A Presuppositional Critique of Eastern Orthodoxy

Posted: December 6, 2019 by Ricky Roldan in Topical

A Presuppositional Critique of Eastern Orthodoxy 

By Joshua Pillows

A number of criticisms have been raised against the Protestant worldview from both Catholics and Orthodox alike concerning key issues related to both Protestant theology and ecclesiology. While the Orthodox and Catholics have their disagreements following their own schism, what can be agreed upon by both parties is the absurdity of the Protestant worldview. “Sola Scriptura is anti-historical,” they’ll say. Or, “Sola Scriptura leads to subjectivism and/or relativism.” In such a case, then, the present essay may as well be a presuppositional critique of both Orthodoxy and Catholicism given their shared views of tradition and ecclesiology. However, focus will only be on Eastern Orthodoxy’s own presuppositions and arguing that on their own worldview they reduce themselves to absurdity, that their arguments only come back to refute themselves.

• Protestant circle: knowing Scripture by the Spirit and the Spirit by the Scripture;
Protestant Christian ->(Scripture <-> Spirit)
• Eastern Orthodox circle: knowing Scripture by the church, the church’s validity by the Spirit, and because of the church’s validity, the church by the Spirit interpreting Scripture;
Orthodox Christian -> (Scripture -> church -> Spirit -> Scripture -> etc.…)

1. The Problem of Subjectivity
Orthodoxy criticizes the Protestant’s position on the basis of subjectivity and diversity of beliefs. That is, the circle in the Protestant’s worldview is limited only to the person and his alleged relationship to the Spirit. Because of the small parameters of the Protestant’s circle over against Orthodoxy’s, the Orthodox Christian concludes that Protestantism can only lead to theological subjectivism and skepticism, making whatever one believes rest on their personal whim. There are two problems with this approach for the Orthodox:

i. This conclusion rests on the assumption that the Spirit is indeed not active within Protestantism, that Protestants are all merely psychologically convicted to the utmost and that there is no active internal work of the Spirit in them. That is to say, this Orthodox criticism assumes in advance that the Spirit is not involved in Protestantism in arguing that the Spirit is not involved in Protestantism. In order for this criticism to operate functionally as a proper reductio argument, the Orthodox has to prove that it is absolutely impossible, both epistemically and metaphysically, for God the Spirit to operate on a person-to-person basis granting them certain truths which comprise them as being Christians and therefore building up the “invisible” church. For the Orthodox to respond saying that it’s theologically wrong is not proof that the Protestant’s circle is absolutely impossible. They have embarrassingly confused theological disagreement with what constitutes a defeater (or defeaters) in a reductio argument. In the end, the Orthodox proof that the Protestant circle is wrong boils down simply to a, “You’re wrong because I believe you’re wrong,” rather than showing how it is, in theory, absolutely impossible for God the Spirit to be able to dwell in believers giving them certainty over the “essentials” of Scripture. He has simply begged the question and failed to give a proper defeater in his reductio argument.

ii. Perhaps the “problem of subjectivity” posited by the Orthodox would hold more water if there was indeed no theological coherence or unity within the whole of Protestantism. The criticism of subjectivism leveled against the Protestant disingenuously assumes that there is no such coherence. To the charge that there is no theological unity within Protestantism, everyone’s beliefs reducing to what they simply prefer, the Protestant can just as easily respond by listing the theological coherency within it – salvation is by grace through faith alone, Christ is the only way to the Father, one must be baptized in order to be a faithful and true Christian, that Christ will return, that the Lord’s Supper must be partaken of by every believer, that one must be part of a church, that one must have good works and not just a mere professor, that God is triune, and many, many more. From this list the Protestant can turn the argument back on the Orthodox and ask, “Where exactly is the subjectivism or relativism within Protestantism?” Such unity over these doctrines would all the more point to a higher power, namely, the Spirit’s work, in Protestantism rather than psychological whim as the Orthodox would believe, would it not?

2. The Problem of Interpretation
The driving force behind the argument that Protestantism reduces to skepticism lies in the broader problem of interpretation as a whole. If the Orthodox were good presuppositionalists as they purport themselves to be, they would understand that there are no such things as brute facts, that it is impossible to know things in an epistemological vacuum. All facts of experience are interrelated and interpreted within the broader framework of a person’s worldview. To this they would (or at least should) agree; the problem Protestants face is the fact that they are incorporating their presuppositions into Scripture. Indeed, this is the inevitable result of Sola Scripture and not appealing to the church/fathers for clarification. Because Scripture is not exactly perspicuous, combined with the fact that we all have a worldview by which we interpret the facts of experience, it is not enough to simply have Scripture alone. Scripture, therefore, must rest under the umbrella of tradition; Scripture must be read in light of the tradition passed down throughout history. By now it should be apparent what the problem is here: The Orthodox, out of one mouth, espouses that we all interpret Scripture through the lens of our worldview and presuppositions, and yet out of the other mouth turns right back around and says, “This is why we need to look at tradition,” as if there is absolutely no interpretation involved when reading the fathers or church tradition or church history. They cannot have it both ways and should be called out for the obvious double standards they hold to. The question can then be turned on them and asked, “How do you know *your* interpretation of the fathers is in fact correct?” They’re now put on the horns of a dilemma:

i. If they go to their works and cite the pages for their position they refute themselves. We’re supposed to believe that everyone holds to an interpretive framework and that we somehow need to transcend this problem to come to the true theological facts. To then go to the fathers’ pages for justification is to commit the very thing you’re trying to avoid. Are the fathers an exception to the problem of interpretation? How then is this not special pleading?
ii. If they appeal to the church’s affirmation of what the fathers believed, how then do we know the church’s interpretation is correct? As illustrated above, they appeal to the Spirit to prove that the church is infallible in that it will not theologically err. We now are faced with two circles, both of which appeal to the Spirit, and yet we cannot dismiss the Protestant’s circle because no such defeater exists for it. However, unlike the Protestant’s circle, the Orthodox circle has no self-attesting authority embedded in it. The Protestant appeals to God’s Word and we know what It says through Itself via the Spirit. That is to say, the Scriptures attest to themselves, God attests to Himself; there is no higher authority to go to. But within the Orthodox circle, the church appeals to God the Spirit in order to interpret God’s Word. But what we know about God’s Word depends on the church’s interpretation of it. And so unlike the Protestant’s circle which is God attesting to Himself, the Orthodox’s circle is forever entrapped in a circle between the church and the Scriptures. That is to say the Orthodox circle is not circular in virtue of itself as it is with God attesting to Himself within the Protestant circle, but viscous, and therefore begs the question. The Orthodox presuppositionalist should know better.

On this dilemma, then, the Orthodox either refutes himself in interpreting the works of the fathers, or commits to fallacious reasoning. And so the problem of interpretation they place on the burden of Protestants comes back to refute their own worldview. It should be noted that “The Problem of Interpretation” is only problematic when viewed the way Orthodox do with Scripture. If this problem is too extreme that it compromises our ability to truly know Scripture apart from subjectivism, at what point do we not have to worry about this problem? History? Science? Sports? The Orthodox position sets an arbitrary line in the sand in order to set itself up for victory by appealing to the fathers to support their position all the meanwhile compromising their own position in the process.

3. Orthodoxy’s Problem of Relativism
Finally, tethering off of both problems, 1 and 2, we reach the third problem Orthodoxy faces. Orthodoxy accuses Protestantism of theological skepticism and/or relativism (depending on who you’re speaking with) for not having an “objective tether” (referring to the church) to hold Protestants accountable for theological error. “Protestants all appeal to the Spirit despite their disagreements and each side says they’re right,” they’ll say. Putting aside the problem of question-begging in order to justify the infallibility of the church, what do we do when this “objective tether” has its own schism? Which tether is correct, the Orthodox who schismed at Chalcedon or the Orthodox who didn’t? (Each side says the other schismed so it’s not enough to just say that those who schismed were wrong). Both sides argue that their church is the right one and both sides appeal to the Spirit. But wait a second, this is identical to the very problem the Orthodox accuse Protestantism of having – each side has a different viewpoint, each side appeals to the Spirit, and each side believes they’re the one true church (this is most certainly not the case in Protestantism). And so as it turns out, the dirty little secret of Orthodoxy is the fact that it succumbs to the very same “problem” of relativism/skepticism it accuses Protestantism of having. That is, it falls into the first problem mentioned. The typical response is to go to the fathers and the scriptures to show how their church is correct and the other Orthodox aren’t. But this embarrassingly falls into the second problem. Another response is to say that, “At least the early church would’ve never thought of a Reformation happening and that whichever Orthodox church is true it at least has its ties to Christ.” Sort of an “at least we agree your position can’t possibly be true.” But this doesn’t even attempt to resolve the problem of the relativism within Orthodoxy.

Concluding off of these three problems, Orthodoxy has failed to provide a defeater for the Protestant’s position of Sola Scriptura, has failed to justify that they themselves have the true interpretations of both the fathers and Scripture, and shoot themselves in the foot in arguing about the relativism in Protestantism when they themselves succumb to the very same problem. The Orthodox apologist surely is correct when he says that circularity is inevitable within any worldview, but he fails to adequately distinguish when a circle is virtuous or vicious. Because God’s Word can only be truly known in its entirety by subordinating it to the authority of the fathers, God cannot testify to Himself. As much as it may be denied, He instead needs the church to testify for Him.

The Reformation emphasized the fact that God the Spirit indwells Himself in the hearts of true believers and opens their eyes to what Scripture teaches to be a Christian. Differences in more specific issues over baptismal methods, methods of Lord’s Supper, methods of worship, eschatology, and others that may be considered absolutely essential in Orthodoxy are merely secondary to what constitutes a true Christian given the Protestant worldview. If Scripture is not presupposed as the ultimate authority, if Scripture is not allowed to testify to itself without mediation, then we are all reduced to absurdity.”


About the writer:

Joshua was saved in 2016 and joined the Reformed faith soon thereafter. He became a big proponent of Bahnsen’s work in presuppositional apologetics, taking his courses and reading his books, and he has written numerous essays defending the Christian worldview. Currently, he is enrolled in Whitefield Theological Seminary working for his M.Div and continues to study philosophy and apologetics from Bahnsen’s works and lectures. In addition to his work in apologetics, Joshua is a full-time musician and teacher, teaching piano and music theory to a number of students and age groups, composing music for the church, and he is an organist at the Lutheran church where he teaches.



  1. SLIMJIM says:

    Wow going to share this in our next Presup round up

  2. […] 6.) A Presuppositional Critique of Eastern Orthodoxy […]

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