Orthodox Defense

Defense of Orthodoxy: Problematic Topics
by pragerfan

Infant Baptism
Challenge: If the infant does not understand what is happening why should it be baptized?

We are saved as the body of Christ. None of us is saved alone.1 We are saved as members of Christ's body, living in each other's lives, and so, when a child is born we wish to bring him or her at once into this community of faith. We believe that it is best for a child to grow up inside of the church, not outside, that he or she should be part of the family from the beginning, rather than looking in from the outside. The faith of the community and in particular the faith of the godparents surrounds, supports, and avails for the child. As the child grows up, he or she will need to make a conscious commitment, will need to make the faith his own. At the beginning the faith of others supports the child, that the child does not grow up isolated outside the family, but surrounded by the faith of other members of the family. — Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Sacramental Life.

The Veneration of the Icons
Challenge: Orthodox Christians worship icons. This violates the second commandment regarding graven images.

Response: The person is usually confusing latreia, i.e. true worship, with reverence. From the writings of St. John of Damascus:
We do not adore as gods the figures and images of the saints. For if it was the mere wood of the image that we adored as God, we should likewise adore all wood, and not, as often happens, when the form grows faint, throw the image into the fire. And again, as long as the wood remains in the form of a cross, I adore it on account of Christ who was crucified upon it. When it falls to pieces, I throw them into the fire. just as the man who receives the sealed orders of the king and embraces the seal, looks upon the dust and paper and wax as honourable in their reference to the king's service, so we Christians, in worshipping the Cross, do not worship the wood for itself, but seeing in it the impress and seal and figure of Christ Himself, crucified through it and on it, we fall down and adore.

Behold, then, matter is honoured, and you dishonour it. What is more insignificant than goat's hair, or colours, and are not violet and purple and scarlet colours? And the likeness of the cherubim are the work of man's hand, and the tabernacle itself from first to last was an image. "Look," said God to Moses, "and make it according to the pattern that was shown thee in the Mount," (Exodus 25:40) and it was adored by the people of Israel in a circle. And, as to the cherubim, were they not in sight of the people? And did not the people look at the ark, and the lamps, and the table, the golden urn and the staff, and adore? It is not matter which I adore; it is the Lord of matter, becoming matter for my sake, taking up His abode in matter and working out my salvation through matter. For "the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt amongst us." (John 1:14) It is evident to all that flesh is matter, and that it is created. I reverence and honour matter, and worship that which has brought about my salvation.

The Virgin Mary
Challenge: Does the Orthodox Church believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary?

Response: The immaculate conception (IC) is a Catholic teaching which holds that Mary was free from sin.
In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin. (Catholic Encyclopedia Online)
The Roman Catholic holds that the Immaculate conception of Mary is a necessary dogma. This flows from the way in which the Christian West views original sin and guilt.

The Western Church believes in original guilt — that is we all inherit the guilt of Adam. Some Western theologians will try to dance around this, but the bottom line is that Adam's guilt passes to us through the biological act of procreation (i.e. sex). The emphasis then is on original guilt; Christ's sacrifice is an atoning sacrifice, i.e. Christ paid the penalty for our sin — a juridical atonement. To to be the perfect sacrifice, Christ has to be Himself perfect, and therefore Mary has to be perfect to give birth to a perfect Jesus. But Adam's guilt has passed to Mary because Mary was conceived in the normal manner of mankind. Therefore Mary needs an declaration of exemption from [Adam's] guilt in order to give birth to a perfect Christ, and hence the doctrine of the IC.

In the East, while we believe that while the Fall of Adam resulted in sickness and death, we don't inherit Adam's guilt, but we are still subject to the sickness and death. Christ's sacrifice was not an atoning sacrifice (juridical in nature, paying a penalty for sin), but rather was both medicinal and dramatic (Christus Victor) — At once Christ is the Medicine that heals our fallen human nature, and by His Resurrection He destroys sickness, death, and the Devil. Christ is perfect not because Mary has a special exemption but because He is the bodily incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity and as the Son He perfectly does the will of the Father. Mary is subject to sickness and death because that is what it means to be fully human. Christ, fully sharing in that human nature, was while on earth likewise subject to sickness and death. As God, however, He is the Author of Life, so death cannot permanently hold Him. Properly understood, Christology — that is, who Christ is — renders the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception unnecessary.

Faith and Works
Challenge: Ephesians 2:8-9 says we are saved by the grace of God, not by works.

Response: In this passage, Paul is referring to the works of the Judaic Law, which by His death and Resurrection, Christ has overthrown. Luther rejected St. James' epistle and other books of the Bible that didn't agree with his view of "faith alone" soteriology. But the word "alone" does not occur in Ephesians 2:8-9, and for good reason: Salvation (or damnation) cannot come from faith alone; it is the result of our faith and how that faith is manifested by what we do (or do not do). Not that we are saved by the merit of our works, for nothing can add to the salvific work of the Saviour, but we are saved for good works which God will judge accordingly (parable of the talents, Matthew 24-25, &c.).

So yes, Orthodox Christians believe we are not saved by works, that is, the works of the Judaic (Old Testament) Law. It is not necessary to abstain, for example, from eating shellfish or pork in order to be saved. We believe that salvation is more than a one-time event or confession of faith. Yes confession is important (Romans 10:9) but salvation is a process: we have been saved by confessing the death and resurrection of Christ on the Cross; we are being saved by being conformed to His image and partaking of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4); we will be saved when we enter the Kingdom of God after running this earthly race.

Prayer for the Dead
Challenge: Orthodox Christians offer prayers (memorials) for the dead.

Response: Whether prayer for the dead is effectual is known to God but not to us. However we offer the prayers because as St. John the Baptist was the Forerunner of Christ in life, so was he also the Forerunner of Christ in death. Church tradition teaches that when John the Baptist was beheaded he went to Hades and prepared the way for the souls in Hades to be loosed by Christ. It is important to note that prayer for the dead is not intended as a measure to comfort the living. There is also a reference to prayer for the dead in 2 Timothy 1:18, where Paul asks for the mercy of the Lord "in that day" for Onesiphorus. However, it's important to note that Orthodox Christians do not believe in purgatory, nor do we believe it is possible to pray someone out of hell. Prayers for the dead are offered with faith that the recently departed person is resting or will soon rest in the "bosom of Abraham" awaiting God's final judgment (cf. Christ's parable of Lazarus the Beggar and the Rich Man). As far as I know however Orthodox do not believe that prayer can change God's final judgment of a deceased person. Lord have mercy!

Theosis: Do we become God? or gods?
Challenge: Orthodox Christians believe in "theosis," in other words, that we become either part of God or gods.

Response: Theosis means becoming like God. According to St. Gregory Palamas God is made of "energies" and "essence" (ousia). When we say that Christ is God, we mean that Christ and God the Father share the same ousia or essence; they are "homo-ousios" (like essence). We can never share of the essence of God the Father which is totally unknowable to us (and to all of Creation). God is wholly other than His creation. But the "energies" of God are how God manifests Himself in Creation. For example on Mt. Tabor Peter James and John were witness to the energies of God, manifest in the LIGHT that shone from Christ which was brighter than the sun. But God cannot reveal Himself in His essence man would perish. "No man shall see My face and live," says God (Exodus 33:20). So God reveals Himself to us through His energies, and we participate in the Divine Nature (2 Peter 1:4) by cooperating with the energies of God (Synergia).

Theosis is a challenging concept to explain to Protestants et al. because they do not believe that we live united to Christ, but rather accept Christ as Lord and Savior as a one-time act. Orthodox similarly confess "Christ as Lord and Savior" as an initial act at baptism, but additionally see salvation as a life-long process, not a one-time event — questions such as "when did you get saved?" are not particularly meaningful to the Orthodox Christian. We must emphasize and insist that theosis does NOT mean we become God in His essence, or "merge into the One" or anything of the sort! We are and we remain created beings, while God is uncreated. Theosis can be understood as our moral character becoming by God's grace what God's moral character is by His nature. We do this by continually striving to become like Christ through the Sacraments — living our lives justly, mercifully, and humbly walking with God (Micah 6:8). Therefore, we are called to abandon the vices of this world to embrace the virtues of the next.

Pacifism: Is it always wrong to kill another person?
Challenge: Does being an [Orthodox] Christian mean I cannot become a police officer, join the military, or otherwise participate in a profession that may involve taking the life of another person?

Response: Pacifism means non-violence. But violence is a tool. There is moral and immoral violence. Protecting the innocent is the chief moral use of violence. Executing a murderer is a moral use of violence, when we consider the theology of the icon:
However, it is in the Orthodox theology of iconography that we have the fullness of the exact exposition of Genesis 9:6. It is on the basis of the Incarnation of God in Christ that we believe that the honor given to a material icon passes to the person whom the icon depicts. Materiality and the spiritual are not divorced. It is in, by and through the material that we ultimately honor the spiritual. God ultimately honors the image of Himself in man by becoming man. It this reality that Genesis 9:6 points us to: Murder is not merely the ending of a material existence. It is a sin against the entire man created in love by God in His image, thus, and this is the crux of the matter, the disregard for and destruction of the image passes to the one in whose image man is created: it is ultimately a rejection and desecration of God Himself. The murderer rejects the entirety of the order of the cosmos both external to himself and within himself. It is because of this that God ordains civil authority with the power to condemn and kill the ones who are so un-human and anti-social that they do not live according to their own created image in respect and honor for the love of God and the love of man in others. In short, the death penalty honors the image of God in both the perpetrator and the victim by holding the perpetrator responsible, AS A HUMAN BEING in the image of God, for his actions.
Perhaps unfortunately, there is a large undercurrent of pacifism that runs through the Orthodox Church. This does not mean that each and every Orthodox is pacifist, nor does it mean that the Church requires you to be pacifist. Orthodoxy does not dogmatize pacifism. What it dogmatizes, and what God prohibits, is murder. But there is a large moral gulf between killing, which may sometimes be permitted, and murder which is never permitted.

You can become a police officer, a military man, or even the state executioner and still be an Orthodox Christian. Now there is a theologumenon, i.e. a pious opinion, which regards all killing as sinful whether it is morally right or not. I personally do not agree with this; it is moral and in no way sinful to take the life of convicted murderers — in fact it may be morally obligatory (Genesis 9:6). It is both lawful and righteous to defend one's home and family against a would-be robber or murderer, during which you may be compelled to use deadly force to protect the innocent (your family).

For a fuller treatment of this subject where it concerns war and peace, please see my paper, "Christian Moral Obligations in the Face of Evil: An Orthodox Perspective." You can read it here.

A Jewish midrash tells us, "He who is merciful to the cruel will, in the end, be cruel to the merciful." Pacifists must consider whether pacifism, while well-intentioned, actually increases human cruelty.

Challenge: Why should I confess my sins to a priest when the Scripture says "there is one mediator between God and man?" (1 Timothy 2:5)

Response: Protestants correctly object to the Catholic view that it is the priest who forgives sins. Catholics believe priests can forgive sins because Christ gave the disciples the "keys to the Kingdom" (cf. Matthew 16:18); but this means the priest forgives sin in the place of God — the priest takes upon himself what only God can do. How do we know this? The Pharisees were correct to say, "who can forgive sins but God only?" because they did not fully understand that Jesus Christ was and is God. In the Orthodox Church we believe that the priest stands as a witness (but never takes God's place) and that only God can extend divine forgiveness of sin. Confession is important because it is here that the priest can advise and counsel the penitent, and the penitent can have a deeper awareness and understanding of the gravity of his sin by talking aloud with the priest. Of course God can forgive sin at any time, but we believe that through the sacrament of confession Christ's forgiveness is extended with special force and power: when the priest lays his epitrachelion on my head it symbolizes the hand of Christ — Christ forgives me. For more on this topic please see Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the sacramental life.

1 Note that this does not negate the need to make an individual decision to follow Christ (John 3:16, Romans 10:9, Joshua 24:15, and so on.).