Eastern Orthodoxy and Reformed Radar

Mr. Mark Shea is determined to make sure that Eastern Orthodoxy is on our radar (link to Shea’s post). While we appreciate Mr. Shea’s attempt to bring clarity to the table, we are well aware of the Eastern Orthodox.

In fact, we’re well aware of attempts like those those of Mr. Shea to overplay the similarities between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I responded to one such attempt in article called “If You Look Only at the Similarities, They’re Exactly the Same!

That article is actually an example of me discussing Eastern Orthodoxy with a Roman Catholic, but I’ve also defended Augustine against false charges brought by the Eastern Orthodox crowd in an article called “Eastern Orthodox Confusing Augustine with Gnostics

I’ve discussed the difference between the Western and North African canon of Scripture and the canon of more “eastern” fathers, such as John of Damascus in an article called “Did Hippo, Carthage, or Rome’s Bishop Settle the Canon?

I’ve responded to an Eastern Orthodox blogger on the topic of Ecclesial Infallibility (link).

Other posts related to the topic of Eastern Orthodox may be found under the “Orthodox” label on my blog (link to list of posts with that label).

I’ve even done a debate on Sola Scriptura with an Eastern Orthodox opponent (link to debate, in reverse chronological order).

Does some of the Internet apologetics world have a blind eye for Eastern Orthodoxy? Undoubtedly. Does Eastern Orthodoxy occupy as much of our energy as Roman Catholicism? Certainly not. Yet it is on the radar screen.

Shea quotes himself as thinking:

Dude. Have you ever heard of the Orthodox? They don’t exactly get their marching orders from the Pope, but they will laugh you out of dodge if you tell them these things are not apostolic or try to get them to sign off on some cockamamie theory of sola scriptura as though that’s what Athanasius believed.

If the Sufficiency and Perspicuity of Scripture a “cockamanie theory” so be it, but we’ve already seen that Athanasius held them (link to discussion of one of Athanasius’ letters).

It’s interesting that Shea said “laugh you out of dodge” rather than “refute your arguments.” It is, of course, one thing to laugh as Shea himself does, and as some Eastern Orthodox folks do. It is quite another to investigate Scripture to find out what is apostolic. It takes more than a jelly-bowl-imitating belly to digest history and investigate the truth of both Rome’s and Moscow’s claims.

This requirement for some amount of cerebral activity may explain the general paucity of apologists of all stripes (on both sides of the Tiber and the Bosporus). And while there may not be many Roman Catholic apologists of note in the English-speaking blogosphere, there are even fewer Eastern Orthodox, for a variety of reasons.

Even if the Eastern Orthodox were more numerous, however, there is at least a perception (among Reformed apologists) that Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t have a Trent: it does not have a dogmatic definition that declares the gospel of Christ to be anathema. It does not have a Vatican I: it does not claim that any of its bishops are infallible, nor does it claim that even the so-called Ecumenical Patriarch is the jurisdictional visible head of the church.

Eastern Orthodoxy has had men like Cyril Lucaris (1572–1638), who served as Patriarch of Alexandria and subsequently Patriarch of Constantinople. Cyril Lucaris allegedly (and various folks dispute this) wrote a Calvinistic “Confession” (link to confession). He also provided King James I with a copy of the ancient Scripture manuscript Codex Alexandrius (5th century) as a gift.

There may be many serious errors in Eastern Orthodox doctrine and practice, and we do respond to them as the opportunity presents itself. Nevertheless, Rome’s opposition to the gospel is more systemic and blatant.

This article was initially drafted in response to Mr. Shea, but in the meanwhile, I notice that a number of additional Roman Catholic bloggers have picked up on the same idea. The transmission of this argument is thus:

Dave Brown at Orthocath building on his own earlier post

via Dave Brown, Mark Shea at Catholic and Enjoying it!

via Mark Shea, Fr. Dwight Longenecker at Standing on my Head simply asserts that “Mark Shea makes a good apologetical [sic] point.”

via Mark Shea, Brian Visaggio at Saint Superman (quotes from Brown, with some comments on the beauty of the Coptic/EO liturgies)

via Dave Brown, Devon Rose at St. Joseph’s Vanguard and Our Lady’s Train (quotes from Brown, with repetition of some of Brown’s claims)

via Dave Brown, Francis Beckwith at Return to Rome (Beckwith simply provides a block quotation from Mr. Brown)

via Dave Brown, David Palm at The Reluctant Traditionalist (Mr. Palm makes a number of additional claims )

Additionally, one of Mark Shea’s readers, Alphonsus, points us to Jonathan Deane at Called to Communion with some similar thoughts.

Thus, I’d like to slightly broaden this post. First, in response to Mr. Brown, it is true that “Protestants” sometimes do sometimes think that church history goes from the book of Acts (or perhaps John on the Isle of Patmos) to Luther in 1517 (or to Billy Graham or their own parents). This is sad. There is much to learn from history, even though Scripture, not history, is our infallible rule of faith and morals.

Mr. Brown criticizes Lorraine Boettner, stating “This same list of “inventions,” popularized by Protestant theologian Loraine Boettner, puts the idea of seven sacraments as late as 1439.” In fact, in one list that Boettner provides, Boettner states: “34. The doctrine of Seven Sacraments affirmed: a.d. 1439.” The list of a list of dates of adoption, not dates of innovation, a distinction that Mr. Brown would do well to note.

In point of fact, while the Council of Florence (1439) enumerated seven sacraments, it remained to the Council of Trent (1545-63) to formally define the matter. Others may point to the idea that the Council of Lyons (1274) had the same enumeration among the documents presented to it. However, Roman Catholic sources themselves (such as the so-called “Catholic Encyclopedia”) will acknowledge that the honor or infamy for the “seven sacraments” distinctive lies with with Otto of Bamburg (around 1139) or more properly Peter Lombard (lived from about 1100 to 1160). Both of these men post-date the 1054 division between the eastern patriarchates and Rome. While the continuing interaction between East and West may well have cross-pollinated the error of seven sacraments to the East, it began as a distinctively Western error, even if folks like Otto of Bamburg and Peter Lombard were not “Roman Catholic” in the modern sense.

Mr. Brown goes on to overstate the separation of the “Coptic Orthodox” both from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. His idea is to suggest that when Coptics, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics agree on something, it proves it goes back to 450 A.D. This kind of idea is naive at best, for it ignores the very real interaction and cross-pollination that exists amongst those three groups, as well as between those groups and other groups, such as the Assyrian Church of the East or the Ethiopian Orthodox.

Mr. Brown concludes: “At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away. Did it exist before then? Were there Christians in the Early Church who looked like the Evangelicals of today? If so, they left no mark in either the Ancient Churches nor in the writings of the Church Fathers in East or West.” However, Mr. Brown should read more of the writings of the fathers, if he wants to find marks of the “Protestant theological approach” (at least as it relates to the formal principle of Sola Scriptura).

Cyril of Alexandria (patriarch of Alexandria from 412-444), for example, said: “That which the divine Scripture has not spoken, how shall we receive it and reckon it among verities?” (Glaphyrorum in Genesim, Book II) He also wrote: “It is best not to love to be moved by the bold assertions others, since they carry us away to incorrect views, but to make the words of the inspired writers the correct and exact rule of faith.” (Of the Holy Trinity, Dialogue 4)

Let us grant that Cyril died in the decade prior to the Council of Chalcedon, yet it should be apparent to all but the most obstinate readers that his comments quoted above sound more “Protestant” than not. Surely, Cyril was not a “Protestant” nor would his church have looked like a typical American Evangelical church in a number of ways. Both ideas would be anachronistic. While we Reformed Christians would agree with Cyril on most things, there would doubtless be points where we would differ from him. When we would do so, we would do so because methodologically we agree with him: we make the words of the inspired writers the correct and exact rule of faith and do receive and reckon among those things to be believed those things the divine Scripture has not spoken.

And if someone will insist that we must bring forward someone who lived through the Council of Chalcedon, we will cheerfully point to Theodoret of Cyrus (lived from about 393 to 457) who wrote: “Now, I do not state this dogmatically, my view being that it is rash to speak dogmatically where holy Scripture does not make an explicit statement; rather, I have stated what I consider to be consistent with orthodox thought.” (Question 4 on Genesis) Keep in mind that Theodoret was, at times and on certain issues, a theological opponent of Cyril of Alexandria (I am understating the level of their disagreement). Yet both men agreed with each other and us on the fundamental rule of faith.

While Mr. Brown was more cautious in his claims, Mr. Palm was rather more reckless. Mr. Palm stated, among other things:

Christians have always been distinctively Catholic in their doctrine and worship. The Protestant “Reformation” was not a return to a lost “pure Christianity” but was in many areas something entirely new and revolutionary.

This sort of assertion is bold, but unfounded. Whether one looks at Newman and his development hypothesis, or the work of more recent historians such as J.N.D. Kelly or Jaroslav Pelikan, anyone who seriously studies history will find that as they get closer and closer to the time of the apostles, more and more of the “distinctively [Roman] Catholic” elements disappear. Indeed, the early church is “catholic” in the true sense, but it is not Roman Catholic.


While Eastern Orthodoxy is on our radar, it gets less attention for a variety of reasons that are discussed above. Like Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy alleges historical continuity – but a serious historical investigation shows that both Rome and (to a lesser extent) Eastern Orthodoxy have wandered from the purity of the apostolic faith and practice.


5 Responses to “Eastern Orthodoxy and Reformed Radar”

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides Says:

    Wow. I can't believe there's no comments yet.This post has a lot of meat to it, and much for this old dog to chew on.Thanks TurretinFan for the meal.

  2. Turretinfan Says:

    My pleasure!

  3. Alphonsus Says:

    Hi TUaD. There lack of comments is probably explained by the fact that TF linked to Shea's post almost a full month after Shea put it on his blog (i.e. it's old news). If one wants to stir up debate with readers from Catholic and Enjoying It, the fastest way is generally posting comments on Shea's site when the article is fresh.God Bless.

  4. Turretinfan Says:

    Alphonsus:This is true – if the response had been posted faster, we might have seen a greater number of comments.Nevertheless, I have other things to do besides correct Shea's mistakes.-TurretinFan

  5. Forgivenesss Says:

    Please contact me at 949-291-0952, I am looking for a specific book on orthodoxy, eastern to be exact. I have a real problem with their view of original sin. Thanks much. God bless, Troy

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