In the West, most Protestants are at least somewhat familiar with Roman Catholicism. Many of us have Roman Catholic friends, neighbors, and even family members. And many believers have been saved out of Roman Catholicism. Much less familiar to most westerners is the other main branch of non-Protestant Christianity—Eastern Orthodoxy.
Many differences exist between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Some of these are more significant than others, and many of these ostensible differences belie an underlying similarity between the two church traditions. I’d like to briefly discuss three areas in which Eastern Orthodoxy differs somewhat from Roman Catholicism while reflecting a common disagreement with evangelical Protestantism. These areas have to do with the Lord’s Supper, the use of images or icons, and religious authority.
1. When one walks into an Eastern Orthodox church, one of the first things a non-Orthodox person will notice is a large screen or iconostasis at the front of the nave or auditorium. This often beautiful structure is not merely decorative. It serves an important purpose within the Orthodox system by marking off the boundary between the common area and the sanctuary. Whereas the Roman Catholic mass is usually celebrated in full view of the congregants, Orthodox priests pray over the elements on the altar which is located in the sanctuary behind the iconostasis and therefore set apart from the congregants. The sanctuary is sometimes compared to the “Holy of Holies” in the Jewish Temple. Another difference between the Roman Catholic practice and that of the Orthodox has to do with the reception of the elements themselves. Whereas Roman Catholic laity often only partake of the bread, in the Orthodox service congregants consistently partake of both elements (bread and wine, usually served together in a spoon).
On the other hand, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches view the Lord’s Supper as a Eucharist, a sacrament, and a sacrifice. In general, the Orthodox are less interested in precise theological theories, and so they do not usually use the term transubstantiation. However, for all intents and purposes the Orthodox Church holds to a form of transubstantiation. They see the elements of the Eucharist as becoming the real body and blood of Christ, and they see it as having sacramental value in the sense of providing reconciliation or healing (Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed., 283–85; John McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 291). In both church traditions, the Eucharist is not simply a memorial or even an ordinance involving the spiritual presence of Christ. It is a means by which one enters into the sacrifice of Christ in some (rather mysterious) way.
2. Another thing one is quickly struck with when walking into an Orthodox church is the pervasive presence and use of icons. In some cases, the beauty of such icons is awe-inspiring, and in fact, that seems to be the point.
However, the icons in an Orthodox church are usually quite different from those found in Roman Catholic churches. Whereas Catholic churches often include statues and carved or otherwise 3-dimensionally shaped crucifixes, within the Orthodox tradition religious imagery is carefully controlled and for the most part is produced on a flat surface using paint or something similar.
As in Roman Catholicism, within Orthodoxy icons are viewed as means that can assist people in their worship. Both traditions make use of images or icons as aids to worship. And so, church goers in both traditions often venerate and pray to images of Jesus as well the apostles and other saints. Both church traditions also make use of relics for similar purposes.
As a side note, with just a little background outsiders can learn to distinguish between a Roman Catholic church and an Orthodox church based on the appearance of the interior of the building by looking for an iconostasis and/or altar and by noting the kind of artwork or icons used in worship. One can also frequently distinguish between the two based on what is heard. In Orthodox churches singing (or chanting) usually takes the place of organ or other instrumental music.
3. Less obvious perhaps to the casual observer is another difference between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy centering around the question of religious authority. Within the Roman Catholic Church, Scripture and tradition are held up as twin sources of revelation or authority (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation 9–10). While certainly recognizing the authority of tradition, the Orthodox Church views the relationship between Scripture and tradition somewhat differently. Consider, for example, the following explanation of religious authority in Orthodoxy:
The fundamental bulwarks of the Orthodox faith are: the lives of the Spirit-filled elect, the Holy Scriptures, the ancient traditions manifested in the sacred liturgy and the church’s ritual practices, the creeds and professions (ektheseis) of the ecumenical councils, the great patristic writings defending the faith against heretical positions, the church’s ever-deepening collection of prayers that have had universal adoption and enduring spiritual efficacy and, by extension, the wider body of the spiritual and ascetical writings of the saints of times past and present, the important writings of hierarchs at various critical moments in the more recent past which have identified the correct response that ought to be undertaken against new conditions and movements prevailing after the patristic period (McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 100).
In the midst of that one, rather long sentence the reader could easily miss the fact that the Orthodox Church looks to the Scriptures for religious authority. However, within Orthodoxy Scripture is just one of many religious authorities. Or perhaps it would be better to say that tradition is the real source of religious authority within Orthodoxy, and Scripture is viewed as one part of that tradition. McGuckin further explains the relationship between Scripture and tradition this way: “The Scriptures stand as far greater in moment, and richness, than any writing of the saints. But there is not a profound difference in order, and not a dissonance of quality, for it is the same Spirit who inspires his saints in each generation, and inspires in them the same mind of the self-same Lord…. Scripture, for the Orthodox, is one of the purest manifestations of tradition. It is constitutively within sacred tradition, not apart from it” (McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, 101). So within Orthodoxy, Scripture is inspired, but it is inspired in the same sense that the writings of many saints are inspired. Like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy rejects the full sufficiency of Scripture and necessarily reduces the actual authority of Scripture by making it one of several sources of religious truth. And like Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy regards the Church as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture (Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation 2.10; Ware, The Orthodox Church, 199–200).
Although Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are different in a number of ways—some superficial and some substantial, they both set up human priests (and saints) as intermediaries between God and humans. They both encourage the use of images as aids to worship and prayer. And both see their respective Churches as fulfilling the role of authoritative interpreter of Scripture. More anecdotally, they both seem to encourage a great deal of religious ritualism and activity but very little actual study of the Bible.