An Orthodox Looks at a Calvinist Looking at Orthodoxy

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Jack Kinneer, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and a D.Min. graduate of an Eastern Orthodox seminary, wrote a series of dense responses to his time at that seminary. The responses are generally concise, clear, and make the kind of observations that I like to make. My suspicion is that if Dr. Kineer is looking at things this way, there are a lot of other people who are looking at things the same way—but may not be able to put their finger on it. And he may have given voice to some things that Orthodox may wish to respond to.

Orthodoxy is difficult to understand, and I wrote a list of responses to some (not all) of the points he raises. I asked New Horizons, which printed his article, and they offered gracious permission to post with attribution, which is much appreciated. I believe that Dr. Kinneer’s words open a good conversation, and I am trying to worthily follow up on his lead.

A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy

Jack D. Kinneer


During my studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, I was often asked by students, “Are you Orthodox?” It always felt awkward to be asked such a question. I thought of myself as doctrinally orthodox. I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. So I thought I could claim the word orthodox.

But I did not belong to the communion of churches often called Eastern Orthodox, but more properly called simply Orthodox. I was not Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. As far as the Orthodox at St. Vladimir’s were concerned, I was not Orthodox, regardless of my agreement with them on various doctrines.

My studies at St. Vladimir’s allowed me to become acquainted with Orthodoxy and to become friends with a number of Orthodox professors, priests, and seminarians. My diploma was even signed by Metropolitan Theodosius, the head of the Orthodox Church in America. From the Metropolitan to the seminarians, I was received kindly and treated with respect and friendliness.

I am not the only Calvinist to have become acquainted with Orthodoxy in recent years. Sadly, a number have not only made the acquaintance, but also left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy. What is Orthodoxy and what is its appeal to some in the Reformed churches?

The Appeal of Orthodoxy

Since the days of the apostles, there have been Christian communities in such ancient cities as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Corinth in Greece. In such places, the Christian church grew, endured the tribulation of Roman persecution, and ultimately prevailed when the Roman Empire was officially converted to Christianity. But, unlike Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern Christians did not submit to the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the earthly head of the entire church. And why should they have done so? The centers of Orthodox Christianity were as old as, or even older than, the church in Rome. All the great ecumenical councils took place in the East and were attended overwhelmingly by Christian leaders from the East, with only a smattering of representatives from the West. Indeed, most of the great theologians and writers of the ancient church (commonly called the Church Fathers) were Greek-speaking Christians in the East.

The Orthodox churches have descended in an unbroken succession of generations from these ancient roots. As the Orthodox see it, the Western church followed the bishop of Rome into schism (in part by adding a phrase to the Nicene Creed). So, from their perspective, we Protestants are the product of a schism off a schism. The Orthodox believe that they have continued unbroken the churches founded by the apostles. They allow that we Reformed may be Christians, but our churches are not part of the true church, our ordinations are not valid, and our sacraments are no sacraments at all.

The apparently apostolic roots of Orthodoxy provide much of its appeal for some evangelical Protestants. Furthermore, it is not burdened with such later Roman Catholic developments as the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences, the immaculate conception of Mary, and her assumption into heaven. Orthodoxy is ancient; it is unified in a way that Protestantism is not; it lacks most of the medieval doctrines and practices that gave rise to the Reformation. This gives it for many a fascinating appeal.

Part of that appeal is the rich liturgical heritage of Orthodoxy, with its elaborate liturgies, its glorious garbing of the clergy, and its gestures, symbols, and icons. If it is true that the distinctive mark of Reformed worship is simplicity, then even more so is glory the distinctive mark of Orthodox worship. Another appealing aspect of Orthodox worship is its otherness. It is mysterious, sensual, and, as the Orthodox see it, heavenly. Orthodox worship at its best makes you feel like you have been transported into one of the worship scenes in the book of Revelation. Of course, if the priest chants off-key or the choir sings poorly, it is not quite so wonderful.

There are many other things that could be mentioned, but I’ve mentioned the things that have particularly struck me. These are also the things that converts from Protestantism say attracted them.

The Shortcomings of Orthodoxy

So then, is this Orthodox Presbyterian about to drop the “Presbyterian” and become simply Orthodox? No! In my estimation, the shortcomings of Orthodoxy outweigh its many fascinations. A comparison of the Reformed faith with the Orthodox faith would be a massive undertaking, made all the more difficult because Orthodoxy has no doctrinal statement comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Orthodoxy is the consensus of faith arising from the ancient Fathers and the ecumenical councils. This includes the forty-nine volumes of the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers, plus the writings of the hermits and monastics known collectively as the Desert Fathers! It would take an entire issue of New Horizons just to outline the topics to be covered in a comparison of Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity. So the following comments are selective rather than systematic.

First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith. Some reject it. Others tolerate it, but no one I met or read seemed to really understand it. Just as Protestants can make justification the whole (rather than the beginning) of the gospel, so the Orthodox tend to make sanctification (which they call “theosis” or deification) the whole gospel. In my estimation, this is a serious defect. It weakens the Orthodox understanding of the nature of saving faith.

Orthodoxy also has a real problem with nominal members. Many Orthodox Christians have a very inadequate understanding of the gospel as Orthodoxy understands it. Their religion is often so intertwined with their ethnicity that being Russian or Greek becomes almost synonymous with being Orthodox. This is, by the way, a critique I heard from the lips of Orthodox leaders themselves. This is not nearly as serious a problem in Reformed churches because our preaching continually stresses the necessity for a personal, intimate trusting, receiving, and resting upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Such an emphasis is blurred among the Orthodox.

Second, the Orthodox have a very inadequate understanding of sovereign grace. It is not fair to say that they are Pelagians. (Pelagius was a Western Christian who denied original sin and taught that man’s will is free to choose good.) But they are definitely not Augustinians (Calvinists) on sin and grace. In a conversation with professors and doctoral students about the nature of salvation, I quoted Ezekiel 36:26-27 as showing that there is a grace of God that precedes faith and enables that human response. One professor said in response, “I never thought of that verse in that way before.” The Orthodox have not thought a lot about sin, regeneration, election, and so forth. Their view of original sin (a term which they avoid) falls far short of the teaching of Paul. Correspondingly, their understanding of Christ’s atonement and God’s calling is weak as well. Their views could best be described as undeveloped. If you want to see this for yourself, read Chrysostom on John 6:44-45, and then read Calvin on the same passage.

Third, the Orthodox are passionately committed to the use of icons (flat images of Christ, Mary, or a saint) in worship. Indeed, the annual Feast of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of icons to the churches at the end of the Iconoclast controversy (in a.d. 843). For the Orthodox, the making and venerating of icons is the mark of Orthodoxy—showing that one really believes that God the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father, became also truly human. Since I did not venerate icons, I was repeatedly asked whether or not I really believed in the Incarnation. The Orthodox are deeply offended at the suggestion that their veneration of icons is a violation of the second commandment. But after listening patiently to their justifications, I am convinced that whatever their intentions may be, their practice is not biblical. However, our dialogue on the subject sent me back to the Bible to study the issue in a way that I had not done before. The critique I would offer now is considerably different than the traditional Reformed critique of the practice.

Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had. At least at St. Vladimir’s, Orthodox scholars have been significantly influenced by higher-critical views of Scripture, especially as such views have developed in contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship. This is, however, a point of controversy among the Orthodox, just as it is among Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy also has its divisions between liberals and conservatives. But even those who are untainted by higher-critical views rarely accord to Scripture the authority that it claims for itself or which was accorded to it by the Fathers. The voice of Scripture is largely limited to the interpretations of Scripture found in the Fathers.

There is much else to be said. Orthodoxy is passionately committed to monasticism. Its liturgy includes prayers to Mary. And the Divine Liturgy, for all its antiquity, is the product of a long historical process. If you want to follow the “liturgy” that is unquestionably apostolic, then partake of the Lord’s Supper, pray the Lord’s Prayer, sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and say “amen,” “hallelujah,” and “maranatha.” Almost everything else in any liturgy is a later adaptation and development.

A Concluding Assessment

But these criticisms do not mean that we have nothing to learn from Orthodoxy. Just as the Orthodox have not thought a lot about matters that have consumed us (such as justification, the nature of Scripture, sovereign grace, and Christ’s work on the cross), so we have not thought a lot about what have been their consuming passions: the Incarnation, the meaning of worship, the soul’s perfection in the communicable attributes of God (which they call the energies of God), and the disciplines by which we grow in grace. Let us have the maturity to keep the faith as we know it, and to learn from others where we need to learn.

Orthodoxy in many ways fascinates me, but it does not claim my heart nor stir my soul as does the Reformed faith. My firsthand exposure to Orthodoxy has left me all the more convinced that on the essential matters of human sin, divine forgiveness, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the Reformed faith is the biblical faith. I would love to see my Orthodox friends embrace a more biblical understanding of these matters. And I am grieved when Reformed friends sacrifice this greater good for the considerable but lesser goods of Orthodox liturgy and piety.


Dr. Kinneer is the director of Echo Hill Christian Study Center in Indian Head, Pa.

Reprinted from New Horizons of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, as posted at http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/calvinist_on_orthodoxy.html. Used with permission.


I wrote the following reply:

Dear Dr. Kinneer;

First, on an Orthodox mailing list, I saw a copy of your “A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy.” I would like to write a somewhat measured response that you might find of interest; please quote me if you like, preferably with attribution and a link to my website (CJSHayward.com). I am a convert Orthodox and a graduate of Calvin College, for which I have fond memories, although I was never a Calvinist, merely a non-Calvinist Evangelical welcomed in the warm embrace of the community. I am presently a Ph.D. student in theology and went to church for some time at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and have friends there. I hope that you may find something of interest in my comments here.

Second, you talk about discussion of being Eastern Orthodox versus being orthodox. I would take this as a linguistically confusing matter of the English language, where even in spoken English the context clarifies whether (o)rthodox or (O)rthodox is the meaning intended by the speaker.

Third, I will be focusing mostly on matters I where I would at least suggest some further nuance, but your summary headed “The Appeal of Orthodoxy,” among other things in the article, is a good sort of thing and the sort of thing I might find convenient to quote.

Fourth, the Orthodox consensus of faith is not a much longer and less manageable collection of texts than the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, combined with the even more massive Patrologia Graecae, and other patristic sources. I have said elsewhere that Western and particularly Protestant and Evangelical culture are at their core written cultures, and Orthodoxy is at its core an oral culture that makes use of writing—I could suggest that it was precisely the Reformation that is at the root of what we now know as literate culture. This means that Orthodoxy does not have, as its closest equivalent to the Westminster Confession, a backbreaking load of books that even patristics scholars can’t read cover to cover; it means that the closest Orthodox equivalent to Westminster Confession is not anything printed but something alive in the life and culture of the community. (At very least this is true if you exclude the Nicene Creed, which is often considered “what Orthodox are supposed to believe.”)

Fifth, regarding the words, “First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith:” are you contending that former Evangelicals, who had an Evangelical understanding of justification by faith, were probably fairly devout Evangelicals, and are well-represented at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, do not understand justification by faith?

There seems to be something going on here that is a mirror image of what you say below about icons: there, you complain about people assuming that if you don’t hold the Orthodox position on icons, you don’t understand the Christian doctrine of the incarnation; here, you seem in a mirror image to assume that if people don’t have a Reformation-compatible understanding of justification by faith, you don’t understand the Biblical teaching.

I wrote, for a novella I’m working on, The Sign of the Grail, a passage where the main character, an Evangelical, goes to an Orthodox liturgy, hears amidst the mysterious-sounding phrases a reading including “The just shall walk by faith,” before the homily:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it’s a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don’t recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren’t proud of, and while Luther doesn’t speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, “Don’t some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?” And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about “The righteous shall walk by faith,” which was in the Bible’s readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn’t like in Scripture.

It’s a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it’s hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I’d like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.

In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord’s response is to say that he’s sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I’m not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don’t want to leave people here trying to get disturbing images out of people’s minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.

The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord’s response is very mysterious: “The righteous shall walk by faith.”

Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn’t. It’s a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, “I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the righteous shall walk by faith.”

The words “The righteous shall walk by faith” are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.

Paul does not say, “The righteous will walk by sight,” even as he invokes the words, “The righteous shall walk by faith.”

Here’s something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, “The righteous shall walk by faith.”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

When I showed this to one Reformation scholar to check my treatment of the Reformation, he said that I didn’t explain what “The righteous shall walk by faith,” but my entire point was to show what the Old Testament quotation could mean besides a shibboleth that one is sanctified in entirety in response to faith without one iota being earned by good works. The Reformation teaching, as I understand it, reflects a subtle adaptation of the Pauline usage—and here I might underscore that Paul and Luther had different opponents—and a profound adaptation of the Old Testament usage. And it may be possible to properly understand the Biblical text without interpreting it along Reformation lines.

Sixth, you write that Orthodox tend to have a poor understanding of sovereign grace. I remember how offended my spiritual Father was when I shared that a self-proclaimed non-ordained Reformed minister—the one person who harassed me when I became Orthodox—said that Orthodox didn’t believe in grace. He wasn’t offended at me, but I cannot ever recall seeing him be more offended. (Note: that harassment was a bitter experience, but I’d really like to think I’m not bitter towards Calvinists; I have a lot of fond memories from my time at Calvin and some excellent memories of friends who tended to be born and bred Calvinists.)

I would suggest that if you can say that Orthodox do not understand sovereign grace shortly after talking about a heavy emphasis on theosis, you are thinking about Orthodox doctrine through a Western grid and are missing partly some details and partly the big picture of how things fit together.

Seventh, I am slightly surprised that you describe original sin as simply being in the Bible and something Orthodox do not teach. Rom 5:12 as translated in the Vulgate (“…in quo omnes peccaverunt”) has a Greek ambiguity translated out, so that a Greek text that could quite justifiably be rendered that death came into the world “because all sinned” (NIV) is unambiguously rendered as saying about Adam, “in whom all have sinned,” which in turn fed into Augustine’s shaping of the Western doctrine of original sin. It’s a little surprising to me that you present this reading of an ambiguity as simply being what the Bible says, so that the Orthodox are deficiently presenting the Bible by not sharing the reading.

Eighth, I too was puzzled by the belief that the Incarnation immediately justifies icons, and I find it less puzzling to hold a more nuanced understanding of the Orthodox teaching that if you understand the Incarnation on patristic terms—instead of by a Reformation definition—its inner logic flows out to the point of an embrace of creation that has room for icons. I won’t develop proof-texts here; what I will say is that the kind of logical inference that is made is similar to a kind of logical inference I see in your report, i.e. that “The righteous shall walk by faith” means the Reformation doctrine that we are justified by faith alone and not by works.

I believe that this kind of reasoning is neither automatically right nor automatically wrong, but something that needs to be judged in each case.

Ninth, you write, “Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had.” When I was about to be received into the Orthodox Church, I told my father that I had been devoted in my reading of the Bible and I would switch to being devoted in my reading of the Fathers. My spiritual father, who is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, emphatically asked me to back up a bit, saying that the Bible was the core text and the Fathers were a commentary. He’s said that he would consider himself very fortunate if his parishioners would spend half an hour a day reading the Bible. On an Orthodox mailing list, one cradle Orthodox believer among mostly converts quoted as emphatic an Orthodox clergyman saying, “If you don’t read your Bible each day, you’re not a Christian.” Which I would take as exaggeration, perhaps, but exaggeration as a means of emphasizing something important.

Tenth, regarding higher-critical views at St. Vladimir’s Seminary: I agree that it is a problem, but I would remind you of how St. Vladimir’s Seminary and St. Tikhon’s Seminary compare. St. Vladimir’s Seminary is more liberal, and it is an excellent academic environment that gives degrees including an Orthodox M.Min. St. Tikhon’s Seminary is academically much looser but it is considered an excellent preparation for ministry. If you saw some degree of liberal academic theology at St. Vladimir’s, you are seeing the fruits of your (legitimate) selection. Not that St. Vladimir’s Seminary is the only Orthodox seminary which is not completely perfect, but if you want to see preparation for pastoral ministry placed ahead of academic study at an Orthodox institution, St. Tikhon’s might interest you.

Eleventh, after I was at Calvin, I remembered one friend, tongue-in-cheek, talking about “the person who led me to Calvin.” I also remember that when I was at Calvin, I heard more talk about being “disciples of John Calvin” than being “disciples of Jesus Christ,” and talk more about bearing the name of “Calvinist” than “Christian,” although this time it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. I notice that you speak of how, “sadly,” people “left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy.” One response might be one that Reformers like Calvin might share: “Was John Calvin crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of John Calvin?” (Cf I Cor. 1:13)

I left this out at first because it’s not as “nice” as some of the others, but I would like to invite you to perhaps leave the “faith” (as you call it) that aims for John Calvin, and embrace the faith that Calvin was trying to re-create in response to abuses in the Western Church. It’s still alive, and we still have an open door for you.

When I studied early modern era Orthodox Patriarch Cyril Lucaris, I compared the Eucharistic teaching in his profession of faith to the Eucharistic teaching in Calvin’s Institutes

…and concluded that Calvin was more Orthodox. Calvin, among other things, concerned himself with the question of what John Chrysostom taught.

I really don’t think I was trying to be a pest. But what I did not develop is that Calvin tried to understand what the Greek Fathers taught, always as an answer to Protestant questions about what, in metaphysical terms, happens to the Holy Gifts. The Orthodox question is less about the transformation of the Holy Gifts than the transformation of those who receive it, and Calvin essentially let the Fathers say whatever they wanted… as long as they answered a question on terms set by the Reformation.

When I read Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, my immediate reaction was that I wished the book had been “expanded to six times its present length.” I have some reservations about the fruitfulness of presuppositional apologetics now. What I do not have reservations about is saying that there is a valid insight in Schaeffer’s approach, and more specifically there is distortion introduced by letting Orthodoxy say whatever it wants… as an answer to Calvinist questions.

To assert, without perceived need for justification, that the Orthodox have very little understanding of sovereign grace and follow this claim by saying that there is a preoccupation with divinization comes across to Orthodox much like saying, “_______ have very little concept of ‘medicine’ or ‘health’ and are always frequenting doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and exercise clubs.” It’s a sign that Orthodox are allowed to fill in the details of sin, incarnation, justification, or (in this case) grace, but on condition that they are filling out the Reformation’s unquestioned framework.

But the way to understand this is less analysis than worship.

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