I recently received an email from a Protestant who read Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and was puzzled by some passages that were seen as being inherently contradictory.
From the appendix “How and Why I Became an Orthodox Christian” (pp. 373-384):
I am convinced that my life as a Christian before I discovered Orthodoxy was both real and fruitful.
I had been in a period of some drifting from active church membership. I still believed in Jesus Christ and trusted Him for my salvation.
My correspondent wrote that this would seem to affirm the idea that an Orthodox convert can look on his religious past and see value in it.
But do these passages not contradict such a view?:
We affirm that there is no salvation outside the Church, but ultimately whether one is in the Church is a question deferred to the end of time. (p. 42, emphasis added)
There is only one Church, the Orthodox Church…. Salvation is within and through the Church. (p. 44)
The following was my response (with a few short additions):
I think you are probably reading these statements through a kind of binary in-or-out lens which is common in certain sectors of Protestantism (including the one in which I was generally raised, though I suspect that my family’s theology may well have changed in the meantime — I haven’t really asked, though). In that model, Christian, saved and in the Church are basically all terms referring to the same one thing, and coupled with a “once saved, always saved” soteriological outlook, it’s hard to imagine how one might see things differently. Thus, if the Orthodox claim to be the one Church, then they must be saying that no one else is a Christian, no one else can be saved, etc.
Well, that’s not actually the Orthodox view of those things. I’ll try to explain, and please note that I am not offering an apologetic here against any other view but simply trying to explain the Orthodox view (even though I will do some contrasting).
First, it’s worth noting how the Orthodox understand how salvation proceeds with regard to time. There is of course a sense in which salvation can be put in the past tense, i.e., “I am saved,” because Christ’s redemption of human nature on the cross is a done deal. And there is also the sense in which I have “put on Christ” in baptism (Gal. 3:27), which does indeed save (1 Pet. 3:21). But for the Orthodox, salvation is also in the present tense (“I am being saved,” cf. 1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15, Phil. 2:12-13, etc.); it is an ongoing process. And there is also a sense in which salvation is something that is not yet complete (“I will be saved,” cf. Matt. 10:22, Rom. 8:23-25, Rom. 11:22, etc. — lots more here).
But let’s go deeper. What does it actually mean to be saved? For us, it is about putting on Christ, about becoming more like Christ, about being adopted sons and daughters of God, about being in communion with God in Christ, about becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). These are all dynamic ways of speaking of salvation, and thus a dynamic temporal approach makes more sense. It is, to put it in Evangelical terms, a relationship, and relationships, while they can have their binary side (I am either married or not married to my wife), aren’t strictly definable by such binary understanding.
Indeed, I could get married, have the wedding, wear the ring, and yet not really have a marriage. Which is the greater reality — the wedding and the ring or the actual life together? And to complicate things, I knew my wife before we got married and was working on my relationship with her then, too. And after we got married, there is ebb and flow. And of course we could get divorced (God forbid!). I look with gratitude on all that we already have, all that we now are doing, and all that may yet come. It is about communion, and that is a dynamic reality, not a static, binary one.
And because of this soteriological dynamism, all this means that someone could have a genuine relationship with Christ but then step outside it, just as people might have a truly good marriage but still end up divorced. That means that even if someone has been baptized into Christ, he could actually put off Christ, apostatize. There are of course warnings about this in the Bible, such as 2 Peter 2:20-21.
(And even the objection that this means utter uncertainty regarding salvation could be leveled against the most hardcore revivalist “I know I’m saved” model. Calvinists have historically worked very hard to prove they’ve got “marks of election,” after all. To me, the binary inside/outside model of salvation is actually even more subject to nagging uncertainty than the process/progression model of Orthodoxy. “Am I in or out?,” however formulated, is rather harder to answer than “Am I working out my salvation with fear and trembling?”)
This is a very far cry from the mere “If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?” That is of course an important question, but it is a highly reduced version of what salvation means for the Orthodox, for historic Christianity, and (I would say) in the Bible, too. I mean, in John 10:34, Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6: “I have said, you are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.” This is a much bigger picture than just whether you get to go to heaven when you die.
I know that many Protestants would probably classify all this stuff as “things that might/will happen for you after you have been saved,” but given the Biblical language about salvation being in the present and future tense, that classification doesn’t make much sense to the Orthodox. This Protestant view stems from the Reformation categories of justification, sanctification and glorification, which we see as basically all being roughly the same thing and not systematized like that in Scripture. And for many Protestants, justification is really the only truly important thing, so that’s where you get this basically binary, past-tense understanding of salvation. (But I digress a little.)
So how can an Orthodox Christian convert look upon his religious past and see anything good in it? Well, I believe that God is always at work in everyone, and that is especially true of anyone who is drawn toward Christ, whether they have been baptized into Christ or experienced an inward conversion. It is not as if God suddenly started working in me only when I became Orthodox. (Otherwise, why would I even have considered it?)
And how can an Orthodox Christian see someone who is not Orthodox as a Christian? Since we don’t regard Christian as meaning that someone is definitely among the saved, it really has more to do with its historical meaning of adhering to certain core dogmas — the Incarnation (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is fully God and fully man by nature, one person) and the Trinity (God is three Persons in one essence — Father, Son and Holy Spirit). If someone holds to these things, I consider him a Christian. That does not mean that I think he is heaven-bound, that he is progressing in communion with God, or even that he is in the Church.
It’s interesting to note that, historically, becoming Christian is actually not something you do for yourself but something the Church does to you — no one would have said “I became a Christian” or “I made a decision for Christ,” as though it’s solely an internal choice. This isn’t in the Bible, either, by the way. One ancient canon from the 4th c. speaks of beginning the process of receiving unbelievers by “making them Christians.”
That said, I don’t see anything wrong with using Christian to mean those who hold to the core Orthodox dogmas of Christology and Triadology, even if such people are heterodox in other respects. It came to be normal to use the word that way especially as schism multiplied after the 11th c. when Rome broke away and then gave birth to the multiplicity of Protestantism five centuries later.
So what does it mean, then, that the Orthodox consider the Orthodox Church the one Church? It is a historical affirmation (no credit to us!) of the reality of a continuous historic community from the time of the Apostles. And with that affirmation comes the sad acknowledgement that those who, over time, broke away from that community to pursue other doctrines and other religious practices do not retain the identity of being the Church.
There is no warrant in the New Testament for beginning a new denomination based on your new reading of the Bible (or new revelation from God) and that denomination being regarded as legitimately the Church. Historically, schism was often seen as even worse than heresy, because it is a sin against love. That does not mean that we blame those who inherited schisms from centuries before, but we also can’t regard their churches as the Church.
There is a difference between discerning whether a particular religious group is actually the Church and judging the eternal salvation of some person who belongs to that group (or to no group at all).
In a sense, the key is really found in the one sentence of mine you quoted: “We affirm that there is no salvation outside the Church, but ultimately whether one is in the Church is a question deferred to the end of time.” So one could be outside the Church in this life and yet inside it in the next, brought into it by means known to God but outside of the normal means He gave to us (baptism into the historic community of the Church).
But one could also be inside the Church in this life and yet outside it in the next, because of having put off Christ through one’s own choices. We won’t know until the end of time, which is why it is important to be faithful in the meantime and why it is also possible for an Orthodox Christian to affirm what is good that is outside the boundaries of the Church and yet also want those outside those boundaries to come into them if possible.
If you want to hear a working-out of what this last affirmation looks like, I recommend checking out The Areopagus Podcast, in which I (along with guests) have conversations on life, pastoral work, theology, etc., with a Protestant pastor who is pretty much my best friend locally.
Hope this helps.