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St. Nicholas
Russian Orthodox Church
Dallas, Texas
Phone: 972 529-2754
Priest Seraphim Holland
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Finding Common Ground between Orthodox and Protestants:

Partial Resolution of Protestant Difficulties with Orthodox Theology

This FAQ deals with four common Protestant objections to Orthodoxy: the nature of faith, the value of icons, the function of Church feasts, and the nature of canon law.

Classical Protestantism and Orthodoxy on Faith

Question: What is the relationship between faith and works?

While there are strong theoretical differences between the Orthodox and Classical Protestants on faith, existentially, the gap is less severe. (I will sometime abbreviate Classical Protestants as Protestants in this piece-there are many non-classical Protestants whose ideas I will not consider. Those who think you can have Christ as Savior, but not as Lord display an anti-nomian spirit so extreme that it is hard to consider them Christians in even the most nominal sense of the word. The Moslem and the Orthodox Jew with their reverance for God's law seem closer to the spirit of Christianity than do such ``Christians.'')

Both Orthodox and Protestants concur theoretically that without God's act in the Incarnation, man could not leave his unnatural, sinful state and come to God. He requires grace. Having concurred on this, they disagree on the function of works. Part of the problem is that the Orthodox are far more reticient than the Protestants to speak of salvation as a single event. Rather, our salvation and our sanctification are seen as part of a continuous process, so that to be technically correct one cannot talk about having been saved without also talking about being in the process of being saved, and hoping finally at the Last Judgement that one will finally and decisively be saved. It is clear to both Protestants and Orthodox that good works are essential in the process of sanctification. Existentially, Protestants acknowledge that true faith must of necessity produce good works. If ones faith does not produce works, they would warn the person to consider that they may not have a true faith. What they object to is saying that these good works save us.

It is dangerous to be too precise in these matters. We do know that Christ says that if we love Him we will obey Him. We must love Him to enter His Kingdom. We cannot love Him without faith. We cannot be saved without His saving Passion and Resurrection. We know that without works faith is dead. On all these, Protestants and Orthodox agree.

The Protestants two camps on election start with the same premise of ``Sola Fide'' (by faith alone). However, in practice, they both, by very different routes make this statement far less extreme than it seems at first glance to the Orthodox. Those Protestants who believe in the possibility of losing ones salvation (as do the Orthodox), acknowledge that repeated, unrepented sin will cause you to lose your salvation, because those who so indulge will eventually end up with a conscience so hardened that faith will die. Thus, works are necessary to salvation in that position. (We will come to the special case of death bed conversions later.) Those who believe that one cannot lose one's salvation use a different expedient. It is clear that many people who initially live in a very godly manner eventually turn their back on God. Those who believe in eternal security usually deal with such cases by saying that those in such circumstances never had true faith. However, existentially, such a person is indistinguishable during his/her pious stage from someone who will in fact persevere to the end. One cannot know whether one is merely deluding oneself or one has true faith. Only perseverance to the end, which involves good works done out of gratitude for God, demonstrates the genuineness of the faith in that position. However, this too is not so far from saying that works are necessary to salvation at least existentially.

Also, the Orthodox concur that faith is the greatest of works (although this work too is a gift of God--we only offer back to God that which He first gives to us). Thus, the person who is converted on his death bed or on a cross, though he/she has no material works, does in fact have the work of faith. This is not so far, in concept if not in terminology, from the position held on this subject by either school of Protestantism.

I derive no great theories about what goes on in God's eternal counsels. Certainly, our widow's mites of work add nothing to God's infinite supply of Goodness. Still, He honors them. We, on earth, see the necessity of works for ourselves to appropriate the free gift of God of salvation. To go beyond that into speculations about the exact function of grace and works seems to lead us back to this conclusion in the end.

Postscript: There is a paradox here as in much of the Christian faith. God does everything, but still we must do something, we must cooperate. Two quotes that are particularly good in dispelling the idea that Orthodox believe in works righteousness follow:

Walk courageously and bravely, eagerly and faithfully, clothed with the weaons of light, faith, hope, humility, and love. By fixing your eyes on Jesus, the Author and perfector of the faith [Heb. 12:2], you will defeat the three great enemies: the world, the ruler of the world, and the flesh, and all visible and invisible enemies. And when you win, do not say "We won," because this expression is prideful. Say: "Not us, but our faith in God." We are useless servants; Christ the true and perfect God and man won, and we did not do anything. And if we did something, it is not we who did it either, but rather the grace of God.

Father Philotheos Zervakos, Paternal Counsels, Vol. 1, St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite Publication Society, Aliquippa, PA. Trans. Fr. Nicholas Palis. p. 41.

The second is a beautiful prayer:
My most merciful and all-merciful God and Lord Jesus Christ, Who of Thy great love didst come down and take flesh to save all: Again, O Savior, save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee. For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be a grace, but rather an obligation, not a grace or a gift. Yea, my Christ who art abundant in generosity and ineffable in mercy, Thou hast said: He that believeth in me shall live and shall never see death. If, then, faith in Thee saveth the desperate, lo, I believe; save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Let my faith be reckoned in place of works, and seek not deeds which would justify me. But may my faith alone suffice instead of any deeds; may it answer for me, may it justify me, may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory. Let not Satan seize me and boast that he hath torn me from Thy hand and fold, O Word. But whether I will _it_ or not,, save me, O Christ my Savior. Go before me quickly, quickly, for I am perishing! Thou art my God from my mother's womb. Grant that I may love Thee, O Lord, as formerly I loved sin itself, and that I may work for Thee earnestly and without laziness, as I once worked for deceitful Satan...

From the Canon to Jesus in Old Orthodox Prayer Book, Priest Pimen Simon, Priest Theodore Jurewicz and Hieromonk German Ciuba, trans. and ed., pp. 150-151.

The Value of Icons in the Christian Life
Question: How do icons benefit your walk with God? Index

I could go on about the theology of the Incarnation and how Christ's appearance in the flesh sanctifies all matter. I could talk about how certain strands in Judaism of the New Testament era used icons, and how the Christian use can be considered a carry-over of the Jewish heritage of the Church, much like the use of the Psalms in public worship and the hours of prayers (Acts 3: 1) which are continued to this day in the Orthodox Church and in Roman Catholic monastaries and are being reintroduced into Protestantism at Taize, France. I could talk about the importance of obedience to the Church. However, I'm afraid these points would not much impress you, so I will use a different approach.

Icons remind us of the ``great cloud of witnesses'' that surround us. Seeing the icons reminds us of heroic Christian lives and urges us on to emulate them. For instance, I have icons of two great missionary saints Ss. Innocent of Alaska and Nicholas of Japan. These men gave their all to the Gospel, suffering many deprivations, although in different ways. There missionary techniques are studied to this day even by Protestant missiologists. Seeing their icon should (and sometimes does) remind me of the importance of mission work and of giving ones all to the Kingdom. I have an icon of the Apostle Silas, the travelling companion of St. Paul. He is the patron saint of the Orthodox Prison and Street Ministry, and is wearing chains in the icon. His icon reminds me to pray for the imprisoned. I have an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, given me at the convent I visited in San Francisco. It reminds me of the convent. It also reminds me of the saying of St. Seraphim, ``Acquire the Holy Spirit, and thousands around you will acquire salvation.'' I could expand examples endlessly. In short, icons do the same things that Church Feasts (e.g. Christmas, Easter, Epiphany which celebrates Christ's baptism) do-they remind us of important parts of salvation history, a history that continues to this day. They remind us that others have done marvelous things for God and encourage us to do them-knowing from the examples that we can if we will strive with God's help to do so, but only if we are willing to give up not less than everything.

Moreover, they serve the function of family pictures. Just as I have pictures of my family in my home and my parents have pictures of our forebears, so icons are pictures of our spiritual forebears. We keep them because we love and respect and owe a great debt to those who helped lead us to the faith, if only very indirectly through converting someone who converted someone else ... who converted (or helped strengthen in the faith or increase the conviction of) someone who has benefited us spiritually. We are all a family, both in heaven and on earth. Family members love to have pictures of other family members because they love the other family members. The knowledge of my debt makes me very interested in St. Boniface, a missionary to Frisia, where my mother comes from. He was martyred there. Thus, I have been buying books about him. My parents found some material for me about him in Dokkum (where he was martyred) when they visited the Netherlands. I owe him a great debt, because he was a pivotal figure in the conversion of my ancestors. While I have not yet acquired an icon of him (I am looking), I have found some nice lithographs in books I have acquired. I would like to acquire an icon, but haven't found one yet. I may commission one, just like someone would commision a portrait of a distinguished ancestor-for he is my spiritual forebear.

However, icons are not merely symbols of our love. They do not merely remind us of the ``great cloud of witnesses,'' but they help us to experience it. The great cloud of witnesses is there whether or not we are conscious of the fact. Its prescence benefits us whether we realize it or not, for the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant are one Church, and the prayers in heaven benefit us. However, our consciousness of the ``great cloud of witnesses'' helps us in other ways. It gives us courage, for there are those around us who love us and want what is best for us. It discourages vice, for a remembrance that we are surrounded by those who love us makes us wish to avoid doing that which will disappoint them. Experiencing the saints prescence reminds us of God's prescence-something we should always keep in mind, but frequently forget.

Objection raised: Isn't there some danger that the use of icons may be abused? Index

I do not dispute that some people abuse icons, that some people move beyond venerating the person-who-strove-to-please-God behind the icon to worshiping the person. I do not know anyone who does, but I will not dispute that such people may exist. However, the abuse of icons is no argument against their proper use. Even God's law can be abused by sin:

For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Romans 7: 5--12
If even God's law, His gift to us can be abused, then anything good can and will be abused. Food is a wonderful example of this truth. With food, there are too excesses one can fall into: gluttony and anorexia (with bulimia, being a combination of the two). Neither are Christian, or even merely humanly-wise responses to food. The proper use of food is with moderation. For almost all good things, there are twin dangers---of excess in the direction of too much or too little. (Pure prayer being one of the only things you cannot have too much of. That is not to say that people do not sometime use less-than-pure prayer as an excuse to avoid their real responsibilities. This realization is a pre-Christian thought---men can realize this truth apart from direct revelation---it is part of God's revelation to man written in the structure of the cosmos.

Protestantism realizes this on many issues, for instance on food. However, in its reactions to certain abuses of excess in medieval Roman Catholicism, it forgets this crucial truth in other areas---particularly in the area of the saints. Because some deluded people turn the saints into idols is not an excuse to ignore them, to deny that they can be of great benefit to us. Protestantism, in this area, forgets that the error of refusing a good offered by God is also harmful. Spiritual anorexia is not better than spiritual gluttony. In fact, it can encourage it. It is not uncommon for the anorexic to occasionally go into bulemic mode. In the same way, when people reject some good thing too long, they may gravitate to its opposite. When people deny themselves God's gifts, they may become attracted to Satan's counterfits. It is a spiritual starvation resulting from denial of important parts of the Christian life (including the example of the saints and the centrality of the sacraments) that leads people to the New Age with its fake holy men and its fake sacraments. Some people can survive a whole life on very little bread and water, but most will not be able to withstand this---and fall to devouring a poisoned banquet if it is put in front of them.

The Value of Feasts in the Christian Life

Question: How do the feasts of the Church benefit your walk with God? Index

Some people take exception to all the feasts and fasts of the Orthodox Church. However, they are very important. They help to sanctify time---to cause us to realize that today is the day of salvation.

This is most clear in the Feast of Easter (traditionally called Pascha or Passover in the Orthodox Church) and the preceding period of fasting in Lent. Really, the last several days celebrating Christ's death and Resurrection are inseparable. Without the Resurrection, the cross and the grave would be meaningless; without the cross and the grave, no Resurrection could have occurred. Together, Christ ``trampl[ed] down death with death and upon those in the tomb bestow[ed] life'' to quote the troparion (a special kind of hymn) of the feast. We must constantly be reminded that Christ died for us and rose for us, and so we celebrate this every year to help keep it in remembrance---for we so easily let the most important things slip to the back of our minds.

However, Lent reminds us of why we need Christ's death and Resurrection. We are reminded that we have all ``sinned and fall[en] short of the glory of God'' (Romans 3: 23) and so become slaves to sin and death. Actually, every Orthodox worship service reminds us of this, which is why the words ``Lord have mercy'' are the most common prayer in the Orthodox Church and litanies (lists of petitions/requests) punctuated with ``Lord have mercy'' appear several times in every service. However, Lent reminds us in an intensified form of our sinfulness and our need to repent and seek God's mercy which He is glad to bestow for it is not His wish that any perish, but rather He wants all of us to come to repentance (II Peter 3: 9). Thus, Lent through Easter remind us of the central message of the Gospel: that we are sinners in need of grace and that Christ died and rose again to free us from the power of sin and death so that we can enter the Kingdom of God---and begin to participate in it even now, although in a less intense manner than after a believer's death. All the other feasts help illumine the central feast of Christ's Resurrection.

The Feast of the Transfiguration prepared the disciples Ss. Peter, James, and John for the difficult days of Christ's Passion and entombment. ``Thou was transfigured on the mountain, and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory, O Christ our God, as far as they could bear it, that when they saw Thee crucified, they might know that Thy suffering was voluntary, and might proclaim unto the world that Thou art truly the Brightness of the Father'' (Kontakion of the Feast). This reminds us that Christ is God, as the Father testified from heaven at that time. His glory was veiled in His humanity, but it was only hidden, not diminished. The Transfiguration showed it forth. If Christ were not God, then His death would have been a defeat. Since He is God, His death destroyed death and allowed those who believe in Him to escape death. Since He is God, His death could only be voluntary. Thus, the Feast of the Transfiguration illumines the central Feast of the Resurrection.

Similarly, the Feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ) reminds us not only of Christ's two natures (human and divine), but also teaches us that God is Trinity. ``When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bare witness unto Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed His word as sure and steadfast. O Christ our God who hast appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee'' (Troparion of the Feast). Thus, the Feast reminds us that Christ is both God and man, and so by His death, He could (and did) destroy the power of death over those who believe. It also reveals to us what the God who loves us and saves us is like---He is Trinity. Thus, this feast too illuminates the central feast of the Resurrection.

Smaller feasts for saints remind us that while we remain sinners in need of God's mercy until death, still we can see God's grace in amazing ways in the lives of others---totally transforming their lives into lives of joy and peace and victory over death (which is especially evident in the martyrs who triumphed through death). Their lives encourage us to strive for what they achieved---``the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,'' (Phillipians 3: 14) for we see that others have obtained it. Knowing that we are ``surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,'' (Hebrews 12: 1) who having obtained heaven, root for us as we strive to reach heaven, we are encouraged. We know it is possible to attain, and that others love us and wish us to attain it.

Thus, all the feasts point us toward the central message of the Gospel---that though we are sinners, God loves us and wants us to attain to life eternal. His Son came to teach us by His life and death; and by His death, He made us able to escape death. If we accept His gracious gift and use it wisely, we will reach life eternal. Truly, this is a great comfort.

The Nature of the Canons

Question: Isn't the Orthodox Church a legalistic organization? Index

Many misunderstand the Orthodox Church, thinking it to be a legalistic organization. This is not so. We realize that we are saved by Grace, by Christ's death, Resurrection, and Ascension, not by obedience to the law.

It is true that we are given guidance how to live out the Christian life to the full, based on the experience of those who have gone before. However, his guidance is much more like a medical handbook than a law code. There are general prescriptions described in the handbook, but each prescription is tailored by a physician of souls, a pastor of the Christian flock. He must often tailor the prescription extensively based on the individual circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses of the person who is to take the spiritual medicine - just as a medical doctor must (i.e., don't give penicillin to someone allergic to it even if it would normally be indicated by the condition).

These prescriptions are not penance or law, but medicine for the soul that the Church dispenses for our salvation. We must decide whether we will take this medicine just as we must decide whether we will take the medicine a medical doctor gives us. In both cases, we neglect the medicine at our own peril - we may make ourselves very sick indeed.

These prescriptions include much guidance that is tailored individually to help us not only get better but to get stronger. Just as a person who wishes to get stronger will often use a weight trainer as well as books, so we use expert guidance of a pastor as well as the Bible. Just as the person who wants to get stronger can do this on his own, so too we can decide to do things on our own or with just the guidance of the Bible. However, in both cases, harm is much more likely to occur. The Bible gives excellent guidance, but it will not catch the weight that you are about to drop on your chest while doing bench presses. We need someone to "spot" for us, a pastor. Even the Bible tells us that we need this help.

If we follow Christ and obey Him---if we say we know Him, but disobey, we are liars (I John 2: 4)---then He will graciously give us the Kingdom. Some argue that this is ``works righteousness,'' but they are wrong. In fact, this is the Gospel. We cannot earn our salvation, but we can lose it. It is as if we were given a large inheritance. Clearly, we did not earn it. However, we can lose it easily and quickly in a wild lifestyle. If we are to keep our inheritance, we must work to preserve it. Similarly, if we are to be saved, we must preserve the grace God freely offers us. If we fritter the grace away, whether quickly through grievous sins or slowly through indifference, it is our fault. If we refuse it (as tragically, most people do), then we have chose spiritual poverty and death. The analogy is imperfect. If we waste an earthly inheritance, we will probably not receive a second. If, however, we repent, we are given a new chance, a new inheritance. However, to truly repent is very hard, and we cannot presume that we will have the strength to do it. And we must not tempt God (as Christ said to the devil in Matthew 4:7), for if our hearts are hard, He may not give us the grace to repent again.

Copyright (c) 1996-1998 Daniel Lieuwen. Permission is given for the non-commercial reproduction of this material in any format with the proviso that only full paragraphs may be included in other documents without the express permission of the copyright holder, that the author be credited, and that this copyright notice be included. Other use, requires special permission to protect the integrity of the thought unit.

Reader Daniel Lieuwen

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St Nicholas Orthodox Church, Dallas Home Page Icon of St Nicholas Go to the top of the page

St Nicholas
Russian Orthodox Church
Dallas, Texas
Phone: 972 529-2754
Pastor: Priest Seraphim Holland

Web Editor:
Fr. Seraphim Holland
Snail Mail:
2102 Summit, McKinney TX 75071, USA