Orthodoxy – Eastern and otherwise

It seems that I’ve lived a very sheltered life, at least as far as life in the evangelical world goes. I thought that I had a pretty eclectic theological history, and understood evangelicals pretty well. I was raised Lutheran, as I’ve mentioned before, but was deeply influenced in high school and college by a variety of non-Lutheran folks, attended an Evangelical Covenant Bible school, and even served on the board of an Evangelical Free Church. I have hung around with both Southern and American Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, holiness folks and Greek Orthodox. I’ve been traveling in Vineyard circles for over 20 years, and for the last 10 have been investigating what is now being called the “emerging” church. I’ve read Christianity Today, The Purpose-Driven Church/Life, and tons of other best-sellers. I have owned at least 3 systematic theologies. And, I often use the NIV (although I do prefer RSV).

So, I’ve “been around,” as they say. However, over the last few months I have been exploring the vast resources of the internet, only to find that I apparently haven’t a clue about what Evangelicalism is all about. I knew that I didn’t agree with fundamentalists of any stripe, John MacArther, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye or James Dobson (and still don’t). However, I really had no idea there were such strong and volatile groups of Calvinists, Baptists, Calvinist Baptists, Anabaptists, and other random evangelicals out there. I’ve discovered that I don’t understand Calvinists at all (and still don’t really care to) and that I’m getting tired of Baptists who think they understand Martin Luther. However, I’ve discovered that there are a number of really sharp Lutherans who really do understand Martin Luther.

I also didn’t know that orthodoxy was such a big deal (not just “who’s in and who’s out,” but what it is that makes you in or out). I didn’t know that the Nicene Creed was an issue for some people. And, I’m very glad that I have had no reason to know these things.

There are a few decent evangelical blogs that I have been reading (and occasionally commenting on), including Parchment and Pen, the blog of C. Michael Patton, a dispensational Calvinist. On that basis alone, I shouldn’t understand his point of view at all. However, he “reaches across the aisle,” as it were, and has started some very interesting discussions in the last couple of weeks concerning who is “emerging,” who is and is not “orthodox,” and who are the Eastern Orthodox. On the latter topic, he has invited Dr. Bradley Nassif, an Eastern Orthodox theology professor at North Park University, to write a series of posts to introduce the Orthodox to Patton’s mostly evangelical audience.

The resulting discussions on each of these three topics are quite interesting, as well as being very educational. If you are at all interested in the variety of theologies held by the large group(s) calling itself “Evangelical,” or if you just want to find out what a strange world evangelicalism can be, it’s well worth an hour or 2 of your time to read through these discussions. I have especially enjoyed the Eastern Orthodox discussions, and am impressed with Dr. Nassif, who exhibits much more grace and patience than I would in dealing with some of the comments.

I have not drawn any conclusions, per se, from these discussions, but I have a few hunches and perceptions:

  • Evangelicalism appears to be half – perhaps more – Modernism.
  • There is at least a very strong commitment to submitting theology to a rationalistic analysis
  • There is also an ahistorical attitude that borders on arrogance.
  • Evangelicals more often than not cannot properly understand Luther or the early church, as they can’t accept that modernism has changed the meanings of many words and concepts.
  • I have never been “evangelical” in the sense that most people use the term.
  • I am okay – actually, I am more than okay – with that.
  • I tend to like many of these people, anyway.
  • The more theology I study, the more Lutheran I get.

What I find really intriguing, as I read through Robert Webber and other books dealing with historical theology, is that much of today’s evangelical church probably would have been considered heretical (at least heterodox) by Luther and many of the other reformers, not to mention everyone’s favorite, Augustine. Oh well… the beat goes on.

6 thoughts on “Orthodoxy – Eastern and otherwise”

  1. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Fr. Peter a few times. His son is my priest, so he comes to visit the grandkids every so often. He is definitely a man who makes an impression.

    Richard

  2. You mention Peter Gillquist… I actually met Fr. Gillquist, around 1973, before he became Orthodox. His book, “The Physical Side of Being Spiritual” (which of course came a few years later) has had a lasting impact on me.

  3. Yes, that’s appropriate; be aware, however, that for some that “quiet confidence” you mention is tantamount to stagnation. In the case of some, that may very well be true. There are those who are very insistent that the modern world poses no questions Orthodox Christianity hasn’t answered, and therefore there is no need to engage the modern world on any point. “Catholic” means “whole, complete, lacking nothing,” so therefore to suggest there’s anything worth answering we haven’t dealt with is to deny our own identity. These people exist; many of them are easily found on the internet.

    I think there are a lot of examples out there of people who engage in a good way and show that doing so doesn’t have to mean we’re somehow lacking something; Patriarch Bartholomew, Abp. Hilarion Alfayev, Met. Kallistos Ware, Fr. John Behr, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Fr. Peter E. Gillquist, and so on.

    Richard

  4. Richard, I totally agree concerning the tone of the comments. There are certainly those who exhibit a lack of grace; it would seem that for some, hanging on to pet doctrines or viewpoints is a trade-off, and grace loses out.

    That’s one of the primary differences I see among the Eastern Orthodox as well as in some other confessional denominations; they exhibit a quiet confidence (having nearly 2000 years of history behind you helps) that allows grace to flow. Is it appropriate to judge theology by the fruit of the Spirit it produces?

  5. Great discussion into which I have no desire to jump myself, but interesting to read as an outsider.

    I have always had a great deal of respect for Dr. Nassif’s tone and knowledge; as an Orthodox I find some things he says troubling (such as his assertion that portions of our liturgies “have no biblical justification”, implying that the scissors need to come out) but in the context of his own admission that he feels like he straddles both worlds (Orthodoxy and Protestantism) without feeling completely comfortable in either one, I can understand where he’s coming from.

    I agree with him wholeheartedly that the Orthodox in this country needs to re-learn how to evangelize, and need to figure out how to throw off the ethno-centric weights which seem to prevent us from doing so. I do not agree with what seems to be his implication (here and elsewhere) that the best way to do so is to make ourselves look like Evangelical Protestants as much as we can stand without doing violence to the content of the faith. I have always felt that those of us who would try to be “Orthodox evangelists” in the best sense need to emphasize the distinctives of Orthodox Christianity, not minimize them. Changes to liturgy and practice are an organic outgrowth of the expression of a faith by a given people, not something that can just be imposed (at least not if success is the desired outcome). The sense I have always gotten from reading Dr. Nassif’s works is that he thinks a Vatican II-style wholesale revision is what’s needed for Orthodoxy; since I don’t agree the Vatican II reforms, particularly as implemented, were successful, it is unclear to me why we should be falling all over ourselves to make the same errors. Yes, the reforms brought Roman Catholicism out of the ethnic ghetto in this country, but I would also argue that they robbed Roman Catholicism of much what made it distinctly Roman Catholic. Nonetheless, I would be foolish to claim that a man of his education doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he certainly is able to speak to non-Orthodox “in their own language,” as it were. Since, even when I was Protestant, I was (even as a small child, believe it or not) very uncomfortable with the Protestant identity and didn’t understand it, that’s probably not something I will ever be able to do.

    The comments are somewhat problematic. I appreciate the honest tone of the people who are able to say, “Sorry, but I’m pretty sure your side got it as wrong as it possibly could every step of the way,” but there’s a fine line between putting that bluntly and putting it uncharitably. The apogee of this for me was when somebody said, “The Catholic Church does not teach X,” and another person replied, “No, what you really mean is that the Catholic Church does not teach that it teaches X.” That is borderline condescension.

    Orthodoxy (and it’s not unlike Roman Catholicism in this way, I suppose) is a very difficult thing to explain to people who have already decided that it is wrong. I applaud Dr. Nassif’s efforts, even if I quibble with some of his points.

  6. Doesn’t Paul write some place that the heterodox will not inherit the kingdom of God? Don’t get me wrong, I like their sense of style; Liberace was a gem. But don’t you think we have to draw the line somewhere?

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