the "one true Church"--as over against all other visible organizations that bear the title "Church." Gavin explained:

"The notion of an invisible and ideal church, of which the various bodies of Christians formed into distinct organizations and calling themselves 'Churches', are partial and incomplete embodiments, is utterly foreign to Orthodox teaching and to historical and biblical authority."

In Orthodox belief, there is only one visible Church made up of the invisible Church of the faithful. "To be outside of the Orthodox Church," wrote Gavin "is to be outside of the sphere in which the Holy Spirit works through the sacraments. Orthodoxy acknowledges no sacraments as valid save those of the one true Church, that is, herself. To do so would be to acknowledge the parity and equality of heretics and schismatics with the Catholic Church, which, as will be seen, she may not do. But in cases where the Orthodox Church has deemed it for the good and need of souls, she may as 'the sovereign over the sacraments...according to circumstances change invalid rites into valid sacraments.' This she does by 'economy' when she deviates from her normal and strict manner of administration. It is impossible to discover the principle governing the use of 'economy' in this matter, nor is there a rationale to determine the exercise of 'economy' in any given case. Yet the Church exercises this right as mistress of the Grace of God, and has allowed as valid the baptism of heretics, which normally and regularly she pronounces entirely invalid. It is not a question of the due matter and form, or of the proper intention: a body even with formally valid orders outside the Church has lost the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by whose agency only the Sacraments become realities."

While there are striking similarities in their beliefs about the nature of the church, the Orthodox Church sees itself in strident opposition to Rome. Herman Bavinck has helpfully summarized the dissimilarities that exist between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox conception of the church, when he wrote: 

"The Greek Orthodox conception of the Church is closely related to that of the Roman Catholics, and yet differs from it in some important points. That Church does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church as the true Church, but claims that honor for itself. There is but one true Church, and that Church is the Greek Orthodox. While it acknowledges with greater frankness than the Roman Catholics the two different aspects of the Church, the visible and the invisible, it nevertheless places the emphasis on the Church as an external organization. It does not find the essence of the Church in her as the community of the saints, but in the Episcopal hierarchy, which it has retained, while rejecting the Papacy. The infallibility of the Church is maintained, but this infallibility resides in the bishops, and therefore in the ecclesiastical councils and synods."

The Orthodox Church asserts unique ownership of doctrinal infallibility--as Gavin explained: 

"All Orthodox formularies and pronouncements claim clearly and distinctly that the Orthodox Church has kept the Faith immaculate and intact, without addition or subtraction, without alteration or omission, as taught by Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Inasmuch as the holding to the Faith 'as once delivered to the Saints' constitutes one of the fundamental and essential notes of the Church, deviation from true teaching involves loss of continuity with the life of the Church.

Androutsos set out the rationale for the Orthodox Church's belief in its own infallibility when he wrote: "It is an obvious truth that this Church (the Orthodox Church) is now the only Church which remains faithful to the ancient Ecumenical Councils, and in consequence she alone represents the true Catholic Church of Christ, which is infallible." 

It is my hope that the citations above will serve to introduce our readers to a few, very basic elements of the dogma of the Orthodox Church. In regard to its beliefs about authority, justification and the nature of the Church, the Greek Orthodox Church differs very little from Roman Catholicism--though it has a longstanding commitment to the denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church. Now that it has an "Answer Man" who can serve as its media apologist, it is possible (though highly unlikely) that we will get a careful treatment of Greek Orthodox dogma. After all, laying bare its beliefs will not likely win many who are interesting in getting answers about what God has said in His word.