Monthly Archives: April 2013

Protestantism, Orthodoxy and Authority

Previously on this blog I covered my personal reasons for exploring Orthodox Christianity, and summed up some of the history of Christianity and the differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy.  I promised future posts expanding on some of the differences between the two traditions, so I thought I would start by addressing the fourth difference I listed:  That of Authority.  How do we know what is true?  How do we know the difference between what comes from God through his Spirit, and what is just a bunch of guys making it up as they go along?

billygrahamThe idea of Sola Scriptura (“the Bible alone”) as the Authority really is the cornerstone of evangelical Protestantism.  It’s been interesting in my interactions with Orthodox and my readings of Orthodox writers to note that, for whatever reason, they have a very difficult time grasping this concept.  They see something akin to chaos, or no authority, or that every man becomes Pope of themselves.  These are bad arguments, because of course most Protestants do not see it this way.  The Bible transcends personal opinion, and even the whims of Protestant ministers and pastors.  A preacher who deviates from the Bible will soon find his congregation diminished of faithful Christians and anyone but pliable sheep, and other preachers denouncing him.  This is why Protestants are not as “fragmented” as many Orthodox suppose.  The Word itself is regarded as the driver of what happens, and everything is judged against it.  The Bible is what ties everyone, and everything, together.

However, this view was never something I felt entirely comfortable with, for several reasons.  Firstly, it seems awfully restrictive of the Holy Spirit to restrict Him to 66 books and no more.  There’s plenty that the Bible doesn’t tell us, and therefore plenty of scope for the Spirit to enlighten us on those matters.  Secondly, it became pretty clear to me that you could quote Scripture and make it mean almost anything you wanted it to mean, and to say that your interpretation had to correlate with other passages of Scripture was a dubious yardstick.  And thirdly, if churches were genuinely sola scriptura, there would be plenty of things that they would allow and plenty that they would not do.  The Bible, for example, does not explicitly forbid fornication, paedophilia, slavery or polygamy, but there are very few evangelical protestant churches that would say these were not grievous sins.

These realizations led me to, around 2000 or so, largely reject evangelical protestant theology and withdraw from involvement in a church.  I embraced a more Barthian view of Scripture and spent the next ten years living in a rather foolish and dissolute manner.  What brought me back was a recognition of the complete failure of that individualist Christianity in my life.  Broke, despairing and separated from my wife and children, I realized that doing it all myself was not working.  I needed to be saved.  I needed the Church.  And I decided that, whatever the Church had wrong, it had more right with it than what I could do on my own.

What I was looking for was more than just intellectual salvation.  I was looking for a practical way I could live as a Christian, and bring Jesus into my daily life.  I was looking for methods by which I could be healed from my worst impulses here and now on this earth.  This was one of the reasons I had cause to start examining Orthodoxy.

biblevenerationSo what is the Orthodox view of Divine Authority?  I have had a couple of people ask me, on hearing that I attend an Orthodox church, whether it is “biblically based”.  If you really think about it, this is a pretty silly question, but let me state first of all that yes, the highest authority in Orthodoxy is the Bible – the 66 books we all know and love.  Nothing in Orthodox belief and practice can contradict the Bible or be “un-biblical”.  The difference is that in Orthodoxy, the Bible is not treated as a set of texts that almost literally fell from the sky into our laps.  Yes, the Bible is inspired, but it is inspired for a reason:  It was written and put together by the Church.  The Bible is a product of the Church, not the other way around.  The Church had existed for about twenty years before James the Just wrote the first book of the New Testament.  It had existed about twenty more before the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written.  By the time the Apostle John wrote his five books to round out the canon, the Church was almost seventy years old.  Throughout this period (and beyond), having no “instruction manual” as it were, the apostles and others close to Jesus first became the Church at Pentecost, and then established through their preaching and practices what is now known as the Holy Tradition – a set of beliefs and practices that sprang from the teachings of Jesus and, afterwards, from the Holy Spirit.

This Holy Tradition is the sole intermediary of Divine Authority in Orthodoxy.  The gospels and epistles of the New Testament were circulated and adopted because they agreed with the Tradition, not because they formed the basis of the faith by themselves.  So any doctrine or theology is measured not against the text alone, but on its consistency with the Tradition – the teachings and practices that are known to have always been part of the Church.  This is reassuring, because it means there is something to refer back to when we interpret Scripture rather than (at best) cross-referencing Scripture, or relying on Protestant tradition dating back only 500 years.

Note that this Tradition is not embodied by specific individuals or Bishops or even in the office of Bishop itself.  It is a concept that encompasses the whole Church throughout the ages, and what it teaches and does, so it is not subject to fallen men and their whims.  This is a very important point, because individual leaders, even right down to the original apostles, are fallible and sinful.  It is only collectively, through the whole (catholic) Church, that the Holy Tradition is embodied and the Spirit of God enlightens us.

Vincent of Lerins summed it up pretty well in 434AD:

“I HAVE often then inquired… how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That… we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the catholic Church.

“But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason, – because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.

“For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and catholic interpretation.

“Moreover, in the catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.  …This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”

So you see that, as with Protestantism, the Bible is “complete, and sufficient of itself for everything”.  But with Orthodoxy, we add to that a standard by which we can know objectively what Scripture tells us.  In fact, I would argue that Protestants too, by and large, interpret Scripture according to a tradition.  It just isn’t the same one, and it is more subjective.

Orthodoxy Versus Protestantism

In a previous post I covered some of my personal reasons for exploring Orthodoxy as a means of deepening my faith.  But I thought I should also give some background to Orthodoxy itself for readers, and explain the differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism.

A lot of people in the West have either never heard of Orthodox Christianity, or if they have, have given it very little thought – most people when they think of Christianity only concern themselves with Catholicism and Protestantism.  However, both these branches of Christian faith have their origins in the Orthodox Church, which dates itself back to the original 12 apostles of c. 27AD, and today has 300 million adherents.

hagiasophialastFor over 400 years, the Orthodox Church was the only form of Christian church – there were no denominational splits that were not regarded as heresies.  The Church was run by the five Patriarchs – in order of seniority, the Bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, and while the Bishop of Rome was regarded as the Head of the Church, it was as “first among equals”.  After the two ecumenical Councils of Ephesus in the 5th Century, several branches of the church schismed off, the most prominent being the Ethiopian and Egyptian (Coptic) church (to this day, the Coptic Church has its own Pope).  The Roman Church, however, remained (in theory at least) part of Orthodoxy until 1054, when it too schismed off and became what we know today as the Catholic church.  While there were issues of theology disputed, the main problem was the issue of Papal supremacy over the whole Church, and his ability to set doctrine for the Church.  To this day, that issue remains at the root of differences between Catholicism and other forms of Christianity.

Protestantism sprang from the protests of Martin Luther against doctrines of the Catholic Church in 1519, and grew from there into a full rebellion againt Catholicism and ecclesiastical authority, resulting in many different branches and theological twists.  From an Orthodox perspective, this was both positive and negative.  In rebelling against Catholicism, the Protestants were, in many aspects, moving back towards Orthodox theology, and in pure theological terms (though not practice) Orthodoxy is closer to Protestantism than Catholicism is.  However, they were also throwing out the baby with the bathwater:  In rejecting Catholic tradition they were also rejecting that part of the tradition that came from Orthodoxy.  So while there were some attempts, on both sides, during the 16th and 17th centuries to reconcile the Protestants back into the Orthodox fold, these were ultimately a failure – the battered wife could not bring herself to accept a new suitor.

originalseekerserviceThere are many ways in which Protestants and Orthodox have common ground in a way that Protestants do not with Catholics.  Both traditions reject the absolute authority of clergy, especially Papal authority, in matters of doctrine.  Neither believes in purgatory, legalistic penance, the immaculate conception, or clerical celibacy (though Orthodox bishops are celibate).  In both traditions there is a strong emphasis on faith as the driver of personal salvation (though there are some practical differences in how this works).  And there is no differences between the Orthodox Nicene Creed and what Protestants believe.

However, there are substantial differences.  The most obvious one is the liturgical worship of the Orthodox Church, an interactive recitation of prayer and praise between the Priest and the congregation that is mostly sung or chanted.  While some Protestant denominations have liturgical worship, most Protestants used to “rock bands and raised hands” will find it very alien.  But mostly this is a matter of style, not substance.  The real issues of difference are:

  1. Sacraments:  Protestants regard sacraments like baptism and communion as “symbolic” steps of obedience to God undertaken by believers.  Orthodox regard them as “real” and obligatory facets of the Christian walk;
  2. Icons Protestants do not use icons, invoke the Saints, or venerate them in any formal way.  Orthodox churches are full of icons, and the Saints they depict are regularly invoked and venerated;
  3. Free Will:  Protestants largely follow the Calvinistic view that God predestines salvation for Christians, and that salvation once gained cannot be lost.  Orthodox emphasise the free will and free choice of humans, and believe that salvation can be rejected by choice;
  4. Authority:  Protestants believe that divine authority and the revelation of the Spirit comes from the 66 books of the Bible alone (sola scriptura).  Orthodox believe that divine authority and the revelation of the Spirit rests in the “Holy Tradition” of the Church, of which the Bible is the primary, but not sole part;
  5. Mary:  Protestants regard Mary as incidental to the Christian narrative.  Orthodox see her as the “Theotokos” (God-bearer), the greatest of all the Saints, the primary intercessor before the judgement seat of Christ, and accordingly invoke and venerate her in a way some Protestants would regard as heretical;
  6. Salvation:  Protestants view salvation (being saved) as an event that has already occured through Christ’s death and resurrection, one which it only remains for us to claim for ourselves.  Orthodox view salvation as an ongoing process, a journey of “theosis” in which through ongoing faith we are restored to the image of God.

There are probably others I haven’t thought of right now, but those are the main ones.  I hope to tackle them all in detail, one post at a time, though not necessarily in order.  And there is a specific reason why I am doing this too:  After much googling, I have noticed that there is simply no concise resource out there on the internet that I could find which represented a genuine summary of the issues for any Protestant wanting to explore Orthodoxy.  There is plenty expounding on Orthodox beliefs, but it is written mostly for either people who are already Orthodox, or Catholics.  Likewise, Protestants all but ignore Orthodoxy – there’s been a couple of Christianity Today articles and that’s it.  And what is left is people talking past each other and misrepresenting the beliefs of the other side.

My impression from my studies so far on all the above issues is not that one view is right and the other wrong, or that one view is heretical and the other Truly Christian.  While others may beg to differ on both sides of the divide, I understand the Orthodox view as a completion of the Protestant view in most cases – one rounds the other out for a better picture of the Faith.  Conversely, the Protestant view can also inform and enlighten aspects of the Orthodox view in a way that is not contradictory to it.  In most cases where one side criticises the other, it is not because the doctrine criticised is wrong, but mostly because it has been misunderstood.  I hope to clear up some of the misunderstandings.

The Iron Lady Has Prevailed

Margaret_ThatcherBritain’s greatest peacetime Prime Minister has passed away at the age of 87.  This is not a sad occasion, but a time to celebrate.  Not because, like many on the Left, we despised her and wish to gloat at outlasting her, but because, to paraphrase Reagan, her contemporary, we won and they lost.  Her premiership, its ideas and its reforms, have never been reversed, equalled or bettered.  In many ways the broad conservative movement, and especially the Tea Party, are her ideological children.  Those ideas, while sometimes defeated from time to time, have only prevailed and become stronger as time has gone one.  And they will continue to go from strength to strength after her death.

Her legacy is not only ideological, but practical.  It lives on in every Briton whose lives were improved and whose wellbeing was lifted in the 1980s.  Those people may not think of Thatcher and they may not recognise her for the effect on their lives, but they vastly outnumber the few trade unionists, leftists, and fringe interests she smacked down,  and which even now make all the noise in the rush to define her.

Personally I find her a political inspiration who has yet to be equalled.  Possibly only Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell left a greater legacy as individuals upon both Britain and English-speaking peoples.  It seems unlikely we will ever see her like again, although maybe God will bless us once more in our lifetime.  We can only hope and pray.

While she never made much of it publicly, Baroness Thatcher was a woman of strong Christian faith, and her faith was her primary driver.  It is for that I admire her most of all.

May Margaret Hilda Thatcher rest in peace and may God grant her Life!

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day…”  2 Timothy 4:7-8


The Hipster Church: Coming Out as Orthodox

So, ever since the new year, I’ve been doing something radical:  I’ve been attending an Orthodox church.

At the moment I am attending catechism classes.  At the end of this month, on the event of Pascha (Easter on the Julian calendar) I am about 90% certain that I will be chrismated (anointed with oil as a sign of the Holy Spirit) and admitted into the Orthodox Church.

This is a strange thing for me, a Brethren and a Protestant, from the age of five years old no less.   But I am fairly sure that this is the right path for me.

theotokos.threehandsUltimately I am seeking God.  I want to be closer to Him, experience Him, and be filled with His Holy Spirit.  Nothing else matters.  It’s not an airy fairy goal, it’s a universal one.  Most people, unless they are dickheads, want to be Good.  We want to be moral.  We want to be righteous.  Those words mean a lot of different things to different people, but we all want that.  We want to live up to that objective standard that is ingrained in our psyche.

I have been a Protestant for a long time and I have seen lives changed and God at work in those churches.  I support Protestantism 100%.  I am not abandoning that tradition or faith, or at least I don’t see it that way.  Some people who “convert” to Orthodoxy like to rag on Protestants, and I won’t do that.  My view of Orthodoxy is that it is similar to a Jew who accepts Jesus as the Messiah:  I am not changing faith, but deepening it.  I am not “converting”, but “completing”.  Protestants accept the Word of God (the Bible) as their authority – I am simply adding to that by saying that guys who were disciples of the apostles, and disciples of their disciples, before the Bible was formalized in the 4th Century had (at least) some sort of handle on how to be closer to God.  And that they had a better idea of what Jesus and his apostles set down than Rick Warren and Joel Olsteen do.

What has really captured me has been less a matter of theology than it has of practice.  Every Protestant church has tried to devise its own method of living the Christian life.  Most of them that I have experienced do “okay” with that, and for many people they are a conduit to faith.  That is super freaking awesome, and I have no problem with that.  But in many ways they are reinventing the wheel.  There is a Church which already does all that stuff – the original Church.  The Orthodox Church.  They have the methods and the liturgies and the fasts by which you assume the Holy Spirit in your life, and they have had them for a long long time.  The service I participated in this Sunday is exactly the same as the one that they conducted in Greek 1600 years ago in Constantinople at the Hagia Sophia.  It ain’t broke, and there’s no point in fixing it.

I want “deeper” and I want “more”.  That’s the best way I can describe it.  In this, Protestantism has reached its limits.  It does not offer me the Saints or the Church.  I want communion with both.  Megachurches and casual communion do not offer me that.  With the result that I cannot seek to “work out my own salvation” with any fear and trembling.  That is a lonely business with Protestantism..  With the Full Church, I stand a better chance.

There have been obstacles.  I have had to get a handle on the Orthodox concept of Theosis, which contrasts with the Protestant value of event-based salvation, and what flows from that.  I have had to ask serious questions about the Saints, their icons, what the @#$%&* I’m doing kissing 2d tempura renditions of those guys, and what prayer to them actually represents.  And hardest of all, I’ve had to ask (and I am still asking) who is Mary?  What does her life mean?   Is it important to my faith?  If I sing “O Holy Theotokos save us”, is that theological correct?  That is my biggest barrier at this point in time.  How I feel about Mary may swing the whole thing.

I am working through that.  I hope t0  blog on the specifics of my inner theological dialogue in future posts.  But I will say this:  Nothing about my faith in the past has changed, only the method by which I live out that faith.  And I am also wary of getting caught up about talking of angels on pinheads.  Christianity is not in any method of any church, but in what that method produces – the freeing of peoples, the acceptance of strangers, the clothing of the naked, the feeding of the hungry, the care of the sick, the visits to captives.  That is a creed practiced by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.  What I am concerned with is my own faith.  Where can it grow best?  The Orthodox Church seems to me to be the best and most truthful and faithful of places at this point.

This is the Hipster Church.  The one where people were Christian before it was cool.  With the strange calendar, the weird hymns, and the awkward facial hair.  It’s a trend.  You should get on it 😉