East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall 1995, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

An Orthodox Response to Don Fairbairn, "Eastern Orthodoxy:  Five Protestant Perspectives"

Fr. John Maxwell

I want to express my appreciation for your Spring 1995 article "Eastern Orthodoxy:  Five Protestant Perspectives" [Vol. 3, pp. 5-7].  It really shows that we have a long way to go in understanding one another.  Don Fairbairn made a sincere attempt at showing five different ways in which Evangelical Christians view Eastern Orthodoxy.  He certainly was correct when he observed that Evangelicals often confuse Roman Catholicism with Eastern Orthodoxy, that they often have a knee jerk reaction to Orthodoxy because the externals of this faith are misunderstood by them, that some have an uncritical acceptance of Orthodoxy because of Orthodoxy's steadfastness in proclaiming the true doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ, while others naively assume that the difference between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism is merely cultural.

It is a shame, however, that Mr. Fairbairn, when attempting to articulate three of the differences between Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy, namely a different understanding of sin, grace, and salvation, grossly misunderstands and misrepresents Orthodoxy, thus adding to the misunderstanding.  This is primarily due to the fact that he reads and interprets Orthodoxy through his Western Christian tradition.

1. Mr. Fairbairn claims that Orthodoxy is image-centered rather than word-centered.  This portrayal is patently false.  Orthodoxy proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ in Words and in Images.  A casual observer of Orthodox worship would at once recognize that the Holy Scriptures permeate Orthodox worship.  In the Divine Liturgy there are 98 Old Testament quotations and 114 New Testament quotations.  In addition to this, the Gospel and Epistle readings are read for the day.  This is customarily accompanied with the preaching of the Word.  During the first week of Great Lent, the book of Psalms is read completely through twice, and during the rest of Lent it is read through once each week.  In addition to this, during this period the books of Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, Job, Isaiah, and Ezekiel are read.  During Holy Week all four Gospels are read in their entirety.  On Holy Saturday the entire Book of Acts is read.  These are just a few of the examples of how much the Holy Scriptures are utilized in the context of public worship.  One can hardly say that Orthodoxy neglects the reading of the Bible!  But we do not only read it, we proclaim its message in liturgical actions and in images.  What the Word is for the ears, so the liturgical actions and icons are for the eyes.  What the Scriptures are for the literate, the icons are for the illiterate.

2. Mr. Fairbairn asserts that Orthodox believe that when man was created he was not in a state of fellowship with God.  This is simply nonsense.  The Orthodox Church believes that man was made to be in communion with God.  We see that even before the fall, God walked in the garden with man.

3. Mr. Fairbairn contends that Orthodox believe that man was not created perfect.  In a certain sense this is a true statement, if one understands perfection as fully mature.  However, this can be a very misleading statement because it implies a static view of perfection.  In Orthodoxy perfection is always something dynamic, forever moving from glory to glory.  Adam and Eve were created perfect children, insofar that they were innocent and all that they could be at that particular moment in their existence.  But they had a task to grow in the likeness of God.

4. Mr. Fairbairn claims that Orthodox believe that man at the fall simply made a wrong turn and that Orthodoxy takes a less severe view of sin.  Moreover he states, "Because sin is not as severe, the remedy need not be as dramatic; we need only a course change to be put back on the road to fellowship with God."  This understanding could not be further from the truth.  It is true that Orthodoxy does not subscribe to the Augustinian idea that man is born totally depraved, unable to do anything good in God's eyes, or that man is a convicted felon at the time of his birth because of the one sin of Adam.  If this were true Cornelius's works before he was a Christian would not have been recognized by God as pleasing to Him.  However, this does not mean that Orthodoxy does not see the fall and sin in a serious manner or that the remedy for man's condition is less dramatic than in Evangelicalism.

When man fell into sin, death entered the world.  Instead of living in communion with God, growing in divine love, spreading this love to all of creation, he went the way of separate existence.  He became spiritually separated from God.  In addition to this, sickness entered into the world, resulting in debility and death.  Man living in fear of these things tries to grab for all the gusto he can, grasping instead of giving, lusting instead of loving.  And when he sees there is not enough gusto to go around, he competes with others for it.  And with this competition he becomes enslaved to sinful passions, such as envy, jealousy, wrath, sedition, murder, adultery, etc.  Living like this, he reduces himself to the animalistic level.  He even refers to himself in these terms:  he calls life a rat race and he strives to become a faster rat.

Man becomes separated from God by spiritual death and because of his sins.  He becomes a base slave of sin and prey for the devil.  He cannot forgive, or become free from his sins; only God can do this.  Nor can he achieve the ultimate communion with God, because God is radically different from his creatures.  What man could not do, God did!  God became man, uniting God with man.  Through his life and teachings he taught us how to live.  By his death and resurrection He conquered sin and death, and defeated the devil.  By his ascension He united man with God.  And it is now through Him, the God/Man Jesus Christ, and Him alone, that man can be restored, healed, freed from sin, and united in communion with God.  Orthodox, then, take sin very seriously.

5. Mr. Fairbairn asserts that Orthodox understand grace to be almost a "substance," a divine energy or power enabling sinners to gain fellowship and acceptance with God, while Evangelicals see Grace as an "attitude" of God toward man of unmerited favor.  First of all we should state that Orthodoxy does not believe that God has an attitude problem.  He loves man, no matter how sinful man may be.  He does not change from a God of wrath to a God of love, for God does not change.  It is we who turn from Him, not He who turns from us.  Grace is not just an energy enabling fellowship with God; grace is the uncreated Energy of God Himself filling us with the divine uncreated life of God Himself, which is itself not merely "fellowship with God," but communion/union with Him and in Him (John 14:20, 23; 15:4-5).  And for us grace is not only received through material icons, but in countless ways (e.g. prayer, almsgiving, good deeds, reading the Bible, through the sacraments of the Church, through keeping God's commandments).  Lest this last point be misunderstood, this does not mean that man earns or merits the grace of God.  We do not deserve His love, forgiveness, kindness, and mercy.  Grace comes to us as a free gift.  But like any gift, unless it is opened and used, it is of no use.  Thus, we must stir up the gift of grace that has been given to us.

6. Finally, Mr. Fairbairn claims that "Orthodox do not focus on the beginning of Christian life because salvation is understood to be the process of becoming acceptable to God?as I practice love, mercy, and justice, as I become more and more like God, acceptable to God, and in fellowship with Him."  Here we must say that Orthodox would never say this!  The problem here is that Mr. Fairbairn is so imprisoned by his Western categories of thought, so riveted on gaining God's "acceptance," that he imposes these categories onto Orthodox thought.  In fact, he goes so far in his distortion of Orthodoxy that he claims that Orthodox believe that man becomes acceptable to God at the end of the process of theosis!  This is a horrible idea, that God does not accept us until we become fully deified (like God)!  Who ever does become fully deified, reaching the end of the process of theosis?  We will always, even in heaven, grow in the likeness of the infinite God.  Unlike the Evangelical counterpart here, Orthodox do not ask the question at all, "What is the least I need to do to get to heaven?" or "How can I get God to accept me?"  The desire of the true Orthodox is to intimately know God, to ever participate and grow in His love and life.  And if this is the thought, then there is no room for minimalism, or reducing the Christian life to saying a sinner's prayer.  Orthodoxy is maximalistic!  Perhaps this portrayal is not completely fair to Evangelicals, but the abuse mentioned here is a prominent feature with Evangelicalism.  For the Orthodox, the Christian life begins and continues by being united to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.  And this is what we focus on, our communion with Christ and our participation in the Spirit.

Thank you for your patience with me as I tried to disentangle Fairbairn's confused but well intended interpretation of Orthodoxy. 

Fr. John Maxwell is Instructor in Dogmatic Theology, St. Tikhon's Theological Seminary, South Canaan, PA 18459; tel:  717-937-4411; fax:  717-937-3100.

Fr. John Maxwell, "An Orthodox Response to Don Fairbairn, 'Eastern Orthodoxy:  Five Protestant Perspectives,'" East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Fall 1995), 9-10.

Don Fairbairn's Reply

First, one of my major concerns is that we not jump too quickly to the conclusion that Western Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Eastern Orthodoxy are the same.  Fr. Maxwell criticizes me for being imprisoned by my Western categories of thought, but if he is honest, he needs to recognize that he is just as Western as I am.  And I'm not sure that it is fair to present the Orthodox Church in America's view of salvation without the disclaimer that this may not be the same as the Russian Orthodox Church's view of salvation.  I do not think Orthodoxy is nearly as monolithic as most Orthodox insist.

Second, I fear that in some cases, Fr. Maxwell is responding very violently to things which I neither said nor intended.  He does not appear to have read my full paper on Orthodoxy ["Partakers of the Divine Nature," cited on p. 7, EWC&M Report 3 (Spring 1995)].  And the amount of the "Five Perspectives" article dedicated to my own view of Orthodoxy is extremely small.  With such brevity, it is regrettably inevitable that some statements go unexplained which desperately need fuller explanation.  Fr. Maxwell seems to be assuming what I mean when such explanation isn't there (it is there in the longer paper), and I think some of his assumptions are incorrect.  I never denied the immutability of God (as he seems to think I did).  I never said that Orthodox believe we merit salvation (and in the longer paper, I specifically defend the Orthodox against that charge, since I know it is forthcoming from Evangelicals).  I never said that icons are the only means of receiving grace (and in the longer paper, I again make this point clear; there are many ways of receiving grace).  I never said that Orthodox see sin as unimportant.  A view of sin which does not emphasize the idea of personal, individual guilt can legitimately be called "lower" than Evangelicals'; but that doesn't mean it is "low" in absolute terms.  (Maybe it would be better if I had said, "not as high a view of sin.")  So I think some of Fr. Maxwell's vehemence is the result of assuming that I meant what he has apparently heard other Evangelicals say about Orthodoxy, which was not always what I really meant to say.  Some of my terminology has triggered this reaction, even though the substance of what I think about Orthodoxy may not be quite what Fr. Maxwell thinks.

Third, in several places I think Fr. Maxwell is quite right.  When I said that grace is almost a substance, that was admittedly not the way Orthodox writers explain it and was probably an overstatement.  I was trying to explain it in ways which a Western audience could grasp, but I think I did it poorly.  In "Partakers of the Divine Nature" I do not use the word "substance," and I will not use it in discussions again.  Similarly, when I said that man was not created in a state of fellowship with God, that was probably also an overstatement.  Although that assertion came from Orthodox writers, this is one area where I think Orthodox ideas are a bit slippery.  Adam and Eve were in contact with God to some degree, but I still insist that the Orthodox understanding that fellowship with God was set before them as a task to be obtained through deification is a different understanding from that of Evangelicals.  In "Partakers of the Divine Nature" I try not to oversimplify, but in the lecture, from which "Five Perspectives" was drawn, I think I made that issue more black and white than it is.  Again, I was trying in a very brief time to highlight some differences, and I was not able to do justice to all the complexities involved.  Some of these issues are differences of emphasis, not necessarily absolute contradictions.

Finally, let me deal with Fr. Maxwell's major criticism, that I misrepresent Orthodoxy "grossly" because I am reading it through my own Western Christian tradition.  Specifically, my talk of the issue of God's acceptance, according to him, comes from my being imprisoned by Western categories.  I will not pretend to be anything but a Westerner; nor will I pretend that I am objective.  There is no such thing as objectivity.  But I have lived in the East for five years and have had extensive interaction with people of an Eastern mindset (both Evangelicals and Orthodox, and even Slavic Evangelicals think in ways which are very clearly Orthodox, despite the fact that they use Western terminology).  In addition, of course, I have studied Orthodoxy to some degree and have deliberately tried to study only the Eastern form of it as much as possible.  So while my Western heritage has clearly influenced me, I don't think it makes me completely imprisoned; I can see Orthodoxy more clearly than a typical Westerner can.  When I talk about "acceptance," I admit that this is not the terminology Orthodox themselves use.  But what I am doing is trying to take Orthodox ideas and analyze them in terms of issues which are very important to Evangelicals.

Fr. Maxwell's criticism of the minimalism present in Evangelicalism is valid, but I'm not talking about "what is the minimum I have to do to get into heaven," even if some other Evangelicals unfortunately do talk about that.  I'm talking about a conception of Christian life which sees sanctification as a result of a change God has already effected in a believer, rather than as a means to such a change.  Again, the difference is one of emphasis, not absolute contradiction (and in "Partakers of the Divine Nature" I specifically say that some Orthodox theologians do talk about justification).  But I am convinced that the different emphasis leads to a different understanding of Christian life and of acceptance, even though that is not terminology which Orthodox use.  I have the right to analyze Orthodoxy in terms of concerns which are important to Evangelicals, even if that involves introducing issues which are not Orthodox emphases.  If Fr. Maxwell wants to deny me that right, that is the same as if I were to deny him the right to critique Evangelicalism's understanding of the Trinity just because the concerns he has about the monarchy of the Father alone don't matter to Evangelicals.  Maybe the monarchy of the Father alone should matter to Evangelicals, and he has the right to tell Evangelicals so.  Similarly, maybe the issue of God's acceptance and when it takes place should matter to the Orthodox, and I have the right to suggest so. 

Don Fairbairn is academic dean at Donetsk Christian University, Donetsk, Ukraine.

Don Fairbairn, "Don Fairbairn's Reply," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Fall 1995), 10-11.

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1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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