I should begin by warmly commending the members of Biola University's Task Force on Eastern Orthodoxy, Dr. Saucy, Dr. Coe, and Dr. Gomes, for the thoroughness of their work.
There are a number of specific issues on which I believe the members of the task force deserve praise. First, I applaud their attempt to be evenhanded. Second, I commend them for their recognition of where the major differences between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism lie. Issues such as the veneration of saints and the use of icons are very far from the heart of the differences between us, even though they are the first differences to impinge on our senses. The members of the task force were right to relegate these issues to a somewhat secondary position, rather than allow them to dominate the report. Third, I applaud them for recognizing that the lack of a juridical emphasis in Orthodox soteriology is a key area of difference with Evangelicalism. Fourth, I think the members of the task force were right in arguing that Orthodox ecclesiology makes it very difficult, at best, for Orthodox people to serve in good faith on the faculties of evangelical seminaries. I believe that for the most part the report is as accurate a presentation of Orthodox theology as one can produce when one's purpose is to discuss only those areas that are different from Evangelicalism.
Two Orthodox-Evangelical Distinctions
The Biola Task Force was quite correct in pointing out that there is an underemphasis, and usually an actual absence, of juridical concepts in Orthodox thought. However, another closely related difference between Eastern and Western Christendom is that Western theology is much more concerned with making distinctions than is Eastern theology. Of course, Western theology, at least from the Reformation in the sixteenth century, has placed its focus on the individual. Obviously, modern Evangelicalism is the primary heir of this individualistic focus. In contrast, Orthodox are much more corporate in their understanding of reality. They see people, things, and God in terms of their connectedness, their interrelatedness, not in terms of the distinctions among them. This corporate view of reality is at least as important in the Orthodox mindset as is the lack of juridical categories.
The Issue of Justification by Faith
This, of course, is the primary focus of the task force report, since it is the key tenet of Reformation faith. The report makes a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification, and it points out that Orthodoxy views justification in a way more like the way Protestantism views regeneration and sanctification. The report then goes to great lengths to show that in Orthodoxy's view, works are necessary for justification. This is quite true, but I do not believe it is a particularly helpful way of exposing the differences between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. One needs to remember that the New Testament word dikaiosune simply means "righteousness." There is no linguistic distinction between a word that must always refer to what we mean by justification and another word that always refers to what we mean by sanctification or actual righteousness. James, for example, uses the word dikaiosune in a way different from what we mean by justification, and Paul himself uses the word in different ways in different places. Therefore, if a group uses the word dikaiosune to refer to the acquisition of actual righteousness, we can hardly be critical of that group for saying that our action plays an important part in the process of acquiring that righteousness. In fact, we believe that as well, and the task force report stated as much, but we call that process sanctification.
The task force report does not simply distinguish between justification and sanctification; it also distinguishes between justification and regeneration, and the report insists that justification is a juridical category pertaining only to the change in one's status before God, whereas regeneration has to do more with the change in one's being, brought about by the indwelling of Christ through the Holy Spirit. On this basis, the report criticizes Orthodoxy for seeing justification as an inward change, an actual righteousness rather than an imputed righteousness. Again, this criticism is valid if one accepts the Reformation understanding of justification and if one limits justification to the juridical idea of imputed righteousness. However, distinguishing justification and regeneration is somewhat artificial, since both of them take place at the beginning of faith. I do not find it particularly helpful for us to criticize the Orthodox for failing to distinguish between two things that both happen at the same time. In effect, this is simply criticizing them for not using our terminology.
However, there is a major difference between Orthodox and Evangelical soteriology on this point, and I believe the members of the task force have sensed that difference correctly, even though I do not think they have expressed that difference in ways that are fair to the Orthodox. I believe a better way to phrase the issue would be to leave aside the word "justification" (since that word is used in other ways in the New Testament in addition to the way Protestants use it, and since we therefore have little grounds for criticizing the Orthodox for using it in one of its other biblical senses) and to concentrate on the truth that we are trying to express by the phrase "justification by faith." We believe that a person becomes acceptable in God's sight from the very moment that genuine faith begins. We express this truth primarily through the use of legal language, but we can also express it in a way that is much more comprehensible to the Orthodox by using relational language. We are not just declared righteous at the beginning of faith; we are also accepted into God's family as his adopted children at the beginning of faith. To use Protestant terminology, justification and adoption both come at the beginning of faith.
In light of this, I believe the key question is that of when God accepts a believer. This raises a follow-up question, that of whether Christian life flows from a prior acceptance or leads to God's acceptance. This, I believe, is the heart of the difference between Evangelicalism and most of Orthodox theology. The truth we are trying to guard by the phrase "justification by faith" is the truth that God's acceptance comes at the beginning of faith and that Christian life is a life of gratitude for that acceptance, not a means to gain God's acceptance. Orthodox theology at least underemphasizes, and often actually denies, this truth. We normally try to guard this truth by talking about faith versus works, but the language of acceptance makes the same point in a way that is more comprehensible to Orthodox and that does not require detailed explanations of differences between Orthodox and Evangelical terminology. Thus, this is the sort of language I use when talking to Orthodox people.
The question of whether one can hold to Orthodox soteriology and still affirm Biola's doctrinal statement concerning justification by faith alone is a very tricky one. There are Orthodox leaders who understand what Evangelicals mean by justification by faith alone and agree, even though they do not themselves use the word "justification" in that way. These men also agree that this truth is crucial and needs to be proclaimed more fervently within Orthodoxy. However, such voices, more prominent in North American and English Orthodoxy than in Greece or Russia, are somewhat of a minority in Orthodoxy. Perhaps I should simply conclude that even if Orthodoxy does not explicitly deny the truth we are trying to guard, the Orthodox focus on aspiring to union with God obscures the truth that all of Christian life flows from the fact that God has already accepted the believer at conversion.
Don Fairbairn is assistant professor of church history and missions at Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, SC. He formerly served as academic dean and currently serves as adjunct professor of theology and consultant at Donetsk Christian University, Donetsk, Ukraine.
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