Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Not Becoming Orthodox

Over the years (and, interestingly, starting around the time I was ordained), I’ve been attracted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I admire its ancient character and the beauty of its liturgy, churches, and icons. I consider the Jesus Prayer as one of the Church’s greatest gifts for the Christian journey. I routinely recommend Bishop Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way as one of the best, most readable and succinct introductions to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith. Plus, my brother converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, receiving chrismation back in 2005. Orthodoxy is now "in the family" (so to speak), so this is not a merely intellectual or academic deal for me.

And yet, in spite of all that I find admirable and attractive about Orthodoxy, I have no desire to renounce Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church for it. There are many reasons why (some of which include disagreements when it comes to the ordination of women and points in moral theology). But perhaps the overriding one is that I continue to believe that, at its best, Anglicanism is the purest form of the catholic faith in the West, and that the essentials laid down in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral are more than adequate.

All of this may, in part, explain why an essay I recently came across caught my eye. Entitled “Why I Am Not Orthodox,” it’s written by Protestant evangelical theologian
Daniel B. Clendenin. In addition to many other teaching positions, Clendenin spent four years as a visiting professor at Moscow State University. He’s published many books and articles, including Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective 2nd Edition (Baker House, 2004). In “Why I Am Not Orthodox,” Clendenin writes about the uniqueness of Eastern Orthodoxy in its history and theology. And he compares and contrasts evangelical Protestant theology with Orthodoxy, explaining why – in spite of what he knows about Orthodoxy and its claim to be the one true Church – he remains “committed to key distinctives of the Protestant evangelical tradition.”

Even for those of us who do not subscribe to Protestant evangelicalism wholesale, it’s a fascinating essay. Below are a few excerpts.

… what Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have often sought is not only a conscious continuity with the historic, apostolic past, but also a richer experience of God's majesty and mystery through a more liturgical worship setting. These are worthy pursuits that can be fulfilled in the Orthodox Church. But about this pursuit we can make several observations.

Liturgically, the Orthodox ethos of a formal worship setting will attract some Christians, but to many other vibrant movements within evangelicalism it will have little if any appeal. One thinks, for example, of those committed to full ministerial status for women, the centrality of lay ministry and spiritual gifts, charismatically inclined groups, seeker-sensitive churches attempting to reach baby boomers or Generation X'ers with novel worship formats, and so on. Evangelicals focused on social ethics may also find little comradeship in Orthodoxy, as there is nothing in Orthodoxy comparable to the body of Catholic social teaching, for instance. These Protestant movements, important in their own right, are liturgical light years from Orthodoxy.


… Protestants like Thomas Oden, Donald Bloesch, and others have shown that one need not join Orthodoxy to immerse oneself in the patristic past with joy, gratitude, and a sense of accountability to that "great cloud of witnesses" of the last two millennia. Oden, for example, who delights in referring to his theological method as "paleo-orthodox," is now working on a comprehensive patristic commentary on the whole Bible to be published by InterVarsity Press. Thumb through Calvin's Institutes or a volume of John Wesley's Works and you will see our Protestant forebears thoroughly engaged with patristic tradition. As with liturgy, conversion to Orthodoxy is hardly a prerequisite for a renewed engagement with apostolic tradition.


Theologically, just what is at stake in the differences between Protestant and Orthodox theology? In fact, much of what is basic to Christianity: the nature, sources, and interpretation of God's revelation to us, the meaning of the church and its sacraments, the doctrines of sin and salvation, and even how one enters the kingdom of God. On these points evangelical and Orthodox thinking diverge in significant ways.


To be Eastern Orthodox is, above all, to stake a bold and unapologetic theological claim as the one true church of Christ on earth, which alone has guarded right belief and true worship in absolute identity and unbroken succession with the apostolic church. It is precisely this exclusivistic assertion that some Protestant converts, in search of the "true, New Testament Church" have found so beguiling. Inherent in this claim, of course, is the charge that both Catholics and Protestants have lapsed from the true faith into error, if not outright heresy.

One can find people who interpret this ecclesiological exclusivity more leniently; in fact, some would argue that the best Orthodox scholars—George Florovsky and John Meyendorff, to name two—would allow for such leniency. But the claim to be Christ's one, true church remains the clear Orthodox position. This should trouble evangelicals (as well as other Protestants), especially when it is combined with the Orthodox idea of who constitutes the church and how one enters the church.

Is the church made up of those who have been "regenerated" by infant baptism in an Orthodox church institution, or by those who have experienced new birth and been justified by grace through faith? True, Luther and some other Protestants have not viewed baptismal regeneration and justification by faith as mutually exclusive. But whether a non-Orthodox person can even be saved is an open question in Orthodox ecclesiology. Over coffee one day I asked an Orthodox priest whether I, as a Protestant theologian, might be considered a true Christian. His response: "I don't know."


There are many basic beliefs that Orthodoxy and evangelicalism hold in common: the inspiration of Scripture; the two natures of Christ, the finality and uniqueness of Christ's death on the cross, the resurrection, and our future hope of eternal life. It is no small thing for us to hold in common all the early, Christian creeds.

Moreover, evangelicals have some important lessons to learn from Orthodoxy. For example, it is understandable that evangelicals feel that the Orthodox doctrine of the church is too "high." But perhaps our theology of the church is too "low," much lower than our Protestant forebears would have it. In the opening pages of Book IV of Calvin's Institutes, for example, Calvin refers twice to the famous words of Cyprian (d. 258)—so Catholic-sounding to our ears—that "you cannot have God as your Father without the Church as your Mother" (IV.1.1, 4).

Or again, it is one thing to guard the doctrine of sola scriptura, but quite another to ignore or disdain two thousand years of tradition; surely there is a dangerous arrogance in imagining that we do not need to listen to the wealth of biblical wisdom from the patristic writers.

Put another way, we must invoke the spirit of irenic disagreement in the formula: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity." The genius of this principle is that it allows us to disagree with other believers, even vehemently so, yet in an edifying fashion with a degree of theological modesty and a perspective that seeks a deeper consensus within the bounds of true faith.

But this really begs another question: "Essential" for what? Do we mean essential for salvation? For church membership? For employment at a seminary? For taking Communion together? Essential for clergy to pray together, to talk, and to encourage one another in Christ? When we realize that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle or a matter of conscience, then we are freed to engage fully people with whom we actually have profound differences without compromising our own theological commitments.

Read it all.

[1] This article first appeared in January 6, 1997 issue of Christianity Today. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188.


Joe Rawls said...

My biggest spiritual struggle over the past several years has been to stay within Anglicanism and out of the Orthodox church. I'm still Anglican in large part because if I converted to Orthodoxy, I'd have to pretend to be against various things that I'm actually passionately for, including the full inclusion of women and LGTB's. I also can see enormous unrealized potential in Anglicanism. I've read Clendenin's book (several times) and highly recommend it. Its exposition of some topics, such as theosis, is clearer than what you find in some Orthodox sources. Thanks also for the link to the article.

Bryan Owen said...

And thank you for your comments, Joe. I've not read Clendenin's book, but may have to do so in light of this article and your recommendation.

Chris+ said...

My family came out of the Armenian Orthodox Church. As Armenians were fleeing the Genocide, they were instructed by clergy to find an Anglican parish, if no Orthodox parish were available. This is precisely how my family became members of the Episcopal Church. My great-grandfather raised his children in the Episcopal Church and here I am. One of the great pleasures of my life was meeting Karekin I about 10 years ago.

While I have always felt a pull toward the Orthodox, a former rector summed it up for me. The Orthodox are a little like your grandmother's attic, everything is still there. While I am no expert on Orthodox theology, my sense is that the the development of doctrine occurs with little ease. There seems to be an emphasis on the protection of the "true faith" that makes me a little nervous. I tend to side with Newman on development, rather than the more static, once and for all approach of the Orthodox.

This not to say that I take the deposit of the Faith lightly. It may be that our grasp, through God's ongoing revelation, deepens. The witness of Barnabas, yesterday's feast, may be a great example. God might even be at work among the Hellenists.

Thanks for the post.


BillyD said...

Way back in the 80's I was an Orthodox Christian. I converted not because of prayerbook reform or women's ordination (things that seem to have driven other Episcopalians to join the Orthodox during the same era) but because I was trying to get at that "conscious continuity with the historic, apostolic past" about which Clendenin writes. I was also trying to reinvent myself: I thought that joining the Orthodox Church and the United States Navy would "cure" me of being gay (boy, was I wrong!).

I loved being Orthodox, and it still informs my personal piety; from where I type this I can see my icon corner, and I sometimes use Orthodox sources to prepare for Holy Communion. After some time, however, I found living on the Orthodox heights spiritually and aesthetically exhausting. Everything was a little too intense. I came back to the Episcopal Church.

At the time, friends accused me of going back to PECUSA because of toleration of homosexuality, but that wasn't it. I think I realized that the "conscious continuity with the historic, apostolic past" was also at work in Anglicanism. There were other things that influenced my decision: the disconnect from wider society , Orthodox triumphalism, the number of anti-semitic opinions I heard from fellow Orthodox. But in the end I think it was mostly the realization that God was present in the Divine Liturgy, amidst all the gorgeous vestments and icons, clouds of incense, beautiful chanting- and that he was also present in intimate, quiet celebrations of the Eucharist presided over by a priest in cassock, surplice, and black scarf.

Perhaps I've expressed myself poorly (I just started treatment for strep throat and am not at my best) but I wanted to give a personal comment before the "Not Becoming Orthodox" posting dropped from the page.

Bryan Owen said...

Chris+ - what a fascinating history your family has! And I like the distinction you make about doctrine being "static" as opposed to being "progressive" (and while I'm no Newman scholar, I'm quite sure that what he meant by development of doctrine is quite different from what many liberal/progressive Episcopalians mean by that language).

I've always found it interesting that Orthodox Christians (at least the Greek Orthodox Christians I've known) have been willing to attend Episcopal Churches when no Orthodox priest has been available. However, I'm told by my brother (who converted to Greek Orthodoxy 3 years ago) that, technically speaking, if a Greek Orthodox Christian takes communion from another Church, he/she has excommunicated him/herself. Apparently, quite a few Greek Orthodox are unaware of this.

Bryan Owen said...

BillyD - thanks for sharing part of your spiritual journey from Orthodoxy back to the Episcopal Church. I know a few folks who've made the journey from TEC to Orthdoxy, but not very many who've moved in the other direction, and no one who moved from TEC to Orthodoxy and then back to TEC again. Your story is the first such one that I've heard.

I think you've expressed yourself quite well, and in a way that resonates with the reasons why I posted the Jeremy Taylor passage under the heading "The Sufficiency of Anglicanism."

While our liturgies and our piety may appear quite minimalist when compared to the rigors of Orthodoxy, we do, indeed, have a valid claim to "conscious continuity with the historic, apostolic past." We have all that is necessary and sufficient to validly lay claim to being a part of what the Nicene Creed calls the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church." We embrace the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God containing all things necessary to salvation; the dominical sacraments (and 5 optional sacraments); the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds; and the historic episcopate.

I believe that all of this is both necessary and sufficient to being a true Church. The extras may be helpful and/or important, but I'm not willing to say that they're necessary. Hence, I cannot be Orthodox. Or Roman Catholic, either.

DavidB said...

"Generous Orthodoxy willingly runs those risks because of the conviction that while there is Absolute Truth, no one of us (and no group among us) knows it in its fullness with absolute certainty."

I was very impressed by an article you wrote earlier, "Monolithic Church vs. Over-Personalized Church", summarized beautifully by the quote above. I'm an active Episcopalian, but have recently been drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy. Naturally I related a lot to your posting on "Not Becoming Orthodox", and it helped clarify my thoughts as to how I can admire and emulate Eastern Orthodoxy for their commitment to the ancient faith but also remain an Anglican. For one thing, Anglicanism has maintained the essentials of the Christian faith, as exemplified in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.

But also, Eastern Orthodoxy makes the same mistake as the Roman Catholic Church (although if you had to choose between the two, I think Orthodoxy wins the argument) of claiming to be the only one, true, catholic, and apostolic church. Although it is clear to me that Orthodoxy is not immune from the mistakes of the fallible human beings that inhabit its churches.

Obviously, I've been drawn to Orthodoxy because I believe they've stayed close (perhaps closest) to the faith of the undivided Christian Church. They claim a perfect orthodox theology (which, at least in our own Communion, is open to debate. I'm not sure how they reconcile mandatory celibacy for bishops with the verse in Timothy that states that a bishop should be the husband of one wife, for example). But even if that were true, I don't believe that the application of those doctrines has always been sound. For example, the Eastern Orthodox church has allowed for divorce and remarriage, even in situations prohibited by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, out of pastoral concern for their salvation and relationship to the Church (the concept of "economia"). However, no such economia exists for openly gay persons who seek to remain in the Church. I addressed this distinction to an Orthodox priest and was informed in very clear terms that this was not an issue for debate.

I am very glad to be part of the Anglican Communion, a Church that upholds the essential orthodoxy of Christianity while allowing for differing interpretations of how we are to respond pastorally to these challenging issues.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks so much for your comments and reflections David.

Boy can I relate! There is so much to commend the Orthodox Church - it's unapologetic adherence to the historic, ancient Christian faith, the beauty of its liturgy, churches and icons, the rigor of its call to live lives of holiness and transformation.

And yet, like you, I believe in the sufficiency of Anglicanism. And I'm aware of the fallibility and dogmatism of the Orthodox (which I think you capture quite well in your pointing out the discrepancy between the Orthodox Church's application of economia in cases of divorce versus cases of openly gay persons).

I rejoice that you continue steadfast within Anglicanism. Yes, there is much we can and should learn from our Orthodox brothers and sisters. But especially for the West, the gift of Anglicanism is too precious to part with. I continue to believe that Anglicanism is the purest form of the catholic faith in the West. And so I believe that we can and should be grateful for that gift, and proud enough of it to stand firm in its generous orthodoxy.