For Evangelicals and Others Considering Eastern Orthodoxy
Friday, June 8, 2012 at 01:57AM
Embryo Parson in Demise of the Orthodox Western Rite, Eastern Orthodoxy, Evangelical Converts, Evangelical and Catholic, Traditional Anglicanism, Why Anglicanism?

9/28/14 Update:  See my comments about Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy here.

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A sizable number of Evangelicals who, having come to the same conclusions as did Fr. Doug (see entry below, How I Got There: An Evangelical Converts to Anglicanism), have opted to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy rather than to Roman Catholicism or Traditional Anglicanism.  One can read the literature produced by converts for the standard panegyric about how these Evangelicals "came home" to "the ancient Christian church".  Your blogger the Embryo Parson was one of them.  I spent approximately 13 years in the Orthodox Church, and I can assure you that most of these folks were smitten with romantic notions about the Orthodox Church church that bear little relation to reality.  I could go into great detail about why I left, but I will confine myself here to four principal reasons. 

1.  Creeping liberalism.  Here is an account from a Lutheran blog that refers to an article written by Orthodox academic and priest Gregory Jensen, who frankly admits the problem:

According to Fr Gregory Jensen, an academic and priest of the 'Orthodox Church in America' (the denomination with Russian immigrant origins that former Lutheran scholar Jaroslav Pelikan joined) Eastern Orthodoxy in North America on the ground - as opposed to how it appears from behind the rose-coloured spectacles of prospective Protestant converts - is rapidly becoming as liberal as the Protestant mainline churches many of those converts are fleeing. So much so that he says the Orthodox Church in all its ethnic branches in the US looks increasingly like 'the Eastern-Rite Mainline'.*

How so? Support for abortion and gay marriage runs disturbingly high among the laity, politicians of Orthodox background publicly support positions which stand in stark contradiction to the Church's moral teaching and priests are 'not effectively communicating the [Christian] moral tradition', thus surrendering the laity to the forces of secularisation and cultural barbarism. Not to mention, and Fr Gregory doesn't, but anyone who keeps a 'weather eye' on the Orthodox Church will know, that the various sexual and financial scandals among the Orthodox hierarchy in the US have clearly demoralised many of the devout clergy and laity.**

Part of the solution, Fr Gregory avers, is for the Orthodox in the West to draw upon the riches of the Western Christian tradition, specifically the Catholic tradition's 'partnership of faith and reason, natural law, and the objective and universal character of Christian morality'. I think he's an insightful and brave man for saying this, because most articulate Orthodox - especially Western converts - that I have come across have a strong animus against the Christian West, with Augustine being their favourite whipping boy. In their eyes the great North African Father is to blame not only for Roman Catholicism but also, by way of reaction, for Luther and hence 'Protestantism' (and in speaking about 'Protestantism' the Orthodox tend to make no distinction between a snake-handling Pentecostal and a confessional Lutheran, thereby only displaying their ignorance of the heritage of the Christian West after the Reformation). But, surely, without a sympathetic Orthodox engagement with Augustine - and indeed with Luther - there is unlikely to be any significant rapprochement between Orthodoxy and the Christian West beyond the usual glad-handing at ecumenical gatherings.

I would also respectfully suggest to Fr Gregory that he not overlook what can be learned from the experience of those confessional churches of the Reformation which have taken a different path from their liberal Protestant cousins. A big part of Orthodoxy's problems, in my view, stem from the reality that it is not actually a 'confessional' church, but a 'big tent' church. The question for Orthodoxy now is just how big is its tent, given that they now have their own vocal and prominent proponents for recognition of the right to abortion, women's ordination and even revision of the church's teaching on homosexuality?

Finally, I think we are witnessing yet another confirmation of Dr Sasse's prescient observation of 50 or so years ago that in the modern world all the great Christian communions will face the same theological problems, without exception. The obvious moral for small 'o' orthodox Western Christians in all of this - especially Lutherans - who might think that Constantinople offers a safe haven from the destructive winds of modernism that have wrought such havoc in our own churches, is to look before you leap into the Bosphorus.

Fr Jensen's reflection can be found here

4-14-2017 UPDATE:  See my post Another Orthodox Insider Writes of the Threat to the Orthodox Church from Within.

Ergo, the Orthodox Church is slowly but surely beginning to experiencing a process of liberalization, what I call "Episcopalianization", though it is happily well behind the Episcopalianization of the Church of Rome and especially the Anglican Communion in this regard. Slowly but surely it is aping the liberal Protestant "mainline."  Though it is still very conservative theologically, there is much turmoil beneath the surface that is associated with the activity of liberals, and the Evangelical convert can't miss it.  I certainly didn't.  (More from Fr. Jensen.  See also Gene Veith's article Changes In The Orthodox Church.)

2.  Virulent anti-Western mentality.  The Orthodox are openly hostile to just about everything Western.  Any Evangelical or Roman Catholic who hopes to retain something of the Western theological framework in which he learned about his faith will be quickly disappointed in that hope if he enters the Orthodox Church.  David B. Hart, an Orthodox theologian and brother of our own Anglican Catholic priest Fr. Robert Hart, says this about it:

The most damaging consequence . . .  of Orthodoxy’s twentieth-century pilgrimage ad fontes—and this is no small irony, given the ecumenical possibilities that opened up all along the way—has been an increase in the intensity of Eastern theology’s anti-Western polemic. Or, rather, an increase in the confidence with which such polemic is uttered. Nor is this only a problem for ecumenism: the anti-Western passion (or, frankly, paranoia) of Lossky and his followers has on occasion led to rather severe distortions of Eastern theology. More to the point here, though, it has made intelligent interpretations of Western Christian theology (which are so very necessary) apparently almost impossible for Orthodox thinkers. Neo-patristic Orthodox scholarship has usually gone hand in hand with some of the most excruciatingly inaccurate treatments of Western theologians that one could imagine—which, quite apart form the harm they do to the collective acuity of Orthodox Christians, can become a source of considerable embarrassment when they fall into the hands of Western scholars who actually know something of the figures that Orthodox scholars choose to caluminiate. When one repairs to modern Orthodox texts, one is almost certain to encounter some wild mischaracterization of one or another Western author; and four figures enjoy a special eminence in Orthodox polemics: Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and John of the Cross.

3.  Essentially Eastern European.  The Orthodox Churches tend to be Eastern European or Middle Eastern cultural outposts.  While they welcome converts from Western countries, the latter never really quite fit in.  One person commenting over at the Stumble Inn writes:

Eastern Orthodoxy is a gigantic Eastern culture club. They have a saying for a sort of mania new converts (of the generic Anglo/Celtic/German-American variety) get - Convertitis. Basically it's marked by a) aggressive appropriation of your parish's ethnic culture, b) rabid defense of your theology. The second one is just the excitement of finding something you believe to be true - it's an altruistic sort of joy with unintended negative consequences that go away over time.

The first one is a survival/assimilation technique that is pretty much necessary when one finds himself surrounded by Russians, or Greeks, or Arabs... Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Serbians, Georgians, Albanians and 20 different varieties of each. There's nothing else. If you walk into an Orthodox church as an old stock American, you simply don't belong there. You're out of your league. You have to make yourself belong - and it's difficult.

If not impossible.

What's more, the potential convert to Eastern Orthodoxy who leans Western should not place much hope in the Orthodox Western Rite, which was created only fairly recently in the hopes of snagging Anglicans in the Anglican Communion and Roman Catholics who are thinking about leaving their respective communions over the liberalism, modernism, etc. infecting those bodies.  There is intense hostility from "world Orthodoxy" toward the handful of Western Rite parishes that have been established in the West, rendering the future of their Western liturgies questionable.  Orthodox author Fr. John Morris admitted as much to me in a combox discussion at the Anglican news and discussion site Virtue Online:

Whether or not the Western Rite has a future within Orthodoxy is a matter of the will of God. If it is God’s will that the Western Rite of the Orthodox Church grow and prosper, it will grow and prosper. The Western Rite is an effort to restore something that was lost through the Romanization and subsequent Protestantism of the Church in England. . . .

Since the vast majority of Orthodox follow the Byzantine Rite, it is to be expected that many find the Western Rite difficult to accept. I believe that is a good thing, because it shows that Orthodox Christians take their beliefs seriously and do not want anything to compromise those beliefs. More than anything else Orthodox define and express their Faith through their worship. Even a person who has no theological education cannot accept worship that does not feel right. I consider that good because this more than anything else preserves the integrity of our Church. It is also a testimony that Orthodox believe that it is essential to reject anything that compromises our beliefs.

Underlying your argument seems to be the idea that the Byzantine Rite is too foreign for Americans. That is an idea that I must reject. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is universal and rises above ethnic considerations. It is a perfect expression of the Orthodox Faith. I and thousands of Americans have found a home within the Byzantine Rite. When I stand before the Holy Table and pray the prayers of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, I feel the power of the Holy Spirit. For that reason, I reject the argument that the Byzantine Rite is too foreign for Americans.

Fr. John went on in that discussion to say why he supports the Western Rite, something he is expected to do as a priest of the Antiochian jurisdiction, which is the main Orthodox jurisdiction of two or three that have allowed the Western rite, but his qualifying remarks are all too clear:  1) whether or not the Western Rite survives in the Orthodox Church "is a matter of the will of God" (not to mention the will of a sea of hostile Orthodox bishops); and 2) any convert to Orthodoxy ought to be able to accept the Byzantine Rite: "It is a perfect expression of the Orthodox Faith", unlike the Western Rite, which as Fr. John says in the discussion only " preserves the best of Anglicanism" and is merely "an effort to restore something that was lost through the Romanization and subsequent Protestantism of the Church in England."  Talk about damning with faint praise.  So, Evangelicals and Catholics thinking about converting to Orthodoxy because a Western Rite exists for them ought to understand the big picture.  I once had a long conversation with a priest who is one of the principals in American Western Rite Orthodoxy.  He was very worried about its future.  The Orthodox are cultural Easterners and consequently they tend to disparage almost everything Western, including Western liturgies.

4.  Soteriological weaknesses.  While we should certainly be grateful to the Greek Church Fathers for the triadology and christology that became the basis of the Creed, they were not so orthodox when it came to an issue that would come to bear upon the question of soteriology, or salvation:

Part of the fascination of the patristic era to the scholar lies in the efforts of its theologians to express an essentially Hebraic gospel in a Hellenistic milieu: the delights of patristic scholarship must not, however, be permitted to divert our attention from the suspicion voiced by the Liberal school in the last century - that Christ's teaching was seriously compromised by the Hellenism of its earlier adherents. The history of the development of the Christian doctrine of justification lends support to such a suspicion. In particular, it can be shown that two major distortions were introduced into the corpus of traditional belief within the eastern church at a very early stage, and were subsequently transferred to the emerging western theological tradition. These are:

1. The introduction of the non-biblical, secular Stoic concept of autoexousia or liberum arbitrium in the articulation of the human response to the divine initiative in justification.

2. The implicit equation of tsedaqa, dikaiosune and iustitia, linked with the particular association of the Latin meritum noted earlier (p.15), inevitably suggested a correlation between human moral effort and justification within the western church.

The subsequent development of the western theological tradition, particularly since the time of Augustine, has shown a reaction against both these earlier distortions, and may be regarded as an attempt to recover a more biblically orientated approach to the question of justification. . . .

The emerging patristic understanding of such matters as predestination, grace and free will is somewhat confused, and would remain so until controversy forced full discussion of the issue upon the church. Indeed, by the end of the fourth century, the Greek fathers had formulated a teaching on human free will based upon philosophical rather than biblical foundations. Standing in the great Platonic tradition, heavily influenced by Philo, and reacting against the fatalisms of their day, they taught that man was utterly free in his choice of good or evil. . . . (Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Vol. I, pp.18-19. Emphases mine.)

This sub-biblical notion of free will would later inform the heresies of Pelagianism and Semipelagianism, and would also result in a soteriology in the East that would put a greater stress on theosis - sanctification - than on the atonement, that is on what we do subjectively to accomplish our salvation than on what God has done objectively to accomplish it.  Accordingly, Orthodox theology is deficient in its understanding of just how the atonement relates to sanctification.  One need only listen to the narrative of this video to see an example of the man-centered nature of theosis.  Note the repeated use of "I", "me" and "my".  I call this the "Little-Christian-Who-Could" model.   There is nothing in this video about what God did to effect man's salvation, aside from a brief and vague reference to the destruction of sin and death at the beginning of the narrative. 

Because the Orthodox reject the Augustinian view of original sin, and by implication the Pauline teaching on the inability of man to save himself, and because the Orthodox still labor under pagan notions about "free will", their soteriology suffers.  Frs. Hart and Wells discuss this deficiency at the Continuum, here and here.

Evangelicals are Westerners (and Pauline-Augustinians generally speaking), and **if** they come to a point where they believe they simply must be Catholics, then the Western Catholic tradition is where they'll more naturally fit in.  That essentially means Rome or Anglo-Catholicism.  I say "**if**".  Evangelicals who really can't quite give up the Evangelical ethos have no business considering Orthodoxy, because at the end of the day Orthodoxy has no room for Evangelicalsim.  If you're an Evangelical who continues to believe that Luther was essentially right about justification, the primacy of Scripture, etc., but are drawn to the historic church and its liturgical worship, then your true options are basically traditional Anglicanism or traditional Lutheranism. 

Now, I've said some rather strong things here about the Orthodox Church, so let me try to end on a more conciliatory note.  Despite my criticisms, I have nothing but fondness for the many people I left behind in the Orthodox Church.  Many of them are exemplary Christians, and what they lack in their willingness to accommodate fully to Western culture they make up for in their devotion to kith and kin, something that puts many of us individualist Americans to shame.  When I once mentioned this to the Greek-American husband of my wife's sponsor, he responded sadly, "Yes, that is your loss."  He simply couldn't imagine the atomism that marked my family and so many others here in North America.

Secondly, Orthodox spirituality takes sanctification seriously.  While my prayer is that the Orthodox Church will revisit its views about the atonement, free will and grace, I can only commend them for their highly developed theology of the Holy Spirit and theosis, which we here in the West do not fully appreciate.

And of course, who can find fault with Orthodoxy's thrice-gorgeous Eastern rite?  If you've never attended the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in an Orthodox Church, I strongly encourage you to do so.  (Just please don't convert because of liturgical aestheticism. ;)  )  Furthermore, aside from the fact that the Creed's triadology reflects the theology of great Eastern Church Fathers such as St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians, Orthodox scholarship has contributed much that is of value in the areas of ecclesiology, sacramentology and ascetic theology.

It is my great hope that Orthodoxy will stave off the threat of liberalism in its midst and will experience a change of heart and mind about the West, taking seriously what Orthodox thinkers such as David Hart have written on the matter.  Most importantly, it is my hope that the Orthodox Church, as it re-examines its assessment of the West, will begin to think more carefully about the nature of the atonement and the biblical doctrines of grace, for these are key.

(See related discussion here and especially the linked Virtue Online article.  The combox discussion there between Orthodox apologist Fr. John Morris, myself, and others is worthy of note.)

Click here for the entire OJC archive on Eastern Orthodoxy.

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