Monday, April 6, 2015

My Journey, Part 15: Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends

This is part 15 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

This post will be more defensive—a response to some other common arguments against Orthodoxy I hear, some of which I previously believed, or just things that people find confusing and off-putting.


Some Protestants may be uncomfortable at the degree to which Orthodoxy honors and focuses on Christian saints, commemorating them yearly, displaying and venerating images of them (as I discussed last time), even going so far as to pray to them. Is this not idolatry, or at least a distraction from worshipping God? Why pray to mere men and women who don't have power to do anything for us, rather than to God? And how can you designate specific people as saints when the New Testament repeatedly seems to equate the terms "saint" and "Christian"? This is a common feature of Paul's epistolary greetings when he writes to the saints at such-and-such church, or to those called to be saints (cf. Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1. Phil 1:1, Col 1:2) and elsewhere (Acts 9:13, Rom 8:27, 2 Cor 13:13, Eph 5:3, Heb 13:24, Jude 1:3).

First, as to terminology: The Greek word for "saint", of course, simply means "holy person"; it is the noun form of the adjective hagios, meaning "holy". And in a very real and basic sense, it is true that all Christians are called to be saints (that is, called to be holy), and indeed that they have already been made into saints/holy, or "sanctified" (same root again; 1 Cor 1:2, 1 Cor 6:11, Heb 10:10,14, 1 Pet 1:2). The Orthodox Church does not deny for a moment the holiness of those who are united with Christ, or the importance of actively growing in this holiness; it is precisely through the Church that people partake in God's holiness.

But it also uses the word hagios, "holy person", "saint", in another way, one which quickly grew directly out of its teaching on the first meaning. In this second usage, it refers to (in my own words) an individual who has heavily partaken of God's holiness or attained to an especially high degree of communion with him in this life. We are all meant to be saints, but the Orthodox Church publicly recognizes those who, through their life and teaching, have become living examples of what it means to be made holy and partake of the grace of God. Of course the saints who are publicly honored in the Orthodox Church are not an exhaustive list; their full number is known only to God. Of course in heaven we will all be holy and blessed beyond imagining, but those recognized as saints serve as living glimpses of heaven on earth. One of my Orthodox catechisms relates these two senses of the word "saint":
Every Christian is called to perfection and is capable of revealing the image of God hidden in him. But only a few become so transfigured through the Holy Spirit during their earthly life that they can be recognized as saints by other Christians and are canonized as such by the Church. This should not draw our attention away from the fact that every baptized Christian is called to be a saint. In the New Testament the saints were not a spiritual elite but the whole body of Christians. That never meant that all Christians were regarded as having reached a sinless perfection. In that sense there are no saints in the New Testament, for even the best Christians are far from perfect. The only saints the New Testament knows are forgiven sinners who are always ready to place their utter dependence on God's mercy and grace. (Coniaris, Introducing the Orthodox Church, 94)
The catechism also gives a list of other illustrative definitions of a saint, of which I have reproduced some:
  • A saint is one who makes God's goodness attractive.
  • Saints are forgiven sinners living out their lives in the forgiveness God has given them.
  • Saints are people who make it easier for others to believe in God.
  • St. Symeon the New Theologian says that the reason vigil lights are placed before the icons of the saints is to show that without the Light, Who is Christ, the saints are nothing. It is only as the light of Christ shines on them that they become alive and resplendent.
  • A saint is one who sees himself in the sins of others.
  • A saint is one who has been made actually what baptism declares him to be, one set apart for God.
Reading through Dostoevsky's classic novel The Brothers Karamazov, I saw these descriptions reflected in the character of Elder Zossima, who was based off a real Orthodox saint. Zossima's selflessness, kindness, patience, and wisdom are one of the most memorable parts of the book, and the fact that such people can and do exist in real life is strong evidence for the truth of Christianity. His holiness quite literally sets him apart from all the other characters (even his spiritual son, Alexei) and demonstrates the qualities that the Orthodox Church in its saints. I don't think anyone but an authentic Christian could even have written such a character.

Protestants arguably commemorate significant people of faith without the "saint" terminology; depending on your denomination, you may respect Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and/or Wesley (to name a few) as much as the Orthodox do their saints, though not in the same way and probably more for the soundness of their theology than for their lives of breathtaking holiness. Hebrews 11 has the same idea in its commemoration of examples of faith from the Old Testament. The saints are part of this same "cloud of witnesses" (12:1), exhorting and encouraging us as we "run with perseverance the race" after them.

I believe that honoring the saints, embracing this second dimension of hagios, far from risking idolatry, is good and valuable to us. I think that in much Protestantism there is a tendency to overly focus on the settled, already-done aspect of our salvation over running the continuing race marked out for us (correlated with the centrality of forensic status to salvation). This leads to a kind of spiritual flatness (better described by Fr. Stephen Freeman), seeing everyone as equally sinful and equally holy solely because of their status in Christ, which marginalizes our continuing contribution to our salvation as described by the athletic imagery of sanctification in Hebrews 12, 1 Corinthians 9, and 2 Timothy 4 (which, I assure you, is still quite common in Orthodox spirituality). The Orthodox way of venerating saints, while not denying the universal holiness of the Church as Christ's body or the universal calling of all believers to be saints, also celebrates and remembers those whom God has made into special examples for the divine transformation he will work in all of us.

Far from idolatry, this honor is another way of worshipping the true God by celebrating what the Holy Spirit has done in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. (Which, by the way, we should certainly also be doing in our own friends and contemporaries as well) Again, applying the Incarnation as always, we see that there is nothing intrinsically dirty or wrong with created humanity. As Fr. Freeman points out in another article, God seems strangely interested in letting others share in the work of salvation, regardless of his own sufficiency to save us. He does not defile himself by accomplishing his will through human flesh;  rather, his taking on flesh is the crux of salvation history, to be remembered for all ages. And likewise, those who by the Spirit become channels of God's grace are not to be treated as distractions to true worship, but celebrated as objects of his love and living examples of his holiness (cf. 1 Cor 4:16, 11:1, 1 Th 1:6, 2:14, Heb 6:12).

But what about praying to the saints? This is something I seriously questioned about Orthodoxy (and more so about Catholicism) for most of my life. Why pray to anyone but God himself? Who else is able to save you? Is this not clear evidence of idolatry? To which I would now reply: no, it is simply a reflection of the communal nature of Christianity, the Church, and salvation. Orthodox theology views prayer not merely as asking for things with faith, but as the practice of "active communion with God", which is our salvation. But precisely because salvation is deification, union with God, no one is saved alone. As we grow in communion with God, we cannot but grow in communion with one another as well. In more Protestant terms, salvation has both horizontal and vertical dimensions, and both are essential. As I said last time in the context of worship, the term "the communion of the saints" refers to the spiritual unity of the Church as the one body of Christ; this unity spans both space and time, including believers who have finished the race as well as the angels. St. Symeon describes the unity of the saints in God as a "golden chain":
The Holy Trinity, pervading everyone from first to last, from head to foot, binds them all together. ... The saints in each generation, joined to those who have gone before, and filled like them with light, become a golden chain, in which each saint is a separate link, united to the next by faith, works, and love. So in the One God they form a single chain which cannot quickly be broken. (Centuries, 111.2-4)
If we commune with God through prayer, we also inescapably commune with the rest of the saints. So why not recognize this? Orthodox Christians invoke the saints in their prayers to God not because they think the saints have some divine power of their own for us to draw on, or because God is quicker to listen to them than to us, but because the faith, the Church, and the salvation in which we are partakers by grace are communal to the core. So we remember the saints in our prayers and ask them to pray to God for us (this is no more questionable than asking a friend to pray for you at Bible study or asking for prayer from your church—and of course praying with and for our Christian brothers and sisters on earth with us is important too). Prayer is not a magic formula you use to get things, but the expression of our living union with God and each other. (I am probably the worst person to try to explain prayer in any detail; you should read the previous article) So, though it is just my opinion, I think it is more accurate (or at least less misleading to Protestants) to say that Orthodox pray with the saints rather than to the saints.

One last order of business: why do Orthodox keep relics (bodily remains) of the saints and venerate them? Don't they know that they have gone to be with God? This is a subject I am still pretty ignorant about. It is also a relatively minor part of Orthodox spirituality; I have not seen a relic at my church nor heard them discussed. But apparently the second Council of Nicea (the same one that legitimated the veneration of icons) also declared that each church should have a relic in its altar, so apparently we have at least one. The veneration of relics reflects the Orthodox belief of salvation, that God redeems us as whole people, as both souls and bodies. So we make no sharp distinction between the two in our veneration; as the soul becomes deified as it draws closer to its maker, so does the body. Fr. Kallistos Ware explains this better:
Belief in the deification of the body and in its eventual resurrection helps to explain the Orthodox veneration of relics. Since the body is redeemed and sanctified along with the soul, and since the body will rise again, it is only fitting that Christians should show respect for the bodily remains of the saints. Reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body. (Ware, The Transfiguration of the Body)
This is still a little strange to me, but there is also precedent for it in an obscure corner of the Bible, in 2 Kings 13:20-21:
So Eli'sha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Eli'sha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Eli'sha, he revived, and stood on his feet. (RSV)
So it appears that even after his death, the remains of the prophet Elisha were infused with supernatural power and performed miracles seemingly independently of his soul. St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains, "Though the soul is not present, a power resides in the bodies of the saints because of the righteous soul which has for so many years dwelt in it, or used it as its minister." (Catechetical Lectures XVIII.16) In Orthodox theology, the body is more than simply a container for the soul. It is not the case that you are a soul and you have a body; you are a body and a soul, or simply an ensouled body. Both are part of full humanity as created and redeemed by God. The Orthodox perspective on relics is based on this.

One last point of information: there is no formal, four-step process of "canonization" in the Orthodox Church as in the Catholic Church. Rather, since the deification of the saints is considered a work of God, saints are recognized as such in the same way as theological truths of God, simply by the consensus of the Church. Often evidence for sainthood will develop based on miracles manifested through relics, which leads to a formal proclamation of sainthood. Once this is accepted in the other churches (much the same way as a local council), the person has not been made into a saint, but only recognized by the earthly church as such.


Because of the special attention shown to Mary in Orthodox and Catholic liturgy (she is prominent in the iconography of my church, which is also named after her), veneration of her is an especially common target for charges of idolatry from Protestants. Yet I suspect that more than anything else, these accusations are driven by ignorance and an automatic suspicion of anything "too Catholic". Orthodox venerate (but do not worship) Mary as the highest and most glorified of God's creatures, not due to any specialness "of her own" as with God, but because of her central role in the glorious and salvific mystery of the Incarnation, as the gateway through whom God became man. My catechism says, "the Mother is venerated because of the Son and never apart from Him." The attention shown to Mary, far from a distraction from worship of the true God, is another way in which we honor and commemorate his work of salvation through Christ. "When people refuse to honor Mary, only too often it is because they do not really believe in the Incarnation." (Ware 258)

Mary is known by three main titles in the Orthodox Church: Theotokos (God-bearer, mother of God), panagia (all-holy), and aeiparthenos (ever-virgin). The first of these, Theotokos, is practically an alternate name for Mary. It not only expresses the central truth that Mary is the mother of God (the reason for Orthodox devotion to her); it is also a reminder of the victory of the Orthodox dogma of the Incarnation. The heretic Nestorius, because of his inadequate Christology which drew too strong a division between the human and divine natures of Christ, taught that Mary could be called "Christ-bearer", but not "God-bearer". Thus the title Theotokos, besides describing Mary herself, also serves as a continual reminder of the mysterious union of humanity and divinity that took place in her womb. "Anyone who thinks out the implications of that great phrase, The Word was made flesh, cannot but feel a profound awe for her who was chosen as the instrument of so surpassing a mystery." (Ware 258) Since the veneration of Mary springs from Orthodox Christology, it is understandable that it is present only in seed form in the New Testament but grew later as the Church further meditated on the Incarnation.

Mary is also called panagia, all-holy, because she is the supreme example of synergistic cooperation between God and humanity. God could presumably have impregnated Mary with his Son without her consent, or without even telling her, or even have simply had the incarnate Jesus appear without a human mother. Yet he staked everything on Mary's willing consent: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Luk 1:38) Thus Mary is considered the supreme example of man's intended submission to and cooperation with the will of God for salvation.

The last title of Mary, aeiparthenos, ever-virgin, gave me a lot of trouble. This teaching of the Church seems blatantly unscriptural. After all, numerous mentions of Jesus' brothers are made throughout the New Testament (Mat 12:46-50, Mar 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21, John 2:12, Acts 1:14, 1 Cor 9:5), with no qualifications that they were really step-brothers or anything like that. Matthew writes that Mary did not "know" Joseph "until she had borne a son" (1:25), and Luke describes Jesus as Mary's "first-born son" (2:7). Not to mention that remaining celibate was even more unusual in Jewish culture than it is today, especially for a married woman—wouldn't at least one of the apostles have mentioned something so bizarre?

So this teaching of Orthodoxy was one of the main ones that kept me from wanting to be Orthodox last year. Unfortunately, it's not just something I could have private doubts about; it is a dogma of the Church, established by the fifth ecumenical council:
If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, the one from all eternity of the Father, without time and without body; and the other in these last days, coming down from heaven and being made flesh of the holy and glorious Mary, Mother of God [Theotokos] and always a virgin [aeiparthenos], and born of her: let him be anathema. (Canon II)
So why do Orthodox (and Catholics) believe that Mary remained a virgin her whole life? Here is where I think a lot of Orthodox apologists get it wrong, and why I remained unconvinced of this dogma for a while: they focus on undermining the arguments Protestants field against her ever-virginity, or by showing how their scriptural support can be interpreted differently, but without explaining why it should be, why interpreting it as supporting the ever-virginity of Mary is really the sounder, more intuitive way to go. I will attempt to rectify this procedural mistake by starting with the theological basis for the doctrine.

The basic theological impetus for the ever-virginity of Mary (besides the fact that it is presumably historically true and would have been passed down from the early days of the church) is the fact that Mary was profoundly sanctified by her role as the living sanctuary in which God dwelled (quite literally) for nine months and from whom he derived his human nature. That is, Mary was made holy, or set apart, by her crucial part in one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith. (This ties back in with the Orthodox belief in the redemption of the physical body) After all of this, for her to have children the "normal way" would be unthinkable, like repurposing the Jewish temple into a dining hall or the Ark of the Covenant into a box for transporting goods to market (it comes with convenient handles!). Having children is not bad in and of itself, but for Mary it would have been unimaginable in light of her set-apartness as the source of her Lord's humanity. This Greek Orthodox article clarifies that "it was the practice for devout Jews in the ancient world to refrain from sexual activity following any great manifestation of the Holy Spirit." Orthodox fathers have also interpreted Ezekiel 44:2 as typologically as referring to Mary: "And he said to me, "This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut."

Moving on to the scriptural rationale, which is based on John 19:26-27.
In this passage, often depicted in Orthodox iconography, Mary and the disciple John are standing near the cross, mourning their Lord. "When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home." The fact that Jesus entrusts the care of Mary to John before his death strongly indicates that a) Joseph was dead by this time, and b) Mary had no other children of her own, or they would have taken care of her instead of John. Since we know that James, the "Lord's brother" (Gal 1:19) survived long enough to become a bishop and preside over the council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15) and write an epistle, he can't have been the son of Mary: either he was a child of Joseph's from a previous marriage, or more likely a cousin or other indirect relation (the Greek word for "brother" is flexible enough to mean this). In short, this passage is very difficult to explain unless Mary had no children other than Jesus, which constitutes fairly strong biblical support for the ever-virginity of Mary. Even when I disbelieved it, I was still unsure because of John 19:26-27.

Another biblical evidence I didn't hear or consider until after I was convinced of the doctrine comes from the Annunciation in Luke 1. The archangel Gabriel appears to the virgin, promising that she will conceive and bear a son who will be called Son of the Highest and reign forever from the throne of David. (Luk 1:30-33) To which Mary responds by asking, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" (i.e. since I am a virgin) Mary's response is commonly used in sermons to show her simple faith in the promises of God in contrast to Zechariah's initial doubt, but there is another angle from which to think about it. Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time (1:27). So when the angel promises the virgin that she will bear a blessed Child, why does she not merely assume that this promise will be fulfilled after she is married to Joseph and "knows" him in the usual way? Gabriel does not tell Mary that she will conceive Christ immediately, or that she will do so as a virgin. Her responding question makes no sense if she is expecting any sort of "normal" marriage to Joseph. But it makes sense if she had taken a vow of virginity, as the tradition of the Church teaches, and Joseph was an older man betrothed to her in order to care and provide for her.

The biblical evidence against the ever-virginity of Mary is more ambiguous. As I mentioned, the Greek for for "brother", adelphos, can also mean "half-brother", "cousin", "relative", or just "kinsman". The Greek word for "until" in Matthew 1:25 can be used to describe a situation that continues after the event mentioned (Mat 5:18, 11:23, Rom 8:22, 1 Tim 4:13). Surely Jesus did not mean to tell his disciples that he would depart from them at the end of the age! (Mat 28:20) The word prototokos, first-born, in Luke 2:7 is similarly inconclusive; for example, its usage in Col 1:15 doesn't imply that there is a "second-born" over all creation! The term doesn't express order of birth so much as legal primacy as the rightful heir. None of these points are positive evidence for the doctrine, but they still show that the common counterargument doesn't have as much force as it appears to. There is also the fact that it has been the consistent and unbroken teaching of the Orthodox and Catholic churches for their entire history, and has only been seriously questioned in the wake of the Reformation drive to go "back to the Bible" (even the early Reformers continued to affirm it).

I should also mention the distinction between Orthodox and Catholic Mariology. The Orthodox Church does not take the veneration of Mary to the extent that the Catholic Church does, and is suspicious of western attempts to honor her in her own right, apart from her relation to the incarnate Jesus, or even to elevate her to the status of "co-mediatrix of salvation" with Christ or even (it sometimes seems) an honorary fourth member of the Trinity. The eastern churches consider these expressions of Marian piety to be excessive and doctrinally false. Later Catholic theological developments regarding Mary, like the Immaculate Conception, are considered to be innovations with no basis in the early church. In the Orthodox Church, Mary is commemorated and honored, as she predicted (Luk 1:48), but never worshipped.

This Syriac hymn exemplifies the role of Mary in the life of the Church, and how venerating her comes hand in hand with celebrating the Incarnation:
Blessed is she: she has received the Spirit who made her immaculate. She has become the temple in which dwells the Son of the heights of heaven...
Blessed is she: through her the race of Adam has been restored, and those who had deserted the Father's house have been brought back...
Blessed is she: within the bounds of her body was contained the Boundless One who fills the heavens, which cannot contain him.
Blessed is she: in giving our life to the common Ancestor, the Father of Adam, she renewed fallen creatures.
Blessed is she: she gave her womb to him who lets loose the waves of the sea.
Blessed is she: she has born the mighty giant who sustains the world, she has embraced him and covered him with kisses.
Blessed is she: she has raised up for the prisoners a deliverer who overcame their gaoler.
Blessed is she: her lips have touched him whose blazing made angels of fire recoil.
Blessed is she: she has fed with her milk him who gives life to the whole world.
Blessed is she: for to her Son all the saints owe their happiness.
Blessed be the Holy One of God who has sprung from thee.


Next, a few words about Orthodox theology of sacraments. (I am not the best person to explain the sacraments fully, so if you are curious, you should look elsewhere. I am mostly just trying to explain my rationale for changing my mind about them) The Greek word used here is mysterion, so they are equally called "mysteries". The main connotation this use of "mystery" carries is "something discerned through faith, and not merely by sight". As St. John Chrysostom preached:
And in another sense, too, a mystery is so called; because we do not behold the things which we see, but some things we see and others we believe. For such is the nature of our Mysteries. I, for instance, feel differently upon these subjects from an unbeliever. I hear, “Christ was crucified;” and forthwith I admire His loving-kindness unto men: the other hears, and esteems it weakness. I hear, “He became a servant;” and I wonder at his care for us: the other hears, and counts it dishonor. I hear, “He died;” and am astonished at His might, that being in death He was not holden, but even broke the bands of death: the other hears, and surmises it to be helplessness. He hearing of the resurrection, saith, the thing is a legend; I, aware of the facts which demonstrate it, fall down and worship the dispensation of God. He hearing of a laver, counts it merely as water: but I behold not simply the thing which is seen, but the purification of the soul which is by the Spirit. He considers only that my body hath been washed; but I have believed that the soul also hath become both pure and holy; and I count it the sepulchre, the resurrection, the sanctification, the righteousness, the redemption, the adoption, the inheritance, the kingdom of heaven, the plenary effusion (χορηγίαν) of the Spirit. For not by the sight do I judge of the things that appear, but by the eyes of the mind. I hear of the “Body of Christ:” in one sense I understand the expression, in another sense the unbeliever. (Homilies on 1 Corinthians VII.2)
Ware comments on this, "This double character, at once outward and inward, is the distinctive feature of a sacrament: the sacraments, like the Church, are both visible and invisible; in every sacrament there is the combination of an outward visible sign with an inward spiritual grace." (Ware 274) In this way, they are intentionally, distinctly incarnational: "The human person is to be seen in holistic terms, as an integral unity of soul and body, and so the sacramental worship in which we humans participate should involve to the full our bodies along with our minds." (274-275) Here the Orthodox idea of a symbol as an accompaniment to (rather than a substitute for) the reality symbolized is evident: a sacrament is a visible symbol or sign by which the life, grace, and love of God is communicated to us. My catechism gives some other useful descriptions of the sacraments:
If it is true that Christ has been invisible since the Ascension, it is also true that He has remained visible in the Church which is His body, through which He is made present to the world today. From the Church, Christ reaches out to us with the Sacraments to bring us His grace and love.
Every sacrament puts us in touch with Christ and applies to us the power of the Cross and the Resurrection.
It has been said that the blood and water on the Cross, flowing from the Body that was pierced by the lance, represent the Sacraments. These flow from Christ's love for us, which led Him to give His life in our behalf.
The Sacraments are the kiss of God where He pours out the riches of His love. They communicate to us the very life of God.
Every Sacrament is a theophany, the appearance of God to us for a specific purpose and need.
The Sacraments are the way to theosis (becoming like God) since they make us partakers of divine nature.
The Sacraments are the ways by which we come into intimate personal communion with Jesus today.
The Sacraments are like the hands of Jesus reaching out over the expanse of time to touch us with His love and power and to let us know that He is still with us.
Through the Sacraments we go to Christ to appropriate the fullness of life that is in Him.
A Sacrament is a divine rite instituted by Christ and/or the Apostles which through visible signs conveys to us the hidden grace of God. The Basic requirements are: divine institution, visible sign, and the hidden power of God. (Coniaris 123-124)
Obviously the Sacraments, like the rest of Orthodox belief and practice, have in view a gospel by which we are not saved completely and instantaneously, but in which the work of Christ is "once for all" and appropriated by us through the process of deification by which we grow closer to God; there is again little distinction between what Protestants call "justification" and "sanctification". Thus the sacraments are not simply memorials or reminders of the salvific life of Christ; they actually convey his life and grace through visible symbols, which is just what we need as body-and-soul creatures in constant need of grace.

A few more words on specific sacraments, which are another area of disagreement between Orthodox and Protestants:

Baptism was another area of major disagreement with Orthodox theology for me. After all, I've already written two posts explaining and defending the symbolic view of baptism, which I've been told have been useful as teaching aids. And even besides my own disagreement with it, the Orthodox practice of infant baptism seems profoundly at odds with other Orthodox teachings: how does a synergistic view of salvation fit with baptizing infants who are unable to actively have faith or take any role in their salvation? Monergist reformers like Luther and Calvin continued to practice infant baptism because they saw it as a perfect, visible example of how Christ saves us when we are totally helpless and unable to contribute anything to our salvation. So what is it doing in the Orthodox Church?

First of all, my old symbolic view of baptism (that it doesn't actually "do anything" to you, but merely symbolizes what has already been done in you by grace through faith alone) is rather dualistic, in contrast to the Orthodox incarnational approach to sacraments, in which the symbolic nature of a rite makes it more rather than less "real". By threefold immersion, the one baptized symbolically dies with Christ and rises to new life. (See Rom 6:4-5, Col 2:12) Again, the spiritual reality of baptism which Paul proclaims in these passages is not seen by Orthodox as undermining the sacramental nature of the visible act of baptism; rather, the visible symbol is how we partake in the grace of baptism. Weary of dualism in other areas of theology as I was, I began to find the Orthodox view convincing.

In response to what is called "baptismal regeneration", many Protestants question the implication that the physical act of baptism is necessary for salvation: what if a sufficient amount of water isn't available? What if someone is too sick to be immersed? Will God deny someone salvation simply because they didn't go through the physical rite of baptism? Of course Orthodox don't believe that the grace of God is subject to rules like this, or that we can somehow control it through the Sacraments; in special cases baptism can be done by pouring, though this is never to be preferred. But this line of questioning again seems to be after what is minimally necessary to "get saved", which is, again, not something that Orthodox concern themselves with. The question is, rather, about how to maximally appropriate the grace and life of God for the utmost salvation of our bodies and souls, not simply how to "get by". Again, even before I could fully accept the Orthodox view of baptism, I had to admit that this seems like a better question to be asking.

It turns out the monergistic reformers' logic is more correct than I thought: God's grace, love, and acceptance are not dependent on anything in us, and infant baptism correctly shows this; he loves us and desires us to be his from the moment of our birth. Conversely, "to say that a person must reach the age of reason and believe in Christ before he may be baptized is to make God's grace in some way dependent on man's intelligence. But God's grace is not dependent on any act of ours, intellectual or otherwise; it is a pure gift of His love." (Coniaris 129) Ironically, all that Great Awakening-inspired talk of "making a personal decision for Christ" introduces a false conditionality into what is still called "salvation by grace alone".

Where I think the distortion arises is the Protestant idea of salvation as virtually synonymous with justification, instantaneous and complete due to the merits of Christ, as I addressed in posts 13.3 and 13.4. If this is indeed the case, then of course baptism and anything else done apart from the "decision of faith" cannot be salvific, since only the decision is; they can only memorialize it. There is then a single, all-sufficient "moment of salvation", and nothing we do can add to it. I think I have already sufficiently explained the Orthodox alternative to this view, in which salvation is the process of deification by which we grow in holiness and become "partakers in the divine nature", a process which does not happen instantaneously and indeed is never complete in this life. Anything that is conducive or beneficial to our deeper participation in the life of God is considered "salvific"; again, in Orthodoxy, there is no impetus to find what is minimally necessary for salvation and elevate it above everything else, but to lay hold of salvation by every means God has given us.

The Protestant characterization of baptismal regeneration as claiming the baptism "saves" us or that it is "necessary" to be a Christian is thus misleading, and often with dualistic undertones. It is entirely conceivable to view baptism as conveying salvific grace on us which we "grow into" and live out over time, even if we are too young to understand what is happening at the time of baptism. In the Orthodox Church, infants are baptized and chrismated (anointed with oil and the Holy Spirit, the eastern parallel to Catholic "confirmation") on the same day, and afterward become full participants in the life of the Church. (The divine liturgy therefore tends to be peppered with the occasional screams of children and the cries of babies) Diadochus of Photike explains:
By the baptism of regeneration grace confers two benefits on us, one of which infinitely surpasses the other. It gives the first immediately, for in the water itself it renews us and causes the image of God to shine in us....As for the other, it awaits our collaboration to produce it: it is the likeness of God. (Gnostic Chapters 89)
With these obstacles cleared away, some positive Orthodox arguments for infant baptism include these: it is the fulfillment and new covenant successor to circumcision, the sign of the old covenant, which was mandated to be administered to infants (Gen 17:12); thus any argument against infant baptism also applies to infant circumcision, and falls flat. The New Testament repeatedly speaks of entire households being saved at once (Mat 10:12-14, Luk 19:9, Jhn 4:53, Act 10:2, 16:15,33, 1 Cor 1:16, 2 Tim 1:16, Hbr 11:7-9); though it makes no comment on whether infants were or were not among them, this seems to be the pattern of the early Church rather than the individual, decision-centered salvation assumed by adult baptism. As well, infant baptism reverses the Lord's teaching that "unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mat 18:3) Commenting on this, Fr. Josiah Trenham says, "It is not the children who must grow up and become like adults in order for them to be baptized and saved ... but, on the contrary, it is the adults who must be converted and become like children if they hope to be saved." (Rock and Sand, 118)

You shouldn't just take my word for it. The mystery of baptism has been the subject of extensive study and meditation by most (if not all) of the church fathers; there is no shortage of better material on the subject. I have only set out to explain roughly the reasoning by which I have become convinced of the Orthodox view of baptism.

In contrast, I had no trouble at all accepting the Orthodox view of the Eucharist (communion), though it wasn't one of the things that positively drew me to the Church. Like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church believes that the bread and wine of the Eucharist actually become the body and blood of Christ. Unlike the Catholic Church, it makes no attempt to further explain how this works, least of all with Aristotelian metaphysics. When Orthodox do describe their view with the term "transubstantiation", it is with none of the medieval philosophical connotations. As defined above, the sacrament is a mystery, and we are not able to fully explain or define the change that takes place in the elements. Suffice it to say that Orthodox take the Lord's words, "this is my body...this is my blood," and "I am the bread of life" not as "merely" symbolic or metaphorical parallels, or as absurd contradictions of the visible data, but as profound, incarnational mysteries central to the Christian faith.

Because my weariness with dualism, when I learned of the Orthodox view of the Eucharist the only other difficulty I had in accepting it was a literal-minded lack of imagination and faith to accept what I can't understand. Once you take into consideration that it is not making any sort of scientific or empirical claim, I consider the Orthodox doctrine to be somewhat of a strengthened version of what the Protestant belief of symbolism seeks to accomplish, minus its rationalistic unease about mystery. But again, I am not giving a complete theology of the Eucharist here, just explaining how I came to agree with the Orthodox view on it.

One other point to note: Orthodox do not believe that Christ's sacrifice is reenacted in the Eucharist every time it is served. (I'm not even sure Catholics really believe this) Though the sacrifice offered is that of Christ, it is not re-presented, but his once-for-all atonement is mysteriously made present with the communicants; this is essential to the doctrine of the communion of the saints. Nicolas Cabasilas says it this way:
First, the sacrifice is not a mere figure or symbol but a true sacrifice; secondly, it is not the bread that is sacrificed, but the very Body of Christ; thirdly, the Lamb of God was sacrificed once only, for all time. ... The sacrifice at the Eucharist consists, not in the real and bloody immolation of the Lamb, but in the transformation of the bread into the sacrificed Lamb. (Quoted on Ware 286)
I won't go into much detail on any of the other sacraments here. They have some differences from their Catholic analogues; as I mentioned, chrismation takes the place of confirmation and follows baptism for infants; the anointing of the sick is done for anyone who is ailing, not just the dying. But the Orthodox don't rigidly limit the number of the sacraments to seven, like the Catholic Church; "sacrament" has a broader, adjectival use that is applied to other rites like the burial of the dead, monastic rites, icons, prayer, charity, or the blessing of waters, crops, homes, cars, rifles, helicopters, MRI machines, spaceships, swimming pools, and horses (I think that is especially true of the Russian Orthodox). The number seven symbolizes perfection and was never insisted on until the reformers sought to reduce the number of sacraments to two; certainly it is not meant to limit them. There is also a hierarchy of sacraments, with the eucharist considered the most important. The late Fr. Thomas Hopko states: "Traditionally the Orthodox understand everything in the church to be sacramental. All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God." (Quoted on Coniaris 124) The Incarnation of Jesus Christ can be considered the ultimate and original sacrament that makes all the others possible; the universe itself is a sacrament; man, with his dual physical/spiritual nature, is a living sacrament. All of life becomes a sacrament as we learn to see the grace and love of God through everything and everyone around us.

So obviously, there is no rule in Orthodoxy that the sacraments have to have been instituted by Christ. (Where is this stated in Scripture?) The above definition of a sacrament does not involve us having to imitate Jesus in something he did in his earthly life (though all seven of the main sacraments are reflected in some form somewhere in his life). Again, because his teachings and authority have been passed down to his body, the Church, there is no inherent problem with the apostles or their successors instituting sacraments. In light of the maximalism of Orthodoxy which seeks to preserve and enjoy the fullness of the apostolic faith rather than take everything "back to the Bible", I no longer have trouble accepting the teaching of the Church regarding sacraments.

National churches

I'll cover one last subject, one which is a major source of confusion about Orthodoxy for many outsiders. Why, in contrast to the single Catholic Church, are there so many various ethnic Orthodox churches: Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, the Orthodox Church in America, and so on? This is a historical artifact of how Orthodoxy spread to North America. It first arrived in 1794 in what is now Alaska, from Russia. Until the 20th century, all Orthodox Christians in North America were nominally under the Russian Orthodox Church. But when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, the American churches had to become administratively independent. At the same time, immigrants from other national Orthodox churches established their own missions under the jurisdiction of their mother churches, resulting in the unfortunate patchwork of churches we see today. (By the way, the Catholic Church is actually in a similar situation with 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic churches in addition to the Roman Catholic Church; it is less well-known because the latter is so dominant and visible that most people consider "Catholic" and "Roman Catholic" to simply be synonymous terms)

It should be noted that the various Orthodox churches in America today are not different Orthodox "denominations". Unlike Protestant denominations, the differences between the churches are purely administrative; all confess the same faith and are in full communion with each other. There is nothing dividing the churches on the same order as, say, Protestant debates over gay marriage, the nature of communion, or even how to worship. The particular flavor of Orthodox Church you attend is largely just a matter of preference (I attend an OCA church since it is less ethnic and feels welcoming to newcomers, but I chose it over a Greek Orthodox church largely because of the service time and location), and this is fine since they are in full agreement in their teaching and worship. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Orthodox Church actually enjoys the unity that Protestants dream and theologize about, and the administrative divisions in the North American churches pose no threat to this. Still, no one is particularly happy about the present situation; it is detrimental to the Church's mission in America and technically in violation of a council decision that each diocese should have only one bishop. Orthodox hope to take a decisive step towards a resolution at the upcoming council next year.

Further Reading


  1. Interestingly, people who speak French as a first language may be less confused about the relationship between saints and holiness in the NT. The French word for "holy" is "saint".

  2. Just like in the Greek of the early Church, and Latin as well.