Catholic Perspective on the Eastern Orthodox Part I
Updated: Feb 17, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
The Eastern Orthodox religion is not a unified “religion” per se, but is a grouping of fourteen autocephalous churches (Greek, Russian, etc.). They originally were in union with Rome (meaning that they were originally founded by Jesus) but slowly split apart from Rome. This separation happened officially in 1054 AD, but the Catholic Church still recognizes how close they are to Catholicism. The Eastern Orthodox have a hierarchy of deacons, priests, and bishops, which is what Catholicism has. They have valid apostolic succession in their bishops and validly celebrate seven sacraments just like Catholicism. Their ancient liturgical tradition, with vestments, incense, and notion of sacrifice, all mirror the liturgies of various rites within Catholicism. The saints in Heaven, such as St. Paul or St. Athanasius, are constantly beseeched for intercession before God. Mary is considered to be immaculate, ever-virgin, and Mother of God. She is venerated, which is something that principally only Catholics do. So, the Orthodox are very, very similar to Catholics. There are some differences between Catholics and Orthodox, but since the Orthodox do not have an official, universal Catechism laying out all of their doctrines, some Orthodox may be closer or farther away from Catholicism. Below are some of the general differences that many Orthodox may have.
The phrase “Filioque” means “and the Son.” It is a phrase that was controversially added in to the common Nicene Creed (325 AD) by Western Christians in 589 AD. Eastern Orthodox Christians rejected this addition to the Creed and still do to this day. The reason has to do with the specifics of the doctrine of the Trinity – and in particular the Holy Spirit.
First, one needs to understand the Trinity. Jewish Scripture emphasizes that there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), however, Jesus revealed Himself to be both Divine and separate from God the Father (John 8:58, 10:30, etc.). Jesus also revealed that the Holy Spirit is God as well (Matthew 28:19-20). So, Christianity had to explain how God could be both one and three at the same time. This tension was somewhat alleviated with the philosophical terminology of "Trinity" - three persons with the same substance who are all mysteriously one. This was analogically compared to the internal processions of the mind. For example, if somebody wanted to imagine a wooden table, he would need to utilize his memory of previous tables, his intellect to imaginatively form an image of the table, and his reason to create the word “table.” All of these mental functions stay within the mind – they begin and end within the confines of one’s head. This is similar to the “three persons - one God” explanation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Such Trinitarian terminology was hashed out at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, but issues came down the road with the addition of the Filioque. Regarding the Holy Spirit, the original Nicene Creed said, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.” This wording emphasized that God the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from God the Father as a member of the Trinitarian God-head. However, a few centuries later, the 3rd Council of Toledo (589 AD) added in the “Filioque” - meaning the phrase “and the Son.” The Creed then said, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Pope added this phrase to emphasize the divinity of the Holy Spirit more clearly, showing that the Spirit eternally proceeds from both God the Father and God the Son. However, this upset the Eastern Christians. They affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit but denied that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. Rather, in their minds, the Holy Spirit proceeds solely from the Father alone. They also argued that the Nicene Creed was locked in its wording of the Trinity, so the "Filioque" or "and the Son" wording should have been left out.
Defending the Filioque
The Early Church Fathers, such as Origen, Tertullian, Ambrose, Gregory of Nissa, Basil, Hilary, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria, all believed in the Filioque. So the Church was not inventing something out of thin air by adding the phrase “and the Son.” For the only way to understand the eternal processions of the Trinity (i.e. whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from just the Father or both the Father and the Son) is to know the temporal missions of the Trinity. God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, to redeem the world. That is the first temporal mission in human history that implies the eternal procession of God the Son from God the Father. Next, the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to sanctify the world (John 15-16). This is the second temporal mission, and it implies that the eternal procession of God the Holy Spirit comes from both God the Father and God the Son. As Galatians 4:6 says, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” Notice that the Spirit comes from God the Father and God the Son. Also, when the Orthodox say that the Nicene Creed was not supposed to receive any additional statements to it, they form a contradiction. For it would imply that the Church can authoritatively lock the Creed yet cannot unlock it and add to it. If they have the authority to lock it, then they have the authority to unlock it. So, the Church was justified in doing so.
Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in the office of the episcopate, whereby bishops have authority (jurisdiction) over their individual dioceses. They believe that doctrinal decisions are settled only by gathering all of the bishops of the world together in an ecumenical council and voting together on issues. The majority vote rules the day. They argue that the Pope is a special bishop over his diocese (Rome) and does not have jurisdiction over the entire world. The office of the papacy, which St. Peter and his successors in Rome form, is a special office, though. He can be said to be the first among equals. This means that the Pope can lead the bishops of the world in gathering a consensus on different doctrines, but the Pope cannot offer pre-emptive decrees as the authority over the entire Church (as with the case of the Filioque). The papacy, for them, does not involve universal jurisdiction. He is similar to the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the USA, for he does not have more power over the other supreme court justices and cannot handle decisions alone. He is only a figurehead, as is the papacy. From this teaching, it follows that the Pope does not possess the gift of infallibility when teaching officially, either.
Defending the Papacy
First, the idea of a figurehead did not exist in the ancient near east. If a leader possessed authority, then they really had authority. Peter was given such an authority when Jesus made him the rock and key-holder of the Church (Matt. 16:18-19). This authority given to Peter was not given to the other apostles, but to Peter alone. Second, Peter’s successors in Rome wielded their authority over the other bishops of the world leading up to the 1054 AD split with the Orthodox, so this was not a recent invention. For example, the bishop of Rome historically intervened in dioceses far away from his own, such as by deposing eastern heterodox bishops. Why would the Pope get away with this if he had limited authority? Or consider how the bishop of Rome historically functioned as the highest court in the Church. For example, if any bishops were accused of crimes, they would meet with their metropolitan bishop in a regional court (ex. as a modern example, maybe a bishop in Rochester, New York would go up to the regional court in the massive diocese of New York City, NY; or as an ancient example, an Egyptian bishop would go to the regional court in the capital diocese of Alexandria, Egypt). After a decision was offered by the regional court, the bishop could appeal the decision by going to the highest authority - the Pope. This was done not because Rome was the capital of the Empire, but because St. Peter’s successor was the capital authority. Classic Petrine texts like Matthew 16:18-19 were cited back in antiquity to support this practice. Rome was the supreme court. How could this be if the Pope did not have universal jurisdiction? Besides this, why did the early Church Fathers call the Pope the “head” of the Church? They were certainly implying that he had more authority than the other bishops! Consider also Rome's authority in the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), whereby the bishops of the Church were satisfied with a clarifying letter from Pope Leo the Great (“the Tome of Leo”). They said, "Peter has spoken through Leo!" That sounds awfully like the modern papal claims. Also, nothing was considered infallible in the early Church unless Rome signed off on it. Why would that be the case if Rome did not have universal jurisdiction? See this in book, "The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon in 451 AD" by Adrian Fortescue. Finally, the Pope’s authority is infallible when he officially defines doctrine "ex cathedra" for various reasons. Perhaps the best argument is where Jesus says to Peter that Heaven will “bind” and “loose” through him (Matt. 16:19). God reigns in Heaven, and God cannot lie, so God would be communicating truth to the world through Peter. The notion of "keys" given to Peter denotes an office with successors (see Isaiah 22:15-25), so Peter's successors must be infallible when teaching definitively.
Catholics believe that sins committed after baptism result in two things: guilt and temporal punishment. When somebody confesses their sins in the Sacrament of Confession, God relieves the guilt, but the temporal punishment remains. For God will discipline His children for their sins by giving them sufferings, which will either occur on this earth or beyond through purgation. Catholics fully believe in this doctrine of Purgatory not only because it is attested in Scripture and Tradition, but also because it was officially taught by the Catholic Church during Ecumenical Councils like Trent. Many Orthodox believe in this idea of purgation after death, and it was taught very clearly at their Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 AD. However, some Orthodox argue that since this council was not Ecumenical (worldwide), then they do not need to hold to the doctrine of Purgatory. So, such Orthodox members may pray for the dead to be comforted, but they deny any sort of suffering or purification after death.
The issue of Purgatory can be seen in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, where St. Paul says that Christians will be judged by God through fire. That fire of God’s holy presence will engulf the person, who is envisioned as a temple. The temple has flammable materials, such as wood, hay, or straw. Those materials will be burned up, for they are imperfections or sins. That purgation causes the person to “suffer loss.” The Greek preponderant meaning of the phrase in the LXX is “punishment.” So, the person undergoes a cleansing by God after death that involves pain as a sort of punishment for sins.
Continued in Part II