Some of My Best Friends Are Heretics
What Do Orthodox Really Believe?

by Paul Ladouceur

The evil eye

Orthodox pride themselves on belonging to the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” founded by Jesus Christ—and with good reason. Orthodox point to the loftiness of Orthodox theology, the beauty and solemnity of its liturgy, its mystical spirituality, the holiness of its saints, and the transcendentalism of its icons, liturgical music, and religious architecture. For many Orthodox, the Orthodox Church is the sole Church of Christ, and other Christian ecclesial bodies are decidedly “lesser,” perhaps not truly Christian, or at best “incomplete.”

But Orthodoxy on the ground, the actual beliefs and practices of Orthodox faithful, Orthodoxy as “lived religion,” yields a different picture. Lived religion focuses the beliefs, practices and everyday experiences of religious persons. Most lived religion studies of Orthodoxy concentrate on measurable practices such as attendance at church services, personal prayer, and fasting, with little attention to religious beliefs. There are a few exceptions. The Pew Research Center report on Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe (2017) examines contemporary Orthodoxy in major countries of Eastern Orthodox tradition. Results of this report were incorporated into the broader study Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century (also 2017), which focuses mainly on geographic and demographic aspects of Orthodoxy, with attention to religious practices and to opinions concerning the church’s positions on issues such as divorce, married priests, women priests, and same-sex marriage. Questions concerning religious beliefs cover basic beliefs in God, heaven, hell, miracles, the soul, and the Bible. But an astonishingly high percent of Orthodox hold non-Christian beliefs such as fate (70%), the evil eye (53%), magic, sorcery or witchcraft (40%), and reincarnation (25%). More Orthodox Christians than Catholics in the region believe in the evil eye and magic and sorcery, and differences between Catholics and Orthodox concerning reincarnation are minimal. And considerably more people (59% to 75%) in countries of Orthodox tradition believe in fate than in the secularized Czech Republic (32%).

A more personal indicator of religious belief comes from responses to a questionnaire completed by students taking courses in Orthodox theology in Montreal and Toronto. The students were adults, mostly Orthodox, studying theology from personal interest. The questionnaire was intended to test a “hunch” (hypothesis) that most Orthodox, even reasonably well-informed, practicing Orthodox, have difficulty spontaneously identifying or articulating major Orthodox tenets. The students were asked to mark each of thirteen statements as “Orthodox” or “Not Orthodox”:

1. Tradition is the memory of things past.

2. Dogma is all the Orthodox Church believes and teaches.

3. The Bible is the word of God and is superior to Tradition.

4. Apophatic or negative theology means that we cannot know anything about God.

5. God is One because the three Persons of the Trinity share the same divine essence.

6. Because God is present in all things, God and Creation are one.

7. In the Old Testament, God revealed himself as the Father, in the New Testament, as the Son, and since Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit.

8.  In Christ, the divine Son of God, is united with the human Jesus born of the Virgin Mary.

9. According to Cyril of Alexandria’s Christological formula “One nature of God the Word incarnate” (mía phýsis toû theoû lógou sesarkōménē), after the Incarnation, Christ has a divine-human nature.

10. The Holy Spirit derives his being from the Father and the Son.

11. The Virgin Mary was immaculate because she was free from original sin.

12. We are saved because Christ’s sacrifice appeases the offence against the Father caused by Adam’s transgression and our sins.

13. God’s love and mercy are such that in the end all will be saved.

Admittedly, the quiz was hastily prepared; some statements are subtly or ambiguously worded (some deliberately so); some could be more carefully crafted. Nonetheless, the results reveal something of the state of knowledge of the small “population”—25 respondents.

The statements are framed such that none, as written, can be considered “Orthodox” in the light of mainstream ancient and modern Orthodox teachings.[1] Some express ancient doctrines declared erroneous (heretical) by ecumenical councils, some reflect Catholic theology, and some Reformed theology. The closest to unanimity in the responses concerned, unsurprisingly, the doctrine of the Filioque: 24 of 25 respondents recognized this as non-Orthodox. Only one respondent correctly identified that none of the statements is Orthodox. Individual respondents named between one and eight statements as Orthodox. The most problematic statements relate to divine unity (statement 5, with 21 “votes” as Orthodox), and Christology (statements 8, 10 votes; and 9, 18 votes). Eight statements (1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13) garnered 2 to 4 votes.

The upshot of this exercise is not so much to point the finger at respondents’ erroneous beliefs as to highlight the gap between Orthodox theology, worship, and actual beliefs of ordinary faithful—in fact, not so “ordinary,” since these were theology students.

Orthodox neo-traditionalists are quick to label non-Orthodox Christians as “heretics” because they profess non-Orthodox doctrines. “Outside the Orthodox Church, there are only heresies and schisms” reflects this attitude. The underlying assumption is that of course all Orthodox are quite “orthodox” in their beliefs, since they are members of the one true Church of Christ, which is “without spot or blemish” (Eph 5:27). The two sources used here suggest that the situation among the faithful is otherwise.

Orthodox stress that worship and theology in Orthodoxy are harmonious. Typically, though, more attention is paid to worship—especially regular participation in the prayer of the Church, in rites and rituals—and much less to the content of the faith, to theology, resulting in a gap between worship and theology suggested by the examples here.

Neo-traditionalists would have us believe that profession of the one true faith is the necessary key to the Kingdom of Heaven, the “membership card” automatically acquired by members of the Orthodox Church.[2] But what does this membership card mean when few Orthodox card-holders can identify or express Orthodox doctrine on key issues? Yes, all Orthodox can recite or sing the Nicene Creed, but beyond its actual words, how many can articulate correctly even major Orthodox dogmas and teachings?

Does this mean that those who hold non-Orthodox beliefs (including non-Christian, even superstitious beliefs) are not Orthodox, maybe even “heretics”? This category may include a large majority of baptized and practicing Orthodox. Can they be saved despite their erroneous beliefs? “Heresy” is a powerful, emotionally-charged accusation which is best left in history books rather than being applied to our contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Salvation is based on more than beliefs and formal membership in a particular Christian body.

Indeed, are more than a few Orthodox characterized by Fr. John Erickson’s pithy remark about “Eucharisticized pagans”? Perhaps we all are? On the evening before his assassination, Fr. Alexander Men reminded his audience that “Christianity is just beginning.”

[1] The interpretation of Cyril of Alexandria’s Christological formula in Statement 9 could be acceptable to some Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox, but not to Eastern (Chalcedonian) Orthodox, because it appears to violate the Chalcedonian principle of “no (con)fusion” of the two natures of Christ.

[2] For a more elaborate version: “On Ecumenoclasm: Anti-Ecumenism in Orthodox Theology,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 61:3 (2017), 323-355.

I am grateful to Brandon Gallaher for helpful comments on this post.

Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.