While there are strong theoretical differences between the Orthodox and Classical Protestants on faith, existentially, the gap is less severe. (I will sometime abbreviate Classical Protestants as Protestants in this piece-there are many non-classical Protestants whose ideas I will not consider. Those who think you can have Christ as Savior, but not as Lord display an anti-nomian spirit so extreme that it is hard to consider them Christians in even the most nominal sense of the word. The Moslem and the Orthodox Jew with their reverance for God's law seem closer to the spirit of Christianity than do such "Christians.")
Both Orthodox and Protestants concur theoretically that without God's act in the Incarnation, man could not leave his unnatural, sinful state and come to God. He requires grace. Having concurred on this, they disagree on the function of works. Part of the problem is that the Orthodox are far more reticient than the Protestants to speak of salvation as a single event. Rather, our salvation and our sanctification are seen as part of a continuous process, so that to be technically correct one cannot talk about having been saved without also talking about being in the process of being saved, and hoping finally at the Last Judgement that one will finally and decisively be saved. It is clear to both Protestants and Orthodox that good works are essential in the process of sanctification.
Existentially, Protestants acknowledge that true faith must of necessity produce good works. If ones faith does not produce works, they would warn the person to consider that they may not have a true faith. What they object to is saying that these good works save us.
It is dangerous to be too precise in these matters. We do know that Christ says that if we love Him we will obey Him. We must love Him to enter His Kingdom. We cannot love Him without faith. We cannot be saved without His saving Passion and Resurrection. We know that without works faith is dead. On all these, Protestants and Orthodox agree.
The Protestant's two camps on election start with the same premise of "Sola Fide" (by faith alone). However, in practice, they both, by very different routes make this statement far less extreme than it seems at first glance to the Orthodox. Those Protestants who believe in the possibility of losing ones salvation (as do the Orthodox), acknowledge that repeated, unrepented sin will cause you to lose your salvation, because those who so indulge will eventually end up with a conscience so hardened that faith will die. Thus, works are necessary to salvation in that position. (We will come to the special case of death bed conversions later.) Those who believe that one cannot lose one's salvation use a different expedient. It is clear that many people who initially live in a very godly manner eventually turn their back on God. Those whobelieve in eternal security usually deal with such cases by saying that those in such circumstances never had true faith. However, existentially, such a person is indistinguishable during his/her pious stage from someone who will in fact persevere to the end. One cannot know whether one is merely deluding oneself or one has true faith. Only perseverance to the end, which involves good works done out of gratitude for God, demonstrates the genuineness of the faith in that position. However, this too is not so far from saying that works are necessary to salvation at least existentially.
Also, the Orthodox concur that faith is the greatest of works. Thus, the person who is converted on his death bed or on a cross, though he/she has no material works, does in fact have the work of faith. This is not so far, in concept if not in terminology, from the position held on this subject by either school of Protestantism.
I derive no great theories about what goes on in God's eternal counsels. Certainly, our widow's mites of work add nothing to God's infinite supply of Goodness. Still, He honors them. We, on earth, see the necessity of works for ourselves to appropriate the free gift of God of salvation. To go beyond that into speculations about the exact function of grace and works seems to lead us back to this conclusion in the end.
I could go on about the theology of the Incarnation and how Christ's appearance in the flesh sanctifies all matter. I could talk about how certain strands in Judaism of the New Testament era used icons, and how the Christian use can be considered a carry-over of the Jewish heritage of the Church, much like the use of the Psalms in public worship and the hours of prayers (Acts 3: 1) which are continued to this day in the Orthodox Church and in Roman Catholic monastaries and are being reintroduced into Protestantism at Taize, France. I could talk about the importance of obedience to the Church. However, I'm afraid these points would not much impress you, so I will use a different approach.
Icons remind us of the "great cloud of witnesses" that surround us. Seeing the icons reminds us of heroic Christian lives and urges us on to emulate them. For instance, I have icons of two great missionary saints Ss. Innocent of Alaska and Nicholas of Japan. These men gave their all to the Gospel, suffering many deprivations, although in different ways. There missionary techniques are studied to this day even by Protestant missiologists. Seeing their icon should (and sometimes does) remind me of the importance of mission work and of giving ones all to the Kingdom. I have an icon of the Apostle Silas, the travelling companion of St. Paul. He is the patron saint of the Orthodox Prison and Street Ministry, and is wearing chains in the icon. His icon reminds me to pray for the imprisoned. I have an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, given me at the convent I visited in San Francisco. It reminds me of the convent. It also reminds me of the saying of St. Seraphim, "Acquire the Holy Spirit, and thousands around you will acquire salvation." I could expand examples endlessly. In short, icons do the same things that Church Feasts (e.g. Christmas, Easter, Epiphany which celebrates Christ's baptism) do-they remind us of important parts of salvation history, a history that continues to this day. They remind us that others have done marvelous things for God and encourage us to do them-knowing from the examples that we can if we will strive with God's help to do so, but only if we are willing to give up not less than everything.
Moreover, they serve the function of family pictures. Just as I have pictures of my family in my home and my parents have pictures of our forebears, so icons are pictures of our spiritual forebears. We keep them because we love and respect and owe a great debt to those who helped lead us to the faith, if only very indirectly through converting someone who converted someone else ... who converted (or helped strengthen in the faith or increase the conviction of) someone who has benefited us spiritually. We are all a family, both in heaven and on earth. Family members love to have pictures of other family members because they love the other family members. The knowledge of my debt makes me very interested in St. Boniface, a missionary to Frisia, where my mother comes from. He was martyred there. Thus, I have been buying books about him. My parents found some material for me about him in Dokkum (where he was martyred) when they visited the Netherlands. I owe him a great debt, because he was a pivotal figure in the conversion of my ancestors. While I have not yet acquired an icon of him (I am looking), I have found some nice lithographs in books I have acquired. I would like to acquire an icon, but haven't found one yet. I may commission one, just like someone would commision a portrait of a distinguished ancestor-for he is my spiritual forebear. However, icons are not merely symbols of our love. They do not merely remind us of the "great cloud of witnesses," but they help us to experience it. The great cloud of witnesses is there whether or not we are conscious of the fact. It's presence benefits us whether we realize it or not, for the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant are one Church, and the prayers in heaven benefit us. However, our consciousness of the "great cloud of witnesses" helps us in other ways. It gives us courage, for there are those around us who love us and want what is best for us. It discourages vice, for a remembrance that we are surrounded by those who love us makes us wish to avoid doing that which will disappoint them. Experiencing the saint's presence reminds us of God's prescence-something we should always keep in mind, but frequently forget.
I do not dispute that some people abuse icons, that some people move beyond venerating the person-who-strove-to-please-God behind the icon to worshiping the person. I do not know anyone who does, but I will not dispute that such people may exist. However, the abuse of icons is no argument against their proper use. Even God's law can be abused by sin: "For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good." (Romans 7: 5-12)
If even God's law, His gift to us can be abused, then anything good can and will be abused. Food is a wonderful example of this truth. With food, there are too excesses one can fall into: gluttony and anorexia (with bulimia, being a combination of the two). Neither are Christian, or even merely humanly-wise responses to food. The proper use of food is with moderation. For almost all good things, there are twin dangers - of excess in the direction of too much or too little. (Pure prayer being one of the only things you cannot have too much of. That is not to say that people do not sometime use less-than-pure prayer as an excuse to avoid their real responsibilities. This realization is a pre-Christian thought - men can realize this truth apart from direct revelation - it is part of God's revelation to man written in the structure of the cosmos.
Protestantism realizes this on many issues, for instance on food. However, in its reactions to certain abuses of excess in medieval Roman Catholicism, it forgets this crucial truth in other areas - particularly in the area of the saints. Because some deluded people turn the saints into idols is not an excuse to ignore them, to deny that they can be of great benefit to us. Protestantism, in this area, forgets that the error of refusing a good offered by God is also harmful. Spiritual anorexia is not better than spiritual gluttony. In fact, it can encourage it. It is not uncommon for the anorexic to occasionally go into bulemic mode. In the same way, when people reject some good thing too long, they may gravitate to its opposite. When people deny themselves God's gifts, they may become attracted to Satan's counterfits. It is a spiritual starvation resulting from denial of important parts of the Christian life (including the example of the saints and the centrality of the sacraments) that leads people to the New Age with its fake holy men and its fake sacraments. Some people can survive a whole life on very little bread and water, but most will not be able to withstand this - and fall to devouring a poisoned banquet if it is put in front of them.
Copyright (c) 1996-1998 Daniel Lieuwen. Permission is given for the non-commercial reproduction of this material in any format with the proviso that only full paragraphs may be included in other documents without the express permission of the copyright holder, that the author be credited, and that this copyright notice be included. Other use, requires special permission to protect the integrity of the thought unit.