Over the past five years or so I have witnessed many friends “convert” from an Evangelical Christian faith to an Eastern Orthodox (EO) faith. Several of these were close friends, and so I have had the privilege of exploring the EO church and theology through their experience (rather than through Evangelical professors and teachers, for instance). I am thankful for the conversations I have had with these friends.
I have come through this process with a great appreciation of the EO church but also with a renewed affirmation of my own place within Evangelical Christianity. But because it is easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater and fail to glean from other traditions, I thought it would be good to write out what my orthodox friends have taught me about Jesus, and also why I would not become a part of their church.
Why I Love Eastern Orthodoxy
Orthodox theology teaches deification, which is expressed by Athanasius’ claim that “God became human so that we might become God.” Of course, this kind of statement rightly causes any Christian to raise an eyebrow, since it seems to be akin to the theology of the Mormon Church, supporting the idea that each one of us will eventually become a Yahweh with our own planet.1
This is not what Athanasius means. Rather, he means that Jesus brings us into the very life of the Trinity. The Son of God has forever experienced intimate communion and love with his Father in the Holy Spirit, even before the foundation of the world, and he, through the Gospel, brings everyone into this relationship because we are in the Son: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Indeed, the promised Spirit is expressed as the love of God himself, whom Jesus asks the Father to have come and dwell in believers: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26).
Evangelicals use the term “Godliness” to describe how we, in the process of sanctification, become like God. Orthodoxy would simply wish to clarify the meaning of Godliness, that we are holy inasmuch as we enjoy the same relationship and love with the Father that the Son himself has enjoyed. This reality is also seen in Peter’s statement: “he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
For EO theology, the benefit of salvation means to partake of the life of the Trinity and to experience the same love which God the Father has poured out upon his Son for all eternity. The Evangelical culture I grew up in rightly emphasized the forensic aspect of salvation, that the process of salvation frees one from the eternal penalty of sin. But perhaps we have failed at times to emphasize the reality which this salvation has purchased, namely, being brought into the very life of the Trinity.
Sacraments and Typology.
Orthodox theologians believe that there are not two or seven sacraments (as Protestants and Catholics debate), but rather, the entire world is made up of sacraments.
God indeed ordains and sanctifies certain practices, such as the Eucharist (communion). But it is in this act of setting aside a specific meal that allows all food to be sanctified.
My experience as a Christian in the Evangelical world is that people tend toward two extremes; we either disregard the holiness of things like the church service, fasting, prayer, sabbath, communion, etc., because we feel that all of life should be to the glory of God, or else we become legalistic about the above rituals, and only find God inside the four walls of a church.
EO theology would say that there must be a trajectory from the rituals to the rest of the world. We must hold the Eucharist in high regard precisely to sanctify all food. We must set aside special times with God precisely to be present with God at all times. The special sanctified acts (church, Eucharist, prayer, marriage, etc.) are to sanctify the entire world.
The Prayerful Theologian.
I spent five years of my life within Evangelical academia. One of the blindspots of this crowd is the attitude that if you simply put the Bible in an exegetical test-tube, you will meet Jesus. If only we all parsed our Hebrew and Greek verbs correctly, then we would all have the correct theology and get along (so goes the thought process, admittedly to paint it with a broad brush).
This is an area in which the example of our Orthodox brothers and sisters can help us. The theologian is one who prays. We (human beings) constantly fool ourselves into believing that our brains and our hearts are clean slates, that we approach matters of faith, religion, and politics without bias, and that if only we approach theology methodically and exegetically we will get the right answers. But the reality is that the human heart is deeply selfish. Our ability to read our opinions into the text is a power to be reckoned with.
This is one of the reasons why a theologian must be one who prays. A theologian must continually be asking for a pure heart, must continually be asking God to reveal who he is, and ultimately must be familiar with God relationally, for God cannot be fully understood unless he is known.
Why I Would Not Convert
There are essentially two reasons that I would not convert to EO.
EO are clear that the True Church is made up of those “who are in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople” (Ware 1).2 If you are identified as part of the True Church by the greater Orthodox Church, then you make the cut.
But I don’t think that the Bible is unclear about what and who the True Church is. For instance, Paul addresses his letter of 1 Corinthians “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor 1:2).
Here Paul identifies the group of believers gathering in the city of Corinth as the Church, and he specifically points out what they have in common with the rest of the Church, namely, “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is a theme Paul will continue to elaborate on throughout the letter. What does it look like to be filled with the Spirit (which is clearly the sign of the new community of faith)? He answers: “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). The question of whether or not a group of people is a part of the body of Christ is not whether they are identified and accepted by the greater Church community. The question is, rather, do they submit to the Lordship of Jesus? Similarly, the question of whether or not a group of people has the indwelling Spirit is not whether or not they are identified with the rest of the EO Church. The question is, rather, do they submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ?
Indeed, the question of who is a part of the True Church and who is not a part of the True Church is one of the most prominent questions in the New Testament, and the authors are not shy about the litmus test of being the True Church; the litmus test is Jesus, and in particular the submission to Jesus as Lord.
The EO church denies that the thousands of groups of Christians around the world who proclaim Jesus as Lord (many to the point of death) are a part of the True Church. This kind of ecclesiology is an explicit rejection of Scripture, in my opinion. Evangelicals, Protestants, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Baptists, Catholics: we all believe in the full Deity and personhood of each member of the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the exclusive salvation in Jesus, etc. It is a massive error (and EO is not the only tradition that has made this error) for one of these groups to deny that the other is a part of the True Church. This goes radically against the grain of the very storyline of the New Testament.3
As I often say to my EO brothers, “Hey man, I think you’re a part of the True Church. Why don’t you think I’m a part of the True Church?”
I have pointed out 1 Corinthians 1:1-2 and other passages to my EO friends. Their response to this passage is usually, “That’s what you think it means”, as if my personal interpretation of the Scripture has no weight. In other words, they do not believe that a person can rightly parse the Bible without the interpretive tradition of the EO Church. No one outside of the EO Church necessarily has the authority to challenge the interpretive tradition within the EO Church.
Of course, this does not mean that they do not take the Bible seriously. The EO theologians I have read know the Bible well and have a robust understanding of it and offer many profound theological insights, as I have discussed above. I also recognize that the Bible has been used and abused over the centuries, and the human heart is extremely prone to make it say what they want to hear, and therefore I sympathize with their desire to protect the interpretation of Scripture.
Nevertheless, the reason that the Bible is a book is because God is a Father, and he loves us and wants to communicate with us. He knows that humans have always enjoyed good stories and literature. He is not a God that makes himself obscure. The Bible is therefore not a lofty spiritual text to be parsed only by the religious elite (as is the Quran, for instance). Rather, it is a book that is accessible and powerful to anyone who reads it. This is of course testified by the correlation of the history of the birth of Christian communities to the history of Bible translation.
The True Church has been “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:23). The Word creates the Church, not the other way around. The Church in later councils accepted the very Word by which it was created. The Word is powerful to create and shape the Church.
The EO Church seems to put the authoritative tradition of the EO Church above the ability of the Word and Spirit to shape the Church, or at least only allow for the Word to speak so long as it is guided by this tradition. Of course, we (human beings) have a problem with interpreting Scripture according to what we wish it to mean, but doesn’t this problem arise precisely through the act of isolating ourselves and discrediting the other’s interpretation? And is this not precisely what the EO Church has done?
One of the reasons I love the Evangelical Church is that there is a spirit of engagement and conversation with the Scripture. Whether it is a conversation with EO, Catholics, Pentecostals, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witness, skeptical scholars – from the Evangelical perspective it is always a win to open up the Scripture and have a dialogue because there is a fundamental conviction that the Word will not fail to speak for itself and create the community of the Word and Spirit, as it has for the past 2000 years. This conviction does not seem to be shared by the EO Church.
I write this to begin a conversation. I know there are very good responses to my criticism. I also know Evangelicals and non-EO may have good criticism of what I have gleaned from EO theology. I invite all to weigh in on this conversation.
1. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., Doctrines of Salvation, Vol.1, p.97 – p.98↩
2. “The Orthodox Church is thus a family of self-governing Churches. It is held together, not by a centralized organization, not by a single prelate wielding power over the whole body, but by the double bond of unity in the faith and communion in the sacraments. Each Patriarchate or autocephalous Church, while independent, is in full agreement with the rest on all matters of doctrine, and between them all there is in principle full sacramental communion” (Ware 7)↩
3. By storeline I am referring particularly to the Book of Acts, which portrays and defines the new community of faith (the Church) as groups of people who believe in the Lordship and salvation of Jesus and are subsequently filled with the Spirit. The narrative of Acts is not unclear about who the True Church is; on the contrary, that is the main point of emphasis within the book’s narrative.↩