Catholicism vs Protestantism: An Orthodox Perspective

My colleagues Chip, Roman, and Sara have kicked off a debate over Catholicism and Protestantism at the Credible Hulk magazine. I would like to give a third, Eastern Orthodox perspective to the debate.

For those who don’t know much about the Eastern Orthodox church, here is a quick (but certainly incomplete) brief. The Orthodox Church is a communion of Autocephalous churches who broke away from the Catholic Church in 1054; an event known as the Great Schism. Among other things, the principle cause of the schism was the Eastern Churches denial of Romes claims of Papal Infallibility, Papal Supremacy, and the Pope as being the Vicar of Christ.

We do, however, have our own “pope” known as the Ecumenical Patriarch. He is the bishop of the Church of Constantinople and he enjoys primacy in honor only over the bishops of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Although, before the schism, the Orthodox had given Roman bishop (the Pope) the title of Ecumenical Patriarch.

I’ll be referring to the Roman Catholic Church as RCC because the Orthodox still “believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” as the Nicene Creed says and claim to be that Church. I’ll refer to them as aforementioned and use “Catholic”  generically in the rest of this article to avoid confusion.

Chip’s Position


My premise is that only Jesus Himself is the infallible authority on doctrinal matters, and all else is fallible, but not necessarily without authority. For example, Saint Augustine is not infallible, but he does serve as a good authority as to what might be correct doctrine. I disagree with many Protestants largely because of what this premise implies: Scripture itself is not infallible. However, it is our best authority on what Jesus taught and did, and also what early Christians believed, and how they worshiped[Emphasis added]

I agree with everything he says here, it strikes me how Chip can be protestant. All clergy, including the Pope, is fallible in every respect. Even the Ecumenical Councils are not infallible as St. Athanasios the Great said in his letters defending the famous Oecumnical Council, using words like “sufficient” and “authoritative.”

But my question is then, where does this authority come from? What makes someone or something have authority?

Chip says St. Augustine had “good authority” because he is a saint. But who made him a saint? The Catholic Church did.

Chip also says that the beliefs and traditions of the Early Church also have authority. What was the Early Church? The churches established by those from the Apostolic Age, of course! Such as the Church of Antioch and Rome that were founded by St Peter and St Paul, the Church of Alexandria founded by St Mark the Evangelist, The Church of Jerusalem founded by James the Brother of Jesus, and the Church of Constantinople founded by St. Andrew the Apostle.

And these churches still exist together as the Catholic Church. The Early Church was just an era that ended in 365 AD by the Council of Nicea. The patriarchy of the churches were, and still have been passed down through apostolic succession for centuries since the inception of the Church. Even the protestant church historian J. N. D. Kelly writes, “[W]here in practice was [the] apostolic testimony or tradition to be found?… The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation… Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it” (Early Christian Doctrines, 37).

What makes Chip statement even more self inflicting is that this completely destroys one of the central protestant heresies, Sola Scriptura, as the Early Church depended heavily on oral tradition and not just scripture. As Father John Michael explains:

As Protestants read the New Testament, it seems clear to them that the Bible roundly condemns tradition as being opposed to Scripture. The image of early Christians that they generally have is essentially that the early Christians were pretty much like 20th Century Evangelicals or Charismatics! That the First Century Christians would have had liturgical worship, or would have adhered to any tradition is inconceivable — only later, “when the Church became corrupted,” is it imagined that such things entered the Church. It comes as quite a blow to such Protestants (as it did to me) when they actually study the early Church and the writings of the early Fathers and begin to see a distinctly different picture than that which they were always led to envision. One finds that, for example, the early Christians did not tote their Bibles with them to Church each Sunday for a Bible study — in fact it was so difficult to acquire a copy of even portions of Scripture, due to the time and resources involved in making a copy, that very few individuals owned their own copies. Instead, the copies of the Scriptures were kept by designated persons in the Church, or kept at the place where the Church gathered for worship. Furthermore, most Churches did not have complete copies of all the books of the Old Testament, much less the New Testament (which was not finished until almost the end of the First Century, and not in its final canonical form until the Fourth Century). This is not to say that the early Christians did not study the Scriptures — they did in earnest, but as a group, not as individuals. And for most of the First Century, Christians were limited in study to the Old Testament. So how did they know the Gospel, the life and teachings of Christ, how to worship, what to believe about the nature of Christ, etc? They had only the Oral Tradition handed down from the Apostles. Sure, many in the early Church heard these things directly from the Apostles themselves, but many more did not, especially with the passing of the First Century and the Apostles with it. Later generations had access to the writings of the Apostles through the New Testament, but the early Church depended on Oral Tradition almost entirely for its knowledge of the Christian faith.

This dependence upon tradition is evident in the New Testament writings themselves. For example, Saint Paul exhorts the Thessalonians:

Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word [i.e. oral tradition] or our epistle (II Thessalonians 2:15).

The word here translated “traditions” is the Greek word paradosis — which, though translated differently in some Protestant versions, is the same word that the Greek Orthodox use when speaking of Tradition, and few competent Bible scholars would dispute this meaning. The word itself literally means “what is transmitted.” It is the same word used when referring negatively to the false teachings of the Pharisees (Mark 7:3, 5, 8), and also when referring to authoritative Christian teaching (I Corinthians 11:2, Second Thessalonians 2:15). So what makes the tradition of the Pharisees false and that of the Church true? The source! Christ made clear what was the source of the traditions of the Pharisees when He called them “the traditions of men” (Mark 7:8). Saint Paul on the other hand, in reference to Christian Tradition states, “I praise you brethren, that you remember me in all things and hold fast to the traditions [paradoseis] just as I delivered [paredoka, a verbal form of paradosis] them to you” (First Corinthians 11:2), but where did he get these traditions in the first place? “I received from the Lord that which I delivered [paredoka] to you” (first Corinthians 11:23). This is what the Orthodox Church refers to when it speaks of the Apostolic Tradition — “the Faith once delivered [paradotheise] unto the saints” (Jude 3). Its source is Christ, it was delivered personally by Him to the Apostles through all that He said and did, which if it all were all written down, “the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). The Apostles delivered this knowldge to the entire Church, and the Church, being the repository of this treasure thus became “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (I Timothy 3:15).

The testimony of the New Testament is clear on this point: the early Christians had both oral and written traditions which they received from Christ through the Apostles. For written tradition they at first had only fragments — one local church had an Epistle, another perhaps a Gospel. Gradually these writings were gathered together into collections and ultimately they became the New Testament. And how did these early Christians know which books were authentic and which were not — for (as already noted) there were numerous spurious epistles and gospels claimed by heretics to have been written by Apostles? It was the oral Apostolic Tradition that aided the Church in making this determination.

I contend that even inspired individuals cannot perfectly communicate God’s truth, because they are still human. Paul himself admitted to only “know[ing] in part,” which means his teachings were probably not without flaws. 

It’s important to note here that Paul still says he knows something. He and the other apostles know God in part. Together they come close to knowing God in whole. This is where the authority of the Ecumenical Councils come from; the christian community who each know part of God come together to make one unified affirmation.

Above all though, my main problem with protestants is their denial of historical facts. Scholars can argue over the semantics of scripture but when we look at history of Christianity before the reformation, we see that:

  1. Every church believed in one one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church
  2. Every church believed in the seven sacraments
  3. Every church believed in tradition
  4. No church believed in sola scriptura or sola fida

It is just completely illogical to put the heretical ideas of 15th century Germans and Swiss above centuries of Catholic tradition.

Sara and Roman’s Position

Sola Scriptura versus Prima Scriptura

How can the word of God be the objective truth given to us through inspired writers, if it is up to personal interpretation? The Protestant position inherently rejects the objective truth of scripture.

No Personal Interpretation

While this is really a continuation of the last section, we will treat it as another. As was alluded to in the paragraph above, Protestants believe in personal interpretation.They think it is up to their personal fate to decide what scripture means but this is clearly unbiblical beyond the logical reasons laid out above. Take 2 Peter 1: 20-21, “know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God [emphasis added].”

I have to disagree with my RCC brethern here. God’s word is an eternal truth to Him, but to us it is a paradox. Understanding scripture is not mere rational comprehension of the structure of the text. Instead, it is a hearing of the questions asked by scripture and its extension to our own world of existence by the realization of our own possibilities.

No interpreter can read the bible without presuppositions, we all have some level of bias or assumptions. And it is important that we realize we have these presuppositions and consciously question them when reading scripture. But to say one is to is objective is self-deceiving. Scripture can only be understood in its appropriation by the reader.

This is an important difference between RCC and Orthodox approach to theology. The RCC was heavily influenced by Aquinas’ rationalist philosophy and therefore put objectivity first. The OCC on the other hand gives primacy to the individual subjective experience which then formulates an intersubjective (objective) truth:

For the Orthodox Christian, objective understanding tends to take a secondary position to a subjective relationship (e.g., “one’s prayer life informs one’s theology” to paraphrase Evagrius)… The epistemology is informed by a pluralism of sources: the Holy Bible, as well as the teachings of Orthodox Fathers and Mothers, Ecumenical Council decisions, the episcopacy within apostolic succession, the Church’s hymns, and the consensus of the laity—grouped together this is the ‘Tradition’ of the Orthodox Church. This Tradition is corporately experienced through the practices of the Church rather than systematically taught. No particular individual can determine his theological position other than his initial decision to become Orthodox. Changes in theological position can only occur if the ‘organic whole’ of Tradition concurs or one decides to leave the Church.

Orthodox Phenomenology, Ancient Faith Ministries

2 Peter 1: 20-21 is also used incorrectly here. The verse does not refer to the interpretation of the prophecy but to its origin.


On the question of the Pope, us Catholics look to both scripture and tradition. In chapter 16 verse 18 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “and so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” While the second part of this is important to the Catholic faith, we will focus on the first part. It is here that Jesus gives both figurative and literal authority to the Pope. Christ says that Peter will be the foundations of the Church and the physical church in Rome is built upon the tomb of St Peter. Furthermore, every single Pope their line of rule back to Peter and the very first Christians. Papal supremacy is shown in the early traces of Christianity, in the instance of the Church at Corinth seeking help from Pope St. Clement rather than consulting the then-alive Apostle John in the first century.

St. Cyprian wrote an entire treatise over the interpretation of Matthew 16:17-19 and he gave no specific reference to Roman Pope but instead applies the verses to the entire episcopate, with every bishop holding the place of Peter in the local church:

The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, I say unto you, that you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, Feed my sheep. And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins you remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins you retain, they shall be retained; John 20:21 yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says, My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her. Song of Songs 6:9 Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God? Ephesians 4:4

And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided… The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole.

The former protestant pastor turned Orthodox layman, Jaroslav Pelikan wrote that:

As Roman Catholic scholars now concede, the ancient Christian father Cyprian used it to prove the authority of the bishop—not merely of the Roman bishop, but of every bishop

– The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, p. 78.

And he was not alone with this observation!

“A very clear patristic tradition sees the succession of Peter in the episcopal ministry. The doctrine of St Cyprian of Carthage on the ‘See of Peter’ being present in every local Church, and not only in Rome, is well-known. It is also found in the East, among people who certainly never read the De unitate ecclesia of Cyprian, but who share its main idea, thus witnessing to it as part of the catholic tradition of the Church. St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, affirms that Christ ‘through Peter gave to the bishops the keys of the heavenly honors,’ and the author of the Areopagitica, when speaking of the ‘hierarchs’ of the Church, refers immediately to the image of St Peter. A careful analysis of ecclesiastical literature both Eastern and Western, of the first millennium, including such documents as the lives of the saint, would certainly show that this tradition was a persistent one; and indeed it belongs to the essence of Christian ecclesiology to consider any local bishop to be the teacher of his flock and therefore to fulfill sacramentally, through apostolic succession, the office of the first true believer, Peter

– Fr. John Meyerendorff, The Primacy of Peter, p. 89

It’s also important to note that Rome was not the only church founded by Peter, it wasn’t even the first one! In fact some scholars even question whether he was ever in Rome. But what we do know for a fact that he was the first patriarch of the Church of Antoich.

Even the RCC Pope, Gregory the Great criticized the idea of a single universal bishop. He also said that all the Patriarchs of his time (Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria) were equal in power, authority, and possessed the keys.

Wherefore though there are many apostles, yet with regard to the principality itself the See of the Prince of the apostles alone has grown strong in authority, which in three places is the See of one. For he himself exalted the See in which he deigned even to rest and end the present life [Rome]. He himself adorned the See to which he sent his disciple as evangelist [Alexandria]. He himself established the See in which, though he was to leave it, he sat for seven years [Antioch]. Since then it is the See of one, and one See, over which by Divine authority three bishops now preside, whatever good I hear of you, this I impute to myself.

Book VII, Epistle XL


To reiterate once more, there is only one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church established by St Peter and the Apostles. Peter established the papacy in Rome who enjoys primacy in honor but not in authority or power over his fellow bishops. And the papacy did not end with him as others succeeded according to oral tradition of the church. Protestantism lacks historical evidence to prove that either is false.

2 thoughts on “Catholicism vs Protestantism: An Orthodox Perspective

  1. Allow me to point out 2 things. It may be a typo above, but the Council of Nicea (that was convened to fight the heresy of Arias) was held in 325, not 365. As to (St.) Augustine, apparently he did not leave behind many of his pagan views when he converted in the 4th century to Christianity. Much of the sexual pessimism as concerns sexual love within marriage entered Christianity with Augustine. This negative view of sexual love within marriage is not authentically Christian, but derives from ancient pagan schools of thought.


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