I'm Catholic but I have a great respect for and interest in Eastern Orthodoxy. I almost became Orthodox when I was converting out of protestantism but I became Catholic for reasons of convenience. Treat this question as one from a sincere seeker.

I had a few questions which protestants simply could not answer. For example

"Two or more protestants claim to have the Holy Spirit. They all go and interpret a given passage of scripture. They all come up with different and conflicting conclusions. How do you go about determining which one of them has the correct interpretation, if any of them do?"

Every protestant I've ever posed that question to has completely fumbled in response. They seem to misunderstand or not even recognise the fundamental problem which I'm posing. They fail to put themselves into the thought experiment and so fail to realise that THEY are the protestant with the conflicting interpretation. Some of them will espouse some nonsense about how "whoever agrees with scripture the most is correct", which is just begging the question. Some of them will be totally tribalistic and just assume that their interpretation is correct and anyone who disagrees is wrong: They don't seem to recognise that they are "playing pope", and so never get around to asking that crucial question "What gives me the authority?"

In any case protestants invariably end up completely failing to provide a compelling response to this question, which drives me away from protestantism and towards apostolic Christianity, which DOES have an answer to the question: ie, look to the dogmatic, holy tradition of the church; a church which can be identified by the apostolic succession of bishops. Anything which has been defined within this tradition is indisputable truth. Anything that it doesn't talk about is open to further interpretation and speculation until the church magisterium dogmatically rules otherwise.

The problem now is that there are multiple competing strands of apostolic tradition. How can I tell which one is the 100% correct, "Holy" tradition? And it is to this question that I have not yet heard a compelling response from anyone save the Catholic church.

I'll put it in a thought experiment again: Imagine that there is only one united church. However some theological dispute arises and splits the bishops down the middle: half of them are for the proposition in question and half of them are against. Each half anathematises the other half. How do you determine which half represents the true tradition and the true church?

From what I've gathered reading Orthodox blogs online, the Orthodox response is similar to the protestant response in the previous thought experiment. Orthodox will say "look at the church fathers, look at history, look at the bible. See how what we do matches up with that stuff more closely than anyone else. We must be correct!" But the thing is, the Catholics say exactly the same thing, as do the Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East. All of whom have valid apostolic succession and sacraments. How can you differentiate between these claims? Something else is needed.

In Catholicism this is where the crucial role of the Pope comes in. The Pope is that objective focal point for the entire church and the entire tradition. In the thought experiment just described, the Catholic solution is to side with the half of the bishops that are in communion with the Pope, and the other half are excluded from the church. This solves the problem neatly: The Pope is the visible centre to the church, whoever is connected to him is connected to the true church.

What foolproof method do you have for working out who is correct in the event of schism? To bring it even closer to home, imagine for the sake of argument that Eastern Orthodox are correct about Catholics and all the rest being entirely apostate. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the One True Church. But what if then the Eastern Orthodox church is split down the middle over some theological controversy? How do you determine which side of the schism is correct? Both sides are going to be yelling "Heretics!" at each other and both sides are going to be claiming to be correct. What Objectively foolproof way do you have for determining who is right? (similar to the Catholic method of "communion with the Pope"). Remember: Up to this schism both sides were getting along just fine and recognising each other as Eastern Orthodox Christians. All of a sudden all of that changes and lines are drawn in the sand, so how do you work out who is legitimate?

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    The validity and office of Pope is a dealbreaker in the discussion, I think. Especially as regards the Scriptural arguments in favor of it. It's simple things like 'if this is taught in Scripture beyond reasonable doubt', then whichever holds it (especially uniquely) is definitely the safest option conscience-wise. Similar to how Protestantism can't be th true Chruch because it rejects the perennial teaching on the Eucharist, especially the Scripture proof for it. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 12:59
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    What if the schism was about whether or not the Pope should have authority? What would happen then? Even this doesn't seem foolproof.
    – user32540
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 13:34
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    "For catholics it's simple: just follow the pope." - well it wasn't quite so simple when there were multiple popes! Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 14:53
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    @DKing I completely reject the "perspicuity of scripture" doctrine, it seems to be utter nonsense to me and only leads to doctrinal chaos. Whereas the Catholic solution of Having a pope and bishops guarding a sacred dogmatic tradition shoots down all the problems. I dunno what you're talking about with my stated reason for my move to the catholic faith not being as sound as I believed. I didn't even go into that in the question. Are you able to read minds?
    – user35774
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 1:56
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    If you'll look at the history of the ecumenical councils, as well as those councils not considered ecumenical, and those considered heretic, you'll find that this question is far from hypothetical. It's an excellent question. What made the Council of Chalcedon in 451 authoritative, and not the Second Council of Ephesus in 449? Particularly considering that the Council of Chalcedon led to a schism lasting to this day? I'm Eastern Orthodox myself, but I find this question definitely worth asking.
    – Kyralessa
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 8:38

5 Answers 5


In essence you are asking an epistemological question: How can one side "know" that it is correct in a theological debate? The question could just as well apply to any Christian body, let alone the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Within the eastern Church exists a notion called prelest. It is a Russian word that basically means "deception", but it is a kind of spiritual deception in which the one deceived is absolutely convinced of his (or her) correctness and can sometimes even logically "prove" their position. There are literally volumes written on the subject in the eastern tradition, dating back to the Desert Fathers of Egypt and witnessed in Scriptures such as 2 Corinthians 11:14 (And no marvel; for Satan himself disguises himself as an angel of light.)

One might be tempted to say that such a schism as the one you suggest could be resolved by an 8th Ecumenical Council, or some such thing. Vincent of Lerin prescribes a method for consulting and weighing the writings of the Church Fathers when disputes over Scriptures arise.1

The Orthodox are sobered, however, by the recollection that on many, many instances those in the past - both pre- and post-schism - who held to what is understood today to be the truth were defeated by just such mechanisms themselves. Perhaps the greatest example of this was the Council of Florence in 1438, wherein all but one eastern hierarch in attendance agreed to reunification with Rome more or less under Rome's terms. A pre-schism example would be that of monothelitism, held for a time during the 7th century by the eastern Patriarchs, but rejected by Rome.

The simple answer to your question is that in the mind of the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is no objective, foolproof method for working out logically who is on the right side of the schism, simply because the Church is not rational in the sense you suggest. Some - perhaps just a few - will remained guided by the Holy Spirit, but others will be deceived or deluded. Those who are deluded will be able to present sound arguments for their position. Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky writes:

Philosophy [of which logic and epistemology are branches] is rational and abstract. It proceeds not from faith, like theology, but seeks to base itself either on the indisputable fundamental axioms of reason, deducing from them further conclusions, or upon the facts of science or general human knowledge. Therefore one can simply not say that philosophy is able to raise the religion of the Fathers to the degree of knowledge.2

The Church admits the possibility that schisms may arise that are so severe that only a small body of believers may be left. During the schism that resulted during the Council of Florence only a single hierarch - Mark of Ephesus - remained. Although the eastern Patriarchs eventually rejected the council, there is nothing to prevent such a thing from occurring again and remaining in place. "The truth of the One Church," writes Father Michael, "is defined by the Orthodoxy of its members, and not by their quantity at one or another moment."3

1. Commonitory III.7-8
2. Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.), pp.363-364
Ibid., p.222.

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    excellent answer. It doesn't quite resolve my dilemma, but it gives some great stuff to chew on and stew over. I tried to upvote but the system wouldn't let me cause I don't have enough rep :/
    – user35774
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 14:47
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    I am a Roman Catholic convert to Orthodoxy, schooled by Benedictine monks, so I can fully appreciate your question. I've found that in Orthodoxy there's a lot more "Use the Force, Luke" than in the western Christian tradition.
    – guest37
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 14:49
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    I must admit, i have the highest respect for mysticism (I believe mystical experience is superior to rational knowledge), and it seems to me that Eastern Orthodoxy is a much more mystical religion. Perhaps that's what you're getting at? (I note that I also have great respect for logic and rationality, philosophy etc. I feel like they should work in tandem with the mysticism, but the mysticism has priority)
    – user35774
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 14:53
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    @JohnnySubterfuge Check the Wikipedia article on Thomas Aquinas, one of the most rational teachers in the Catholic Church - and then look at the article's section (currently) titled "Final Days and 'straw' (1272 - 1274)". Aquinas was a mystic too. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 14:57
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    It's not mysticism in the conventional sense that most people understand - it is mysticism in the sense of admitting that there are not only things that are not fully known, but things that cannot be fully known. Read John of Damascus Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (he is a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church - "Orthodox" is meant in the pre-schism sense). He describes that God is so incomprehensible to us that it is wrong to even talk of His existence - He is beyond existence. That kind of "mystical".
    – guest37
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 14:58

There are at least three ways that the Eastern Orthodox use to determine "correctness" on any issue.

First and foremost, they believe they are the earliest church founded by Christ and apostles. "The Orthodox Christian faith is that faith "handed once to the saints" (Jude 3), passed on in Holy Tradition to the apostles by Jesus Christ, and then handed down from one generation to the next, without addition or subtraction." from https://orthodoxwiki.org/Introduction_to_Orthodox_Christianity

Two is they use the earliest occurrence. "The Church keeps the early traditions of Christianity, " from https://orthodoxwiki.org/Orthodox_Church

Three is they use the council approach. For example, Nicea structures the church authority over areas, rather than later idea of a single man over all. See Canon VI of the First Ecumenical Council. This also refers to #2.

So, earliest tradition, council type government, direct unbroken succession with Christ Jesus.


As far as deciding on a question that may be divisive within the Church, the Orthodox Church may not have one "center" such as the Pope, but they do still have Councils of Bishops, much like the Catholic Church, in which such questions can be discussed and decided upon. Even in this manner an agreement may be reached, but unfortunately, there is never any way to totally eradicate division if its proponents are completely unwilling to compromise or let go. So, they may continue on, but by no longer remaining within the community of the Church as it was before the issue.

Another matter you might be interested in, given your conversion from Protestantism, is the nature of the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. You are correct that they were One Church until a time, but the "official" separation of the Churches, circa 1055 A.D. and again circa 1438 A.D., was more or less a confirmation of events that had long since past.

One such example is when the Eastern Church (think Orthodox) asked for assistance from the Holy Father in the form of an army to combat the Muslims at their doorstep, the understanding, or "deal", reached was that the Eastern Church would once again come into full communion with the Western Church (think Catholic) in exchange for said army. However, at the end of it all (the totality of all the events) only part of the Eastern Church came back into communion with the Western Church, such as some of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, and afterward the two Churches went down their individual paths.

But the true beginnings of this affair had roots in the past. One was the fall of the Western Roman Empire. After some time, those in the still thriving Eastern Roman Empire, including the Emperor, began to question why they should take any direction from the Supreme Pontiff in Rome that was now, to them, nothing more than part of a fallen empire and civilization that had crept into the dark ages. Hence the two Churches developing from that time forward, with the events later being more of a culmination.

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 4:38
  • With due respect, I think you are oversimplifying things here. The Pope of Rome held a position of primacy of honor before and after Rome's fall to the Goths. He was appealed to as a theological authority during the monothelitist heresy of the 7th century and during the iconoclast heresy of the 8th century. The false premise is that the Pope at one time somehow "directed" bishops outside the See of Rome. This was never the case and was something expressly forbidden by the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Councils. The relation of the Pope to the other Patriarchs was conciliar not administrative.
    – guest37
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:23

I'd like to add a little extra to the previous (very good) answers:

The most widespread answer I keep encountering in various Orthodox publications (both online and in books touching such issues) is basically rooted in Matthew 7:15-17 "By their fruit you will recognize them". The flawed teaching shall eventually yield bad fruit and fade away even if takes centuries or even millennia.

For consolidating the argument, the same orthodox scholars use as a precedent example the iconoclast movements of the first millennium BC which were quite tense, with people being persecuted and even martyred for not denouncing icons. And even with it's power and many supporters, after quite a few centuries the iconoclast movement slowly faded away, the truth (or Will of God) came to light and icons were reinstated.

Claims that Orthodoxy is, well, the orthodox path are supported with: following the 7 ecumenical councils (including not altering the Creed with Filioque), having Jesus Christ as Head of the Church (as per scripture) and not the Bishop of Rome etc. The argument I've presented above is not used to claim the righteousness of Orthodoxy, rather it is left as a, quite powerful, open ending, the point being that the will of God - through history and it's convulsions - will eventually tell.


@JohnnySubterfuge - My experience is very similar to yours. After being brought up in Protestant evangelicalism, I asked the same epistemological questions and started thinking about converting to an apostolic tradition while a junior in college. I briefly looked into Eastern Orthodoxy, but the whole thing seemed a bit too foreign for me, and I converted to the RCC when I was 21. In retrospect, I think I did not give Orthodoxy a good enough look. This year, some 30 years later, I have been going to Orthodox catechism classes, and am thinking seriously about making the move.

One thing I have learned this year, is that for Orthodox, less is sometimes more. Yes, on major issues of the faith and practice they are going to be very strict. But on more minor issues, they simply don't take an official position on them. The RCC, on the other hand, feels it necessary to take an authoritative position on even minor issues. For example, the immaculate conception of Mary. The RCC feels it is a necessary position because their doctrine of original sin dictates that a person would be guilty of sin genetically at birth, and since they want to maintain the truth that Christ was fully human, but sinless, they feel this is a necessary doctrine, that was dogmatized at Vatican I even though there was quite of bit of dissension on the issue within the RCC before that. On the other hand, the Orthodox have no such problem to solve. To them original sin is loosely defined so as only include the consequences of it (death) being passed on from generation to generation. We are all guilty because we all choose to sin, and we all choose to sin because that's what we choose to do. They don't try to explain it further, and therefore there is no Christological issue.

So - to answer your question. Major issues within the Orthodox Church would be solved by an Ecumenical Council, and not by any one bishop. But they would believe that all the major issues were already solved long ago by the early Councils. So there is no need for a mechanism to solve a hypothetical 50/50 split between bishops because minor issues are left as mysteries of the Church.

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