An Orthodox Christian View of Non-Christian Religions
Rev. Dr. George C. Papademetriou
Today's pluralistic society involves numerous and ongoing contacts among people of different faiths. Significant difficulties arise that each religion holds to its own truth claim. A major challenge for Orthodox Christians is to articulate theologically correct approaches to people of other religions.
The pages that follow will explore a view of non-Chnistian religions from an Orthodox Christian perspective. This view holds firmly to the centrality of Christ, a doctrine which is not negotiable, yet acknowledges that salvation can be found outside Christianity.
Guidance provided by Patriarch Bartholomew
Let us begin with certain remarks offered by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to the Conference on Interreligious Dialogue, Istanbul, March 7, 1998. The Patriarch began with the observation that this conference was convened to discuss important issues of religious truth - in peace. He pointed out that most participants unhesitatingly believe that the religion to which each subscribes is the bearer of God's truth. He noted that the study of world religions makes it clear that perceptions of God, world and man do not coincide; indeed they are often contradictory. And he asked: How can we hold discussions in good faith when each of us is firmly convinced of the truth in his own religion?
The Patriarch proposed two important ways as guides. The first is a strong emphasis on means, which permit people of various faiths to coexist and interact in peace. The second is to seek mutual understanding - in depth - of the teachings of religions about which we engage in dialogue. He noted that we are obliged to confess that shallow appreciation, which is caricature, fosters misunderstanding. And he expressed optimism that, in spite of historical conflicts, ways of peaceful coexistence are possible today.
In addressing the major difficulty - achieving mutual understanding of each other's faith - he asked that we recognize that self-understanding of a religion by its adherents manifests itself at three levels. First is the level of experience. Second is the level of rational and empirical knowledge. Third is the level of clouded insights at which, unfortunately, the masses seem to function. Many of the conflicts that arise among the adherents of different religions are due to misinformation and misunderstanding. Therefore, the Patriarch stressed, religious leaders are responsible for educating and guiding the masses, who are easily carried away. He noted that religious leaders share in the responsibility for conflict in the world.
Though the Patriarch did not speculate on the problem of truth at this time, he spoke boldly on the problem of misunderstood truth by the masses, and on the great need for peaceful coexistence of all people and of all faiths.
Revelation through God's glory, even though the mystery is "beyond"
Our exploration of an Orthodox attitude toward non-Christian religions begins with the Christian understanding of God. Emphasis is on the mystery of divine reality - the essence of God - which exceeds human capabilities. It is a basic truth of Orthodox Christianity that God's essence is incomprehensible and inaccessible to the human person; it is "beyond" all creaturely approach. A prayer in the Divine Liturgy expresses it as follows: "... for you are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same ... " A minor change in the rendition emphasizes the fundamental truth. God's essence is totally "beyond" - "beyond verbalization, beyond comprehension, beyond vision, beyond understanding."
Yet, while the essence of God is beyond communion, God reveals Himself through His Glory. The human person participates in God's energies manifested as theophanies "The glory of the Triune God embraces the universe (ta pania) and brings all things within the scope of His love." God's glory (doxa, kaboth, shekhina) is revealed to human persons in their true intimate relation as an, end and fulfillment of the original creation of man.
The revealed glory of God - his energies - penetrates all creation and is the starting point for Christian life and hope. This central truth of Christianity was communicated doxologically to Isaiah (6:3), and is articulated in the angelic hymn of the Divine Liturgy which accompanies the prayer noted above: "Holy, Holy, Holy are You the Lord of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory." This hymn, on the one hand, expresses the total mystery of God and, on the other, notes that His divine glory and love encompass all forms of life, His entire creation.
The human person: in the image and likeness of God
Our exploration continues with examination of man's relationship to God. The basic, all-encompassing Christian understanding is that all human persons are created in the image of God. This is linked to a related insight - how God relates to all human persons. In turn, this is linked to yet another insight - how all human persons relate to all other human persons. This has been expressed more concisely as "an orientation, a direction, a relationship of persons."
The primary vector in this complex of relationships is vertical, that is, the relationship of man to God. Yet this vertical relationship with God is incomplete without the secondary, horizontal vector - the relationship of each human person to all other human persons. The bonding agent in this relationship of persons - God and humanity - is mutual love. The ultimate example is provided by the Holy Trinity, where the bond among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is reciprocal love.
Therefore, the bond among the persons who constitute humanity must also be reciprocal love. One person can not love himself. To be an authentic human being one must be in communion with other persons "loving one another in reciprocal relationship." The Christian way is in communion, each person with each other and all with God. For "God wants all men (human beings) to be saved and receive His Truth" (1 Tim 2:4).
Orthodox emphasis on the creation of the human person in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) means that the personhood of each human being is indelibly imprinted with God's image. And it follows that, carrying God's image, each person has access to revelation and salvation. God is ever present - at all times, in all places and in all things. He did not create man to abandon him but to guide him to redemption, to perfection. God's purpose is the salvation and glorification of man.
The meaning of the image of God in man is to be understood in its universal stamp in all human beings, in their wholeness as persons with immortal souls as well as bodies. Man, as a being of soul and body, falls and rises as a unique ontological entity. The ability to rise after a fall endows each human being with the potential to attain revelation, salvation and glorification. Possessing reason and the will to act, all persons have the capability, to become "like" God.
Three views of non-Christian religions
An Orthodox scholar recently observed that there are basically three views that Christians have taken with regard to non-Christian religions. The first is that the non-Christian will be damned because there is no salvation outside the visible Body of Christ, the Church, The second is that the non-Christian may be saved in spite the religion he practices, but only through the mercy of God. The third is that the non-Christian may be saved by means of the very religion he practices, for nonChristian religions may also contain saving truths. These three views parallel the three approaches identified elsewhere as exclusivism. inclusivism and cultural pluralism.
The claim of exclusivism has been rejected by many Orthodox scholars as untenable. This is not done in the interests of facilitating missionary endeavors or to foster world peace. Exclusiveness is rejected as a matter of Truth. The majority of Orthodox scholars would accept inclusivism. Some Orthodox scholars espouse the view characterized as cultural pluralism but with qualifications. Relativism and syncretism are denied. And the view that Christianity is simply one of the world religions offering the blessing of salvation is not accepted. The focus, rather, is on the Spirit of God, the Paraclete, who leads us "Into all the truth," where in Christ all become one.
The approach taken in this paper is to emphasize "the middle way," that of inclusivism. It seems clear that the way of exclusivism is properly rejected as a matter of Truth. At the other extreme, the thin ice of cultural pluralism is fraught with danger.
Scriptural affirmation of the centrality of Christ
Let us note that theology is not speculation; it is experience in and of the Body of Christ. The study of theology proceeds in consonance with the Tradition of the Church: its liturgy, its "unwritten" experiences. Scripture, writings of the Fathers, doctrine and canons. The challenges and opportunities attendant to today's religious pluralism must be addressed with Christian conviction, and the dialogue which addresses our concerns for the present and future must harmonize with our roots in our past.
The Christian message of the Good News of Salvation is central. Jesus Christ tells us, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Peter confesses at Phillipi, "You are the Christ" (Mark 8:29). Saint Paul declares, "He is the Image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in Him all things are created" (Col. 1:15). The Scriptures abound with unequivocal affirmations of the Incarnation and the foundational beliefs that in Christ humanity is saved, is reconciled to God, worships Him, and attains eternal life. "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). "For in Him all fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Col 1:19-20). "All knees shall bow to Him" (Rom. 14:11; Is. 45:23). He is "the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8). Orthodoxy continually affirms the centrality of Christ, in the Church and in the world.
These and other similar Biblical statements affirm the Truth claim of Christianity. They are the Word of God, explicitly and implicitly proclaiming fundamental beliefs of the Christian Orthodox Tradition. And, it is to be noted, these statements speak to all humanity; "For God so loved the world ... " is not a limiting statement; God's love extends to all the world. Nor does the objective "... to reconcile to Himself all things ... " have limits; Trinitarian objectives are universal. They encourage an attitude of inclusiveness as we inquire into relationships with other religions. We are reminded that the "Spirit blows wherever it wills" (John 3:8). Peter the Apostle states that. "Truly I perceive God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him" (Acts 10:34-35). St. Paul, addressing the Athenians at the Areopagus, observes that they worship an unknown God, whose name and message he came to proclaim (Acts 17:23-31).
Dialogue with non-Christian religions
The Orthodox view of dialogue with other religions is also rooted in the Church Fathers. Subsequent to the Apostolic age St. Justin Martyr, a second century apologist, makes the claim for Christianity that "Whatever things were rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians." Justin espouses the belief that both Gentiles and Jews will be saved on the basis of their piety and holiness. He states that "Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above all that He is the Word (Logos) of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived according to reason are Christian." All peoples are able to participate in the "spermatikos logos" or seed of reason: "For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word (reason disseminated among men), seeing what was related to it," because "the seed of reason (the Logos) implanted in every race of men" makes God's revelation accessible to all  The pre-existence of the eternal Logos of God enables "all the races of men to participate" in God's revelation. The "seed of the Logos is innate in all the races of men and resides in all people." uniting humanity and making all "part of the Logos."
Saint John Chrysostom, in the fourth century, tells us that God is "not particular but He is the Father of all" and His providence brings the "nations" to salvation. To the Jews God gave the "written law" but to the nations He gave the "natural law," the law innate in human conscience and reason.
In our times. Professor John N. Karmiris, University of Athens, based on his studies of the Church Fathers, concludes that the salvation of non-Christians, non-Orthodox and heretics depends on the all-good, allwise and all-powerful God, who acts in the Church but also through other "ways." God's saving grace is also channelled outside the Church. It cannot be assumed that salvation is denied non-Christians living in true piety and according to natural law by the God who "is love" (1 John 4:8), In his justice and mercy God will judge them worthy even though they are outside the true Church. This position is shared by many Orthodox who agree that God's salvation extends to all who live according to His "image" and "participate in the Logos." The Holy Spirit acted through the prophets of the Old Testament and in the nations. Salvation is also open outside the Church.
The study of world religions
There have been significant twentieth century developments, firmly rooted in Scripture and the Church Fathers, in the Orthodox view of nonChristian religions, beginning with the work of Leonidas John Philippides in the 1930s. The study of world religions has become a major discipline in the curriculum of Orthodox Theological Schools, Academic chairs have been established in the Schools of Theology at both Athens and Thessalonike, where ongoing efforts in the history of world religions and in the study of comparative religion flourish. In addition to outstanding major studies and innumerable articles there are first-class textbooks supporting academic programs. These developments witness a powerful Orthodox theological concern with issues of religious Truth, and a willingness to pursue that Truth wherever it may lead.
The prominent Orthodox Christian apologist, Gregorios Papamichael, University of Athens. espouses the view that humanity was gradually prepared for the revelation of the fullness of Truth in Christ This is witnessed in the Old Testament and in the "spermatikos logos" of natural revelation. "Seeds" existed in antiquity but the natural revelation of Truth was incomplete. The fullness of Truth was made manifest in Christ. Jesus Christ, who broke through and "once and for all entered history," is the fulfillment of non-Christian religions that were seeking the Light, the Life, and the Way to the Truth. Christ the eternal entered into time; the absolute entered the world of relativism.
The pre-eminent scholar Leonidas Philippides also takes the position that the "seeds" of salvation are available to all people and that "no people are deprived of God's Providence." Philippides inaugurated twentieth century scholarship in the history of religion and the study of comparative religion at the University of Athens. He produced numerous studies and was also a major influence at the University of Thessalonike. An early work, Comparative Religion and Christian Theology, points out that common ground exists in all religions, while simultaneously emphasizing that the Christian Faith has the fullness of Truth. His monumental History of New Testament Times, decades later, historically, philosophically and theologically analyzes the understanding of God and salvation in world religions.
Philippides' successors at the University of Athens have continued his efforts. Anastasios Yannoulatos. formerly professor of World Religion and now Archbishop of Tirana (Albania), authored major studies and numerous articles which have made tremendous contributions. Professor Dionysios G. Dakouras produced numerous studies in comparative religion and the study of the history of religions, including an excellent analysis, of the criticism of S. Radhakrishnan on Christian exclusivism.
Professor Evangelos D. Sdrakas taught on Islam and. Oriental religions at the University of Thessalonike. Professor Gregory D. Ziakas, also at Thessalonike, is a most important contemporary scholar focusing on Islam and Oriental religions. In his numerous studies and articles he strives to emphasize the affirmatives of various religions.
Especially notable is the work of Professor John N. Karmiris, University of Athens, whose Universality of Salvation in Christ is extremely helpful in understanding the Orthodox attitude toward nonChristian religions from the perspective of systematic theology.
Other relevant studies report on contemporary Orthodox missionary efforts and other activities involving dialogue with other religions.
Truth and Tolerance
As has been emphasized, the issue of Christian Truth is of highest importance in the Orthodox view of other religions. Pontius Pilate asked "What is Truth?" (John 18:38). He posed this question to Jesus who standing before him, remained silent. Christians interpret this silence as His reply that the Truth was standing before him - Christ is the Truth.
The Byzantine Empire identified itself as an Orthodox Christian state, however, it allowed for diversity of religious practices within its borders. "In Byzantium, the recognition of Christianity first as a privileged religion, and then as the official religion of the Empire, did not affect the basic principle of tolerance toward the members of other religions. But it restricted the rights they were permitted in public life. Christianity and, after the East-West schism (1054), Orthodoxy were closely linked to the identity of the Byzantine state and thus determined its religious policies."
For Orthodoxy there is a fusion between the truth claim of Christianity and a mandate for tolerance. We may say that one can not be a Christian without embracing tolerance as a concomitant of Christian love. This most significant and long-standing teaching of tolerance in Orthodoxy is emphasized in an encyclical letter of Ecumenical Patriarch Metrophanes III (1520-1580). This document was written to the Greek Orthodox in Crete (1568) following reports that Jews were being mistreated. The Patriarch states, "Injustice ... regardless to whomever acted upon or performed against, is still injustice. The unjust person is never relieved of the responsibility of these acts under the pretext that the injustice is done against a heterodox and not to a believer. As our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels said do not oppress or accuse anyone falsely; do not make any distinction or give room to the believers to injure those of another belief."
Today many Orthodox Christians live in societies of cultural, linguistic and religious pluralism. This has cultivated and nourished a deeply-felt attitude of respect, tolerance and understanding toward other people and their religions. The Orthodox Church has no official pronouncement on this matter. However, the long-standing tradition of respect and tolerance for other faiths is well stated by Archbishop Anastasios: "Being created in the image of God, every human being is our brother and sister."
Truth makes reference to the knowledge of being. Tolerance "Implies a certain relationship of religious faith with truth in every concrete manifestation in the world, whether national, political or sociological." The source of all truth is God the Creator, who gives existence to all beings. "God is the originator and the human being is the receiver."
It is a strongly-held Orthodox view that our commitment to Christian Truth affirms a pluralistic, democratic setting where all people can live in peace and harmony. Holding fast to the truth of Christianity, Orthodoxy defends the right of all religious expressions to co-exist harmoniously, in a setting of freedom, where equal protection is afforded to all under the law.
Orthodox Christianity sees dialogue not only as proper, but also necessary, in the inevitable interactions with other religions, Interfaith dialogueis best cultivated in an atmosphere of peace and with preparations which emphasize mutual in-depth understanding as the desirable way. There are risks in dialogue, particularly if preparation is inadequate or if there is overemphasis on accommodation. However, the risks of no dialogue are greater.
It is basic Christian doctrine that the Holy Spirit may act wherever and whenever. Presuming to constrain the activity of the Holy Spirit - to limit God Himself- is not the way. Orthodoxy recognizes and accepts the mandate to seek Truth and to follow the Holy Spirit wherever He leads, including in other religions or philosophies when his Truth is to be found there.
The way of Orthodoxy is to converge on the golden mean, carefully avoiding extremes and the pitfalls that can lead to destruction. The Tradition of the Church fosters the understanding of Truth in all the experience of the human person. As the sun shines and gives life and energy to the physical world, the Son of God, the Logos, illuminates every human person who "comes in the world" (Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit). The Holy Spirit and the Logos offer Life to all. However, the centrality of Christ, the "Savior of the world", the Logos, is not to be dismissed. He was incarnate for universal salvation and is "the same forever".
The salvation of all people, including non-Christians, depends on the great goodness and mercy of the Omniscient and Omnipotent God who desires the salvation of all people. Those who live in faith and virtue, though outside the Church, receive God's loving grace and salvation. Saint Paul reminds us, "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!" (Rom. 11: 33).
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, "Greeting" (Conference on Interreligious Dialogue), Orthodoxia, Second Period, Year 5. No. I (January - March 1998) pp. 103-107.
Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Brookline MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press (1985) p. 20.
Anastasios Yannoulatos. "Facing People of Other Faiths", The Greek Orthodox Theological Review. Vol 18. Nos 1-4 (1993) p. 140.
Ibid., p. 140.
Kallistos Ware. "In the Image and Likeness: The Uniqueness of the Human Person", Personhood, John T. Chirban (ed.) Westport CT. Bergin and Garvey (1996) p. 3.
Ibid., p. 3.
Zachary C. Xintaras, "Man - The Image of God According to the Greek Fathers", The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 1, No. I (August 1954) pp. 48-62.
George P. Patronos. The Glorification of Man in the Light of the Eschatoio cai Perception of the Orthodox Church (in Greek), Athens: Domos Editions (1995) pp. 44-45.
James S. Cutsinger, "The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ and Other Religions" The Greek Orthodox Theological Review. Vol. 42. Nos. 3-4 (1997) p. 429.
Philip Sherrard, "Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, Chapter Three,"Christianity and Other Sacred Traditions, Brookline MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press (1998) p. 54.
Emmanuel Clapsis, "The Challenge of Contextual Theologies", The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 38, Nos. 1-4 (1993) pp. 74-75.
See Theodore Stylianopoulos, "A Christological Reflection", Jesus Christ, the Life of the World, (ed.) Ion Bria, Geneva: World Council of Churches (1962) p. 31ff.
Justin Martyr, "Second Apology, 13." The Ante-nicene Fathers, Vol. I Grand Rapids; Wm. Ferdmans Pub, Co (1950) p. 193.
Ibid., "First Apology, 36", p. 178.
Ibid., "Second Apology, 8", p. 191
Ibid., "Second Apology, 8, 10", p. 191. See also the excellent study by John N. Karmiris, The Universality of Salvation in Christ (in Greek), Athens: Offprint from Theologia. Vol. 5.52. p. 34
John Chrysostom, "Interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans, Homily 7.4", PG 60, C. 447. See also Karmiris, The Universality of Salvation in Christ, pp. 45 – 46
Karmiris, The Universality of Salvation in Christ, p. 49-50. See also Sherrard, "Christianity ... " op. cit., p. 55.
Theodore N. Zeses, "The Operation of the Holy Spirit Outside the Church" (in Greek). Seminarion Theologon Thessalonikes, No, 5, Thessalonike (1971) p. 184-199.
Gregorios Papamichael. The Essence and Depth of Christianity (in Greek), Athens (1937) p. 7.
Ibid, p. 8. See also the excellent analysis in Leonidas Philippides, History of Religions in Themselves and in Christian Theology (in Greek), Athens: Pyrgos Press (1938) pp. 151-153.
Philippides, History of Religions .... op, cit., p. 172. Analyses of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria are provided, pp. 168-175.
Philippides, Comparative Religion and Christian Theology (in Greek), Athens Phoenikos Press (1930) (pp. 16-17).
Philippides, History of New Testament Times (in Greek:), Athens: Apostolike Diakonia Press (1958).
Yannoulatos: Various Christian Approaches to the Other Religions. A Historical Outline, Athens: Porefthentes Editions (1971); Islam; A General Survey (in Greek) . Athens: Ethnoi and Laoi Editions (1975); The Lord of Light, God of the Mountain Kenya Tribes (in Greek), Athens (1971).
Dionysios G. Dakouvas, The Claims of Christianity a.y Absolute Religion According to Lale Hinduism (in Greek). Athens; (Offprint of Theologia) Apostolike Diakonia Press (1980) pp. 5-31.
Evangelos D. Sdrakas, Polemics against Islam of the Byzantine Theologians (in Greek) , Thessalonike: M. Triantafylou and Sons Publishing (1961).
Gregory D. Ziakas, History of Religions, Volume One, "The Indian Religions", Volume Two, "Islam" (in Greek), Thessalonike; p Poumaras Editions (1992).
Karmiris, The Universality of Salvation in Christ, op. cit., p. 34.
Michael J. Oleksa. "Evangelism and Culture"The Greek. Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 42, Nos. 3-4 (1997), pp. 531-538; Daniel Bambang Dwi Byantoro, "Evangelising Non-Christians to Orthodoxy in Indonesia."The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 42, Nos. 3-4 (1997), pp. 499-514. [Note: This issue of The Greek Orthodox Theological Review contains all the papers of the International Conference on Mission and Evangelism, August 6-11. 1995, pp. 397-561.] Demetrios J. Constantelos: Issues and Dialogue in the Orthodox Church since World War Two, Brookline MA, Holy Cross Orthodox Press (1986); The Attitude of Orthodox Christians Toward Non-Christians, Brookline MA, Holy Cross Orthodox Press (1992). Methodios Fouyas: Hellenism and Judaism (in Greek), Athens: Nea Smyrna (1995), Hellenistic Jewish Tradition. Athens: Nea Smyrna (1995); The Basis for Islam (in Greek) Athens'
A. Papandreou, "Truth and Tolerance in Orthodoxy," op. cit., p. 228. See also Patriarch Bartholomew I, Address to the Conference on Peace and Tolerance, Istanbul, February 8, 1994, Orthodoxia. Second Period, Vol 1, No- 2 (April-June 1994) pp. 343-347 - This conference produced "The Bosporus Declaration" which the Patriarch signed (February 8, 1994).
George C. Papademetriou, Essays on Orthodox Christian-Jewish Relations, Bristol IN: Wyndam Hall Press (1990) p. 88.
Yannoulatos, "Facing People of Other Faiths" op cit., p. 151.
Damaskinos Papandreou, "Truth and Tolerance in Orthodoxy" Immanuel, 26/27 (1994) pp. 225-226.
D. Constantelos, The Attitude of Orthodox Christians Toward Non-Orthodox and Non-Christians, op. cit., p. 8.
Demetrios Trakatellis, "Theology in Encounter: Risks and Visions"The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 25, No, 1 (1987) pp. 31-37, Yannoulatos, "Byzantine and Contemporary Greek Orthodox Approaches to Islam"Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Vol. 33, No 4 (Fall 1996) pp. 512-527. Ziakas, "Dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism: Approach from Orthodox Perspectives," (in Greek). Epeterida of the Theological School of Thessalonike (Department of Theology), Vol. 8 (1999).
Zescs, "The Holy Spirit". Seminarion Theologon Thessalonikes. No. 5 (1971) pp. 188ff. Emmanuel Clapsis,
"The Boundaries of the Church: An Orthodox Debate", The Greek Orthodox Theological Review. Vol. 35, No. 2
(Summer 1990) pp. 113-127 George Khodre "Christianity in a Pluralistic World, The Economy of the Holy Spirit" TheEcumenical Review, Vol. 23 (January 1971-December 1971) pp. 118-128.