David J. Dunn recently posted an article on his blog which he called “Top Ten Things Every Protestant Should Know About Eastern Orthodoxy.” I liked the idea, and have always felt that there are a number of things that Mormons ought to know about the Orthodox, so I have decided to create this list. It’s not meant to replace Dunn’s article since I think Mormons would like to know all those things, too (in fact I think you should all read that one first), but I think there are some things that Mormons would be particularly interested in.
1. The Eastern Orthodox Church believes in priesthood authority, and “common consent.” Priests are given the authority to lead their parishes, baptize, bless, and help their parishioners repent. Bishops oversee priests. There are also deacons in the priesthood who assist the priests. However, as Dunn mentioned in his article, there is no “Pope” of Orthodoxy – rather a group of bishops and self-governing churches that are equal in authority, and the lay people have a say in how the church is run as well (thus you could consider Orthodoxy to be more democratic and republican in government than Catholicism or Mormonism).
2. The Eastern Orthodox Church is built on a foundations of Apostles and Prophets. Many Mormons, when talking about the belief in authority from the Apostles, have quipped, “It’s either us or the Catholics!” That’s not necessarily true. The Eastern Orthodox claim Apostolic Succession in almost the same way that the Roman Catholics do (as do a few other churches). A full explanation of Apostolic Succession requires a messy romp through history, but suffice it to say that Orthodoxy traces its authority to the same source as the Roman Catholics, and the Catholics and Orthodox both recognize this. The Orthodox do not believe that the 12 Apostles and Old Testament Prophets needed to be replaced, because they believe they are still living in Christ, are with us right now, and we can still talk to them!
3. The Eastern Orthodox Church believes in eternal progression and deification (theosis), and have taught it since the very beginnings of Orthodox written theology. However, it is different from the “traditional” Mormon theosis. Many Mormons read Patristic literature as confirming the Mormon view, but this is not fair. The Orthodox have always accepted that human beings who are faithful in Jesus Christ are transformed into the likeness of God, or join in union with God, and will continue to be transformed in this way in the afterlife. However, the Orthodox do not believe this means we become the same as God. If you are a Mormon, but you reject that God was once a man who “achieved godhood,” and reject that man can become a God and create in the same way that God does, and instead you believe that man can slowly attain a likeness of God and be transformed through his Grace into a divine being, then you already believe in Orthodox theosis. Therefore, the Orthodox don’t just believe that “all you have to do is believe in Jesus and then you’re saved.” Rather, salvation is an ongoing process of repentance and transformation into the likeness of God which is our eternal destiny.
4. The Eastern Orthodox Church believes in continuing revelation, visions, and miracles. Orthodoxy fully accepts that people can receive personal knowledge from God, visions from God, and that God continues to work miracles to this day. What they reject is that there is more revelation that is necessary for salvation. They believe that all the revelation necessary for salvation was given to the Apostles and that this was passed down to the Church.
5. In Orthodoxy, priests can be married. While there are some celibate priests in Orthodoxy, many are married and have children. There are celibate monks in Orthodoxy, and the bishops are taken from the monastic ranks, but there is no overall requirement for celibacy in Orthodoxy for priests. Orthodoxy believes in families and that families will be together after this life.
6. There is no Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Orthodoxy. If you, as a Mormon, have ever been confused about the Atonement, or wondered why God (or the Universe) literally required a physical punishment so severe that it caused blood to hemorrhage from Jesus’ skin, and why God was willing to let an innocent man suffer this punishment instead of us, just know that this view is a late, Western theory that was not taught in Christianity for hundreds of years. In Orthodoxy, Jesus was not sacrificed to satisfy God’s wrath, and God did not need Jesus to bleed from his skin in order to forgive us of our sins. The whole idea that all sins have an equal eye-for-an-eye physical punishment is entirely absent from Early Christianity and modern Orthodoxy.
7. The Orthodox are not Bible literalists. Neither do they read the Bible allegorically; at least, not in the way we typically define allegory. The Orthodox reject the simple literal-allegorical distinction of the post-Enlightenment West and focus more on the mystical truths of reality as they are taught in the Bible. Therefore, the Orthodox need not be concerned, nor have their faith shaken, about questions regarding when human souls were inserted into ape bodies during human evolution, or whether Noah really built an ark with two species from every insect, mammal, bird, and reptile on the entire Earth, etc. Also, the Orthodox do not believe that the Church comes from the Bible, but rather that the Bible came from the Church – and they should know, since they compiled it to begin with!
8. The Orthodox believe in fasting and prayer. In fact, a faithful Orthodox will fast many days of the year, and might give at least one 20-60 minute prayer every day, if they keep a prayer rule. The Orthodox have a long, structured prayer tradition that has been tried and tested for 2000 years. A faithful Orthodox will spend a large amount of the year fasting and praying!
9. The Orthodox believe in temple worship. However, they do not have temples that are built separately, with long checklists of behavioral requirements in order to enter. Rather, the Orthodox believe that the modern church serves the same function as the Jewish temple, and are also built with the same form: there is an altar where “sacrifice” is offered (with the Lamb being the physical body of Jesus Christ who died to serve that purpose), a veil that is opened for the service (just as the original temple was “rent” when Jesus died), and a floor plan that roughly mirrors the Jewish temple (with an inner and outer courtyard and pictures everywhere).
10. The Orthodox do not believe that Constantine ordered the Ecumenical Councils to “guess at” or “make up” Christian doctrine in order to settle political disputes. Nor do they believe that Orthodoxy was “corrupted” by Greek philosophy. These are common arguments in Mormonism against the councils and philosophies of Early Christianity, but in my opinion they are naive views that gloss over the realities of those events. Yes, the councils could be messy events, but this was the nature of the world at the time. The Orthodox don’t believe the councils were political (though they had political ramifications), nor that the doctrines they set forth were “guesses” at 1st Century Christianity. The Orthodox believe that the councils were precisely clarifying what it had believed since the beginning. The councils were not inventing doctrine in a vacuum – they had the oral and written words, traditions, and beliefs of the church still in existence from the beginning. Likewise, have those Mormons ever considered that Greek philosophy might have been right? And if so, why shouldn’t the church take advantage of the best philosophical and scientific thinking of its time?
11. The Orthodox believe in mysteries, but not in incoherence. What I mean by this is, the Orthodox fully accept that there are some things that are hard to understand about God, but not that these things are completely incoherent. For instance, the Trinity. Most Mormons (and sadly, many modern Christians) have a very dim view of what the Trinity doctrine actually is. But it is not that there are “one God in three Gods,” neither do they believe that Jesus “talked to Himself” when he prayed. Rather, they believe that God can be one essence, but three persons. It is complicated, but not incoherent. In fact, for the Orthodox, the doctrine of the Trinity actually sets up the foundation of all our relationships and love for our fellow men and women. It’s not just a coherent doctrine, it is also a powerful mode of thinking.
According to the Orthodox, none of these things needed to be revealed or restored because they were never lost in the first place! If there are any more things you think should be added (or any points you would dispute, either as a Mormon or an Eastern Orthodox, please say so in the comments).
Special thanks to those who helped me tweak this post for accuracy and clarity.