Are Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy Compatible?

Michael S. Horton
Monday, January 1st 2018
Jan/Feb 2018

A cursory comparison of the indices of any primary or secondary work on Eastern Orthodoxy and evangelicalism exposes an interesting contrast—in the Eastern Orthodox index, one will find such entries as chrismation, deification, energies of God, recapitulation, theosis, and the like, but notable absences will include original sin, grace, justification, sanctification, substitutionary atonement, and related terms that are familiar to confessional Protestants.

It is an oversimplification, but it may be said generally that, while Western theological systems often follow a Trinitarian pattern reflected in the Apostles’ Creed, the focus is often more on the work of the persons than on their perichoretic unity and the nature of the hypostatic union of the God-Man. This becomes most apparent in the second article, where Western theology tends to regard Christology as an essential means to the end of soteriology. Thus there is an emphasis on the cross and resurrection as the apex of human redemption. In Eastern patristic and Byzantine theology, however, the accent falls on the incarnation itself. Jesus Christ the God-Man is not only who he is in order to be a Savior; he is a Savior precisely in being who he is.

Regarding the first five centuries as definitive, Orthodox theology revolves around Christological issues, and this is why one may find teeming citations for hypostasis, Arianism, and the filioque, but few for guilt, Pelagius, forgiveness, reconciliation, and propitiation. In many cases, further conversation between Eastern and Western partners reveals considerable agreement in substance despite different taxonomies. The heart of our differences emerges over the material principle: justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.

Sin and Free Will

Anselm’s famous retort to his imaginary friend Boso “You have not yet considered how great your sin is” applies to all of our communions, especially in this day of optimism about human capabilities. Despite the agreements noted above, the Christian East, in the Reformed view, possesses an inadequate view of sin. This becomes apparent in its treatment of original sin, excluding inherited guilt from the picture and embracing a synergistic view of regeneration as well as a medicinal view of justifying grace.

To do justice to the Orthodox view, we must again recall that the reigning paradigm is relational and transformative. Humanity is on a pilgrimage from innocence to mortality to immortality. Father Palachovsky explains:

We have been made in His image through Creation, but we must become like Him by ourselves, through our own free will. To be the image of God belongs to us by our primordial destination, but to become like God depends upon our will….Human nature has not remained intact, as some theologians teach, but has become corrupt. Nevertheless, this corruption does not go so far as the Protestant theologians teach.1

We must appreciate the categories of Orthodox thought on this issue, since the context of early patristic development was Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and their kindred heresies in which creation and redemption were set against one another. Matter was inherently evil because it was intrinsically temporal rather than eternal, physical rather than spiritual, and so forth. Sin was accounted for in a cosmic fatalism grounded in ontological dualism. It would only make sense that the church fathers would confront this pagan determinism and dualism with an emphasis on human responsibility and freedom, as well as on the goodness of the Creator God (and therefore of every natura he creates).2 There are some passages in Augustine, particularly in his description of the origin of sin, that come perilously close to viewing nature qua nature as sinful.3 This is thoroughly rejected by the Reformers and their successors.

Still, even granting this important point, Orthodoxy appears to deny clear biblical statements on this important question. Corruption and mortality are hardly the only categories in biblical teaching. Nevertheless, as Constantine N. Tsirpanlis writes in presenting the Orthodox view,

Now, Adam’s sin was a personal choice and act, not a collective guilt nor a “sin of nature.” Hence, inherited guilt is impossible….In other words, the posterity of Adam inherited the consequences of his sin, i.e., physical death and mortality, sickness of corruption, and obscurity or distortion of God’s image, but not his personal guilt.4

John Meyendorff concurs that there is, in fact, “a consensus in Greek patristic and Byzantine traditions in identifying the inheritance of the Fall as an inheritance essentially of mortality rather than of sinfulness, sinfulness being merely the consequence of mortality.”5 “The opposition between the two Adams is seen in terms not of guilt and forgiveness but of death and life,” he says, citing 1 Corinthians 15:47–48.6

First Corinthians 15:47–48 is a marvelous and much-overlooked side of the sin-and-grace message.7 Orthodoxy offers profound insight on this aspect, but in presenting half of the picture as if it were the whole, it ignores the obvious juridical elements and consequently leaves us not merely with an incomplete account but with an erroneous one. Can sinfulness be regarded as a consequence of mortality and vice versa when Scripture so clearly states that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12)? “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Here in Romans 6, “wages” is a similarly legal category, a debt that is owed. The biblical testimony to the Savior’s payment of a debt is so replete as not to require citations. The New Testament language for sin (e.g., condemnation of the law) and redemption (e.g., justification, imputation, reconciliation, acquittal) is unmistakably forensic as well as relational.

Even those who have not in their own persons committed exactly the same sin as Adam’s are nevertheless guilty of that sin (Rom. 5:14). “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation” (v. 16), and “by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man” (v. 17). “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men” (v. 18). (I have purposely reserved the corollary of the second Adam for our discussion below.) Paul repeats for effect, “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (v. 19). Death comes through sin, inherited both in its power and in its guilt. Therefore, the consequence is inherited. That is Paul’s logic in this text.

The Orthodox view excludes original guilt, while the Western view admits both original guilt and original corruption/mortality. Despite Augustinian (and Roman Catholic) distortions of sin and nature, the confessional Protestant articulation of original sin is thus able to do greater justice to the fuller teaching of Scripture, even if it needs to give more attention to the emphasis on immortality in the second Adam.


Neo-orthodox theologies prepared the soil for a wide-scale reassessment of the Western tradition in terms of “relational” versus “legal” categories. Protestants have subjected what they have referred to as “Augustinian legalism” to relentless criticism. Perhaps partly because of the society in which many evangelical theologians now live, with its therapeutic culture in which justice must give way to love in every instance, the Pauline explanation for how God is, in Christ, both “just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26) has lost its attraction for a growing number of those theologians. The difference between the two categories is the difference between a “courtroom” model and a “family room” model. The former is indisputably Roman, while the latter is thoroughly scriptural, it is suggested. This is precisely the view expressed by modern Orthodox theologians, such as Christos Yannaras:

A great misconception and distortion of the ecclesial truth about the abolition of death by the cross of Christ had already appeared in the West by the first centuries and progressively dominated the spiritual climate. Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas are the great landmarks in the formation and imposition of this distortion which was finally proclaimed as an official teaching of the Western church at the Council of Trent (1545–1563). It is a matter of a legalistic interpretation of the biblical images of “ransom” which Christ paid with his death on the cross. . . . In the teaching of Luther and of Calvin later, it is not simply divine justice, but the wrath of God which must be appeased by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.8

This account Yannaras can regard only as “sadistic,” leading to “egocentric justification as well.”9 Individualistic and legalistic, this theology fails to recognize the ecclesial and cosmic redemption that comes from God as a passionate lover.

Orthodox theologians should attempt to understand the surprise of those who have seen in both Old and New Testaments a recurring emphasis on the cross of Christ as “payment,” “propitiation,” “sacrifice,” “satisfaction,” and the like. Acknowledging the important theme of Christus Victor, Reformation theology has nevertheless recognized the victory of Christ over Satan, mortality, evil, and the demonic as the consequence of his satisfaction of the Father’s plan to propitiate God’s wrath against sin. Even in one of the clearest Christus Victor passages, Paul apparently makes this very connection:

When you were dead in your sins [a moral category, since his readers are still physically alive] and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col. 2:13–15)

That last statement depends on that which precedes it. The power of Satan over us was chiefly God’s own law, a recurring Pauline theme; but once this was satisfied by the substitution of Christ for sinners, the powers and authorities were disarmed. The “public spectacle” is a courtroom scene in which God judges his Son in our place.

Here, once again, this view accounts for both the Christus Victor motif and the substitutionary motif, while the Orthodox emphasis apparently cannot accept the very premise (i.e., God’s wrath against sinners) that would provide a context for Christ’s victory. Irenaeus, for one, incorporates both motifs in his thought. Not only by his incarnation but “by means of his passion” Jesus Christ has conquered death:

For doing away with that disobedience of man which had taken place at the beginning by the occasion of a tree, “He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”; rectifying [a legal term] that disobedience which had occurred by reason of a tree, through that obedience which was [wrought out] upon the tree [of the cross]. In the second Adam, however, we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to none other but to him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning.10

Note that he says we were debtors to the commandment we had transgressed at the beginning—in Adam. Hence, human beings “are not justified of themselves, but the advent of the Lord.”11 There is, therefore, no basis for “trusting to works of righteousness.”12

It is important to recognize that while certain affectations from Roman jurisprudence—or, more directly, medieval feudalism—appear in Western discussions (especially in Anselm’s account), the Reformers explicitly criticized these tendencies while building on their labors. It is difficult to dismiss the Old Testament’s legal character. In fact, as recent scholarship has underscored, much of the Old Testament may be read as a covenantal charter in the pattern of the ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaty.13 Without recognizing the legal character of the Mosaic economy, involving strict observances for remaining in the land and requiring the shedding of blood for remission of sins, and the anticipation in the prophets of a Servant who will bear the guilt of sinners, the Old Testament loses its plot and the New Testament loses its claim as the fulfillment of all types and shadows.


The parallel between the first and second Adams in Romans 5 draws together tightly the corollary of “double imputation”: Adam’s guilt and Christ’s righteousness. Orthodoxy’s apparent denial of original guilt and its reticence toward legal categories cannot help but lead to a denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, or “justification.” Orthodox theologians frequently dismiss the entire discussion of justification as a Western debate, although it was the debate at the heart of Jesus’ controversy with the Pharisees, of Paul’s controversy with the Galatians, and the writer of the book of Hebrews’ controversy with the Judaizers. “The righteousness that is by works” is set in opposition to “the righteousness that is by faith,” not because works and faith are opposed in the least, but because the righteousness that God’s justice requires is found only in Christ. It must be imputed, or credited—terms that are of Pauline, not Protestant, origin.

At this point, proof-texts could be sent back and forth, but Orthodox theologians will not be likely to find ours appealing, since they do not accept the motif these texts assume. For instance, the gospel we find in Scripture (Luke 18:14) says that the believing tax collector (publican) went home justified once and for all, rather than the Pharisee who had been trying to attain righteousness by his own efforts (perhaps even with the help of grace, since he does thank God that he is not like the tax collector). After demonstrating that the Old Testament saints were justified through faith alone, Paul announces, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:5–6 NKJV). Paul says that a person is justified not when he ceases being ungodly but while he or she is ungodly, and that God imputes righteousness apart from works—not apart from works alone or through works that are performed in cooperation with God’s grace, but by faith apart from works. We find the same construction earlier in Romans:

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by his blood, through faith. (Rom. 3:21–25 NKJV)

A denial of this point is no small thing for the apostles, as Paul relates in his distress:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:1–4 NKJV)

Just before, Paul had argued that salvation does not “depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16), and later (ch. 11) he will warn Gentile Christians that they must not rely on their pedigree, since if the physical descendants of Abraham may be broken off to make room for believing Gentiles, God will certainly not fail to reject Gentiles who place the least confidence in their own cooperation with God.

Whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant, we must all take this to heart. It is trusting in Christ’s merit alone, not in our cooperation with grace, that we are justified. It is by embracing the apostolic message, not tracing one’s ministerial ancestry to the apostles, that a person or a church is approved by God.

Discerning in these New Testament lines of thought a clear distinction between law and gospel—that which commands without promise or assistance and that which gives without command or judgment—Reformation theology observes in Orthodox theology a serious confusion on this point. Despite the fact that the Orthodox use the Greek New Testament (as well as the Septuagint), Father Palachovsky cites Acts 2:38 in its erroneous Vulgate translation: “Do penance.”14 The Greek metanoeo (repent) is transformed into the Latin command “Do penance,” and this leads to the same confusion of justification and penitential merit one finds in Roman Catholic soteriology. He distinguishes between peccata leviora and peccata graviora, the latter of which John apparently has in mind when he says, “Whosoever has been born of God does not sin” (1 John 3:9 NKJV).15

Even Father Callinikos’s catechism asks, “On what basis will Christ judge the world?” The answer:

On the basis of His Gospel. Whosoever has believed in it and has acted in accordance with its dictates, will sit up on the right hand of the Judge….Faith in Christ without good works is not enough to save us. Good works by themselves are also not sufficient. Our salvation will be the outcome of a virtuous life permeated and sealed by the inestimable blood of the Only-begotten Son of God.16

Citing Augustine approvingly, Father Palachovsky says that daily sins “may be cleansed through (1) the recitation of the Miserere, (2) almsgiving, and (3) fasting.”17

Daniel Clendenin, who describes himself as an evangelical student of Eastern Orthodoxy, offers a sympathetic reading of this position:

Orthodox theologians contend that in the West the doctrines of sin and salvation have been unduly dominated by legal, juridical, and forensic categories. These categories, they insist, are not only overly negative and alien to the spirit of Eastern Christianity, but, when allowed to dominate are actual distortions of the biblical message. Ernst Benz suggests that this legal framework predominates in Western thinking (both Catholic and Protestant). He notes how the apostle Paul [that great Western thinker!] frames his Epistle to the Romans in terms of divine law and justice, categories that are perhaps taken from Roman civil law, and that his idea of justification by faith answers the question of how guilty people can stand before a just God. Benz suggests that the Catholic church especially, with its doctrines of penance and indulgences, its concepts of the church, the role of the priest, and canon law, developed in this [Paul’s?] legalistic direction. This accent on legal concepts, in contrast to the idea of mystical union, perpetuated in the East, is seen by Orthodoxy as the “real issue that unites the West theologically and divides it from the East.”18

Clendenin correctly notes that this is irreconcilable with the position of the Reformers:

In his Institutes Calvin described justification by faith as “the hinge on which all true religion turns,” and in his precise definition of the doctrine he compares it to an acquittal in the courts of divine justice: “just as a man, deemed innocent by an impartial judge, is said to be justified, so a sinner is said to be justified by God when he asserts his righteousness.” In the history of Orthodox theology, on the other hand, it is startling to observe the near total absence of any mention of the idea of justification by faith.19

Clendenin goes on to suggest that we need to balance Orthodoxy’s emphasis on mystical union and Protestantism’s forensic emphasis.20 It is true that a genuinely Pauline theology will emphasize both mystical union and the “summing up” of all things in Christ on the one hand, and individual justification and reconciliation on the other. However, how one relates the two is all-important. Any view of union and recapitulation that denies that the sole basis for divine acceptance of sinners is the righteousness of Christ and that the sole means of receiving that righteousness is imputation through faith alone apart from works is a denial of the gospel. Calvin especially had a developed doctrine of mystical union with Christ, and it was in fact central to his thought, linking justification and sanctification in an inseparable bond, as both depended on Christ and all his benefits.

I wonder what our Orthodox interlocutors would make of the following conclusion: From my perspective, both Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologies tend to collapse ontological and ethical categories—the East in a preference for good creation overwhelming sin, while the West tilted toward confusing sin with creation. It seems to me that the Pauline line of thought in particular presses us to distinguish ontological and ethical categories without either setting them in opposition or allowing one side to swallow the other whole. To be sure, God made the world and pronounced it good. Nothing evil can be attributed to nature as nature. And yet, Western theology is correct to recognize that sin has become an inherited part of human existence. By clearly distinguishing the ontological goodness of nature from the ethical depravity that makes the attainment of salvation impossible even for the most morally committed, one is able to uphold the integrity of creation and its consummation on one hand while doing justice to the imputation of guilt that leads to death on the other. In this way, both a subtle form of Manichaeism on one hand and a subtle form of Semi-Pelagianism on the other can be avoided.

In The Philokalia, Clendenin recognizes “a very clear synergism or cooperation between the grace of God and human effort.”21 But Clendenin simply takes this as a restatement of James: “Thus, faith without works and works without faith are equally rejected.”22 A further concession is made, one that could easily be made by an Arminian Protestant who shares the Orthodox understanding of synergism (i.e., regeneration as the fruit of free will’s cooperation with grace): “The Orthodox emphasis on the importance of the human response toward the grace of God, which as the same time clearly rejects salvation by works, is a healthy synergistic antidote to any antinomian tendencies that might result from (distorted) juridical understandings of salvation.”23

I include this because it seems to me that Clendenin’s approach is typical of many evangelical responses to both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. “Balance” would suggest neither Pelagian denial of grace nor what he calls an “antinomian” rejection of synergism. However, this seems to me to be wrong on two counts. First, it is simplistic. Reformation theology emphasizes “the importance of the human response toward the grace of God” just as vigorously as any, while denying what Clendenin regards as “a healthy synergistic antidote to any antinomian tendencies.” Synergism, in our reading of Scripture, is never healthy, and as an antidote to antinomian tendencies it can only prove to be a cure worse than the disease. In fairness, Clendenin does encourage the Orthodox not to dismiss such biblical motifs as justification by faith as Augustinian corruptions.24 However, to miss these biblical motifs is not merely to leave out a few pieces of the puzzle but is to make the puzzle into something else entirely. Orthodoxy has many healthy emphases, but its denial of the full seriousness of sin and its consequently high appreciation for the possibilities of free will keep it from recognizing the heart of the gospel.


If antinomianism is what one calls being freely justified (declared righteous, not made righteous) once and for all the moment one looks away from oneself to Christ and his merit as sufficient for all sins for all time, then I confess to being an antinomian. But, of course, classic Reformation teaching has always affirmed sanctification—the process of being conformed to Christ’s likeness. Reformation theology has drunk deeply from the same wisdom as the Christian East on this reality of the new creation and the renewal that even now is taking believers “from glory to glory.” But it has opposed every tendency to confuse justification and sanctification, rendering the former the goal of the latter rather than its basis.

John Meyendorff provides a helpful explanation of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis that, I would argue, can be understood in a manner consistent with evangelical theology:

The man Jesus is God hypostatically, and, therefore, in Him there is a “communication” (perichoresis—circumincessio) of the “energies” divine and human. This “communication” also reaches those who are “in Christ.” But they, of course, are human hypostases, and are united to God not hypostatically but only “by grace” or “by energy.”25

In fact, Meyendorff clearly distinguishes the Orthodox view from Pelagianism, but then he reiterates the synergistic perspective that remains at the heart of the debate between Reformation theology and its rivals:

It is not through his own activity or “energy” that man can be deified—this would be Pelagianism—but by divine “energy,” to which his human activity is “obedient”; between the two there is a “synergy,” of which the relation of the two energies in Christ is the ontological basis.26

In spite of his repudiation of Pelagianism, Meyendorff confirms our suspicion that Orthodoxy reflects a Semi-Pelagian consensus. Although it will sound like a gross oversimplification, many of us will regard this as a difference—although an important one—of degree. To what extent can humans be said to contribute to their own salvation? Pelagians answer, “Entirely”; Semi-Pelagians say, “In part.“ Neither of these answers, from a classic evangelical perspective, does justice to the biblical account of sin; nor does either give the comfort that is held out to us in “the good news.”


The treasure that the church carries in earthen vessels is the gospel—the announcement that God has done for us in Christ that which we could never do for ourselves, even with his help. This is all we have at the end of the day, and without it our ancient pedigree and customs, liturgies and rites, ecclesiastical offices and powers, are worthless. Is it possible that Orthodoxy has, like the recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews, turned—even so soon—from the sufficiency of Christ and his eternal priesthood to return to the shadows of the law and its temporal priesthood that could never and can never take away sin?

Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

The above excerpt is adapted from “Are Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism Compatible? No” by Michael Horton, taken from Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism Copyright © 2004 by James J. Stamoolis. Used by kind permission of Zondervan.

  1. V. Palachovsky and C. Vogel, Sin in the Orthodox Church and in the Protestant Churches (n.p.: Desclee, 1960), 31, 35.
  2. Cf. Saint Augustine, City of God, trans. Gerald G. Walsh et al. (New York: Image Books, 1958), bk. 12, chs. 3–5.
  3. Saint Augustine, bk. 13, chs. 13–16. See also Saint Augustine, Confessions, bk. 1, chap. 7; bk. 21, chap. 27.
  4. Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology (n.p.: Michael Glazier Books, 1990), 52.
  5. Tsirpanlis, 145.
  6. Tsirpanlis, 146.
  7. See Richard Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1978).
  8. Christos Yannaras, Elements of Faith: An Introduction to Orthodox Theology, trans. Keith Schram (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), 111–13.
  9. Yannaras, 113.
  10. Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” 544.
  11. Irenaeus, 499.
  12. Irenaeus, 500.
  13. Cf. Meredith G. Kline, The Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963).
  14. See Palachovsky and Vogel, 14.
  15. Palachovsky and Vogel, 16.
  16. Constantine N. Callinikos, The Greek Orthodox Catechism: A Manual of Instruction on Faith, Morals and Worship (n.p.: Greek Archdiocese of No. and So. America, 1960), 31.
  17. Palachovsky and Vogel, 47.
  18. Daniel B. Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 122.
  19. Clendenin, 123.
  20. Clendenin 124.
  21. Clendenin, 135. The Philokalia is a collection of texts written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian tradition. First published in Greek in 1782 and translated into Slavonic and later into Russian, The Philokalia has exercised a greater influence than any book other than the Bible in the recent history of the Orthodox Church.
  22. Clendenin, 136.
  23. Clendenin, 158.
  24. Clendenin, 158.
  25. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999), 164.
  26. Meyendorff, 164.
Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, January 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology