CRISIS OF SOTERIOLOGY:
MARK J HARRIS (Mission Consulting Group)
Copyright © 1996 by Mark J Harris
Permission to reproduce material from this paper, for noncommercial purposes, is hereby granted. Please provide appropriate credit and send a copy of the reprint to the following address:
Evangelicals have invaded
purpose of this short paper is to briefly introduce the central aspects of this
crisis, and then offer a few perspectives on how the dangers can lead to
opportunities for fruitful evangelistic work in
Orthodoxy as the
History – Any interaction with
Eastern Orthodoxy must begin with an understanding of the self-image of the
Orthodox churches. The Orthodox Church believes that its forms, sacraments and
traditions have continued uninterruptedly from the apostles themselves. When
Tradition – Although the Orthodox
Church considers the Scriptures to be the “supreme expression of God’s
it is not considered the only authoritative source for doctrine and practice.
“While the apostolic deposit finds unique articulation in the written tradition
of canonical Scripture, it is not confined or limited to the biblical text, but
finds fuller expression in extracanonical tradition.” Thus the
doctrinal continuity mentioned above must be seen as contained within the
Orthodox traditions, and not just in their interpretation of biblical texts.
Authority – Given the Orthodox view
of church history and the nature of tradition, it is no surprise that Orthodoxy
considers that authoritative truth is not to be found outside of the Orthodox
church. The church itself is considered to be
infallible, and the result is that the ecumenical councils and other traditions
have authority equal to that of the Bible. The
Church has no external or dogmatic authority, but is itself the authority, a
fact guaranteed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church. “…the only
ultimate theological criterion to which Orthodoxy appeals is the living
presence of God himself, who safeguards the church and promises through his
Spirit to lead us and guide us into all truth.”
Orthodox Forms as Normative for the World – Not only is the Orthodox Church the true church of God on earth, her
forms are the true forms to which all Christians everywhere must submit.
Liturgy – The word “Orthodoxy”
signifies both right belief and right worship to the Orthodox Church. It is
just as important to worship correctly as it is to believe the right truths. In
fact, Orthodoxy understands doctrine mainly in the context of divine worship. “Into the holy liturgy which expresses
their faith, the Orthodox peoples have poured their whole religious
The liturgy is so central to Orthodox faith that it is seen as both the method
and the aim of Orthodox missions. The extension of the Orthodox to all the
nations is inseparable from carrying the liturgy intact.
b. Sacraments – For the Orthodox
Church, baptism, communion, and other church activities are far more than
symbolic acts. They are sacraments in the fullest sense. They are seen to
transmit grace to the believer, resulting in true communion with Jesus Christ.
“Through the actions of the sacraments, the salvific power of God completes in
us the process of sanctification.” “It is for this reason that the sacraments
occupy such a prominent place in the Orthodox conscience.” It
would not be enough for non-Orthodox Christians to try to copy these
sacraments. The Orthodox Church believes that divine grace is not dispensed
outside of the true church, and does not recognize as valid that which is
performed outside of its own walls.
Salvation as an Orthodox Process –
Since Orthodoxy claims to be the one true Church, and since its sacraments are
essential to salvation, it is clear that, according to their confession,
salvation does not take place outside of the Orthodox Church. In addition, the
very notion of salvation in Orthodoxy differs greatly from that of evangelical
Christians. The elements of salvation in Orthodox soteriology are as follows:
Baptism – Water baptism is the means
by which believers enter into salvation according to Orthodox teaching. Much
more than a symbolic act, baptism is considered to transmit justifying and
regenerating grace. Every
statement made about water baptism in Orthodox teaching is made about the
combination of justification and regeneration in evangelical teaching. By it a
person is said to be made a member of the mystical body of Christ and a
partaker of the divine nature. “Indeed,
through this sacrament those who believe are cleansed of original sin and all
actual sins (if they be adults). All of these sins are totally uprooted and
obliterated, together with their guilt and their due punishment…” Consistent with the insistence on proper
liturgy and form in Orthodoxy, even the form of baptism is prescribed: “In
order for the sacrament of baptism to be considered valid, it is necessary that
the person being baptized be immersed and raised up three times in water which has
Chrismation – This is a sacrament
unknown to Evangelicals, which is normally performed at baptism. The newly
baptized person is anointed by the priest with a mixture of sweet-smelling
spices, in the form of a cross, on various parts of the body. Through this
sacrament it is believed that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are received,
together with a power that enables them to develop their new spiritual state. Like
baptism, it is a one-time act.
Theosis – This is a term that denotes
the central meaning of salvation in Orthodoxy, which is that a believer
partakes in a union with God. Although the believer remains human by nature, he
begins to “participate in God by means of the divine energies or grace.” This is
a commonly misunderstood teaching, partly because it is often termed
It is this process that is the central aspect of salvation according to
Orthodox teaching, in contrast to the focus on legal justification in Western
teaching. “Orthodox theologians contend that in the West the doctrines of sin
and salvation have been unduly dominated by legal, juridical, and forensic
The restoring of a mystical union with God, a process not completed in this
life, is the focus of Orthodox soteriology, and one does not hear of God
declaring sinners righteous on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ.
“In the history of Orthodox theology…it is startling to observe the near total
absence of any mention of the idea of justification by faith.” Unlike
evangelical soteriology, in Orthodox teaching there is no clear distinction
between justification and sanctification.
The Eucharist – The Holy Eucharist is
the all-embracing sacrament of the Orthodox Church. “In the
Holy Eucharist the faithful truly participate in the real body and blood of
Christ. They are mystically united with and incorporated into him…” The
Orthodox Church thus accepts that the elements of bread and wine are changed
into Christ’s very body and blood. Partaking of the Eucharist is so critical as
to be placed on a level of importance with baptism in the process of salvation. As with
other sacraments, there is no true Eucharist outside of the Orthodox Church, a
fact which excludes all non-Orthodox people from the saving life of Jesus
Repentance – A separate sacrament of
repentance, or penance, is practiced in the Orthodox Church. This sacrament is
critical to an ongoing standing with God. “Through our repentance God forgives
the sins we have committed after baptism, provided we have frankly repented of them,
and have confessed them before the bishop or priest. Thus penance, the
sacrament of repentance, is characterized as a second baptism.”
The Insecurity of the Believer – It
should be clear from the above that an Orthodox believer has no assurance of
salvation in this life. He can never consider that his position before God is
secure; he is always in process.
Ignorance of Orthodoxy – Eastern
Orthodoxy has played a very small part in the religious life of
Doctrinal Approach – Evangelicals
begin their understanding of truth from the principle that the Scriptures can
stand alone. They may be assuming that Orthodoxy will not oppose this
principle. However, “it is precisely this view of the self-sufficiency of
Scripture, elevated above the church, that Orthodoxy considers…‘the sin of the
Reformation,’ the consequences of which are arbitrary, subjective, and
individualistic interpretations of the gospel.” Evangelicals want to debate
doctrine and examine church teaching and practice by interpreting the Bible,
but this is an approach that will not work in discussions with Orthodox
believers. In their view “Scripture does not stand over the church but within
the church, and in that sense its authority is derivative rather than
independent and direct. By itself and without the church the Bible would not be
understood, or would be liable to great misunderstanding…”
Evangelicals, being outside of the true church, will not be allowed to enter
into a discussion of what is true.
Legal Orientation – As mentioned
above, Evangelicals are considered by Orthodox theologians to be distorting the
message of the Bible by their focus on the legal aspects of justification. Yet
Evangelicals consider this the very key point that they want to get across in
explaining the finished work of Christ and eternal life. They are thus
unwittingly confirming the suspicions of the Orthodox leaders and serving as an
easy target for attack.
Disdain for Liturgy – American
evangelicals commonly reject a liturgical approach to worship due to its
association with spiritual deadness in their own context. A belief that the use
of liturgy is not a proper means to worship will greatly hinder any
communication with Russian Orthodox people. In addition, some Evangelicals may
be tempted to expect that they could offer an evangelical form of liturgy that
would become acceptable in the Orthodox context. Yet, as noted above, changes
in liturgy are extremely serious (even very minor ones). Orthodox worship is a
“package deal” that cannot be taken apart or reconsidered. The liturgy is
considered to be beautiful and moving because it is timeless, and modern
changes are not tolerated.
Simplistic Message – Evangelicals who
do not respect the richness of Orthodox history, worship and teaching tend to
offer messages that are frightfully simplistic in contrast. Some of this is due
to ignorance, as mentioned above. But some is also due to a spiritual and
intellectual laziness that is not truly prepared to deal with the challenge of
communicating in an Orthodox context.
Individualism – Often the motivations utilized in Western presentations of
the Gospel do not appeal to people trained in the Orthodox way. In contrast to
the common evangelical approach, “the Orthodox idea of evangelism is free from
individualistic and spiritualistic connotations. The church, the sacrament of
Christ, is not a religious society of converts, an organization to satisfy the
religious needs of man.”
dangers for Evangelicals could be listed in response to the contrast between
the Russian Orthodox soteriology and the American Evangelical approaches named
above. The main danger is outright rejection of Evangelicals before they can
have a fair chance to fully communicate their message. Some of the more common
bases of rejection would be the following:
Rejection as Ignorant People –
Russians commonly view Americans as people who are spiritually shallow,
overwhelmed by the pettiness of their “pop” culture. Too often Evangelicals witnessing
Rejection as Vulgar Worshippers – Orthodox
worship is majestic, solemn and beautiful to the Russian ear. An expectation of
such an atmosphere of worship is the attitude many Russians who have exposure
to Orthodoxy either first hand or through the media. Many have a resulting
distaste for the casual and plain approach to worship preferred by Evangelicals
from the West. To them it feels too common, even vulgar, and is not considered
a serious approach to our holy and mysterious God.
Rejection as Rationalists – The
spiritual emphases between East and West are like two sides of the brain. The
West tends to look at the East as being too mystical and too ready to abandon
attempts to systematize doctrine in favor of considering the truths to be
beyond the reach of mortal man. The East sees the West as being too logical and
too ready to place faith in its ability to understand God. There is a tendency
among Evangelicals to argue with reason as opposed to letting their lives speak
for the reality of Jesus Christ in them. This approach will not have the
respect among the Orthodox, who value experience over doctrine.
Rejection as Worldly – The Orthodox
look at their approach to life and worship as a way to bring heaven down to
earth. This otherworldly perspective causes them to look with disfavor on the
attempts of Evangelicals to behave and communicate in a way that makes sense to
the man of the world. Attempts to contextualize the gospel will thus often be
interpreted as worldliness, and Evangelicals will not be respected.
Rejection as Heretics – This is the
most serious basis of rejection, since it will undermine the very heart of the
message that Evangelicals bring – that the average person can receive the Word
of God and become a true believer in Jesus Christ apart from the Orthodox
Church (or any other religious institution). The claim of Orthodoxy to be the
preserver of the pure truth of God for men closes the door to outsiders who
claim to bring Christianity to Russians. To accept Orthodoxy is to receive the
complete package of the faith, including all the forms of expression that are
considered to be authoritative traditions. The work of Evangelicals in
spite of the dangers listed above for Evangelicals in
Lack of Identity among
Weakness of Spiritual Life among Orthodox – Even at the peak of the power of Orthodoxy in
Variation among Orthodox Leadership –
The official pronouncements of the Russian Orthodox Church reflect the
principles discussed in this paper, especially as they relate to relationships
with Protestants. However, “…an individual Orthodox theologian might take a
more latitudinarian stance.” One is
able to discover varying degrees of theological leeway in today’s Russian
Orthodox setting, and
this presents an opportunity for perceptive Evangelicals. Recent movements in
Compatibility in Theology – There is
no need for Evangelicals to seek to expose and maximize the differences in
theology that they find as they examine Russian Orthodoxy. Many doctrines that
appear to be strange and unbiblical, such as the doctrine of theosis, appear
much more acceptable once studied carefully. Many misunderstandings can be
cleared up with open-minded research and contemplation. The emphases of
Orthodox Christianity can often be embraced by Evangelicals, who must be able
to show that they also promote the same values. Recognizing and building on
compatible teaching may present one of the best opportunities for Evangelicals
to make headway in Orthodox Russia.
John Karmaris, Concerning the Sacraments in Daniel B. Clendenin, ed., Eastern
 Alexander Schmemann, Moment of Truth for Orthodoxy in Ibid, p. 206
James Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox
Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity,
 Ibid, p. 110.
George Florovsky, The Function of Tradition in the
 George Florovsky, The Authority of the Ancient Councils and the Tradition of the Fathers, in Clendenin, ed. Ibid, p. 124.
 Clendenin, p. 107.
 Timothy Ware, The Earthly Heaven, in Clendenin, ed. Ibid, p. 13.
 Ibid, p. 14.
 Karmaris, p. 21.
 Ibid, p. 22.
 Ibid, p. 23.
 Ibid, p. 22.
 Ibid, p. 24.
 Ibid, p. 25.
 Clendenin, p. 130.
 Ibid, p. 121.
 Ibid, p. 122.
 Ibid, p. 123.
 Alexander Schmemann, The Missionary Imperative in the Orthodox Tradition, in Clendenin, ed. Ibid, p. 198.
 Karmaris, p. 26.
 Ibid, p. 28.
 Ibid, p. 29.
 Clendenin, p. 17.
 Clendenin, p. 105-6.
 Schmemann, Missionary Imperative, p. 200.
 Stamoolis, p. 129.
 Ibid, p. 11.
 Clendenin, p. 143.
 Ibid, p. 142.