Prompt: What are the major differences in emphasis among Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Protestants? Are some of these differences reconcilable and, if so, how could this be done?
The dominant branches of Christianity share the overarching belief that Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed himself in order save humanity and spiritual salvation is only achievable by means of placing one’s faith in that sacrifice. Throughout Christianity’s two-thousand-year history, however, different interpretations of the words and deeds of the Christ figure have come to dominate the spiritual landscape. These varying interpretations have resulted in schisms within the Christian body of congregants. It is useful to study the basic emphases of the three branches of Christianity in order to understand how they diverge from one another. Huston Smith has conveniently outlined these thematic emphases within Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Understanding these emphases is vital to understanding the reasons for historical Christian schisms, ongoing tensions between various groups of Christians, and why the three may never reconcile their differences.
The defining emphases of the Roman Catholicism place education and sacramental authority within the purview of the Roman Catholic Church (1991, p. 347). Proponents of Roman Catholicism place their trust in members of the clergy to both provide the most accurate interpretation of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth – the concept of the Church as a teaching authority culminates in papal authority with regard to matters of faith and morality (1991, p. 248; Van Voorst, 1993, p. 292-93) – and tools by which the faithful can live accordingly, manifested in sacramental activities which mirror “the great moments and need of human life” (1991, p. 349).
These themes stand in contrast to those within the Eastern Orthodox tradition: corporality and mysticism (1991, p. 353-355). The corporate view of Christianity holds that the conscience of the Church and the salvation of others is wholly dependent upon the contributions of the entire congregation (1991, p. 354). Further, individually experiencing the supernatural presence of God while on earth is encouraged through mystical ecstasy in order to fully realize the glory of unification with God (1991, p. 355-56). While mysticism is neither overtly encouraged nor discouraged in the other two branches of Christianity, it is a defining feature within Eastern Orthodoxy as an integral part of one’s spiritual journey.
The hundreds of denominations within the branch of Protestantism are united by the concepts of justification by faith and the Protestant Faith. Justification by faith, put simply, implies the restoration of one’s relationship with God is achieved by total faith. Further, faith is defined, not just by belief, but also by one’s will and affections (1991, p. 357). This belief is described in many of the letters of Paul, especially with regard to the ways in which love acts as a spiritual gift which enhances faith (1993, 287-88) The three must be performed in concert in order to fully realize spiritual justification. The Protestant Principle rejects what Protestants perceive as idolatry or equating God with worldly such as statues or conceptual tools like the Sacraments. The spirit of God transcends anything one might try and contain it to within the human world (1991, p. 259). These two concepts lead to much individualization of interpretation within the Protestant belief system – hence, the multitude of denominations.
These emphases mark boundaries between the three branches which are impossible to overcome or reconcile. Not only do these divisions indicate how the branches diverge, they actively preclude integral doctrinal elements of other Christian interpretations. The corporality of Eastern Orthodoxy stands in sharp contrast to the necessary hierarchy of Roman Catholicism and the merits of individual enlightenment promoted by Protestant tenets of faith, which in turn disrupts the ways in which Catholic priests and Orthodox ecclesiastical councils have traditionally held positions of educational authority. These differences in modes of interpretation is the primary reason why the three branches of Christianity will never be reconciled.
- Smith, H. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
- Van Voorst, E. (1993). Anthology of World Scripture. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub.