Why I’m not Orthodox

Seraphim of Sarov

I try to avoid polemic on this blog. I’d rather discuss those things from the Great Tradition and various other traditions of Christianity that most of us can benefit from, or those things that really just tickle my fancy. However, today I have a burning desire to write something less than irenic.

I write this post as a result of the fact that I dare to pray for other people when praying the Jesus Prayer. This, according to one commenter, is the height of arrogance, and is based on my proud assumption that I am already saved. And, apparently, I have made this assumption because I’ve read a lot of books and think I can pray:

Or you already apriori decided that once u have read and learn anything and “think” u can pray u r saved?)

I don’t know why the random parentheses are scattered across said commenter’s comments.

This brings me to the heart of why I am not Orthodox: salvation.

Reconcile me to the Virgin, the saints, the necessity of kissing icons, the Orthodox view of church history, Palamite hesychasm, the Eucharist, and so forth. I’m willing to be convinced. But I will be much harder to convince because of how this tradition approaches salvation.

At its best (and I try to look at all non-heretical Christian groups at their best), the Orthodox tradition wilfully refuses to parse salvation, saying that simply praying the sinner’s prayer isn’t enough to be ‘saved’, that salvation is found in the ongoing life of faith that follows.

At its best, Protestantism says, ‘Yes. That moment of conversion by faith is when we are initially justified, and then we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, being sanctified by the work of the Spirit in our hearts through the ongoing life of faith that follows.’

The whole bundle is ‘salvation’ for the Orthodox, while we parse the different bits.

Each catches a bit of the truth.

But this leads to difficulties for many of the eastern tradition, going back at least to Mark the Monk, a fifth-century Greek monk who lived in the Egyptian desert (maybe; it’s a common name, so all the sayings attributed to Mark the Monk may not all be by the same monk named Mark). If you read the selections from said Mark in The Philokalia, one of the things that will become apparent to a Protestant reader is that Mark has no assurance of salvation.

Mark the Monk, for all the various pieces of wisdom on prayer and the spiritual life he has, lives in the fear of Hell.

This may not be the best of Mark the Monk, and it may not be the best of Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is not uncommon.

Indeed, is this why many Orthodox pray the Jesus Prayer? For me, it is a way of drawing nearer to the Saviour who I know has saved me. If it is ‘salvation’, it is the ongoing purification from the presence of sin or the tendency toward sin in my life, not escape from Hell.

This is why it’s not so bad that we Protestants tend to parse salvation, even if we may go too far sometimes.

This concern of self-salvation is prominent in my Orthodox commenter’s concerns, evident when she quotes Seraphim of Sarov (but possibly attributing it to the Desert Fathers?) in the form:

Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.

This seems to be a popular version of the quotation, although I have hitherto only encountered it as:

Keep your heart at peace, and a multitude around you will be saved.

And I immediately hear Fr John Romanides yelling in my ear, ‘Keeping your heart at peace, acquiring peace in your nous IS salvation, Protestant!’ And I respond, ‘It is a result of salvation, given by grace and usually after years of the walk of faith.’

If I save myself, if I keep my heart at peace, that is a terrible burden. I cannot lift that.

Is this not the entire point of the Gospel of Grace? God became man so that man might become like God? We are, each of us, beset by sin on all sides. We cannot, of our own accord, save ourselves. We, God’s beloved creation, are tending towards destructin. So he becomes one of us, and by the power of that Incarnation, and then the death of One of the Most Holy Trinity on our behalf, and then when He destroys death with the lightning flash of his Godhead and rises again, He gives us the grand gift of salvation from the penalty of sin.

And as we accept this gift of grace, he empowers us to live holier lives, day by day, lives of grace. If we accept his daily grace and walk with Him regularly and engage in the disciplines, we become holier and holier. This is the life of salvation, but all of it is grace.

Grace. The great scandal at the heart of the most ancient strand of the Christian tradition. The great incomprehensibility lying in wait for us in the Scriptures (read Romans, Ephesians, Colossians). A power so mighty that even those who claim the strongest ties to the ancient church live much of their lives as though salvation depended on themselves, not on it.

Maybe this is arrogance on my part. Maybe it is arrogant to say, ‘I have read the Scriptures and many of the Fathers and much of the Tradition. The earliest strand and truest strand and the strand most consonant with the Scriptures is grace.’ If it is, God have mercy on my soul.

And I know — to forestall certain comments — that Vera is not the Orthodox position, and that there is a diversity within Eastern Orthodoxy, and that there are shades of meaning in ‘salvation’ in Orthodox discourse, and that what I describe is not indicative of the experience of a great many Orthodox, and so forth. I have no doubt. But I have witnessed it with my own eyes — all the more, then, do I grieve for this state of affairs.


35 thoughts on “Why I’m not Orthodox

  1. Scholiast, I share your concerns. I too have read or heard Orthodox believers talking as if the threat of hell and damnation was their principal spiritual concern. They appear to have forgotten that by baptism we live and pray and worship *in Christ*. We are thus enveloped by salvation, which is nothing less than the life of the Holy Trinity. To participate in the Divine Liturgy is to participate in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Is this not salvation?

    I have not yet read St Mark the Monk and so cannot comment on your interpretation of him. But I do believe that the counsel of ascetics to their fellow ascetics is not always transferrable to the lives of us ordinary believers. Counsel that might be appropriate in a monastic setting is not necessarily appropriate in a parochial setting. And I firmly believe that Orthodox preachers need to learn how to better preach the gospel. St Isaac the Syrian might be of help here: http://goo.gl/eDDQt.

    May I ask you this question. Given your British setting you are no doubt acquainted with the writings of Met Kallistos Ware. Do you find in them the kind of salvation problem that you find in some of your Orthodox internet interlocutors?

    Thank you for this good post.

    • Fr Aidan,

      Thanks for your comment. I have heard a bit of good preaching on salvation, by the Orthodox Church in America’s Bishop of Canada. I wish more people would share his perspective. You are the second person in the past two months to recommend St Isaac the Syrian to me!

      I have read Kallistos Ware and find him quite a refreshing author. I have not found this problem in his writings, which is a blessing. What concerns me is: Who speaks for Orthodoxy? Again, some Internet Orthodox have at times expressed dislike for Kallistos. This is a shame because I think he is a great thinker able to express complex ideas for normal people…

  2. Thanks, my learned friend; I will read again when more time to process. (I’ve wondered about this as several of my friends have embraced this tradition.) But – pardon my ignorance – can you explain your use of the word “parse” here? I think it is something to do with grammar; have not encountered it in a theological conversation before.

    • Hey Jono! Parse is a grammatical term. As with sentences, when you deconstruct them to their component parts, so too with theology. This can be a help for our finite minds to come to grips with God’s infinite grace and mercy. All too often, it can become a matter of declaring that anyone whose way of articulation is different as a heretic — as with the stereotypical Calvinist internet troll (most live, in-person Calvinists are not of this sort, I find!) who tears everyone else to shreds and spends time articulating in precise detail particular kinds of God’s grace available to particular persons. This latter bit would also apply to any Dispensationalist trolls out there.

      I think we should use our reason as far as we can and express a scripture-based, philosophiclaly-coherent vision of salvation, but always with the humility that, in the end, there is a great mystery here. God has split the heavens to save us; we put our trust in him and seek to be holy. And it is always he who saves us, regardless of particular confessional views on justification or grace or predestination.

      • Your aside to “dispensationalist trolls” made my day. I overall agree with your post, and have almost the exact same issues as you do in regards to what salvation is and the like. I also believe we western Christians are correct regarding imputation (reminds me of Chesterton telling people to just look at the world to see original sin). Have you seen the following Orthodox polemic against the west, in which Roman Catholics and Protestants are guilty of giving birth to atheism:?


        This thinking is why I cannot be Eastern Orthodox, even though I LOVE their contributions to the church catholic, and wish to get to know them better and learn from them.

      • I couldn’t finish ‘River of Fire’ there. Just … couldn’t. Thanks for the link. I’ve seen similar accusations by Fr John Romanides in his book Patristic Theology — he does a fine job when he sticks to historical material, and in an article he wrote on Theodore of Mopsuestia he even vindicates my dear Pope Leo I! That is — this sort of Orthodox polemic can come from otherwise well-informed sources. But, alas, it is often made by people who know only the caricature of western theology. And, alas, western Christianity has all too often preached the caricature, not the true likeness of itself! It’s like that whole cosmic child abuse — if that were what Anselm actually said, then YES! That’s cosmic child abuse. But Anselm didn’t say that in that way. And we don’t actually believe in the way we are said to believe.

        I realise that many an Orthodox could point out (and one already has) that they do not believe as my post describes. But I still believe that the lack of strong, ultimate assurance of salvation in Orthodoxy and Catholicism tends towards works righteousness. Yet so often justification by faith tends towards carelessness and antinomianism. So what are we to do?

        (I’m actually at a point where the only Christian tradition that I like is a non-existant form of Anglicanism …)

        Also, just so you know, everything wrong in the West can be traced to Aquinas, Anselm, or Augustine, depending on how far back the person in question imagines our apostasy to go. The Aquinas reference I found on a discussion board on Death to the World.

  3. I’ve heard Anselm and Augustine frequently as negatives, but Aquinas is a newer one for me, since he was so influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius. I had a facebook discussion with someone who actually was trying to defend the “River of Fire,” but it turns out his view of western Christianity was the worst parts of Calvinism. I wonder if Bernard of Clairvaux and Bonaventure are lumped in here too…

    • Bernard of Clairvaux, I’ve heard, is part of the problem as well. He, apparently, made the important shift in Song of Songs from the allegory being about the Church to being about the soul. This has led to a so-called ‘feminization’ in western Christianity, which is why fewer men go to and are involved in church in the West.

      • Of course. Sadly, the goal of much of this polemic (and Prots vs. Cath vs. Ortho are just as bad) is to find something inherent in the entire tradition that pre-dates the Reformation rather than to find the truth about the perceived ‘enemy’.

    • I’m not a great fan of “River of Fire” (though with the supplied patristic citations, it can be eye-opening for Western Christians); but I do not think that the central thesis can be easily dismissed. There’s a real problem here. Neitzsche’s critique of Christianity didn’t just appear out of thin air.

      Let me mention two points in particular:

      1) The massa damnata and predestination, as formulated by St Augustine. It doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about double or single predestination.

      2) Eternal retributive punishment as developed by virtually everyone in the Western Church, up until the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Put these two things together, and you end up with a deity who is truly to be feared. Heck, even just #2 is probably sufficient.

  4. Goodness me)) Mans pride create such a reaction. If you expect from everyone to say just things that u pleased to hear then dont write in a web.
    I will not comment anymore ever, its pathetic and naive, what you wrote about Orthodoxy
    Read Callistos Ware at least
    Or its a blog of one protestant who, like other protestants, already saved forever by their “protestant deity”
    Safe journey)

    • Dear Vera,

      I think perhaps we have misunderstood each other. Your last comment on ‘Praying on the Tram’ certainly made more sense to me than the others. I admit that I do not see in full but in a glass darkly, and that the cultural and temporal distance between myself and the Fathers means that I have undoubtedly misinterpreted some of what they say — if I can misinterpret you, of my own time, then surely I can misinterpret them!

      The heart of my concern, all bluster and big words aside, is that many but not all Orthodox seem to think not only that they are not secure in salvation but that their actions themselves are what merit salvation. This is by no means what Met Kallistos Ware thinks, nor several of my good Orthodox friends. Yet what is salvation? And who speaks for Orthodoxy?

      What I believe is delineated above. I believe that, as I have confessed Jesus Christ with my mouth and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead, I have been saved from the penalty from Hell (Ro 10:9). That this faith in Christ is real will be evidenced by my actions (epistle of James). If I live as though Christ was never raised from the death or like any other pagan, I don’t think I have real faith. But if faith is trusting in God, and a gift of grace, then living the life faith, morally, ethically, following the disciplines, is the (super)natural outworking of salvation. What I do will never save me; it is a result of already being saved.

      Close to the caricature made of Protestants by Catholics and Orthodox, but hopefully closer to the Truth.

    • Please stop referring to me as prideful or I shall actually become proud and block any more comments from you. You say you are just stating the truth. So is Fr Aidan, but his comments do not include ad hominem attacks. He is clear in his statements about western Christianity as well as in his concern for how some Orthodox behave. This is the polite way to post on people’s blogs. Assuming that you know the interior life of someone else and referring to them as ‘proud’ is not. I admit, I am somewhat proud, but I believe that, overall, a post such as this is engendered from a real concern to figure out what the truth is.

      When you call me proud, then you injure my pride and I become prideful. Once again, keep your comments to what the Orthodox tradition is and is not, not what you think I am. What I am is unknown to you. Perhaps we are both proud — I in assuming I know more about Orthodoxy than I do, you in assuming you know anything about me.

  5. Dear friend
    Forgive me
    Im full of pride too, othersise I would just strolled via your blog but I sopped and started to teach you
    And on confession my spiritual father would hit me with the stick if he could


    • Would that I had a spiritual Father to hit me with a stick every once in a while …

      I’m thinking of writing about what I think Orthodoxy does well, and how western Christianity could learn from your tradition. I welcome comments from you then, with clear content and gracious correction if I fumble at some point. Overall, I welcome Orthodox interlocutors who can correct my impressions; for some reason, I reacted very strongly to you.

    • Article VIII (outside of the USA, which has had a modified form since 1801) affirms the Athanasian Creed, which simply states: unless someone will have held this [faith] whole and undefiled and away from falseness, he will perish eternally.

      Article X states only that we deserve damnation because of our sin.

      What does it mean to perish eternally or deserve damnation? I have no doubt that many within the Anglican tradition have believed in an eternity of torment. I know that some are annihiliationists. No doubt others follow the image of CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, of the dwarves in heaven who are blinded by their own sin; the proximity of God to our wickedness makes him unbearable. Not the same as the Inferno (not that that was meant to be a literal visualisation of Hell, either). The official stance is wide enough for different voices, so long as they are not contrary to the above and to Scripture. Truth be told, I haven’t heard many Anglicans talk about Hell, save the annihilationists and the Lewis version.

      • The Lutheran Confessions are a bit more specific via Augustana XVII:

        “They also teach that at the consummation of the world Christ will appear for judgment and will bring to life all the dead. He will give eternal life and endless joy to the righteous and elect, but he will condemn the ungodly and the devils to endless torment.

        They condemn the Anabaptists who think that there will be an end to the punishments of condemned human beings and devils.”

        The Apology for the Augustana via the Roman Refutation contains this:

        “The opponents accept article seventeen without qualification. In it we confess that Christ will appear at the consummation of the world and will raise up all the dead, giving eternal life and eternal joys to the godly but condemning the ungodly to endless torment with the devil.”

        Given that Anglicanism’s 39 articles are influenced by Augustana, the Reformed movement, and trying to chart a via media with between these and Rome, would it not seem that eternal punishment is what is meant? If the Roman response during the era was to accept Augustana XVII unreservedly, then teaching anything but eternal punishment would seem to be an anomaly contextually. Thoughts? Do you have anything by Cranmer or Hooker on the subject?

      • I would say with some confidence that Cranmer and Hooker would accord with the Augustana, from what I’ve read from them — although I’ve not read as much as I would like! My response was largely the ‘official’ view, which is sparse; the majority view will be undoubtedly Augustinian for a very long time.

      • The Lutheran Confessions seem to be in accord with St. Augustine’s teaching in City of God.

  6. In his essay “Why I am Not a Christian” (which the title of your post reminded me of), Bertrand Russell writes that one of the main reasons is Christian conception of Hell. I think he has a point. If Christians are saved, the obvious question is: Saved from what?

  7. One of the problems here is that you’re looking for the wrong kind of assurance of salvation. I am sure of my salvation, as an orthodox Christian, based on the relationship I have with Christ. And that’s faithful to the Greek word used by Christ in John 17 and by John in his epistle. He does not use the word epistomos. He uses the word for knowledge gained by relationship.

    God never promises that you will have epistemological certainty of salvation. Having false certainty is worse than being honestly uncertain.

    • I think it was all a lot more clear to me 2 1/2 years ago. Several months ago, I read The Orthodox Study Bible on justification, and found that it was pretty much how I’ve been thinking, anyway. I think what I was reacting against in this post is, perhaps, the worst of Orthodoxy, which is unfair. Met Kallistos response to, ‘Are you saved?’ being, ‘By the grace of God, I am being saved,’ for example, is more palatable than people who are worried about performing (salutary) ritual acts properly and being afraid about it. Indeed, my post about Met Kallistos (linked in the comments above) is probably the corrective this post needed!

      • I did not realize that had happened. There are a lot of comments on this blog and I had not the opportunity to read them all. I understand running into the worst of Orthodoxy. We all have the opportunity to show that face.

      • This post did get a lot of comments! I should have better reasons not to be Orthodox than when Orthodox Christians show the worst face of Orthodoxy …

      • Hi,
        I am Russian Orthodox and have read alot about the question of salvation sanctification, justification and inheritance and rewards. You might want to listen to chuck Misslers lectures on the subject and I think, using the bible paying attention to grammar and the words used, He has a closer understanding and does not conflict with Orthodox teaching.

        There is a relationship that is a mathematical one that in in nature regarding electric fields and magnetic fields and the direct of electrical current. Bear with me. We seem to like to think in terms of faith OR works, but there is a relationship between the 2 that can be illustrated.
        In the picture you see a right hand with the fingers curled in the direction of the magnetic field and the thumb extended pointing in the direction of the current (vector).

        if the magnetic field curls in the opposite direction you need to turn the hand and now the thumb points in the opposite direction. The are co dependent always. Further the stronger the magnetic field the greater the current and visa versa.

        Now replace the magnetic field with work and the current with the word faith.. Note that there is a positive and negative direction the both the current and the magnetic field can point.

        So If you have strong faith (high current) the corresponding works will be positive and strong. If you do good works (walk in righteousness) your faith will increase. Sin or have bad works and it serves to reduce your faith. Do it too much and your faith is lost and points in the opposite direction.

        Lets say you a non believer sinful person and you have a change your heart. Having this positive faith serves to reduce the negative faith and as a necessary consequence there is less (bad works). The positive faith we work to have trans forms us and turns us around so that our works are in line with our faith and reinforces it and makes it stronger.

        There are other terms that chuck missler also works out that I think we all need to understand to fully grasp the issue. http://www.khouse.org/articles/2008/813/
        and on you tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmF6L71rb04 do see the other part https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgxoVtd2D6M

        you can be saved but by your actions you can lose your Inheritance (a different thing which is what Paul was concerned about). Was Mosses saved? surely , but ask him about losing inheritance. He sinned and did was not allowed in to the land. Joshua inherited instead along with the others.

        So we need to understand that once we are justified sanctified (saved) we must make sure that we grow in faith and maturity. Jesus saved us certainly, but if we fall away and back you can be dis inherited, It is the loss of privileges and rewards which we work for which are given to us at the judgment seat (bema seat of Christ). Read CAREFULLY. Satan does like believers to lose their reward.

        There are different lines of reasoning (that are incorrect even among some orthodox).

        Once we are saved , partakers, we need to keep confidence because we WILL be tested in our spiritual walk.

        I take the view (for my self) that everyone is saved except me and I work everyday to try and be worthy of Gods grace. Remember He does not have to give you the gift. So for myself I try to be humble and not in a prideful way . Like Paul said forgive me a sinner of whom I am chief as it is recited every time we get communion. The Orthodox are making an effort to not walk in pride or be boastful.

        Hebrews uses exodus as an example. God saved these people but when they went out to search using 24 spies, all but 2 were afraid to go and tackle taking their inheritance. Because of the giants in the land. Caleb and Joshua wanted to go for it and had faith in God. These guys were terrifying but they should have said we have God on their side. They were tested and they failed (most of them).

        So this is a pattern that is useful for us to understand salvation and the spiritual walk we each make. The Orthodox focuses on God and overcoming anything thrown at us (even death) we keep our confidence in God and that He sustain us in our walk and in our testing. That our works, sinful as they might be, contain good works which pleases Him.

        Do we have doubts, of course, the tests Gods puts us through are not easy ones. We get refined in the fire 7 times so that what remains is Holy. Remember WE ASK FOR THIS CLEANSING (pslam 50 Orthodox / 51 in KJV) , so we can be in close proximity to the Lord.

        In contrast there are the name it and claim it kind of Christians who say God will shower you with all sorts of worldly prosperity. It is worth mentioning that many of these leaders of those churches like Jim Baker had scandals and went to jail etc. Jim baker is on TV again (his 45 year sentence without parole was reduced and he did 5 years) He seems changed but still selling lots of stuff and has had a change of doctrines. Now he thinks everyone goes through the tribulation and you better get his survival food, which has been reviewed as terrible, but it is survival food after all, and also generators etc and seems to be doing well selling to preppers.

        I think the eastern Orthodox is the true church especially the Russian orthodox, seem to be close to the original church. Not that there are new thing to still learn from the bible, there is plenty. Being an Electrical engineer with math and physics passion, there is lots of things coming into the light like more of the book of Daniel.

        What many protestants miss is the Sunday and Saturday worship (vespers and the liturgy) . Thing like confession and communion etc is to help us in our walk and leads to guide us. Each of us need to focus our lives on Him and Read the word and study it everyday and search the scriptures. Do you live a God centered Life or a life you want with God on the side who we expect to shower us with blessings and goodies not matter what we do. The US turned from God and has been undergoing judgement and as a result will decline and be wiped out as northern Israel was. Read the books Harbinger 1 and 2 or google Johnathan Kahn. Patterns in the bible repeat in the nations todays and America is unrepentant. Russia on the other hand is repentant and Putin has declared it and affirmed the consecration to God and you see that nation rising again.

        So we in our lives need to be lights shining in the darkness bring others to the light.

        Walk by the spirit not the flesh and do not go one a works trip thinking works will save you. Our works need to glorify Him and we need to commit ourselves to Christ and learning his word everyday
        Praise His Holy Name

      • This is possibly the most amazing description of faith and works that I have ever read. I’ve never thought of it by using Faraday’s Law before. There is even more that I could use this metaphor to explain. For example, if you increase the magnetic field, you will increase the current. Likewise, when one puts more work into his following Christ, he will inevitably increase his faith. This is why we increase our focus on prayer, fasting, and philanthropy during Lent. We are challenging ourselves to do more than we think we can do, and in response, God gives us the Faith (the current) we need in order to maintain such a high level of works (the magnetic field).

      • Thank you for the Kinds words. Chuck Missler did not use the faraday law relationship. I am an Electrical Engineer and love the bible, math, and physics. I was contemplating deeply the different perspectives and most try to treat the 2 as independent. But I realized the relationship was like a cross product and it behaves electromagnetic fields. I think God leaves examples and parallel patterns in nature so we can understand His word. Dr Ivan Panin discovered the hepatic structure (patterns of 7) in the bible. He produced some 43,000 pages on those patterns that are statistically independent. You can google him and read his amazing papers. When you try looking at the bible from a mathematical perspective as well with an eye of a physicist, there are very interesting revelations. Missler covers some of those in his book cosmic codes. Seeing these patterns reveals even more of Gods glory. I agree as well that we need the sacraments to keep us on the true path and keep in touch with the mystical experience of Christ. Learning thigs like this helps my faith and encourages me to keep reading and searching for even more mystery’s God has for us. Glory be to God!

      • Hi Sean,

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I really like Missler’s ideas about faith and works fuelling each other in a mutual way — and unfaith and sin likewise! It matches experience and, I think, maintains the tensions between St Paul in Romans and the Epistle of St James. The 39 Articles of the Anglican faith don’t quite get there, although I think they are compatible ‘Good Works … are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification … are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith…’ I like the corollary that a true and lively faith can spring out of good works.

        This is why we need the weekly celebration of the Eucharist — the encounter of Christ in the Sacrament is a true mystical experience that will provide us with faith to do good works, which in turn inspire more faith, ‘that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.’

        Thanks again for the Missler reference, it’s really helpful and expresses succinctly what I’ve been trying to grasp at for a while but have been unable to articulate.

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