Dec 7 2009

Exploring the Twain 3 – Hurdles to Studying Eastern Orthodoxy

My current series is Exploring the Twain, in which I offend (unintentionally) evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike.  I am, at this point, an equal opportunity offender. The intent of the series is to examine the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity.  My hypothesis is this: Western Christianity has been so impacted by philosophical forces – including but not limited to Neo-Platonism and Modernism – that the only way to examine it is in light of the Eastern Church, which purports to have preserved the original Apostolic Christianity without change.

So far I have looked mainly at the early history of the Western Church, with an emphasis on the Neo-Platonism and Manichaean influences of Augustine, who is still technically revered by the Eastern Church but is occasionally called a heretic.  Augustine, in my opinion, did indeed have some wacko ideas which has skewed Western Christianity, such as the concept of “original sin” and our inheriting Adam’s guilt. Luther corrected much of Augustinian thinking (not all), but Calvin took the rest of the church (what is now evangelicalism, even if you don’t consider yourself Calvinist) further down Augustine’s path.  More on that at a later time.

While all this was going on, the Eastern Orthodox Church was basically ignored by the West, and vice versa.  Most Augustinian writing was not even translated into Greek (the adopted language of the Eastern Church) and again, vice versa.   In looking at the development of the Eastern Church, I have been reading numerous articles and books, such as Berkhof’s The History of Christian Doctrines, Three Views of Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicalism, and Encountering the Mystery by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the collected Orthodox churches.

What I have found in my reading so far is that this is not necessarily an easy task.

Hurdles to understanding

Eastern Orthodoxy is not easy for the Western mind to apprehend, because, well, it’s Eastern.  Way Eastern.  Their commitment to apophatic theology – defining God and other things by what they are not – make comparing theologies an apples – oranges kind of thing.  And, they define words differently. Justification is not seen in the Roman law court sense, and grace is not Augustinian (“unmerited favor”) but rather refers to God’s “energies.”  Even “theology” is not the same; in Orthodoxy, theology is not the study of God or what we know about God, it is a gift of revelation.  As Bartholomew puts it, “It is not taught; rather, it is caught.”

It’s almost like speaking 2 different languages.  Which, I should add, explains much of the misunderstanding by the West.

I found it interesting that nearly everything I read that was critical of the Eastern Church was written by a Calvinist.  And, like most such critiques by Calvinists, they mostly pointed out where the Orthodox were wrong for not being Calvinists.  This, by the way, isn’t helpful – and I find myself siding with whoever isn’t Calvinist, simply for that reason.

I also found it interesting that those who attempt to bridge the Twain, such as Bradley Nassif and Timothy Ware, are occasionally criticized by other Eastern Orthodox folks for being too Westernized.  Besides the Augustinian gap, there is also a pre- and post-Enlightenment gap that many of the Orthodox really don’t seem to like to cross.  Consequently, reading Bartholomew’s book was often a challenge, as my Western-category questions were not getting answered. Instead, I occasionally felt like I was reading some book on Zen; the Eastern thought process is often that different.

My hypothesis

My hypothesis, which I mentioned at the outset of this post, seems to have, in part, failed.  Based on my reading to date, it seems that while the Eastern Church lays claim to the unchanged Apostolic Faith, they too have been impacted by Neo-Platonism.  While this is a fairly common charge, and one which is typically denied by the Orthodox, it does seem quite obvious and even seems more pronounced (although taking a different turn than Augustine’s).

My next post will deal with the Neo-Platonist influences in the Eastern Church.

In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:

  1. If you are an evangelical, how do you – or would you try to –  understand Eastern Orthodoxy?
  2. If you are Orthodox or familiar with the Eastern Church, what do you see are the major issues between East and West?


Nov 20 2009

Martin Luther is still my hero

Therefore a distinction must be made between reason left to itself without restriction, which runs about unbridled and is carried around by its reckonings, which judges and decides on the basis of its own principles, which are common notions, perceptions, experience, etc., and reason restrained by God’s Word and kept in obedience to Christ. This judges and decides on the basis of the proper principle of theology, that is, on the basis of God’s Word, which has been set forth in the Holy Scriptures. The mysteries of faith are not contrary to reason considered in the latter respect, but they are contrary to reason considered in the former respect. (from a yet-unpublished translation of Luther, as posted by Paul T. McCain)

Martin Luther is still my hero.   While Luther’s comments on reason (a longer quote is posted on McCain’s site) have been ridiculed by atheists as showing the irrelevance of Christianity, it is only because they are not understood in context.  Obviously, Luther relies on well-reasoned logic in this very analysis.

This quote by Luther, I think, reveals an area of protest with regard to the Roman Catholic Church that is often overlooked, and which I’ll be writing more about soon in my series on “Exploring the Twain“: The Roman Church’s theology was being subjected to a philosophy that was more and more governed by man’s ability to make things appear logical.  While Luther saw and opposed this direction, the rest of the protestants – Calvin and Zwingli, for example – continued to embrace a reason-driven theology, which paved the way for our modern evangelicalism.  Luther’s position here places him more in like with the Eastern Church, which had and has a different approach to theology and philosophy.

Luther probably doesn’t get all the credit he deserves for his remarkable insights, I think primarily due to his patently unmodern commitment to apostolic Christianity.

Luther is still my hero.


Nov 5 2009

Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 3

If you haven’t read Part One or Part 2 of this series, feel free to do that before continuing on.  These posts are the equivalent of my thinking out loud about the concepts of sola scriptura (the sole authority of the Bible) and Tradition (extra-Biblical teachings of a church that are held to be to some extent authoritative; this differs from “small t” tradition, which includes a number of cultural and ceremonial things that have significance, but aren’t considered either apostolic or authoritative).  I am undoubtedly wrong about some of my understanding and assumptions about various church traditions and doctrine, but such is life.  This is not an attempt to present a thesis on the issue, I’m just thinking things through and inviting you along.

In this post, I will try as best I can to outline some basic views of Tradition and authority, as I understand them.

Evangelical

“Evangelical” is a rather broad category, and for the sake of this post it will refer to modern, non-liurgical churches.  Evangelicals have their various traditions. While they will claim that the Bible is their sole authority, their interpretations are often ruled by their particular tradition.  For example, one common tradition is Calvinism; those who are hard-core Calvinists will always read Scripture through Calvinism’s Five (or Four, if they’re wimps) Points of the TULIP.  Other churches have other traditions that filter how their folks interpret Scripture, and some – not unlike the 2nd Temple Jews – have added rules and regulations to Scripture such as Tithing, not having fun, and so on.

In general terms, the modern evangelical church takes an a-historical view of tradition; that is, the ancient faith – that known in the first few centuries A.D. – is interesting, but has no merit in terms of Biblical interpretation (unless someone wants to quote Athanasius in support of the Trinity).  I have heard it claimed that modern evangelicalism is the true faith of the Apostles and therefore has the true Apostolic Succession (the teaching of the Apostles, handed down without alteration).  If this is true, then evangelicals dismiss anything pre-Calvin (Luther tends to be dismissed as he wasn’t “protestant” enough, although people like the 95 Theses concept), with some exceptions for some of Augustine’s concepts and the concept of the Trinity.  As you may have guessed, I’ve already dismissed the claims of modern evangelicalism.

Historic

Those churches I have categorized as “historic” are those with an historic view of Tradition; basically the Eastern Orthodox Churches and to some extent the Roman Catholic Church.  I say “to some extent” as the RCC has, in my opinion, departed from the original view of Tradition and Apostolic Succession.

The historic view of Tradition understands that the Apostles instructed the 1st Century Church both orally and in writing, with oral instruction no less authoritative than written. Consider 2nd Thessalonians 2:15:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

or 1st Corinthians 11:2:

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

Apostolic traditions were distinguished from “traditions of men” (Col. 2:8).   As I have mentioned in the prior posts, the “Word of God” is mentioned often in the Epistles, before the Gospels were thought to have been written.  It is obvious that the early, oral teaching of the Apostles was considered no less authoritative than the later written Epistles; and we know that not everything was written down.

Are we to then conclude that we are free to ignore those oral traditions held by the ancient church, while the Thessalonian and Corinthian Churches were instructed otherwise?   (Oh, well, when you put it that way…)

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox Church’s concept of Holy Tradition is possibly not what you think it is.  One description says it is, “the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction.”   The Orthodox, more than any other branch of Christianity, has maintained familiarity with the many other writings of the first few centuries of Christianity including 1st and 2nd Century writers like Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius.  Polycarp, by the way, was a student of John (disciple and author of the Gospel), and knew others who had known Jesus personally; this is documented in writing (if that matters to you) by Irenaeus, who studied under Polycarp.

The Orthodox holds the Bible as the central, most important part of Apostolic authority.  Holy Tradition also includes the early Creeds (Apostles, Athanasius, Nicene), as well as the decisions made by the 7 Ecumenical Councils (of which Nicea was the 1st, in 325AD).  To the Orthodox, Tradition grounds them in the past and prevents drifting into heresy.  At the same time, the Orthodox have a very developed eschatology, so that they exist in the present, looking both to the past and to the future.

Of all of the branches of Christianity, the Orthodox are the least likely to change; the Divine Liturgy is essentially that written by St. Basil (shortened form by St. John Chrysostom) in the 4th Century.  There is certainly something to be said for having a good knowledge and record of the past (and a belief that this is the apostolic tradition that has been passed along).

Roman Catholic

I don’t really understand that much about the Roman Catholic concept of Authority, except that their concept of Apostolic Succession is more focused on the authority of men as opposed to the authority of the teaching.  At some point the Roman church developed the concept that Peter was in essence the first pope, and that apostolic succession was based in Rome; the Pope is considered “the vicar of Christ” and at times is infallible, the source of authority for the church.  In the beginning, the Roman Bishop was just one of 5; Rome, however, claimed primacy and the rest, as they say, is history.  The Roman church added 14 additional “ecumenical” councils to the original seven; apparently they redefined the word “ecumenical.”

Doctrines added by the RCC include the Immaculate Conception of Mary, adding the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed (in 1274), Papal Infallibility, the whole Purgatory and Indulgence thing, and so on.  The RCC also adopted doctrines originating with Augustine that in essence changed the Christian faith, adding the doctrine of original sin.

Lutherans

Luther, beginning with the sale of indulgences and the worship of relics and moving on to the obvious fallibility of the Pope, attempted to reform the church, bringing it back into line with the historic faith.  He even distanced himself from Augustine, to some extent.  As I mentioned before, Luther’s concept of sola scriptura was meant to strip away “doctrines of men” without tossing the original apostolic faith.

Anglican

The Church of England’s website states:

The Scriptures and the Gospels, the Apostolic Church and the early Church Fathers, are the foundation of Anglican faith and worship in the 38 self-governing churches that make up the Anglican Communion. …

  • We view the Old and New Testaments ‘as containing all things necessary for salvation’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
  • We understand the Apostles’ creed as the baptismal symbol, and the Nicene creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith …

Anglicans trace their roots back to the early church, and “uphold the Catholic and Apostolic faith.”

And so …

As you can see, there is a wide variety of thoughts as to the role of Tradition.  In my next post, I will attempt to explain my current thinking on the issue, if that is even possible …