Differences

As a Protestant, one of the key mental operators one has is the opposition to Rome. Depending upon the Protestant group, though I have in mind here and throughout this reflection evangelical Protestants, one more or less defines oneself over against Rome. This, of course, results in a distortion of Roman doctrine and practice (again depending on how much more or less one defines oneself over against Rome), a distortion which can reach Jack Chick proportions. So one thing a Protestant converting to Orthodoxy must be careful of is distorting Orthodoxy into an anti-Roman image.

Thankfully, not a few Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have come to Orthodoxy by way of investigations into Rome. The Protestant turn to Rome is completely normal and natural: many Protestants know very little, sometimes even nothing, about Orthodoxy. Once the inherent contradictions of Protestantism weigh in on the Protestant soul, the convert begins a reconsideration of his stance vis a vis Rome. And not a few conclude that they should find their anchorage in that church.

But Orthodoxy is not as much of a well-kept secret anymore. More and more literature is being published in English–one might dare to call it an explosion in the last ten years or so. Orthodoxy is finding its way into the so-called “new media” especially in the online world. So Protestants looking for resolution of the contradictions of Protestantism are now aware that there is more to investigate than the Tiber crossing. And herein lies the potential danger of turning Orthodoxy into a new Protestantism.

Some Protestant converts, in a normal and laudable effort to make sense of their journey find the differences between Orthodoxy and Rome comforting. We have no Pope. We don’t have the problem of indulgences. We’ve never had Limbo. And so on.

The problem is these differences are superficial in many respects and simply reinstantiate the opposition to Rome, which does not get anywhere close to the heart of Orthodoxy. A Protestant convert to Orthodoxy will find, sooner or later, that he has much more in common with Roman Catholics after his conversion than he does with Protestants. His Bible is the same (with a few extras). He has a sacramental foundation to his Christian life. He has bishops and priests. His babies are baptized. He has the Church as the cornerstone of biblical and doctrinal belief and interpretations. And so on.

Only when a Protestant convert to Orthodoxy can come to grips with the deep similarities he has with Rome can he effectively also come to grips with the deeper differences, differences which do not map out on his former dichotomies.

The Pope. Both Orthodoxy and Rome give primacy to the Bishop of Rome. The difference is of what the primacy consists. Orthodoxy teaches that the primacy is synodal, not jurisdictional.

Mary. Both Orthodoxy and Rome claim for Mary the role of the Mother of God, that Mary was assumed into heaven (there are some differences as to when that took place and whether or not she died prior to her assumption), and that she is the Queen of Heaven. The difference, however, relates to whether or not Mary is an exception to original or ancestral sin or not.

The Sacraments. Both Rome and Orthodoxy teach a sacramental soteriology. The difference, however, is in the view of grace which underlies the sacramental theology. For Orthodoxy, the Sacraments are a real participation in God and not a participation in a creature of God.

The Trinity. Both Rome and Orthodoxy teach the Trinity, of course, but the difference lies in the understanding of God’s Tri-Personality and his essence. The Orthodox teach the distinction between God’s essence and energies and do not accept the teaching of absolute or definitional divine simplicity.

Development of Doctrine. Both Rome and Orthodoxy accept the authority of the Church Councils and the Fathers, as well as the defined dogmas of the Church (though with some obvious differences). And both teach that the doctrine of the Church has developed over time. The difference is in the nature of that development. The Orthodox teach a development that preserves apophasis, the utlimate unknowability of God, whereas Rome teaches a development of understanding, that the Church has come to know these theological matters more deeply.

This is only a partial list, and with thumbnail descriptions at that. But it is meant to emphasize that evangelical Protestants who convert to Orthodoxy must not settle for the easy dichotomies between themselves and Rome that were once the mainstay of their intellectual parameters. The truth is more complex. And only when Protestants can be converted from such former dichotomies can they come to a truer understanding and appreciation of their new Faith and the Church.

9 thoughts on “Differences

  1. Dear Benedict Seraphim: I’ve just today found your website and messages. Living near Cody, Wyoming, 120 miles from the nearest Orthodox church, I cannot tell you how happy I am to find your writings. Since there are apparently no Orthodox people near me, to find your thoughts right here in my room is indeed a blessing.

    I have read Fr. Seraphim Rose’s account of his coming to Orthodoxy; I have been an Anglican and a Roman Catholic; I am a lapsed Antiochian recently stirred to renewed interest in Orthodoxy with revitalized enthusiasm.

    I urge you to continue writing and adding to this site. There is a lot for me to read and I eagerly look forward to it. Thank you very much for your efforts.

    Pray for me, a sinner.

    Edward James

  2. Benedict, glory to Jesus Christ!

    I only wanted to add to the praises here. As Sophocles wrote, this post was very well written and thought out, and your knowledge of our faith is wonderful.

    Devotedly reading, your sinful brother,

    Blake

  3. Benedict, good post indeed. My own path to Orthodoxy was by way of the Restoration Movement slant on Protestantism. Admittedly I carried a lot of anti-Catholic baggage back then. I never had any inclination to investigate Catholicism, although frankly, it would have been much easier. You are correct–now Orthodox, I find I have much more in common with the RCC than my former Protestant co-religionists, I have a growing appreciation for Catholicism, as well as a deeper relationship with my many RCC cousins. That said, I recognize that substantive differences remain (though as you wisely note, the dichotomies are completely different than before) and for whatever reason, I doubt I would have ever approached becoming Roman Catholic.

  4. I look forward to reading your installments on Roman Catholicism. I was born Catholic but later become an evangelical Protestant. I have recently rejected this and became a Catechumen in the Orthodox Church.

    Still, I feel I have not explored the differences in Orthodoxy and Catholicism enough to make a final decision. These posts come at a great time for me.

    Pray for me, a sinner.

  5. There are three ways to deal with “differences”. The first is to act like lawyers, with each side defending the interests of a particular side. The second is a false ecumenism which would gloss over such differences. The third is the way of depth … to dig deeper to locate the common root.

    Now, Rome and the East has the same root. The Fathers of the Orthodox churches are the fathers of the Roman church. I note that there are a few converts to Orthodoxy on the Internet and they are quite fond of overemphasizing the filioque, as though it would explain everything. The truth is different as their are many subtleties and the history is more intricate than the lawyerly approach assumes. Primarily, the filioque does not mean the same thing to the West as it does to the East. Also, the West can remove it, as recent Popes have done, without really changing anything of significance. Keep in mind that the Eastern churches in union with Rome do not recite the filioque.

    A couple of other leads for you: the progress from catharsis to photios to theosis is akin to the Western idea of the three ways: purgation, illumination, union.

    As for the thornier issue of purgatory, the Orthodox have the notion of the toll houses. The Orthodox make a distinction between Hades and Hell, after all, where were the OT prophets? Rome answers limbo.

    Vladimir Soloviev is a better guide to explore the differences.

  6. Soloviev’s guidance is, shall we say, rather controversial, so one must read him discerningly. That said, one of my own patron saints, Fr Seraphim Rose, found his “Tale of the Antichrist” to be particularly illuminating, though he always regarded Soloviev with some caution.

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