Since moving to Scotland, I’ve had the pleasure of being more personally introduced to Eastern Orthodoxy. While this tradition is not nearly as prevalent in the West as in the Balkans, Greece, Russia, and the like, it seems to have, of late, made noise in America, as a number have converted from Protestantism to EO.
While those in the Eastern Orthodox tradition proudly claim to be the true church, in the image of the apostles and early church fathers, there are many aspects of it that I believe to be dangerous threats to faithful, Biblical Christianity; and so, I shall stand as its opponent whenever the need arises.
One such threat assaults the relationship of the believer and the local church to God’s Word. My recent conversations with a notably learned EO adherent quickly revealed a pattern. Whenever there was a question of right belief and practice in Christianity, this gentleman’s main defense was not clear exegesis of Scripture, but rather citing the tradition of the church. “Well, that idea wasn’t invented until that disruptive Protestant Reformation. The Orthodox have always held ________, in keeping with the fathers. So we ever have, and so we ever shall.” Now, at first blush, this seems like a daunting argument to the sincere Protestant. What man wants to be guilty of innovation, of the invention of “truths” about God and his will? What man wants to stand alone, contra mundum? What man wants to ignore the counsel and beliefs of all his predecessors?
At first daunting, this common EO thrust should and can be parried. Its main issue doesn’t lie in the fact that it ignores the diversity of thought within Christianity, the many debates and discussions through the history of the church, the development and deepening of systematic Christian thought as God has used different conflicts and questions to give men opportunity to sharpen their thinking on different parts of Scripture, thereby falsely asserting that Protestantism is a brand-new invention with no ancient rooting.
The main issue with this thrust is that it points to men, and not to God, as the final arbiter, the final rule and standard for what to believe and what to do in the Christian life. By confidently resting the establishment of veracity on the foundation of tradition, it effectively asserts the infallibility of men (regardless of the intentions of those making the argument).
But let it be understood that men, at a moment or over many moments, are quite fallible. Sin has corrupted every part of our faculties, including our intellectual faculties. For the Christian, such corruption is not escaped at conversion but at death. Because all men are crooked, no single man, or group of men, can be trusted to establish what is straight. We are all dependent on another ruler, a standard outside of ourselves.
This standard is God himself, the Lord who, unlike the false gods of the nations, has spoken to his needy people with authority and complete truth. It is the Bible that is, in its very nature and identity, the canon of all God’s breathed-out Word. And being God’s breathed out Word, the Bible alone is the final rule and standard for all faith and practice.
An Eastern Orthodox man, not yet willing to give up his position, will likely assert, “While Scripture is God-breathed, and so true and authoritative, it is always interpreted. No man, knowing himself to be fallible, should trust himself as an accurate interpreter. The tradition of the Eastern Orthodox guards the Christian man against erroneous thinking.”
Again, this thrust sounds humble, yet it is to be parried by recognizing that it doesn’t solve the problem. It merely shifts it, passing the buck from one sinner to many. The fallible man is guarded from erroneous interpretation not by looking to Eastern Orthodoxy as his corrective reference point, but to Scripture, over and over and over.
By arguing that the Christian is so fallible as to not be able to effectively interpret Scripture is to 1. deny the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit and 2. render the Bible unnecessary for contemporary life.
First, the Spirit is faithful to do the work of illumination for the elect who seek the truth in faith. The very Spirit who inspired the Scriptures is the Spirit who dwells within every Christian, guiding the Christian into truth through his provided means of grace, making knowable the meaning of his perspicuous Word (Psalm 119:18) and making humble the heart to receive it (Psalm 119:36).
Second, the Eastern Orthodox argument about the Bible and the Christian makes the Bible functionally unnecessary for contemporary life. If I can’t come to the Bible and understand it on its own terms, without looking to the Eastern Orthodox tradition to provide me understanding and direction, then why should I come to the Bible, lest I be lost in confusion? Why not just go to the tradition, which is apparently my trustworthy source for understanding, training in righteousness, reproof, instruction, and every good work? Is it any surprise that the “sermon” preached at the local EO meeting was about five minutes long of shallow speech, tacked onto the end of an hour-long meeting? Why make the superfluous central?
But, alas, we know that sanctification is the will of God for his people. And sanctification is in truth, which Christ himself defines as God’s Word. Any system which functionally discourages every Christian from acting like a Berean and pouring over the Scriptures, to understand them on their own terms and apply them with fidelity, is a faulty system.
Especially at a time in the West when the past is disrespected and the future is lustfully focused upon with revolutionary zeal, Eastern Orthodoxy can be attractive to some, to those looking to be rooted in something grand and ancient and lasting. But the oldness of something, the robustness of a tradition, is not that which merits your allegiance. God has spoken and speaks today. His Word, not a tradition, is to be preached. His Word, not a tradition, is to be read. His Word, not a tradition, is to be studied. His Word, not a tradition, is to be believed. His Word, not a tradition, is to be obeyed. We are to build the entirety of our lives on the Word of God.