Comparative Theology Book Summary

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Title: Comparative Theology
Author: H.H. Pope Shenouda III

TLDR: This book explores key doctrinal differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, including baptism, tradition, intercession, fasting, veneration of Mary, spiritual gifts, rituals, and repentance, advocating for a return to a unified Christian faith based on biblical teachings and Church tradition.

Chapter 1: Baptism

This chapter delves into the crucial differences between Orthodox and Protestant views on baptism, exploring five key points:

1. Efficacy of Baptism: The Orthodox Church views baptism as a sacrament essential for salvation, purification, justification, renewal of life, and membership in the Body of Christ. This belief stems from biblical passages such as Mark 16:16, which states, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” The act of baptism is seen as participating in Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4), washing away sins (Acts 22:16), receiving a new birth of water and the Spirit (John 3:5), and putting on Christ (Galatians 3:27). Protestants, on the other hand, generally consider baptism as a symbolic act of obedience, emphasizing faith alone as the means for receiving these graces.

2. Administrator of Baptism: The Orthodox Church insists that baptism be administered only by canonically ordained clergy, tracing this authority back to the apostles and the Lord’s command in Matthew 28:19. Protestant denominations, rejecting human priesthood, allow baptism by ministers or elders who are not necessarily ordained in the same way. This difference in understanding of priesthood and sacramental efficacy is the basis for the Orthodox Church’s practice of rebaptizing converts from Protestant denominations.

3. Sacramentality of Baptism: Orthodoxy recognizes baptism as a sacrament, a holy mystery instituted by Christ that carries divine grace. Protestants, rejecting the concept of sacramental grace, view baptism primarily as a symbolic act.

4. Mode of Baptism: The Orthodox Church practices baptism by immersion, citing biblical examples like the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:16) and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:38-39). The act of immersion symbolizes being buried with Christ and rising with Him to new life. Most Protestant denominations practice baptism by sprinkling, viewing it as a symbolic washing.

5. Infant Baptism: The Orthodox Church practices infant baptism based on the faith of the parents, considering it essential for the child’s salvation and spiritual growth within the Church community. They cite examples of household baptisms in the Bible (Acts 16:33) and argue that excluding infants from baptism contradicts the Lord’s welcoming of children (Matthew 19:14). Protestants, emphasizing personal belief prior to baptism, generally reject infant baptism.

The chapter also addresses common objections to the Orthodox view of baptism, including the sufficiency of faith alone, the salvation of the Penitent Thief without baptism, the symbolic nature of water, the efficacy of baptism by a sinful clergyman, and the continued presence of sin after baptism. The chapter ends by re-emphasizing the crucial role of baptism in Orthodox theology and practice.

Chapter 2: Tradition

This chapter addresses the crucial role of Tradition in Orthodox Christianity and the Protestant rejection of it. Pope Shenouda defines Tradition as any teaching, aside from the Holy Bible, entrusted to the Church by the apostles and Church Fathers. He argues that Tradition, encompassing the writings of Church Fathers, council decisions, Church canons, rituals, and oral traditions, predates the Holy Bible and is essential for understanding and preserving the faith.

The chapter begins by illustrating the existence of Tradition before the written Law, citing examples like Abel’s sacrifice, Noah’s ark, Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek, Jacob’s anointing of Bethel, and God’s command to pass teachings down to future generations. It further demonstrates the presence of Tradition in the New Testament, highlighting the period before written Gospels and Epistles, the Apostle Paul’s verbal instructions to his disciples, and the consecration of Sunday as the Lord’s Day despite the lack of an explicit biblical command.

The chapter argues that the Holy Bible does not record everything Jesus said and did, leaving a crucial role for Tradition to transmit these teachings. It points to instances where New Testament writers referenced events and teachings from the Old Testament not explicitly found in scripture, further emphasizing the reliance on oral tradition.

Pope Shenouda then outlines the benefits of Tradition:

  • Source of the Holy Bible: Tradition identifies and authenticates the books of the Bible.
  • Preservation of Church Heritage: Tradition transmits rituals, disciplines, and practices.
  • Safeguarding Sound Faith: Tradition ensures consistent interpretation of the Bible, preventing fragmentation and doctrinal deviation.
  • Maintaining Essential Beliefs: Tradition preserves practices like Sunday observance, the sign of the cross, monogamy, and prayers for the departed.

The chapter differentiates between valid Tradition, consistent with the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, and invalid traditions rejected by the Church, such as those condemned by Jesus during His ministry. It emphasizes the Church’s authority to teach and legislate, based on the Lord’s words in Matthew 18:18, as exemplified by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).

Finally, the chapter highlights the apostles’ commands to preserve Tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15), concluding that neglecting this heritage leaves the Church vulnerable to individual interpretations and potential doctrinal errors.

Chapter 3: Intercession

This chapter tackles the contentious issue of intercession, highlighting the Orthodox belief in the efficacy of praying to saints and angels, a practice rejected by Protestant denominations.

The chapter begins by differentiating between Christ’s unique atoning mediation, described in 1 John 2:1 and 1 Timothy 2:5, and the intercessory prayers of saints and angels. Christ’s mediation is a unique act of atonement, reconciling humanity to God through His sacrifice on the cross. Intercession, on the other hand, is simply prayer on behalf of others, a practice encouraged throughout the Bible (James 5:16).

Pope Shenouda argues that if intercessory prayer is considered unacceptable mediation, then asking any person to pray for another is equally unacceptable. He cites numerous biblical examples where God encourages and accepts intercession:

  • Abraham and Abimelech (Genesis 20:7): God commands Abimelech to seek Abraham’s prayer for forgiveness.
  • Job and his friends (Job 42:7-8): God instructs Job’s friends to ask for Job’s intercession to receive forgiveness.
  • Abraham’s intercession for Sodom (Genesis 18): God reveals His plan to destroy Sodom, allowing Abraham to plead for the city’s inhabitants.
  • Moses’ intercession for Israel (Exodus 32): God allows Moses to intercede for the Israelites after they worship the golden calf.
  • God’s mercy for David’s sake (1 Kings 11:12-13): God shows mercy to Solomon for his father David’s sake, even after Solomon’s sins.

The chapter then addresses common objections to intercession:

  • Do saints know our condition on earth?: Pope Shenouda argues that knowledge in heaven surpasses earthly knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:12), citing biblical examples of angels rejoicing over repentance (Luke 15:7), angels carrying prayers to God (Revelation 8:3-4), and departed saints having knowledge of earthly affairs (Luke 16:25, Revelation 6:9-11, 2 Chronicles 21).
  • Does asking for intercession amount to praying to saints?: He clarifies that asking for intercession is not praying to saints, but requesting their prayers and support, similar to how we ask living people to pray for us.

The chapter concludes by highlighting the spiritual benefits of intercession:

  • Belief in the afterlife and ongoing communion with departed saints.
  • Strengthening the bond of love within the Church, both on earth and in heaven.
  • Humility in acknowledging our need for spiritual support.
  • Accessing the powerful prayers of those closer to God.
  • Experiencing the tangible reality of saintly intervention in people’s lives.

Chapter 4: Fasting

This chapter examines the differing approaches to fasting in Orthodoxy and Protestantism. While acknowledging the biblical basis for fasting, Pope Shenouda points out that Protestant denominations have effectively cancelled the practice. He focuses on three key points of contention:

1. Secret vs. Communal Fasting: Protestants argue that fasting should be a private act between the individual and God, based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:17-18. Orthodoxy, while acknowledging the importance of private fasting, also emphasizes communal fasting as a biblical practice that strengthens the unity of the Church. The chapter provides examples of communal fasts in the Bible, including the fasts of Esther, Nineveh, Nehemiah and Ezra, Joel, the Apostles, and St. Paul.

2. Fixed vs. Individual Fasts: Protestants generally reject the concept of fixed fasts at set times, advocating for individual freedom in choosing when and how to fast. Orthodoxy, while respecting individual freedom, upholds fixed fasts based on biblical precedent (Zechariah 8:19) and the Church’s authority to organize communal worship. Fixed fasts are seen as opportunities for spiritual growth and shared commemoration of significant events in Christian history.

3. Dietary Restrictions: Protestants disagree with the Orthodox practice of abstaining from certain foods during fasts, particularly meat and animal products. They accuse the Orthodox Church of legalism, citing 1 Timothy 4:1-3, which condemns those who forbid marriage and certain foods. Orthodoxy clarifies that abstaining from certain foods during fasts is a form of asceticism aimed at controlling bodily desires and not a condemnation of these foods as inherently unclean. They point out that vegetarian food was the original diet given by God (Genesis 1:29) and argue that Daniel’s practice of abstaining from certain foods was not condemned.

The chapter addresses common Protestant objections:

  • “Let no one judge you” (Colossians 2:16-17): This verse, often cited to oppose dietary restrictions, is interpreted by the Orthodox Church as referring to Jewish dietary laws that were no longer binding on Christians, not as a condemnation of all fasting restrictions.
  • Fasting as a “work of Grace”: Protestants argue that repentance and spiritual growth are entirely the work of God’s grace, rendering human effort meaningless. Orthodoxy emphasizes the importance of human effort alongside God’s grace, citing passages such as Hebrews 12:4 which encourages striving against sin.

The chapter concludes by affirming the Church’s authority to organize communal worship, including regulating fasts for the benefit of its members. This discipline is seen as beneficial and complementary to individual freedom, ensuring the preservation of fasting as a vital spiritual practice.

Chapter 5: Veneration of the Virgin Mary and Her Perpetual Virginity

This chapter addresses the profound veneration of the Virgin Mary in Orthodoxy, a practice often criticized by Protestant denominations.

Pope Shenouda begins by highlighting the biblical basis for this veneration, emphasizing Mary’s own words, “All generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). He points to instances of veneration from Elizabeth (Luke 1:43-44), the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:28), and various biblical prophecies referring to Mary as Queen (Psalm 45:9) and “all glorious within” (Psalm 45:13). He argues that venerating Mary is essentially venerating Christ Himself, as honoring one’s mother is a fundamental commandment with a promise (Ephesians 6:2).

The chapter then explores the theological significance of Mary’s titles:

  • Mother of God (Theotokos): This title, often rejected by Protestants, is derived from the Orthodox belief in the divinity of Christ. If Christ is God, then Mary is indeed the Mother of God.
  • Mother of Light: As Christ is the true Light (John 1:9), Mary is the Mother of Light.
  • Mother of the Saviour: Christ’s name, Jesus, means ‘Saviour’, thus Mary is the Mother of the Saviour.
  • Mother of the Lord, Emmanuel, the Word Incarnate: These titles are derived from the various titles attributed to Christ.

Pope Shenouda addresses the Protestant practice of calling Mary “our sister,” arguing that it is illogical to consider the mother of Christ as merely a sister to His followers. He further explores various symbolic titles attributed to Mary, such as the Second Heaven, the Tabernacle, the City of God, the Manna Pot, Aaron’s Rod, the Ark of Testimony, the Ladder to Heaven, the Burning Bush, the Good Dove, and the True Vine.

The chapter then defends the Orthodox belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, addressing common Protestant arguments based on biblical phrases like “firstborn Son,” “your wife,” “did not know her till,” and “His brothers.”

  • “Firstborn Son”: Pope Shenouda clarifies that “firstborn” refers to the first offspring, regardless of subsequent siblings, citing the consecration of all firstborn males to God (Exodus 13:2) and the Lord’s presentation in the Temple as a firstborn (Luke 2:22-24).
  • “Your wife”: He explains that in Jewish tradition, a betrothed woman was often referred to as “wife” even before consummation of the marriage, citing biblical examples (Deuteronomy 22:23-24, Deuteronomy 20:7) and noting that the angel stopped using the term “wife” after Jesus’ birth.
  • “Did not know her till”: The word “till” does not imply a change in state after the event, as seen in other biblical examples like the death of Michal (2 Samuel 6:23) and the Lord’s promise to be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
  • “His brothers”: The term “brother” in Hebrew often encompassed close relatives like cousins. Pope Shenouda argues that the “brothers of Jesus” were likely His cousins, sons of Mary, the Virgin’s sister. This interpretation is supported by the presence of Mary, the wife of Clopas, at the crucifixion (John 19:25), who is also mentioned as the mother of James and Joses (Matthew 27:55-56).

The chapter concludes by affirming the perpetual virginity of Mary, based on the prophecy of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 44:2) describing a closed gate through which the Lord entered, symbolizing Mary’s womb remaining shut after Christ’s birth.

Chapter 6: Spiritual Gifts and the Gift of Speaking in Tongues

This chapter addresses the differing approaches to spiritual gifts, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues, in Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Pope Shenouda highlights the tendency of some Protestant groups to overemphasize spiritual gifts, particularly speaking in tongues, often seeking them as proof of spiritual maturity or privilege.

He begins by emphasizing the primacy of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), particularly love, which is greater than even faith that can move mountains (1 Corinthians 13:2,13). He warns against seeking vainglory through gifts, reminding readers that salvation is not granted through gifts but through faith in Christ, as evidenced by those who perished despite possessing spiritual gifts (Matthew 7:22-23). He points to the Apostle Paul’s own struggle with the potential for pride associated with gifts (2 Corinthians 12:7) and highlights the practice of saints who sought to hide their spiritual gifts.

Pope Shenouda then addresses the Pentecostal movement’s emphasis on ‘Spirit Baptism’ or ‘Filling of the Holy Spirit’, often characterized by speaking in tongues. He argues that God bestows gifts according to His will (Romans 12:3), not based on human requests. He criticizes the practice of praying for specific gifts, particularly speaking in tongues, as it can foster pride and division within the Church.

The chapter then analyzes the Apostle Paul’s teaching on speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, highlighting several key points:

  • Speaking in tongues is last in the order of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 12:28).
  • Speaking in tongues is not a gift for all (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).
  • Speaking in tongues should be for the edification of the Church (1 Corinthians 14:26, 14:12).
  • Speaking in tongues should be interpreted (1 Corinthians 14:13, 14:28).
  • Speaking in tongues without interpretation resembles meaningless sounds (1 Corinthians 14:6-8) and can make speakers seem like foreigners or even madmen (1 Corinthians 14:9-11, 14:23).
  • The gift of speaking in tongues should be used in an orderly manner, avoiding confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33, 14:27).
  • Speaking in tongues is primarily a sign for unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22).

Pope Shenouda concludes by suggesting that instead of seeking spiritual gifts, Christians should focus on seeking the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33), cultivating the fruit of the Spirit and living a life of love.

Chapter 7: Rituals

This chapter examines the significance and meaning of various rituals practiced in the Orthodox Church, practices often absent or rejected by Protestant denominations.

1. Veneration of the Cross: The chapter begins by defending the Orthodox practice of making the sign of the cross, arguing that it is a powerful reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, a profession of faith, a source of spiritual strength, a symbol of belonging to Christ, and a means of teaching children about the faith. Pope Shenouda points to the numerous references to the cross in the Bible, highlighting Jesus’ emphasis on taking up the cross (Matthew 10:38), the Apostles’ focus on Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2), and St. Paul’s glorying in the cross (Galatians 6:14). The sign of the cross is seen as a constant proclamation of the Lord’s death for us, a reminder of God’s love, and a source of victory over Satan.

2. Facing the East: The chapter defends the practice of praying towards the East, a direction associated with numerous symbolic meanings in the Bible: the rising of the sun, symbolizing Christ; the Garden of Eden, symbolizing Paradise; the birth of Christ in an eastern country; the spread of the Gospel from the East; and the glory of God residing in the East. Facing East during prayer is seen as a physical expression of spiritual aspirations towards Christ, Paradise, and the Second Coming.

3. The Sanctuary and the Altar: The chapter defends the presence of a sanctuary and an altar in Orthodox churches, based on biblical evidence such as Hebrews 13:10, which speaks of an altar from which Christians partake, and Isaiah 19:19, which prophesies an altar in Egypt during the Christian era. The altar signifies the ongoing sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist, a subject to be addressed in later chapters.

4. Incense: The chapter argues that incense is not merely a symbolic act associated with Old Testament sacrifices but an independent form of worship with its own spiritual significance. It points to biblical examples of incense being considered a sacrifice (Exodus 30:1), offered on a dedicated altar (Exodus 30:3-6), and used for atonement (Numbers 16:44-48). The chapter emphasizes the prophecy of Malachi 1:11, predicting the offering of incense among the Gentiles in the Christian era, and the presence of incense in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4). Incense is seen as a symbol of self-sacrifice, the ascent of prayer towards God, and the fragrance of Christ in our lives.

5. Lights and Candles: The chapter defends the use of lights and candles in Orthodox worship, citing the biblical metaphor of the Church as a golden lampstand (Revelation 1:20), symbolizing the presence of God, angels, and saints. Candles symbolize the light of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the enduring witness of the saints. The chapter points to the Divine command to keep lamps burning continually in the Tabernacle (Exodus 27:20-21) and the spiritual significance of readiness and watchfulness symbolized by burning lamps (Luke 12:35).

6. Pictures and Icons: The chapter defends the use of icons in Orthodox worship, arguing that they are not idols to be worshipped but aids to contemplation and reminders of the saints. Pope Shenouda addresses the Protestant objection based on the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-5), arguing that the prohibition is against worshipping images, not simply using them. He points to biblical examples of God commanding the creation of images, such as the bronze serpent (Numbers 21:8) and the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22) and in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:23-28). He notes the Protestant practice of using pictures in Sunday Schools and their recent adoption of crosses on their churches. Icons are seen as a visual expression of faith, a connection to the saints, and a tool for teaching and contemplation.

The chapter concludes by emphasizing the spiritual benefits of these rituals, their biblical basis, and their role in nourishing the soul through the senses and promoting a deeper connection with God and the saints.

Chapter 8: Repentance

This chapter explores the differences in understanding and practicing repentance in Orthodoxy and Protestantism.

Pope Shenouda begins by highlighting that repentance in Orthodoxy is a sacrament, one of the seven holy mysteries, whereas Protestant groups, rejecting the concept of sacraments, view it primarily as an individual act. He then outlines the key areas of divergence:

1. Confession: Orthodoxy considers confession to a priest an essential part of repentance, based on Proverbs 28:13, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” He cites biblical examples of confession in both the Old and New Testaments (Leviticus 5:5-6, Matthew 3:5-6, Acts 19:18, James 5:16). Protestants generally reject the practice of confession, emphasizing a direct relationship with God and minimizing the role of the Church.

2. The Church’s Role: Orthodoxy views repentance as being completed within the Church through confession and absolution. The priest, acting as God’s representative, provides forgiveness based on John 20:22-23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Protestants generally view repentance as an individual act outside the Church’s jurisdiction.

3. Repentance and Salvation: Many Protestants emphasize salvation through Christ’s Blood alone, downplaying the role of repentance. Orthodoxy insists that repentance is essential for salvation, as all have sinned and are in need of forgiveness. Christ’s Blood, while crucial, is effective only for those who repent (Luke 13:3).

4. Repentance and Grace: Protestants often portray repentance as solely a work of Grace, rendering human effort meaningless. Orthodoxy emphasizes the role of human striving alongside God’s grace, citing passages like Hebrews 12:4, which encourages “striving against sin.”

5. Repentance as Experience: Protestants tend to view repentance as an experience to be shared with others, encouraging testimonies and public pronouncements of conversion. Orthodoxy emphasizes the need for humility and contrition, avoiding public displays of past sins.

6. Joy vs. Contrition: Protestants emphasize joy and celebration in repentance, whereas Orthodoxy stresses the need for contrition and mourning over sin. This emphasis is illustrated by the biblical example of the Israelites eating the Passover lamb with bitter herbs, representing both the joy of salvation and the sorrow for sin (Exodus 12:8).

7. Repentance vs. Renewal: Protestants often use terms like “renewal,” “newness of life,” and “salvation” interchangeably with repentance. Orthodoxy distinguishes between repentance as an ongoing process of change and renewal as a state received in baptism.

8. Repentance and Sacraments: Orthodoxy teaches that repentance precedes all other sacraments, preparing the heart to receive God’s grace. Protestants, not recognizing sacraments in the same way, do not share this view.

9. Conduct and Deeds: Protestants tend to view the Christian life primarily in terms of faith and Grace, minimizing the importance of good works. Orthodoxy emphasizes the necessity of good works as evidence of true repentance, citing Matthew 3:8, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

The chapter concludes by emphasizing the interconnectedness of repentance, conduct, and God’s grace, highlighting 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the Blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”


This book serves as a valuable tool for understanding the key differences between Orthodox and Protestant theology and practice. Pope Shenouda’s careful biblical analysis and clear explanations provide a solid foundation for dialogue and further exploration of these critical issues. His ultimate goal is to foster greater understanding and unity within the Christian faith, based on a shared commitment to the teachings of Scripture and the enduring traditions of the Church.

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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