My Two Cents
Apologies for My Apology
I’m hardly the first at it (#understatement), but such an important topic can take my answer too. If you’re investigating Orthodoxy, I wouldn’t be surprised if our stories are similar – and I’d encourage you to consider my concerns.
By way of background, my interest in (Eastern) Orthodoxy began first year of Uni, when a friend started down the road to catechesis. By final year, I’d read (and met) the right Orthodox authors, made lasting Orthodox friends, and racked up many hours just thinking about Orthodoxy. For a time, I believed conversion inevitable. Orthodoxy had both pretty things and depth, involved the whole body, and promised something more authentic than the big box Evangelical churches, especially for the lover of history. Plus, Orthodoxy claimed a commitment to Christian truth, and wasn’t Catholicism (sorry, Catholics).
Things began to change after Uni. Despite a lingering interest strong enough to tempt some of my very close friends into Orthodoxy (which I greatly regret), Orthodoxy gradually stopped adding up. The final nail came during my misadventures w/ Grad School. While I respect Orthodox folks and still have Orthodox friends, I am now convinced Orthodoxy is not the Way, capital W, but at best a deeply flawed, very human iteration of Christianity, which needs substantial reform in order to rightly worship God.
If I had to narrow it down, I have three interrelated issues with Orthodoxy. We can rank them big, bigger, and biggest.
Big Issue — Icons + Originalism
If you think I’m going to talk about ‘worshiping icons’, I’m not. Well, not directly anyway.
Here’s the issue. The Orthodox make a strong claim to retaining the practices of the Early Church. Not all Christian groups do this. Catholics, for example, invoke a concept called ‘development of doctrine’, perfected by Cardinal Newman, which suggest God’s revelation in history is still progressing. But the Orthodox style themselves originalists, and I like that in the Orthodox.
However, on a number of key points the Orthodox have been very progressive indeed. One such is the icon. The Early Church had a near universal anti-icon position. If you survey the Fathers in the first 500 years of the church, you will find exactly such. Try it if you don’t believe me. Look up what Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Arnobius, the Council of Elvira, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Epiphaneus of Salamis, and others of this period said about icons. You’ll find that icons were a definite no-no (for many of the same reasons Reformed folk dislike them today = idol worship).
Not until the sixth to eighth century (perhaps in response to Islam) did the tide turn, and it hardly turned completely. Hence the very intrigue-heavy passage of the seventh ecumenical council over the top of a pre-existing ecumenical council forbidding icons. If you’re at all interested in Orthodoxy, this is extremely familiar territory, because this passage of a second 7th ecumenical council is the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’. It’s the Orthodox church’s birthday, the defeat of the iconoclasts by the iconodules. And icons have been central to Orthodox worship ever since.
No, not central, essential. You cannot have Orthodoxy without icons. To paraphrase something I once read (from I forget whom), a Protestant Church without images is a Protestant Church. A Catholic Church without images is a bit strange. But an Orthodox Church without images isn’t an Orthodox Church. Images/icons are essential to Orthodox worship.
But hang on a second, the decision to involve icons in worship was not a retention of Early Church practices, it was developed doctrine. A developed doctrine expressly against the teachings of the Early Church. A developed doctrine which if you study it’s development in history looks an awful lot like our very human, sinful tendency to accrete things to the Gospel.
And thus the Orthodox are closet progressives. They claim retention of the Early Church teaching, but here at the very heart of their worship they stand in clear opposition to it. They have turned a developed doctrine into a central tenant of Christianity. And this is something you cannot have both ways. You cannot have both originalism and icons. So which is it to be?
For my part, I side with the Early Church.
Bigger Issue — Saints + Scripture
The Orthodox certainly seem to have a healthier picture than the Catholics (sorry, Catholics) of our relationship with Mary and the Saints. In Catholic doctrine the worship of Mary in various guises and local appearances often comes off to my eyes as an extension of the Roman cult of Venus.
But even in Orthodox worship, the place Mary + the Saints are given doesn’t do credit to the way Scripture and Christ ask us to treat them (e.g. Matthew 12:46-50). Why, for example, would evening Vespers be focused on Mary? Doubtless, she is the theotokos – God-bearer – and she has been blessed in a unique way by bearing the Lord, but she is a created, fallen individual, like us. Scripture presents only one object of our worship — God.
At this point you may wish to put on a Wiggles CD and claim that Protestants have too high a view of Scripture. Or, that we misunderstand it. But even with a loose doctrine of Scripture, as long as we’re all Christians, we agree Scripture does mean something, it isn’t meaningless. And, we can all agree it’s closer to the source, closer to the Incarnation of Jesus, our Lord.
Now compare someone in 2076, or even 1876, and one of the US Founding Fathers in 1776: whom should I trust to better understand America’s founding vision? Would we not expect the same of the authors of Scripture re Christ? If we claim to want to know Christ, than who better to study than Christ himself and his immediate disciples? Scripture has rightful pride of place in our theology. Standing closer to the source, it merits more weight than later tradition.
This is not to discount tradition, but too often in Orthodoxy the reverse happens: Scripture is submerged to tradition. I went to an Orthodox friend’s wedding once. At the wedding, it was pronounced that the couple were married for all eternity. Immediately, cult bells started ringing in my head. I approached the priest after to ask about the passage in Matthew 22:29-32, in which our Lord Himself says that in Heaven we are neither married nor given in marriage. The priest said he had no answer as to how those things are reconciled. He said, in effect: «The Orthodox church simply teaches that you are married for eternity. Marriage is a strong bond, why would God destroy it after death». Well, sure, that sounds nice, but how does that comport with what the Lord Himself said? I’d love an answer on that one.
In a choice between Scripture and later tradition, Scripture stands on firmer ground. The Holy Spirit certainly has not inspired the former less than the latter. Thus, presented with only one object of worship in Scripture, why accrete Mary and the Saints to my worship?
Biggest Issue — Incarnation
This is the killer for me. It’s also the hardest to express clearly. Let’s give it a go.
At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the Incarnation: God became man. In the first 500 hundred years of the church, this was reflected in the way the Church did missions. The Church went into a community and nativised, as it were.
This is most clearly reflected in the translation of scripture. You had translations of the New Testament writings into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Sogdian, and Nubian all before the fall of Rome. Look at the Church in those communities, and each looks different, native.
As we move onward in history though, the church started pulling inward. Before the East-West split, the church developed a doctrine of the ‘three holy languages’ – that only Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (sanctified by being on the plaque above Christ at the crucifixion) cut it as church languages. St. Cyril and St. Methodius had to apply to Rome for special permission for their translation to the Slavs (which they were granted at the Synod of Frankfurt, 794, where progress was made toward undercutting the suspect doctrine).
Still, the Western Church didn’t start pulling out of this anti-incarnational approach till the Reformation, which brought the explosion of translation and nativisation we continue to see spreading to the ends of the earth today (thanks, Wycliffe!). At least, that’s what happened among Protestants. It wasn’t until Vatican II that Catholics really reawoke to the centrality of the vernacular (sorry, Catholics).
The Eastern Church, though, has never awoken. A form of worship that set in stone in one geographic region/context, between the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the 800’s (when monks gained the ascendancy in the East, as they were needed to fill the ecclesial vacancies from the ousted iconoclasts), and the 1300’s, is the form of worship that all Christians everywhere are meant to follow. Anything else doesn’t cut it. If you doubt me, ask a priest. (For me the final nail in Orthodoxy occurred when I asked a priest about the Western Rite, seeing in it hope for necessary incarnationalism: he told me in no uncertain terms that it was a lesser sister – true worship is the stultified form).
This is incredibly suspect. And far too similar to the Muslim response. Islam is inherently anti-incarnational. Everywhere Islam goes, 7th century Arabia goes. Because a good Muslim knows the prophet Mohammed made it to heaven, but no one knows how, the best chance we have for salvation is to imitate Mohammed in every particular: dress, manner, names, etc. And, because the Quran has existed before all time in 7th century Arabic, ixnay on the incarnation. Everywhere Islam goes, the more seriously Islamic an area becomes, the more gray-same 7th century Arabia you get. Cut Northern and Southern Africa across like a knife. North of the line, Islam and cultural gray. South of the line – vibrant Christian incarnationalism. Don’t believe me? Read Lamin Sanneh – a Muslim-born converted Christian from the Gambia who teaches at Yale. He expresses it much better than I.
The Christian Gospel must be incarnational. It must be like Christ, and redeem both people and tribes/tongues/cultures, taking the good for the Imago Dei in it, and rejecting the bad. I do not see Orthodoxy doing this at all. Instead I see Orthodoxy settling for something far inferior, for the Muslim model, with the stultified accretions of a single culture pushed universally. This is not the incarnation, and it worries me tremendously.
One final thought. All of the above hangs on theology. There is another thing that gets me, a point of praxis: the relative spiritual lethargy within Orthodox nations through history. It’s not so much a problem among converts to Orthodoxy in the West, who are usually zealous, but I wish I saw life among old world Orthodox. Ad hominem? Perhaps. But is not the hominem where we should test and see the evidence of faith?