Comparative Theology

“The whole Christian world is anxious to see the church unite…We are convinced that Christian unity is the wish of our Lord Jesus Christ”[1]

-HH Pope Shenouda III

GENERAL CHRISTIANITY

Our Lord revealed one of His goals very early in His ministry when He acknowledged Himself as fulfilling this portion of prophecy from Isaiah:

“…He has anointed Me To preach the gospel [euangelizō] to the poor…” (Luke 4:18)[citing Isaiah 52:7)

The Greek word for “Gospel” is εὐαγγέλιον and it means “glad tidings” or “good news.” The “good news” is that God has made it possible for all humans to overcome death and inherit eternal life. Death was the inevitable fate of all humans because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and all are born with an ancestral sin as well as make sinful choices. Yet the disease of sin and its consequent death have been conquered through our Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension. St.Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395 AD) summarizes it as follows:

“…we say that He [Christ] was born among us for the cure of the disease of sin”[2]

If sin is the disease, death is the result, and Christ is the cure, then the following three questions need to be answered:

  1. How does one get saved / access this cure? [soteriology]
  2. What is the nature of the church and her role in acquiring salvation / this cure? [Ecclesiology]
  3. Every church believes it is right and the others are wrong. How can anyone possibly know they have the fullness of truth?

 

We will compare and contrast the three main branches of Christianity (Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism) in their understanding of the first two points and then conclude by considering how any Christian can be confident in the church they are a part of. The timeline below will be helpful as historical developments are discussed throughout this article.

 

Figure 1: Timeline of Church History[3]

 

ORTHODOXY

In Orthodoxy, there are four essential conditions to be saved. HH Pope Shenouda III enumerates them as follows:[4]

  1. Faith
  2. Baptism
  3. Sacraments Necessary for Salvation [Holy Unction, Eucharist, Repentance/Confession]
  4. Good works [salvation is not attained through good works yet it is not attained without them..]

 

It is beyond the scope of this article to engage in the details of each condition, but the link is below for anyone interested to read them. Since the sacraments cannot be administered without an ordained priest, the church is essential in every believer’s salvation.

Perhaps the church’s role is best understood through the conversation between our Lord and St.Peter regarding our Lord’s identity. When St.Peter proclaimed our Lord as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” our Lord responded that “on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,” (Matt 16:18) thus affirming Himself [Christ] as the only possible foundation for the Church (1Cor3:11). Notice how this promise of salvation isn’t for individual believers, but rather for the total united body of faithful congregants. To not be part of that body is to lose access to the associated promise. Thus, the Orthodox position on the church is best summarized by St.Cyprian (200-258 AD) as follows:

“Whoever is separated from the Church … is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ… He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”[5]

The characteristics of the church which the Orthodox believe in is described in the Nicene Creed [completed in 381 AD prior to any church schisms] as “One, Holy, Universal, and Apostolic.” In fact, all Christians agreed to these characteristics, because the Creed was written in an Ecumenical [universal] synod prior to any church schisms. This means there is only one church, intended for all peoples, and her teachings and life are aligned with and succeeded from the apostles.[6] Lastly, the word “church” is Biblically used to refer to three things: the church building, the congregation, and the church leaders or priests.[7] Regarding the last definition of church leadership, the Orthodox church operates under the Biblical precedent set in Acts 15 at the “Jerusalem Council” by making decisions involving all the church leadership in a synod of bishops to this day.

CATHOLICISM

The Roman Catholic church is exemplary in its defense of family values and a beacon of hope to all Christians in its promotion and efforts towards the pro-life movement. While addressing the Roman Catholic Church, HH Pope Tawadros II once said “The most important aim for both is the promotion of ecumenical dialogue in order to get to the most pursued goal, unity.”[8]

Although there are differences in how the sacraments are approached and practiced [i.e triple immersion vs sprinkling water in baptism, confirmation at age twelve, and parading/public adoration of the Eucharist[9]]; the Roman Catholic church also believes that faith,[10] baptism,[11] and the sacraments[12] are necessary for salvation. However, the following two differences in understanding salvation are worth mentioning:

  1. Purgatory, the belief of a state of post-mortem suffering intended to purify souls prior to inheriting heaven. This teaching was officially introduced in the Catholic church shortly after the ninth crusade in 1274 AD at the second council of Lyon and took place over two centuries after splitting from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054 AD [known as “The Great Schism”]. The Catholic belief in purgatory is considered “de fide,”[13] or an essential element of faith for Catholics of good standing. The Orthodox Church lovingly and firmly rejects this belief as expressed by HH Pope Shenouda III in a book titled “Why We Reject Purgatory.”[14]
  2. Immaculate Conception: In Orthodoxy, the Holy Theotokos is dearly loved and highly venerated as Scripture teaches (Luke 1:48), yet she personally affirmed her need of salvation (Luke 1:47) as all humans are. The Catholic view is that she was born without sin as dogmatized in 1854[15] and consequently her role in salvation is elevated beyond what is proper – to the extent that the Catholic church gave her the title of “co-redemptress.”

 

Figure 2: HH Pope Tawadros II and Pope Francis in 2013

Regarding the church and its role, the following differences are worth mentioning:

  1. Papal Infallibility: In contrast to the Orthodox model of authority and decision making as exemplified in Acts 15 and subsequent councils; authority in the Catholic church is grounded in the pope, who is regarded as infallible when speaking on issues of faith (“ex cathedra”).
  2. Filoque Clause: The disregard towards council authority is best seen in the filioque heresy, which is a direct attack on the unity of the Trinity as expressed in the Nicene Creed.[16] The president at the council of Nicea, St.Cyril, exclaimed that

“nor yet do we allow either ourselves or others, either to alter a word of what is there laid up, or to overpass even one syllable”[17]

 

The subsequent council of Ephesus in 431 AD also made it canon law that nobody can write or compose a different faith as a rival to that established in Nicea.[18] Despite this, the Catholic Church altered the Nicene Creed, and it resulted in the split between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1054 AD.

 

  1. Mandatory Clerical celibacy: Catholic priests are required to be celibate, whereas in Orthodoxy the precedent set by St.Paphnutius from the council of Nicea is maintained.[19]

 

PROTESTANTISM

Protestantism refers to all the churches resulting from a separation (or “protesting”) from the Roman Catholic church during the Reformation in the 16th century when Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1521 AD. These churches comprise the vast majority of the 33,000 denominations of Christianity[20] and reflect a broad range of theological views. Generally speaking, Protestants are truly exemplary in their evangelism, zeal, devotion to Biblical publication, and concern for the salvation of all non-Christians.

Theologically, the Protestant understanding of how to attain salvation is fundamentally different from Orthodoxy. The major differences of salvation theology (Soteriology) can be summarized as follows:

  1. Non-Sacramentalism: In contrast to Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Protestantism generally does not consider baptism and other sacraments as necessary for salvation. Anyone who holds to this view is highly encouraged to consider the ramifications if it is wrong. William Lane Craig, a leading Protestant apologist and theologian succinctly described it as follows: “If the sacramentalist is right you can be risking salvation”
  2. Sola Fida, or “faith alone” is the belief that salvation is attained by faith alone. It is one of the five “sola’s” which comprise the core of Reformed Theology. In Protestantism, this is considered “the article on which the church stands or falls.”[21] However, the only time “faith alone” is found in Scripture is when we read that justification is NOT by faith alone: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24). The doctrine of Sola Fida may be traced to the 16th century when Martin Luther famously and controversially added the word “alone” to a verse to Romans 3:28 as follows:

“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [Martin Luther added “alone” here] apart from the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28)

As expected, this modification to the Holy Scriptures resulted in novel theology. By grounding salvation exclusively in one’s personal faith; the church is not regarded as essential in attaining salvation in this view.

  1. Sola Gratia, or “grace alone” is the belief that no act of man can contribute to salvation, whereas, the act of repentance is clearly mandatory to be saved (Luke 13:3,5).

 

Figure 3: HH Pope Kyrillos the 6th and Billy Graham

 

In regard to the church’s role in administering salvation, the following disagreements between Orthodoxy and Protestantism are worth noting:

  1. Sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone” is the belief that Scripture is the sole authority (as opposed to the synod of Bishops). Yet, it is clear that Scripture commands following the teachings handed down in all forms, including oral tradition (2Thess2:15)(2Tim1:13)(Phil 4:9)(1Cor.11:2)(2Tim3:14).
  2. Sola Christus, [“Christ alone”] and Sola de La Gloria, [“glory to God alone”] are the last two of the five sola’s which comprise the core of Reformed Theology.

 

HOW CAN ANYONE KNOW WHICH CHURCH IS CORRECT?

We know that correct doctrine is crucial for salvation:

“Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.” (1Timothy4:16)

Every Christian adheres to a set of dogmas / doctrines which they inherited from the tradition they are raised on. The question which everyone must answer is:

Is there any given time in history when there was no church in existence which adhered to your current doctrines?

If the answer is “yes,” then a plethora of questions should be raised. First should be whether the doctrines were introduced by human opinions throughout history.  The Biblical precedent is clear:

“Do not remove the ancient landmark Which your fathers have set.” (Proverbs 22:28)

If you are uncertain whether your church’s beliefs adhere to historic Christianity, then you are encouraged to consider the Orthodox faith, whose historic merit is reflected in the Liturgical chant which the entire congregation chants every Sunday:

“As it was, so shall it be, from generation to generation, and unto the ages of all ages. Amen”

The farther back we go in history, the more we have the ability to explore and consider the Christian beliefs that were held when there was still only one church and everyone was in unity. This set of beliefs is the fullness of truth, and any deviation from the historic church’s doctrines introduces a deviation from Christianity’s origins.

CONCLUSION

Unity among the churches is our Lord’s desire, and as followers of Christ, we are also committed to the cause of unity. This effort requires firmly adhering to truth while simultaneously extending our Lord’s tender love towards those of differing backgrounds. We pray that our Lord gives wisdom to the church hierarchs in this monumental effort, as it requires divine aid, and we are hopeful that, with His help, this effort continues to progress. Indeed, every faithful Orthodox Christian concludes their hourly prayers in praying this effort, and through faith, we know that our Lord hears and answers us.

“Surround us by Your holy angels, that, by their camp, we may be guarded and guided, and attain the unity of faith, and the knowledge of Your imperceptible and infinite glory”

-Conclusion of every hour, Agpya

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] HH Pope Shenouda III, 8:41-9:20 of video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3RnVFAbcZA

[2] -St.Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Book VI, paragraph 3, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/290106.htm

[3] From HE Metropolitan Bishoy: http://metropolitan-bishoy.org/files/ecumenieng/engchart.pdf

[4] HH Pope Shenouda III, Pg.26 of “Salvation in the Orthodox Concept”

https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=Y2NjbmV0LmNhfHNlcnZhbnRyZXNvdXJjZXN8Z3g6MTkxMjVhM2JhMGIwYjg4OA

[5]St.Cyril, paragraph 6, Treatise 1, “On the Unity of the Church” https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050701.htm

[6] HH Pope Shenouda III, pg.94-104 of “The Creed”

https://ukmidcopts.org/kotob/HH%20Pope%20Shenouda/TheCreed.pdf

[7] HH Pope Shenouda III, pg.94-95 of “The Creed”

https://ukmidcopts.org/kotob/HH%20Pope%20Shenouda/TheCreed.pdf

[8] https://www.copticworld.org/articles/2019/

[9] Council of Trent, Canon 6 on the Eucharist

http://www.catholicapologetics.info/modernproblems/newmass/trent.htm

[10] Part One, Section One, Chapter 3, Article 2, III, Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1992. Print

[11] Ibid. Part Two, Section Two, Chapter One, Article 1, VI

[12] Ibid. Part Two, Section One, Chapter One, Article Two, IV

[13] Pg.482 of “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma” by Ludwig Ott

[14] HH Pope Shenoua III, “Why We Reject Purgatory”

https://st-takla.org/Full-Free-Coptic-Books/His-Holiness-Pope-Shenouda-III-Books-Online/36-El-Mathar/Reject-Purgatory__00-index.html

[15] The dogma of “Immaculate Conception” was dogmatized in 1854 with a Papal Encyclical by Pope Pius IX

[16] Pg.278-288 of “Rock and Sand an Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and their Teachings” by Archpriest Josiah Trenham

[17] St.Cyril of Alexandria letter to John of Antioch: http://www.voskrese.info/spl/cyr4.html

[18] Canon 7 from the Council of Ephesus: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3810.htm

[19] https://orthodoxchurchfathers.com/fathers/npnf214/npnf2125.htm

[20] World Chris­t­ian Ency­clo­pe­dia (Bar­rett, Kurian, and John­son; Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press). Vol. I, p. 16

[21] Ch.22 titled “The Ground of Religion” in “The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands and Falls”

 

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