Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Is Our Gospel Too Small?

Yes, according to Bradley Nassif in a recent article published in Christianity Today. An Eastern Orthodox theologian, Nassif is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University. He says that, by and large, our churches don't embrace and act on a "maximal gospel ... with cosmic implications that embraces the whole of creation." Opting for easier, softer ways, we fail to take up our crosses "to fashion the old creation into the new—to seek the redemption and renewal of our fallen human nature by the power of the risen Lord." Drawing on the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he diagnoses our problem as "the poverty of love."

Here are some excerpts from his article:

The desert fathers and mothers heard Christ's call to deny themselves, take up the cross daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23) in a time similar to our own. Under Emperor Constantine, large numbers joined the church for the social privileges it bestowed. Many sought status and prosperity more than the cross. This influx of nominal Christians made the church a spiritually sick institution, and a radical illness called for a radical remedy. Ordinary men and women, most of them illiterate, heard the death-call of the gospel and responded by fleeing to the desert to live out their calling—either alone or in community. Peasants, shepherds, camel traders, former slaves, and prostitutes were the first to go.

The desert was not a place of escape as much as a place of countercultural engagement. The desert was the front line of spiritual warfare—as in the Bible, a place of testing and death. It was where the heart was purified, the passions conquered, sin destroyed, and humanity renewed.

Like the prophets of old, the desert dwellers reminded the church that the kingdom of God is not of this world. They insisted that if we confuse the gospel's values with our culture's values, it will have lethal results. They exposed the underside of a form of religion that fuels our hunger for self-centered living. Still today, their lives stand against the easy assurance of a too-inculturated gospel. They offer an alternative spiritual order, one based on Trinitarian divine love and human freedom. They offer an alternative portrait of what being human really means. And perhaps most radically, they call us to engage our external challenges by first conquering our own inner passions through the lordship of Christ.


The monastic movement was a response to the church's spiritual poverty—the poverty of love. The monks protested that knowledge wasn't the problem; the problem was love. Their perspective is all the more surprising when we compare the low literacy rate then (perhaps 4 percent) with the high literacy rate now (75 percent). There is more Bible knowledge available now than at any other time in human history. Yet we are still asking, "Is our gospel too small?"

If these desert dwellers were alive today, I believe they would tell us that our gospel is too small because our wills are too big. The core battleground, they argued, is the human heart. They would counsel us to declare war on the inner adversaries that hide secretly in our hearts, and to be watchful of their stealth attacks. We're wisest, they taught, when we concentrate our energies on the source of all our problems, the inner person—its selfish orientation, dark impulses, sexual preoccupations, greed, lust, anger, unforgiveness, hatred, and other "works of the flesh" (Gal. 5:19–21). Every believer still has a powerful attraction to sin. So the monks took decisive action in their reliance on God, engaging in the hard work of holiness, something they called ascesis, or spiritual training. Some monks were such great trainers, they acquired the name "athletes of God" or "soldiers of Christ."

At the heart of their training was repentance. They were convinced that their inner natures were so out of sync with the will of God that nothing but a strong dose of God's grace could fix them. Only repentance could clear away the stony rubble in the soil of their hearts so God's grace could take root and grow. The gospel was so alive in the monks because repentance was a lifestyle for them, not a single event. Even after spending a lifetime in repentance, we hear them on their deathbeds encouraging the younger ones not to give up: "I'm only a beginner," they would say. "I've just begun to repent!"

All this talk of repentance may sound neurotic, but the fathers and mothers specifically avoided the "deadly thoughts" of depression and gloom. Nor was it their habit to keep dwelling on past sins, as later medieval piety would encourage. They simply knew the depths of their own disobedience, and they took steps to deal with their hearts. The lives of the great desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd through 6th centuries show us how big our gospel can become in each of us when we obey Scripture. The more we keep company with these delightful people, the more they lead us away from relying on external remedies. They tell us that our gospel is too small not because we need to hear more sermons, or do more Bible study, or attend more church services, or create new programs. Nor is it too small because we have not followed modern theological scholars into a nearly idolatrous reliance on the intellect. The monks interpreted the Scriptures not just through study, but also by putting them into practice.

Serapion lamented, "The prophets wrote books. Then came our ancestors who lived by them. Those who came later understood them from the heart. Then came the present generation who copied them but put them on their shelves unused." I imagine that those reading this article have more Bible knowledge than they will ever put into practice in their lifetime. Yet it's not more knowledge we need; it's more love and obedience.

Read it all.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ironically, Nassif's "good news" about Desert Fathers is too small. He panders to Evangelicals in the name of "dialogue." Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are definitely two separate religions. I was Evangelical for 10 years. I've been Orthodox for 10 years, so I know.

Bryan+ said...

Just curious, Anonymous - when you say that Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy are "definitely two separate religions," how do you define the term "religion"?

Anonymous said...

Religion is ans "institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices." Protestantism and Orthodoxy are incompatible.

Although most of the teachings of the Desert Fathers are not specifically doctrinal, they all presuppose doctrine even when they do not state it, therefore the putting into practice of these teachings is not something developed independently or alongside the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.

To attempt to practice Orthodoxy without the Orthodox Church apart from active participation in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church is to cut it off from its living roots.

Anonymous said...

To put it bluntly, Nassif's personal anti-monasticism is well known in Orthodox circles, which makes his advocacy of HIS version of the Desert Fathers(DF-lite) even more disturbing.

We in the Orthodox Church are able to compare and contrast his versions of the DFs with the living legacy of the DFs here in our time, in the 21st Century. They are present in all places where one might expect to find them, Middle East, Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe and even in places where one might not expect, like the United States. Sadly they are not as numerous as in days of old ("There were giants in the earth in those days..."). They are men and they are women. They are not paper characters drawn from dusty books by academic "theologians." They are the living, breathing, descendants of the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert. They teach and practice in the same ways. They are as fearfully and healing and miraculous as their forebears. They are products of the Orthdoox Church, living Saints, future Saints.

Where are these kind of Fathers and Mothers within the Protestants sects? Let's say for the sake of argument that millions of CT readers take Nassif's teachings and run with them, will they (re)produce Saints like the Desert Fathers and Mothers within their own confessions? No.

It's nice that Nassif can try to teach humility and repentance to Protestants with the sayings of the the DFs. We ALL can use more of that.

The sad part is that Nassif's Protestant audience may just choose to follow Nassif and not the Desert Fathers. In actual practice (but apparently not in theory) Nassif is against true monasticism. Insted He wants to be arbiter,teacher, abba, elder, the dispenser of the wisdom of the Desert to those outside of the Orthodox Church. He may impress his Evangelical bosses and his CT audience, but in the Church, his is a poseur.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for the comments, Anonymous. It's frankly refreshing to hear that our Orthodox brothers and sisters have just as much internal conflict as Anglicans and Protestants do. We, too, make distinctions about who's "really" Anglican, etc. We also label some of our own as posers and imposters.

Conflict, disagreement, and division: we really can't lay the blame for these three things on Protestants. It's been there since Peter and Paul. Actually, even earlier - between Jesus and his own disciples (cf. the Gospel according to Mark). That, too, is part of the Tradition.

Anonymous said...

Re: "It's frankly refreshing to hear that our Orthodox brothers and sisters have just as much internal conflict as Anglicans and Protestants do."

Misery loves company, right?

Sorry, but the Orthodox Church does not have as much internal conflict as Protestants do.

For Protestants including the Anglican variety, doctrinal differences are the engine that drives institutional maintenance.

Nassif represents a kind of Orthodoxy-lite, that by his own admission is his own "house blend" of American Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Thankfully, this kind of syncretism is concentrated in a minority of believers, though Nassif would obviously like to draw more into its fold by acting like a sort of bridge between Evangelicals and Orthodox.

Will his groupies generate as much conflict within the Orthodox Church as within the Protestant confessions? No, though some would wish otherwise.

Bryan+ said...

Who said anything about "misery"?

BTW, I don't buy the myth of Orthodox unity. Where my brother lives (he's a convert to Greek Orthodoxy), there are several varieties of Orthodox Churches to choose from. And according to him, some of them frankly look down on the others as being insufficiently Orthodox. Listening to some of what he tells me - and after having served an Episcopal Church in a small town - it makes me think that perhaps Protestants and Anglicans might, indeed, get along much better than some Orthodox Christians.