There are those who consider that Protestantism is simply a less complete form of Orthodoxy, while others take the view that Protestantism as a system of doctrine and spiritual practice is certainly not Orthodox, and can even be considered as not being properly Christian. Who is correct? It is not a question that can be ignored since the influence and attraction of some elements of Protestantism is clearly touching the lives of many Coptic Orthodox individuals and even congregations in these days. What is surely required to be able to answer this question is a comprehensive comparison between the aims, teachings and practices of Orthodoxy, and the aims, teachings and practices of the variety of Protestant groups.
It will be necessary to approach a consideration of Protestantism with honesty and open-heartedness. There is no value in a criticism based only on stereo-types, or on taking the worst examples as representative of the whole, but some generalisation will be appropriate as it is estimated that there are 35,000 different Protestant groups, all of which have their own particular mix of doctrine, practice and history. There are those groups which trace their origins back to the original Protestant movements of the 16th century. There are the Episcopal groups who can trace their origins back to the revolution of religious ideas in England at the same time.
Then there are those groups which were formed in various renewals of these original groups during the 17th to 19th centuries. These groups might all be considered relatively traditional, and they have little attraction for Orthodox Christians. But in the 20th century and even more especially in the 21st century, the growth of new forms of religion based on Christianity, but increasingly distant even from historic Protestantism, have become a direct challenge to Orthodox communities.
These most modern groups are Pentecostal and Evangelical in basis, but have rapidly become divorced even from classical Pentecostal and Evangelical beliefs and practices. What we are seeing develop now is something entirely new, in which even the notionally Biblical basis of earlier Protestant groups is being abandoned in favour of more and more extreme beliefs and practices. It is these views which are proving most dangerous to Orthodox Christians who are influenced by outwardly attractive, emotional and dynamic activities. But a properly comparative study of Protestantism and Orthodoxy should not begin with these groups, but with the traditional Protestantism from which they have derived.
It is, of course, not necessary to provide a comprehensive history of the development of Protestantism. There are many texts available which do exactly that. It may be that many of the Protestant groups began with the best of intentions, and with an honest desire to seek Truth. But the Christian life is more than best intentions, it must be rooted in what is true, otherwise it is a life is based on what is not true, on deception, on a lie. From an Orthodox and comparative point of view what is required is a study of the various teachings and practices of the Church and those of the various Protestant groups to discover whether they are compatible, and whether or not any divergence is critical to considering a group to hold a Christian or heterodox view on that aspect of Faith. After a comparative study has been made of the Christian teachings and practices with as wide a view as appropriate, it will be possible to make some sort of judgement as to whether or not the teachings of Protestantism, or the various categories of Protestantism, are able to be considered properly Christian, and this is not a judgement of personal spiritual condition but of objective comparison between that which Orthodoxy has always accepted as being Christian, and that which does not have such a continuity of acceptance and confession.
It must be said that to criticise varieties of Protestant belief and practices is not at all the same as to criticise those who hold them. There are plenty of those who are formally Orthodox who live unworthy lives, and plenty who are formally outside Orthodoxy who live lives of great self-sacrifice, humility and devotion to Christ. Indeed all those who have become Orthodox from a Protestant background have begun to be Orthodox while they were still Protestant. But this does not mean that those distinctive beliefs and practices which the variety of Protestant groups hold are true, and if they are not true then they are not Christian.
There are a variety of aspects of the Christian faith which should be considered in a comparative study. There are of course the different understandings of the sacraments. As someone growing up in a committed Evangelical household I did not even know the word sacrament until I was in my late teens. In such a situation it would be unusual if I had not grown up with an understanding of the Christian life which was at variance in many ways with that of the Orthodoxy I have now embraced, and in which the sacraments are at the heart of the Christian life.
But there is also the nature of the Church to consider, the episcopate and priesthood, the communion of the saints, the place of the Virgin Mary. All of these are the subject of different understandings in the Protestant groups when compared to those held in Orthodoxy. These different views of the Church and sacraments cannot help but produce and be influenced by a range of different views about the nature of salvation itself. Nor can variant views about salvation fail to produce different spiritualities, spiritual practices and patterns of worship.
There are, in fact, no areas of Protestant faith and practice which are not liable to be subject to views and understandings which must be compared and contrasted with the views and understandings which are held by Orthodox Christians.
I was born into an Evangelical family, and grew up with commitment to the community in which we worshipped. As far as I was able I engaged in various forms of service, and eventually spent three years at an Evangelical Bible College in the UK, training for ministry in the Evangelical movement. I was exposed to the charismatic movement, and to various new groupings which were being formed in Protestantism in the 1970s and 80s. I began to move towards Orthodoxy, though unwittingly, in the mid 80s, and eventually became an Orthodox Christian in what was the British Orthodox diocese of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1994. During the years since my reception into the Church I have made every effort to study the Orthodox Faith. In 2009 I was ordained an Orthodox priest, and have continued to be interested in the comparative study of my Orthodox Faith, and the Protestantism I grew up in. I believe that I am therefore able to consider both Protestantism and Orthodoxy with some degree of sympathy and understanding.
The detailed substance of the Protestant faith will be considered aspect by aspect in future posts, but in this introduction it might be useful to consider the broad vision of the traditional Protestant idea of salvation. What does it mean to be a Christian? In this first reflection I will turn to a detailed description which I found on the website of a traditional, serious Protestant website, holding generally to what is known as a Reformed Protestant theology. I won’t point out the website, as is says nothing unusual, and a Google search could find a great many all sharing the same understanding of the nature of the Christian life. But I will read some excerpts from it, and then compare what is presented with the Orthodox Christian understanding of the Christian life. What does this website say about becoming properly Christian? I will reproduce a few excerpts which I believe fairly represent the views being communicated. It says..
We need right beliefs, right actions, and right emotions. If the heart is right and our beliefs are right, then right behaviour will be the result. We want right behaviour, but we need to remember that it is the result of other things, and not the ultimate goal.
First, there is conversion. We can preach the gospel, but God is the one who must change the hearts and produce a response.
Second, there is nurture. Jesus commanded his disciples to make more disciples, to make more students, to teach them the things he commanded. Paul instructed Timothy, Titus, and others to teach the truths of the Christian faith. Doctrine is important, and this is an area that Scripture specifically instructs us to work on.
Third, in addition to doctrinal nurture, there is also nurture of the heart. This is why Christian growth should occur in community with other Christians. Social experiences, that is, the things we do together, help us grow emotionally. These may be positive emotions such as love and forgiveness, or the negative emotions that result from the sin that inevitably comes with interpersonal relationships. These painful feelings probably help us grow much more than the positive feelings do as we learn to cope with them and work through them with God’s loving support and help.
When members are growing in doctrinal understanding, coming to know God more, and in emotional maturity, coming to love God more, they will be growing in other ways, too. Their behaviour will be changing. They will be treating one another with more love, patience, joy, peace, humility and forgiveness. They will be avoiding sexual immorality, greed, and dishonesty. The more we know and love God, the more we live like him. The heart change comes before the change in behaviour. The heart change is what causes the behaviour change. The heart change is what gives room for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.
Now these words, taken from this Protestant website, are commendable. There is indeed always a need for conversion of heart, for understanding of doctrine and for a change in behaviour. But it seems to me that what is being described is not quite the same as an Orthodox understanding of the Christian life. If we consider the first paragraph I referred to. It states that we need right beliefs, right actions and right emotions. What is immediately apparent is that there is no mention in this list of grace, or the working of God, or of the effects of the sacraments. This list only describes human actions. It would be entirely possible to have understood and accepted a list of doctrines, it would be entirely possible to act in a particular way, and it would be entirely possible to have certain emotions, but none of this, from the point of view of Orthodoxy, is the same as becoming a Christian, or even living the Christian life.
I am reminded of the diary of John Wesley, the famous founder of Methodism. He had been brought up as a member of the Anglican Church, had studied at University as an Anglican student, and had become an Anglican minister. But after several years of service he became aware that he had no assurance at all that he was right with God. He read the Bible, he prayed, he even kept the fasts of Wednesday and Friday. He believed all the necessary doctrines of the Anglican Church. Yet what might be considered, in the terms of material from the Protestant website I am discussing, right belief and right behaviour had not been enough to make him a Christian at all, as he was able to experience for himself.
Indeed we can ask what is meant by right belief? It would seem from the other passages I have quoted that doctrine in this Protestant context is understood as learning propositions ABOUT God.
The website says..
Doctrine is important, and this is an area that Scripture specifically instructs us to work on… growing in doctrinal understanding
Now of course doctrine IS important, but doctrine is made up of propositions ABOUT God. We confess that Christ is one incarnate nature of the Word; that God is a Trinity of Divine Persons; that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets. But simply accepting these propositions about God cannot save us. As the same Protestant website says..
The mind alone is not enough. If only the mind is involved, we may be like demons who know truths about God but do not obey him. Simply knowing the truth is not enough. We must not only hear, but we must also do.
I think that this makes it clear what is understood in regard to knowing doctrine. It is a matter of the mind. And the Protestant writer sees that this is dangerous and wants to add that our behaviour must be in agreement with the things we believe. But this is not the same as the Orthodox understanding at all. The Protestant view, as represented here, seems quite clearly to suggest that a person hears things about God, and this makes him want to change his behaviour. The problem with this view is twofold. In the first place it is not possible for anyone to obey God simply because they have heard and accepted propositions about Him. This is only possible with grace and by grace. In the second place there is no expression from this Protestant explanation, of a knowledge OF God which is not simply propositional.
Many of the great Desert Fathers were not educated men at all. They were not able to produce a great mass of propositions about God. Yet from studying their sayings and the spiritual instruction they have left us, we see that they were highly educated indeed in knowledge OF God, that is knowledge which they had gained through spiritual experience and effort. This is not a knowledge which can be learned in a classroom, but it is a true knowledge which has the power to save us, because it is a personal and direct knowledge of God.
And if we consider that this Protestant description proposes that behaviour SHOULD change, but that a changed behaviour is secondary and rather incidental, then we find ourselves defining salvation as simply believing things ABOUT God, and hopefully being sustained by heightened emotions, and hopefully expressing this attachment to certain ideas and emotions in behaviour which could be called Christian.
This description rather usefully illustrates the attraction which Protestantism holds out for many Orthodox Christians. In the first place there is no need to actually know God. This knowledge of God is found through much hard spiritual work, through ascesis, through fasting, through long hours of prayer, both personal and corporate, it requires us to become the person God created us to be. It requires us to undergo a spiritual surgery, to train as spiritual athletes, as if we were out in the cold and rain, putting in the hours of training so that we might run the race. But Protestantism essentially requires only that things be believed ABOUT God. But we cannot be saved by believing things about God.
The Orthodox Spiritual Tradition describes a deepening spiritual experience for those who engage in the effort which is required. But this experience is not a happy one, nor does it lead to raucous laughter and fun. It is painful, sometimes dark, often unclear, but the soul of the one who presses onwards find peace and joy when it comes into the light. This peace and joy is not that which the world gives. But Protestantism finds its dynamism in just such a worldly excitement. This is why it constantly follows the social trends in music and worship. This is why it is necessary to create an atmosphere for worship. This is why there is rarely room for quiet. And if there is any silence then the hearts of those present have been wound up to such a heightened emotional pitch, that the still small voice of God is not heard.
It is exciting. Of course it is. It is meant to be. But Orthodox worship is not exciting by design. Excitement feeds the passions, while stillness, quiet repetition, chant, incense and the high quality of liturgical prayer feeds the spirit.
To believe things about God and to have certain emotions is not the same as to be a Christian, certainly not an Orthodox Christian. Nor can ideas and emotions produce a change in character, even if they encourage a commitment to certain behaviours. In many Protestant congregations there are, or have been until recently, particular forms of behaviour which have been enforced through various types of discipline. We see these same types of behaviour even in Orthodox Churches, we even find in our own experiences that we have acted in a certain way because we did not wish to be exposed to censure. So we know that acting in a certain way because we must is not the same as having a change of character at all.
But the Orthodox spiritual life not only proposes a means of actually growing in knowledge OF God, but a means of actually seeing our behaviour change. The Protestant description of salvation says that changing behaviour is not the goal of the Christian life. But it is. It absolutely is, and changing not only behaviour in terms of outward activity, but in terms of thought and attitude. It would be entirely possible to be a Protestant, and hold the right beliefs, and have some of the right emotions, and not be able to overcome a habitual sin at all. This is normal, because there is no spiritual tradition in Protestantism, and no sources of grace, which can give the insight and strength to overcome such sin.
This is only a beginning to a comparative study of Orthodoxy and Protestantism, but I believe that already it indicates some of the questions which must be asked of Protestantism. Please remember that I took this material from a serious Protestant website, and that therefore these views about the Christian life should be considered to be mainstream. But it is only a beginning, and it is necessary that all of these things be considered in greater detail in due course. For now it is enough to raise the question as to whether or not Protestantism is describing the same thing when we speak of the Christian life.