Hallmarks of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism compared

Second of Two Parts

The main difference dividing the three families of Christendom—Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism—is the matter of authority. Each has a unique understanding of what constitutes the highest court of appeal when it comes to Christian truth and its practice.

Protestant authority: "sola Scriptura"

For Protestantism, the ultimate authority (and in the words of a well-known historic formula, the "only infallible rule of faith and practice") is the Bible. But even though Protestants have generally nodded assent to the New Testament proposition that "the Scriptures are of no private interpretation," they generally interpret that as meaning that wherever a consensus can be gained about an interpretation, it can become authoritative. And a consensus can consist of a minority as small as the voting majority in a single congregation, or even a majority on a single congregation's board of deacons or elders.

Beyond this, today mainline Protestantism—all of the denominations of the original Reformation and their offspring like Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists—is so liberalized, so converted to the philosophy of this present age, that only minorities in the respective denominations and their educational institutions and publishing houses even believe the Bible to be reliable as history, much less inspired by a personlike Creator-God.1

Though the break-away remnants from the original Reformation denominations now outnumber their parent churches and these have much more conservative interpretive rules, they have the same basic flaw (where two are agreed, any interpretation can be authoritative). So often, conservatism means just a slower way of getting to the same place as liberalism.

Two examples illustrate: An acquaintance who took a degree from California's best known evangelical divinity school, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, reports that one of his professors at that less-than-50-year-old institution begins his New Testament course by saying that some reports of incidents in the New Testament may actually be historically valid! (When the seminary was founded, every "evangelical" would have professed that the historical validity of everything in the New Testament is beyond question. The history and findings corroborating it have not changed, the meanings of the words have not changed, only the religious ground rules have changed. In this case, the highest authority is that professor's own "scholarship," not any creed, church, council, or principle of interpretation.)

The second illustration comes from two other friends, a married couple in the midwest. Several years ago, frustrated with the quality of the Presbyterian-Reformed churches in their city (for that was their background), they joined a seemingly growing and dynamic Southern Baptist congregation. But within a couple of years they found the pastor supporting extra-marital sexual relationships that the Bible, and all the historic interpretations of the Bible, condemn. Shortly thereafter, the congregation withdrew from the conservative Southern Baptist denomination...this seems to be the trend in all of Protestantism.

If anyone needs further evidence, consider the evangelical attitude toward divorce today compared with that of 40 years ago; many of the best-known ministers and authors are not only divorced but remarried—despite the biblical injunction that a presbyter2 must be the husband of no more than one wife—and many are remarried for a third time or even more.

And there is virtually no mechanism within evangelicalism for even debating the propriety of that or of many other "new" interpretations of Scripture. You can preach or write against the practices, but you'll be considered marginal, and may even end up in a new denomination over such protests whether you intend to be schismatic or not! (If you don't leave them, they may leave you.)

Perhaps the most egregious example of Protestant abuse of its principle of authority to come to wide attention is the pronouncement in October by President Bill Clinton, apparently in a bid to become the Protestant Constantine, that certain types of fornication should be overlooked because "God made all men sinners," and that he's studied the passages in the Bible cited by abortion opponents and finds them ambiguous. To suggest that God makes men sin is blasphemous in the light of any Christian creed or catechism, and prior to Roe v. Wade no church adhering to the ecumenical creed ever considered the biblical teaching on abortion less than crystal clear, and only the most liberal Protestant denominations do so today, yet Clinton is a self-styled lay leader in Protestantism's largest fundamentalist denomination!

Roman Catholic authority

The highest authority in the Roman Catholic church is the bishop of Rome, the Pope. In that church's darkest times, Popes were sometimes scandalously sinful, but since the counter-reformation, Popes have generally been circumspect. Still, the placing of ultimate authority in the hands of one man, or even a council of men, seems highly dangerous.

To cite the most widely known example, the Pope continues to insist that the use of artificial means of birth control is a sin; most of the "first-world" married Catholics of child-bearing age still in regular communion with the church practice artificial birth control, a doubly damnable sin according to the rules they've pledged to live by (practicing something the church condemns, and taking communion without sincere repentance).

The church knows this, but shrugs its collective shoulders and continues to dispense communion freely, creating a worldview of duplicity based on a theological dualism which some imaginative authors and filmmakers—Mario Puzo and Martin Scorsese as primary examples—have even suggested helps explain the existence of the Mafia and much of the violence in American life.

(I'm not suggesting that Catholicism is the root of American violence, but the dualism that enables most Americans to consider themselves both very profane and somehow holy at the same time, almost pandemic in both Catholicism and Protestantism, has been traced by many philosophers to several roots in Catholic theology.)

Orthodox authority

Eastern Orthodoxy, which consists of about 250 million adherents in the Greek world, Asia Minor, the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia, along with emigrants from those countries to the West and a growing contingent of converts from Western ethnicities, considers itself separated from Roman Catholicism by only a few minor disagreements, the main one being the extent of the Pope's authority.

But close examination by this lifelong Protestant convinces me that the division between "Constantinople" (the symbolic seat of Eastern Orthodoxy) and Rome is at least as great as the division between Orthodoxy and many Protestant groups.

For example, although these are not bedrock fundamentals of anyone's religion, they often take on significance far beyond their seeming importance: Orthodox and classical Protestant doctrines on both divorce and birth control are much closer to each other than to the Pope's teachings. (Orthodox ordain married men to the priesthood but do not allow divorced-and-remarried men to become or continue as presbyters, nor allow widowed priests to remarry.)

And on paper, whereas many see the nature/grace dualism of Catholic and Protestant worldviews as the root of much social evil in the West, Orthodox theology writers seem to uniformly condemn any dualistic worldview as unChristian—confessing that Christ is the Creator, and therefore Lord, of nature as well as grace, matter as well as spirit, "secular" as well as sacred, and that He has begun the redemption of all in His own material incarnation, death, and resurrection.

I say that I see this on paper because, sad to say, I have no longstanding acquaintance with any lifelong Orthodox and am therefore unable to judge whether they do any better than Catholics and Protestants at transcending the holy/profane dualism in practice. Judging from the movie The Deer Hunter, I'd have to say they probably don't. But from The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky, 1875), "the greatest Orthodox novel ever published," and from the writings of Alexander Solzhenitzyn that I've read, I'd say they do. But on authority, as I indicated last month, I'm now convinced the Orthodox have the best doctrine. The Bible is their highest authority. But they understand "the Scriptures are of no private interpretation" to mean they must be interpreted by the church as a whole, and no one is free to teach, within the church, anything that contradicts the church's traditional interpretation.

Though new consensuses sometimes have been arrived at (as in the Trinitarian and Christological issues fought out by the first seven ecumenical councils of the church during the first eight centuries A.D., on which both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism agree with Orthodoxy), in Orthodoxy this is a very difficult and lengthy process, which makes it far less subject to abuse than Protestantism's "consensus of any majority" approach.

When I first encountered this doctrine, I considered it dangerous. They want me to promise never to interpret anything in the Bible differently than their interpretations? I can't have my own opinion different from the majority opinion? It turns out I can; I just can't teach my minority opinions as though they are the church's, and cannot start my own congregation based on any new interpretations and expect it to be accepted within Orthodoxy.

And although I would never have arrived at some of Orthodoxy's teachings, like the veneration of saints and icons from my own study of the Bible, none of the biblical interpretations I have found in Orthodox writing are unacceptable from my lifelong evangelical Protestant perspective.

If you'd like to test this for yourself, the best place I've found to do so is in the Orthodox Study Bible, a recently published New Testament and Psalms that is profusely annotated to give Orthodox interpretations on virtually everything likely to come up for question in New Testament study. It also has some study aids like articles on How to Read and How to Interpret the Bible, which I think any evangelical will find reassuring.

Based on the New King James translation and published in hardback by Thomas Nelson Publishers, the Orthodox Study Bible sells for $24.99 (and up if you want special bindings, index tabs and such). It's well worth the price to anyone who wants a well-rounded library of Christian resources.

A final thought. It seems to me that it behooves all Christians to study the beliefs and practices of all who claim to be followers of Christ, to determine which of their doctrines are biblical and which, if any, may not be. And despite the sometimes seemingly vast differences that separate believers in various groups, it behooves us to treat those who truly are of the same essential faith with the highest respect and love. Where there is common ground, it should be reinforced rather than undermined.

If the Orthodox are indeed a true church, as I conclude they are, then it seems that they have a higher claim than any other group to being "the" true church, to whatever extent any church can make that claim. The fact that they have maintained the Christian presence in the Holy Land from the time of the New Testament alone at least gives them first dibs on that claim, but there is much additional historical evidence that there isn't room to delve here, that also argues strongly on their behalf.

[Editor's note, nearly three years later. Some have expressed disappointment that, in this series, there is no place at which I declare my conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, though later I refer to my being in the Orthodox church. I guess I took it for granted that when you say Holy Tradition is a needed check on the universal "papal authority" implied in Protestantism's Sola Scriptura doctrine, as I did in the previous column, and that if Orthodoxy is "a" true church it has best dibs on the claim of being "the" true church as I do here, anyone would see that the transition has been made. Actually, at this point in my journey I was still seeking a loophole that would let me out; I wasn't sure I'd rounded the corner, but in retrospect, I obviously had. And though it may have cost me my long-coveted career as a print newspaper editor, it was the best decision of my adult life.]

As always, your feedback is much desired.


1. Members of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, and the Dutch Reformed churches (RCA and CRC) in the United States may justifiably dispute this claim. However, on the worldwide level, my understanding is that the claim is true, that they are minorities even within their parent denominations.

2. In the New Testament, presbyter is the word various churches today call elders, pastors and priests, and (seemingly interchangeably with episcopos) bishops.

Published Nov. 1994.

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1994, 1995 Jon Kennedy