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Christian History Home > 1997 > Issue 54 > What the Orthodox Believe

What the Orthodox Believe
Four key differences between the Orthodox and Protestants.
Daniel B. Clendenin | posted 4/01/1997 12:00AM

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Most Americans think of religion in terms of the "Big Three"—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. But the Orthodox? Who are they? Like Protestants, they're not one monolith with uniform beliefs. On the other hand, there are distinctives that set them apart from Protestants.

Daniel Clendenin, on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Stanford University, has studied those distinctives, especially in their Russian Orthodox form. He has set them down in detail in Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Baker, 1994), and here in summary.

Orthodoxy has suffered from cultural invisibility in America. It simply does not register on most of our cultural radar screens. Some confuse it with Catholicism. But Orthodoxy is distinct from Catholicism and enjoys a unique history and theology. The Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky (d. 1958) once referred to the "dogmatic dissimilarity" between the Christian East and West.

What did Lossky mean? Let me summarize four ways in which faithful Christians, Orthodox and Protestant, have each tended to do theology differently.

Praising the Unknowable

During my first semester as a visiting professor at Moscow State University (1991-1992), I taught a seminar on C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. The book had been translated into Russian, and its notable influence in the lives of many Western Christians made it a sure bet, I thought, to have a significant spiritual and intellectual impact. I could not have been more wrong.

Toward the end of the term, one student complained that Lewis was "too logical and rational." A year later in another seminar on Lewis's The Problem of Pain, a student made a similar comment: "I do not like Lewis's position that we must use logic to discuss the question of evil. Problems relating to God transcend human logic." These remarks point to a fundamental difference between the theologies of the Orthodox and Protestants.

In one of the most important texts of Orthodoxy, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, John of Damascus (655-749) observed, "It is plain, then, that there is a God. But what he is in his essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable. … All that is comprehensible about him is his incomprehensibility." This is a fine example of what has been called apophatic theology (from the Greek apophasis or "denial"). Apophatic theology tries to describe what God is not. For example, the theologian who says "God is not finite; he is not limited in time or space" is practicing apophatic theology.

Lossky says apophaticism is "the fundamental characteristic of the whole theological tradition of the Eastern Church." He once defined it as "the breakdown of human thought before the radical transcendence of God … a prostration before the living God, radically ungrasp-able, unobjectifiable, and unknowable."

In Orthodoxy this incomprehensible mystery of God is a cause for praise and celebration, and theology is an extension of spirituality or worship. The aphorism of Evagrius of Pontus (346-399) expresses this nicely: only the one who prays is truly a theologian, for the true theo-logian prays truly.

By way of contrast, for Protestants the mystery of God is often a cause for analysis and explanation. We tend to be uncomfortable with mystery and are even trained to expunge it by finding answers. As heirs of the European Enlightenment, we believe that all truth claims, including theological propositions, must pass the test administered at the bar of reason.

One thinks, for example, of the influential legacy of René Descartes (1596-1650), who attempted to ground all thinking in "methodical doubt" and to accept nothing as true unless he perceived it as clear, distinct, indubitable, and certain.

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